Shut Up

I suppose it’s not particularly insightful to note that this has been a grim old year, and depending on the outcome of the US Presidential election it may get even grimmer, but the thing I’ll be taking away from 2016 is that this is the year we were told to shut up.

Specifically, the formulation goes: ‘The People have spoken, now shut up.’ I’ve heard it most often from the Leave camp with relation to the EU Referendum; anyone who expresses disappointment or apprehension about the result is branded a ‘Remoaner’ and told that the People voted to leave the EU and any dissent is sour grapes. I’ve also started seeing it with relation to the election of Jeremy Corbyn – those who express doubts about Labour’s future electability are told, ‘The People have spoken; shut up.’

There’s a long and noble tradition of dissent in this country, and it feels odd to see it being countered with the simple words ‘We won, now shut up.’ Eurosceptics didn’t shut up after the People spoke in the 1975 Referendum and voted to remain in the EEC, and if the Left had taken that advice a great deal of social justice, down the years, would have gone unchallenged.

But perhaps we should just shut up now. The People spoke last year and returned David Cameron’s government with a majority, and perhaps we should shut up about that. When the American People speak and send Donald Trump to the White House in a couple of months, perhaps we should shut up about that.

Perhaps we should all just shut the fuck up.

Europe in Winter

Quite a lot has happened since I finished writing Europe at Midnight. When I handed the book in to the publishers, an EU referendum was still a vague promise, a coalition was still running the country, and Great British Bake Off was still on the BBC. I remember I got my first look at a proof of Midnight at last year’s Clarke Awards do, the day before the general election, the day before we all took what turned out to be the first step into the abyss.

What a difference a year makes. David Cameron is about to become a (very well-off) private citizen, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are no more, the Labour Party is now apparently being directed by Mack Sennett, and we are being led by St Theresa, Our Lady of Brexit.

Meanwhile, Midnight has been well-received, thankfully. I was really worried about how it would go down. I read it again just before publication and it seemed kind of lightweight to me, not as dense or as textured as Autumn and I was sure I’d made a mistake. I’d written it as well as I could, but I thought it sat awkwardly beside its predecessor.

And so here we go again. Europe in Autumn, the book I was basically picking away at now and again as a hobby, is about to spawn a third book. Europe in Winter comes out in about a month and a half, and I have the Doubt again. Is it any good? Well, yes, bits of it are very good, I’m particularly proud of the first chapter; there are a couple of very good gags in there. Does it work, as a book? Just about. Does it sit well alongside Autumn and Midnight? I hope so; I’ve come to realise I genuinely can’t tell.

It’s more of a direct sequel to Autumn than Midnight, but the engine of the plot arises from stuff that happens in Midnight. Rudi is the central character again – one of the things that have surprised me is how popular he seems to be; he’s basically me, or at least we share a worldview, so it’s been odd to discover how much people like him – and Rupert makes a return, along with a cast of new characters.

It’s also been a bit strange to see how much people are looking forward to the book. I’m not used to that and it’s a little bit scary; I sense a weight of expectation and I hope people aren’t disappointed. I worked my tits off on this one, and it wasn’t easy – I only got a sense of what it was about when I was in the last third of writing it – but once it’s in the reader’s hands I can’t do anything else. After having total control over the book for so long, there’s a terrifying feeling of helplessness.

I know I told people to shoot me if I even looked as if I was going to write another Europe book, but there will be one more, Europe at Dawn. Again, because I realised there’s stuff I haven’t tackled in the earlier books. The refugee crisis and its effects on Europe’s southern borders, what I’m starting to see as a growing split between the wealthy countries of the North and the poorer ones of the South, a two-tier Europe. Canals. I can’t believe I overlooked canals in the other books. I plan to throw the fucking kitchen sink at this one. But this will be the last; there’s a limit to how many world-shaking conspiracies a series of novels will stand. Also, I like the idea of a Quartet.

