Sunday, 30 December 2012

Is it OK to boo in a theatre?

My wife and I had our annual Christmas theatre trip on Friday, going to the Southwark Playhouse to see something called ‘Feathers in the Snow’ by Philip Ridley. The preview blurb made it look interesting, a tale for all the family with a dark edge, but ten minutes into the show we knew had made a bad choice.

It was theatre at its worst; clunky, with a plot that rattled along too quickly and become very repetitive, and hitting the audience over the head with a moralistic message that stated the obvious point that war is bad. I could imagine it being served up in a school hall by a travelling theatre group as part of an educational programme, but even on that basis it worked badly and it was way short of the minimum standard I’d expect from anything that gets into a regular theatre.

But we endured it. It’s partly because we’re both inclined to stick out a performance of any kind to the end; although we were also conscious that the young cast were trying very hard to make the best of a bad job. But we were bored rotten, and by the second half I was wondering if it would be acceptable to start booing.

I’ve always thought there are occasions when it’s OK voice displeasure at a bad performance. If you pay good money to sit and watch something you’re entitled to let those responsible know that you’re disappointed. It happens at football, when the home team plays badly and their supporters give the players some verbal stick. It’s part of the blooding for stand-up comedians to get booed offstage. And a few bands have suffered far worse in being chased off stage by flying bottles at rock festivals.

I wouldn’t boo during a performance; there’s a chance that some other members of the audience are enjoying themselves and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil it for them. But surely it’s OK to abstain from the round of applause at the end of the show and let loose a bellow of disdain? After all, I had just forked out £16 to waste two hours that would have been better spent at home on the sofa.

In the end I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to upset the actors. Maybe I was too polite. Maybe I’ve been conditioned by the idea that booing isn’t something that you do in a theatre, even if you’ve just been subjected to two hours of torture by boredom. But for what it’s worth, I can now offer a one word review: “Boooooooooo!”

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

In defence of digital

We’ve heard a few more cries about the dominance of digital today, with the transition of The Dandy from a print to an online publication. As always happens at times like this, voices have been raised bemoaning the fact that they will no longer be able to caress a paper copy of the comic and that readers will struggle to cherish the contents of the digital version in the same way.

People have said similar things about other publications, and we often hear it about music. It was just yesterday that I got around to watching the BBC4 documentary, ‘The Joy of the Single’, which included a string of laments for the vinyl 45 and complaints that no-one can feel the same about digital downloads.

There may be an element of truth in this for a lot of readers and music fans, but there’s a good reason that digital has taken over. It’s easier to manage, and when you get into serious listening or reading the accumulation of records, magazines or books places a serious strain on your living space. Big collections of hard copies are wonderful thing in many respects, but they’re also a pain in the arse, and it’s a lot easier to accommodate a pile of digital files.

And it’s important to point out that all that staring at and fondling of books and records is only a secondary pleasure, and should only be worth a fraction of what people get out of reading or listening. Anyone who places more value on the cover art and liner notes of a record, or the feel of a book in their hand, than what the contents do to their hearts and minds has it all wrong. You still get the sounds and words from a digital file.

Be honest, digital is taking over because we’re all acquiring a lot more stuff; and there are certain types of stuff that are a lot easier to keep when you can stick them on a computer. Stop worrying about it and enjoy.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Saturday, 24 November 2012

What's really annoying about Chelsea FC

It’s pretty clear from this week’s press and social media that there’s a widespread distaste for the way Chelsea FC has behaved in its sacking of Roberto di Matteo as manager. A glance at Twitter on Wednesday told me that there are plenty of Chelsea fans who are fed up with the way Roman Abramovich treats his minions, to the extent that some are at the point of not wanting to support the club any longer.

The affair has highlighted some of the worst aspects of modern football, an unhealthy melange of big money, big egos, demands that will never be fulfilled and a willingness to declare a manager a failure for a short term sticky patch. There’s an overwhelming sense of it being a plaything of a billionaire with little patience and less loyalty, made worse by knowing it could easily happen at other clubs that are not as big as Chelsea. Leave aside the stench that remains from the John Terry and Mark Clattenburg affairs, there’s something deeply unpleasant in the events of the past few days.

