Friday, 16 July 2021

A strange hobby for a heatwave

Leucozona lucorum
Leucozona lucorum

 Mad dogs and dipterists go out in the midday sun

A trait you’d be quite soppy to copy

Bloodsucking flies they roll their eyes

And say we’ll have such fun

The cleggs are all quite hateful, but grateful.



Myathropa florea

Down by the stream the sun’s bright beam

Falls where tall grasses wave

They gather there and then declare

That fool’s uncommon brave

It must be something humans eat

That makes their blood so nice and sweet

It’s like a currant bun

When mad dogs and dipterists go out in the midday sun.


Eristalis horticola

 They say the camera never lies

But he only sees the view

The dipterist’s eyes are on the prize

He won’t see me nor you

I’ll take his hand, you and the band

Can check his open neck

We’ll lose a few but most get through

So fire the starting gun

'Cause mad dogs and dipterists are out in the midday sun!

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Who is the greatest Scottish composer?

I am not often inclined to call an individual ‘the greatest’. As an unqualified term, it tends to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean, and there is no practical way of comparing one composer with another.

When I think of the greatest Scottish composer, I want to know whether the emphasis should be placed on the Scottish nature of a composer’s output, or upon internationally accepted genres in which a Scot has excelled.

I suspect that Niel Gow (1727–1807) is thought of by many as the archetypal Scottish fiddler and the composer of many tunes that have become modern Scottish dance band standards. I tend to think of this as important because folk and dance music forms such an important part of Scottish culture. Of course, many have followed in his musical footsteps, and some will have written very popular tunes, but Niel is still the one who made the the critical transition between the music of the people and the music of the salon.

Some, of course, will consider that only classical music, or only pop music, should be taken into account. Scotland has no Beethovens. It does have composers called Robert Bruce and William Wallace, not to be confused with the medieval warriors of the same names. But as a general rule, Scottish classical composers are not household names. Those who know them will take up the cause of, say, Alexander Mackenzie, Learmont Drysdale, Erik Chisholm and many others, but we cannot claim that anyone has earned worldwide renown.

Scottish pop stars are often better known abroad, but I doubt many of them would claim the title of our greatest composer. Roy Williamson of The Corries wrote ‘Flower of Scotland’, but it is possible that few outside Scotland appreciate that achievement.

It is entirely possible that the greatest Scottish composer wrote for his sweetheart an air that has come down through history, even though the composer’s name has not.

Monday, 3 May 2021

The upsides of lockdown in Scotland


I have repeatedly thought how blessed I am to live on a smallholding in pleasant rural surroundings. If I’d been through lockdown in a town flat, I’d probably have gone stir crazy.

Being obliged to remain in one place rather than ranging far and wide, especially at holiday time, persuaded me to take a more detailed interest in my immediate surroundings.

For no very obvious reason, I settled on hoverflies, joined the reporting group on Facebook and learned enough to identify thirty-seven local species. Then, of course, I forgot a lot of what I’d learned over four winter months when there were none at all to be seen. It’s beginning to come back to me now we’re well into Spring.

I spent more time gardening, with mixed results. I suppose I learned more about what won’t grow at this altitude and latitude, and at last got time to experiment with a few plants I’ve long wanted to try, particularly Lychnis chalcedonica, also known as Maltese Cross, which tradition says was brought to Europe by the Knights of Malta. My squash has not been a huge success though. I really suspect the growing season up here (at 600 feet) is just too short for it.

I also decided to learn Italian on Duolingo. I’m not sure when, or even if, I’ll have the opportunity to use this new skill, but I have usually found learning something new to be a pleasure, and this has been no exception.

Not strictly a consequence of lockdown, but the imposition of high US tariffs on imported Scotch seems to have diverted quite a few nice single malts on to the domestic market at discounted prices. I still can’t afford a lot, which is just as well, but I can’t say that the odd sip of an evening hasn’t helped lockdown pass more easily.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The EU, The Vaccine, and Exports

If the EU had gone down the UK route they would have financed both vaccine development and factory construction in their own countries with a capacity sufficient for their own needs. This is not a matter of the UK forcing it’s way to the front of the queue; the UK is creating the supply that others then queue up for!