So, here we go again, in a new world, waiting for a new Europe book. It has an absolutely fantastic cover; Clint Langley has done me proud with all the books, and this is no exception. I think it’s a fun book; I don’t think it stands alone the way Midnight does, but it pushes Rudi’s story along and in the process really pisses him off. I’m starting to feel sorry about messing the poor sod about so much; all he really wants to do is cook.

Anyway. Onward. Hope you like the book.

Happy Days

I seem to remember, when the financial crisis broke, that all of a sudden all financial advertising dried up. All the ads for banks, all those ads featuring Carol Vorderman, inviting us to ‘consolidate all your loans into one easy monthly payment’, all those ads for credit cards with stupid names. All gone, seemingly overnight.

It was as if the entire financial industry, having been caught out in the act of fucking us over, had gone into hiding in case we marched on them with flaming torches and sharp agricultural implements. The only ads I can even remember even vaguely associated with the financial services were for insurance, and they might have simply become more obvious because of the lack of anything else.

When bank advertising started to creep back in, I seem to recall that they didn’t focus on overdrafts and loans and mortgages and all the stuff that banks actually do – they attempted to attract customers by emphasising their role in the community, reassuring us how responsible they were. If I remember correctly, there was a series of NatWest ads which featured employees doing voluntary work. Nothing about the bank’s services.

And I was just wondering, after going through all that, how did we get from there to a place where we’re subjected to ads for firms offering loans at rates of up to fifteen hundred percent?

Europe in June 2: June Harder

So, the people have spoken. I don’t agree with what they said, and there are worrying signs that some of them voted to leave the EU without believing we would actually leave. but never mind. The deed is done and we have to get used to it sooner or later, so we might as well do it now.Petitions to have a second referendum are a way of making our dissatisfaction clear, but I seriously doubt there’s any stomach in the Commons, or the country at large, to go through all that again.

The result of the referendum leaves us in an awkward, transitional time. The news is still being digested and debated, the ripples from the decision still spreading out. Where do we go from here?

Well, we’re not going anywhere soon. The formal process for a member leaving the EU is provided by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. There are other ways we could leave, but those would probably involve terms unfavourable to us. Until Article 50 is invoked, nothing is going to happen.

On Friday morning, David Cameron announced that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister and that it would be up to his successor to initiate Article 50 and cope with subsequent negotiations about the terms on which we leave the EU. Myself, I would have pulled the trigger on the exit process at eight o’clock on the morning after the referendum, handed the keys of Number 10 to Boris Johnson, and said, “Right, I’m off on the US lecture circuit; you sort the mess out. Enjoy.” But that’s me. Anyway, nothing is going to happen until we have a new Prime Minister, and that may not be until the Tory Party Conference in October.

So, conceivably, we’ll still be in the EU until the Autumn. For its part, the EU is urging us to shit or get off the pot; they’re eager to get this over as quickly as possible and make the process as punitive as possible, to discourage other members – and there are some who might be thinking about it – having referendums of their own. But it’s up to us to invoke Article 50; for all its bluster, the EU can’t do it for us. We can take our own sweet time.

And our own sweet time is, it seems, exactly what we are going to take. The message coming from the Leave camp yesterday – after all the scare stories and 24-hours-to-save-Britain urgency of the campaign – was “No rush.”

This raises an intriguing possibility. The lawyer and legal writer David Allen Green makes the case for saying that the longer we wait to invoke Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. There is a scenario in which we have voted to leave the EU, but never actually do.

I can actually see this flying. The issue at the bottom of this mess was not our membership of the EU but who controls the Tory Party. Many of the crazier Tory MPs absolutely despise Cameron and Osborne and despise the European Union. The rise of UKIP and anti-immigration feeling in the country led to a situation where Cameron was obliged to put an EU referendum on his most recent election manifesto, or face a leadership challenge which he would almost certainly have lost. It was a gamble with unimaginably high stakes. He thought – as I did – that we would not vote to leave the EU, and we were both wrong.

