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Why I don’t understand the Labour Party fuss

First, I am pleased with the Labour Party for taking accusations of anti-Semitism seriously and investigating them. I wish other parties were equally prepared to address accusations of racism.

However, if you look at the most recent fuss, I find it difficult to understand where the frothing comes from.

So, number one: Naz Shah tweeted an image of Israel overlaid on the US and suggested that the $3 billion (?) the US spends on Israel each year could be used to aid people in moving. OK — not a very clever joke, but I don’t see how it’s anti-Semitic.

Surely it’s (a) not meant literally, and (b) actually a commentary on the relationship the US has with Israel? More of an attack on the US than Israel. And I do understand that the words “transportation” and “solution” are likely to raise hackles in that context, but that still does not make the tweet anti-Semitic.

Number two: Naz Shah tweeted: “Everything Hitler did in Germany was legal” with #IsraeliApartheid as a hashtag. That’s been seen as “comparing Israel to Hitler”, but it isn’t — the full quote is:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

And it’s by Martin Luther King.

Surely the point here is that something being legal is not a guarantee of its being right or moral? The squeals of outrage at putting Israel and Hitler in the same space may reflect a lack of tact, but that’s not anti-Semitic, it’s pointing out that some of the Israeli government’s policies in 2014 were not right or moral. Lots of people agree with that.

Number 3, and this is the only place I think the accusations of anti-Semitism are more defensible, is a comment she made before she was an MP on a tweet about whether Israel had committed war crimes where she referred to people who were saying it hadn’t as “the Jews”.  Talking about “the Jews” instead of “supporters of the Israeli government” was definitely blurring the lines, but that doesn’t seem to be what got her into trouble.

Let’s take Ken Livingston, because this is the bit I really don’t understand. He said “Hitler supported Zionism” before going “mad and killing six million Jews”. Again, the words could have been better chosen, and his definition of Zionism is that Hitler and the National Socialists made a 1933 agreement with some Zionist groups that supported Jews fleeing Germany and moving to Palestine. It’s a working definition of Zionism, and the fact that Hitler was not aiming for a successful and flourishing Jewish state is not really the point — Hitler and his colleagues did seek numerous ways to remove Jewish people from Germany before they settled upon mass extermination (which could reasonably be seen as going mad). There are a lot of perfectly respectable historians who make this argument — among them Christopher Browning and Martin Broszat. They’re called “Functionalists” (as opposed to the “Intentionalists” who believe that Hitler always intended to exterminate the Jews).

I am distressed that no one seems to be aware there are different arguments and that not everyone agrees with Dawidowitz (who is seem as the classic Intentionalist).

The Functionalist viewpoint is not anti-Semitic. The argument is that the Nazis stumbled into mass extermination, pushed by the failure of their plans to deport people, the reviving fortunes of the USSR in the war (which closed off the east as a possible area for re-settlement), the failure of the Nazis to defeat Britain and then bully France into giving over Madagascar for another settlement plan.

It has all sorts of significance for us now as we refuse to take refugees, giving the dispossessed and the vulnerable nowhere to go. Fortunately this time, Germany is leading Europe in being welcoming and civilised.

And finally, I thought this statement from the Jewish Socialist Group was very interesting.

Bored games… Board games… and kids

Not just kids. More, board/ card games that the kids enjoy that I can play without going nuts. We’ve just been on holiday and it rained. We spent a lot of time indoors. A lot.

The kids are currently 9 and 6.

Thoughts on what we played:


I had such high hopes for this. Coming off a couple of weeks of Risk (see below), I was keen for something collaborative, and we’ve played so much Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert it felt like it would be nice to have something new to play.

I loved Pandemic — even though it beat us (I’ll get it next time!). It really taxed us, and made us work together really carefully to sort out the best strategy with the roles we had.

As a result, halfway through one of the lengthy strategy discussions, the six-year old got bored and wandered off. After a couple more turns, the nine-year old joined him. So, not the best game for playing with kids — though I think the nine-year old would have stuck with it if his brother hadn’t been a distraction, and maybe if we’d known more about what we were doing from the start.

