The Airbus A380 started moving as soon as the door was closed, before the cars in the motorcade even had time to get fully clear of the massive thrust of the engines. The pilot, a colonel in the French air force, slammed the engines into full throttle to execute what was called a hard take-off, the plane getting into the air quickly and immediately into a sharp incline to gain as much height as possible. A number of Elysee officials who had been busy securing the president of the French Republic before getting back to their seats were knocked off their feet by the angle, both being grabbed by burly bodyguards and pulled into seats as the plane reached its cruising height.
The military cabin crew, briefed as to the situation, had immediately lowered all the blinds on the windows, so that the passengers on-board could not see the military airbase and Paris speed away into the distance.
It actually meant they would not be blinded by the detonation of a nuclear warhead over the French capital as was one possibility they were expecting at this very moment. Nor could they see the four heavily fuelled and armed Rafale fighters escorting the plane on its pre-planned flight plan, designed to avoid major urban areas and military targets (for spotting purposes and also because they were likely nuclear targets) and take the plane out over the Atlantic.
I’ve recently started writing a collection of short stories about a fictional female Taoiseach, Kate O’Hara, leader of the Centre Party and deputy for Dublin East. I’ll post them here as I complete them:
No one can be sure for certain when it was first noticed. But it is certainly fair to say that it came to official attention following a row in a pub in Castlebar. The Guards had been called to a heated altercation between a number of customers and the publican, an event not exactly unusual on a summer’s Saturday night. On arrival at the pub however, the Guards had been surprised to discover that drink, although being the issue, was not the usual catalyst.
This was not the usual row between men full of jar. Indeed, it was the lack of jar that was the issue. The three men had been rowing furiously over an accusation by the two that the publican was watering down drink. Others had got involved, some siding with the publican, some with his accusers. But what struck the Garda sergeant the most was the fact that here they were in a pub near closing time and hardly anyone was pissed. There were a small handful well-oiled, but most people in the pub were fully sober. On a Saturday night?
The sergeant calmed the situation, pointed out that watering down drink was a criminal offence, and ordered his younger partner to collect a few samples for analysis.
This was the first submission to the state laboratory, but by the end of the week twenty submissions had been made by both the Gardai and the consumer authorities, all following up complaints by consumers.
Two weeks later the issue had reached the media, as a scandal involving publicans watering down drink.
Except they weren’t, the minister for justice was told as he was being briefed. One or two samples were found to have been diluted, but the vast majority were perfectly normal. Just as the minister started wondering whether some sort of national mass hysteria was beginning to take hold, the minister for health asked the Taoiseach for an emergency meeting.
This drink thing has nothing to do with alcohol tampering, he said. The national infectious diseases monitoring unit had discovered something living in the water supply.
The Taoiseach paled. Normally, being prime minister of a small European country involved just keeping a lid on public expectations about spending. But this was one of those Hollywood moments, he thought, like when the president is told that Martians have invaded. He stiffened in his seat and stuck his jaw out like Martin Sheen did on The West Wing.
The minister was quick to calm the meeting. It’s not dangerous, per se. It’s an unknown parasite that lives and replicates within the human body. Completely harmless. But there is one thing.
The Taoiseach shifted in his seat. He was a fan of zombie movies and his head was spinning.
The parasite metabolises alcohol at an incredible rate. Essentially, it burns up alcohol before it can intoxicate the consumer. If you have it, you can’t get drunk, no matter how much you drink. The European Health Agency and the World Health Organisation have never seen anything like it.
The Taoiseach exhaled. Thank Christ for that. He had visions of blowing people’s heads off in Merrion Square with a shotgun.
Completely harmless, he asked.
Completely, the minister agreed. It got through most of the water supply because it’s harmless. Normally if something dangerous gets into the water supply, outbreaks of illness are what alert us within a few days. But this thing has been active for weeks. It was only when people started complaining about not getting pissed that we were alerted.
What’s the solution, the Taoiseach asked.
Ah, said the minister. That’s the problem. At the moment we don’t have one. This thing is pretty much a superbug. Resistant to everything the doctors have thrown at it. That’s why the EHA and WHO are working on it. We’ve asked the CDC in Atlanta for help too.
I don’t want a load of feckers in yellow spacesuits walking around the place, the Taoiseach said. The minister nodded.
Of course, I’ll have to tell the Dail. How widespread is the infection? The Taoiseach asked.
The minister grimaced. With the exception of Donegal, where we have isolated their water supply, the whole country. Pretty much everybody has it and it has the alcohol neutralising effect on about 98% of those infected.
But aside from the alcohol thing, it’s harmless? The Taoiseach asked.
If anything, the minister replied, it’s slightly beneficial in that it speeds up metabolism. Good for weight loss.
The Taoiseach scribbled that point down. If he was going to tell the Irish that drinking no longer worked, he was going to need every scrap of good news he could find.
The news was met with the usual Irish mix of bemusement, cynicism and suspicion. The leader of the opposition was quick to point out that under this government, even drink doesn’t work.
The publicans and the drinks industry called for a national emergency to be declared, and then proceeded to do the standard Irish two-step of denying the real cause for concern, plummeting alcohol sales, and instead latching onto some other more respectable reason for their anxiety. This is an attack on craic, one spokesman said, raising concerns about the effect on tourism. Another industry voice suggested darkly that this would lead to the Irish people turning to heroin instead. We could all end up out of our heads on horse, he said.
