Tuesday, 20 December 2016

So what's a Customs Union when it's at home, eh?

Journalists who have suddenly discovered the term customs union and who seem to think it differs from the single market have taken to asking politicians whether we can remain in one but not the other.

For those who may be confused:

(1) A Free Trade Area is a number of countries which sell each other goods without imposing tariffs, quotas or other restrictions on such transactions.

(2) A Customs Union combines a Free Trade Area with a Common External Tariff, effectively discriminating in favour of other members and against non-members.

(3) The EU Single Market combines both of the above with a common regulatory and standards regime enforced by the European Court of Justice.

Not only is there no advantage to system (2) over system (1), it is disadvantageous because it prevents members doing separate, advantageous deals with non-members.

The reason for having (2) tends to be the price you have to pay to get (1), since various individual members may want protection against specific non-members or their products. Rather than a complicated mishmash of bilateral deals you end up with the same external tariff against all outsiders.

Therefore the question at issue is not 'Can we manage to stay in the Customs Union?' but 'Might we be forced to stay in the Customs Union as the price of keeping free trade with The EU?'

True, The EU is at present our largest trading partner, but it is also a sclerotic low-growth market with a moribund single currency permanently on the point of collapse, to which threat the only reply to date has been more and more debilitating austerity.

On top of this the single market regulations stifle innovation and investment in cutting-edge technologies which is the true remedy to stagnation.

The only thing we should want from The EU is free trade (in services as well as goods.) Having the government pay to get this (out of taxpayers' money) is futile; you might as well let the taxpayers pay tariffs directly.

Being cut off from the ability to strike deals with non-members defeats the whole objective of leaving the EU. It guarantees a worse position than we had before Brexit.

But as I've pointed out before, we already have free trade with the EU. We are not going to start a tariff war, since it's not in our interest. It's not in their interest either but they might still do it out of pique. Nobody would accuse the Present EU administration of acting sensibly. If and when they do raise tariffs, we decide how to respond.

Note to all those demanding a plan - You just read the only sensible plan. Until the EU decides what, if any, tariffs it will impose, NOTHING WHATSOEVER needs to be done or indeed can be done in response.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Awards Eligible Original Short Stories 2016

I can't honestly say that my 2015 list produced remarkable results, though the three stories did feature in 'Up and Coming' the anthology of Campbell Award eligible work.  This year I'm too much of a veteran for the Campbell, so it has to be the big leagues. Oh well, nothing ventured nothing gained. Here's this year's list.

Philip Brian Hall
Awards-Eligible Original Short Stories 2016

February 20th in It's Come to Our Attention (Third Flatiron)

27 April 2016 on Gallery of Curiosities (podcast)


June 28th in AE The Canadian Science Fiction Review*
(*website temporarily unavailable)
July 11th in Sci Phi Journal

September 9th in Stupefying Stories Showcase

September 15th in Ritualistic Pompadour (Recompose)

due out before Christmas in Unbound II, Changed Worlds

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Listen to Ben

"We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid."  -  Benjamin Franklin

Since the introduction of the Euro in 1999, of  the main Eurozone economies Germany and France have grown by less than a quarter, while the economy of Italy has barely grown at all. Meanwhile the economy of the UK, outside the Eurozone, has grown by more than one third.

As a consequence of the Eurozone's sluggish performance, its unemployment rate remains almost 10% and youth unemployment is very much higher.

Since the EU's common currency has caused this economic meltdown, it is ironic to hear the continuing chorus from the Brussels elite that the solution is more Europe, not less.

It is doubly ironic that UK Remoaners are engaged in a last ditch battle to overturn the result of the Referendum so that our country can continue to be shackled to a moribund system.

Utterly failing to understand the popular vote, they continue to claim the majority were ill-informed and worse-advised. Leave voters didn't know what they were doing, poor things, and really need to be protected from their own folly by right-thinking people who truly understand these matters.

The best course now, they claim, is to hang on to an inferior version of EU membership rather than boldly turning our eyes towards the great opportunities outside Europe.

To that end every effort must be made to sabotage the government's negotiating position by placing it all before parliament first. It's only fair, after all, to put your cards face up on the table, otherwise how would your opponent know whether to raise or fold?

One more time please, Ben.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Introducing Mac

This is Mac. He's a Dogue de Bordeaux, also known as French Mastiff, and four years old.

There is something strangely fortuitous about the arrival of a Dogue de Bordeaux in our home so soon after we'd taken our very enjoyable holiday in the part of the world from which the breed originated.

Anyway, Mac came to us by way of our contact with the breed rescue society. He was an emergency case, since his owners were days from emigrating and his planned re-homing had fallen through, not as a result of any fault of his.

We were allowed to foster him immediately and to convert that into permanent adoption after a home inspection.

Mac has settled in wonderfully well. He enjoys long walks on the moors where he can practise all his doggy skills and run about off the lead. In fact he runs so much he's already building up new muscle in less than a month since his arrival.

In the house he's very well behaved and friendly, but he has a good 'I spy strangers!' bark and a set of jaws that should prove very effective in deterring any trouble.

He arrived with an unhealed wound from a recent operation, but that's now cleared up, leaving him superbly athletic and full of bounce, if inclined to get rather dirty!

Dogue de Bordeaux having fun!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

US Election Hysteria

Everyone please take a deep breath, sit down and count to ten.

In the great scheme of things, the success of a protest candidate in a reasonably democratic election should not rank very high on the scariness scale.

It has been my feeling for a long time that democracy was decaying into a shell of itself with the rapid growth of a class of professional politicians that had little or no idea of the problems confronting the folk they allegedly represented.

Brexit came as a shock to this class when if they had being doing their job properly it might not even have happened, let alone come as a bolt from the blue.

