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Life Changing Events

A few days ago Stevie Turner posted on this subject, taking her cue from an earlier post by Colline Kook-Chun. It inspired me to think about some of the events that influenced the direction my life has taken.

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  1. My father’s death in action in 1943. Had he survived the war, who knows what my life would have been like? I would probably have been brought up as a Londoner, since both parents were from there. I certainly would not have gone, at age 10¾ to a boarding school established for boys who had lost one or both parents. The school still exists, although the majority of pupils these days pay expensive fees. I shall be back there later this year celebrating 60 years since I left. Thanks to modern technology, many of my contemporaries communicate regularly with each other despite being scattered in different parts of the world.
  2. Meeting my wife in the summer of 1961. I was 19, she 16. I proposed in the early hours of December 27th, as I walked her home from the Boxing Night dance. We kept our engagement secret until her 17th birthday in June 1962 and were married in September 1963.
  3. Discovering, in the spring of 1965 as we moved into our first new house, that she was pregnant. We had not planned to start a family quite so soon but our son brought a new phase in our lives as a family unit and, as you will discover below, led to us coming to live in Ireland.
  4. Joining the staff at the Engineering HQ of a large corporation in the summer of 1968. That took me to South Africa and eventually to East Lincolnshire. Altogether I worked for over 18 years for that corporation and the pension I paid into now provides about 1/3rd of my annual income. It also led to:
  5. Being elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. I was one of 4 Liberals elected that year. The other two parties had 35 and 36 members so we held the ‘balance of power’, able to veto any proposal from either of the other parties. I like to think we used this power wisely. It was certainly extremely time consuming because, in order to do the job, we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee and working party.
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    The Humber Bridge. Image via Scunthorpe Telegraph

    My employer was extraordinarily generous with allowing me time off to do this, but after a year and a half I was offered the choice: cut down on your council activities or take redundancy. The redundancy offer was generous and I accepted, having visions of a new career as a writer and politician. After working, unpaid, for the party in the run-up to the 1987 General Election I needed to find some alternative source of income which takes us to:

  6. Our shop. We decided that, since Freda had worked all of her life in shops, latterly as manager of a charity shop, we should set up our own shop. I would look after the administration whilst she worked ‘front of house’. I researched the market and decided that Cleeethorpes could benefit from having a quality glass, china and giftware outlet. A unit was available in a building belonging to a kitchen design specialist who had his show-room upstairs. This seemed like an excellent fit. I talked to potential suppliers, put together a business plan and everything looked promising until the building went on sale. The owner’s plan to increase his income by creating and letting units had not worked out. Any thought that the new owner might still be interested in having us as a tenant was dashed when planning permission to open a fast food outlet was applied for.

    The next premises we looked at meant a complete change of plan. It was a moderately successful food retailer. The owner, a chef, prepared a range of chilled ready-meals in a kitchen at the back which he sold in the shop, alongside the usual deli-type goods and speciality foods. His recipes had been so successful that he had taken a small factory unit in Grimsby and wanted someone to take on the retail business, with him continuing to supply the popular ready meals. We opened in September and did great business in the run up to Christmas. Then the chef lost a big contract and had to close the unit so we lost our main supplier. We struggled on for the next few months but the risk involved in food retailing is enormous and we just could not compete with the supermarkets who were starting to develop their own deli counters and chilled ready meals.

    I got a part-time job writing business profiles for a regional business magazine but in the May 1989 election I lost my council seat and returned to my original career as an Engineer.

  7. Our son’s marriage in 1993. His wife is Irish and in due course they moved to Dublin with their daughter. So, when considering retirement options in 2006, moving to Ireland to be near them was a ‘no brainer’. More than eleven years on we are still here, enjoying life in a small Irish country town where we have met many new friends, some through the writing group to which I belong, and some through the support centre for people touched by cancer where we both volunteer.

