Sunday, 29 May 2011

Top ten novels

I’m a massive fan of fiction, so I’ve wanted to do some top tens centred on novels and writers for some time. I haven’t because, while I love reading, I tend not to read as much as I should and I tend to only really read a select few authors. A lot of the stuff I love is epic fantasy. The kind of epic fantasy that had dozens of novels in one series. But I decided to bite the bullet and do a top ten of my favourite novels. You will notice that almost all of them are fantasy, which tells you a lot about my tastes. Again, in no particular order.

  • Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand – for those that don’t know, Atlas Shrugged is an 11,000 word tomb by Ayn Rand, which expounds her objectivist philosophy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I read it in about 10 days. The thing at about Atlas Shrugged is that the protagonists are really interesting and the plot is great. Rand is also really good writer. The novel does a great job drawing you in. It is a little black and white, which is disappointing and the philosophy is very unambiguous. Rand does not really make us thing about her philosophy, nor does she present it in a way that is terribly balanced. It is a piece of objectivism propaganda more than anything else. Fortunately objectivism has something of a soft spot in my heart, even if modern proponents can be a little frustrating.

  • 1984, by George Orwell – Need I really say anything? I love dystopias, I especially love them when they deal with an over-protective state. 1984 is great. The plot is incredible, the characters are interesting, the setting is just brilliant and it’s written in such an understated and subtle way.

  • The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan – aaaaaaand we’ve reached the epic fantasy. Jordan is probably the first epic fantasy writer I ever got into and his Wheel of Time (WoT) series remains one of my favourite series ever. The world building in WoT is brilliant; very organic, very well thought out, referencing all kinds of different mythologies and cultures without just copying them. The Eye of the World is the first in the series, so it retains a special place in my heart, although in reality it’s really very hard to choose between the first half dozen books or so. The Eye of the World establishes all the major characters brilliantly and really makes the reader connect with them. It also begins the world building, always giving away just as much as we need to know to understand the action without giving away too much. It definitely leaves us wanting to read more about both the characters and the world in which they live.

  • Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow, by David Gemmell – Heroic Fantasy this time. I’m a huge fan of Greek Mythology, in particular the Troy myth. I was somewhat put off by the fact that this is a historical take on the myth, rather than staying true to the real story. I soon warmed to this, however, as Gemmell makes the story his own. It’s a very interesting take on a well know story and characters, set in a very interesting and well researched historical possibility. The other two books are just as good, although the writing does fall off, especially in the last book (although this is mostly because Gemmell’s wife, Stella, takes up the writing duties following David Gemmell’s death, and she’s not quite as polished)

  • Faith of the Fallen, by Terry Goodkind – Back to epic fantasy. Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (SoT) series is like WoT in that I got into it in my early teens and it has been something I have continued to enjoy ever since. We find smatterings of Randian Objectivism throughout the series, culminating in the sixth book, Faith of the Fallen, which is my personal favourite. It deals with the main character striving for individual success and acclaim while trapped in a communist dystopia. It’s a much more subtle take on the philosophy than Atlas Shrugged, although it’s still fairly blunt. The series is very well written and the characters are just awesome. The emphasis is more on characters and plots than of world building, in contrast to WoT.

  • The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman – I didn’t actually read this until after seeing the film Northern Lights, because I wanted to know what had actually happened in the film, which was hard without reading the book. The Golden Compass is actually really interesting and well written. The plot and characters are brilliant. I was not so happy about the later books in the trilogy, the last in particular just got silly, with some really bad plot holes and Deus Ex Machina.

  • Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien – how could I leave out the father of modern epic fantasy? I know it was later split into three, but the original Lord of the Rings (LotR) was all one big book. While the writing can get a little highbrow at times and Tolkien takes some shortcuts with the action scenes, the plot and characters are simply incredible. The world is also really well put together and the writing hints at something much bigger without getting bogged down.

  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker – ahhh, a nice bit of gothic horror. The epistolary format of Dracula wears a little thin after a while, but even so it’s a really good example of how to do it. The horror itself is subtle and interesting, with the details of Dracula and his powers drip fed. It lost some of the effect when I already knew most of it, but that’s not Stoker’s fault. The super-natural element of Dracula was maintained really well – how he became who he was is never really explained, which makes him that much more mystical.

