As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes go to the Museum of Classical Archaeology with a friend of mine, to try and draw some of their magnificent collection of casts of Greek and Roman Statues. I’m not particularly good at drawing, and the Greeks and Romans were very good indeed at sculpting, so, as much as anything, it’s an exercise in appreciation: sitting in front of amazing images, and just taking them slowly in.

One of my favourites is this bust of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In my imagination, she is looking down at the human world, but, although I’ve tried many times, I’ve never been able to capture her expression in a drawing – or for that matter in words. She is interested, certainly, but in what way? Is this the expression of a scientist observing an ant’s nest, or a chess player considering her next move? Or maybe a falconer standing on a cliff and watching her hawk below as it circles above its prey?

We have so much acuity in recognising tiny nuances in faces, and yet it is extraordinarily hard to reproduce them, and even harder to name them.

Patrick Hamilton

“He was not a major writer,” says Doris Lessing a few lines into her otherwise appreciative introduction to my copy of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. This makes me wonder what one has to do to qualify as a ‘major’ writer? I think him quite wonderful, and, having recently reread The Golden Notebook, which I loved back in the seventies, I have a feeling his work may age rather better than Lessing’s own.

I only knowingly came across Hamilton for the first time a few years ago (though in fact I have long been a fan of the Hitchcock film, Rope, which is based on a Patrick Hamilton play.) He was recommended to me by my friend the late Eric Brown, who had a real feeling for British authors of the mid-twentieth century. I promptly devoured Slaves of Solitude, Hangover Square and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and was really blown away by them: the writing, the humanity, the originality. What’s more, when I recommended these books to other people, they either turned out to already be fans, or read the books and were as enthusiastic as I was (except in the case of my wife, to be fair, who is not prone to reckless enthusiasm, and thought Slaves only ‘quite good’). I have recently reread those first two again (or to be more accurate, listened to them this time as audiobooks), and remain very impressed. Slaves is my favourite, but with Hangover Square a very close second, and I particularly liked the third book of the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy, The Plains of Cement, in which the barmaid Ella has to choose between marrying a horribly unattractive older man who treats her like a child, and depriving her frail mother of a chance to come out of poverty.

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Collective Punishment

And, on a somewhat similar topic to my last post, is there such a thing as collective guilt? Is it acceptable to mete out suffering and death to people, simply because they belong to the same nation, or the same ethnic group, as people who have done wrong to you and yours?

Plenty of people think it is acceptable, and all nations act as if they think it is when they go to war, since all wars involve death and suffering for non-combatants who could have had nothing to do with whatever offence their compatriots have committed.

What makes no sense is to condemn the ‘killing of innocents’ by the other side, but defend and condone it when it’s done by your own.

(No logical sense, I should say. It certainly serves a psychological and sociological purpose.)


There’s the old-fashioned type of massacre, and the new kind. In the old kind, people are murdered en masse by others who are right there in front of them. Men, women, children may be killed indiscriminately, buildings may be looted and set alight, girls and women may be raped, but, whatever exactly the massacre consists of, it’s done by people who can see with their own eyes both their victims’ faces and the direct consequences of their own actions.

In the modern kind of massacre, the killing is done from the sky by people who have never met the folk they kill and don’t have to see how they die. This second kind can be as deadly or deadlier than the first – in World War II, for instance, a hundred thousand people were killed in a single night’s raid on Tokyo, many of them burnt alive- but the aircrews can fly back to base without witnessing the burnt and broken bodies they’ve left behind them, the screaming children covered in blood, the frantic parents clawing at the rubble…

We tend to be less appalled, less morally outraged, by the second kind than the first, to the point that bombing raids are not usually even described as massacres. Like the people who do the killing, we seem to buy into the idea that there’s something less culpable about murdering people you don’t ever meet, than doing it face to face. And certainly I find it easier to picture myself pushing a button to release a bomb, even when I know the bomb will kill and maim children, than it is to imagine myself, say, plunging a bayonet into a terrified child. But is there really a moral distinction? Or is it just that the former makes us feel less squeamish?

To the Stars and Back: stories in honour of Eric Brown

Cover image: To the Stars and Back

I’m proud and pleased to have had a story selected for this collection, which has been put together by Ian Whates at Newcon Press in honour of the late Eric Brown who died last year.

Eric was well-known and well-loved in the British science fiction world. He was a warm, gentle, unassuming man without a trace of arrogance or pretentiousness, and was an exceptionally prolific writer, not just in science fiction, but in many genres including children’s books and crime novels. Yet he’d never read a book until he was in his teens, when he first encountered the work of Agatha Christie. This (as Eric described it) opened up what felt like a magical and entirely new world to him to which he proceeded to dedicate himself, as a reader, writer and reviewer.

