Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

Month: March 2012

My Thoughts On Christopher Priest’s Clarke Awards Broadside

Christopher Priest is an author whose work I like. While I can’t claim to have read any of his recent works, The Inverted World and especially A Dream of Wessex are on my all-time favourites list. They say you should never meet your heroes, but perhaps in the modern era that aphorism should be revised to state that you should probably avoid reading their blog, also. I say this having read Priest’s now notorious post of two days ago giving his thoughts about the recently released Clarke Award shortlist.

I won’t labour the point, but I think there is a fine line between blunt comment and honest opinion on one hand, and egotistical arrogance and plain damn rudeness on the other, and I think that in saying things such as this:

It is indefensible that a novel like Charles Stross’s Rule 34 (Orbit) should be given apparent credibility by an appearance in the Clarke shortlist. Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet. Stross’s narrative depends on vernacular casualness, with humorous asides, knowing discursiveness, and the occasional appeal of big soft eyes. He has PC Plod characters and he writes och-aye dialogue! To think for even one moment that this appalling and incapable piece of juvenile work might actually be chosen as winner brings on a cold sweat of fear.

…he has well and truly crossed that line.

You can read more about this affair at the Guardian.

The Best School Lesson I Ever Had

A chance remark today led me to remember what might well be the best school lesson I ever had. Certainly, I can’t think of something that not only taught me a particular point both effectively and efficiently, but was also wonderfully fun into the bargain.

The teacher in question was Mister Ready (pronounced “Reedy”), who taught my class for two consecutive years through what we then called third and fourth year juniors (in modern money that would be… counts fingers… year five and year six, I think). So we would have been somewhere aged between nine and eleven.

The lesson was simple, with one objective: to teach us the meaning of the phrase “Chinese Whispers”. I can’t remember why we did this; whether it was part of some wider topic or simply something that he came up with on the spur of the moment are details now lost as surely as Roy Batty’s tears in the rain.

He sat us down in a horseshoe arrangement on the big reading mat in the corner of the classroom, and explained that he was going to whisper something into the ear of the boy nearest to him. I can’t remember who the boy was, but I seem to recall that it wasn’t necessarily someone who had the most tools in his toolbox, if you know what I mean. He then explained that this boy would then repeat to the person who sat the other side of him  what he’d just been told, again as a whisper into the ear, and so on, and so on, until the message had travelled all around the horseshoe.

So Mister Ready whispered for what seemed like quite a time into the first boy’s ear, and then the message started working its way around the horseshoe. I was sat towards the horseshoe’s end, with perhaps seventeen or eighteen people before me, and five or six after. The message seemed to travel very slowly, and I recall being just a bit nervous with anticipation as it approached. I was scared that I might screw something up, and forget a bit, or have to ask for it to be repeated. Something which might make me look foolish. Of course, the further the message travelled with no hesitations, no hiccups, no repeats – the more nervous I got.

Then it was my turn.

The girl sitting to my left whispered in my ear.

“There was a great big man.”

I very carefully turned to my right, and repeated what I’d just heard to the boy who sat there. Word for word, exactly. Within thirty seconds or so, the message had reached the final person in the chain. Mister Ready asked that person to repeat out loud what he’d been told. The boy said:

“There was a big fat man.”

I remember being quite strongly surprised that the message had managed to change so in just a handful of words. After all, the whole point was to listen to exactly what was said and then repeat exactly what was said. Not passing on something that had the same meaning, a similar gist, but that had the same words. This was the sole task we’d been tasked to perform, there were only six words, and someone amongst the five or six people to my left had still managed to screw it up.

But the lesson wasn’t yet over. Because Mister Ready hadn’t yet revealed what it was that he’d originally whispered in the first boy’s ear. When he did I went from being quite strongly surprised to being totally stunned. I obviously can’t remember what is was, given that it’s now thirty something years later (frankly, I think I’m doing quite well to remember the line I passed on and the line that popped out of the chain’s end!) but it was something like:

There was a great big man.

And he was riding along the street on a bicycle.

Then xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx.

And xxx xxx xxxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx.

Basically, it was a little mini story of something that had happened, a good four lines long. And what got out the other end? Merely a mutated version of the short introductory line. That lesson was a revelation. I cannot overstress just how effectively it bought home to me the degree to which communications can be garbled and meanings lost.

Well that, and the fact that some of my classmates weren’t very bright.

Showing Colour-Coded Point Of View (POV) in Scrivener

I’ve mentioned a few times that I use the rather excellent writers’ word processor Scrivener to write all my fiction. It’s now available on both Mac and Windows, so if you’re into any sort of writing, I’d very much recommend that you give it a spin.

