30 Jan 2017

Quelle Président?

Hello readers!

Aujourd’hui Alex will give will his opinion on the French presidential elections. Why, you ask? Because Alex has a strong focus on international and, especially, European politics; and France is a key Member State. The French Président will make decisions regarding the terms of Brexit, the European response to both a revanchist Russia, and to Trump’s America. Moreover, this election is important in symbolic ways; it will give us a taste of 2017 and what it will mean for the forces of liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, and far-right nationalism.

So who is competing to become president of the République? The character cast comprises the following: a fascist, the male re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, two mad leftists (a post-scarcity utopian and a Marxist, respectively)... oh, and Tony Blair.

Well, not quite; this Tony Blair is French, for one. And although Blair did have fond feelings for the French—he addressed the country in French, and was given a very cordial greeting by the UMP—he was never, well, French.

Anyway, the man’s name is Emmanuel Macron. He was an investment banker before becoming an adviser for Hollande (the current president, if any of you don’t know); he was then subsequently promoted to being a Minister for the economy. But now, seeing how dismally unpopular the current president is, he’s decided to jump ship and form his own campaign (“En Marche!”).

As for the others, let me give you a quick rundown. We have Marine Le Pen, who is likely to obtain the largest number of first-round votes. She is the daughter of a fascist, and is of course a fascist herself. We also have François Fillon—the surprise candidate for France’s mainstream right, Les Républicaines—who is a Thatcherite. Lastly, we have Benoît Hamon—surprise candidate for Partide Socialiste—and Jean Luc Mélenchon, who, though an outsider, is de facto the candidate for the Communists and associated far-left politics.

So who does Alex think the French should vote for? Tony Blair, of course...

Mais Pourquoi, Alex?

This is not a particularly easy decision, in part because none of the candidates (as you may have guessed) are really ideal. But perhaps I can share my reasoning with you, and convince you to vote as such.

Let me be clear: Macron resembles Blair in more than just centrist policy and vague, feel-good rhetoric. The two are also similar in that both are quite dishonest politicians—they are masters of spin, however, and both convinced their electorates that they’re the Good Guys (TM). In Blair’s case, it was convincing everyone that he was a great, progressive politician, not beholden to corporate interests or neoliberal ideology; and in Macron’s case, it’s been about convincing the French electorate that a former investment banker is really an outsider ready to stir things up.

But even so, Macron remains the best option on the table. Allow me to firstly deal with the two main alternatives: Le Pen and Fillon.

Le Pen, as I have already said, is very, very, very bad. Her policies include (but are not limited to): dragging France out of the EU—likely destroying both entities—waging Cold War on Muslims, and ushering in an era of chest-thumping economic and political nationalism. The woman is essentially a Vichy collaborator, only her preferred foreign power is Putin’s Russia.

Fillon is basically a throwback to 1980s conservatism. Aside from his plans to cut 500,000 public sector jobs, ‘liberalise’ the labour market, and Thatcherise the economy, he also has another odious goal: to undermine gay marriage. It seems Section 28 continues on from the grave.

Once you understand who the two main candidates for the French presidency are, you will also understand my key imperative: anything but. Any of the other three candidates are preferable to these two execrable politicians.

Now, finally, onto the two remaining candidates. Hamon has been recently elected by the PS as their presidential candidate, scoring a surprise win against Manuel Valls, Hollande’s prime minister. On the surface, Hamon looks cool: he’s a radical leftwinger that beat the established candidate—a triumph of socialism over confused social democracy. But then, you look at his policies and his poll ratings. Hamon wants to a) tax robots b) reduce the working week to 32 hours and c) bring a system of universal income.

All of which would be great—if we lived in a post-scarcity society dominated by automation. Unfortunately, we don’t live in Utopia, and Hamon’s policies don’t make a whole lot of sense. Universal income would be impossible to afford unless it acts to replace social benefits, which would be idiocy: there are disabled people who need more than €750 a month to live on, and instead UBI would send money to millionaires. Taxing robots seems hard to implement, and pointless at best or Luddism at worst.

