The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, August 21, 2021

‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’

I’m very happy to say that I have a short story, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’, in the first issue (Autumn 2021) of the new online science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine ParSec, edited by Ian Whates, now available here from PS Publishing .

The story has been long in the making. Sometime in the early 1990s I had an idea for a story called ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’, in which events like those of 1989 in our world happen in the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I wrote it and sent it to Interzone, and they sent me a kind rejection note suggesting that I try a local fanzine. I sent it to the local fanzine New Dawn Fades, and they rejected it. The editor softened the blow by encouraging me to write something else for them. They later accepted, I think, a review and a poem. But for the moment, I was done with short stories. After that, there was nothing for it but to write a novel.

That’s the story I’ve told now and again, usually with the punch-line that the best thing about the story was the title, because it tells you exactly what the story is about.

Now I’m going to have to retire that anecdote.

Earlier this year, shortly after I had read that Orwell’s fiction was now out of copyright, Ian Whates emailed me to ask for a story for a new venture he was planning. I pitched ‘Nineteen Eighty-Nine’. Ian was keen, so I looked at my old story (or what I could find of it), decided it was beyond help, and wrote an entirely new story. I’m fairly sure it’s an improvement on my first attempt.

One inspiration for the new version was the article ‘If there is Hope’ by Tony Keen, in Journey Planet #3 (pdf). Another was the article Orwell on Workers and Other Animals, by Gwydion M. Williams, which makes the intriguing point that 1945 is missing from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

While writing the story I chanced on a clue to Orwell’s pessimism that, as far as I know, has escaped scholarly attention. Orwell, it turns out, had read and been impressed by George Walford's pamphlet The Intellectual and the People.

Walford drew on his mentor Harold Walsby's The Domain of Ideologies, the founding text of what Walford later called Systematic Ideology. This argued that the major social outlooks form a historical, numerical, and political series in decreasing order of antiquity, size, unity, and radicalism. The (historically) oldest and (currently) largest group is the apolitical, followed by the conservative, the reformist, the revolutionary, and the anarchist ... with the tiniest, least effectual and most extreme group being the Systematic Ideologists themselves, who understand the whole process but can't think what to do about it.

More about this another time, but it seems to me significant that Orwell attributed political apathy, ignorance and indifference to – not 'perhaps the largest single group' of the population, as Walford did – but to the vast majority: 85%.
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Sunday, October 04, 2020


'Somebody died fae vaping. Yir better aff back on the fags.'

--- Lady at bus stop, a few months ago.

You might think it bad taste to talk about vaping in the middle of a pandemic, and you'd be right. But this hasn't stopped a slew of public health bodies, politicians, and activists from doing just that, so I see no reason to unilaterally disarm.

If you want some proper science and good sense on the topic, follow Clive Bates on Twitter, and read his excellent blog. Meanwhile, here's my own overdue rant.

I've been meaning to blog about vaping for a while. My Twitter feed sometimes seems to be about little else, rather to my embarrassment whenever I scroll through it. So I'll start by explaining why it matters to me. As with many vapers, my story begins with smoking.

To cut that long story short: I smoked, first a pipe then cigarettes, from my early twenties to my late fifties. I tried to quit many times. The annual ratchet of tax rises in the Budget reliably brought on another attempt. Surely I'll stop, I told myself, when they're over 50p a pack! Not even the £10 pack did the trick. Neither did Allen Carr's book, willpower, shame, and the pub smoking ban. One day about ten years ago I saw an electronic cigarette in a petrol station, and bought it. It was shaped like a cigarette and had a tip that glowed when you drew on it. After buying a few of these and finding it inconvenient when they ran down I soon was ordering the same brand with rechargeable batteries and replaceable cartridges. I was still smoking, but a bit less than before, and the ecig made pub conversations much more convivial and less often interrupted than they'd become. The kick was feeble, the nicotine faint, the taste indifferent, but it was better than nothing.

Then a student in a mid-morning break at Napier showed me a more advanced e-cig, with a refillable tank, and told me where to get them. That very lunchtime I hastened over the hill to Emporium Vapour at Gorgie Road, and bought a starter kit. Within weeks, and without trying, I'd gone from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day to a pack a month. I went from tobacco flavours to fruit, menthol, spearmint... eventually settling on Kiwi and Strawberry, a half dozen tiny bottles of which I've just ordered. I smoked what turned out to be my last cigarette in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2016. Vaping had succeeded where decades of New Year resolutions had failed.