Can’t wait to have another go, though.



I remember loving this when I was a kid. Now, I can’t remember why. Essentially, once you start to lose, you keep losing and you get trampled into the ground by a cackling nine-year old (or at least, that’s pretty much how it has worked out so far). The child who is losing (normally but not always the six year old) gets unhappy and bored and although I do firmly believe that it’s good to learn how to lose gracefully as well as how to win with minimal gloating, losing gracefully at Risk is a bit of an acquired skill (and seems to go on for hours).

Top Trumps: Dinosaurs

The six-year old got this for his birthday and we took it along. It was the surprise hit of the holiday — for the kids, anyway. They loved it and would play it together without involving us. That was a bit of a relief, actually, because although it’s quite fun, it wasn’t quite as fascinating for grown-ups as it was for the kids…

You essentially take the top card from your set and choose the quality of the dinosaur that you expect will beat the card your opponent hasn’t turned over yet. Most of the time, you win the hands where you get to choose the quality.


More cackling nine-year old in this one, but for some reason it’s easier to lose. The six-year old will play most of a game before he gets bored of losing and wanders off.

Sleeping Queens

The six-year old’s favourite game and one he has loved for ages. Everyone enjoys it. Nice, not too competitive (unless we let the nine-year old play) and good for maths (ha! educational!!).



The stories we tell

J.K. Rowling is currently coming under a certain amount of fire for appropriation of Native American/ First People myths and traditions in a new story. This also allows the Scottish Nationalists who don’t like her because she doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland to get the boot in, so that’s a slightly depressing synergy.

Anyway, it made me think, which is probably what the better critiques were meant to do; it also made my blood pressure rise, which is automatically what happens when I read ANGRY things, no matter who is saying them.

So. First: it’s crap to be misrepresented.

It’s especially crap if it comes on top of hundreds of years of damaging misrepresentation that has justified appalling repression, even if the person misrepresenting you had nothing to do with the oppression and is, it could be argued, yet another casualty in the war that is being fought over the ways in which you are represented.

Angry? Yeah. Oppression and misunderstanding does that to people, especially when the target of ire is someone important. My kids’ school still has a ‘Red Indian’ week (or did until last year when a mother who’d grown up in Canada explained the error of their ways). We are not super-advanced in our understanding of Native American history here. This debate will (possibly) help us to find out more.

As Outlander appears everywhere just now, representing all those tartan-wearing, claymore-wielding hairy highlanders who are also my ancestors, I feel marginally equipped to have an opinion. I’ll spare you the details of my upbringing, but let’s say it’s just as well I never had a boyfriend whose surname was Campbell, and I mean that in a serious, bitter n twisted kind of way, not in a ho-ho-ho isn’t this entertaining some people still pay attention to historical conflicts kind of way. We have a history here. It’s full of blood and betrayal and people dying for really stupid reasons a long way from home because of some abstract concept of kingship, and people thrown off the land to make way for sheep because of some abstract concept of progress, and people murdered by being rolled down the high street in barrels of nails because of… yeah, well, I don’t know. Fear? Bigotry? The idea that only some people own the truth?

We do, all of us, have stories that give us meaning and place us in history. The Massacre of Glencoe (for example) is one of my stories — I was told it over and over again growing up — and it’s part of what makes me me, and I feel strange and a little sick when I find it in a historical romance or a thriller or whatever, because the way I learned it, it didn’t feel like trivial entertainment.

But some people use it that way, and I can live with that.

Partly, I can live with that because it doesn’t have any real impact on how people view me now. And Scotland got messed up but these things are relative, and there is no comparison to what has happened — what is happening — elsewhere. Partly, because I’ve worked with other people’s stories and I know that however important they are to us, they don’t have to be real — the stories we have need to be useful, that’s all.

In the 90s I was a starry-eyed postgraduate in Moscow finding out about archives, kasha, the music of Nick Cave, cockroaches, beautiful boys who smiled at me across the reading room, held my coat for me and then told me they were neo-nazis (didn’t see that one coming), and various other excitements that all seemed shiny and precious and strange. I found out about vodka and ex-pat merchant bankers and swimming in the Volga and all sorts of other things as well. But mostly, because that’s what my research was, I found out what the Soviet State had done to the Russian Orthodox Church.