  • Confessor, by Terry Goodkind – The last book in the SoT series. It really finishes the whole thing in a suitably epic and well thought out way. The plot revisits some of the plot devices from the very first book and wraps the whole thing up in a mind boggling way. I wanted to put two of Goodkind’s novels into this list to illustrate just how much of an impact he has had on my life as both a reader and a writer, as well as the influence he has had on my personal philosophy.

  • Lord of Chaos, by Robert Jordan – likewise Jordan really solidified my love of fantasy. I’ve recently reread the first eight book of the series and will reread the others with an eye to finally finishing the series when the final novel comes out in 2012. The series took a bit of a dip after Lord of Chaos, which is the sixth of the series. It maintains the great pace of the earlier book (which some later ones fail to) and has a really outstanding plot. The characters introduced in the first book just keep on developing all the way through the series in a way that is very organic and natural.

So that’s my top ten novels. As I said, I’m a fan of fantasy, epic fantasy in particular. I might tackle authors next time I get round to doing one of these.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

David Koresh Superstar

I don’t think I’ve spend enough time on this blog gushing about how awesome Songs for Swinging Lovers by the Indelicates is, so here goes. Songs for Swinging Lovers is an absolute masterpiece of modern Alternative Rock. Musically incredible, lyrically genius, funny and cutting in equal measure, catchy and incredibly deep at the same time. Simply awesome, and, until recently, you could download it for nothing from Even now, it’s only £5. Go get it.

Why do I bring this up (apart from the fact that you MUST listen to this album)? Because The Indelicates just brought out a new album called David Koresh Superstar, which is not as good as Song for Swinging Lovers, but is still pretty damn awesome. I know, aren’t you lucky, two reviews in as many weeks!

David Koresh Superstar (which will henceforth be referred to as DKS for the sake of ease) is a concept album about the Waco Siege, which took place in Waco, Texas in 1993. For those that don’t know about it, read all about it here. If you don’t care that much, read a much shorter summary here. The album’s hero is David Koresh, the insane leader of the Davidians sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, with a host of other characters popping up occasionally, including Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber, who cited the Waco Siege as one of his primary motivations for his actions.

Now, when you have a story about a bunch of mad cultist holding up in a church with guns and waiting for the apocalypse, it’s very easy to write a concept album slamming religion and about how utterly insane extremism can be. There is a good deal of that in DKS, songs like Gethsemane and A Book of the Seven Seals deal with religious fanaticism and the dangers of extremism, while I am Koresh and Superstar deal with Koresh’s own personal megalomania. However there is a lot more to the album that that.

DKS sets the scene with Remember the Alamo, a country and western style song which sets the heroic stand of the Texans at the Alamo in 1836 as the backdrop of the siege, placing the events of the album firmly in the 19th century, not the late 20th. This puts us in mind of the cowboy, wild-west romanticism of law-into-themselves individuals defying the incompetence of the local law enforces to deliver rough justice. It has the effect of lifting the Waco siege above a bunch of gun touting religious nuts holed up in a church and turns the Davidians into sort-of heroes (without actually condoning them or relieving them of the burden of criticism).

This has the effect of turning the attention onto the ATF (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), who conducted the initial raid. The song Ballad of the ATF quite brutally slams the ATF for gross incompetence and excess of force. Indeed it is here that we mostly clearly see the brilliance of The Indelicate’s cutting satirical tongue. Not only does it strongly criticise the ATF, but indirectly, and equally effectively, aims at the quintessentially American attitude to world politics. The complete self-obsession and painful self-righteousness that America has displayed through most of the post-war period is brilliantly exposed in scything satire.

The satire does not end there, however. The very next song turn the attention of the ridicule onto the arrogant individualism displayed by people like Koresh and McVeigh, about whom the song is written and after whom it is named. The blinkered conviction that they are right and that everyone else should agree or get stuffed is wonderfully satirised. It is made abundantly clear through the juxtaposition that these two attitudes (so much alike in many ways) cannot be at odds, because neither side it going to stand down.

