The Three Lions of Europe


Britain’s association with Europe goes back much further than entry into the European Community in 1973. Ever since the climate improved enough to make Britain a place where anyone would want to live, there have been waves of migration from Europe. Following centuries of settlement by a range of European people, Britain became a province of the Roman empire, remaining so for about four hundred years, from AD43 to around 410AD. When the Romans left there was a period of chaos, which Scandinavian invasions in the ninth century helped to end, directly through imposed rule, or indirectly by providing the surviving English kings with a formidable enemy to unite against. Then in 1066 the Normans invaded, and Britain became a northern province of the Angevin Empire based on Normandy and areas of what is now western France. As time passed this empire suffered stresses and strains between its senior leaders, and was attacked by the kings of France. By the thirteenth century only the English rump of the Angevin Empire remained. England, led by kings such as Edward III and Henry V then spent a few centuries trying to recreate the old empire, a struggle which ironically is often told in terms of English patriotism. In 1485 Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, representing the line which once ruled the Angevin Empire, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. This ended a period of 1400 years when Britain was either part of a European reality, or struggling to recreate it.

After 1485 there was a change. The Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII excepted, tended to look outside Europe for links that would help a small island nation find some influence in the world. These explorations would eventually lead to the period of the British Empire, which for a few hundred years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed Britain to wield huge global influence. This brief, and historically anomalous time soon passed, ending with the Second World War. After that, with the Empire falling away, it would be natural that a small island on Europe’s northern flanks should look back towards a large neighbouring continent. It is historically incorrect to see Britain as an ancient island nation which only now is threatened by bureaucrats in Brussels. From an historical point of view, Britain as part of Europe is the more normal state of affairs.

New Writing About Old Mars


Old Mars
Old Mars is a collection of short stories, inspired by the pre-Mariner probe tradition of science fiction writing about Mars. There is a great introduction by George R.R. Martin about his youthful admiration for fanciful Martian tales. Then comes a selection of stories reflecting the influence of various twentieth century science fiction writers. Allen M. Steele, for example, sets the first story in a desert not unlike that of Nevada, complete with an Edgar Rice Burroughs themed resort. This resort is a reminder that we like to create fantasy worlds on Earth. So why not continue to create them on Mars.

I also enjoyed The Wreck of the Mars Adventure, which imagines seventeenth century pirate William Kidd sailing to Mars with the help of a scientist of the time. Kidd’s flying sailing ship had me thinking about how difficult it is to imagine the future. We usually only see what is to come in terms of technologies we actually live with.

The final story in the book was my favourite. Ian Macdonald imagines a future where Earth strikes back at the Martians of H.G. Wells who invaded west London in their tripod machines. The story follows a singer of popular song and light opera, his career on the decline, who finds himself in a concert party entertaining troops on Mars.

However, I didn’t find all of the stories so successful. King of the Cheap Romance was shoddily written. I don’t know if this was an ironic reflection on the poor standards of cheap romance writing. There is shoddy writing in the history of Mars literature. John Carter of Mars, listed as by Edgar Rice Burroughs, (actually by his son) uses a style known politely as “juvenile.” Joe R. Lansdale appears to write King of the Cheap Romance in the same style, and a sense of irony was not enough to get me through it.

Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to authors you might want to explore further, and Ian Macdonald’s concert party story makes the book worthwhile on its own.

Should a novelist be interested in economics?



When I was at university in the 1980s, I wrote an essay on the American writer David Henry Thoreau, and said he was interested in economics. My tutor’s reaction is still clear in my memory: “Literature is not about economics!” he declared. This was quite shocking. I thought literature could be about anything. But no. I guess it had to be about star-crossed lovers.  The fact is, however, as Alfred Marshall wrote: “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”. Economics, seemingly an esoteric dark art confined to forbidding institutions is really about what we do everyday; going to work, or being unemployed, going out shopping, or staying in and watching television. Economics like literature, can be about anything.


