29 Sep 2015

Poem: The Lady and the Dragon

The interlude has been long. A week ago, I wrote on the Ark; there I discussed the direction of the plot, matters of writing, and other such literary deliberations. I also presented a new chapter, the last to be made public before the date of publication.

Alas, I have done little in the way of the Ark hence. The cause may be attributed to a case of the flu—an unpleasant virus it is, easily capable of sapping energy from even the most lively of souls.

But another cause lies with the topic of this particular post. I have completed an epic poem entitled the Lady and the Dragon; and I do not speak of it as an ‘epic’ lightly. It is over two thousand words and nearly five hundred stanzas in length; it is, to put it simply, pretty damn big.

Why, you ask? To answer that particular question, one need look at what this poem actually is: a story. A fairytale, even. It describes the journey of the Lady Stella, and her faithful companion, Orem the Dragon. It is in many ways the archetypal novel: an antagonist—or rather, a multitude of them: the Golden Prince and the Keeper being the most notable—contrives to wreak some evil, or are presently in some state of evil. The protagonists attempt to survive, but also to truimph.

For the Lady Stella and the Dragon Orm do indeed truimph. At no small cost to themselves, alas—such is the workings of any good tale—but triumph they do.

Before I present my analysis—why not take a look?

Read the Lady and the Dragon

Analysis

Here I shall refrain from providing an in-depth analysis; for to do so would require many words, and more time than I’ve permitted—curse this illness of mine. Instead, I will draw attention to (and provide clarification for) the most pertinent aspects of this work.

Chiefly among these is the evident metaphorical aspect to this fairytale. The Lady Stella is a woman, and a kind, tenacious one at that; but she is also a symbol of the oppressed. And who would be the oppressor, you ask? Well: that would be not the Dragon (hardly; and it would be terribly cliché) but the Golden Prince.

He—along with the real mastermind behind the plan, the Keeper—represents the patriarchy. The latter is not some crash caricature invented by certain contemporary self-proclaimed feminists (who indeed are professional offence-takers, not fighters for freedom) but rather: it is the truth. Behind it, there lies a callous king; a desire for power and sex, no matter how it be given; and most of all: an enduring disregard for human life and human suffering.

The patriarchy has subtler, more insidious forms too. Take one such:

‘You are no man, but a shadow;
‘A creature of ghastly evils done
‘Of dark words said by men to boys
‘And evil to good.’

Now, this being a mere poem, it does not concern itself with analysing the many and varied forms of patriarchy, the causes, the expression, et cetera et cetera. No: this poem serves merely to give an insight. Patriarchy can be insidious; it can embed itself deep into the minds of children (male and female alike) in a manner not dissimilar to a genetic disease.

There are other metaphorical plays; indeed it may be argued that the poem itself is actually one giant metaphor. In the beginning, Stella is imprisoned within a castle:

Forged of men’s cruel intent
Built of crude granite; its windows barred
Its walls high, and its gate impenetrable,
The castle secures the Rebellious One
Oh so very well.

The castle may best be surmised with the words: ‘Know thy place.’ If you are imprisoned within its confines, you are in effect trapped from interacting meaningfully with the world; from political discourse, ownership of the means of production, and from any meaningful kind of self-agency. Yes, Stella has some limited control over her body in her choice of fashion, for example; but being imprisoned, she is unable to, say, ride a horse.

The topic most pertinent, however, is not the castle but the Dragon. Who is he? We learn that his name is Orem, and that he once betrayed the Ways:

I am Orem, the Great Dragon;
‘I betrayed those evil Ways
‘And neither Keeper, nor King
‘Nor the many men of savage armies
‘Could break my vigil.
‘I cannot control, but I cannot be defeated.’

Beyond this, I shan’t say too much. He is certainly loyal to Stella—even as a dragon, free to roam the world, and immune from near all human depredation, he yet holds fast. He protects her from many a dark scheme and insidious plot, despite having no such obligation. On a personal level, he is a hero; a man willing to stand in her defence, no matter the cost.

On another level, he is perhaps indicative of some societal force. Not all men are power hungry patriarchs; and though many may be deceived by the patriarchies’ lies and corrupting words, few willingly choose to subvert women for personal gain or sheer sadistry. Orem may be that man who treats his wife well, despite whatever others may think or do; Orem is he who stands for the defence of the innocent, no matter the price.

Let us conclude by addressing one more important thing: their success. Somehow, Stella and Orem do defeat the Keeper and his acolytes. How? The cause is two-fold. Firstly, Stella fights. At times, her fight may seem futile; but it is her defiance that ultimately destroys the Keeper’s insidious powers.

And it is also Orem, the Dragon, that kills these purveyors of evil. Take from that what you will.

21 Sep 2015

Musings on the Ark

Not too long ago, I promised more news of the Ark. Today I can fulfill that promise; I have indeed news of the Ark, including an extra chapter, and details on the direction of the plot—as well as more general comments on writing, characterisation, and so forth.

The Ark

First off: take a look! I have now written four chapters and a prologue; these can be read right here. Beyond this, I will publish no more; instead I will keep you up to date and interested with other endeavours. Up on the list is more poetry, along with a few more essays on literary matters—characterisation will be one such.

But back to the matter at hand.