The worst thing about it is the sense that, despite everything that’s wrong with the club, it will go on being one of the elite in England and one of the most successful in Europe. It will still have the money for massive transfer fees and big wages, which means it will have a large pool of world class players who will win most of their games, and carry off a series of trophies, no matter how much managers are undermined and discarded. There’s a lot to be said for continuity in football, but the experience of the last twenty years shows that it comes second to the amount of money behind a club.

So it’s still possible that, even with a manager who most believe is there as a stopgap, Chelsea could win the Premier League this season, and probable that over the next couple of years it will win two or three trophies. The only real threat is that the owner’s money disappears, and even then a club of its size has a big enough revenue stream to keep itself in the top rank.

That’s what’s really annoying – money makes up for all kinds of mean minded madness in modern football.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Politics and data crunching

One of the interesting points to emerge in the aftermath of the US presidential election is that Obama beat Romney because he had better data crunchers on his side. An article by Michael Scherer in Time magazine explains a lot about how the Democrats used a big voter database to identify what would work with various groups of voters, ran countless projections, and used the information to whip up donations and get the vote out before and on polling day.

I’m sure this is going to have implications for politics in Britain, where the main parties have always got an eye on the latest techniques to find an edge on election days. Data analytics is already a big thing in the business world, and its potential for analysing and exploiting human behaviour makes it an obvious weapon for politicians. And it makes me wonder if this is going to be good or bad for politics.

We’re all familiar with the usual complaints about the way politicians try to get into our good books and scare us away from their opponents. You can call it spin, distortion or outright lying, and while it tends to make a bad impression on anyone who takes a thoughtful interest in politics, it’s highly effective on those who pay no more than a passing attention. And millions of the latter turn out to vote, which is why political parties spin, distort and lie out of habit.

Obama’s win has prompted some speculation that the days of the propaganda merchants are numbered. There’s an argument going around that the data crunchers are becoming more powerful than the spin merchants, and in future elections the use of the voter databases is going to make the most difference in who wins and loses. On first glance that’s mildly encouraging. It may not be inspiring, but there’s something positive about the suggestion that the parties will pay more attention to tapping up their support and making a good impression than using scare stories to hurt the other side. It’s not sexy, but it’s clean.

But looking a little further down the line I don’t see the spin/smear merchants going away. It wouldn’t be long before the data analytics is combined with a series of negative messages – which don’t have to be based on fact – to tilt the balance. Those voter databases can be used to target different groups more effectively, getting them to respond not so much to reminders of who they support, but the fears that can scare them away from a candidate who could otherwise win their vote. Elections could be settled not by one or two big lies, but a series of little lies that touch the buttons of different groups of voters. Give it a few years, and we’ll be reading reports of how the data crunchers have helped the spin merchants bring one or other party to power.

Sorry, it sounds cynical, but that’s politics.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A grumble about Kindle

A few months ago I bought a Kindle. It was prompted by publishing my collection of fiction as an e-book, but I also thought it would solve my problem of a growing number of paperbacks cluttering up the house until I got around to a cull.

But I’ve bought very few e-books, because Amazon charge as much as they do for the paperbacks for new titles. I have even spotted new hardbacks on promotion in shops at much lower prices than the Kindle version. Given that an e-book doesn’t require the printing and distribution costs of a hard or paperback, it’s pretty clear that someone is taking a lot more money for every one that’s sold.

I don’t know how it’s broken down, but suspect the authors don’t get any more from the larger margin taken on each sale. And as a consumer who has to watch his spending I’m not inclined to drop more money into the coffers of the publisher or Amazon. So I’ve largely confined my Kindle purchases to old books at low cost, those from long dead and out of copyright authors, and the self-publishers who, like me, are willing to sell at a much lower price than those for high profile writers.

I’m not sure how the pros and cons will turn out. Maybe more people will begin looking to self-published writers for a less expensive read, which might mean a few repeats of the ‘Fifty Shades…’ phenomenon. But there’s a growing number of us competing for attention, and it’s difficult for people to make the choices without a reliable third party opinion. Or maybe people will pay the same price as for a paperback, the publishing industry will make more money and invest it in new authors. I can’t help feeling sceptical about the chances of that happening. Or maybe they will ultimately cut the price of e-books to reflect the lower production costs. Maybe.