At the end of Stevie’s post are two questions, originally posed by Colline. Here they are, with my answers:

  1. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s… a Ryanair jet bringing home the owner of the Grand National winning horse and offering free drinks to all the passengers
  2. What music do you like: Jazz, Folk, Rock, Blues, Broadway/West End Musical scores.

Thanks, Colline and Stevie, for the inspiration. I wonder how many of my followers will be tempted to follow suit?

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Lurking in the Cafe and Bookstore #2

This visit to Sally’s place was planned a while ago. We had a long chat, listened to music and cooked a spicy, if imaginary, joint. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being part of it.

via Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Open House Sunday Interview with author Frank Parker

The Politics of Place Names

I suppose that by now everyone is familiar with the way the names of the Indian cities of Mumbai/Bombay and Kolkata/Calcutta, or Beijing/Pekin in China, have been returned to their local designations.

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The city of Mumbai – image via http://media2.intoday.in

Many African cities, and even whole nations, are now similarly referred to by their African names in preference to those conferred upon them by the colonial powers.

And in the former Soviet Union the names of places have changed as political upheavals evolved.

People outside of the British Isles might be less aware of the political minefield that surrounds the use of certain place names and geographical terms in Ireland.

One reader of A Purgatory of Misery recently took me to task over my use of some of the place names and geographical terms in that book.

I’ll begin with the one I just used. To me, and to many people, including the compilers of the Wikipedia entry for the term, “The British Isles” simply means the group of islands on the western edge of Europe that includes Britain and Ireland. However, in Ireland the use of the term is anathema because of the fraught relationship between the two largest members of the archipelago as documented in my book. So is any reference to the larger island as “the mainland”.

In the book’s description on Amazon I mistakenly referred to the 1845-52 famine as “the worst man-made disaster to afflict Great Britain”, forgetting that Ireland is not, and never was, a part of Great Britain. The full designation of the kingdom is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Between 1800 and 1922 it would have been “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.

But my biggest mistake – and it is one I ought never to have made – was in referring to the city of Derry as Londonderry.

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The Peace Bridge over the River Foyle in Derry, N.I. Image via startacus.net

I will not go into the history of the dispute over that name, rather I will refer you to this Wikipedia entry, this report of a Judicial Review, and this news report about a debate in the city that took place as recently as 2015.

These will give you a flavour of the problem, as will this quotation from a Unionist Politician during a debate in the British Parliament in 1984: “Until the 1960s there was a happy use of both Londonderry and Derry. I am a member of an organisation known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and it is proud to have that name. The Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who come from that area are happy to call themselves Derrymen. It was a matter that did not provoke excitement and it certainly was not taken as being an offensive remark to say that one was from Derry.”

No wonder the question of the border between the two parts of the island is a deal breaking issue in the negotiations over Brexit.

And the book? I’ve made the requested changes, and added a note at the beginning:

The use of the term “British Isles” throughout this book is intended as a shorthand description of the group of islands that lies at the Western edge of Europe. For reasons that will quickly become apparent to the reader, many Irish people have a deep resentment for any use of the word “British” in connection with their homeland. No offence is intended. This book is aimed at an international readership and we trust the term will be acceptable to the majority of such readers.

The same applies to the use of the expression “mainland” to distinguish the largest member of the group, including England, Scotland and Wales, from the island of Ireland.

I’m pleased to be able to report that the book continues to garner five star reviews. Even my harshest critic, in his private communication, said it was “[a] well written and extremely intelligent . . . short, succinct guide to the Famine”, and said it deserved to succeed.

There may be more good news about it early in 2018 – stay tuned!

The Poor Law Inspector – Update.

I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.

First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.

I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.

Why ‘Purgatory’?

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax. Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Great Irish Famine. Image from wikipedia

Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.

Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.

I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?

If Writing is not Political, What’s the Point?

A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?

Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?

My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.

Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?

Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.

Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.

Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?

Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.

When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?

You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.

Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?

Saturday Sound-off: Weak, Unstable and Disunited

Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.

Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.

Warning Signals

The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.

It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.

What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.

To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.