Category Archives: Meanderings on history

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.

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…

Celtic Connections — Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Here’s the second of my Celtic Connections — John Brady, another of my fabulous critique partners. John writes science fiction and urban fantasy, and lives in the Republic of Ireland.

I’ve been there (it rained).

Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Stereotypes, eh? You’ve all seen him – the loveable Irish rogue with a twinkle in his eye. He’s charming and witty, has smouldering good looks and appears allergic to razors, yet he can never be relied upon to commit to a relationship, show up at his nephew’s baptism or change a toxic, smelly infant. I blame Sean Connery’s Darby O’Gill turn and, latterly, Colin Farrell.

Even Irish mythology has suffered from this process, often reduced to stage leprachauns – notoriously cantankerous, selfish characters who didn’t even offer their crocks of gold to bail out banks or continental oligarchs. Ocasionally you’ll find a fairy or banshee, but even these are recent additions.

Irish mythology goes back further, recorded legends dating to about the time of Christ. Tales of death, love, jealousy, death, magic, betrayal and more death abound, all served with local flavours which can alter the stories, the settings, or even the species of the protagonists.

Queen Maeve’s burial cairn on Knocknarea mountain, Strandhill, Sligo

The Tain Bó Cuailnge, for instance, is the Bhagavad Gita of Irish mythology. This epic pulls togetherdifferent stories to make a whole and comes in many versions – as myths tend to do – but all have a common core: the heroic defence of Ulster by a seventeen-year-old Cuchulainn; the invading hordes of Connacht, led by the avaricious Queen Maeve; and death. Lots and lots of death, from the warrior youths of Ulster, to Cuchalainn, to the himself, the brown bull Maeve launched an invasion to claim so she would have a bull to rival her husband’s.

Cuchalainn has an almost unique place in modern history – along with country music, he is loved by both traditions in Northern Ireland. He adorns murals in Nationalist and Unionist areas because of the archetypal heroism he embodies: a hero who defeated numerically superior foes, who reluctantly fought and killed his best friend, and who finally fell on the field of battle, only beaten by nasty magical weapons.

The Book of Leinster

It’s the sort of story which could inspire anyone, just like the legends of Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool if extraneous consonants aren’t your thing) and his descendants. The leader of the Fianna, a band of warriors, he fought fire-breathing fairies and warrior rivals. His grandson, Oisín, was one of the few mortals to visit Tír na nÓg, the land of the young, and returned three hundred years later (it didn’t end well). These are some of the legends found in ancient manuscripts such as the twelfth century Book of Leinster.

But mythology doesn’t need to be epic. It can be local and intimate too, passed down through generations in the oral tradition. I grew up near the “Split Rock,” a ten foot high ball of gneiss rock, bisected by a cleft wide enough to walk through. Was this the product of retreating glaciers and millennia of weathering? No – it was the result of an angry giant’s wrath, annoyed after he lost a rock throwing contest with the ubiquitous Fionn MacCumhaill. Fionn’s rock – unsplit – lies a couple of miles away on a rocky shore, which is proof that inspiration can be found anywhere.

Walk through it three times and it will trap you, the legend says

Just like my ancestors, you can grow your own legends from an isolated farmhouse, a shadowed grove, a pedestrian who catches your eye, or even a simple rock – look at it with an open mind, and ask:




And the possibilities will flow.

Celtic Connections — Invoking Ulster

Something I’ve noticed among my writing friends (and especially the members of my writing group) is how we’ve all been drawing on where we’re from and using it to enrich our stories. So, though no character I’ve written has worn a tammy (an awful tartan hat, for those of you mercifully unaware of them) or said anything remotely resembling “Hoots, mon!” (partly because no one I have met has), there’s a Scottishness that seeps into most of the things I write.

But enough about Scottishness and me (for now), I’d like to introduce my first ever guest post ! It’s by my lovely writing friend and critique partner, Jo Zebedee (this is her fabulous website).  Jo was born and brought up in Ulster, a land with many cultural similarities to Scotland — especiallly the lowlands — and as many radical differences (including the accent!).

Take it away, Jo:

Ulster’s myths are bloody ones. Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, took the place of a guard dog and defended Ulster at the age of seventeen. He was known to have battle frenzies, and was one of the key legends of the Red Branch Cycle, one of four key Irish folklore cycles. Finn McCool fought the Scottish giant and won using guile and might. Even our flag shows the red hand, from a legend that tells of a race for the land. The losing combatant cut his hand off and threw it onto the land to claim it for himself. The Ulster I know – the North coast facing Scotland, and Belfast – has a harsh accent to go with the legacy of divisions that run as deep as the land its people share.