The Leave camp are in no hurry to initiate negotiations – judging by the looks on the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove yesterday, the general funereal tone of their press statement and the fact that there is a sudden vacuum where they used to be, I think it’s only just beginning to dawn on them what they’ve done.

It’s easy to do stuff in hot blood which we wouldn’t do if we had a bit of time to think about it and consider the consequences, and in David Allen Green’s scenario the longer we wait to trigger Article 50 – three months, probably – the longer the eurosceptics will have to see the consequences, the effects on the pound and on Britain’s standing in world markets. Our credit rating – which George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith et al virtually put the country to the sword to protect – has already been downgraded, and there’s a possibility that they might have to face a second Scottish independence referendum. This stuff concentrates minds.

The referendum was ‘advisory’ in nature – it has no force in law and the government is within its rights to ignore the result. In practical terms, this would be difficult to pull off and a Tory government which did that would take a beating at the next election. But it’s just conceivable that the eurosceptic wing of the party might try. They already have one of their goals – control of the party – and a deferred Article 50 might be a useful club to wave at the EU in any future negotiations. It could, in a certain light, under certain circumstances, look an attractive option. David Cameron gambled that he could survive; the eurosceptics might too.

In the meantime, after all the bluster about taking back control from unelected representatives in Brussels, we would wind up with an unelected Prime Minister, which is the kind of delicious irony that only the British could come up with.

And speaking, just briefly, of unelected representatives, a word on Nigel Farage. This puffed-up, self-important bullfrog of a man is not an MP. His party only has one MP at Westminster. It cannot, and never has been able to, deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. For all his bluster, for all his publicity stunts, he has no actual political power at all, and I’ve never understood why he’s afforded such weight.

However, by some occult conjunction of circumstance and opportunism, he and his party have actually altered the course of British history, and that is one of the many things I find so baffling and worrying about this whole sorry mess.

I could address what the referendum result means for the Labour party, but there seems no point. It’s going through a period of self-harm the like of which I’ve not seen outside a Clive Barker novel, and that’s going to continue whatever happens in the wider world. Personally, I thought Jeremy Corbyn – not the biggest fan of the EU – was at best a grudging participant in the Remain campaign. Whether that had any bearing at all on the final result, I can’t say. Whatever the Labour party is going to do, I hope they do it soon, because in the days and weeks and months ahead – whether we do actually leave the EU or not – we’re going to need a strong, effective Opposition.

So, here we are, on the White Cliffs, our toes dangling over the edge. Do we jump now? Do we wait? I’m angry and disappointed with the result of the referendum. I was angry and disappointed with the result of the last general election, but this is different. Deeper and more visceral. It’s going to take a while to process. Interesting times.

Europe in June

I really wasn’t going to put my foot into the EU Referendum debate, partly because others have framed the arguments far better than I could, and partly because life is just too fucking short to argue with people online, but I’ve found myself getting increasingly annoyed with the tactics of both the Leave and Remain campaigns, to the point at which I feel the need to rant in an opinionated, poorly-argued and badly-researched manner. So here we go.

Firstly, it seems to me that ‘leaving’ the EU is something of a misnomer. To my eyes, we’re not actually in the EU in a proper sense. The Eurozone and the Schengen Area are two of the central planks of the EU project – a single currency and a single, borderless zone – and Britain belongs to neither of them. What we’ve done is negotiate certain benefits of membership of the EU, without actually being part of the project. Okay, those benefits come with other responsibilities – we pay a certain amount into the EU every year – but if we’ve managed to remain outside Schengen and the Eurozone it seems like scaremongering for the Leave campaign to assert that a monstrous Federal Europe is coming and that we will be forced to join it.