But for now I’ll continue going to the library and buying cut price books, and rationing the number of times I fork out the full price for a download to my Kindle.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sansom over Mantel: genre fiction works

All the fuss over Hilary Mantel winning the Booker Prize for the second time for her second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bringing Up The Bodies, stirred up a mild irritation that there’s been so much praise for a work that’s been second best in its class.

My overwhelming reaction to reading the first in the series, Wolf Hall, was to wonder what all the fuss had been about. It took a lot of pages to tell the story about how Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister and helped him to dump his wife for Anne Boleyn, and although I was looking forward to the read I never really became engaged in the book. I found it slow, too wrapped up in its subtleties to sustain the narrative, and stopped caring about the characters and the outcome with a couple of hundred pages to go (although habit forced me to finish the book).

A while later I picked up Dissolution, the first of C J Sansom’s books about Matthew Shardlake, a fictional lawyer who’s drawn towards Henry VIII’s court by working for Cromwell. It deals with a lot of the same themes of Mantel’s books – the ambitions and intrigues of individuals around the king, the violent political dynamic of the Reformation, the tension between reason and faith in the minds of intelligent people of the time – but does it a lot better. Dissolution, and the four books that have followed in the series so far, convey all this through a rattling good story in which it is easy to become immersed. But the literary establishment and the media don’t make anything like the same fuss over Sansom.

I don’t want to dismiss Mantel on the strength of reading one book, but I’m sure that her reputation rests heavily on the fact that she writes in a way that impresses people who regard themselves as the guardians of literary merit. They like a book that takes an effort to understand and isn’t an obvious source of entertainment, because it assures them that they are cleverer than most readers, and they can write in The Guardian or speak on Radio 4 about how much they’ve been impressed.

By contrast, Sansom writes genre fiction. His books are often found on the crime fiction shelves, although they could just as easily be classed as political thrillers, and they use a murder to provide the springboard for a strong narrative. They hook the reader early with a story that makes it easy to read, and convey their observations on fear, faith and power without demanding a big effort.

There are other genre writers who have written great books that convey as much about human behaviour and societal tensions as any Booker winner. Ruth Rendell provides a shining example, especially in her guise as Barbara Vine. But they write genre fiction so they’re not taken as seriously by the people who hand out these big prizes.

I look forward to the day that C J Sansom wins the Booker Prize, but I suspect it will never come. 

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Orthodox autocracy

I just listened to a Radio 4 documentary on the increasingly tight relationship between the Putin government and hardliners in the Russian Orthodox Church. It revolves around the Pussy Riot case but highlights a trend in Russian society that is extremely scary.

A series of religious figures and politicians declare that any criticism of the church threatens Russian society and amounts to a crime and deserves some serious punishment. It all sounds faintly deranged and medieval, spoken in the quiet voices of those confident in their authority, and it’s made worse by the fact that they have the support of a big proportion of the public and they are slowly getting their way. One of the most powerful nations on Earth is absorbing the church into an increasingly oppressive autocracy.

For years I’ve sympathised with liberals and religious sceptics in the States, who if they live in the wrong part of the country endure some serious stick for not going along with the fundamentalist orthodoxy. But at least they’re living in a democracy, and for now at least the framework of law in the country is relatively sane. What’s going on in Russia is worse, the criminalisation of secular expression, not least because a large part of the population seems ready to go along with it.

Those of us who live in secular, civilised societies can shudder, turn away and get on with our lives, comfortable in knowing that we can criticise a church without ending up in court. But Russia’s still a major power, it has economic and military influence, and if the church begins to dominate the country’s ethical dialogue it can plant some dangerous seeds for the future. Just think of Iran with a larger army, a nuclear bomb, and a bunch of billionaires pressing flesh with the powerful all over the world.