The Beltway politicians in the US are similar in this respect to the London-centric UK political elite, a similar class in France, Germany, Holland etc. In Scotland the SNP are riding a wave of inchoate (and innumerate) populist revolt against the system.

It's forty years since Lord Hailsham drew attention to what he called 'Elective Dictatorship'. The re-energising of the whole process is overdue and sadly the professional political classes would not listen any other way.

Of course it remains to be seen if they will listen this way. 

In the words of the old Chinese curse, we live in interesting times.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Writers of the Future 33 Q4

Here's a piece of UK news which only accidentally coincides with the US election.

No seriously.

I finally managed to break my streak of consecutive Honourable Mentions and one Silver Honourable Mention in the Writers of the Future competition. My entry for Quarter 4 of Volume 33 made semi-finalist, which means I can look forward to a personal critique from David Farland, the coordinating judge.

The exact numbers of the international field for this contest are not published, though it is believed to be comfortably into four figures. In a typical quarter there are 8 finalists and 8 semi-finalists.

So near and yet so far!

The irritating thing is, I have more than a suspicion I know the precise paragraph that let me down. I can't think why I didn't cut it on the final edit.

Nevertheless, as Hitchcock said of his lifetime achievement award: This has encouraged me. I shall go on!

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Weighty Judgement

We live in a representative democracy, not a popular one. At least such appears to be the basis of the Appeal Court Judgement insisting parliament be consulted before the triggering of Lisbon Article 50 can initiate the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

The European Communities Act of 1972, we are told, conferred rights upon UK citizens which only another parliamentary decision can remove.

Now my understanding was that UK Common Law is framed upon a different basis from Roman Law. The latter, as applied in continental Europe, grants citizens specific rights with the state held to be the source of those rights. The former operates upon the assumption that the citizen has the right to do anything that the law does not specifically prohibit - in other words the state is the servant of the citizen not vice versa.

The meld of these two systems during our membership of the EU has been an uneasy compromise, but I for one would be reluctant to accept that the Roman system has entirely superseded our own superior one.

Accordingly I would argue that the Act in question confirmed rather than conferred UK citizens' rights and hence the citizens can themselves determine whether they wish the continuance of the same.

Given that the citizens have made such a determination, it seems superfluous (to say the least) that parliament, which in the UK holds its sovereignty from the people, should be required to confirm that the people have made the correct decision.

Everyone knows that the people were denied a say in this issue for forty years because all major political parties supported the principle of EU membership. Even the formation of UKIP did not end this at the parliamentary level because our first past the post electoral system is so heavily weighted in favour of the status quo.

Therefore it is obvious any parliament would inevitably hold a majority of Remainers and that a referendum would be the only way for the popular will to be expressed.

The Referendum Act was framed in such a way as to make the plebiscite advisory rather than mandatory, but it was also clearly the will of parliament that the people should decide.

The EU has already set several dangerous precedents by insisting on the overthrow of democratic decisions in other countries.

The danger is now that the letter of the law will be used to thwart its spirit. Parliament should think carefully before bringing UK law into disrepute in this way.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Identity Politics

We are told that in the aftermath of the European Referendum Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, felt deprived of part of her identity. This, it seems, caused her to think about how 'No' voters in Scotland might feel if ever those favouring independence gained a majority.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to think on this again before stirring up another dose of the tribalism that attended the first Scottish Referendum. In many cases this internecine hostility has yet to subside, at least partly because the demagoguery employed by the 'Yes' campaign was so shameless.

A second concern is clearly illustrated by the aftermath of both the Scottish and the EU Referenda; the losers won't give up. Just as nationalists will not accept the decision of the Scottish majority, so Remainers will not accept that the UK is leaving the EU. Some are conducting more or less open guerrilla warfare, for example claiming that parliament (with its large Remain majority) must be able to supervise the withdrawal negotiations or re-interpreting the referendum to claim that the vote did not require the UK to leave the Single Market. Ms Sturgeon claims that the UK majority cannot impose its will on the Scottish majority who voted to remain.

Withdrawal would be far easier and more likely to achieve prosperity if it enjoyed wholehearted public support; anyone can see that. But of course it does not. Remoaners even continue to allege that Leavers were too stupid to understand what they were voting for and hence their votes should not be respected.

I suspect that any majority which might in future be obtained for Scottish independence will never be overwhelming. How would the nationalists respond to almost half the population resisting the result of such a referendum?

I may have lived more than half my life in Scotland but I am British. I shall remain British. My British citizenship is integral to my identity. I shall not be deprived of it by any law passed in Edinburgh.  

Friday, 21 October 2016

Cultural Appropriation - an illiterate nonsense

Students in Florida have warned against Dressing up as Harambe the gorilla for Halloween on grounds of cultural appropriation. This absurd notion seems to be getting out of control.

When I was learning Swahili, it was explained to me that the word, (actually harambee, with the double e pronounced 'ay'), despite being commonly treated as a Swahili word meaning 'let's all pull together', is not actually a Swahili word at all.

The late Jomo Kenyatta witnessed a work gang using it to coordinate their pulling on a rope, so that ha-ram was the equivalent of ready-set and bee meant Go! He found this a good metaphor and adopted it as a national motto. I heard him use it often when addressing crowds, using precisely this same 1-2...3! stress.

Latterly some have suggested the labour gang were Hindus calling upon Ambee Mata. The word is possibly so derived, though as there are many local tribal languages in Kenya it can't be absolutely certain it isn't derived from one of them.

Swahili is an eclectic language, always ready to incorporate a foreign word where it seems appropriate. For example 'Kilimanjaro' the highest mountain in East Africa is a combination of kilima, the Swahili word for hill and njaro the Chaga word for shining, while in my day at least the Swahili for typewriter was its phonetic equivalent taipuraita.