Because the UK does not have the capacity to supply others at present, it licenses other countries to produce the AZ vaccine on condition that, like the UK, they produce and sell at cost. To look at physical exports and ignore this licensing programme is highly misleading.

The AZ vaccine exists because of the UK government. Philanthropic we may be, but we not unreasonably thought that, having paid for its development as well as its production, the UK taxpayers should get it first.

The UK actually brought AZ into production partnership with Oxford, where the vaccine was developed, precisely because of fears of vaccine nationalism. They reached a production understanding long before the vaccine passed its clinical trials, the government accepting all the risks involved.

Oddly enough, the anticipated nationalism was from Trump's USA, which was why the UK didn’t want Oxford going into partnership with a US firm as originally intended. Obviously, AZ is part Swedish and some of its production is in the EU. As it turns out, maybe we should have expected nationalism from the EU too.

At the same time the UK ordered several other vaccines from various different sources, including some in the EU, gambling that these vaccines would succeed. Any EU country or the EU Commission could have placed similar orders at the same time, but for whatever reasons they decided not to. Once those EU firms had accepted UK contracts they would not expect to be prevented from fulfilling them, any more than AZ expected the EU to try to prevent them fulfilling their contract with the UK.

The EU meanwhile spent a couple of months beating down AZ’s already cost-based price and finally placed its order, if I recall correctly, when the vaccine was already in third phase trials, nevertheless still forcing risk responsibility on to the firm. This meant they got a ‘best efforts’ contract because no company managers in their right mind would definitively guarantee supplies when they were bearing all the risk as well as not making a profit.

We are now witnessing the unedifying spectacle of the EU refusing to admit its own incompetence and seeking to deflect blame on to an external ‘enemy’ who happens to have produced the vaccine in the first place.

Some want to consider financing development of the Oxford vaccine ‘getting lucky’. That is up to them, I suppose. Some people would call it a sound investment of public funds. No risk, no reward. What prevented EU countries doing the same?

It should however be obvious even to an EU supporter that the UK’s involvement in the AZ vaccine is a lot more more than just a contractual arrangement. The UK would hardly have spent all that money in order to export the vaccine at cost before UK needs were met.

Is the EU supposed to have been unaware of this history? Did they not read the contract they signed with AZ? Did they not know that the UK plant had gone through the same production difficulties as the EU plant, just three months earlier?

I’m sorry, but the Commission are negligent, incompetent or both and behaving in their usual belligerent and litigious manner as soon as their failings are exposed. It would never, I suppose, occur to them to say, “I’m sorry, we screwed up, can you help us out?”

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Why do so many people (on Quora) get offended when Americans want to identify with the countries of their ancestors when it was not their own choice that their ancestors left their home country?

The Capitol
The Capitol, Washington D.C.

Identification by Americans with countries of ancestral origin can be a perfectly harmless eccentricity or it can be a menace.

I don’t see any problem with an American of Italian descent calling himself an Italian-American, running an Italian restaurant or singing Verdi for fun.

The problem arises when he not only calls himself an Italian but thinks this entitles him to some sort of status in respect of modern Italian social, cultural or particularly political questions. If he has any knowledge of Italy at all it is most likely to be a traditional family perspective or a romantic myth that may never have reflected reality, let alone have relevance to Italian reality today.

He may even go so far as to preserve inherited hostile attitudes towards those held responsible for pressuring his ancestors to emigrate, and apply these attitudes towards these people’s descendants even though the descendants bear no guilt for their ancestors’ behaviour and may never had any issues with the descendants of the long-ago emigrant’s neighbours who did not emigrate. You can’t sort out today problems that used to exist centuries ago, but you sure can create new ones.

For example, when we speak of expatriate Scots being ‘more Scottish than the the Scots’, we mean their perspective involves looking back through very rose-tinted spectacles at a largely fictional past. Yet they sometimes seem to think think this gives them a right to pontificate upon the present. If they are influential, they can make big waves in ‘the old country’ despite their ignorance of its current state.

So when, for example, a ‘Scottish’ POTUS is followed by an ‘Irish’ POTUS, it naturally worries those who have to live in or alongside the country claimed by these powerful, but misinformed, people. How great is the danger that, in seeking to confirm the support of some similarly misguided American voters’ lobby, a president may turn his inherited prejudice into current international policy?