I don’t know what we in the West can do about it, and suspect the answer is nothing – but I hope it doesn’t last.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Mrs Mills got me thinking

I don’t feel any embarrassment at admitting that I watched, and enjoyed, BBC4’s documentary on Mrs Mills earlier this week.

Who? Mrs Mills. Anyone who lived in Britain in the 60s and 70s will remember her as a fixture on TV and the record racks of Woolworth’s, a jolly, middle aged housewife who used to knock out party tunes on the piano, and sold a respectable amount of records. She probably outsold a bunch of rock bands that have picked up an iconic status in recent years.

It’s not that I particularly appreciated the music. She was a good pub pianist, skilled enough to play some decent ragtime, but specialised in the old music hall sing-alongs that give me an earache. But I enjoyed the programme for the usual bout of nostalgia for what I remember from my early years. There were clips of her on Morecambe & Wise and the Billy Cotton Band Show, several minutes devoted to her album covers, and a lot of old film of people having boozy sing-songs in smoky pubs.

I was giving in to nostalgia, and realised that it doesn’t necessarily involve wallowing in stuff that you enjoyed at the time. To me, Mrs Mills was someone who kept old people amused, and I’ve got no interest in listening to her records, no matter how skilful she may have been on the ivories. Nostalgia is being reminded of stuff that was there, whether you enjoyed it or not, and making your own associations – in this case family parties, people who would sing with a fag on their lips, women drinking Babycham, appalling hairstyles, clothes that a charity shop would now refuse, and the TV shows that kept me amused as a six year old.

That’s why in the past I’ve enjoyed documentaries on the Carpenters, who made me yawn, the Osmonds, who I detested in my teens, and Max Bygraves, whose ability to sell shedloads of LPs in the 70s was a major irritant to us self-righteous music fans. It’s fun to be watch snippets of the past, even if you didn’t enjoy it at the time.

Now I’m waiting for BBC4 to broadcast a programme on Pinky and Perky.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Corporate vandalism on Tower Bridge

Maybe I’ve missed it before, but last night I noticed that Tower Bridge has been vandalised. Looking downriver from Hays Galleria I saw that two company logos, EDF Energy and GE, have been beamed onto its towers.

It prompted a check on Google this morning, and sight of an old press release that the company swung a deal with the mayor and the Corporation of London on a lighting system for the bridge. OK, so it’s no cost to the taxpayer, but it’s still an act of vandalism.

Tower Bridge is an icon, a representation of the fantastic engineering feats of Britain in the 19th century, and a grand, slightly wacko demonstration of the architectural excess that characterised the age. It’s one of the defining images of London, a sight that makes its residents proud and impresses people from around the world. And now it’s been turned into an advertising hoarding.

It’s a step in the corporatisation of public space that desecrates the urban landscape. Any sight can be sucked into a corporate marketing campaign, and subsequently loses that sense that it is something special. When you’re ready to put a price on a public treasure, then you’re ready to cheapen it.

Tower Bridge is still a great sight during the day; but now it’s less impressive than it should be at night.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A few thoughts on the Olympics

OK, so it all turned much better than some of us expected. The past couple of weeks have been one big round of cheering, waving the flag and feeling proud about the success of the Olympics – even if the ticketing was still a mess until the end of the Games.
For what it’s worth, a few thoughts on why it all turned out so well:
-          Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. It might have had a lot of people confused, but it was fun to watch and reminded us of the NHS, something in which most Brits, with the exception of the more rabid Tories, are genuinely proud. The nod to Empire Windrush was good as well.
-          The two week gridlock we were told to expect for London didn’t materialise. In fact, it seemed quite easy to get about most of the time. So people didn’t have to go through a lot of aggro to get to and from work.
-          The trademark police dropped the heavy handed bullying of anyone unauthorised using the Olympic logo. Would have been even better if they had shown more tact in the run-up to the Games.
-          The BBC did a terrific job of covering as much as possible, even the less popular events. Despite ropey commentating on some events, asking John McEnroe to comment on sports about which he knows nothing, and showing David Beckham in the stands at every opportunity, overall it made it a great experience.
-          All the volunteers. They were helpful, they smiled a lot. Not very British, but good on them.
-          It kept all the politicians out of the news for two weeks. Well nearly, but it’s been pretty easy to forget out them for a while.
-          All those medals won by Team GB. Be honest, it makes a difference.
-          All the efforts made by competitors in every sport. Even the dancing horses. They devote years of preparation to this, and even those come in last are awesome.
There have been some stories in the media that lots of people are ready to sustain the mood through the Paralympics. I hope so, and not just because we’ve got tickets.
Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Positive patriotism at the Olympics