Secondly, most of the arguments on both sides seem to me to be clumsy sophistry. What it all boils down to is immigration – all that talk about taking back control of our borders (which we already control) and vast sums of money suddenly being available to build hundreds of new hospitals a year is just carrot-and-stick politics. And it seems to me that a certain kind of immigration is at the bottom of all this. No one has complained about French people, or Germans, or the Dutch, coming and working here. It’s about the countries of Southern Europe, about Romania and Bulgaria, the Balkan countries. The fact that Turkey’s membership of the EU – something which may not actually happen this century – has been trotted out as a bogeyman seems to support this. In this, the argument is only reflecting what I’m beginning to see as a schism between the wealthier Northern EU countries and the embattled nations of the South, the possible beginnings of a two-tier EU. But that’s another thing. The real urge to Leave is to wall ourselves off. Everything else is just noise. And anyway, if we wanted to negotiate with the EU from outside, the chances are we would have to accept a certain amount of EU migration as part of any deal, as Norway has to. So what have we gained?

Thirdly, the Government has just put us through one of the most savage periods of austerity the country has ever seen. Many thousands of people have suffered, and are still suffering. The need to tighten our belts and be ‘in it together’ has been used to justify cuts which have driven many people to the wall and some to the grave. In particular, the Social Services have been hacked away at, people with long-term illnesses have been assessed as fit to work in order to stop their benefits, and food banks have become a familiar feature of what is, apparently, the fifth largest economy on Earth. It occurs to me, if things are genuinely so bad, how is the country supposed to pay for the renegotiation of our trading terms with the EU and the rest of the world, should we leave? How many hospitals could that pay for? How many unelected Whitehall bureaucrats are going to be making decisions that will affect us all for decades hence? There will, if we vote to leave, be at least two years of negotiations. It could easily be much longer than that. By the time things shake out, the people now campaigning for us to leave could mostly be out of public life, unaccountable. If things do go pear-shaped, if the worst predictions of the Remain camp come true, do we really think IDS and Johnson and Gove and everyone else will put their hands up and say, “Sorry, my bad; got it wrong. We’ll sort it out.”?

Fourthly, a lot of the arguments for leaving the EU seem to come down to “I want to leave because the EU doesn’t let me do what I want.” This feels a particularly juvenile argument, a spit-the-dummy sort of argument. The rules of any organisation are not all going to suit everyone; we have to put up with that stuff in order to obtain the larger benefits. The only way membership of the EU would suit everyone here is if we were running it. And I’m not sure that hasn’t crossed certain people’s minds.

The truth is, we don’t know what will happen if we leave the EU. This is very much a test-case – no EU member nation has ever left before – and nobody knows what effects it will have. We will, of course, survive a Brexit, one way or another. The country won’t just dry up and blow away on June 24. We’ll either stride confidently into a golden future, as Leave tell us we will, or we’ll become a shattered economic eunuch, a global laughing stock, as Remain tell us we will. Or we’ll just keep bumbling along somehow, as we always do. Nobody knows.

There are legitimate arguments for leaving the EU – its abuse of Greece and other desperate, impoverished states, and its inability to address the refugee crisis beyond firewalling the North from the South and letting the South cope with it, show a tendency toward bullying, and I worry about where that might go in future – but I haven’t really heard those mentioned. All I hear are soundbites calculated to panic us into jumping in one direction or another, with very little attempt to give us reasoned arguments. Both sides are trying to stampede us. And that makes me angry.

I’m not going to debate this post – it’s just a rant and I neither want nor expect to persuade anyone to vote one way or the other. I’m not even going to tell you which way I’m going to vote. You’ll probably be able to guess – although there was a point not too long ago when I was so sick of the whole thing that I seriously considered not bothering. We live in a democracy, and this is a democratic vote. But for fuck’s sake don’t let yourself be stampeded.

 

 

Europe at Midnight

I never planned to write a trilogy.