In terms of plot, I am currently writing part one—entitled Love. This, as you may be able to guess, will focus primarily on character development and backstory. I am elucidating on Conall’s personality; on Casey’s too, with both being painted alike but different. Conall is a studious sort, but not averse to rebellion—to living free in the pursuit of happiness, as teenagers are wont to do. He is eloquent, yet blunt; and he is attractive, but not vain.

Casey too is at least intellectually minded, if perhaps not nearly so studious. Both find interest in poetry, and in the technical aspects of existence; and yet both are willing to joke, to find release... to be teenagers.

There are differences too. Conall still has his parents, whereas Casey must live in the care of a strange, dotting uncle. These differences may seem trivial, but they are not. The loss of two parents is no easy burden to bear, for one so young.

For all these details, however, one thing must not be forgotten: they are but mere details. Part one has to do more than be a primer. It must excite, it must capture the imagination; it must be, to put it in simple terms, an Alex Stargazer novel.

On matters of plot I shall speak little. But rest assured that though the beginning may be... gentle, in its impetus, it is not a mark of the book as a whole. For in the Ark there will be pain, and loss; there will be love, too—and not the love of newly awoken teenagers, but a love tempered in fire.

And if there be life, so there be death. No tale is complete without it, in truth.

But until then, the beginning shall suffice in elucidating on the strange, complicated word of the Ark. Read it to learn of phosphorescent grass that glows bright green in the night; read it to learn of strange new technologies, of powerful computers and cars of the future. And most of all: read it for the beginnings of a great romance.

To Finish

This post is number 100 in this blog. It is part of many more pages, essays, and the great unfathomable effort behind this behemoth.

This is a blog that has been accessed ten thousand times, since its inception months ago. Like the Ark, it is the product of great labour, and great energy spent in creating its analogies; it insights; and its strange stories born of words and desires. Like the Ark, it has taken months to build—and months it will take, to even reach 100,000 hits.

But like so many good things, it will not come cheap. Nor will the Ark. I do not hope to circumvent the path set out by Fate, or its emissary—necessity. What I do hope? That the Ark can reach the success it so rightly deserves.

Is this foolish? Perhaps. I have yet much to do, many more journeys to take. In a sense, I am much like Conall and Casey: I’ve gotten this far, but there is so much more yet to see...

Until then, may the stars be with you. And do keep an eye out on this blog of mine—there may yet be another addition to my thirty poems.

19 Sep 2015

On FPTP

Hail readers! My previous post on the Refugee Crisis may have been overly political for my literary-inclined followers; but rest assured that literary content is indeed on the table. Though I am kept occupied by school—with its homework, exams, and hard decisions—I have completed more of the Ark. Thus, I will soon release a post outlining the progress of the Ark; along with, naturally, a selection of quotes and introspection with regards to what direction the Ark will take.

Currently, it is yet in the early stages of inchoate love. But of course, the Ark is more than just a love story. It is a tale of a fight against all odds; of finding purpose and the will to live in a strange, fantastical new world.

But until then, I am releasing my article on the First Past the Post voting system. Initially, I hoped that OpenDemocracy—a small online magazine specialising in politics, human rights and foreign affairs—would be kind enough to publish it. Alas, they have not replied to my submission. So: why not take a look, and judge for yourself?


FPTP is unrepresentative and obsolete. But few have proposed convincing alternatives; and fewer still are willing to challenge the status quo.

Parliamentary Representation Gained

Votes Won

Attribution: Wikimedia foundation.

The General Election should have been a wake up call. British politics has finally become pluralistic; as, indeed, many European nations already are.

But somehow, it wasn’t. The Tories are happy to continue with the dreaded First Past the Post, having been gifted with a majority—tenuous as it is—now and for much of their history; while Labour is too concerned with its leadership election, and deciding what it really stands for, to campaign. (This is assuming the Labour Party even wants to change the system, which many in the PLP don’t.)

It is the sad irony that underlies FPTP: the victor, even if possessed of good intentions, is given every incentive not to change the system. And it is the victors—and in the case of FPTP, only the victor—who can change the status quo.

The Lib Dems have been campaigning against FPTP for years; and for years, their efforts have been in vain. The Greens have no meaningful power with which to amerlioate their situation. Ditto UKIP, which won 13% of the votes but only achieved 0.2% representation in Parliament.

Such a system can no longer be considered just. In the days of old, when there was only Labour or the Tories (or the Liberals, back when they were a political force) FPTP might have been considered fair—or at least, necessary. Even then, there were always internal conflicts between different ideological factions: Atlee had the Bevanites, Major his Bastards.

But with divisions now increasingly clear—as shown by Cameron over Europe, and most strikingly in the Labour leadership contest, with Kendall and Corbyn being quite different animals—it is increasingly clear that FPTP is a dinosaur.

The question, then, is what to replace it with?

The Hybrids and the Bastards

Aside from a simple proportional representation system—where MPs are elected to Parliament on the basis of party votes, and their position on “party lists”—there are two proposed alternatives. One such is the Single Transferable Vote.

STV, in short, is a system whereby voters indicate their preferred choice of candidates in a constituency—e.g. I can nominate my local Labour candidate 1st, the Green candidate 2nd, and so on—and the second preferences of losers are distributed once they are deselected. For example: if Liz Kendall comes last in the contest, her voter’s second preferences will go mainly to Yvette Cooper, with a few ending up for Andy Burnham.