As one of those who was annoyed by the authoritarian build-up to the Olympics, I’ll happily admit that the Games have themselves have been a terrific experience. It’s brought out something good in us Brits that shows that we can put on a show and celebrate the good things when the time is right.

One of the best things has been the expressions of patriotism that have taken pleasure in our competitors’ achievement while not playing down those from overseas. It’s inevitable that our broadcasters will focus on the British team – any country in the world will make a fuss of its own – and we’re entitled to the flag waving when our men and women bring home a medal. But it’s they have also been ready to wave it for the others who come out on top.

When Rebecca Adlington picked up bronze instead of the expected gold in the 800 metres freestyle, the BBC commentators shared the disappointment but were still in awe of the winning performance by Katie Ledecky. It shared the heartbreak of Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter when they lost the double skulls on the last few strokes, but paid credit to a storming finish by the Danish pair of Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist.

The crowds have also got into the right spirit. You’ve only got to look at how they applauded Michael Phelps in the pool, or the roar they gave Tirunesh Dibaba when she stormed the last 500 metres in the women’s 10,000. They’ve been ready to cheer great performances wherever they come from. And this morning I was part of the crowd watching the women’s marathon as they cheered every runner from every country on all three laps.

Britain’s prone to mixing up patriotism with a mean minded nationalism that takes the attitude that we’re a cut above most foreigners, but thankfully it hasn’t been like at these Olympics. We’re seeing a good patriotism.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The odd effect of watching the Olympics

Having the Olympics in London is having an odd effect.

I've been sceptical about the Games, sharing the irritation at the prospect of traffic jams, clogged public transport, the fact that hardly anyone I know obtained tickets, the bullying on behalf of sponsors and over-the-top security. A couple of things yesterday added to it: seeing all those empty seats in the auditorium for sessions that were supposedly sold out; and having to go through airport style security at the National Gallery because someone assumed that the Olympics is going to make terrorist want to blow up a lot of paintings.

But I've tried to ditch it. I was genuinely interested in the opening ceremony, and my only complaint was that it went on so late that I fell asleep during Seb Coe's speech and missed the climax. And yesterday I watched a lot of sport - hours of cycling, some of the gymnastics, women's basketball, a bit of swimming and a couple of bouts of boxing. It's all stuff in which I would never usually have any interest, but because it's such a big event for London I've got a mild compulsion to sit in front of the TV and watch the exertions.

I suspect it is having a similar effect on a lot of people. The Olympics always draws a lot of attention, but it's even more so this time because it's in the UK, so we're watching sport that we've never watched before and will probably never watch again.

It provides a holiday for our minds, a break from our usual interests that will have us engrossed for a couple of weeks; and when it's over we'll go back to taking no interest in all 90% of the sports on show. But we should feel a bit better for it … as long as Team GB picks up a few medals.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Saturday, 14 July 2012

What they didn't tell us to expect about the Olympics

The mood around the Olympics has turned quite unpleasant over the past few days.

We've already heard loud complaints over the pricing of tickets and the messy allocation process, and the way draconian rules are being enforced to stay sweet with the corporate sponsors. It's prompted a lot of us in London to think that we ought to just forget the games are taking place in our city and concentrate on the events on TV.

But it's becoming hard to take that attitude. We're being bombarded with messages from Transport for London to expect a couple of weeks of chaos, long waits and crowded trains and buses. There are indications that people are going to be herded around the transport hubs like cattle entering an abattoir. Markings are appearing on roads to tell cars, buses and taxis to stay out of the empty lanes, which are reserved for officials whizzing between events.