One of the great things about Scrivener is the degree to which you can customise it, and the key way in which I customise it is to set it to show the point of view (POV) of each scene. The way I write (and as always, your mileage may vary, there is no one true way etc. etc.) is to break the story down into scenes, and then write such that each scene is from the POV of a single “viewpoint” character. That is to say that each scene is told through of eyes of just one character. I try to establish in the first paragraph of each scene who the viewpoint character is. And if I later need to switch POV, I break into a new scene.

Scrivener is perfect for a scene based approach, as each novel is broken up in a hierarchical format: novel => chapters => scenes. By default, Scrivener doesn’t record the POV of each scene, but if – like me – POV is a important factor in when and why you place scene breaks, it’s very easy to do so.

Here’s how. (Note: all screenshots are from the Mac version of the application, but I imagine the Windows version works similarly).

Let’s take a sample Scrivener project:

We have four scenes written, over two chapters, but as you can see, there’s no obvious way to tell which POV each scene is written from.

But if we look at the right-hand side of the screen, we can see that each scene is given a label, in this case of type “scene”. I personally don’t find these default labels useful, so I replace them with POV tags.

STEP 1: Go to the General Meta Data panel on the right and click on the topmost drop-down (which will be captioned “Label”).

STEP 2: Click on the bottom-most option in the drop-down list, Edit…

This will bring up the Meta-Data Settings dialog box.

STEP 3: Click on the add button to add a label for each of your characters (i.e. use the character’s name as the label).

STEP 4: Use the minus button to remove all the other labels.

STEP 5 (Optional): If you wish, you can double-click on each colour box next to the characters’ names, to bring up a colour editor that allows you to change the colour assigned to the character. I like to make the colours descriptive in some way, so if I have an angry character, a logical character and an emotional character, I might set them to red, blue and green respectively. I often have a catch-all category of “Other”, for minor POV characters, and this I tend to set to grey.

STEP 6: Change Custom Title to “POV”.

It should now look something like this:

STEP 7: Click on OK.

We’ve now given ourselves the ability to set each scene to a particular viewpoint. And the viewpoint will be displayed in the Meta- Data Settings panel on the right. However, this doesn’t help us gain an overview, since we still need to select the scene in order to see whose POV it is from. However, Scrivener allows us to change the display to rectify this.

STEP 8: Click on the View menu, and then on “Use POV Color In” (this will be called “Use Label Color In” if you didn’t rename “Label” to “POV”).

A sub-menu will pop out.

Make sure that Binder and Index Cards are ticked (click on them if they aren’t). You might have to click on the View menu twice, first to check Binder and then to check Index Cards.

After doing this, the left-hand binder will now be colour coded according to POV, enabling you to keep track of who’s getting “screen- time” at a glance. (This is especially handy if each of your POV characters is engaged in a different sub-plot).

The synopsis in the top-right corner will be shown colour-coded. (For the purposes of this demonstration, I haven’t entered any text for the synopsis). This is also the case when using the Corkboard to look at the chapter as a whole.

Scrivener’s a very powerful package, and I probably only scratch the surface of it. There may be better ways to handle POV, but the above works well for me. And if POV isn’t a huge factor in your writing, then you can still set the labels to something that is, and have them appear in the binding.

Like I said, if you do any sort of writing, I’d strongly suggest checking out Scrivener. If you want to learn more about how to use it, I’ve heard very good things about Writing a Novel With Scrivener by David Hewson. And if you’re interested in trying it out, you can download a trial edition from here:

http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

Hope this proves useful!

Why I’m Switching From The Liberal Democrats To The Greens

“Imagine two men, sitting in a car. The car is in London, and they wish to travel to Exeter. They’re starting at the same location, and going to the same place, but they are nonetheless arguing, because one is adamant that the best route to take is M4/M5, while the other is equally insistent that they should instead go A30/A303.

“To extend the analogy to my case, I wanted to travel to Exeter and felt that M4/M5 was the best way to get there, the Green Party also wanted to travel to Exeter but were proposing to go A30/A303, and the Liberal Democrats were intending to take the M4 all the way to Cardiff. Twenty-five years ago, I chose the party that wished to head down the M4.”

I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should make this post. I really don’t want people to feel I’m in anyway trying to ram my politics down their throats. But this is not a post about politics itself; or at least it’s trying not to be. In fact, I’m going to try to keep mentions of actual policies to a minimum (although I am reserving the right to talk about politics in any comments). Instead, it’s about how I approach politics, what politics means to me, and how those two factors have combined to cause me to switch my political allegiances, from the Lib Dems, who I was a member of from 1987 to 2009, to the Greens, who I joined last week.