In the meantime, I'd been through the battle over the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, which saw concerted efforts to ban or severely restrict vaping and frantic, largely self-funded efforts by vapers to save it. We all learned a lesson in how EU laws are made. The vaunted principles of transparency, evidence, proportionality and subsidiarity didn't, let's say, stand out. The outcome was some pointless, petty and harmful regulation that wasn't as bad as we'd feared – and thousands more people in Britain who hated the EU and were active, informed and outspoken about it on social media. I'm not saying it swung the referendum, but it can't have helped.

The real threat to vaping, however, came from the United States. As long as vaping was a hipster fad, it could be fought by ridicule and junk science, of which there was plenty. The typical experiment involved burning out ecig coils and forcing mice to breathe the resulting toxic smoke for a month. The results of the mouse autopsies could then be turned into excited press releases and even more excitable headlines.

Another line of attack was that the vaping industry – or, absurdly, the tobacco industry – was 'targeting kids'. In US usage, 'kids' can mean anything from toddlers to graduates, but let's be generous and assume it meant in this case teenagers. The massed ranks of mom and pop businesses and evangelical ex-smoker start-ups that made up Big Vape in those days were allegedly targeting teenagers with 'kid-friendly' flavours: sweet and fruit flavours, sometimes with names reminiscent of the kind of candies actual kids like. 'Gummy bears' was a common talking point. The slogan, repeated to this day, was 'Flavours hook kids'. The claim makes sense until you give it a moment's thought.

When you do give it a moment's thought, you recall that teenagers are anxious to put away childish things, to take on the trappings of adulthood as quickly they can, and to defy the conventions and pieties of the adult world as annoyingly as they can. This is, of course, one reason why they smoke cigarettes. If you wanted to appeal to teenagers, your ideal vape flavour branding would be redolent of tobacco harvested by slaves, shipped by pirates, imported by smugglers and smoked by highwaymen.

The real 'target' (i.e. market) for fruit and sweet flavoured vapes was people like me: adult smokers and ex-smokers and would-be ex-smokers. Smokers who take up vaping usually start with imitations of their familiar tobacco flavours, but fairly soon (perhaps because the imitations are not all that convincing – copying tobacco flavour has turned out to be surprisingly difficult) move on to sweet and fruit flavours. If these flavours are presented as having the generic tastes of sweets they enjoyed in childhood (and may not have tasted since, for the sake of their teeth or their waistlines) all the better -- it adds a touch of harmless nostalgia.

And that market – unlike the pocket-money, illegal market of high-school students – is huge. But open-tank vaping doesn't appeal to all of them. If only there was a product as convenient as cigarettes! A start-up company set out to design just that, and succeeded. Juul is a slim device with a USB-cable rechargeable battery and replaceable cartridges of liquid. It gives the same instant nicotine kick as a cigarette. So I'm told – thanks the above-mentioned petty EU regulations, the high-nicotine pods aren't available here.

The trouble with Juul was that these devices really did appeal to teenagers, mainly if not wholly the very teenagers who would otherwise have been (or indeed already were) smoking cigarettes. Juul and similar devices are easy to conceal, almost undetectable in discreet use, and leave no tell-tale smell. This duly set off a moral panic – at the same time as the prevalence of actual cigarette smoking among teenagers dropped to a historic low. The 'Flavours hook kids' nonsense has driven ban after ban on flavoured vaping liquids. This was (and is) bad enough.

Then came disaster.

Cannabis use is illegal in the US at a federal level, but in the past decade some states have legalised it: first for medicinal use, then recreationally. The possibility of vaping cannabis didn't escape attention, and was soon realised. Legal weed stores sell an eye-watering variety of vape pens and cartridges, as well as cannabis cakes, candies and for all I know actual leaf. Because it's legal in some places but not in others an illegal market soon sprang up. Some of the criminal entrepreneurs supplying it found that they could cut cannabis-based oils with thickening agents, one of them Vitamin E acetate. This turned out to be deadly. More and more people were rushed to hospital, and scores have died, with severe lung injuries. The source of the problem was soon exposed by the legal cannabis industry. It was obscured at first because the victims had often been vaping cannabis illegally (because of their age or location) and admitted only to 'vaping' or even, more alarmingly, to 'juuling'. Blood tests, however, soon showed what they'd been vaping. It wasn't nicotine.

The lie ran around the world before the truth got its boots on. Certain US public health authorities, notably the Centers for Disease Control, did their utmost to warn against 'vaping' and 'e-cigarette use' in general and almost nothing to warn against vaping illegal cannabis in particular. The misconception, to put it no more strongly, persists and is reinforced by various public health authorities, lazy journalists, and anti-vaping activists to this day.