If matters should reach that stage, being offended is going to be the least of our problems.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Philip Brian Hall’s Stories Qualifying for Awards 2020

CADMUS P I - Galaxy’s Edge #43, March 

A hardboiled detective story set in Ancient Greece

SECOND COMING - On The Premises, April 

What really happened when Moses met Pharaoh?

GHOST WRITER - Hybrid Fiction #3, April 

A combination of science fiction and ghost story

A RAINY DAY AT ST BARTHOLOMEW’S – Curiosities #7, July 

Why would anyone steal tons of lead and sulphur?

THE LAST OF THE PERIVALES – Bodies in the Library (Flame Tree), August

How did a man in 17th century clothes come to be dead in a 19th century gentlemen’s club?

The last two stories listed are respectively the third and fourth in my occasional steampunk series featuring the Victorian detectives MacAndrew and Smithers.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Oh dear, Wednesday

 I think the problem is, it’s more than a game of football. 

Shankly’s much misunderstood remark about football being more important than a matter of life and death should probably be understood in the light of the sociology that Desmond Morris described in his book ‘The Soccer Tribe’. The traditional football supporter, like any tribesman, needs a totem, something powerful and greater than himself that can lift his eyes above his less than ideal reality.

Life and death matters are with us every day, especially nowadays. We need some thing to inspire and lift us above not only these awful realities but all the other aspects of the daily grind.

In some ways football replaced religion in the modern age. When our team performs well we all walk taller, feel better about out lives and relationships, see the sunshine in life rather than the rain. Wednesday’s successes in the past have lifted Sheffielders who had been dragged down by poverty, wars, deindustrialisation and many other hardships.

In recent times we’ve still had many hardships but we haven’t really had Wednesday, or at least not for long and not at the level where old folk like me still feel The Owls belong.

And that means more than a game of football. It means we’ve had something important taken away from us. Bereft, somebody said on the Owlstalk site. It was the right word to use.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Bodies in the Library

I am very pleased to announce the publication of Flame Tree Publishing's new anthology, Bodies in the Library. It contains my short story 'The Last of the Perivales'.  

The fourth case for my Victorian detectives MacAndrew and Smithers, this latest mystery begins with the discovery of a corpse in the otherwise empty library of a London gentlemen's club. The victim is unknown at the establishment and wearing outlandish fancy dress but, nevertheless, he apparently entered without being seen by anyone. 

Who is he and how did he die?  Ably assisted by the forensic skills of his wife, Annie, The Old  Red Fox of Scotland Yard is again on the hunt for clues and yet again he is led down unlikely avenues of inquiry.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

A Rainy Day at St Bartholomew's

I'm very pleased to announce that the third story in my steampunk series about the Victorian detectives MacAndrew and Smithers is now available in the current issue of Curiosities.

A Rainy Day at St Bartholomew's finds Smithers getting wet at a wedding. This might not be considered too surprising until we find that it's raining inside the church!

You can find out why, and how our intrepid heroes cope with yet another encounter with the abnormal, in the

Curiosities #7 Quarantine 2020 Paperback

And if this leaves you with a taste for more Victorian mayhem, the fourth MacAndrew and Smithers adventure is coming soon in a new hardback anthology from Flame Tree.

I've recently finished a fifth episode, for which I'll be seeking a publisher soon, so I hope you won't have long to wait.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Holier than thou

Over a century ago, Booker T Washington pointed out that a number of those engaged in the race question in the USA had, in fact, no interest in solving it, since it was the continued existence of the problem that gave them their employment and their public profile. If you have no interest in solving a problem, then the last thing you want is rational debate.

Political correctness is a totalitarian ideology that (so far) differs from earlier forms of dictatorship only in degree, not in kind. So many people are continually on the lookout for ways to be offended. They are greatly offended simply by other people having the nerve to disagree with them. Their own views are so viscerally-held that they cannot entertain rational debate and seek every opportunity to close it down.

