Friday, 31 July 2015

Patriotism

What do we mean by patriotism?

It seems simple, a love of country, a pride in country that does not reach the heights of jingoism, or nationalism. My country right or wrong, but without the nastier connotations of superiority, ethnic cleansing or simple lunacy that these last two elements can contain. A love of country that draws the line at marching headlong and blindly into a war that will kill most of a generation, as it did in World War One. Is it so straightforward though; are we actually so blind as to hand-wave everything away under the strains of Rule Britannia or the Star Spangled Banner (or whichever national anthem you choose to mention)?

A note here: I don't consider myself particularly patriotic. There are things I'm proud of, that happened in my country; I'm not sure if that's sufficient to make me dyed in the wool. In the way of these things, one of those internet quizzes you find at sites like Buzz Feed or Play Buzz, got me thinking about what it meant to be a patriot in the UK. 

World War One is, in part, why the UK doesn't really do patriotism... or if we do it isn't in the same way that the Americans do. There's little chest thumping, or indeed tub thumping, about how great the country is. If it surfaces at all it's with an element of depreciation, anyone who gets too enamoured with it is probably looking to get taken down a peg or two. Part of the cringe factor for UKIP is the way they wrap themselves in the Union Jack. Contrast that with what we see of America on the TV or in films; Stars and Stripes on show and speeches about how great the USA is. 'God Bless America' is probably one of the statements most associated with the country/collection of republican states, and is recognisable throughout the world; bordering on stereotype in places.

Over here, this would be unthinkable. Whilst British politics is just as capable of 'playing the man', accusations of being unpatriotic would be as unthinkable as the Prime Minister praying in public. That was encapsulated by Alister Campbell's quashing of Blair and Bush praying together in public during an American state visit: 'We don't do God'. Religion and patriotism have shuffled in the private sphere, and in the case of the latter become bundled up with negative associations with war, pride, racism and stupidity. The Union Jack was claimed by the Far Right long ago, only becoming rehabilitated in the 1980s, as the National Front and its ilk were dealt with. Even now, the flag is largely eschewed, you see it at Last Night of the Proms, a camp spectacle if ever there was one; St George's cross is now the favoured flag of the right wing extremist and you can see those in abundance in certain places, especially during the World Cup.

My feeling, however, is that the people who wave that flag have crossed the line into nationalism; they are not patriots, no matter how they protest; it produces images of UKIP, and the associated nastiness that party must contend with in regards to immigration, homosexuality and so forth. This strand of thought conjures up a largely imagined past where Britain was a green and pleasant land, doors could be left unlocked and there was a bobby on the beat. No need for Human Rights or legislation to protect workers (or at least British versions, which will somehow be inherently superior to the EU version).

The fact that this is a very different picture to reality seems to pass such people by, in the same way that liberals who rhaposdise Magna Carta ignore the limitations inherent in that document. Both ignore the fact that the past is no place to forge a future; both smack of overly indulged children, trying to reach the cookie jar after they've been told they can't have a midnight snack.

Genuine British patriotism seems trickier to define, in part because you're dealing with four different nations, each with its own identity and history that reaches back further than many other countries have existed. Part of the problem we face here is that the Union is slowly but surely splintering, even if at present that's only seems to be effecting the left wing vote, perhaps because that's traditionally been the side of politics that supports pluralism and many voices; as opposed to the sole voice favoured by the Right.

Glossing over the fact that the country is getting more patriotic, the less important it seems to become, what are the elements of patriotism over here? A love of the monarchy would certainly factor, as might a certain amount of pride in historic achievements of the Twentieth Century (to put it another way 'two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah'). This attitude was fostered by the Second World War, the legend of 'plucky little Britain standing up to the foreign bully', which handily overlooks a lot of the facts, the legacy we'd inherited, the Empire, and that the Allied victory was a team effort. Take part of the Allies away and you're looking at a longer war, and a more costly one.

Our sense of humour is also trotted out as a key plank of the British identity to be proud of, and its true that most of us probably hold to the idea that we are somehow funnier than the other nationalities in the world. Certainly this is an area where the non English speaking world gets short shrift, where we see ourselves as better than certainly the European countries we border (the butt of our jokes are usually the Germans, shown as efficient but humourless in the popular imagination). It's a little different with America, because so much of the television shows we see and comedy films come straight out of Los Angeles or New York, places that we know because we have the illusion of familiarity.