This system generally works for internal party elections, corporate board votes, and the like: the most favoured candidate is usually selected, and the system is well equipped for dealing with voters divided between broadly similar options.

STV can also help ameliorate instances where voters live in marginal seats between, say, Labour and the Tories: they may choose to vote Green, or Lib Dem, but can gift second preferences to Labour, for example.

But STV was rejected in a referendum, and for good reason: it still produces unrepresentative and often unexpected results, with tactical voting and gerrymandering playing a significant role

The other alternative is the Additional Member System—as used to elect members to the Scottish Parliament, and (in modified form) to the German Bundestag.

In this, voters get two votes: one for their constituency, the other for a proportionally represented region. Essentially, AMS is a hybrid. It works to allow voting for both party and individual candidate; but it is only semi-proportional—the Greens and UKIP, for example, would still end up with only half the MPs their votes would have given them under PR.

AMS is as much a damning indictment of FPTP as anything: the results produced under FPTP are so disproportionate, so out of touch with the voter’s intent, that even a hybrid system still produces highly irregular outcomes.

In the case of the German Bundestag, “hanging seats” are used to ensure proportionality: if the Greens, for example, won 8% of the popular vote but only 1% of the seats, the system permits them to elect additional MPs from their regional party lists. Thus, proportionality is ensured.

There’s just one problem. Two, in fact. Firstly, the House of Commons already has well over 600 MPs—is it practical to add 100 hanging seats on top of that, resulting in a house that has close to 800 MPs?

Secondly—and more importantly—the system effectively leads to toxic power struggles within parties: in smaller parties, it is advantageous for members to gain a place on the regional lists. This can lead to all manner of backstabbing and gerrymandering; and it also means that candidates with good track records have little chance of getting into Parliament if the party elite doesn’t like them.

In the case of larger parties, the opposite holds true: members will want nominations to seats—especially safe seats—and few will desire being on the regional lists.

There are proposed workarounds. In some systems, members can stand for both regional lists and constituencies; but while this can be helpful, it poses various complexities and difficulties.

But let me be clear: party politics is an issue that affects any kind of voting system. Whether it be party lists, or preferred candidates being “parachuted in” to safe seats (as occurred with Shawn Woodward, the Tory defector, under Blair’s primeministership)—either way, it is an issue that needs to be resolved by parties, not by voters.

A Question of Proportionality

The final alternative is pure proportional representation: if you have votes, you are given seats. Who gets to go to Parliament is decided by the party list.

This system has been denounced by the Tories for being subject to “party favouritism”—including by my very own Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, who was himself chosen by the Party to represent a safe seat! But more legitimate criticisms have been posed, and the most pressing of these concerns stable governments.

Critics argue that PR leads to unstable minority governments, or to fragile coalitions; but this argument doesn’t wash, for two reasons. Firstly, countries in which PR is implemented—examples include Austria, Denmark and many more—do in fact have relatively stable governments. Rarely was Helen Thornen Schmidt, the former Social Democratic PM for Denmark, bound by her hands when discussing on behalf of the nation (to quote John Major). This is despite having been in a coalition in which her party made up half the MPs; the reminder belonging to an eclectic alliance of People’s Socialists, Red-Greens, and Liberals.

Secondly, is not it true that FPTP produces these so-called “stable governments”. British parties are coalitions—one need only look at Corbyn and Kendall, or at Cameron and IDS, to realise this. But not only does FPTP give the illusion of stable government; it is in fact less stable than the governments produced by PR.

In a PR system, a coalition is subject to formal coalition pacts; to non-binding confidence and supply agreements; and to clearly defined positions on issues, held visibly by different parties. This arrangement is much more stable than that found in a “broad church” party, whereby each wing serves to denounce the other (as Labour is experiencing now) or to reach compromises that neither please the party nor convince the electorate (case in point: Miliband).

Fearing the Little Guy

The final complaint levelled against PR is, ironically, is that it doesn’t block small parties from gaining representation. This is only partially true: countries like Germany, for example, have 5% limits on gaining any seats in the Bundestag (parties with votes below the threshold are excluded and the composition of the Bundestag reflects that).

This is helpful in keeping out, say, the BNP; but what about the elephant in the room: UKIP?

Tony Blair raised this very concern, and even went as far as to suggest that smaller parties generally hold excessive power by virtue of deciding the majority.

But there are problems with this. Firstly, small parties will never be in government on their own; and if you’re not in government, there is little you can do. Labour knows this the hard way. It is therefore imperative that small parties attempt to gain favourable standing with larger parties; but doing so requires making compromises. In short: a small party cannot hold a large party to ransom, because to do so means being irrelevant.

Smaller parties are also often ideologically left-leaning or right-leaning; the Danish Red-Greens will never go into coalition with the Danish far right, for example.

But Blair is right to ask questions over what a Tory–UKIP coalition would look like. A match made in Hell, some would say; and a very fragile one at that, seeing as to their considerable differences over Europe, gay marriage, and more besides.

It is however worth mentioning that the vote share under FPTP is likely going to be different to that gained under PR. Many Tory voters will vote UKIP; and many Labour voters will vote Green. But let’s not exaggerate: the Tories and Labour will still be the two biggest parties in Parliament.