The last candidate, Mélenchon, is a nice enough guy. His platform is basically moderated Marxism: he wants to nationalise companies and regulate banks; he wants an increase in the minimum wage and also previously campaigned for a wage cap; he is a firm environmentalist, even supporting ‘degrowth’; and he wants to legalise cannabis.

I agree with most of his positions except cannabis and—more importantly—Europe. Mélenchon’s position vis-á-vis the EU is Marxist to an M: he thinks the concept of the EU is a great idea. As a supporting group, In Defence of Marxism, puts it: “Only a Socialist Federation of European States will unify the continent on a progressive basis, paving the way for a world socialist federation.” link

But, he thinks the current EU is contaminated by neoliberal economics; there needs to be a revolution, to replace the EU with the United Soviet European Socialist Republics.

Aside from being a bit bonkers, Mélenchon is polling at just over 10% of the vote. Recall the maxim I stated previously: anything but. It might be nice to have Mélenchon as president, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be elected.

And this is the important bit: to keep Fillon out of winning the first round, Macron needs to get as much of the left vote as possible. The race is very close. The latest polls put Le Pen on around 25%, Fillon on 22%, Macron on 21%, Hamon on around 16% and Mélenchon just below him. (Poll by Kantar Sofres)

Of course you might wonder whether the latter two can team up. Unfortunately, Mélenchon is reluctant to join the PS campaign (the party is considered toxic in leftwing circles) and so this is sadly improbable. Even if it happened, there is unfortunately no guarantee that Mélenchon would beat Le Pen. He probably will—most French people don’t like her very much— but Macron is more likely to succeed in this regard. If this changes (and there have been some surprises in this election) I will reevaluate my position.

Until then, my message is this. The last thing France needs is a run off between a homophobe and a fascist. So, to the French left, I say: vote tactically. C’est la vie.

22 Jan 2017

Writing a book at 14

Hello everyone!

Since I am terribly busy with my Dutch lessons, various administrative tasks, and of course my writing, I have decided not to write any original work at present. However, the piece below was originally published in the university journal, Scriptus; and I believe you will find it to your great interest...

When I tell people I wrote a book at 14, it would be an understatement to say that I get a lot of responses. But beyond the look on people’s faces, writing the Necromancer changed my life in many deeper (though sometimes subtle) ways.

Firstly, allow me to address the obvious factor here: commitment. Writing a 108,000 word high-fantasy book is not something you do on a whim. Indeed, it took me over six months to complete the first draft—a feat that required writing multiple hours per week—and a whole 18 months to get feedback, edit, seek agents, do more edits, and eventually hire professionals to do the artwork.

This leads me onto the second obvious question: motivation. Why, exactly, does a fourteen-year-old undertake such a quest? In my experience, laymen often draw on analogies with entrepreneurs: perhaps, they think, I wrote because I want to build something. Maybe I want to make the world a better place. Maybe I’m just in it for the money, or the pleasure of throwing down a 500 page book and saying ‘I wrote that.’

But this is only a small part of the reason I write. To understand my motivation, you need look a bit deeper, and trace the origin to my love of reading. I have always loved reading, even from an early age, and this was particularly true of the years just before I began writing. A transcript from the school library showed that I read about 400 books between the ages of 11 and 14.

The old adage is true: behind every writer there is a profligate reader.

So how did my love of reading affect me? It is safe to say that I became enraptured by the world of fantasy. Like the children in Narnia, I had opened the wardrobe and found a whole world waiting for me. Eragon and Northern Lights kept me up at night. I saw myself in their shoes: I fought urgals on the back of a dragon; I met angels; I fought dark magicians and consorted with vampires.

I was, in truth, smitten by the occult. My fascination was endless. It seems almost inevitable that I came to write about it; that my ideas grew, morphed, and took a life of their own.