People going to the Olympic Park are being told to expect the type of waits they would expect at airport security. Parts of London will be flooded with uniforms, a lot of them military. We can expect a makeshift army camp in the East End and they've placed missiles on top of a block of flats.

I don't recall any warnings about all this when London was bidding for the games, or when it won them back in 2005. I do recall a bunch of politicians and sporting bigwigs telling us how great it would be for the city, regenerate a swathe of East London and give us a couple of weeks in which admiring eyes would be on us from all over the world. But none of them told us the price for the people who live here (and that's without the big increase in the cost of staging the Games).

I can't help thinking that if all this had been brought up in 2003-04 there would have been a lot more opposition to London even trying to get the Games, probably enough to wreck our chances in the bidding process. And now we would all be having a laugh at the prospect of Paris being messed up for a month.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 8 July 2012

No, I don't like the Shard

I've watched the Shard go up over the past four years. It's been a major irritation, as it made the traffic south of London Bridge even worse and caused me a lot of time extra time sitting on buses. So it's hard for me to feel like cheering at its official opening this week, whatever Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone or a bunch of architectural critics tell us.
I will give it its due for being impressive from a distance. It's sleek, shiny and would add something stunning to another skyline. It would look great at Canary Wharf, or on a big brownfield site with hundreds of square yards free around its base

But from close up it's an ungainly imposition. It's unsympathetic to its neighbouring buildings, it wipes out the sunlight in surrounding streets, and its footprint squeezes the life out of the pavements. The area is already crowded, with Guy's Hospital, London Bridge Station and a couple of big tourist attractions drawing in the hordes, and when the the Shard is in full use there will be thousands more people jostling space. It's going to be pretty horrible, and if they ever have to evacuate the building it's likely to create hours of gridlock in a big swathe of South London.

It's a bad building for its location, and is going to be a source of daily aggravation for thousands of people who live and work in the area. But the people who paid for it, built it and allowed the work to go ahead won't be among those who have to put up with the inconvenience, they can gratify their egos and make money from the building, and that's what matters.

It's how things work and I'm too cynical to think things are going to change, but I still get very angry when the buggers tell us we should be grateful.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Why I'm grieving for a magazine

I heard some news yesterday that left me seriously upset – The Word Magazine is closing down.

This probably sounds a little pathetic to a lot people, but I'm feeling something like grief. I've read every issue of the magazine since I picked up a copy in 2004, had a subscription for the past four years, listened to all its podcasts for the past five, and logged into its website nearly every day. It's been part of my life and I'm going to miss it terribly.

It's been the regular filler for chunks of my time, anything between fifteen minutes and two hours, when I want to flop out with something that entertains yet stimulates me. The magazine focuses mainly on music but also covers movies, TV, books and often strays into technology and social issues. The podcasts have been lovely, light hearted chunks of conversation between the staff and various figures from music and the media. The weekly email has introduced me to lots of entertaining snippets from the internet, and the giveaway CD lots of great music that I wouldn't otherwise have heard.

On top of that the website has been something special. Its blog section has allowed the readers to take over, starting their own conversations – sometimes serious, sometimes flippant – that often draw hundreds of comments. It's pulled off the stroke that gets the best out of the internet, creating a community of people with similar interests who enjoy conversing with each other. For a middle aged bloke who doesn't do regular evenings in the pub in any more – and I'm sure it's the same for many of its male and female readers – it's given me the joy of jumping into fun conversations whenever I'm in the mood. And I have been to a couple of its readers' mingles, and found them to be lovely occasions.

No-one's sure how much of this may continue in another form, but the magazine has provided the focus and after one last issue it won't be with us any more, another victim of the business model for publishers has fallen apart. I've got every sympathy for the guys who set it up – Mark Ellen and David Hepworth – and all the people who work with them. They've done a great job and I hope they can earn a living doing something similar.

It's nothing like as bad as losing a person that you love, but I'm losing something that I've treasured over the past few years, and it's going to leave an ache that won't go away for a long time. That's why I don't think there's anything silly in saying that I'm beginning to grieve for a magazine.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

A bearded bishop and a big society

I'm never sure what to make of religious leaders getting involved in politics. I can understand the case that if they want their faith to be relevant to the real world, and the instinct to tell them to butt out of stuff that's not their business.