The consequences of this confrontation are hinted at in the very next song, What if You’re Wrong? The song is a plea from Koresh’s followers to consider the possibility that he’s not the messiah and not to allow the siege to continue towards the conclusion to which it eventually leads. It is telling that the only response to this plea is the song A Book of the Seven Seals, which only highlights Koresh’s religious megalomania and does nothing to answer his critics. This is just one example of the next level of complexity in the album; it is not just a criticism of religious extremism, or a satire of the American consciousness, it also has a sensitive side that considered the plight of the victims of the events; the people caught up in the storm of Koresh’s charisma and unable to leave when things start getting really serious.

Most of these sensitive touches come through Julia, the female vocalism of the band. I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of female vocalists, but Julia’s work both here and on Songs for Swinging Lovers has completely changed my mind. A Single Thrown Grenade is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s the story of a girl swept up in Koresh’s charisma. The naïve innocence of it all is tragic when looked at in the light of the terrible consequences of the siege. One wonders just how many of the 80 who died at Waco were likewise star-struck by Koresh and were only there as part of the twisted cult of personality surrounding him.

Likewise The Woman Clothed with the Sun tells the story of Lois Roden, Koresh’s predecessor and lover. It’s importance, and the importance of the sympathetic point of the song is shown by the fact that it is sandwiched between the two songs that introduce is to Koresh’s character; The Road from Houston to Waco and I am Koresh. Indeed A Single Thrown Grenade follows directly after the latter, highlighting it’s importance in the piece.

The last of the sympathetic song actually regards Koresh himself. Superstar, the penultimate song on the album, has an angelic female voice, backed with a violin, address Koresh and puts his death in the frame of a romantic and tragic hero who had the best of intentions, but was just unfortunate to be wrong and to go down in such a blaze of glory. This is backed up by a cover of a Gospel/Blues song by Blind Willie Johnson, called John the Revelator, which ends the album.

While the themes of the story are most important to DKS, it is all put in the framework of a story that is told very well through the music. In particular The Siege, a minimalist instrumental piece that builds up the tension and drama of the fifty day siege beautifully, as well as providing a neat bridge between the middle of the album in which much of the thematic conflict is resolved and the dramatic climax of the story. Another good example of the story telling in DKS is Something Goin’ Down in Waco, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on the musical theatre practice of having characters tell the story through speech as music plays.

The Road from Houston to Waco and I am Koresh both work to develop the character of Koresh, the first telling the story of his life up to the siege of Waco, the second detailing his complete megalomania and conviction of his own messiah-hood. This is one of two parts of the album which doesn’t work quite so well for me. Both songs seem a little forced. Rather than showing us Koresh’s character, these songs tell it, the first in particular. It is hard to write a good narrative through song, when you also have to worry about rhythm and rhyme and the music that goes with it. I would have liked a somewhat less heavy handed approach to Koresh’s past to have been taken.

The other part of the album that I have a problem with is the song I don’t Care if it’s True. I actually first heard this song on Songs for Swinging Lovers, because it was included as a bonus track to act as a taster for DKS. The funny thing is that I think it actually feels better on Songs for Swinging Lovers. I can’t place exactly what it’s getting at and where it fits into the narrative. It might just be that I find it’s out of place because it’s a song with which I am very familiar, whereas the rest of the music is wholly new to me, however I have tried without success to look past this bias and slot it into the album, but it just doesn’t seem to fit, both musically and lyrically.

As you have probably guessed I am absolutely flabbergasted by the writing on this album. It is a brilliant mix of narrative, character studies and thematic work that hangs together perfectly. The more you look at the composition of the album, the better it looks. Right down to the order in which the tracks come it’s outstanding. The perfection of the rest of it makes the fact that I don’t Care if it’s True doesn’t quite sit with album even more glaring. It sticks out like a sore thumb in my mind, which is really irritating. Despite this, the composition of the album is still great and the writing on the individual songs is outstanding as well. From cutting satire to sensitive, human tragedy, this album has a lot of variety, but still feels like a united whole.

I’ve not really talked much about the music itself, as opposed to the lyrics, partly because the composition of the album demands a close study of the lyrics, and because I’m far more comfortable analysing and discussing lyrics than I am with music. Nevertheless I will see what I can do.