The challenge may be a more unexpected one. UKIP, at the end of the day, is a minority party. But the differences between Corbyn and Kendall are real, while the difference between Kendall and Cameron is not that great. It may be the case that the entire party landscape will be fundamentally altered: the Blairites will join the Cameroonians (and the Cleggites), to form the Market Party; UKIP will remain UKIP, but IDS will find himself at home; while many Greens and what remains of the Lib Dems will defect to Labour, perhaps to form the Liberal Green Socialists, or something of the sort.

Such speculation aside, one thing is clear: it is in the interests of democracy, and that of the country, for FPTP to be scrapped. At this stage, anything would be better.

And to assuage the nervous socialists among you: if you want to keep out the far right, look to Austria. Despite two far right parties collectively gaining over 20% of the vote, moderates among Social Democrats and Conservatives set aside their differences and formed a coalition.

Conclusion

Whatever system will replace FPTP, there will be challenges. The establishment—among the Tories, but even within Labour—will not take kindly to having their hegemony disappear behind a flurry of compromises and coalitions. There will be doubters, among left and right. But Britain must challenge this political inertia. The future of meaningful, working democracy rests on it to do so.

13 Sep 2015

Special: On Refugees

Hail readers! As a departure from my usual musings on poetry and other literary endeavours, I have today a special post on the refugee crisis. Being, indeed, special, this post—and all future works like it—will be prefaced ‘Special’ (funnily enough). Such technicalities aside, let’s get down to the difficult questions: what is the refugee crisis, why is there a refugee crisis, and what can and should we do about it?

The What

The refugee crisis is a term coined for the current situation in Syria (primarily) and the resultant impact on Europe.

To elaborate: Syria, at present, is suffering from a severe civil war. The incumbent Head of State, Bashar al Assad, is a hereditary dictator masquerading lackadaisically as an elected president; his regime is an authoritarian one, having pursued military action on largely peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ protesters. On top of this, he has instigated the murder—and tortue—of 11,000 people in detention centres reminiscent of Auschwitz.

The UN has even implicated Assad personally in war-crimes 1, and he is currently due for prosecution by the International Criminal Court 2.

In essence, the first cause of the Syrian civil war—and the resultant refugee influx—lies with Assad.

It is worth noting that the Assads have been ruling Syria since 1971, following a coup d’état. Though this history is not directly relevant to the situation at present, it is worth knowing. Syria was actually established as a French colony—bearing no national identity to its citizens—in the 1920s, with the consent of Britain. 3 Initially a feudal state, it was later replaced by a class-ridden rentier society, whereby two percent of the population received 50% of the income.

In 1946, Syria became an independent state. However, things had not changed; indeed, they worsened in 1948 following a war with Israel. Thereafter, military dictatorship became the norm.

Eventually this was forcibly replaced by a military committee of discontented peasants, nationalists (Syria was created arbitrarily without national identity) and a movement comprising radical socalists and pan-Islamists called Ba’athism.

As you can see, Syria’s history is long, complex, and—to put it bluntly—disastrous. We can point the finger at Britain and France, of course, but that was decades ago. The fault of the conflict now lies clearly with Assad.

‘Alex! But what about the refugees?’ you ask. And this is where the situation worsens once more. Aside from a bloody civil war between (understandably) angry rebels and a ruthless dictator—a conflict which has already involved several uses of chemical weapons, with death tolls in the thousands 4—there is one more fire in the pan: Isis.

This particular entity needs little introduction. Composed of murderous, raping, Islamic fundamentalists, it has made quite a name (or is it names?) for itself, what with beheading journalists and enslaving Yazidi girls into sex slavery. This particular unsavoury group has activities in both Iraq and Syria.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Isis is being opposed not only by the Iraqi army, and by Kurds, but also by Assad himself. Of course, Assad isn’t doing it for humanitarian reasons (ha!)—no: Isis is a major threat to his power (being determined to create its own caliphate) and is therefore being resisted.

Anyway: let’s leave such deliberations aside and get back to the problem of the refugees.

Refugees, Refugees...

The Syrians are fleeing their country for obvious reasons. On the one hand, Assad is busily torturing and killing dissidents; on the other, there’s a dangerous civil war going on. And to top it all off, Isis is also in the fray, busily pillaging and killing away.

It should be mentioned that the Syrians aren’t the only ones fleeing. In addition to their 9 million 5—a million of which are in the tiny country of Lebanon, with many more in Turkey and other neighbouring countries—there are also Libyans fleeing a failed state, various victims of Egypt’s wonderful rulers, and several disaster zones in the Congo, in Somalia, and in much of Africa.

Whatever to Do?

Several solutions and workarounds have been proposed. Firstly among these is accepting more refugees; a noble quest, but there are questions to be addressed.

Britain—nor any other country—cannot and should not support a large group of dependent, non-working people. It would be a substantial drain on our already damaged and inequality-ridden economy. And besides: none of us were in power when colonialism was about; we share no culpability for this.

However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t let the refugees in. No. My suggestion is a simple one: let the refugees work. Abandon arbitrary and tedious conditions on asylum; and let them be productive members of society. Because, whichever way you look at it, the situation in Syria is not going to get better anytime soon. Might as well enjoy the popcorn.