Swahili itself is a meld of Arabic and Bantu, with flavourings of English, German and Portuguese, so any word in Swahili is liable to be culturally appropriated to begin with, just like any word in English, which has roots in Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, Norse etc.

As a first step I would therefore advise anyone worried about cultural appropriation to refrain from expressing their concerns in English (or Swahili).

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Goodbye Clyde, Bless You

I am terribly sad to report that after a valiant battle against cancer and two operations in the past ten months Clyde had to be put to sleep yesterday, aged eleven. He had the blessing of remaining reasonably active up until about two weeks ago and his decline was rapid in the last few days, leaving us with no real choice.

Everyone who knew him will confirm Clyde was the complete gentleman, the friendliest dog on Earth and, despite weighing almost twelve stone, in his younger days quite an athlete too. Until very recently he looked forward eagerly to walking several miles a day. He was always fascinated by the day's new smells and very fond of a paddle in ponds or streams. It is hard for me to imagine strolling around the local countryside without him. I don't expect I shall be able for some time to stop myself looking for him in his usual places around the home.

Though we have successfully rehomed rescue dogs for decades, some of you will perhaps be aware of the depressing events that had befallen us in the months immediately preceding his arrival in our home. Suffice it to say Clyde was the perfect antidote to our loss of confidence in our own abilities and restored our faith in dog-kind at the same time.

Bless you, Clyde. Thank you. You were one of a kind.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

On Writing Short Stories

When I consider how I spend my time
Submitting stories to some great slush pile,
Where often the first readers aren't sublime
Or even competent to stop and think awhile,
Where diligent adherence to assessment schemes
Results in declarations that my genius does not fit
And pours cold water over all my fondest dreams
Before they've time to read more than a page of it,
Then, then, methinks no justice dwells
In any publisher's cold, stony heart,
No future ages shall my awesome words retell
Or on a marble pedestal set them apart.
And yet - undaunted, here I am anew
Sending my treasured work, Dear Editor, to you.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Still Remoaning

I wish some of those anxious to remain within the EU Single Market would explain carefully how we are going to lose exports if we leave.

First of all, since we are already within the Single Market the EU 27 will need to take an active decision to raise tariffs against our goods rather than just let things go on as they are. They must do this in the context of full public awareness in their own countries that the UK has a large trade deficit with them and that the damage suffered by the EU if reciprocal tariffs are applied will inevitably be greater than the damage inflicted.

The only possible justification for such behaviour is that the political ideals of the EU are more important than the jobs of EU citizens. For all the sabre rattling coming out of Brussels and other EU capitals this will still be a 'courageous policy' (as Sir Humphrey Appleby would put it) to take before their own electorates in the next polls.

Secondly, the depreciation of the pound sterling since June 23rd is already greater than the average tariff that would be justified under WTO rules, hence the overall result, even after a tariff war, would be cheaper UK goods in EU markets.

Once again, consumers have to be pretty determined to punish the withdrawing member if they are willing to boycott cheaper products.

Anyway, what does it say about the merits of belonging to an organisation that it must punish a member who leaves in order to encourage the others to remain?

Thirdly, while the UK prices of imported EU produce will rise as a result of sterling's depreciation, there is no obvious reason for the UK to initiate tariffs against other countries. Once again, as an EU member the UK already has numerous trade agreements with third countries. The EU will have sovereignty over neither party to future bilateral trade arrangements and it will be a remarkably impressive, not to mention vindictive, achievement if it is able to force them to impose tariffs on each other.

If President Obama had not already told us that the UK was going to the back of the queue, one might be forgiven for suggesting the revival of the North Atlantic Free Trade Area scheme.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

A Braw Song For Burns Night

I am delighted to report the publication of my latest story by Recompose magazine, edition #2 'Ritualistic Pompadour'.

This is a modern Scottish tale, developing a theme I first came up with as a piece of homework during my time with Falkirk Writers Circle.

Although it's my sixth professional rate sale, being less than 1,000 words it counts as a Flash piece (like two of the others) and so I still hang on to my eligibility for the Writers of the Future competition, at least for now. I've eight Honorable Mentions and a Silver HM, but the final still proves elusive. Maybe Quarter 4 of Volume 33, which ends this month - you never know your luck.

Anyway I hope people will flock to buy the latest Recompose. Because you do all want struggling authors to eat, don't you?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Can You Define Democracy?

