Monthly Archives: June 2011

Newspost — 8

Greetings and salutations and a jolly summer to you all. Plenty of stuff happening to tell you about, so let’s get down to brass tacks. First, I had a huge influence on local politics, oh yeah. I brushed past Peter Soulsby at a public event (he was later elected Mayor of Leicester; I’d like to think his walking past me as I headed up Rutland street had a decisive impact on his campaign). On the other hand, I totally missed the zombie invasion of Leicester. Can’t win them all.

But back to the real world…

* Krys Wysocki and Richard Farren Barber have both recently had their writing appear in anthologies. It’s always great when friends find success. A tip of the old topper to you guys.

Krys Wysocki, Brenda Bernard and other people I know appeared here (A Leicester Writing School Anthology, published by Pewter Rose)

* James (Jim) Worrad has flown off to San Diego in California to take part in the 2011 Clarion SF Writers Workshop. He’ll spend six weeks writing, scrunching up his Panama hat in frustration and doing unspeakable things to space-sharks. He’s even started blogging, so he must be serious. Bon chance, mon ami.

* StarBase Leicester co-hosted the Phoenix SF film festival. A stonking success that hosted a rare showing of 2001, A Space Odyssey. The event also held a signing by SF writer Gavin Smith. Me, I watched Moon and Brazil (again) and talked to a lot of people. Great day all round. The Phoenix will soon become the ‘home’ of StarBase as the Dark Side Cafe is (sadly) facing closure.

2001: walking down corridors with attitude

* Not straying from the venue, the Phoenix Writers organized their own all-day hogfest. Me, I presented a workshop on Shaggy Dog Stories – Don’t ask me why I like them, I just do – and others hosted equally interesting sessions. Maria Smith gives an overview of it all here..

* Alt.Fiction returned this year (and I attended a fab Sunday session). It really is a great little festival, putting us in the East Midlands on the map. Went to a couple of workshops hosted by Dan Abnett and Juliet McKenna which were both good.

 

* The Grassroutes Project is busy rootling out multicultural writers based in Leicester.. It’s even going to publish a guide comparing Leicester and London in terms of writing talent (hardly fair on the vain, inconsequential metropolitan pseuds, but there you go). If you are a multicultural writer, or know someone who fits the bill, get in touch with Corinne Fowler at Leicester University

* Get Leicester Reading is gearing up for October. It seem that The Speculators will be running an event or two, possibly in the Central Library and probably with high-profile invited guests. I have put myself at the disposal of Damien Walter (who knows about these things) to help out where and when needed.

* Started on a new writing project and seriously considering self-publishing. All I need is an illustrator and an editor to get things into shape before releasing them to the world. According to the Guardian, it’s the way to go. A big advantage is that you can set a price that doesn’t rip off your readers like conventional E-publishers are doing.

* Mark E Cotterill has left the editorship of The Avatar (StarBase Leicester’s fanzine). It’s a shame he’s gone (although his new pet project is learning to fly a helicopter, which seems quite exciting). Good luck to Mark and to the Avatar for the future. Hope they both do well.

Adios.

Le Chien Hirsute

 

Marcel stared out of the window of his shop. The inverted longhand calligraphy of the stencilled letters on his shopfront vitrine, cast long shadows over the display of cakes and choux pastry in the early morning light: Marcel Desmoulins, Patissier et Boulanger. His father had also been called Marcel. The family joke was that the son had been given the father’s name to save money on a new sign for the shop-front. If so, the joke was in bad taste. Marcel junior (whom some wags called Petit Marcel), hated the destiny he’d been saddled with. Baking was a terrible business for a man with ideas of their own. He had been trained to be old school, to get up at 4 am to start the dough for the morning baguettes, to make croissants, religieuses, Rhum Babas, pain-au-chocolat, tarte aux pommes and all the rest of it, from scratch. No chilled dough brought in from distant factories here, no shortcuts to ease the back-breaking sixteen hour days. His father had even complained when he suggested buying supermarket glace cherries.

“What are these things? Eh? How are we going to put that on our confections when we don’t know what chemicals they use, eh?”

“It lists the ingredients on the packet, papa.”

“Lists? Do you believe what these pigs, these salauds tell you? Don’t be stupid son. We can make our own glace cherries. They’ll taste better, you’ll see.”