There are other concerns with these refugees. Some have expressed worries that they will be like some of our Muslim citizens—i.e. dangerous, fundamentalist, and batshit crazy. We can already see those ‘British’ Muslims getting plane tickets to join Isis.

But there’s a problem with this argument: the vast majority of these people were persecuted by Isis, and have every reason not to engage in that type of behaviour. And if they did fancy joining Isis, chances are they would have done so already. Also, to be blunt, if they are that way inclined—deport them! Let them sow the fruits of their harvest.

But let’s not get carried away by these fears. The vast majority of these refugees are impoverished, traumatised, and desperate. They are people just like you and me—people with dreams, with hopes, with ambitions. People who lost their children in a gas attack; people who faced being shot, bombed and beheaded as part of their daily lives. Do we really want to abandon them to the mercy of Assad?

But What About Assad and Cronies?

There is an important argument to be had here. We can take on 20,000 refugees, or a hundred thousand, or—like Germany—we can take on 1% of our population: 600,000.

And with a convincing pan-European plan, we might get a few million refugees safe.

But there are millions more living in a destitute Lebanon; millions more still waiting to escape Syria. This cannot be a permanent solution. Europe cannot be the lifeboat for the Middle East; we have neither the capabilities nor the culpability to merit such action.

So: what do we do about Syria?

Taking on Isis would be a start. Being a non-state entity, it isn’t subject to the pesky technicalities of international law in quite the same way as a state is. But defeating it is easier said than done: like all guerilla forces, it is tenacious, capable of hiding itself, and thus not defeatable by a bombing campaign or a simple Blitzkrieg operation. It is like a virus.

Isis itself isn’t that powerful—its oil revenues are modest, it has no aircraft or tanks, and its soldiers don’t possess the level of training or armament that a developed nation can bring to bear—but it exists in a region filled with weak governments, civil war, and nations barely capable of providing for their citizenry (let alone creating the Wermacht).

But this leads to a possible solution. Can we not help the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the Turks to take them down? Can we not arm them, train them, and equip them?

The danger is that we may create a situation similar to the Mujahideen. Formerly armed in a similar fashion by the CIA, these Jihadists were initially employed to beat back the Soviets from Afghanistan many years ago. Unfortunately, they went on to create the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and now Isis. Reluctance to engage in anything similar is understandable.

But the Kurds are not the Mujahideen. They have been ruthless at times, as anyone in their position may well need to be; but they fight ultimately to defend themselves, their husbands and wives, and their children from Isis barbarity. They are not ideologues and warlords.

Although I do not profess to be an expert, it seems to me that the situation is not analogous to that of Afghanistan. It is a proposition worth considering.

Aside from that, there are other possibilities. Britain may continue to employ airstrikes and drone attacks—which have some limited effect—but as Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, has said: no airborne campaign will succeed in beating Isis without ground support.

Which leads us to another possibility. Can we, and should we, bring in the army? I am not opposed to this on a moral and practical basis. There is no danger of creating another Mujahideen; and it would be substantially more effective than dropping bombs.

Still, it is fraught with problems. A force like Isis will not be defeated in an a year; for it can hide, and it can recruit. As long as there are angry, bloodthirsty fundamentalists and murderers about—well, you may need to keep those troops in there for a while. Maybe for a decade, or so. It will cost money, and lives.

Morally, I am not opposed to a couple thousand soldiers giving up their lives—and a few billion to be spent—if it can save millions from suffering. But I know that my view will be unpopular among many; and there are other, less expensive possibilities to consider.

Jeremy Corbyn, newly elected leader of the Labour party, has proposed cutting off Isis by controlling the Turkish border. While the intent is effective—cutting off Isis supply lines and oil revenues will certainly weaken them—controlling the Turkish border is easier said than done: Turkey’s border spans more than a thousand kilometres between Syria and Iraq, along with Iran. Even if the Turks somehow manage to patrol and control such a border (an improbable feat indeed) it is well known that Iran tacitly supports anything that will weaken its neighbours.

The final problem alluded to previously is one of ideology. There is little doubt that Isis promises of heaven, and virgins, and killing the infidels (and all the rest) finds itself home among a region dominated by fundamentalist Islam. Devotees certainly do find solace in the various scriptures of Islam—that support Jihad and violent action—as well as the precedents set out by Muhammad and centuries of warlords thereafter.

Saying this will no doubt solicit some ire, but is is ultimately true. Richard Dawkins is right to point out that religion is a major part of what is going wrong in the Middle East—as indeed has gone wrong for the last millennia. The statistics are frightening to bear. The entire Islamic world has translated fewer English texts in a thousand years than Spain has in one. 6 Illiterary is rife, particularly among women; and it has been so for thousands of years. Imams and scripture regularly call for and defend the subjugation of women.

There is little point in continuing. All of the Abrahamic religions have long and bloody histories, with long and bloody Bibles. The fact that Isis devotees genuinely believe that killing thousands of innocent people in a suicide attack will send them to heaven is, really, a testament to how violent religion really is.

What Are We to Get from This, Alex?