The Hungarian Parliament
Hardly anyone in the West can be found to argue against democracy; it's considered a truism that democracy is the best form of government. Countries moving towards democracy are making political progress while those with other systems are politically backward. When applied to systems of government, the word ‘undemocratic’ has become a synonym for ‘bad’.
You'd be tempted to think we knew what democracy was.
You'd certainly be excused for thinking we believed ourselves and most western countries to possess democratic systems.
But do we?
Representation in the UK has travelled a long road from the days when the leading citizens of each borough used to select two of their number to travel to the capital for short assemblies. These meetings were called to decide basic issues of taxation and supply, and after them MPs returned and explained matters to their fellow citizens.
From the enfranchisement of the masses to a restructuring of political parties to reflect the changed electorate took maybe half a century. From there to the voters' realising their votes weren't making any difference took another fifty years or so. From that realisation to giving up voting took about fifty more.
A whole class of people who know no trade but politics has grown up and taken control. They've been aided by manipulative, self-interested groupings known as political parties.
Whatever this system should be called, I doubt if it's democracy – timocracy or plutocracy maybe. The literal translation of democracy in ancient Greece was ‘government by the people’. Government by the people as a whole was practicable in the city state. Representative democracy, evolved to apply the same idea to larger states, was hijacked by the party system as soon as the expansion of the franchise pushed communication with the electorate beyond the financial reach of most independent candidates.
In the UK, with mass party membership a thing of the past despite the recent accession of numerous hard left activists to Labour, candidates are chosen by a small group of party members in each constituency. Combining this degraded system with parliaments lasting for several years results in something more reminiscent of what Lord Hailsham called ‘elective dictatorship’ than government by the people.
Churchill described democracy as the worst system of government except for all the others that have from time to time been tried. Not a good thing – just the best of the available evils.
The drawbacks are obvious. Why was I condemned to live in a democracy where every fool's vote is equal to a sensible man's? asked John Wyndham. There spoke a man in the Platonic tradition; everyone should stick to what they are good at, a neo-Platonist says, and most people are no good at statecraft.
Isn't it true of any specialist subject? If you were about to undergo brain surgery would you rely on a brain surgeon or take a vote among all the patients in the hospital? Would you rather your airliner was flown by a pilot or elect someone from among the passengers?
If we agree specialist tasks should ideally be performed by specialists, then a democrat presumably believes running the country demands no expertise?
Let's go further. How many who live with the supposed blessings of a democratic system can define democracy or enumerate its benefits? Even elected politicians, who surely ought to know, are regularly heard to make a simplistic equation between democracy and majority rule.
If democracy were indeed the same thing as majority rule then of course it would be far from the best possible system of government. It's not hard to show examples of what J S Mill called ‘The tyranny of the majority’.
Suppose a society to be divided upon ethnic, religious or economic grounds, such that one section was always outvoted. Is it democratic for the majority to rob, persecute or enslave that minority? If not, then majority rule (alone) is not democracy.
More crudely, the doctrine of the mandate is widely taken to mean a 'democratically' elected government is empowered to put into practice any element of the manifesto upon which it stood. The voters who supported that government are held to have endorsed everything it proposed, even though many voters are not expressing support at all but voting tactically - choosing a lesser evil.
If it is undemocratic to claim a mandate for something people have not consciously endorsed, is it any better to give them what they do want? Populist politicians regularly promise impossible or damaging policies so long as the people want them. These politicians may not care about deceiving the people; their objective is simply to be elected.
The huge debts which threatened economic collapse in so many countries recently were the results of the unsustainable mortgaging of tomorrow to pay for today. Ask people if they want goodies and of course they'll agree, as long as someone else pays. Deficit financing effectively makes our children pay. Eventually the pile of debt becomes unserviceable. Yet riots and demonstrations attended upon attempts to return to affordable levels of public spending.
Under many supposedly democratic systems even the principle of majority rule breaks down. Total power is handed to the largest minority. The 2010-15 UK coalition government was the first since the Second World War to be formed by MPs who collectively received more than fifty percent of the popular vote. In spite of this, previous minority-supported governments enacted widespread and radical changes to society.
So if democracy is not government by the people, by a majority or even by the largest minority thereof, what does it actually mean today?

Friday, 9 September 2016

All of the People, All of the Time

Who are these people who say Stupefying Stories never gets round to publishing you? Let them stand up and come forth, I say! Yea! Come the four corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them!

Very well. Enough said. By way of proof I offer All of the People, All of the Time a short story by yours truly written so long ago that its origins are lost in the mists of time.

Any resemblance between this story and the sort of stuff I write nowadays is quite similar to the resemblance provided by my recent story in Sci Phi Journal which also rested on the launching pad until the gantry rusted.

In fact the story has quite a history. Way back in the dim and distant days when I used to enter writing club competitions an early version of this story once made a shortlist. It was quite crude compared to this version because, fortunately, I've learned a bit about the craft since then. Nevertheless I hope it illustrates a point I often try to make to beginners: good ideas will still be good ideas when you are able to come back with the skills to put them into practice.

Anyway - a story in print is a story in print. This is either number ten or number eleven depending on whether you count the podcast by Gallery of Curiosities. These days publication takes so many weird and wonderful forms that I count everything I get.

Of course, you all know me, I'd do that anyway.

Monday, 29 August 2016

An Unwanted Record

A standard device for politicians who are asked an embarrassing question is to answer a different one. So when Nicola Sturgeon was asked about the GERS report showing the Scottish fiscal deficit was £14.8 billion or about 9.5% of GDP, larger even than Greece, she replied that the real threat to the Scottish economy was Brexit.

Aye, as they say, that'll be right. Scotland does about 15% of its trade with the EU and about 70% with the rest of the UK. We are happy to contemplate pulling out of the UK and really upset about pulling out of the EU?

As I pointed out at the time, the so-called White Paper Scotland's Future, despite predicting an absurdly high oil price, already predicted a fiscal deficit of £4.6 billion.

Take away the alleged bonus of oil revenues and we now need bailing out to the tune of well over £3,000 per adult per year. Fortunately as part of the UK we don't have to try borrowing that.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government embarks on another round of trying to persuade the voters that independence makes economic sense.

Yes. Quite. And whilst all this is going on, who's minding the store?

Friday, 19 August 2016

St Emilion, Chateau Soutard, Chateau Franc Mayne

The Benedictine hermit who gave his name to the town of St Emilion lived in a limestone cave which has now been enlarged into a monolithic church (right). This means that instead of being built of stone the church was carved out of the solid stone. It has all the main features of a Romanesque basilica, including aisles and columns, though sadly the structure has been weakened by water damage and now requires the support of interior scaffolding.

The area was under English sovereignty until the latter part of the Hundred Years' War and St Emilion wine was shipped to the court of King Edward III.

Today there are over 800 wine producers here. Since elevation ranges from 3 to 100 metres there is significant variation in terroir between the plateau, the slopes (cotes) and the flat plain. Towards the border with the Pomerol region the soil becomes more sandy.

Limestone soils can be quite thin and vine roots will work their way down through cracks in the underlying rock. You can see examples of this in the cellars that honeycomb the substrata around the town. The cellars at Chateau Franc Mayne are particularly extensive, being linked with a former underground quarry.