And no one wanted to know.

As with many of these things, the picture of what the archives said happened — the careful, bureaucratic record of appalling oppression, of churches closed and priests murdered — was not the picture people knew to be true.

There were only three churches left in the whole of Yaroslavl’ oblast’ [<– I can’t remember if that’s true. My notes are elsewhere!]

No. There were no churches at all. The Soviets closed them all.


There were none.

Didn’t matter what the archives said, didn’t matter what the priests I interviewed remembered. The story that worked — the story that helped some people reassemble their world in the 1990s — was one of absolute oppression, none of the greys and the compromises and the oppression of weak-on-weak that what we traditionally think of as ‘history’ suggested was true (let’s not get into a discussion of ‘true’).

And that’s OK, because we all need to have the stories that make it possible to live our lives. They don’t need to be true, or verifiable or written down; they just need to be useful.

I don’t know where that leaves me with the JK Rowling fuss. Sympathetic, I think, to both sides.




Initiation ceremonies

And now for something completely different.

I’m working on a new ms — draft at 25,000 words (which for me is about 2/3rds of the way through a first draft — I’ll add description and explanation and additional character interactions in subsequent passes) and I need a kind of initiation trial.

So I was reading about ways in which different peoples mark adulthood for their kids and one which jumped out (although it jumped rather confusingly because the sources seem to say different things) was the Spartan Krypteia.

Leonidas I Sparta

Certain boys —  who had performed so well at their training that they clearly had leadership potential — would be sent out into the countryside to kill helots, subjugated peoples the Spartans used as agricultural slaves.  The boys were instructed to target strong, fit men especially. presumably to reduce the likelihood of rebellion (which was an ongoing concern — there were a lot more helots than Spartans).

What a terrible thing to do to children (and subjugated populations).

What a brilliant background for a story.

It’s no use for the one I’m writing at the moment, however, so on with the research…

Parenting and Platforming 1

Forgive me while I work some things out. I appreciate that people who think about things more than I do have already reached their position on this, and they’re happy with that.

I still haven’t.

Recently, for reasons too tiresome to go into, I have discovered a fair bit about the “No Platforming” struggle, which seems to consist largely of students demonstrating against speakers they regard as objectionable, and journalists etc. throwing their hands in the air and despairing of this new snowflake generation.

And, you know, how can one possibly argue against Free Speech? It’s one of the fundamentals of our freedom from tyranny, right? If we compromise it, we’ll end up in 1984, being watched by the television and robbed of words like “fantastic” and “ecstasy” (which will become, by order of government, “double-plus good”).

I might be naive but I’m not totally uninformed. I might have spent the last ten years in baby-twilight, but I do know what happened in the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th Century. I have degrees. Some of them entitle me to put letters in front of my name as well as after it. I have spent time freezing my fundament off in archives in Moscow, Ul’yanovsk (now Simbirsk) and Ivanov just so that I can have opinions on stuff.

Opinions like these:

  • Students complaining about things are only complaining. They’re not in charge of the government, they’re not silencing people literally — they are making their own voices heard and protesting. Sometimes, the speaker in question changes their mind about coming to speak. This is not censorship, it is protest — another of our fundamental rights blah blah.
  • Students protesting are very different from totalitarian governments. Perhaps that’s obvious. It really should be.

Break for a moment for me to draw on the last ten years or whatever and mumble about parenting.

If you want a quiet house and you have multiple children of different ages/ strengths, one thing you can do is leave them alone together. In these circumstances, often, there is not much conflict because what the big kids want is what happens. This is especially effective if you put them somewhere you can’t hear them.

Being powerful means you get to do what you like.  It’s true for kids, maybe it’s true elsewhere? Hold that thought.


(And, in case you feel the urge to comment and discover it doesn’t show up, please be reassured that I am not censoring you. It’s just that the comments are so crazy with spam that I just block them all.)


Well what a surpri– Wait. No one’s surprised.