It gets more difficult when one day they say something that annoys me, and soon after come up with a statement that gets me nodding approval. As with last week, when the CofE claimed that gay marriage would undermine its status for us hetrosexuals, and today when the Archbishop of Canterbury has reportedly said that David Cameron's big society is a load of old tosh, designed as an excuse for the state to stop supporting people who its support.

Overall I find Rowan Williams an agreeable character. He's had to fudge a few things to keep the CofE together as the gap between its liberal leanings in most of the world and its bigots in Africa gets wider, but I'm sure it's loyalty to the institution that drives him; and I suspect that if it comes to the crunch he would be ready to wave goodbye to the ones who want to stay in the 19th century.

I also go along with his view on the big society. It's another twist on the Conservative preoccupation with shrinking the state, cutting the tax bill for rich people, and leaving more vulnerable people dependent on charity.

But I'm wary of making myself a hypocrite by saying that it's alright for the CofE, or any church, to give Cameron some stick in public but that it ought to stay quiet about an issue like gay marriage where it's lining up with a lot of conservatives.

So I think the church should say its bit about big social issues, even if it's straying into politics. Us liberal types can always argue when we don't like what it says, and the fact is that in Britain the various churches, even the establishment CofE, don't have the weight to swing an issue one way or the other.

I just fear what would happen if some of the evangelist churches here might get well organised and start chucking their weight about in the political arena. You've only got to look at the States to see how intolerant and nasty it can get. As long as our wooly old CofE and people like its bearded archbishop are the main religious force in this country it's better for all of us. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Why has the CofE got nasty over gay marriage?

I'm an atheist, so maybe this is none of my business. Then again, I'm English, and the Church of England is the officially established church of the country, with a bunch of its bishops sitting in our legislature, so it is my business. And I reckon it's the business of anyone who wants to see this become a more civilised place to live. Why has it become so snotty about the idea of gay marriage?

My first reaction to the CofE's warning that letting gays marry will spoil it for us heterosexuals who have tied the knot was mild surprise. I thought it had grown up over the fact that there is a large minority of people who fall in love with others of their own sex, and had quietly accepted the idea that they have the same rights as the rest of us. After some thought I became mildly annoyed. Doesn't the church, or at least the cabal in Lambeth Palace who wrote the relevant statement, realise that the majority of people have got over the homophobic thing?

Then I thought of the reports that David Cameron is in favour of it gay marriage, even prepared for the government to legislate for it, and I got really annoyed. I had found myself taking sides with a Conservative prime minister against the cuddly old CofE. That made me really annoyed. I've got used to thinking the church was the part of the establishment that spoke out against the excesses of Conservative governments, and don't like to think of it redrawing lines to put us liberal types alongside Cameron and his mates.

It's nonsense to suggest that allowing gay people to marry will weaken the institution for the rest of us. People regard marriage as a serious business and won't stop because the option becomes open to a group who were previously excluded. There's something profoundly daft in the idea that millions of marriages would suddenly be in crisis if churchmen can marry gay people.

I suspect that the little group who put out the statement know that as well, but they're more concerned with staying sweet with the reactionary minority of Anglicans in the UK, and the vocal bigots who seem to hold the reins of its diocese in Africa. But in placing an emphasis on internal politics they're shackling themselves to social attitudes that prevailed a hundred years ago but have thankfully been disintegrating here over the past twenty.

Despite being sceptical about religion for a long time I've usually found the CofE quite agreeable. Over the past few decades it's had a 'live and let live' attitude, hasn't been too sanctimonius and some of its people have done good work in communities around the world. And I know that some of its clergy are really angry over what happened last week.

But this is making me wary. I still believe most Anglican clergy here are tolerant, open minded types, but if the church makes too many accommodations to its overseas homophobes it's going to be tainted with their bullying bigotry. Then it wouldn't have a place in a civilised country.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Self-published and satisfied

I'm currently feeling very pleased with myself as I've finally made my collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, available as an e-book on Amazon.