Like a rock reservoir, limestone absorbs water in rainy seasons and releases it back to the vines in dry spells.

Whereas Macon wine such as St Julien is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, the principle ingredient of St Emilion is Merlot. Some vignerons use 100% Merlot. Franc Mayne was one of these, but now includes about 10% Cabernet Franc. By contrast the Soutard estate is planted only 63% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc, the balance being made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

For my taste just a hint of spiciness provided by a tiny percentage of Malbec makes an ideal St Emilion wine, but others disagree. The variety offered by St Emilion means it can be drunk with a wide range of food. For our sundowner at Soutard we were offered nibbles of both meat and cheese and greatly enjoyed both.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Sauternes and Chateau Myrat

 Sauternes used to be thought of as purely a dessert wine, though in practice it is more versatile.  It can be paired well with local savoury products such as foie gras.

The region lies about 40km south of Bordeaux around the confluence of the Ciron and The Garonne.

It was explained to us that the Ciron maintains a lower temperature than the larger river. In summer the mixing of the two waters produces an evening mist the sun does not burn away until the middle of the next day.

The mist is conducive to the formation of Botrytis cinerea or noble rot, a type of fungal infection. The sun-drying in the afternoons however prevents decay. The result is a wizened or raisin-like grape which has far less moisture than normal but far higher sugar content.

All of this means the Sauternes harvest tends to be late, somewhat variable in quality, more vulnerable than normal to weather volatility and expensive because volume is low relative the amount of labour required.

The wine ages well, progressively darkening in colour as it does so, from blonde through honey to copper (right). It is said the taste develops in sophistication. Unfortunately I am no longer convinced that my wine cellar holds a sufficiently constant temperature all year round, so I shan't risk it for too long.

Probably the most famous of the Sauternes estates is Chateau d'Yquem (left). Jefferson records that, after tasting its product, Washington promptly ordered thirty dozen bottles. Possibly some multi-millionaires still do. I'm not quite that rich, unfortunately.

For myself I was completely delighted with the wine of Chateau Myrat (above and top left). I believe I was heard to declare that it was so superior to anything of the same appellation I'd tasted before that none of the latter could possibly have been real Sauternes.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Wines of Bordeaux

Our 2016 cruise took us on three rivers, but covered relatively little total distance,

From Bordeaux we sailed up the Garonne as far as Cadillac, whence we returned to the confluence where the Garonne joins the Dordogne and together they form the Gironde. Down the estuary we went as far as Pauillac, up the Dordogne to Libourne and eventually back to the Garonne and Bordeaux.

Of the numerous wine terroirs in the region we were able to visit Medoc, Sauternes, St Emilion, Blaye and Cognac for tastings and others to view the scenery, historic buildings and cultural events. Some other local wines were available to accompany on board meals.

As a result I have a far better understanding of  this area and its wines than I did before, though I am bound to confess that is not saying a lot. Over the course of the next few weeks I shall try to describe some of the highlights. The low lights are perhaps best left in obscurity.

I've already posted several photographs of a magical nocturnal cruise along the Bordeaux waterfront, so I'll close this introduction with a panoramic view over the beautiful valley of the Dordogne.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Trial of Monsieur Lazare

This is my month for failing to notice I've been published.  It does seem rather remarkable that an author would encounter two of his own stories on line on consecutive days, but there you are.

Just like Temporal Paradox I was aware of the impending publication of The Trial of Monsieur Lazare but I did not realise it had already happened.

One beneficial effect of taking a lot of interest in all things French is a reasonable familiarity with the structure of the French judicial system, which has significant differences from that of the UK.

In this story a businessman is taken in for questioning by an examining magistrate.  His problem is that he hasn't committed any crime and he has no idea what it's all about.

You can read the story free on line in AE The Canadian Science Fiction Review. I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Ultimate Temporal Paradox

The Ultimate Temporal Paradox
It may itself seem something of a temporal paradox, but it has taken me five days to notice that my story The Ultimate Temporal Paradox was published on Monday in Sci Phil Journal.

Usually I notice a publication because the publisher pays for the story, but this one attracts a royalty instead, so  Jason Rennie (the publisher) and I will be much obliged if readers sign up in countless quadrillions.  One story a week is published free to read on the the web and you need to be a subscriber to read the second. I suppose you could say therefore that this week my story is the free sample.

I am quite fond of this story, tortuous logic and all, which in fact grew out of the first short story for adults that I submitted to the competition associated with the annual Falkirk Tryst Festival.

Some considerable time later I finally realised why the story did not work as originally drafted. Sadly it was nowhere near complicated enough!

I do hope readers will judge that I have now corrected this monstrous shortcoming.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Bordeaux Waterfront by Night

For several years I have been interested in the problems of photographing a nocturnal illuminated waterfront from the deck of a ship. I made my first efforts in Gibraltar and Livorno from the deck of the cruise liner Boudicca.  I tried again on the Danube and in Dubrovnik. My most recent efforts were on the Rhone / Saone last year.

Many of the results had certain aesthetic qualities, but sharpness was rarely amongst these. This year I owe a special vote of thanks to the two captains of the Scenic Diamond. They contrived to balance their vessel almost motionless between the current and the tide, providing a remarkably stable platform for photographers.

I set up my travelling tripod and cable remote for the shutter of my new (to  me) Sony A580. For once I did not mess up my choice of settings. The result was a series of photographs that were pretty satisfactory directly from the camera.

The main features of the photographs are the palatial frontage of Place de la Bourse and the many stone arches of the Pont de Pierre. Throw in the spires of the cathedral and other churches, streetlights and beautiful reflections on the surface of the River Garonne and you have a captivating set of ingredients for magical evening scenes.