A looong looong time ago, my son’s P2 teacher told us his written work lagged dramatically behind his verbal skills, and I spent the next six weeks trying to persuade myself that he couldn’t possibly be dyslexic.

In P3, his teachers agreed that while he had some of the signs of dyslexia (a real difficulty reading) he didn’t fit other things they associated with it, and so he wasn’t diagnosed.

We are now in P4, and his reading is not suddenly taking off as nice, well-meaning people suggested it might, so we ended up going to an independent educational psychologist.

Guess what! He’s dyslexic!

(I have come to terms with this in the last couple of years).

Not only is he dyslexic, but he is really quite clever, which is nice because it confirms what we thought was true — he can absorb information beautifully as long as it’s verbally presented. If you write it down, he struggles.

It’s not that he can’t read — sometimes he reads OK, and he’s still coping with the rest of his class, just about, by decoding everything he’s given from first principles. It’s painfully slow and exhausting, but it works.

And I shall skip over the guilt and the self-recrimination that comes after years of asking him why he can’t just apply himself to his reading/writing/spelling etc. when you watch your child doing his absolute best to complete a task that someone else has given him and is totally unable to work it out (word chains, in this case — where whole words are presented as a long line of letters and the child has to distinguish the whole words within them, e.g. hotchildkettledog).

He wasn’t being lazy, or awkward, or distracted. He really, truly, couldn’t do the task, no matter how hard he tried or how much he concentrated. No matter that his General Ability index (which is what they use to measure intelligence in people with specific learning difficulties) is in the 99.6th percentile.

He understands what he’s being asked to do, but he just can’t do it.

So… what next?

He does understand rules quite well and he likes things that can be made into patterns, so I think we might look at some of the reading programmes like Orton-Gillingham and see if we can use the bits that work for us.

I will say I was in two minds about getting him formally evaluated, because I didn’t want him to be pigeon-holed and labelled as learning disabled, but the diagnosis has made us all happier. We know he’s brilliant (of course) and now we have numbers that say so. It’s just this one funny mental trick of holding an abstract image in his head and associating it with a sound that’s difficult for him.

777 Writers’ Game

I was tagged by Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau series (Tickety Boo Press) and the dark YA, Inish Carraig.

I had to take a work in progress, go to a page ending in 7 and show 7 lines, and then I have to tag 7 others to do so.

I picked something I’ve just started (there are only about 10 pages so far) and it doesn’t have a name yet…

“What happened to Sveta?”

He makes a clicking noise with the gun. “Get your jeans down.”

I shove the jeans down my hips and watch him place the needle.

“Most people like to look away.”

“Uh huh.” I want to see where the tracker goes, since I might end up trying to cut it out and there’s no point making more of a mess than I need to.

Hurts. Like Hell.

And I’ll tag… Susan Boulton, Sam Primeau, Scott Maryat, Michael Colton, Ray McCarthy, Ursa (whose real name I don’t know!), and Sarah David.

Forgive me ;)

Writing Group

I love my writing group (I hate them too, frequently, but that passes). It took me a while when I started writing to find people I trusted and who trusted me, and whose opinions I understood.

I tried the website critters, which was a great opportunity and I got some brilliant crits from it, but which was also very patchy. I got some awful, truly destructive manglings as well from people who hated everything about my stories (they probably hated everyone’s stories, but it felt personal at the time).

I posted a lot for critique on SFF Chronicles, and I still do sometimes. I know many of the people who critique on there, and their thoughts are always useful, but once more than four or five people have commented on a piece of writing, things start to blur in my head.

So my writing group. There are all sorts of advantages to a close group of people who regularly critique each other’s work. I know what I must listen to, and what I can disregard because it’s a personal preference (and they know that about me). Because we’re all at about the same stage, writing-wise, I learn a lot from the critiques I write for them as well as what they write for me.

And they don’t let me get away with things. They don’t nod and tell me something works if it doesn’t.

Which is annoying sometimes because it’s always nicer to be praised for one’s astounding brilliance than to be told that the chapters you’ve been sweating over just don’t do what you wanted. Sometimes I go away and kick the wall, and maybe I snarl a bit too.