The largely, but not exclusively, leftist modern fashion for identity-based, rather than issue-based, politics is the same fault that Washington discerned, but now elevated to an industrial scale. The elimination of victimhood would eliminate the protest industry based upon it, so if it should, by any chance, happen that some particular emancipatory objective were accidentally achieved, it would be necessary immediately to identify a new objective in order to preserve the perceived victim status and with it the platform for the group’s self-appointed advocates. That reorientation would involve mental effort and is to be avoided if possible.

It has been correctly observed that politically-correct intolerance regards disagreement as not just rationally wrong but morally bad. Since any given principle of the activist is self-evidently true, it follows that it needs no rational defence. Those who do not hold it are therefore guilty of wilfully disregarding the obvious and thus evil. Since everyone with the welfare of society at heart would necessarily agree with the activist, dissenters must have foul personal motives, especially their own gain or sadistic pleasures.

Thus, failure to support a campaign for a particular group of ‘victims’ is equated with opposition to that group. We have acquired a whole lexicon of neologisms ending in ‘phobic’ or ‘ist’ which are thrown around like confetti on social media. The objective in every case is to stifle rational discussion by the use of pejorative labels. Abuse, rather than rational engagement, has become the first response to opponents.

The denial of platform movement, which is ostensibly the desire to 'protect' other people against being offended, is a particularly egregious offence against freedom of speech. The politically-correct also see no reason not to pursue those who disagree with them into their homes or workplaces. Dissenters have no right to a family life or employment; they must be publicly shamed until they are forced to recant by the sheer weight of opprobrium heaped upon them. Torquemada would be a hero today, provided he chose the politically-correct side.

John Stuart Mill made the limits of freedom of speech clear a century and a half ago in On Liberty. There exists absolutely no right not to be offended. People who claim to be offended by the peacefully-expressed views of other people are out of order. People who claim the right to be offended on behalf of other people by the peacefully-expressed views of another person are especially out of order.

Freedom of speech is vital to civilised society. Reasoned debate is important; the rational clash of ideas brings enlightenment; recitation of dogma destroys initiative; universal conformity is the enemy of progress. I believe it may have been Alfred P Sloan who once commenced a board meeting at General Motors with the words, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all agreed on what has to be done here.” Receiving nods of assent all around the table, he continued, “Then I propose to adjourn discussion until we can find some reason to disagree, and then we shall come back and talk about it sensibly.”

Once upon a time I stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate. I am a long way from being a right wing populist. Yet even I have found myself quailing before the all-consuming passion and aggression of the self-righteous. Since I am advancing my view peacefully and rationally, I am in order. And if my view offends anyone, then that person needs to think more and emote less. Those who want to shut down the sort of moderate debate they get from people like me, inevitably invite eventual repayment in their own coin.

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Picton Statue Controversy

Should the statue in Carmarthen be taken down?

There is a whole town named after Picton in New Zealand. He was held in very high regard as a soldier, despite his well known excesses in Trinidad, for which he was tried and convicted at the time, though the verdict was later overturned on a matter of law.

Wellington knew perfectly well that Picton was a hard bastard, but he also knew that hard bastards have their uses. There are times when you are grateful they are on your side.

Nothing typified this more than the crucial role played by Picton and his division during a pivotal moment at Waterloo, which as many will know was a battle that could easily have gone either way. Picton had already concealed the fact that he had been badly wounded at Quatre Bras, two days earlier. At Waterloo, he was killed during his division’s successful efforts to hold the allied line which was threatening to break. If it had broken, British history would have been very different.

The Carmarthen memorial was erected by public subscription and a grateful nation also erected a memorial to him in St Paul’s. I suspect, were these not there, no-one would be having a debate about Picton today, and that would be a pity, because if ever there was an example of a very severely flawed yet redeemable human being, Picton was it. If you say that the undeniable bad in his earlier life invalidates all his later service to his country, then you say a sinner is never capable of redemption. His contemporaries thought otherwise, and that should give us a certain pause today. (I appreciate that not everyone values the contribution to society of the armed forces, but it is probably still a majority who do).

There are few real saints and few real devils. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and Picton offers an example of someone capable of improving. As such, he should be talked about. Take down his statue and such talking will be confined to the tiny proportion of the population who visit museums. That would be a pity.

Please don’t bother to tell me I don’t understand how young people feel. I was, needless to say, never young myself.