Monday, 11 July 2016

No More Referenda

As a general rule I am not an enthusiast for referenda. Experience shows them to be socially divisive blunt instruments, reducing complex shades of grey to simple black and white and arousing passions that are not easy to quell after the event. General elections give almost every voter some sort of stake in the outcome; few are left utterly without representation. By contrast a referendum is winner takes all, however small the majority.

The EU Referendum eventually became necessary because all the major political parties of the UK supported membership and for forty years opponents had no opportunity to vote against a process that steadily and deliberately eroded the sovereignty of their country. I suspect that a large majority of voters would still support membership of the sort of Common Market that we were told we were joining in 1973.

Inevitably the ordinary citizen, who has his own life to live, is not as expert in political matters as someone whose speciality is politics. The failing of our modern system of representative democracy has been the emergence of a class of professional politicians with no experience of the normal world in which their constituents live.

How else can you explain the geographical division of English voting between London's Remainers and the rest of England's leavers, or three quarters of parliament being Remainers when the country as a whole votes Leave?

Given that almost all the political, commercial and financial elite spent months predicting chaos if the plebs were stupid enough to vote to leave, it is a tribute to the resilience of the UK's economic system that the immediate aftermath of the Referendum was not greater instability than in fact occurred.

Just as in the Scottish Referendum, the losers are immediately enthusiastic for a re-run. Economically speaking, nothing could be worse. Prolongation of uncertainty is a self-inflicted wound which the country can do without.

Let us look for the opportunities of the future rather than hankering after a vanished past.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The EU Referendum - A Neglected Issue

It seems to me that a fundamental issue of the EU referendum has been barely touched upon in all the sound and fury of debate.

I consider the economic arguments pretty finely balanced and the immigration problem harder to settle, even after Brexit, than is generally supposed.

But during the so-called renegotiation conducted by the Prime Minister an issue far more important than any of the trifles gained was conceded: this was the UK's veto on further integration of the Eurozone.

If we remain in the EU we shall no longer have the power to block measures that favour the Eurozone, even if they are not in our interest. We may simply draw attention to the problem, following which the in-built majority of the Eurozone can press ahead regardless.

I have explained in previous posts why the political project of a single currency was always a pipe-dream in the absence of fiscal consolidation and the sort of mechanism for transfers to poorer regions that cannot long survive outside the borders of one country.

The inhabitants of the Eurozone may or may not want it to become a single country. No-one has asked them and the Brussels elite will try to avoid doing so.

However history shows us that whenever a measure of further EU integration has been rejected by referendum the country concerned has been required to vote again and this time get the answer right.

To the disastrous unemployment and indebtedness across the southern member states, Brussels knows only one answer – More Europe. Never mind that the single currency caused most of the problems; the single currency is by definition good and all steps necessary to make it work are therefore also good.

To the calls for Britain to lead rather than leave the EU, I say - How can we lead from the fringes? The single currency is at the core of the project and we have vowed to have nothing to do with it. The Schengen Agreement is the second biggest undertaking and we have vowed to have nothing to do with that.

There is no choice available between having the EU consider or not consider UK interests. To me a vote to Remain is a vote to be permanently outvoted and our interests ignored anyway. However, unlike after Brexit, we should not be allowed to remedy the situation by negotiating freely on our own account with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile we shall be allowed to continue paying the bills.

And if you think the only bills are financial, you might just ask our fishermen what the EU has done for them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores

My story The Wild Hunt of Sliabh Mannan is up today at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

This is the only story I have ever written about Sliabh Mannan, where I live, and I find it remarkable how the landscape and the story have become intertwined in my mind. I have the greatest difficulty in remembering that I did actually make it up. As far as I'm concerned this is so clearly the way it happened that it belongs in a history book and I half believe that's where I found it.

As a result of this strange psychological effect, I suspect I now have a deeper insight into the way in which myths and historical events became almost indistinguishable in the ancient world, either the Muses or the shades of the characters or both being responsible for the inspiration and no other written records existing.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Good Clean Fun!

with apologies to W S Gilbert:

There once was a little Venusian queen
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
Who landed her spacecraft on our village green
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
And she asked me why authors of modern renown
All wrote about folk from the wrong side of town
In erotic potboilers that folk can't put down!
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!

I said if you really desire a good book
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
You'd better not judge them by how covers look
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
Though their heroines may be all scantily-clad
Though their back-jacket blurbs may be wickedly bad
Their repetitive content will just drive you mad!
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!

Now in stories which are of the space-opera kind
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
There are lashings of danger and sinister minds
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!
But I'm glad to relate after everything's said
Though there may be some schmaltz when the two heroes wed
That the bulk of the action won't take place in bed!
Oh tell me a good sci-fi story!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Grey Wagtail

I was surprised to learn from the RSPB website that the estimated UK population of grey wagtails (motacilla cinerea) is only 38,000.

I first recall noticing these birds on Sliabh Mannan  several years ago. They frequent the margins of the Culloch Burn and in  the summer they are well supplied with insects of various kinds.  I don't actually know if they can catch midges on the wing like swallows and house martins, but if they can, good luck to them.  In the winter they leave the uplands and take refuge at lower altitudes near the estuary.

Anyway I've been struggling to take a decent photograph for years. Though larger than a pied wagtail these birds are still quite small, pretty skittish and, as their name suggests, terrible at sitting still. The reach of my 75-300 Minolta lens has not really been adequate, while my photography brain is still too slow and my old fingers too arthritic to achieve wonders with my entirely manual Sigma 400 mm.

This year I have managed to acquire  an Alpha-type doubler lens to go with my recently acquired A580. Using this with the 75-300 produces a maximum aperture of f 9, which is too slow for autofocus but the camera can automatically raise the ISO when I'm struggling. This means that on aperture priority my only task is to focus manually, and I can just about do that, at least some of the time.