Dealing with Isis is a complicated matter. Sending in the army would be a good step, but the cost may be too high to bear—and without a broader plan, it is ultimately futile. Isis must be fought along several frontiers: the Kurds must be aided in their fight against them, but cautiously; airstrikes should be continued, but faith must not be placed on them; and borders need to be controlled as best as feasible.

But more than anything, in the long term, the Middle East needs education. Its citizenry must learn of science, of the Enlightenment, of liberal democracy and tolerance. We should support attempts to replace violent dictators—because ultimately, there will never be progress so long as they remain in power.

That’s right: realpolitik has failed. It has failed time and time again. By all means, be careful to avoid creating power vacuums and anarchy; and if you’re not willing to invade and control a country in order to depose a dictator, don’t do it. But don’t be afraid to support forces that desire prosperity and freedom from doing so either.

Wrapping Up

I have discussed at length on this matter. The situation is undoubtedly complicated, and poses many difficulties for Britain and the EU. But there are solutions, both short-term and long term.

In the short term, we need to work with the European Union to adopt a Europe-wide asylum policy. We need to accept our fair share of refugees; and I do mean our fair share—the same as Germany and France. We need to do this not because Europe wants us to, but because it is within the scope of our shared humanity.

It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. If you’ve a heart, for the love of all that is good—give these people safety. If you lived with the daily threat of gas attack, bombing and beheading; would you be any different?

On a more practical level, the refugees need to work. And the root causes need to be addressed.

Europe cannot be the lifeboat for the Middle East. Instead, the Middle East needs to become a prosperous place: it must became safe, so that millions need not flee for their lives; it must grow economically, for destitution has no place in the 21st century. If you don’t support their wellbeing for their sakes, at least support it for ours; for millions will enter Europe, no matter how many barbed wire fences your erect—nor indeed for how many will drown in the Mediterranean.

Doing so will require destroying the forces of evil, be it Isis or Assad. It will require education, and emancipation for women; for minorities; and from the toxic clutch of religion.

Some may call me fanciful. They will continue with their realpolitik, with their dodgy deals and dictators. And on one level, deals will need to be made—not with the evil, but often with the unsavoury. Politics is a dirty business.

But politics can also bring hope, and vision, into life. And that’s something we’re going to need.

9 Sep 2015

Poem: The Darklands (Fallen Saga #6)

‘Alex!’ you say; ‘have you not promised us poetry, so long ago? Instead you give us the Machinations of a Writer!’

And you would be correct. But allow me to rectify this: in addition to my musings on the Ark, I am now armed with with a new addition to the increasingly substantial Fallen Saga—entitled, fittingly enough, the Darklands.

In many ways it is a simpler work than its predecessors: it does not concern itself so much with the mythopoeia behind poetry (and this particular concoction)—aside from a few passing references to the Elysian Fields—but instead with carrying forward the ‘plot’. I say plot, though of course a poetic saga like this is more a loosely interconnected series of narratives.

Such technicalities aside, the Darklands is at its heart a poem of darkness (it is not named in vain) concerning the plight of the underworld’s denizens. They are a doomed bunch. Many were struck down by God’s fickle wraith, or were condemned for minor acts of wickedness and sedition; others still are there because they were previously heroic, but are nevertheless... dead.

Before I continue, it is advisable to actually read the damn poem...

Read the Darklands

There are some intriguing portrayals within this. The Elysian Fields, though a place chosen for heroes and demigods, is nonetheless described:

Among the grey depths
Of Death’s cruel domain

It is strange, then, that even the favourites of the Fickle One are sent to spend eternity in a rather... unpleasant sort of place. One wonders what becomes of those sent to Hades—or to Hell. And what surprise, then, to see them rebel:

Their eyes blue—like the coldest Northern ice—their eyes
Black, like age-old malice; the Dead
Cry their final battle scream,
And call Lucifer
Their prophet.

But the Darklands most important contribution is in its message. Lucifer summons the Dead to his cause not only for the benefit of himself and his protégées, but also for the benefit of humans: for our benefit, in other words. The greatest of all rebellions must include all of God’s most fabulous creations; in that lies true rebellion.

‘But Alex! Our question is a simple one: why?’

To answer that, this stanza need be adduced:

‘You believe in Justice,’ says Merthiol.
‘Aye,’ says Lucifer. ‘For Justice
‘They rise. For all those struck as babes by vicious plague;
‘For all the virtuous ignored, for all the wicked harshly condemned.
‘They rise for the Justice of their kind, as we for ours.’

This poem’s parting words need no explanation. Lucifer, though possessed of selfish intentions and grand machinations, has good at heart. Even Merthiol is compelled to agree...

7 Sep 2015

The Machinations of a Writer, Part I

First in a Three Part Series on Software

This post has been bumped up, owing to extra detail; the follow-up post is located here.

As detailed previously, I am endeavouring to detail to you the many machinations of the publishing industry; and, specifically for today, the tricky matter that causes many a writer many a headache: software.

Text Editors, or Word Processors: Which Will it Be?

The default reaction of young, foolish writers—when confronted with the matter of recording their (no doubt) genius musings—is to run to their word processor: and that, usually, means Microsoft Word. And it seems a natural enough response, after all; for word processors are capable, often-times advanced pieces of software that are quite able to generate, say, an essay, or some other short piece of text.