There's also a certain affection for the Victorian era, though I don't know if that's actually connected to the notion of Empire. I think its more likely to be projected sense of nostalgia, harking back to a time when the nation seemed secure, and the world was understandable. This view may be bunk, you only have to look at the way America and Germany created economic consternation and unease and the fears about Fenianism, the so called 'yellow peril' and Anarchism to see that the Nineteenth Century was as turbulent and anxious as we are today. Time preserves certain things, but history is a cold, unemotive subject if you look at it academically. I'm sure the monuments of the period are part of the reason it's so well thought of, so much of the UK is effectively Victorian, their legacy is everywhere we look.

Setting these things aside, do we have anything concrete to base it on? Senses of humour are subjective, as are historical facts to an extent. Nothing is as certain as it seems, and what might look like a solid piece of cultural identity might well prove to be an import (the Christmas tree for instance, or brides getting married in white, which both only date to Victorian times). Our nations are mishmashes of cultures that washed up on our shores and became normalised, naturalised over time. There are parts of our culture that still rankle over them sure, look at the oft referred to German heritage of the Royal Family (which seems odd to me, because the Saxe-Coburgs took the throne before there was a Germany, and my own Prussian ancestor came over somewhat later, during the Victorian period), but in the main everything foreign eventually gets subsumed into the mainstream. So Flemish, French and German immigrants became part of the nation with little incident... It seems unfair that the Windsors, as they became in the Great War, should be beaten with a stick because some people are unwilling to accept that they've been here for over two centuries.

The whole thing feels rather thin to me, especially as we seem to have given up on building 'Jerusalem' here, in England's green and pleasant hills. It feels more like the Plain of Armageddon out there, if you know what I mean. As our social contract warps, I find myself wondering what we're loyal to, an idea? Or is that too weak a concept? If the Prime Minister genuinely wants a 'weightless state' he needs to come up with reasons for us to support that state and pronto; for me geography doesn't come into it so strongly and if everything is privatised, I'm not sure I see what the point of the government or Parliament actually is. Perhaps they want to sit at Westminster to decide who we go to war with next; that would suit the jobs for the boys mentality they seem to have down there.

To bring this back to a very personal level, let me tell you what I'm proud of about my nation. I'm proud that we invented Punk and Goth music. I'm proud of the likes of Byron, Shelley, Milton and Shakespeare who defined so much of our language and created beautiful thing. I'm proud of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, of Ada Lovelace and Robert Louis Stevenson; I'm proud of the war poets and H.G. Wells. I'm proud of our explorers, our reformers, our creatives and the way the country has grown, not necessarily in terms of economy but in conscience, justice and understanding.

The flip side of that of course, is that there's lots of stuff I'm not in the slightest bit proud of; the growing gap between rich and poor, the anti democratic 'professionalisation' of politics, or the way we ape anything the Americans have done, even when they have abandoned the thing we're running to adopt. I'm also not proud of parts of our history, the way that the Victorians sent children up chimneys, or the conditions that brought on the Indian Mutiny for example, make me sick. And I hate the way we push that under the rug, dismissing it as unimportant. We have to own our bad as well as our good, or we'll never face up to the things we've done in the name of progress, nation and faith; back when those things mattered.  As do revelations about the current political situation, or the economic strategy that the UK is currently pursuing, one which leaves families scrambling for food, shelter, and the basic pieces of life. I'm afraid I don't care about the World Cup or the Olympics and can't be bothered to get excited by things like Wimbledon. I'm not proud of the way we treat our poor, our sick, or anyone whose face doesn't fit.

So am I a patriot? Where is the line, between being a slavish sycophant to something that's just defined by the lines on a map, or a harsh critic of the nation? Do we even have the concept of 'the loyal opposition' anymore? If not, is that because our nations feel so embattled that tribalism is taking root and we're on the slippery slope to nationalism?

And if I am, what does that even mean in a world where the nation state is of diminishing importance?








Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Edge Lit 4

On Saturday Eve and I made our annual pilgrimage to Derby for Edge Lit, a one day convention for Fantasy, SF and Horror. It's a small affair, but that only makes it better and more impressive. This year it was particularly nice to see that despite the fact they've slashed the number of panels, the day was still busy and there seemed to be a bustling crowd, one that seemed larger than in previous years.

Our first event was Mike Carey (now publishing under the name M R Carey, the R is because M J Carey takes you to an erotica writer on Good Reads apparently), as he did readings and a Q&A.  I'm not sure what the first thing he read was, beyond it being a very human tale of punishment in a prison, but the second was from the second book of short stories he has written with his wife and daughter, The House of War and Witness. Both tales were compelling and the imagery they evoked was stark and fascinating. The second story in particular was very strong, but I may have liked it because it was a Stone Age set piece of dark fantasy and I'm becoming interested in that. As ever Mike was friendly, open and informative, and its a pleasure to listen to him read.

