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

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).


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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The Hero’s Journey*

No reference to Jung, Campbell or even Joyce, but to my goal today of getting my character plausibly across Europe from Lisbon to Plymouth in 1879. I cannot spend an eternity doing it, and neither can he – specifically because his journey is in fact – eek! – backstory for events unfolding 142 years later and 5,152 miles to the west. However, it is amazing how long it takes to make things happen even vaguely realistically in an historical setting. My esteem for writers like Hilary Mantel, Andrew Miller and (my favourite) Patrick O’Brian grows by the day.

Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series.

Edward, then, (we shall call our hero Edward, for this was, indeed, his name), has volunteered for the potentially thankless task of taking a copy of the official dispatches relating to the army’s activities at Ulundi, to Devonport. The task was potentially unnecessary due to the likelihood of there being found another vessel heading to England (the s.s. Nubian’s boiler having exploded) – a much quicker way of getting them there than by hoofing it overland. In addition, although I was able to determine that there was no telegraph system in Africa at this point, there was a reasonably effective one in France, and this was already connected to England by submarine cable. On the other hand, France at the time was in disarray, and Britain was certainly not flavour of the month with France. On balance, I think the decision taken by Edward’s commanding officer can be justified on the basis of 1) the urgency of getting news to London, 2) the need to find gainful employment for his temporarily unemployed soldiers and to be seen to be doing something positive, and 3) the low risk involved, since there would be several copies that could be sent by various means.

Avenida 24 de Julho, Lisbon. c1900

Edward simply has to get from Lisbon to Plymouth as quickly and plausibly as possible. Provided he spends his first night in Lisbon winning a handy sum of money and receiving an odd package in lieu of a player’s debt, I have no reason to delay him. So, having figured out that the then- popular game Pharoah was a reasonable means for a clever young man to win some money, and after providing him with a grubby bed in a grimy boarding house just off Avenida 24 de Julho, I get him on a steam train to Oporto, find him a tramp ship heading up the coast to Brest, and finally have him paying for passage straight across the channel in a fast cutter.

Basset, on which the faster gambling game Pharoah (Faro) was based.
(“The Hazard Room” by Thomas Rowlandson)

Having delivered his dispatches, coming in a creditably close second to a mail service from Cape Town, he is given leave and rushes off to see his family in Sheffield, which he can do by whatever means takes his fancy. He has only one thing he must do for us in Sheffield and then we leave him to his fate (he doesn’t know it yet, but he will have a moderately successful military career and live to marry twice, and have two sons, one grandson and one great-grandson

Now all I have to do is get all this squeezed into a nice short chapter one!

*Ah – before I forget, anyone at all interested in writing or the art and mechanics thereof, should watch the brief but wonderfully animated and narrated TED presentation by Matthew Winkler on the hero’s journey (the monomyth), called “What Makes a Hero?” Enjoy.

Matthew Winkler – “What Makes a Hero?”

A great 4-minute explanation of the monomyth.

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Ignoring the news (Part 1 of…..)

I’ve started the new novel – fiction, humour, working title “The Grape Unwashed”. For the prospective first chapter, I had to place a character in Lisbon at the end of the summer of 1879. A lowly second lieutenant in the army, he is on his way back with his regiment from a successful campaign against the Zulu, when the boiler of their steamship packs in, and they limp into Lisbon.

Lisbon Rail station c.1880

So, what would Lisbon have been like in 1879? Where would our here have gone when he disembarked, and what happened to him?

Well, to help put him in his place, as it were, and without the distractions of 2020 news (see last blog), I have had time to find out about or expand on all sorts of details. I had heard from someone that Portugal was England’s oldest ally (I think it was after my Mum went there for a holiday). Now, I find it’s true. More specifically (and perhaps less romantically), the Aliança Luso-Britânica is the oldest treaty still in existence, having been ratified in 1386. It has been tested severely a couple of times – once over Africa and once over Goa – and our character is gambling in a public house at a time when relations are strained over the African imperialism rampant in both the UK and Portugal in the nineteenth century.

Now, how would it have been for our youthful subaltern? I need him to get off the ship, stay a night in Lisbon, win a specific bet, and get away up north before anyone can steal his winnings and confound my plot. So, I find out, for example, that there was no electric light in Lisbon at the time, although there was in London and Paris. There were 19,000 Spanish immigrants in Portugal. There was a new rail service from Lisbon to Porto. The place was full of drunkeness and crime. It was possible to take a carriage from Oporto to Leon, to Vitoria, to Bayonne and on towards the north of France. But would it be faster to take a ship from Oporto?

Eça de Queiroz – Wikipédia, a enciclopédia livre
José Maria de Eça de Queiroz

I read wonderful, evocative descriptions of Lisbon from the writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, in his book O Crime do Padre Amar. It was, according to many, a dark, crime-ridden, melting-pot of human unhappiness, thick with smoke and with a river black with human excrement and detritis (a bit like, London, then…).