Actually, I never planned to write a sequel either. Actually finishing and getting Europe in Autumn published was a big enough thing for me. I’ve been used to my stuff coming out and being read by maybe a few hundred people and quietly sort of sifting its way down to the bottom of the fish tank, and to be honest I was happy enough with that, I never really expected much from what was sometimes satirically referred to as my ‘career’.

But Autumn did better than I could ever have dreamed. It was well-reviewed and well-received, it picked up nominations. It’s in its second edition now, which is unheard of for me, and it’s probably sold more than all my other stuff put together. Which raised the question of what to do next.

Well.

People who’ve read Autumn will know that the ending is kind of open/abrupt, depending on your point of view. That wasn’t deliberate; I tried for ages to think up a better ending and eventually had to give up. But it left room for a follow-up, which was handy because I had some stuff left over from Autumn.

As I got to the end of putting Autumn together, it occurred to me that there was stuff I hadn’t tackled – the nature of the Community, in particular, who they were, what they wanted. I’d managed to shoehorn in a brief visit, but it was kind of an elephant in the room, and it was nagging me. Also, after Autumn came out I was rearranging all my folders and I found a chapter I’d written some considerable time before and forgotten about. No, I’m not going to tell you which one it is.

So I had some material and I had a yen to write a follow-up. But I didn’t want to write a straight sequel. I’m not entirely sure what to call Europe at Midnight, but I was trying to explain it to someone and he said, “Oh, right. It’s a spinoff. Like Frasier.” And I rather like that. Europe at Midnight is kind of a sequel, and you’ll understand how if you read it, but what it is, mostly, is a spinoff. And Europe in Winter is the sequel to both Autumn and Midnight.

Which is nice and confusing.

It also let me indulge myself, because I’ve always wanted to write a proper le Carré/Deighton espionage novel. I’d sort of used the paraphernalia of espionage in Autumn, stuff about dead-drops and brush-passes and so on, but I wanted to set something actually in the espionage world, and so we have Jim, a youngish MI5 officer in a Europe that’s still refiguring, and we have Rupert, who’s kind of an alternate Jim. I also wanted to deal with the Xian Flu in a little more depth, because I thought I’d glossed over it a bit in Autumn, so I did, and it wound up being more important than I’d planned. And so on and so forth.

I also wanted to redress a failure in Europe in Autumn. A few people have come up to me since it was published and pointed out that there aren’t a lot of women in it. And that’s true; I think there are only two female characters, and more to the point there are several other characters who didn’t have to be male. I just defaulted to male because, to be honest, I’m a bloke and I don’t write female characters very well. Which is a pretty piss-poor excuse. It’s something I’m working on, now I recognise the failing in my writing; I don’t expect I’ll get things right straight away, but I’m trying, and there are at least more female characters in Midnight. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Oh, and the title. I sort of painted myself into a corner calling the first one Europe in Autumn because the logical title for the follow-up would be Europe in Winter, which would mean the third book being called Europe in Spring, and I didn’t want that. The whole tone of the books is kind of autumnal, it’s a Europe where the leaves are falling and there’s frost at night. Spring holds out the promise of rebirth, of regeneration, and that’s not the tone I wanted. It was originally called Community. Then it was called A Song For Europe. Then it was called Community again. And finally it wound up as Europe at Midnight. It’s a reference to ‘the midnight of the century,’ as the outbreak of the Second World War is sometimes called; it also has a sort of noirThird Man feel which I like.

Midnight comes out on November 5. It’d be nice if it does as well as Europe in Autumn. Mostly, I just hope people enjoy it.

Pavane

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane, maybe fifteen or sixteen, but it had a profound effect on me.

I’d begun my science fiction reading at junior school with HG Wells and Jules Verne and an enormous, dog-eared book that mixed fiction and fact, with pieces about Charles Fort and John Merrick packed in alongside stories like ‘The Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror.’

The mid-70s were a golden age of science fiction cover illustration, and I moved on, attracted by the work of Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington and others, to short story collections – I read mostly short stories, back then – by Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. It was a wonderful, innocent time of discovery, and sometimes I miss it.