The music on the album really is good. The acoustic guitar and steel drums on the early tracks sets the Wild Western theme for the album really well. This style stays with the album to an extend, but it evolves into a much more Rock and Roll style by I am Koresh. Through the middle of the album the music turns almost theatrical, sounding as though it belongs in a musical. As with many of the songs in this section of the album, the music it self feels somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The rock music returns in earnest towards the end of the album, with hints of the country and western feel from earlier in the album. The more sensitive and tragic songs are picked out with a very appropriate change down in temp and change to a more delicate style. The music on the album really compliments the composition and ensures DKS sounds and feels right. It’s not as immediately obvious as the lyrics (to me, anyway) but it’s at least as well written and thought through.

I think it should be fairly obvious to all of you by now that I am a massive fan of this album. Seriously, it’s incredible. The Indelicates have done it again! I said earlier that it’s not as good as Songs for Swinging Lovers. Without going into a long discussion of why Songs for Swinging Lovers is such a masterpiece, here’s why.

DKS is a classic ‘grower’. At first listen it’s pretty good, but nothing out of this world. There are some catchy tunes and some really interesting pieces of music, but a lot of the subtly washes over you. As you study the background to the album and really listen to the songs, you get a much greater appreciation for all the nuances and the little things that make this album really special. DKS makes you work for your kicks, it makes you really have to think and explore it in order to get the most out of it. This is not a bad thing at all, but it reduces the instant appeal.

Songs for Swinging Lovers, by contrast, immediately hits home with some really strong, powerful songs that really get the point across with a minimum of effort and complexity. The thing is that the rabbit hole is as deep as you want it to be; the more you explore the album, the better it gets. It hits home instantly, then keeps sinking in and keeps giving.

DKS might not quite live up to its predecessor, but it’s still a fantastic album in its own right. Go get it from here right now. The best thing is that, even if the last three pages (might be a new record) have not convinced you, you needn’t pay a penny for it. Using Corporate Records’ (a company set up by the Indelicates) pay-what-you-like system, you can download the album for as much or as little as you like. If you do pay, at least 80% will go to the artist, so you know your money is going to the right place. I encourage you to pay, the Indelicates are not big, nor are they famous, but they are incredibly talented and deserve to be far more popular that they are. They can only continue to create great music like this with money from sales. If you’re unsure, then don’t pay, but if you like what you hear, then pay for the next album and pay for their other two albums on the site. Either way, you really should get this album, it’s fantastic.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


There are many things that I like in fiction, but two of the things I like most are modern retellings of old myths, legends, fairy tales and stories, and Superheroes. It is hardly surprising, then, that Thor was always going to strike a chord with me. There’s something about figures from ancient mythology re-imagined as superheroes that just sounds awesome. That’s not to say that Thor is actually that good. I mean it’s not bad, but it could have been so much better.

The thing about superhero stories in particular, the thing that draws me to them, is that they are character studies. The superhero is at the centre of the story and his/her development is what drives the plot. This is how I like my stories – character focused and character driven. It’s what makes me such a fan of Christopher Nolan films. It’s why I said The Green Hornet was not a Superhero film.

I said back then to wait for Thor if you want a superhero film. I was not wrong. Thor is, indeed, a very character focused film, with Thor’s development driving the plot. It’s not a character arc typical of superhero films; it involves a fall-from/return-to-grace more typical of heroic fantasy, but then, the mythology which underlies the story makes that inevitable. You see, most superhero stories start with an origin story and the character coming to terms with his new super-ness, Batman Begins a perfect example of this. Thor, on the other hand, does not need to explain how Thor became Thor because he always has been, he’s a God; it’s just what he does.

Instead the film tells the story of an arrogant hero who is banished from his homeland and stripped of his power for doing something monumentally stupid. During his banishment, the hero comes to realise his faults and becomes a better person, returning home to save the day from the consequences of the thing he did to get banished in the first place and regaining his rightful place as a hero to his people. Now, this is all a fairly typical character arc that does not present anything new. I’m sure we could all think of some story that employs essentially the same framework. Assassin’s Creed does it, for example.

Where Assassin’s Creed differs, however, is that Altair does not simply return to becoming a run-of-the-mill Assassin by the end of the story; we do not simply return to the status quo. Thor ends exactly as it begins. Thor is the prince of Asgard, heir to Odin’s throne. The only difference is that he is ready to become king. Unfortunately the Mythology of Asgard means that Thor will never become king. He will continue to wield Mjollnir in the name of Odin until Ragnarök. Of course this mythology is not set in stone – it’s a reimagining, remember, if they wanted, the writers could have had Odin die and Thor take up his throne, but that’s not what happened, so the ending ends up being rather unsatisfactory. Nothing monumental has changed in Thor’s life; things are not vastly different from how they were at the start. If the evens of the film had never happened, life would only be very slightly different for most people.