One grey October afternoon, I began writing. I believe the necromancer compelled me to write that day; that the curve of his arrogant jaw, the icy power held in his ‘cold orbs of sight,’ all but forced me to put him down on paper.

Laymen often ask writers where their inspiration comes from. This, I am afraid, is the best answer I can give you.

The first few chapters I wrote were not worth the paper they would have been printed on, however, so I had to rewrite them from scratch. This is true of nearly all first time writers—you can blame it on the fact that writing fiction is… hard. It is difficult for a non-writers to understand just what kind of challenges writing presents: the elaborate art of writing itself; the magnificent difficulty of capturing whole personalities, often in few words; the intricacies of plot—all to name a few.

The rest of the book was a journey. I followed Linaera—apprentice mage and unwitting protagonist—through her journey into the Northern Mountains. I watched on as Nateldorth, Great Mage, uncovered dark conspiracies in the capital, Dresh. Most of all I followed the necromancer. I was witness to him: to his betrayal, his descent into madness, and his ultimate redemption.

Books are journeys. The journey of my book was in a way my journey: where my characters struggled, I struggled with them. For them it was question of facing up to existential challenges. For me it was knowing their motivation, and building all the twists and turns of plot that made up their lives.

Writing the Necromancer was often a pleasure. I liked the dark, unexpected turns of the plot; the characters’ inner lives; and most of all, I enjoyed writing in the world of Arachadia. I loved the towering mountains, the vast, sprawling forests; the great stonework of the mage buildings and the fine craftsmanship of the wooden cathedrals; the world of dormant dragons and powerful magics.

Of course, writing the Necromancer was often a challenge. I was young, and devoid of experience. I often struggled to write fluently—it took much work to correct the early mistakes. It was as if a vast realm had been entrusted to a young king; a king with many ideas but few ways to actually conquer.

But conquer it I did. Perhaps I did not quite succeed. Perhaps there are other worlds yet unconquered—other vast and distant places full of promise. But writing the Necromancer was not the finishing line; it was only the first milestone of a long journey. I do not know what dragons still slumber in the path I am taking.

Nor does it matter. My advice to my younger self—as well as to other would-be writers—is perseverance. Many monsters lie in wait (some of them are called publishers, critics, and yourself) but the treasures they guard are beautiful.

17 Jan 2017

Hallo Allemaal!

Hallo allemaal! Ik ben deze maand Nederlands aan het studeren!

If you’re scratching your head, wondering whatever has possessed yours truly, rest assured that Alex has not fallen prey to a bout of logorrhea. Rather, he is learning Dutch this month; and he has decided (since he has been terribly busy and unable to write on the Magical Realm) to give you a rundown on his activities over January.

Firstly, I shall address my experience learning Dutch thus far; and secondly, I shall address the many other important aspects of my literary life, with particular regards to my progress with Fallen Love and my beta readers. But yes, before I go into that, allow me to explain a few pertinent elements of Dutch.

Nederlandse is Gezellig!

The full complexities of grammar, spelling and other such tedious details I shall not be overly concerned with here; I intend, rather, to speak about Dutch in a more general sense. What is the character of Dutch? What does it sound like, feel like? Languages, I believe, are more interesting in the broad sense—in the way they communicate meaning and in the cultural character that they reveal about their speakers—rather in the technical minutiae.

So: what is Dutch like? I think the word gezellig—which translate rather approximately as ‘cozy’—is a good example. A Dutch man or woman, when speaking positively, will often describe a place (or indeed numerous other entities) as being gezellig. In English, there is no real equivalent. We might say cozy, or comfortable, or moody, or characterful; but such words are encompassed by a single word in het Nederlands.

Gezellig can also be used to describe the Dutch character. The Nederlanders are a laid-back, conversant, and expressive people. In conversation, they can seem curiously joyful, with such expressions as ‘dat is moi!’ or ‘Lekker!’ (The former translates, again approximately, as ‘that is pretty’; while the latter means ‘it is great, nice, pleasant’).