In the end, it takes me three days before I can put pen to paper to begin the story, such is the extent of my immersion in the Lisbon of Luís I of Portugal. I also have to sort out my character’s rank, his role at the battle of Ulundi, and how he gets from South Africa to Lisbon, to Spain, through France, to London… and ultimately deliver the seed he carries, to Sheffield.

Clearly my work interferes with my writing, but I am nonetheless consumed by the world of my character. I can often forget contemporary politics and the imbeciles we allow to run our world, and look back at a world full of… um, politics, and a lot of imbeciles we allowed to run our world.

Nonetheless, it gives perspective. It is somewhat comforting to think that in 250 years’ time, kids will have to be constantly drilled in order to remember the chronological order of semi-literate, midget, non-entitities, like trump and johnson and putin, in order to remember the people who actually made a fucking difference. 😉

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Horrible People


News? Not bloody likely.

I get a well-known UK paper ‘delivered’ by email every day. It’s a great paper. Like all papers, it’s certainly not free of bias, but it is nonetheless high quality commentary and analysis.

However, in spite of the undoubted merits of this paper, today is the last time I’ll be reading it for a while. Why? Because it (‘it‘ referring to the news’), is just too full of horrible people. I’m being bombarded by them. I sat down five minutes ago to do some research and in quick succession I have: seen a link showing horrible Americans deliberately coughing and spitting at shop employees; read how horrible Trump has been attacking horrible Sessions and horrible Sessions has been attacking horrible Tuberville, while horrible Trump is swanning off to play golf while thousands die; and read how Brazil’s absolutely awful Bolsonaro has been telling everyone to “fuck right off”,  adding to the feeling that, as someone said, the “government is empowering ignorance and stupidity”. Indeed – and talking of the empowerment of ignorance and stupidity, closer to home there was horrible Cummings “running from No 10”, supposedly to beat the lockdown, while horrible Johnson was having to admit that the ‘no borders in the Irish Sea’ actually meant ‘some sort of borders in the Irish Sea’. Meanwhile, as light relief, I was treated to reports that it was almost impossible to even squeeze 20p of a refund from airlines near bankruptcy, and there were anti-vaxxers crowding onto the streets of Germany to assert their rights to not be vaccinated… In short, the whole world is going to hell in a handbag carried on the shoulders of horrible people who couldn’t be trusted to wipe their own noses.

Well I can’t be arsed reading any more of it. I’m trying to get on with my life in spite of all that the total tossers running our countries can throw at me, and there is no more room in my life to read about the deluded, arrogant, vermin that seem to be multiplying daily.  I started writing a new book recently – an antidote, I fervently hope, to Covid – and it’s hard to keep the old spirit of joie de vivre going when everything you read is about horrible people. It is, frankly, unremittingly bloody horrible.


So, I’ve decided to duck out for two weeks. My radio is switched to re-runs of anything vaguely humorous or genuinely interesting (the rise of ancient Babylonia? what is pi anyway, and why blood is red? – you know the sort of thing), while my e-notifications are all going straight in the e-bin – and I won’t be watching any TV or buying any papers. Trump and his horrible ilk can disappear up their own, for all I care, just as long as I can get a couple of weeks to concentrate on writing and teaching, – and maybe some things like… I don’t know, breathing and eating and having a wee wine from time to time.

Now that we are allowed out, there will also be some time for exercise, perhaps, while indoors, during pen-down time I will be able to help confuse my son with his maths, or interfere amiably in my wife’s activities. Anything, basically, that doesn’t involve having to deal with, look at, listen to, watch, or hear about horrible people.

Running away, you think? Head in the sand, perhaps? Hell yes! At least for fourteen hopefully blissful days.

Talk later.

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The blind leading the blind leading the blind.


People of earth, suck it up.

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Another year, another…?

It’s a little over a year since I put finger to keyboard, and I suddenly feel inspired. I was thinking about how much things have changed in the past couple of months and wondering what our young people are going to do with this world we have rendered so completely FUBAR. How did we let it get so bad? What were we thinking and what are we going to do about it?


Cute kittens bring in more readers.

Not so long ago, I looked on aghast as almost half the American population voted for their current president. To me, that means over 160 million people felt their interests were best represented by a semi-literate, lying, misogynistic, bullying, paranoid windbag any normal person wouldn’t cross the road to piss on if he were on fire. Well, fair enough – it’s their country, after all. But it’s a hell of country when the other 160 million arguably right-thinking Americans can’t get their act together sufficiently to get the idiot and all his completely useless, unqualified, sycophantic hangers-on back on the streets where they surely bigly belong.I was sure he would not last five minutes, but I was wrong. Then, to make matters worse, I had to watch as the great British public elected their own version of the American 


Cute puppies too.

president. So there’s another 30 million people who want to be represented by a blustering, cringe-worthy, upper-class twit with the brains of a stuffed panda. And this, after they voted to leave the only political union that might give Britain a chance of playing a significant role in the future of the planet – now doomed, alas, to become the oft-quoted ‘small island off the north coast of France’.Then again, living in Brazil (as I did until recently), I had to watch the whole spectacle repeated by the Brazilian public, who were/are quite unable to see through the blustering nonsense the current Brazilian president has been spouting for the past year or more. There’s another 100 million intellectually-challenged voters for you.