The first panel was on the subject of Fantasy and History, and how much one needs the other. The panellists were drawn from a wide range of authors, including some that write pure fantasy and others, among them Joanne Harris, who have written 'real world' fantasy, which is to say the sort of books where you take a historical period or mythology and give it a twist. The panel discussed a number of things, from the history of settings to the use of history within works, with a shout out to the wonderful Fevre Dream by George RR Martin. They also discussed the frequency of historical periods as settings, noting that though Ancient Rome is often used in crime and historical novels, there's not a lot of fantasy based there.  All in all it was an interesting panel with a lot of wisdom and knowledge among the panelists.

After lunch, and meeting up with some friends who were trading at the con,  we went to Monstrous Regiments, a panel about monsters in horror and whether they are overused.  It was an interesting panel, though it did get a bit sidetracked into self publishing and the huge amount of zombie and vampire novels that market produces. My own feeling is that we're a bit saturated with monsters and that it'd be nice to see some of the emphasis taken off them, especially the undead (this may be because I find zombies dull). The main thing I took away was that there's nothing new out there and that perhaps we need to look at other sources of horror.

The third, and best, panel was about whether literary and genre fiction are closer together now than they've ever been. This was my favourite panel of the day, and the panelists were brilliant, opinionated and vociferous, levened with the occasional minion impression. They tackled the apparent contradiction of wanting and fearing the genres to be taken seriously and adopted by the mainstream - that 'out stuff is as valid as yours' and the 'hey we cared about Aragorn son of Arathorn years before you'd even heard of him'. They made good points throughout and thoroughly explored the subject, from the nature of genre, and if an orc needs to be a symbol of something, to the fact that in French story and history have the same word, 'histoire', and beyond.

Lastly, we attended the Knight Watch Press launch of... lots of books (I'll leave you to Google them). The readings were good and the anthologies sound brilliant, so I would encourage you to support them if you can. They serve brain cake, which I did not partake of because brains give me the wiggins.

All in all, a good day. Its a shame we didn't get to talk to some of the people there, and next year we're thinking of staying over in Derby to avoid travel worries and hang around for longer.





Saturday, 4 July 2015

A Love Like Blood: My Favourite Literary Vampires

I love vampires, though I do think they're overused. There's something iconic about them that is attractive and their games, the cut and thrust of vampire politics, coupled with their exotic, sensuous nature makes them attractive. I'm trying to stick to literature only here, so I'm skipping over the likes of Spike, Angel and the like .

I do wish there were more strong female vampires, admittedly but the way the genre has evolved still harks back to Lord Ruthven and Lord Byron (upon whom Ruthven was based).

Zillah: Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

A novel set in the sleazy, liminal, back worlds of the American nightmare, replete with runaways and auto eroticism, Zillah is in many ways the perfect vampire for the times.   Omnisexual, hedonistic and cruel, he is the leader of his pack, a surrogate father who guides their steps. The fact that he usually leads them to the next meal or debauchery is perhaps something we should overlook.

His influence runs throughout the novel, tempting and chastising the other characters and even though he is hardly a figure to emulate (though many of us might try with his attitudes towards drinking, drugs and sex) he makes his mark even more than the protagonists. The fact that his defeat is largely pyrrhic, the damage has been done and the heroes only limp away, adds to his attractiveness. He may be damned, may be killed but he takes his due.

Sonja Blue: The Sonjah Blue Stories by Nancy Collins

Punky and raw,  Sonja is the titular opposite of a lot of vampires. She's a mean bitch from the streets, a vampire killer, what would be called a diablerist in Vampire the Masquerade and Requiem, and she doesn't give a damn. There's a lot to admire in her story, that of a woman who is broken and rebuilds herself into a new form, jettisoning her weak past to become something new; something terrifying.

The attraction here is in the character's rebellion, the way she captures the spirit of the age in many respects and the fact that Collins has created an honest to the gods 'bad ass' female character.

'Polidori': The Stress of Her Regard, Hide Me Amongst The Graves by Tim Powers

 'Polidori' is only one mask the vampires in these novels wear, they are alien and confusing; something Powers pushes to the fore. Creatures of stone, their intelligence is quite different to humans' and that adds something else to their natures. Powers is clever in justifying traditional weaknesses and strengths; twisting them to his own design. The horror he evokes, beginning with a statue that comes to life and murders the protagonist's bride on their wedding night, is truly chilling. The fact that he ties that to history, initially to the Romantic Poets' short lives and inevitable demises only makes it more heart rending. Hide Me Amongst the Graves' focus on the Rosetti family has a similar effect as he takes elements of their lives and ties them to the horror of the vampire myth.