Why do I feel the need to write this post? Well when trying to explain my motives, I can’t help but think of the following words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

(Yes, that is the preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence. I was tempted to put in the preamble of the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence instead, which somewhat clumsily rips off the above quote, just to confuse people – but in the end thought better of it.)

Basically, my feeling is this. I’m a free man, who has a right so support whichever political party he wishes. But I feel that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that I explain why I’ve stopped banging on (occasionally) about one party and am about to start banging on (equally occasionally) about another.

(Joking aside – I try not to talk too much about politics. But I don’t want to have to keep it a secret either, and I don’t want to feel inhibited from mentioning my opinions about current affairs, for fear I’ll reveal my current political affiliation).

ON CHANGING PARTIES

You see the thing is, I’ve always been suspicious of people who switch from one political party to another. It smacks of opportunism and falsity; how could you last week say that Party A had the best policies, but this week be saying the same thing of Party B? When a number of Conservative MPs, of whom Alan Howarth (now Baron Howarth of Newport) was the first, jumped ship from the Conservative Party straight over to the Labour Party in the mid 1990s, it was difficult to see it as anything but a cynical switch from a dying horse to a fresh one.

I’ve always disliked people who see a political party as merely a vehicle for their personal ambitions, desires or needs; you should support a political party because you think it’s the right one, not because you think it has the best chance of winning. What those Conservative MPs did was the political equivalent of just happening to switch your football allegiance from Liverpool to Manchester United around 1991 or 1992, and I’ve always thought poorly of them for it.

So am I now doing the same thing? Have I realised that the horse I’m riding on is dying, and started looking around for a healthier replacement? I’d like to think not, so the purpose of this post is to defend myself against this charge.

ON MY CHANGE

This isn’t actually a sudden switch. As with many things in life, it’s more complicated than that.

I first nailed my colours to the Lib Dem mast back in 1987, when I was eighteen, and when the Lib Dems hadn’t yet been created. (I joined the old Liberal Party a few months before the merger with the SDP that formed the then Social and Liberal Democrats). I came from a Liberal family; my mum had been a Liberal activist since 1974 and her family had been Liberal supporters since the days of Gladstone. But while I’m sure this influenced me, that wasn’t – I felt – the reason that I’d joined. It was a decision I felt I’d made for my own reasons, and my own beliefs.

I was very active for about ten years, but then disillusion set it, not with the party, and not necessarily with the political process itself, but with the way society saw it. Basically, it seemed like I was slogging my guts out spending every other weekend either delivering leaflets or doing jumble sales to raise money to print the leaflets, for what I felt was a cause that would ultimately benefit my society, just so that people who never lifted a finger to help anyone else could look down on me, and consider themselves superior. (The old “I hate you political people, you’re all self-serving scum” attitude).

So from about 1998 onwards I gradually drifted away, still a party member, still donating money to it via a monthly direct debit, and still voting for the party, but not doing anything else, and gradually feeling less and less involved. In 2009 Jules and I moved to Brighton, and I cancelled my direct debit and let my party membership lapse. This was party perhaps down to apathy and a lack of enthusiasm, but by that point I’d met Caroline Lucas (the Green Party’s leader and then candidate, now MP, for Brighton) and wanted the freedom to tactically vote for her. (As I’m sure is the case with most, if not all, parties, Liberal Democrat rules prohibit members from supporting people who are standing against official party candidates).

I also helped deliver some leaflets, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that I flirted then with the idea of joining them, it did occur to me that I’d rather be in the Greens, if only there weren’t the problem of “disagreeing with half their policies”.

But then in the election something strange happened. I did still vote for Caroline Lucas – and I enthusiastically voted Green at 2011’s council elections – but the performance of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 campaign seemed to re-ignite my enthusiasm for the Lib Dem cause. (Although not enough, I’m forced to admit, to actually get off my arse and do anything, not even for 2011’s referendum campaign).

THE POST-ELECTION YEARS – THEN AND NOW

I was initially quite enthusiastic about the coalition. Sure, the Tories were not the party I’d have chosen as coalition partners, but in a way, that was the point. I’ve always been a believer in the politics of collaboration rather then confrontation. I think British political culture is poisoned by the “them against us” nature of first past the post politics, creating an environment in which behaviours that other political cultures would see as co-operation and compromise are seen instead as treachery and betrayal.