One day, going along the science fiction shelves of WH Smith in Worksop, I came across a book called Pavane, by an author I’d never heard of before. It was the Panther edition, with a very strange cover involving a castle on a distant crag, a line of robed figures queuing up before an executioner, and the disembodied head of a woman floating in the foreground. I can’t remember what the back cover blurb was like now, but it must have been interesting enough for me to buy the book. And my world changed.

Pavane was published in 1968, and it consists of a series of linked stories set in an England where Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was victorious, and Britain is under the heel of Rome. It’s a world where technological advancement has been strictly controlled, semaphore stations carry news from hilltop to hilltop, and traction engines haul freight.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. The Coda, which takes place some years after the main events of the book, seems tacked on and unnecessary, a little jarring. But it is a deeply moving book, in places, and its slow, stately, lyrical prose matches the slow dance of the title. It’s a significant achievement, by any measure. I was utterly bowled over by it.

I can still remember the thrill I felt when I first read it. Firstly, it’s a beautifully-written book. At the height of his powers – and I’d submit that Pavane represented the apogee of his work – Roberts was a wonderful writer. His prose was quite unlike the prose I’d been used to reading up to that time. I was knocked out.

But I think it was more what the book represented which changed things for me. Up till then I’d read nothing but American science fiction. Cocooned away in Sheffield in those pre-Internet days, I had no idea that British people were doing this stuff, and I had no idea that English landscape – the events of the book take place mostly around the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset – could be a location for science fiction, or be described so powerfully. I was so used to my science fiction taking place on distant worlds that it was a shock to discover that here was a book whose location I could actually visit.

The most important thing, though, I think, is that for the first time I realised that science fiction could happen to ordinary people. For all that it’s set in an alternate history, for all that it features ‘Old Ones’ – faerie creatures – Pavane is about ordinary people. The first story in the book is about a haulage contractor; another is about a semaphore operator. Science fiction, I found, did not have to be about the heroic captains of mile-long starships fighting battles in distant galaxies. And that was a lightbulb moment for me.

So I hunted down all the Roberts I could find. In his collection Machines and Men there are stories about people who run small-town fleapit cinemas and petrol stations. The landscape of Dorset was important to him – he returned to it in the novel The Chalk Giants – maybe not quite so successfully, to my mind. The Furies is about an invasion of giant wasps in the West Country.

I can’t overstate the effect Roberts’s work had on me as a young writer just feeling his way into science fiction. My first novel – although looking back it wasn’t probably much more than a novella – was either a straight rip-off of or an homage to the Lensman books. My second, though, was set in a Britain under martial law following an oil crisis. And no, you can’t read either of those – they were crap and they no longer exist. I started writing short stories about people who ran garages, people out for Sunday walks in the English woods, people on canal boats. I wrote a lot. That lightbulb moment is still with me today; Europe in Autumn is about a chef.

I’m not certain whether I would be the same writer if I had never read Roberts. That discovery of British science fiction led me on to JG Ballard and M John Harrison and DG Compton and Arthur C Clarke and Richard Cowper and John Wyndham and Chris Priest, and all the other writers whose work has not only helped shape my own but given me so much sheer joy down the years. I would, I’m sure, have read them all sooner or later anyway, but they came at an important time in my grounding as a writer, and if, one day, I ever write something half as good as Pavane I’ll consider all the hard work to have been worthwhile.

Keith Roberts died in 2000. You don’t hear people talking about him very much these days, and that’s a shame. He was an enormously talented writer whose work, for various reasons, was overshadowed by that of his contemporaries. Perhaps it’s because his work had such an impact on my own that I think he deserves a greater place in the history of science fiction, I don’t know. Some of his work, to my mind, is problematical, and I understand he could be a difficult man, but for Pavane alone I think he needs to be remembered as an important figure in British science fiction, rather than a footnote.