The old bastard would have done it; wasted weeks of work every year glacee-ing his own cherries with raw fruit and sugar just to prove a point. They said that his perfectionism and overwork killed him. He certainly died with his boots on; hands crusted with dough as they stretchered him off to the ambulance, making young Marcel swear to keep the family business going. And here he was, trapped in this town with this poky shop to stock every morning and the most sour-faced, grudging, tight-fisted customers in the entire Auvergne to keep sweet. Marcel could not think of a worse destiny as he trudged towards the back of the shop. Pierre, his assistant, had let himself in and was washing his hands in the sink. An eager apprentice, one keen to learn the trade and with a ready smile to boot. His optimism cut Marcel to the quick.

“Morning boss! Should be a nice day.”

“Yes, Pierre. Not that we’ll see any of it.”

“Well, yeah, but it should be a nice afternoon for a walk or a cycle to the lake.”

“If you say so,” Marcel noticed a paper bag, lying on the work-table. It was something that would have driven his father mad, having a foreign object defile the sacred table where the dough was made. “What’s that you got there? And why is it on the table, Pierre?”

Pierre finished cleaning his hands and bounded toward the bag, tearing it open.

“It’s a cookbook, see? I found it in the second hand shop, its a handwritten manuscript from an old patissier. Probably a thousand years old!”

“A thousand years old? Don’t talk nonsense. Its nineteenth century at most. Here, let me look at that.”

The book certainly exhibited the patina of age. The pages were discoloured and the spine crackled as the volume was opened. The recipes, noted down in a fine, spidery writing, were certainly nineteenth century. Heavy, stodgy things designed for the limitations of wood ovens and a taste for calorific overload. Illustrations of each cake and loaf were rendered in what looked like pencil drawing but might be some sort of lithography.

“Looks interesting. How much did you pay for it?”

“Eighteen Euro.”

“You were robbed.”

“Isn’t it any good?” Pierre looked crestfallen. Marcel smiled despite himself. There was no need to take his frustrations out on the lad.

“Listen, Pierre, if you lend me the book, I’ll give it a look over tonight. Not promising anything, but if there’s anything in there we can use, I’ll reimburse your expenses. How’s that?”

“Great! Can I keep the book too?”

“Well, I don’t want it hanging around here.”

*

The next morning Pierre arrived to find Marcel already in the kitchen, his hands covered in flour, eyes shining like those of a man possessed.

“Morning, boss. You’re early with the baguettes today.”

“Ha! No, Pierre, it’s not the baguettes. That book you brought me yesterday, that book… I’ve never read anything like it. It will transform the business, it will make me rich I tell you. Rich!”

“Crumbs.”

“Good one, Pierre, crumbs indeed. This recipe is the killer, though. Never been a cake like it. You make it in the shape of a top hat, that’s the beauty of it… Hat cake! Ha, ha! Hat cake!”

“Are you alright, boss?”

“Never better. Tell me, what is that ingredient there, the third one down on the icing recipe?”

Pierre grabbed the book, it was looking a bit worse for wear and he had to brush the flour from its pages to read it. “Ooh, its green.. something. There’s a grease spot right on the word so I can’t work it out.”

“Excuses! Never mind, I’ll make it without that ingredient then. If it makes a difference, we can always work it out later. Get me some eggs, Pierre! And be quick about it!”

“Right on it, boss.”

*

Pierre and Marcel sat at the kitchen table staring at the culinary car-crash in front of them. The sponge, which after many attempts had managed to get it into the proper hat shape, looked decidedly unappetizing. The problem was the fondant icing that was supposed to cover the cake. Its present colour was a dull, nasty brown, rather than the silken black it was meant to be. It had to be a fault within the recipe itself.

“This is a disaster.”

“Don’t look good, does it boss?”

“You can say that again.”

“Don’t look goo… oww!”

“Don’t try and be funny, Pierre.”

“Sorry boss. Maybe we should try and work out what that third ingredient was again, see if that sorts out the colour.”

“Well, I’ve tried everything I could think of. Green food colouring, green almonds, green lime juice…”

“Because I was thinking… green fairy?”

“I feel you’re getting to the punchline, Pierre, so spit it out.”

“It’s just an idea, but you know they say, boss; Absinthe makes the hat cake fondant.”