The only person for whom life has changes is Jane, the woman who Thor fell in love with in his short visit to earth. The problem is that we’re never really made to care about her. She gets some pretty rushed and unconvincing characterisation, which never really fleshes her character out enough for her to really matter. As a result, the romance between her and Thor is equally unconvincing, especially when we consider that they only really knew each other for a very short amount of time.

The disappointing thing is that, although Jane and the rest of the people on earth are fairly poorly characterised, everyone on Asgard is really well characterised. All the way down to the Heimdall, the gatekeeper. The focus of the film is clearly Asgard and the politics going on there. This is a problem, because the focus really should be on Thor, given that the film is all about him. It makes the development of the character seem to play second fiddle to the other things in the story. All the shadow-play between Loki and the Frost Giants, the conflict of Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and Frigga between obedience to their king and support for Thor is very interesting, but it was overplayed in comparison to the really rather uninspiring scenes on earth. Thor really didn’t seem to go through very much personal torture or great soul searching to resolve his eternal conflict, nor did he and Jane really have enough screen time together to really make their love anything more than a typically tacked-on Hollywood romance.

Thor, then, suffers primarily from a misdirection of focus. It is a character driven story in which the character is not the focus of the story, making it difficult to really find him convincing. It spreads itself too thinly over ground that is perfectly good. While the character arc is fairly typical, there is no reason why that should make it inherently bad. In fact it would be a perfectly good basis upon which to build a very interesting story.

Where Thor does triumph, however, is the setting. Credit should probably go more to the original creators of the story at Marvel, rather than the makers of this adaptation, but to be fair to the latter, they do a fantastic job of portraying the universe in which Thor is set without falling into the obvious trap of simply telling us. Through the film we find out about Asgard and how it links with the world we live in a very natural way. There is some narration near the beginning, but this is only to set a bit of back-story in place and actually works because it’s supposed to be Odin telling his sons all about the war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants.

Likewise the aesthetic is fantastic. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are combined really well to make it seem very believable and natural. Asgard feels simultaneously like the citadel of a highly advanced civilisation and the home of a bunch of Norse Gods. The film very much feels like a mixture between Fantasy and Sci-Fi, between science and magic.

Indeed the way in which Thor and Jane approach things is very interesting. Jane is striving to find the scientific explanation for the way in which Thor and co are able to travel between worlds and looks at everything from a rigidly scientific perspective. By contrast, Thor explains things very much in terms of magic and mythology. His explanation of the way the worlds are linked in terms of a tree, a motif from Norse Mythology is a typical example of this. It’s an interesting contrast, but in some ways a missed opportunity as it wasn’t really explored terribly well.

As I said earlier, the credit for the setting itself must go to the folks at Marvel, rather than the film makers, but even so, the idea that the Gods of Norse Mythology are actually other-worldly being of great power is simply incredible. The good thing is that Norse Mythology is not simply taken whole and unaltered. It is changed and switched around to fit the purpose of the story. For example Loki’s role is dramatically altered. This is a good thing; to simply take Norse Mythology and plant it into a sci-fi setting would be somewhat lacking in originality. The best reimaginings use the original as a basis and create from that, rather than simple taking from the original without adding to it at all.

Thor is most certainly a triumph of aesthetic and setting. It looks great. The problem is that it focuses too much on the setting of Asgard and everything happening therein to the detriment of the character at the heart of the story. While Thor and his actions ultimately drive the story, the focus seems to be more on what Loki does in his absence. Had the focus been on Thor and his relationship with Jane, the film would have been far, far better. Similarly, the ending should have been somewhat different – something should have changed by the end, rather than the status quo being returned.

Despite all my criticisms, Thor is actually a pretty solid film. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of either superheroes or Norse Mythology. There are a number of other superhero films upcoming from Marvel in the next few moths, all leading up to The Avengers in 2012. I think it will be really interesting to see how Marvel knits together a number of different films and characters in a way that has not really been done on the silver screen before. We had a bit of a cross-over in Thor with a mention of Tony Stark. I think it will be great to see a superhero universe developing in film as it has done in comic books and, to a lesser extent, other mediums for a while now.