Belfast Lough

When I had the idea of a novel about Earth resisting an alien invasion, I decided to set it in my Ulster. This was no political undertaking, but instead a wish to show something of the people I knew. The people who, despite all the violence of my youth, maintained a sense of humour – black though it undoubtedly is – and have an ability to carry on with life when all around hell has broken loose. I wanted to capture an analogy of Ulster maintaining itself in adversity through the determination to survive and resist the alien invasion. But I also wanted, in a quiet way, to pay homage to some of those who moved our understanding past the hatred of my seventies birth, into the hope of my generation who voted for peace, and onto the next generation, who, please God, will have the capacity to carry that peace on.

The Troubles aren’t mythology. They’re not celebrating our earliest folklore. When  Michael Longley, in the Ice-cream Man recalls:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road [1]

he confirms the Troubles as our legacy, to be remembered.

I was born at the height of the Troubles, not at the local hospital, some fifteen miles from Belfast, as planned, but in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, right in centre of west Belfast. At this time, ambulances had been hijacked, and my mum spent time planning what to do with me if it happened to her. Whilst my childhood was spent sheltered from the main trouble spots, the Troubles were everywhere – in the news, in evacuating shops during bomb scares, in knowing, albeit at a distance, the denting sound of a bomb as it takes the air around it – and defined a part of me. None of this is mythology, yet, but in generations’ time it might be.

I want to take some of the imagery that touched on my understanding of my childhood Ulster and pay homage to it. In Joan Lingard’s series of iconic young adult books, the Belfast of the Troubles is described thusly:

Sadie and Kevin sat on the top of Cave Hill with the city spread out below them. They looked down at the great sprawl of factories, offices and houses that were gradually eating further and further into the green countryside beyond. Into the midst of the town came Belfast Lough. It was blue this evening, under a blue, nearly cloudless sky, speckled with ships and spiked by the shipyard gantries. [2]

In science fiction we strive to ask questions, to impel ourselves and our world forwards and not back. It seemed an interesting medium to use inspiration from a history that is far from myth, that is too raw to be anything other than our present to overcome, and reach into the future beyond it. I hope to show the land and people of Ulster in a way that both celebrated their strength, passion and drive, but also sought to ring the changes. I hope to do so in a way accessible to those who don’t know the province, because our people and land shouldn’t be insular, but far-reaching and generous. I look forward to seeing where that takes me.

[1] Longley, Michael, Gorse Fires.

[2] Lingard, Joan, Across the Barricades


Resistance may be futile, resistenz tends not to be

When I was a young thing, I studied history — modern history, with guns and cigarettes and revolutions, not the sort with knights and kings.

I was fascinated by the thought — the insanely seductive idea — that if you found the Truth, you could build Lenina perfect world, and if you knew you’d found the truth — as the Bolsheviks knew with absolute certainty,(*) then you could, should, do anything to ensure that idea spread across the world — because how can you justify sacrificing the future happiness of millions to protect a few people now?

I didn’t believe it, but I was caught by the certainty and simplicity of that idea and by the appalling things people would do in its name. This isn’t a rant about fundamentalism — political, religious, or economic — which I find fascinating and terrifying and alien, it’s a meander on an idea I encountered while I was reading about those big brave murderous societies that flourished in the early Twentieth Century, resistenz.

The term has a (semi-)respectable pedigree from historians of Nazi Germany (especially Martin Broszat) but it has wider relevance — the idea is that because totalitarian regimes want to control everything people do (and think), from the music they listen to, to the art they appreciate, to the way they interact with their neighbours, refusing to obey any of these demands counts towards undermining the ambitions of the regime. So, while “resistance” takes place at a visible, public level and is consciously directed at resisting a regime, resistenz is more about what people just get on and do — about maintaining life despite the regime. So, resistenz, I suppose, is a problem when seen from the perspective of the regime, rather than necessarily a deliberate effort to resist it.


Does that make sense? As an example, whenever I see a path trodden into the grass, which has clearly made by people who aren’t prepared to be directed by the existing paths, it reminds me of resistenz. I like the concept because it’s about people and it weakens the idea that in a totalitarian society people somehow became cardboard cutouts crushed flat by the ambitions and ideas of those in charge.

Totalitarian regimes needed support — they needed people to work and fight and, more passively, to ignore the persecution of others. Those who didn’t work very hard or who failed to fire their gun, those who did their best to protect their neighbours, may not have been resisting in big shiny public ways, but they were damaging to the ambitions of such regimes nonetheless.

(*) Except Bukharin and people like him, and see what happened to them.