The trouble with word processors, however, is not so much to do with their ability to handle large documents—a feat which they accomplish with but minor misshap—but rather, with the fickle heart of a writer.

Allow me to illustrate:

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘whatever is this? It wouldn’t be... your book?’ Well, dear reader, that is in fact correct; what you see is the Necromancer, as it appears in paperback form. But I would draw your attention to something altogether different: LibreOffice writer, my word processor of choice.

Do you notice the formatting options—be it bold, italic, underline, superscript, and many more? Do you notice the plethora of formatting styles; the litany of sidebars, icons and menus? And now imagine, dear reader, how inherently distracting this mode of editing must be; how easily a curious soul such as I may become engrossed in the numerous minutiae of formatting (fonts, weights, leading, indents, footer or header page numeration, footer placement—dear God, I spent far too long on that—heading styles...) and become altogether diverted from that central quest. Which is, quite simply, to write.

This is not to pose a criticism of Writer; indeed, the program is merely fulfilling its role as a word processor: namely, to provide complex WISYWIG editing. But though word processors are in fact a necessary step of the process—as I shall explain—the first, vital stage of writing does not fall within their remit.

For that, one must look to an ostensibly similar piece of software—the text editor.

The Humble Text Editor

Aside from the evident distractions and complexities of a word processor, text editors bear another, more subtle advantage: that of reliability.

It is no secret—word processors, as an inevitable consequence of their abilities, are more prone to all manner of disastrous failures. Random freezes? Check. Input lag? Ditto. (That, I must confess, is particularly infurating.) And that’s not even going into other potential pitfalls, namely: incompatibility across formats (every tried sharing Word documents?), obsolete formats—imagine trying to open a document written twenty years ago (you can’t)—along with other, invisible syntax-level complexities, e.g. direct formatting preservation.

The alternative to this, of course, is plain text. In this, there is no ‘hidden realm’ concealed within the formatted appearance of a document; rather, plain text is the simplest human-readable syntax in existence. What is you see is, really, what you get:

Plain text has some rather significant disadvantages, however. In particular, plain text doesn’t support formating; a limitation that renders it useless for writing even this humble blog post, let alone the epics of Narnia.

‘But Alex!’ you observe; ‘Are you not using plain text at this very instance?’ I am indeed... but this not ordinary plain text. Rather, it is the creation of a wonderful man (whose name eludes my memory, sadly) and goes by the name ‘Markdown’. What distinguishes this ‘Markdown’ from mere plain text is that of markup formatting: italics may be denoted by asterisks on either side; likewise bold, through double asterisks; and even paragraph styles can be incorporated, using direct HTML.

Thus, I am able to include my precious formatting. Markdown is of course an intermediate format, in that the asterisks don’t create actual italics; however, it may easily be converted to HTML—a format that is easy to manipulate and further convert—through the ingenious markdown script.

Gedit—my text editor of choice—appears deceptively simple, but conceals many a feature. One of this is the ability to run scripts (such as markdown...) and to employ them in ingenious ways. For example:

Through this, I am able to convert this Markdown into HTML—all via a few clicks. Unfortunately, this particular feature only works in Linux, and Macintosh systems; Windows users are left out in the cold. This is not due to Gedit so much as Windows’ less than stellar ability to handle scripts. It is one of the many reasons why I recommend the so-called ‘alternative operating systems’.

EDIT: concerning Markdown, a new Gedit plugin has recently been released; it allows something called syntax highlighting, along with easily previewing your markdown document as it would appear in HTML. Here is an example:

A Question of Operating Systems

My OS (to use the acronym; brevity, I adore thee) is one Ubuntu Linux. Writers, of course, use many operating systems; some adore their Macs, whereas others hold fast to Windows. Ubuntu, however, is likely the best candidate for the task of creating tales. For one: it is really quite beautiful.

The value of beauty is not to be underestimated. It can bequeath to a writer that sense of phantasmagoria, that view into the unseen realm; and, furthermore—who likes ugly screens?

But there are also numerous more—how shall we say?—practical considerations involved. Take non-ASCII characters; or, to translate from jargonese, pretty much anything that’s not on your keyboard. How does one write smart quotations? Or dashes? What about diacritics; ‘Deriën,’ as I like to point out, isn’t the same thing as ‘Derien’—there’s a distinct lengthening of the /ɪ/, for one.

It is true that word processors can ‘autocorrect’ formatting, in many cases (albeit with limitations; try writing ’Tis). But writing non-ASCII characters involves long, tedious forays into the character map, otherwise; and, as I’ve mentioned previously: word processors are distracting, and dubious of reliability.

Ubuntu (and all distributions that employ the Gnome DE) have a solution: the compose key. This, simply, is a user-configurable key—right super in my case—that, once pressed, results in the OS absorbing inputs and creating new inputs based on set patterns. For example: writing compose, then hyphen three times creates an em dash. Genius, n’est-ce pas? Of course, one has to learn these key combinations... but they are remarkably intuitive. Quotations, for example, employ the simple flat apostrophe, preceded either by < (for the left starter quote) or >.