As a result I can now boast some tolerable, if grainy, stills of a grey wagtail!

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Is there anybody out there who can count?

Those of us who, following the projections contained in the celebrated White Paper Scotland's Future, were not already convinced of the SNP's collective inability to count, should have been convinced by the First Minister's contention that losing her overall majority at Holyrood could be described as winning convincingly.

True, the SNP got more votes than anyone else, but that still left the anti-SNP majority very little changed from the Referendum almost two years ago. It would be nice to think that in the not too far distant future the nationalists' claim to a monopoly of Scottishness would be seen for the nonsense it is and attention could instead be returned to the delivery of public services. Health, education and law & order cannot indefinitely play second fiddle to the demand for constitutional change.

Meanwhile we can all turn our attention to the EU Referendum next month, where we are told by the SNP that it will be an outrage if Scotland is taken out of the EU against its will.

Let us leave aside for the moment the uncomfortable fact that Scotland as such is not a member of the EU, the UK is, and that if Scotland had voted to leave the UK it would therefore have been voting to leave the EU even more briskly.

What is interesting, given the tied opinion polls, is the prospect that a Scottish Remain vote might very well end up obliging the rest of the UK to remain in The EU against its will. Will this also be an outrage? I await enlightenment from the First Minister but I'm not holding my breath.

Although only a few months ago David Cameron told us we could prosper outside the EU and he would himself lead the Leave campaign if he failed to get reforms, we are now presented with the unedifying daily spectacle of (mostly foreign) experts and bigwigs lined up in an orchestrated fashion by the government to prophesy everything up to and including the Third World War if we are foolish enough to think of leaving the EU.

For some reason they have not yet got round to the plagues of frogs and locusts, but I expect they will if the poll numbers remain stubborn.

None of these foreign experts appear to appreciate the perverseness of the British character, which tends to make us more likely to do something, not less, when lots of people with a vested interest are all telling us not to do it.

For my part the key issue is the crippling burden of supporting the ill-starred Eurozone, of which the UK is fortunately not a member.

The Eurozone countries have an in-built majority in the EU and can out-vote the UK permanently, especially since Cameron's renegotiations gave up our right to veto Eurozone measures that are not in the UK's interest.

Already during the Greek crisis last year we have seen the Eurozone vote to use EU funds when non-Eurozone EU-members such as the UK were not even present at the table. In other words they voted for us to share a payment without bothering to consult us. Although a fudge was found to get round this when their abuse of power was exposed, it seems very likely to be a taste of things to come if we vote to remain.

No-one should be under any illusion that a vote to remain is a vote for the status quo. The status quo in the EU is not sustainable as the recurrent national insolvencies show. Despite the lack of a democratic mandate, the EU elite have no option but to pursue further integration, including political integration, for the Eurozone.

Woe betide those EU members who do not see this integration as being in their best interests.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Last of the Spice Schooners

I'm delighted to report the availability for download of the first of my stories to be podcast.

Gallery of Curiosities has produced Episode 22 of its steampunk series, this one featuring my Victorian horror story Last of the Spice Schooners narrated by Vic Mullins.

I have to warn you that this story is not for the squeamish or those of a nervous disposition! On the other hand it would have made a great Hammer Films production back in the good old days of creepy cinema.

One morning an ancient schooner, filthy, moldering and riddled with ship-worm, was found moored illegally at an out-of-the-way and long-disused old berth in The Pool of London...

Download the podcast here if you dare.

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Wild Hunt of Sliabh Mannan

It's hard to describe how delighted I am to receive an acceptance from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

I'm doubly delighted because this is a story about the Gododdin, the old people who lived in Sliabh Mannan before me.

It's called The Wild Hunt of Sliabh Mannan and is about 3400 words.

I'm pretty sure I made it up, but the events have now melded so inextricably with the surrounding landscape that I cannot help thinking Yes, this is where that happened.

Of course when our characters tell us a story about the past it does tend to become historical truth as far as we, as writers, are concerned. I sometimes can't understand how no-one else seems to know about it until I tell them how it happened.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Seasonal Changing of the Guard

At the beginning of April small skeins of geese are already making training flights around Sliabh Mannan, preparatory to their annual departure. We used to think their summer destination was Russia but more recent research suggests northern Sweden may be their preferred area.

Just when you think they may have left without saying goodbye a huge flock of a hundred or more will make a grand farewell tour of the moor as they did last week.

Then today the first house-martin and the first swallow arrived on the same day. Sometimes in the past these early arrivals have not been joined by the mass of our summer tenants until a week or more has passed. Sometimes the others follow swiftly.

For the benefit of our hirundine friends I can report midges are already present in reasonable quantities. Ah, the joys of a Scottish summer. Never mind, there are compensations.

Bumble bees are already active in the garden, where the main mid-season daffodils have now joined the early-flowering woodland species with which we are well provided. Most of these latter are already on the way out.

After a mostly barren winter in the garden I always welcome the first spring flowers and feel so sad when they pass.  However, at this time of the year a walk around the garden always reveals new colour and old flower-friends remind us that they were not dead but merely sleeping.

The nights are still potentially frosty at this altitude, but already there is real warmth in the sun and the unaccustomed experience of daylight being longer than darkness to enjoy for at least a few months.

Despite the clutter of windmills that have recently arrived in Sliabh Mannan it can still be a beautiful place to wander about in the sunshine.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Betrayal of Steel

As a son of a steel city I am feeling particularly unhappy about the travails into which the UK industry has been forced by problems not of its own making.