The stories in this collection are written by some of his many writer friends. Some of them (I’ve only read a couple so far) refer directly to Eric and his world. Mine doesn’t, but I like to think it’s a story he would have approved of, and perhaps even one that he might have written. It’s called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom.’

Here is the Guardian’s obituary for Eric (who was the paper’s SF critic for many years). The book is available now.

Richer than you think

I was struck by this article which showed that the carbon emissions of the top 10% by income of the global population are as high as those of the bottom 50%. The top 10% ‘encompasses most of the middle classes in developed countries’, the article points out, or anyone earning more than £32,000 ($40,000).

(The article doesn’t make clear, annoyingly, whether it is talking about disposable income or gross income, but £32,000 is roughly the median disposable income in the UK. The median disposable income of the UK’s poorest 20% is £14,500.)

The article makes the point that failing to allow for this fact can mean that those least responsible can end up paying a proportionately higher price for measures intended to reduce carbon emissions than those who are much more responsible, which helps to explain resistance to such measures from poorer people (the article gives the example of the ‘yellow vests’ movement in France protesting against a hike in fuel prices.) This is not the only instance, I think, of measures supported by the liberal middle classes which are resisted by poorer people on whom they more directly impact – a phenomenon that can result in a rather spurious sense of moral superiority on the part of liberal middle class folk.

The more general point I take from this is that many people who do not see themselves as rich, or as extravagant consumers – indeed many people who think they are entitled to be richer than they are, and identify themselves as being among the victims of injustice – are in fact, in global terms, rich and extravagant.

Let loose

Here I am (on the right) signing copies of the Ballard-themed anthology, Reports from the Deep End at Forbidden Planet in London on Saturday. To my right are Maxim Jakubowski (who co-edited the book with Rick McGrath, as well as contributed to it), Pat Cadigan and Andrew Hook. Why do we SF people have such a preference for wearing black?

Chemo has made me even balder than usual. I’ve even lost all my nostril hairs. (This makes my nose drip suddenly and without warning, which can be embarrassing). But I’ve had my last dose of those horrible toxins and am on the way up. I came down to London on the train which I wouldn’t have attempted even a week earlier. It felt great to be doing things again.

Of the Devil’s party without knowing it

Some further, possibly not very coherent, thoughts carrying on from a previous post. In that post, I expressed my increasing dissatisfaction with TV nature documentaries which, on the one hand, mainly show scenes of predators hunting, or male animals fighting for control of females, accompanied by the kind of tense, exciting, sinister music that I associate with action scenes in movies, and on the other invite us to see nature as something fragile and vulnerable and in need of protection. Why is an orca drowned in a fishing net tragic and pitiful, but a baby seal being tormented by orcas a thrilling spectacle?

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I wrote a post exactly a year and a day ago, in which I reflected on my feelings during a brief period when I neurotically imagined I might have cancer. This is funny because I actually do have cancer right now (though not the kind I feared), and am midway through an 18 week programme of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is unpleasant. I spend a morning every three weeks having powerful toxins put into my veins and my spine. I’m aware of the poison in my system straight away, but after about 5 days it dominates everything. (And it is poison, though it’s designed to kill cancerous cells before it kills too many others). I feel exhausted and slightly nauseous, there is a permanent unpleasant taste in my mouth, and food tastes absolutely disgusting, like glutinous cardboard. Even water tastes unpleasant. For several days in each cycle it’s almost impossible to eat at all, and I don’t feel up to doing anything except lying down and trying to dissociate from my own experience.

Gradually this eases. It becomes easier to eat, though it remains a rather revolting experience with no pleasure in it. (I never realised until now how much the little treats that are meals help to get me through the day.) For the final few days of the three week cycle, I start to feel a bit more normal, and up to doing things like gardening jobs. Then the whole cycle begins again, but with the twist that there’s a cumulative aspect to it, so that the nastiest bit lasts longer and is a little more unpleasant each time.

During the first cycle I attempted to do some writing, but I’ve given up on that. I’ve pretty much given up on serious reading too. Not only food but pretty much everything else is polluted by the poison. My book diet is mainly audiobooks that don’t ask anything of me, but simply pass the time, or help me to settle into sleep. I’m currently listening to Sherlock Holmes stories, though I’ve never been interested in crime writing: the simple formula chunders round, the problem is resolved without my having to care about anything, and another 45 minutes have gone by.

Giving up on writing isn’t just about lack of energy, it’s also about what’s in my head. This process makes me aware of the disgustingness of the body, of being trapped in the body, no matter what, and my mind goes very quickly to places of horror, those awful places in our world where people would do anything to be released from existence, but must continue to exist anyway, and continue to inhabit the bodies that torment them.

I mean, who would want to read anything that continued for any length of time in the mood of this post?