Another advantage—there are others, though too minor and numerous to save poor brevity in their mention—is the matter of font rendering. This affects Windows—Mac users, thankfully, are saved from this particular idiocy of MS. In any case: Windows employs what is known as ‘hinting’ to render fonts. This is a complex, technical process, but detailed simply: it forces pixels on the outer edges of a glyph into set squares, that match the physical configuration of pixels on a monitor. This removes the bluriness present on the edges of a glyph, allowing them to appear ‘sharper’.

Here: a demonstration.

As you can see, my wonderful Necromancer—formatted in the elegant Linux Libertine—appears suitably gorgeous unhinted; but when hinting is applied... horror ensues. This is due to the fact that Libertine is a font that isn’t specifically designed to be hinted; if it were, it would appear more like MS Calibri. Sharpened, slightly distorted, but overall enhanced.

The trouble is, hinting a font is a difficult and time consuming process. Invariably, many font designers would rather create beautiful fonts. Many of which, incidentally, are indeed beautiful; and which cannot be used to display text in Windows, or even to create printed documents—you can’t tell how the font is meant to look.

OSX does not apply any significant hinting; Linux—being wiser than either—allows you to choose. The default is the same as OSX.

(Incidentally, it is possible to disable Window’s font hinting using a third-party hack; but I’m not certain if the program even has an English version maintained anymore, and nor is it as capable.)

The Tricky Matter of Editing

‘Okay, Alex,’ you say; ‘suppose we’ve written our masterpiece, but now want to send it to the editor—what do we do?’ This question is more difficult than it first appears, for what Markdown cannot yet do—or may ever be able to do—is track changes. This is a valuable editing tool, and indeed you’d be hard-pressed to work without it.

Markdown, however, is flexible; and so, your manuscrupt a-written, you may proceed to convert it to your format of choice. This can be done via a number of means; I recommend pandoc, a flexible, able and simple converter. You will have to learn to use the command-line in order to peruse it... but it’s worth it.

Finishing Off

I have spoken at great length on this matter—even more than I may wish—but then, software can prove surprisingly troublesome without a suitable dose of expertise. I shall write more, in future—this is only part one, after all—on such topics as eBook creation, publishing formats, and more. Until then, keep following. I’ve poetry, news, and an essay on socialism a-coming...

2 Sep 2015

On Writing and the Ark

Hail readers!

Today I bring to you my musings on the Ark. It is proving a difficult endeavour—as any such work ought be, in truth. However, one question in particular poses a special kind of difficulty—that being: in what manner ought the Ark be written? Should it be formal, and (were I unkind in my interpretation) full of flosculations? Or should it be tight, informal... but at the same time, lacking in eloquence and vivid description?

The question may be phrased in a different way: should it be mainstream, or literary?

Mainstream, Literary... or Both?

It seems I have fallen fowl to the apparent dilemma plaguing many a writer. On the one hand, I wish to write beautiful prose, and words of elegance and wit; on the other, I worry that I am too formal, too complex in my vocabulary and manner of expression. I worry that I am too dense.

The mainstream writers may say: but Alex! The realm of literary fiction is a small one; and what good are words, if they have no readers? Is is not the reader, who defines the poem?

The literary writers will no doubt reply: but even if your words find solace only among a few; even if you are not blessed with riches and fame and the adulation of the masses... surely it is worth bringing beauty and imagination to those erudite few?

Both arguments are to some degree valid. I, for one, am usually of the former disposition; I do believe that words are best when sampled by the many, not the sanctimonious few. And yet... aesthetic prose, and words written free of any consideration for audience sensibilities, can be powerful.

But to frame the discussion in such terms ignores a fundamental truth: that beautiful tales are formed both by beautiful words and expert execution. The novel is not the poem; it cannot partake in exercises of writerly practice, or of vain exhibitionism. Or in other words—it cannot be written purely for the sake of it. It must convey a story, a message within its lines and sentences.

But nor is a good tale composed merely of anodyne phrasing and lackluster prose. It is the strange nature of writing: it is not merely the what which creates the tale, but also the how.

To be mainstream and to be literary, therefore, is no contradiction. On the contrary: truly good novels possess the qualities of both.

But What of the Ark?

The Ark is in some difficulty as of present; for I now suspect that the language which it employs, and the manner in which it is written, is indeed too much of the literary and not enough of the direct. Here—an example:

For a moment, I’m surprised. Not because I didn’t see him as a poet—he’d have to be to quote Dante in Italian—but because there is something at once so inopportune, and yet so felicitous, about it, that I cannot help but laugh.

Are the latter clauses too keen to employ rare words? Is the expression too stitled, too formal; too High English, even for poetic Casey—a sixteen year old boy? There are numerous concerns as to what audience would be interested in both the premise and the manner of writing; and questions too, concerning the aspect of believability.

And yet, such questions aside, it must always be remembered that bad words may be taken away; but that good words cannot be invented by the editorial mind. Also, the Ark is no ordinary tale; and its characters are not ordinary teenagers. There is nothing ordinary about the brilliant. No great tale ever became great by being average.

So what are we to take from this? Perhaps some of these phrasings will be altered; some words replaced with simpler equivalents. But nor is this to say that the words of the Ark, and the tale brought by its words, need careful manipulation by cynical purveyors of finance.

A tale is a tale is a tale—to paraphrase Gertrude Stein—and it must be written both for greatness and for readability. The two are not contradictory, and neither can one come at the expense of the other; true brilliance lies in both.