I would like to have our elections conducted under a system that gives proportional results, and consider the “hung” (a.k.a. “balanced”) parliaments that PR tends to produce as very much a feature rather than a bug. (A “hung” parliament is one in which no single party has more than 50% of the seats). No one party can ever claim to have a monopoly on either truth or sense, and only parliament in its entirety can claim to fully represent the will of the people.

In a sense, that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were not, at first sight, obvious coalition partners made the situation better. Anyone can have a coalition with a party whose values closely align with their own. But a coalition like this might dispel the two myths that seem to consistently turn the British people away from proportional representation:

Myth #1: A hung parliament, whether the government is a minority administration, or a coalition, will inevitably deliver a weak, unstable and short-lived government.

Myth #2: PR, and its hung parliaments, means that the people have no say in who gets to form the government, regardless of which way their votes might swing. Instead, this decision is entirely in the hands of the minor third party; the government changes whenever they decide to switch their allegiance from one major party to the other, not when the people do.

The election result itself had shot down myth number two. A country might have several decades worth of hung parliaments, but each of those parliaments will have been different, because each election would have delivered a different mix of parties. Not all coalition permutations are possible in all parliaments.

In this election, the Conservatives hadn’t achieved an overall majority, but were far enough ahead of Labour that the only viable coalition was Conservatives + LibDems. (Labour + LibDems would still have been short of a majority). The people had spoken, and they’d put the Conservatives in the driving seat, if not in sole charge.

And if the last two years have proven anything, I think that they’ve proven Myth #1 to be false also. There are many accusations being hurled at the “ConDem” administration, but that it is weak, unstable and about to fall apart at any moment is not one of them.

I knew there would have to be compromises. All government involves compromises. Many Labour activists were very unhappy with some of the actions taken or attempted by the previous Labour government (invasion of Iraq, ID cards, 90 day detention without trial, introduction of tuition fees, part-privatisation of the tube, extensive use of PFI etc.). And that was a single party-majority government. Those were decisions that their leaders took not because they had too, but because they wanted to.

In this case, the Lib Dems were not just involved in a coalition government, they were the junior members. I knew there would have to be some compromises, and that to a certain extent, we were going to get a Liberal Democrat flavoured Conservative government. But I hoped the compromises would be just and reasonable. I understood that the two parties were going to govern in the immediate national interest, pursuing only those polices on which either immediate action was required, or a consensus could be reached.

Then came tuition fees, the cuts, and finally the NHS bill. On each one, I was able to argue a case, but it was with a heavy heart and a worried soul. I went from being optimistic that the coalition might create a new type of consensus politics; to being very worried about whether Clegg et al knew what they hell they were doing; then finally to wondering if the problem was in fact me, and not them.

Bluntly, were the Liberal Democrats still the party for me? Had I changed my policies at some point in the last twenty years? Had they? (Like most committed supporters, I never actually bothered to read any of my own party’s manifestos). Or had the party always been a different beast from what I’d assumed it to be, and it was only when exposed to the harsh light of government that this became apparent.

In truth? It was most likely all three.

BUT WHY THE GREENS?

That I might not wish to remain a supporter of the Liberal Democrats is probably not a point I need to explain. But why I’ve now decided to join the Greens, is. After all, while the Liberal Democrats might not now be the party they appeared to be two years ago, the Greens very much are. Nothing’s changed about them. If I didn’t see them as the party I should support then, why now?

Why not just have a period of no affiliation?

To a certain extent, there is an element here of me not liking the idea of having no political affiliation. I’ve always prided myself on being a political person, of being involved in the political process. When I realised that I could no longer in all conscience support the Liberal Democrats, I felt lost. But that, in itself, is not a valid reason. In fact, it sounds very similar to the metaphor of switching horses I used at the start of this post.

There is more to it than that. Having nailed my colours to a political mast some twenty five years ago, I never re-examined that decision. In a way, I now realise that I was like a football fan, who supports one team, always, right or wrong. I can perhaps understand those Labour activists who’ve stuck with the Labour Party through long periods where its leaders seemed to be following policies entirely at odds with those of the activists.

I’ve already alluded to the tendency of many political supporters to not actually feel the need to have a detailed knowledge of their party’s current, actual policies. But in addition, I think there’s often also a tendency for you to warp your beliefs to fit the policies. This is my party, you think, and this is what my party is proposing, so it must be right. You emphasise those aspects of your political beliefs that match your party’s polities, and ignore those aspects that don’t.