I believe part of this impression also stems from the way the language sounds.

Dutch Phonology (and Orthography)

The Dutch language is melodious. In fact, I would say it is the most melodious language I’ve heard, surpassing English and even Italian. (And for the record, French, which isn’t at all as romantic as it’s cracked up to be.)

But you would never guess that from the orthography. No doubt some of you, when seeing the word gezellig, incorrectly tried to pronounce it as /gɛzɛlɪg/ (a bit like geezer) instead of /ɣəzɛlɪɣ/. The Dutch pronunciation of the g grapheme is very unfamiliar to modern English speakers. It is known in the technical parlance as a ‘voiced velar fricative’; basically, it’s like having a sore throat. If you gyrate your vocal cords together, you’ll get it.

You’d think this would make the Dutch language sound harsh, like German or Scandinavian languages. But you’d be wrong: when the voiced velar fricative is introduced in a language that has very pronounced vowels (e.g. as in alleen or allemaal) it sounds quirky rather than harsh.

But yes, Dutch does have a lot of elongated vowels. Duur and straat are examples; indeed in any case where there are two a’s or e’s, the vowel is elongated. But, even in words like deze (this) you still get pronounced vowels, being realised as /deːzə/.


I admit I am still very much unfamiliar with the grammar, so I shall make only a minor observation regarding it. As with many languages, the word order can change depending on context: in the main clause (hoofdzin) the verb comes second (Dutch, like English, is an SVO language: we say ‘I love you’ or ‘Ik houd van jou’). But, in the subordinate clause (bijzin) the verb comes last: Ih heb hoofdpijn, dus ik wil een ibuprofen hebben.

In English, the meaning can be subtly changed by the word order as well—particularly when yours truly is writing poetry. For example:

Deep in mountains great and terrible \ O’er the frozen wastelands of the north \ There lies the dwarven hinterland.

What is the significance of saying ‘deep in mountains great and terrible’ instead of ‘deep in great and terrible mountains’? Perhaps nothing, you say. But notice that in the former I use asyndeton (there is no connecting word between the noun—mountain—and the two adjectives, great and terrible). This can give the prose a different character to ordinary conversation.

Het Diminutief

Another curious aspect of Dutch is the use of the diminutive, i.e. ‘little words’. These usually (albeit not exclusively) terminate in -je. Examples would include e.g. kopje or broodje.

It is difficult to describe what exactly a diminutive is for English speakers, but perhaps I can peruse an example from Scots English instead. You will sometimes here a Scotsman using the word wee, as in ‘a wee lad’. The word wee in Scots English acts as a diminutive.

Dutch is in fact not the only language where diminutives exist. In Romanian, a similar rule exists: you can say ‘un scaun’—a chair—or ‘un scăunel’ (a wee chair). In Romanian the use of the diminutive is complicated by the presence of gendered words, so ‘o masă’ (feminine word) has a diminutive form ‘o masuță’. Moreover, there are even some words that have irregular diminutives, so ‘un copil’ (a child; masculine word) has the diminutive ‘un copilaș’.

As you can see, Dutch isn’t the hardest language you can learn!


And now, finally, I shall address my writing progress.

I have written 22,000 words in Fallen Love so far, and will continue to write more. I have already received feedback from my two beta readers for the first 10K words; and I will receive more soon.

As for the Necromancer, I have finished reviewing the books allotted to me, and I have received the reviews I was owed. I shall seek more reviews for it, though with writing, reading, and learning Dutch, I have more than enough on my plate.

To Finish

The month of januari will be a busy one for me, as you can see, so my blogging will alas cover only the essentials. But, you can expect to see two interesting pieces published in the coming weeks. The first is another poem I have written (but not published); and the second is a piece I wrote for Scriptus, the university journal.

Very well; that is all for now. As the Dutch would say: Doei!