That's why the little old lady at the bus stop kindly advised me to go back to smoking.
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Saturday, June 06, 2020

Best of British Science Fiction 2019

Best of British Science Fiction 2019, edited by Donna Scott, is now available to pre-order from Newcon Press. [Update 8 June: It's now available to pre-order on Kindle.] Check out this cover and the impressive Table of Contents:


• 2019: An Introduction – Donna Scott
• The Anxiety Gene – Rhiannon Grist
• The Land of Grunts and Squeaks – Chris Beckett
• For Your Own Good – Ian Whates
• Neom – Lavie Tidhar
• Once You Start – Mike Morgan
• For the Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow – G. V. Anderson
• Fat Man in the Bardo – Ken MacLeod
• Cyberstar – Val Nolan
• The Little People – Una McCormack
• The Loimaa Protocol – Robert Bagnall
• The Adaptation Point – Kate Macdonald
• The Final Ascent – Ian Creasey
• A Lady of Ganymede, a Sparrow of Io – Dafydd McKimm
• Snapshots – Leo X. Robertson
• Witch of the Weave – Henry Szabranski
• Parasite Art – David Tallerman
• Galena – Liam Hogan
• Ab Initio – Susan Boulton
• Ghosts – Emma Levin
• Concerning the Deprivation of Sleep – Tim Major
• Every Little Star – Fiona Moore
• The Minus-Four Sequence – Andrew Wallace

My short story 'Fat Man in the Bardo', originally published in Shoreline of Infinity 14, and I'm well chuffed to see it here.

(TOC layout copy and pasted from the redoubtable Lavie Tidhar, who as you can see also has a story in it.)
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Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Solidarity stories

The idea of a society of entirely voluntary arrangements has its charms, but we don't live in one and are not likely to for quite some time. Until that happy day, public services should be funded out of taxation, rather than having to scrounge off the generosity of the public. In emergencies, however, we should pitch in. That's how I square my conscience with making donations, anyway. And if the inadequate supply of PPE to healthcare workers isn't an emergency, I don't know what is.

So I was happy to contribute a story to an anthology of SF, fantasy and horror conceived and edited by Ian Whates at NewCon Press, and compiled and published with breathtaking speed. At a quarter of a million words from some of the leading names in the field, a paperback version would be an epoch-making brick that cost a significant chunk of cash. Electronic and weightless, Stories of Hope and Wonder is a steal at £5.99 / $7.99. Every penny of the proceeds goes straight to providing PPE and other support to UK healthcare workers. A significant amount, I understand, has already been raised and donated. More is needed.

They can't wait. Buy it now.
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Monday, April 13, 2020

Lockdown gigs

I'm in Gourock, writing a space opera trilogy set in Gourock. That wasn't my pitch to the publisher, it's my pitch to myself, the marching song of these books. In the end there'll be very little of Gourock in it. But Gourock is science-fictional already. The world was changed from here, more than once. Every so often you see a nuclear submarine. They'll be in the trilogy.

Submarines also feature in a novella that's coming out sometime in the next month or two: Selkie Summer, from NewCon Press. Some years ago, between book contracts, I started writing a paranormal romance as an exercise, leaving it half-finished when the awaited boat came in. An online publisher showed interest in it as a novella, and was happy to wait until I'd finished The Corporation Wars. When I completed the novella two years ago, it was still front-loaded with an opening more suitable for a longer work, and for that and other reasons it didn't quite make the cut. I tinkered with it some more, and passed it to Ian Whates, who liked it and helpfully suggested further improvements. And after many vicissitudes, including a last-minute page-proof realisation that a Skye summer sunset was about an hour and a half later than I'd originally written, it's good to go! I'm very happy with the book's editing and production, and downright thrilled and delighted with Ben Baldwin's cover.

I'm not sure if Selkie Summer meets the criteria for paranormal romance, but it's still about a young woman who falls for a paranormal entity. It's set in a contemporary Scotland much like ours, except that certain paranormal entities definitely exist and this is taken for granted as a fact of natural history. Partly as a consequence, there is no Skye Bridge.

It was due to be launched by me and Ian at Cymera 2020, which has now been cancelled (though it has some online content, and will have more, so keep checking it out). Meanwhile, you can hear me reading from the opening chapter in the online version of Edinburgh's monthly science fiction and fantasy cabaret, Event Horizon.

Another event that has had to move online is the Edinburgh Science Festival. I was honoured to be asked to give a short talk on a non-religious topic at the Festival's traditional St Giles service. I happened to have just read a book that got me thinking about contingency, Corliss Lamont's Freedom of Choice Affirmed, so I freely chose to talk about that. And as the contingencies we all know worked out, it's now online here.