Incidentally, if you do like modern reimaginings of Norse Mythology, I encourage you to check out a short story on Pod Castle called Wolves ‘till the Wold Goes Down, by Greg van Eekhout. If you like that, then you’ll probably also like his novel based on the same sort of thing, called Norse Code.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Joy to the world, Bin Laden's dead

It’s weeks like this that make me wish I did more than one blog a week. Fortunately most weeks I’m thankful that I only do one a week because I have trouble enough filling one blog post, let along two. The reason I say this is that there are two news stories I think ought to be covered this week, the first is the resounding ‘No’ the British people gave to the referendum on AV this week. Those with a decent memory will remember my series of posts about the General Election and how utterly insane our electoral system is. Given that I’ve not been in the country as this campaign has been going on, I haven’t been subject to the incredible ignorance and cynicism spewed forth from the ‘no’ campaign, and to a lesser extend the ‘yes’ campaign as well, had I been, this blog would probably be looking rather different. As it is my distance from the events has meant that I will only note in passing my disapproval and disappointment with this outcome.

The second piece of news that I would like to cover is the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan early this week. A team of US Navy Seals conducted a raid on a compound in Abbottabad in North-West Pakistan early on Monday morning, killing Bin Laden. Almost ten years after 9/11, the leader of Al-Qaeda and the mastermind behind the attack has finally been killed. I want to qualify what I’m about to say by saying that the world is a better place with the death of Bin Laden. His death, in itself, is a good thing. However the manor in which he was killed and the reaction to it by many people in the USA raises some interesting questions.

There is no doubt that Bin Laden was an evil man guilty of tremendous atrocities. His death is a good thing, but it might not be justified in the context in which it happened. In an ideal world, Bin Laden would face trial for his actions and be sentenced accordingly. He should have faced proper justice from an internationally recognised court. We may never know exactly what happened in that compound, and we should certainly not blame the Navy Seals for shooting Bin Laden, but we have to question the intend behind the raid. Was the intention to kill Bin Laden, or to capture him? If it is the latter, then we must ask why he was killed, given that the details given thus far seem to suggest that shooting Bin Laden dead was not proportional to the direct threat he presented. If the intention was to kill Bin Laden, then whoever gave that order should be held accountable.

The basic principle of justice on which any civilised, democratic state is built, states that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. ‘Proven’ means in a court of law, in this case, when dealing with war crimes on an international scale, an international court. In order for someone to be proven guilty, he must face a trial and be given the opportunity to defend himself. If Bin Laden was ordered dead, then he was not given the opportunity to face trial. Of course, there is no doubt that Bin Laden was guilty, but that does not change the fact that he should have faced trial.

The main issue with this is that it sets a very dangerous president. A government cannot simply murder someone without trail any more than a civilian can simply cold-bloodedly murder a wanted criminal. The US is fighting a war against terrorist who use violence in order to force people into doing what they want. Their main weapons are fear and violence. In order to fight this war, the civilised world has to adhere to its principles and offer a clear alternative to violence and terror. The way to do that is by acting on principles of justice and democracy, by bringing people to trial, not simply killing them.

Now, of course, the circumstances of Bin Laden’s death are somewhat cloudy and will always remain so. There is no way to be certain that his death was the intention. However, I would like to see US officials show some remorse that Bin Laden was not brought to trial. Instead, the reaction to Bin Laden’s death has largely been celebratory, with a healthy dose of self-congratulation.

I can understand that people are happy that Bin Laden is dead, as I said earlier; I’m not exactly upset, but the thing that I find difficult to understand is the sheer force of the joy shown by many. The Whitehouse has been right to try to limit the celebration and Obama has been very gracious in his reaction, but much of the rest of the country has, in many ways, acted in a way that is not entirely appropriate.