The thing that attracts me to these vampires is how damn strange they are. There's almost nothing to overlap them with the more traditional iterations of the vampire, and yet everything you need for an undead monster that thrives on drinking blood is here.

Kate Reed: The Anno Dracula novels by Kim Newman

Pale, Irish, and Socialist; Kate Reed is perhaps an odd choice for a vampire. Originally a throwaway character from Dracula, Newman gathered her into his collection of misfits for Anno Dracula and has made her his own. Like Wyndham, Newman specialises in writing highly practical characters, especially women, and Kate is no exception; showing her wit, wisdom and tenacity throughout her unlife. As Newman's series spreads across more than a century we get a scattered view of her existence, from London rookeries, the battlefields of Flanders, 1950s Rome and, finally, the brave new world of modern America. She remains stolidly on the political Left and fervently opposed to Dracula. As a result she takes her place along Genevieve Dieudonne as the backbone of the vampire resistance and serves as a sharp contract to Penelope Churchward, who prevaricates between serving the Count and resisting him.

What I really like about Kate is that she's so different to most vampires, rejecting the selfish, controlling path that most walk.

Count Dracula: Dracula

Lastly we come to the figure who has become synonymous with the word 'vampire'. The Count is perhaps the epitome of the Byronic male, easily eclipsing Ruthven (who was based upon Byron in the now infamous spat between Polidori and his employer). Suave, commanding and terrifying he is everything we imagine the vampire to be and he retains his affiliation with the dissolute aristocracy; exercising a twisted droit de seignur over the lower classes in the form of his blood drinking. Not only that but Stoker created the concept of the 'Renfield', a stooge enslaved by the vampire to serve as his daylight proxy, something that has become part of the culture since then.

What I like about Dracula is that he's so unapologetic about his nature. There's no angsting over who he is, and his origin is shrouded in so much mystery that he may have willingly become a vampire.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Gaming; More Game Ads



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Numenera: Impossible City


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For good or ill

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Review: Death of Grass by John Christopher

A bleak novel, certainly bleaker than you might expect from a novel written in the 1950s Death of Grass centres on the spread of the Chung Li virus, which attacks rice initially before mutating to attack all known grasses causing a famine. The novel centres upon a family, the Custances, who flee London with some friends and with a mysterious and often overly helpful man named Pirrie, as the country slides into martial law and chaos when the starvation caused by Chung Li's spread starts to bite. The characters' goal is Westmorland Valley, in Cumbria, where John Custance's brother David lives. Along the way they suffer horrific attacks, traumatic events and worse.

As with a lot of post apocalypse novels the cause of the apocalypse is less important than its fallout. The novel is a study in societal collapse, that old axiom that civilisation is three meals away from anarchy figures strongly in the narrative.Tribalism, distrust, and gang violence prosper as the famine bites and survival becomes a struggle. Whilst today this seems to harp upon a tired old theme, the destruction of scociety, in the 1950s it felt prescient: the horrors of World War 2 were still fresh in the mind. They had not receded into cliche as they have now. In many ways the novel is almost a classic case of hard  men making hard decisions, as Custance's Liberal Humanism comes under attack. The new world has none of the sureties of the old one and he is forced to become increasingly pragmatic, abandoning his principles in the name of survival. This shifting nature, which surely underlines the way society cajoles or allows us to behave in certain fashions becomes  apparent and there are some truly shocking moments, reflecting the changes the characters, particularly Custance, go through.

For the people around him, the novel reinforces the ideas that women and children would be particularly vulnerable in this sort of situation. It defaults to conservative views of gender relations, assuming that men are needed to protect women, a model under which sex might as well be a form of currency offered in return for safety. I'm pretty sure that says more about the social attitudes of the era it's set in than it does anything else, but after Wyndham's almost ruthlessly practical women, its a shock. I sense that Christopher may almost be writing an answer to Wyndham's post apocalyptic novels where gender relations are renegotiated and new balances are struck, as far as biology allows. 

The foreword of my copy compares the novel to Lord of the Flies and its easy to see why. The novels are both solidly mundane, there's no aliens or psychic powers, zombies or anything else; even the atom bomb scarcely gets more than a passing mention. Instead Death of Grass is human orientated, concerned with the effects of starvation upon general populations and the horror that would breeds. People are far more terrifying, arguably, than any movie monster. There may not be a Piggy moment, but Christopher pulls few punches in this down to earth examination of how the loss of a basic type of food would affect the human race.