Finally, a plug for a project I'm proud to have contributed to: the just-published Edwin Morgan Twenties, a set of five selections of twenty poems by the late great Makar, with introductions by Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Ali Smith, Michael Rosen and me. You can buy the set for the bargain price of £16 (UK post free) or pick and mix.

'Space and spaces', the one I wrote the introduction to, brings together many of Morgan's science fiction and space poems -- and one or two that make a more metaphorical use of 'space' to brilliant effect. Like the other selections it's a mere £4 (UK post free) and is available here.

UPDATE 14 April 2020: Selkie Summer is due to be published 19 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from NewCon Press.
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Monday, February 17, 2020

The Sage of Freuchie

Tom Nairn: 'Painting Nationalism Red'?
Neal Ascherson
Democratic Left Scotland, n.d. (2018)

This is an odd pamphlet which is well worth getting. Some day it'll be a collector's item. It's well-produced on glossy paper, with a striking cover and, inside, a fine reproduction of the portrait whose gift and sitter the pamphlet celebrates. In these pages three big names meet: the author Neal Ascherson, the subject Tom Nairn, and the painter, Sandy Moffat.

It has already been reviewed, briefly and enthusiastically by Davie Laing, and lengthily and discursively by Rory Scothorne. There's no need for me to review it here, inevitable quibbles though I may have – I can only recommend it, as a small piece of history, and a useful summary of an argument that is still influencing that history.

The title, apt as the pun on 'painting' no doubt was for the occasion, does less than justice to the content: a concise intellectual biography of Nairn by the journalist who did a great deal to make his ideas part of common sense. Ascherson saw Scotland in an international context provided by his own wide-ranging life; Nairn's intellectual formation was likewise cosmopolitan; and for both Scotland was key to dismantling the 'archaic' structures of the British state.

The pamphlet can be obtained by sending a cheque for £4 (10% discount for orders of 10 or more) to:

Democratic Left Scotland,
9 MacAulay Street, Dundee DD3 6JT

If the archaic structures of 'cheque' and 'post' are too constraining, you can always enquire of the publisher by telephony and the interwebs:

Telephone 07826 488492
Email stuartfairweather [at] ymail [dot] com
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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Writers of a Better Nation?

The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, and Nation
Scott Hames
Edinburgh University Press, 2020

How well I remember Scotland in the 1980s! Scunnered by the failure of even a majority vote to establish a Scottish Assembly, snookered by the Cunningham Amendment, gubbed in the first round of the World Cup, gutted and filleted by Thatcherism, disillusioned by repeatedly voting Labour and getting Tory ... only the writers and artists remained standing, to produce a body of self-confident work that firmly established the nation on the global cultural map. Together with dedicated political and civic activists they in due course lifted its spirits to the heights of gaining its own Parliament. They accomplished a devolution – or independence -- of the mind and heart, well in advance of its political achievement.

I remember it like this, of course, because I wasn't there. I was in London, reading all about it in the columns of Neal Ascherson and the volumes of Tom Nairn. Now and again I'd browse a journal or pamphlet from the Scottish literary or political edge. Scotland from afar seemed to have a more democratic, more socialist and more egalitarian spirit than England – particularly the South- East of England – and this consciousness showed through in the culture it had inherited as much as in the culture it now produced. And since I moved back in the early 1990s, the same story has become received wisdom, not least among writers and artists.

According to Scott Hames's new book, the real story is a bit more complicated than that. So much more complicated, indeed, that it's hard to summarise. If he's missed a magazine, a literary feud, a Commission or a Report, it's not for want of looking. The discussion is sometimes dry, the narrative always engaging. The savagery of the spats he disinters from the archival peat-bog is eye-opening. Hames contrasts 'The Dream' of literary nationalism with 'The Grind' of political procedure (characterised in this case more by friction than motion). Two features stand out, all the more because in retrospect they're often overlooked. The first is how radical an aim devolution seemed, and how bright it shone in the literary imagination. The second is how conservative – how conserving -- a manoeuvre its implementation was, driven far more by the need of the British state and the Labour Party to 'manage national feeling' than by the SNP, whose votes were read as fever-chart symptom rather than political challenge.

In focusing on the cultural and the political, Hames avowedly and explicitly omits the economic and the social. This is fair enough in its own terms, but it's liable to leave the reader's inner vulgar Marxist – if they, like me, they have one -- sputtering. The oversight, if we can call it that, is overcompensated in the novel whose analysis gets a chapter to itself: James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still. It's the most ambitious Scottish realist novel for decades, grand in scale and scope and an immersive read. Ranging from the late 1940s to the early 21st Century, the novel interweaves family sagas and stories of personal individuation with political and parapolitical history to tell one overarching epic: the growth of national consciousness.