But the whole point of a writing group is to tell you if things don’t work. And I am lucky — very, very lucky — that my amazing group do just that.

Thank you, guys.

My lovely writing group consists of Kerry Buchanan, John Brady, Suzanne Jackson and Jo Zebedee, whose wickedly dark and horribly funny YA SF, Inish Carraig, about aliens in Belfast came out this week.

Oracle — Susan Boulton

This book is very clever, which is to say (in part) that it demands a fair bit of attention from the reader in order to follow what’s going on and who’s doing what. This isn’t a bad thing: the world is rich, the politics interesting, and the author doesn’t patronise the reader. One gets a sense of achievement from following the various strands and keeping on top of everything that’s happening. Things are often implied; they are rarely spelled out.At the start, the writing is powerful and poetic. As the POV moves from that character, it becomes more controlled and prosaic, almost. I missed the language of the opening, which had done a lot to draw me in, but all the writing was clear and effective — which is to say, I didn’t really notice it very much after the first couple of chapters.

So, Oracle is clever, well-written and intricate, and the author has a light touch.

That light touch makes the scenes of high emotion — almost all of which centre around Claire — extremely powerful. Possibly because of the time and culture in which the story is set, no one seems to moan or whinge, so it is by actions and by brief conversations that high emotion is expressed.

I wept. Frequently.

To balance the remarkable effectiveness of some of the emotional scenes, sometimes in less emotionally charged situations, I didn’t feel as engaged in the characters’ feelings as I like to be. Since I tend to read YA, however, and this is emphatically not YA, I suspect that’s mostly to do with me expecting more emoting and angst. And in fact, it was quite refreshing not to have it, or to have to think about emotion rather than having it rammed down my throat.

The world is fascinating: quite English-feeling, certainly pre-war, though I changed my mind every so often about how pre-. It felt like I was somewhere in the mid-1800s, after the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst the chaos of (reasonably) recent industrialisation, with a vaguely Russian serf system where workers were tied to their bosses. That made the struggle to pass reforms fascinating, and the insight into the workings of the factories was also very realistic and nicely done (I live in an area which used to be full of jute mills, and I am well aware that accidents happened, just like the one portrayed).

Perhaps because of my own interest — and my fascination with North and South — I would have liked a little more of that side of things, which does, after all, underlie Matthew’s actions and his refusal to believe in the older politicians. Having said that, while I would have liked more of the factory/ workhouse scenes, because I found them powerful and effective, they weren’t actually necessary to understand what was happening.

inside a Dundee jute millInsofar as there were weaknesses, they were things that didn’t work for me rather than weaknesses overall. So, for example, I tend to avoid books with many points of view (like those by GRR Martin and many others) because I prefer to get to know one or two characters and stick with them through a complete adventure. There are many points of view in Oracle, and while I loved some of them (Claire’s, her father’s and Matthew’s in particular), I didn’t like the switches between them (I never do), and sometimes I resented that I had missed experiencing an event and had only heard it as reported from someone else’s point of view.

Every so often, I got a bit confused about what had happened and how much time had passed between sections. Towards the end, two of the characters got married, and their actually being married caught me by surprise because although I knew it was going to happen, it took place off-screen and very quickly. I was a little sad to have missed it, but Oracle is not a romance (or not really); it’s much cleverer than that.

My only real gripe (and it’s a small one) was that Matthew, who had been a point of view character and a central actor earlier in the book seemed to fade away rather at the end. The conclusion of his story was reported by other characters. His mother-in-law was another character who vanished, and his wife.

I hope Boulton is planning a sequel. I would like to know what happened to those characters. The story was intriguing, the world was fascinating. I really enjoyed it; it raised so many questions I would like answered.

(One tiny addition: if I were reading the book again, I would make a character list. There are a lot of people and some of them have slightly similar names, which occasionally briefly confused me)



Guest post by Jo Zebedee: what does being published teach you?


My first novel is being published in a few days. Eeee and all that there. But what does it actually mean, to be published? Has it changed how I approach new projects? Has it made me more aware?