Money is the common currency, something virtually all of us have, and something which divides us. People are divided by how much they earn. This seeming inevitability hasn’t always been the case. In hunter gatherer societies surviving today, there does not seem to be a tendency to gather private property. Resources are more likely to be shared out, rather than hoarded by a few individuals. Both John E. Pffeifer in The Creative Explosion and James Shreeve in The Neandertal Enigma begin their explanations of human social development by pointing out that hunter gatherer societies rarely have a leader. Modern Kalahari Bushmen have no specific leader, and train their children from an early age to share all they have with each other. Charles Darwin remarked on the same social arrangement in the natives of Tierra del Fuego, during his famous voyage on the Beagle. He met the Fuegians on a freezing, rainy day, and wondered at their condition as rain ran over their entirely naked bodies. “In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, such as domesticated animals or other valuable presents, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another” (The Voyage of the Beagle P184). There is a sad truth in Darwin’s words. People aspire to nicer things, a better life. They look at other people and covet what they have. In this way, economies are driven forward. They depend fundamentally on some people having a great deal, and others having much less. But of course this division is never going to be stable. The fluctuating struggle between necessary social division and necessary reaction against such division is a fundamental aspect not just of economic history, but of history itself, and the literature which has been written by people living through it.

So, yes, its perfectly acceptable for novelists to be interested in economics.

The history of how we see ourselves


We take mirrors for granted today, but a reflective surface probably played a crucial role in the development of human self awareness. Obviously if you see an image of yourself, and realise that image is you, self awareness has been acheived. This could only have first happened when people looked into the water of ponds or gently flowing rivers. Not surprisingly springs, rivers, ponds and lakes have often been invested with spiritual significance. The huge Bronze Age monument at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, a ritual bridge structure across an area of water meadow, probably celebrated the reflective characteristics of water.

The earliest manufactured mirrors were made from obsidian, a rare, naturally reflective volcanic rock. Examples of obsidian mirrors have been found in the area of Anatolia in modern day Turkey, dating to around 6000BC. From 4000BC craftsmen in Mesopotamia were making polished copper mirrors. From this time onwards mirror manufacture continued as a highly expensive business, confining ownership of mirrors to the rich. It wasn’t until 1835 that the silvered glass mirror was invented by German chemist Justus Von Liebig, and mass production became possible. Today mirrors are everywhere. We brush our teeth, style hair, and squeeze spots in them. But mirrors were the first place where we became aware of ourselves, and are now used as a basic test of self-awareness in the animal kingdom. In 1970 the psychologist Gordon Gallup developed the Mirror Test to judge ability in self recognition. So far only humans and other great apes, dolphins, orcas, European magpies, and a single Asiatic elephant have passed the mirror test.

So that mirror in your bathroom was the place humanity first became aware of themselves, and where we discovered we are not alone in this ability.

What can the Ramones tell us about elections?



There are many elections to think about at the moment – London elections for mayor, local elections, elections for the U.S. president. In any election “change” is a big thing. Anyone who offers it seems exciting. Anyone who says “I can offer you more of what has gone before,” doesn’t come over as quite so compelling. That being said, it is obvious that people are also wary of uncertainty, and fond of the familiar. Ideally then, change should be a continuation of the past dressed up as something new. I was thinking about this earlier this week on my latest stop on a journey through the Rolling Stone Magazine Top 500 albums of all time. I had reached 106, Rocket to Russia by the Ramones. The notes on Apple Music told me that the Ramones were the first punk band, which meant they took the bare essentials of pop music – four chords, a catchy melody and cleverly inane lyrics – and speeded up the tempo. In this way, they could go back to the pop of the late 50s and early 60s, and still sound revolutionary. They could wear the torn blue jeans and leather jackets of late 1950s greaser rockers and yet still have the sound for a radical new generation. Strange as it may seem the Ramones managed the trick used by successful politicians, to offer something old dressed up as something new. Still you won’t have a politician sing:

You think I’m real cute, but who’s gonna bring home the loot

Make up your mind about, hope you don’t doubt

That I can’t give you anything.