People were literally dancing in the street when the news was announced. To me, that sort of outlandish celebration does not seem appropriate. What I think it shows more than anything is the depth of the wounds inflicted on America as a country by 9/11. As someone who does not live in North America, I find the fact that 9/11 is still very raw to many Americans very interesting. As far as I’m concerned it was a great tragedy, but I now see it more in terms of the effect it has had on international politics and airport security. 9/11 is a turning point, one of those cataclysmic events in history that set wholesale changes in motion, equivalent to the French Revolution, or the Nazi invasion of Poland. Obviously, I am living through these changes and observing them, rather than just learning about them in retrospect, but even so, it is very similar. In the months and even years after 9/11 it was still raw and shocking, I was a little too young to have really appreciated it, but even so, I was aware of how cataclysmic it was. Now, however, almost ten years on, I see it as part of the past, something that doesn’t really affect me directly.

What has become clear in the last few days is that ten years has done little to dampen the impact of 9/11 for Americans. It is clearly something that is very much at the forefront of the American consciousness. It still hurts, badly. It makes sense. Not only did thousands die, but it was the first time American civilians had been threatened by someone from outside the USA in a very long time. Not even during the Cold War, when large scale nuclear conflict was a serious possibility, did anyone actually attack the USA on their own soil. Americans are still smarting from the attack, they are still reeling and they still feel vulnerable because of it. Even ten years on, that is still true.

It is not exactly surprising, then, that the death of the man ultimately responsible for the attack has been so well received. The incredible outpouring of emotion is understandable, if a little alien to those observing from the outside. I hope that the death of Bin Laden will allow the USA to start moving on from 9/11 and that it can pass into history for them, as it has for the rest of the world. Of course, it will always be remembered and should always be remembered, but I hope that it will have less of a presence on the American consciousness in the future.

However, in reality, things are unlikely to change too much. While Bin Laden was the official head of Al-Qaeda, he has, for a long time, been just a figurehead. Other men will rise to take his place and their cause will continue to be fought for. Killing Bin Laden is not like beheading a snake. It is a victory which will boost morale, but it will not make it any easier for the west to win the War on Terror. Some commentators and politicians are calling this the beginning of the end, but the grim reality is that there is a long way to go in the current war.

Terrorism continues to be a threat and that threat cannot be countered simply through war. If anything this war has done much to alienate people who would otherwise not turn to extremism. If we are to put an end to the threat to the western world from extremist Muslims, we need to work on getting the moderate Muslims on our side, rather than alienating them by waging war in their country. But that is a whole other topic for a different blog post. In the meantime, we should be glad that Bin Laden is dead, but be sorry he was never brought to trial.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Something a little bit nautical

So as you are all well aware, the royal wedding happened yesterday. I didn’t watch it, because I think the very fact that we have a royal family is an abhorrent affront to justice and democracy. Wait, that sounds familiar… bugger, I’ve done this before. Well, this is awkward.

Here’s the prologue to a series of short stories that I want to write about a recurring character.

“Captain! Captain! Over there, on the starboard side! Look! On that island, there’s a person on that island!” Jamie yelled, his bare feet slapping on the wooden deck as he ran towards the captain. “It’s a little girl! We have to save her.”

 “No Jamie, we don’t. Best that we stay away from her,” the Captain replied, punctuating the last word with spite.

 “But, she’s just a little girl, she’ll die out here. That’s barely an island, it just a rock. You can’t leave her there.”

 “I can, cabin boy, and I will. She’s more trouble than she’s worth, that little girl.”

 “How do you know? She’s just a little girl.”

 The captain turned to look at him, a deadly serious expression fixed to his grizzled face. “She’s more that just a little girl, boy. I’ve been sailing for longer than you’ve been alive, trust me, you don’t want to get involved with that girl. The seas are vast and mysterious; they hide secrets and truths that no mere mortal can understand. We are only a tiny spec, travelling in something so vast that we cannot even begin to comprehend it. We are strangers here, travellers, alive only by the grace of the seas. There are things out there that don’t want us to be here and will do all they can to get rid of us. Trust me when I tell you that little girl is one of them. Now get out of my sight and don’t think on her any longer.”

 “Yes, captain,” Jamie said quickly and scampered off again, avoiding the starboard side of the ship. He went down below deck and started on some chores, trying not to think on what the captain had said.

 Not long after, Jim Porter lowered himself down the ladder and sat close to him, fiddling with an old pocket watch. Jim was as old as anyone on board and had been sailing for as long as anyone could remember. There wasn’t a lot about the sea that old Jim didn’t know.