It's not what I dreamed of for a publishing debut over the years I slogged away along the traditional route, but I got fed up with trying to impress people in the business a few years ago. I've got enough confidence in my work to know that it's better than a lot of stuff that does get published, even some of the books on the bestseller lists. But I'm not famous for something else, I don't know lots of people in the industry and I've never had the shred of luck that comes with a manuscript falling onto the right desk at the right time. And self-publishing seems to be following the route set by the music industry in using the internet as a route to get new work out there – good and bad – without the approval of people who often get it wrong. So I figure my book has as much legitimacy as any fiction a big company will publish by a comedian/actor/politician or the brother-in-law of the woman who runs the marketing department.

At the moment I'm also feeling very well disposed towards Amazon. It makes it easy for writers to self-publish for Kindle; I had to spend some time fiddling about with an HTML version of my manuscript, and it's one of the few times that I've actually read terms and conditions from beginning to end, but I expect it would have been much harder to do everything for myself, and the book's now available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card.

The next step – making a hard copy available through Amazon's CreateSpace – looks more daunting. I spent some time on its website this morning, realised it all works from the US, and shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the US tax authorities, who seem to have a reputation akin to the Stasi. Also, the first effort to format the book didn't work, and I suspect that getting the ODF document into shape will have me growling at the computer and muttering a few profanities.

But I don't mind. The book's out there, people can find it, and I've broken through that mental barrier between being an aspiring fiction writer and someone who does it for real. And I know that I've already sold some copies.

All I've got to do is get lots of people interested in buying the book, hopefully on both sides of the Atlantic. That could be even harder than writing it, but facing up to that is a lot better than the thought of more approaches literary agents. I've got a target market among atheists and a strategy for tapping it into it through social media, I've started to hone my tweeting skills, set up a website, and begun to blow the trumpet at anyone who may be interested.

This is fun.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Why I can't get grumpy over the Jubilee

I'm not a royalist by nature. If I'd been alive during the civil war I would have lined up with Oliver Cromwell, and my usual reaction to being asked about the Royal Family is that I'll turn out to watch them the day they're all led to the guillotine.

That's a tongue in cheek grumpiness coming out, provoked by the things that annoy all us sceptics: the sycophantic coverage they still receive from much of the media; the fact that they're so stupendously rich and don't seem particularly generous towards the less fortunate; the fact that the Queen has humiliated her oldest son by keeping him waiting until he's an old man to do the job he's supposedly been born to do. They never seem particularly lovable to me, and if we have to have royalty I'd rather it was the more modest, less expensive type they enjoy in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

So I should be getting exceedingly grumpy at the prospect of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, an ostentatious display of nonsense to mark her sixty years of waving, shaking hands and cultivated blandness. Considering that the country's skint, isn't it inappropriate to splash out tens of millions (or is it more?) so that lot of people can wave their flags and shout "Gawd bless er!"

Maybe it is, but I can't be bothered getting wound up over it. It won't cost a fraction of what governments have spent on the bank bail-outs, or the war in Afghanistan, or retaining the Falklands, or a bunch of PFI contracts that bumped up the cost of public services. And the brainwashing effect is minimal compared to a single edition of the Daily Mail or the Sun, or whatever nonsense they teach the kids in faith schools. And while the Royal Family are not the best role models, they're not as bad as some of the characters in England's squad for Euro 2012, who are going to attract a much more intense form of hero worship (at least until they get knocked out in the group stages).

Such occasions may even do some good in spreading a little good feeling. A lot of people obviously like standing outside waving a plastic Union Jack if the Queen comes within 200 yards, and a lot more are happy watching it on TV for hours on end, even the bits when the Royals are indoors and they can only see day trippers standing in the rain. I wonder if there may be some households where the woman and kids get a day or two's break from domestic violence when there's an event like this on the box.

I might even go out to watch some of it first hand this time around. I live two minutes from a spot where the river pageant will pass, and the idea of watching an armada cruise past on a sunny day is quite agreeable, even if it will be crowded. I'll suspend my grumpiness for a couple of days and go with the patriotic flow.

And when it's all over, I'll go back to saying they should be led to the guillotine.