And therein lies one problem with it. It's as if at the back of every honest, decent Scot's mind is a relentless yammer of 'You Yes Yet?' Older generations are permitted to die in the old dispensation, shriven by their invincible ignorance, but those who live in the light of the new have no excuse. If they step off the path to nationhood they sink in the slough of self-loathing – as the two major pro-Union characters, an alcoholic police spy and a Tory MP undone by a secret fetish, in the end do.

Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism.

Hames's final chapters deal with Scots, the language, in relation to Scots, the people – and 'people' too is ambiguous, referring as it can to the nation as a whole or to 'the people' as opposed to the elite. Here Scots is an abrasion almost as raw as Gaelic, and more widely felt. At the risk of rubbing it, here's how it went. Centuries ago, Scots was an official language, known as Inglis. It was used at Court and in courts, in poetry and prose. For readers outwith Scotland, you wrote in Latin like any other literate European. After the Union of the Crowns and the Treaty of Union, the United Kingdom conquered a third of the world, and English replaced Latin as the de facto lingua franca. Scots was pushed out of administrative, then everyday upper-and-middle-class speech. Its several dialects became the language of the working poor of town and country. (Except in the Highlands, where the people were schooled and regimented straight from Gaelic into Standard English, which of course they spoke in their own distinct way.)

In the first Scottish literary renaissance, MacDiarmid and others sought to revive Scots as a national language, which they called Lallans or (because of the fusion of Scots dialects) 'Synthetic Scots'. This produced some great poems, but in polemic and reportage it can come across as as affectation. Fights between the Lallans-scrievin old guard and the younger, more outward-facing literary intelligentsia flared in the 1960s and 1970s. But some new writers found another aspect of the language question, and one that far from being esoteric was central to everyday life, at least in the Central Belt. Modern vernacular Scots is different enough even from Scottish Standard English to separate the home and the school, the working class and the middle class. That difference could literally hurt, could smart and bruise, from the classroom tawse and the playground clout. At the same time, and very much as part of what Nairn excoriated as the conservative 'tartanry' of the proud Scot, the Scots language appeared in print as a quaint rustic dialect, in English spelling spattered with apostrophes, from Burns Night to the Broons patronised to within an inch of its life.

Now here I do remember personally, from the 1970s. Seeing for the first time urban West of Scotland demotic speech rendered phonetically in print, in Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket by Margaret Hamilton, and 'Six Glasgow Poems' in Tom Leonard's Poems (1973), was a mental liberation. Almost as much, for me, as seeing for the first time Highland English dialogue accurately conveyed, in the children's novels of Allan Campbell McLean. The release came from not being patronised or mocked. Only that!

Not a lot to ask, you might think, but this modest request was seldom met with comprehension, let alone satisfaction. As an issue with which to elide class hurt with national grievance, it packed a wallop. But only, or mainly, on the individual level. In a country and at a time where upward social mobility is closely connected with further education and a change in language, the typical agonies of the intellectual of working-class origin growing away from their roots and the socialist of middle-class origin separated by accent and vocabulary from the class they most wish to speak to (or, problematically, for) are widespread enough to make these private pains a social force.

Scotland's peculiar development, however, has meant that Scots has very little chance of becoming the national language. Stranger things have happened, but... Naw. More likely, and well under way, is its official celebration as one of several languages spoken in Scotland. This provides gainful employment to some, and bewilderment to schoolchildren who speak what they think is English, but which they are now taught (in English) is another language, Scots.

As Hames suggests, this linguistic and social devolution within the devolved polity serves to defuse any class and national charge that spoken Scots still has, and offers its speakers symbolic representation in the place of – or at least, quite independently of – any actual power. The identity politics of a section of the working class is assimilated to the identity politics of the nation, to which its characteristic manner of speech is supposed to lend authentic voice. What this contributes to the material condition, let alone the social and political self-confidence, of the working class within Scotland is another matter entirely. All those years after Trainspotting, it's still shite being Scottish.

Like the devolution settlement as a whole, this uneasy arrangement leaves a lot of unfinished business. Looking back on the Scottish 1980s that I saw only from a safe distance, I have a wry suspicion that somebody was running a Gramscian strategy through those smoke-filled rooms. That self-effacing Modern Prince has yet to have their share of glory. Be that as it may, the smoke-free Scotland of 2020 cries out for an analysis of likewise Gramscian canniness. Scott Hames's book is avowedly not it, but points towards that, and beyond to an unknown 'utopian' future wherein we speak for ourselves.
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