“Don’t let the captain scare you, boy,” he began in a husky voice, “that girl’s not as bad as he makes out.”

 Jamie looked into the ruddy sailor’s face. No matter what expression he wore, Jim always looked ugly. His smile was broken by a rude scar that rose from his chin all the way through his mouth and up through his right eye, dissecting the closed and ugly socked. He had lost most of his teeth as well and half he left ear had been chopped off. “What do you mean?” Jamie asked.

 “That girl doesn’t cause anyone, any harm. She only tells them what harm will befall them. She’s a prophetess, as old as time itself, appearing to sailors and telling them of all the ills that will befall them. Nothing you can do will stop her prophecies from coming true.

 “When I was barely older than you, a ship I was sailing in, The Duchess I think, picked her up once. She was sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, just like you saw. We brought her on board, despite the warnings from some of the older crew members. She didn’t say a word, so we assumed that she spoke another language, or was dumb or something. Even so, we fed her and gave her something to drink and she seemed content enough. Some of the men, though, looked into her eyes and swore they saw hatred dancing in them. That night, she came to Bill Jameson, a new sailor, just like I was at the time and spoke to him in riddles. I was sitting right next to him and I remember her words like it was yesterday.

 “‘Homeward bound, William?’ she whispered. He tried to speak, but she cut him off. ‘Your house is a home no longer, brittle, broken by lust and hate. You should never have gone to sea, William Jameson. The flames of hate will consume you, butcher.’ She told him, spite in her voice. Bill just sat there, unable to say a word. She walked away and none of the crew saw her again that night.

 “When we got back to port, Bill went home – he was married, with a little daughter and wanted to see them again more than anything, more than he wanted to get drunk with the rest of the crew. Well, he came back not long after and launched into the rum like no-one else. Didn’t say a word to anyone, just drank till he could barely stand, then he left with a pistol in his hand. Later we found out that he’d gone home to find it empty. A neighbour had told him that his wife had gone off with an old friend of his who’d promised to look out for her for him. Apparently she couldn’t bear to be away from him for so long while he was at sea. So he got blind drunk, took a pistol and hunted them down. Shot them all, his wife, his friend, his own daughter, then put a bullet in his own head, all as the little girl has predicted, if you think about it.”

 “Who is she?” Jamie asked, his chores forgotten.

 “No-one knows for sure. Some say she’s a witch, some say she’s a demon, some say she’s a goddess, some say she’s just a damaged little girl. All I know is that she don’t like sailors much and enjoys telling them that evil is coming their way. Best not to go near her, boy, she’ll only tell you what you don’t wanna hear.”

 “But surely what she says is going to happen whether she says it or not.”

 “True,” Jim paused for a moment, “thing is, poor Bill fretted for the rest of the journey home, wondering what she meant. Some of the older sailors told us all about the girl and Bill was filled with the worse sense of dread over what she meant. That’s why he hurried home so fast. That’s not something you want to be tortured with for any amount of time.”

 “Is that why the captain snapped at me like that?” Jamie asked, the thought occurring to him out of nowhere.

 Old Jim roared with laughter. “Well, boy, you do see some things, don’t you? More that just a slight hand and a turn of speed on you, eh boy? You’ve got something up here that most sailors wish they had,” old Jim tapped his head a couple of times. “You’ll go far on the high seas, boy, I can see that now. You’re right, of course, the captain’s seen that little girl before, years ago. He’d never told anyone what she told him, but he’s been mighty cautious ever since, watching over his shoulder, looking for something to come and be the death of him. Not many of the crew know this, though, it’s no good for sailing if you think your skipper’s got a bloody destiny to look forward to.”

 “Aren’t you afraid of what’ll happen, Jim?”

 Jim shrugged. “whatever happens, happens. I’ve been in plenty of storms and fights, seen plenty of dark destinies envelop ships and crews. I figure if it’s my time to go as well, I might as well go without trying to run from it. I’ve seen too many men run from that little girl’s words to know it never ends well.”

 With that, Jim rose and climbed the ladder back up on deck. Jamie returned to his chores and tried to get the image of that poor little girl sitting helplessly on the rock out of his head.

Obviously the girl is the recurring character. She had an interesting story that I’d love to tell, and there are a lot of other stories about her that I want to tell as well, obviously most of them won’t end particularly well…