It seems steel is suffering the consequences of four related problems:

  1. The last Labour government (specifically Energy Secretary Ed Miliband) unwisely decided to set an example to the world by running well ahead of the field in anti-climate-change policy. As a result British manufacturing industry pays the highest energy costs in the world, far more than Germany or France and twice as much as China or the USA. In other words, metal manufacture, as a very heavy energy-user, was deliberately disadvantaged by our own government. This achieved negative results for climate change since it exported British jobs to China where the metals are produced by coal-generated electricity.
  2. The present UK government is so keen on developing trade links with China that it wants to go ahead with the absurd Chinese-backed Hinkley Point power station project that will (if it is ever built) compromise our national security in order to produce electricity at triple the current wholesale price.
  3. Sheffield tram
    And to make sure the Chinese stay on board with that and other trade schemes our government has led the way in blocking EU attempts to impose effective tariffs against the huge quantities of Chinese steel currently being dumped on the world market as a result of the economic slowdown in China itself. Moreover we are helping the Chinese achieve a fraudulent market economy status to make it even easier for their state-subsidised production to enter western markets. Meanwhile the Chinese themselves erect huge tariffs against Welsh Steel despite the fact that it is not state-subsidised and should therefore be entitled to free trade.
  4. Domestic discrimination in public sector contracts or business rates in favour of British steel is outlawed under EU rules as long as we remain an EU member. Remarkably enough, the EU has managed to complete the single market in manufactured goods, in which the UK has a comparative disadvantage, but has not managed to complete the single market in services where the opposite applies. Needless to say, the same government whose energy policy has contributed so greatly to our problems in manufacturing trade is urging us to remain in the EU. No doubt they are worried that if the EU erected tariffs against us, obliging us to retaliate, it might even help us get a handle on our crushing Balance of Payments deficit.
Doing all we can, they say?  

Friday, 18 March 2016

Swallowing The Propaganda

Have you noticed how remarkably clairvoyant on Scottish matters are letter writers from England's southern counties? In Letters to the Editor pages of serious newspapers I keep coming across contributions from supporters of Britain remaining in the European Union.

Emanating from Surrey, Sussex and Suchlike-shire come confident predictions of how Scotland will vote in a referendum that is still more than three months away, how the SNP will react to that vote, how Scotland will vote in a second independence referendum months later and how the EU will respond to an application for membership from a newly independent Scotland long after that.

It seems the disaster of a break-up of the United Kingdom can only be avoided if the UK votes to remain in the EU.

In an earlier post I noted several reasons why the case for Scottish independence has weakened significantly in the eighteen months or so since the referendum. My view was confirmed recently by official statistics showing that our fiscal deficit would now be £15 billion, between three and four times the already hefty sum predicted in the SNP's independence prospectus. The SNP themselves have rediscovered the virtues of the Barnett Formula (by which Scotland's budget is subsidised), once they discovered they would lose money as a result of the fiscal autonomy they had vigorously demanded.

Despite all this evidence the Europhiles still trot out the Scottish card to persuade waverers to vote to remain in the EU.  The SNP has said there would have to be another independence referendum and so of course it must be true.

It is only fair, I think, that these southern experts who are so keen to write to newspapers should volunteer their services to the Scottish Government, because it seems quite lost. Whilst identity politics is based on emotion and nationalists are able to overlook the poor management of education, health, police, agriculture and so on by the present Scottish Government, there is nothing like the prospect of being hit hard in the pocket to restore a sense of reason.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Up and Coming
The Campbell-eligible Anthology

Up and Coming, the anthology of work by this year's Campbell Award eligible authors is available for free download right here. The cover illustration, right, is copyright of my friend Holly Heisey.

I am truly honoured to appear in this company. I hope as many people as possible will will download and read the anthology. Those who are in a position to do so, please pick your favourites and make the appropriate nominations.

The Campbell Award is for new additions to the ranks of science fiction authors and is presented at this years Hugos.

One minor correction to note: my story Spatchcock, which is quite short, seems to have been classified as a novella. I probably hit the wrong button.

Anyway, here's your chance to read all of this good stuff for free. Don't wait too long, because the offer is intended to assist voters and it ends when voting does on March 31st.

And you can see what I'm up against! Enjoy.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Don't Ignore the Price

This letter was published in The Falkirk Herald yesterday.

There are people who desire Scottish independence at any price. That is their right. Those who take a more pragmatic approach should think twice about demanding a second independence referendum in the event of the UK voting to leave the EU.
It may well be that, offered a choice between leaving the EU and remaining, a majority of Scots would vote for Scotland to remain, but that is not on offer. Scotland as such is not a member of the EU and thus cannot remain a member if the UK leaves.
A subsequently independent Scotland would have to negotiate for admission as a new member and our application would be subject to veto by Spain and other existing members worried about their own separatists. The likelihood is we should end up outside both the UK and the EU.
However, suppose that, against the odds, we were to gain admission. The result would be the erection of an EU border between Scotland and England. Since a major reason for the UK's exit would be to cut EU immigration, there could not be freedom of movement across that border.
As an EU member Scotland would not be allowed to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the UK. The EU would negotiate for us and whatever deal they negotiated would apply to all EU members. There could be no special deals for Scotland.
EU rules require all new members to join the Eurozone. Even if the UK government were willing to allow a sterling monetary union to continue after independence, it would not be allowed. How many Scots really want to give up the pound and join a currency system that has strangled economic growth, plunged its poorer members into impossible debt and obliged its richer members to bail them out?
Given that the 2013 White Paper Scotland's Future looked forward to an oil price of $113 per barrel and still managed to show a projected fiscal deficit of £4.4 billion in the first year of independence, (in other words around £1,000 per adult member of the population), we may conclude that with oil prices currently in the region of $33 the Scottish fiscal deficit would now be eye-wateringly large. The present UK government's austerity would look like a spending spree by comparison with the cuts that would be required.
Unless the Scottish government reckons its people cannot do sums, the threat of a second independence referendum can be little more than a paper tiger designed to scare up extra votes for staying in the EU.