Deciding to publicly disown the Liberal Democrats, as I did a couple of weeks ago via Twitter, triggered in me a process in which I re-examined, from scratch, what I actually believed in. And in the process, I think I think I worked out something quite profound.

That choosing a political party is an exercise in compromise is a known truth. We are all of us different, and no two of us will have identical beliefs or opinions. But we are all required to shoehorn our square-shaped opinions into one of five round-shaped holes: UKIP, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens.

But there’s more to it than that. Because if politics can be seen as a journey, than a political party can be judged by either its intended direction of travel, or its eventual desired destination.

Imagine two men, sitting in a car. The car is in London, and they wish to travel to Exeter. They’re starting at the same location, and going to the same place, but they are nonetheless arguing, because one is adamant that the best route to take is M4/M5, while the other is equally insistent that they should instead go A30/A303.

To extend the analogy to my case, I wanted to travel to Exeter and felt that M4/M5 was the best way to get there, the Green Party also wanted to travel to Exeter but were proposing to go A30/A303, and the Liberal Democrats were intending to take the M4 all the way to Cardiff. Twenty-five years ago, I chose the party that wished to head down the M4.

I’ve been choosing the party whose immediate policies were the ones I felt most practical, rather than the party whose desired outcome most closely agreed with my vision of an ideal society.

I’ve often jokingly said that the problem with the Greens was that I disagreed with 50% of their policies, but that wasn’t really true. The truth was that I felt that 50% of their polices weren’t feasible. “That would be great,” I’d say. “But you’ll never get people to vote for that.” Or perhaps I’d argue that a certain policy would be great in an ideal world, but I wasn’t sure that it was possible to get to that ideal position, given that we had to start from our unequal, over-centralised capitalistic world.

But of course, I’d never bothered to find out in any detail what their polices actually were. Now, adrift, lost, forced by circumstance and Nick Clegg to re-examine everything I’d ever believed in, I actually sat down and read a political manifesto – the 2010 Green General Election manifesto – from cover to cover.

And there wasn’t really anything in there that I disagreed with. Sure, there were things that perhaps seemed radical to a point that could be described as highly optimistic. And there were plenty of things that – while I strongly agree with them – I think would be highly unlikely to win votes. (55 mph speed limit on motorways, to risk an actual political example).

In the past I’d felt those to be deal-breakers. But if you were to quiz me on those things now, pointing at one policy and asking, “Is that really feasible?” and then at another and asking, “Would people really vote for that?” I guess my answer now would be, “I don’t know. But maybe we should at least try?”

And beyond this, reading the document as I now was, with an optimistic eye thinking of where I wanted to go rather than how I thought we might get there, there was a lot of stuff in that I really liked. A lot. Really liked. I suspect that I’m still a square-shaped peg, in a round-shaped hole, and perhaps I’ve gone from being on the idealistic wing of one party to the pragmatic wing of another. But like I said, no political party is a perfect fit, but this new one feels a lot more comfortable than the old. (If for no other reason than that the catering at Green Party gatherings tends towards the vegan/vegetarian variety).

When I joined the old Liberal Party back in 1987, I’d had to wait a couple of months until I could manage to catch up with the elusive bloke (his name escapes me now) who was the local party’s membership secretary. He’d given me a little membership card that he’d written my details onto. Joining the Greens twenty-five years later was a little easier. I simply went to their website, clicked on the join button, and filled in my bank details.

I’ll not claim it felt the same, that I felt the same heart-thumping excitement or the same sense of eager anticipation. But I don’t think that says anything about the LibDems or the Greens, or 2012 versus 1987.

I think it’s just about being forty-two instead of eighteen.

I’m Not Hoarding, I’m Working Towards the Next Level

I’ve tweeted several times of my love of hoarding points on my Costa Coffee loyalty card. I haven’t quite yet got to the point where I’ll be leaving my card in my will, but it’s not far off that.

Then just the other day, a thought occurred to me, which was there ought to be some reward other than simply points accumulated.

The answer was obvious: a scale of achievement similar to that of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, albeit perhaps divided by ten to make it more achievable.

And you know what? It turns out I’m already a 5th level coffee drinker! Now I just need to avoid listening to my wife’s occasional suggestion that perhaps I ought to, you know, actually cash in my points some time, possibly by buying her a coffee.

The Scale

100 Points: 1st Level

300 Points: 2nd Level

600 Points: 3rd Level

1000 Points: 4th Level

1500 Points: 5th Level

2100 Points: 6th Level

2800 Points: 7th Level

3600 Points: 8th Level

4500 Points: 9th Level

5500 Points: 10th Level

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