First, a wee bit about the journey to publication – I underestimated how much work was involved. I’d done the getting-an-agent (for that matter, I’ve done the losing-an-agent bit), I’d prepared a mss up to submission-quality, I’d copy-edited shorts for publication, I’d been critted and edited. I thought, from a practical level, I was pretty set to go.

I have bad news, oh aspiring writer friends. There is a whole end of things you haven’t seen yet. The edits are tougher. They don’t pull punches. There’s no massaging of egos – the editor has an investment in this book. Step up. And then step up again. And again, until it’s right.

This time, the edit will focus on the stuff that isn’t right because it’s damn hard for you to write it. You’ll be gritting your teeth and mushing your fists against your temples, trying to figure out how to make something already good, and written about fifty times, better. Best to hope you get on with your editor when you get there, and that you absolutely trust them – both went a long way to making the process easier for me.

And then there’s a copy-edit. Reviewing comments over 560 pages of a mss. Considering how to change things to keep your voice and tidy up a section just so. Musing over comma changes and colons and semi-colons, and having to woman up and just change the darn things. It’s like a red-penning in school, just when you thought you’d nailed the grammar bits and pieces. It gave me a headache.

Some things have changed. For instance:

Critting – I don’t do much of it anymore. Mostly because I don’t have time. (The one thing I’m working on is going so slowly, the writer is having to exercise amazing patience waiting for me.) But I’m also doing less of it because I don’t want to wallop confidence. When it’s another aspiring writer saying Fix that, or Think about that, we can ignore them because they know no more than we do. But I have always thought of published writers as knowing what they’re doing, which might add more weight to a crit than I’d like. Because I really don’t know more now than I did last year.

In fact, I don’t know what I’m doing now anymore than I did five years ago. Sure, I can whack out a better first draft and I’ve probably killed most of my horrors. I even know where to put most of my apostrophes. But I still have trouble shaping a story without howling plot issues. I still rely on beta readers to help me in the early stages – I need wise eyes to make it better. I don’t think I ever won’t.

Peers – my peers haven’t changed much, but I rely more closely on a smaller group. We’ve mostly grown together and, believe me, if my regular critters and brain-stormers haven’t been published yet, it’s only a matter of time. Because they can all write at least as well as me, often better. That’s the way of the writing world, and some of it is about the breaks, and some about the time we have to write in (I churn out more than most), and some just about what we want from the game.

I still have the same – mostly – set of central beta-readers. But, unlike with my first book where I asked for loads of opinions, and needed to find trends to understand my writing, I mostly stick with a more limited number of opinions these days. (Mostly the same three saints.) I think it’s because I’m more confident and need only the odd prod rather than wholesale changes. Or it might be a trust thing – they’ve been right about most things over the years, so I know to listen. But, mostly, I think it’s the growth thing – we’re on the same curve. None of us are static as writers or critters (even if we don’t all write at the same pace, or the same amounts).

I need those peers. Because being published doesn’t mean I magically spit out stories. It doesn’t mean I plot any better. It doesn’t mean I don’t angst about what the first scene should be, or if that sentence makes sense, or if my characters work. All of that might get easier – in the sense that I figure I’ll get to the end somehow since I did before – but it doesn’t go away.

Which brings me back to the first question – has being published changed things? For me, the answer is no, not materially. It’s made me more respectful to published authors. No matter how horrid the book, they’ll have worked for it. Most for no pay at the start, just speculation and hope. It’s also embedded best practice into some of what I do – the honing of sentences earlier, striving for strong words in the right place, a little more awareness.

But, essentially, I’m still the same writer, fumbling in the dark for a story, driven by something I don’t entirely understand, hoping things will work out at the end. And you know what, they do. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I look at my new project and wonder what it will be in a year or two’s time. (Did I mention I’m more patient. I am. Because publishing is slow: enjoy the journey.)


Jo Zebedee writes science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel, Abendau’s Heir, book one of the Inheritance Trilogy will be published by Tickety boo press on 31st March. She does have a life outside writing, which involves not-so-young-children, animals, jobs and a spot of gardening.