If you add to this the 100 million or so Russians who look at their leader and fail spectacularly to see what an unfortunate specimen he his, and the people of Venezuela and Bolivia who just love having their faces trodden in the mud – never mind the countless other millions around the planet who choose or are forced to accept utter, utter wankers as leaders, well, do the maths yourself – there must be a good number of us who are just a bunch of tossers.  In fact, China starts to look like a jolly nice place to be, if you ask me.

Seriously, where does it all end? It’s obvious the vast majority of us are simply useless, good-for-nothing cannon fodder. So much has been clear from the dawn of time. We have always stood by and watched as dynasties come and go and treated us more or less as sheep – or at best slave labour to fill the coffers and the coffins. The British Royal family, bless it, is only there because it has lied and stolen and cheated and killed and murdered over the centuries (although we should perhaps be grateful we are no longer required to believe they are direct representatives of (one of) our god(s).


Not sure about cute fascist sociopaths.

Totting it all up, we can see that we’re up to an easy billion people who exist only to line the pockets of rich sociopaths who would sooner see the people they supposedly represent die than speak a single honest word. But what about the rest of the people? Well, this brings us neatly to the organised religions of the world, to which many of the worst among the great and powerful pretend to subscribe in one form or other (please, please don’t tell me you think they actually believe in any of it – that sort of thing is only for us plebs). Now let’s face it, with 4,300 religions in the world, one would think that people might occasionally be able to see the futility – not to say the absurdity – of feeling that somehow their own version of religion simply must be the one true faith. But apparently not – it seems there are an estimated 6,500,000,000 people wandering around our planet apparently wholly convinced that their own 1-in-4300 specific brand of religion is the only one that can possibly be right – and who are often prepared to slaughter those of any other religion who happen to (mistakenly) believe that it is their 1-in-4300 religion that is the one true faith. It would be the biggest joke in the universe, if it weren’t so pathetically tragic.


Or cute religious extremists.

I know we are a tribal breed, hauling ourselves up by being the fittest to survive and adapt and all that (well, unless you believe… oh never mind), and I realise this means we feel the need to band into groups, and ultimately to assert ourselves in the tussle with other banding groups – whether that be in connection with territory, money, religion, drugs, or marbles, or anything else. Something else, for example, like football. Something very much like football actually, when you think that our societies trip over themselves to throw a hundred thousand dollars a week at members of the ball-kicking community, but can only manage a 100 dollars a week for people who care for the sick or educate their children. Something not quite right there, perhaps – but maybe that’s another story…

The point is, that nothing much has really changed since feudal times – or since before the wheel. Sure, we know a bit more about stuff (although, as Donald Rumsfeld reminded us, there are still plenty of unknown unknowns), but still the vast majority of humans plod gracelessly through life at best adding another another human or two to the burgeoning population, while living under the yoke of a tiny minority of horrible people – to be precise, political and religious leaders whose delusions are directly or indirectly responsible for most of the suffering in this world. Those who profess happiness might be said to be more witless than wise, while those who struggle to change things, generally do so in spite of rather than because of their peers and leaders, and often suffer in the process.

Will the Coronavirus change things? By the looks of it, not much. It is nice to think that we might wake up and realise that most of our leaders have, as it were, no clothes. That we don’t want to be represented by people who have not a baldy notion what life is like. People like American evangelist politicians who can see Russia from their back gardens or British politicians who name their children in Greek and are still arrogant enough to claim they represent their constituents, or Brazilian politicians who are caught re-handed siphoning eye-watering quantities of public money to private Swiss bank accounts and blatantly deny it. Or perhaps pompous pric- er, priests, who believe Monty Python is the work of the devil, or…or… well, I’m sure you can think of plenty more examples, from Arafat to Zahedi. People who would lead us over the cliff by our collective nose if we allow it.

So what do we tell our children now? “Yeah, sure, go ahead – believe in a god, don’t ask too many questions, doff your cap to the toffs, take everything that comes on the nose, have a few kids and die.” Or how about “get out there, take nothing for granted, question everything, believe blindly in no-one, learn as much as you can, struggle to be good and great… and die.” Or perhaps, “forget about knowledge and just screw everyone before they screw you – lie, steal, cheat, deny, bully – do anything it takes to be rich and powerful, because nothing else matters – go ahead – ask Donald Trump.” Tough choice, huh?

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