 

Fin

A Surfeit of ‘What If’s

Just finished reading Pavane by Keith Roberts (1966), an alternative history where England falls to the Spanish Armada and stays in thrall to the Catholic Church for several more centuries (the action in the novel begins in 1968). A fascinating aspect of the book is that the technology available is at least a century behind the1960s in our own jolly little time-line. There are steam-trains, vast semaphore systems (or ‘clacks’ in Pratchett parlance) and a zealous system of inquisitors, putting the dampers on new technologies such as electricity and the internal combustion engine. All in all, the author paints a grim picture where the main preoccupation of the characters is to find a way to break free from the Roman Church and its stifling regime of personal and national subjugation.

The language employed is rich and evocative, one of the most poetic science fiction books I’ve read (particularly in the latter half, as the first sees Roberts’ infatuation with steam locos become particularly enervating). It is also highly thought-provoking, as all good alternative history should be, on the points where we could have gone one way or another.

This alternative history thing has also got me thinking. So what if the Armada had won? Would Robert’s vision have been the likely outcome? An England dominated by the Catholic Church for the next 500 years seems a bit far fetched. For a start, Anglicanism was already established and fairly militant by the 1580s. Serious disturbances throughout England would be difficult to avoid if Spain’s armies had marched into London and garrotted Good Queen Bess. Organized resistance would also be on the cards. Protestant nobles with large fiefdoms would not take kindly to having their lands handed over to Catholics. From the outset there would be serious unrest and even rebellion. Spain was also in quite a weak position. At the time Spain had a population of about eight million. The number of troops it could levy was small and stretched thinly throughout the Americas, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. It is unlikely they would have had the manpower to either pacify or convert the English; a more expedient strategy would be to weaken England’s sea power and ability to attack Spanish shipping. In my opinion, Spain could hold on to England only for a short time, perhaps a couple of years. Not long enough to re-establish Catholicism, but long enough to make a lasting impact, namely:

1) Weaken England by strengthening its enemies. Ireland and Scotland would be favoured and freed from English influence. Perhaps other areas (Wales and Cornwall) persuaded to secede. French allies given land-holdings on English soil and Catholic nobles set in charge of the country. The colonies would, of course, be seized (particularly those adjacent to French and Spanish possessions: Jamaica, Virginia etc)

2) Destroy English sea power. Burn Portsmouth and the Admiralty. Set up a permanent Spanish naval garrison on the Isle of Wight to control shipping through the Channel. Remove English captains, navigators, ship-builders and craftsmen to Spain. Seize England’s remaining ships (some could be given to the Scots and Irish to patrol British waters and destroy any remaining English warships).

3) Ecological pillage. Making ships in the 16th century required a lot of wood. To build the Armada, Spain had had to chop down vast swathes of its forests (the Monegros desert, around Zaragoza, was one area of forest cleared to build Philip II’s fleet). With no forests, England would be unable to build warships. England had lots and lots of precious trees that the Spanish could have either exploited, shipping the wood back to Spain for storage, or burned. A few years of intensively logging and burning forests could have denuded huge areas of the country, leading to flooding, landslides, etc. It would take decades for the trees to regrow.

Good Queen Bess, ungarrotted and lovin' it.

These three actions alone could be completed in just a few years and would eliminate the threat of English sea-power for at least a generation (particularly 1 and 2). Spanish troops could then be withdrawn to operate in other theatres of war (Germany, Holland etc). England would be likely to rebel and throw off its Catholic overlords and re-establish herself as an independent nation, but it would be from a much weaker base.

In terms of Spanish power, the success of the Armada might not have made much difference in the long run. Spain would still be a basket-case economy propped up by silver from the Americas. It would still be over-committed militarily. It would still be a nation where most people were poor, overtaxed, ruled over by a repulsive and incompetent caste of nobles and grandees. None of these problems would have been solved by a successful invasion of England. My view, therefore, differs from Roberts in that, even in the best-case scenario for Spain, I don’t see the impact on England as being as devastating or game-changing as Pavane would paint it. The invasion would be a serious blow, not least to national morale, but given a century or two England would rise again (given its scientific and commercial acumen) to eclipse Spain once more.

Despite such misgivings (and even with them, Roberts’s vision is compelling), it was a really interesting read. So, if you know of anyone who is a fan of alternative history and steam trains and has a birthday coming up, you know what to do.

ian sneath

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