Joe Duffy was inundated with conspiracy theorists suggesting it had been the EU, UN, feminists, the Germans, protestants, Muslims, German protestants and Coca Cola. One call pointed out that this happened after Ireland had voted for same-sex marriage. Is it a coincidence, Joe? I don’t think so. It’s the pill, Joe, said another. It’s turned us all into fairies who can’t hold our drink. Surely the opposite is what’s happening, said Duffy. You’re obviously in on it, Joe. Typical RTE was the reply.
A number of TDs called for the army to be called in to start drinking the national alcohol supply to keep the drinks industry alive. We’re talking about jobs here, they protested. Each deputy was quick to stress how his county was obviously suffering much harder than any other county.
Within a month, the HSE working with its international partners had wiped out the parasite from the water supply. Curing the infected, however, was another matter.
We have found a cure, the minister for health told the cabinet. An American pharmaceutical had amongst many of its obscure patents a forgotten experimental drug which can wipe the infection from the human body, with little or no side effects. We’re fast tracking the testing to make sure, but we should be able to start treatment very soon.
The cabinet applauded, amidst much joking about dying for a whiskey.
The health minister dampened down the noise. I’m afraid, he said, it’s not as simple as that. The company that owns the patent is looking for around €30 billion to provide the medication.
The cabinet erupted. They can’t do that, said the social protection minister.
Yes they can. We can put pressure on them, publicly, but legally they’re entirely within their rights.
Can’t we just copy the drug? One minister asked. After all, don’t we actually have it for testing and analysis?
We do, the health minister said. The problem is that because there are so many pharmaceuticals here we have very strict patent protection laws. If we do that they can take us to our own courts and get the money that way. And that’s assuming you can find another pharmaceutical willing to manufacture 5 million doses for you, and not get sued themselves.
Let’s just change the law, the agriculture minister said.
Hold your horses for a minute, there, said the minister for enterprise. We rely on foreign companies here for huge employment and investment. If they start thinking we’re one of those countries that just confiscate property on a whim…
This is a national emergency, agriculture said.
Nobody is dying, enterprise replied.
You would say that, agriculture replied, jabbing a finger at the famously tee-total enterprise minister.
The Taoiseach raised a hand. We can’t just confiscate the drug. Can we negotiate?
Health shrugged. Possibly, we might get some leeway on the payment period and that, but not much.
The news about the drug and its company, Haardnex of Texas, leaked soon after. The Irish online community were very quick to decide that Haardnex had “obviously” invented the parasite and put it into the water supply to hold the Irish people ransom. Thousands marched in protests, although the size of the protests started to dwindle when they got mocked on American and British television for marching to demand the right to get pissed. Protestors who brought their children, trying to somehow justify how this was “all about the children” were roundly laughed at on Youtube and Snapchat.
Demonstrators got more and more annoyed at the attitude of foreign journalists who refused to take the issue seriously, especially when they attempted to explain that being drunk was part of the Irish culture yet painting the Irish as a nation of drunks was a racist stereotype. Foreign news crews had to receive Garda escorts.
Eventually, the Taoiseach spoke to the Irish people. We have negotiated, he said, a deal for €25 billion to be paid over ten years to Haardnex in return for the treatment. Given that it is such a huge amount of money, it is my intention to put this vote to the Irish people in a referendum.
The run-up to the vote involved bitter debates in the media and amongst families. The Yes campaign ran on the slogan Sure Didn’t We Bail Out The Banks! and that this was all about saving a crucial part of Irish culture. The campaign was well-funded, with the drinks industry and unions representing the Gardai and social workers, two groups that had lost significant overtime since the outbreak calling for a yes vote. The No campaign was much smaller, and open to physical attack in the streets for being Dry Shites.
The polls were much more evenly balanced, with polls recording that whilst the vast majority wanted the cure, they weren’t happy at having to pay for it. On the radio and online some suggested that once the government had dispersed the treatment it could renege on the deal, but lawyer after lawyer dismissed that possibility.
Day after day debates were held about the influence of drink on the country, the fall in domestic violence and road fatalities, and the fact that obesity figures had shown a marked drop. Cannabis sales were definitely up, the Gardai confirmed, whilst pointing out that alcohol-related public order offences had collapsed. A&E waiting times also fell sharply. The argument that it was harming tourism was disproven by the fact that tourists, who weren’t infected, and could avail of a cheap vaccine, could get drunk. Indeed, that tiny percentage of Irish drinkers who either weren’t susceptible to the infection, or lived in Donegal, found themselves being ostracised by friends. Story after story about how Donegal still got drunk continued to irritate the rest of the country, to the extent that drunken Donegal visitors started getting beaten up in Dublin, Cork and Galway.
American commentators were quick to draw a line between the American love of guns and the Irish love of drink, and the fact that both countries were willing to accept a high casualty rate in return for their right to use the product in question.
Is it possible, the No campaign suggested, that this is not the worst thing to ever happen to the Irish people?
On polling day, the last poll suggested the deal would be rejected by a good ten percentage points.
*A warning to readers: this is a long, speculative short story. Cup of tea and a chocolate digestive recommended.
Lars Wentworth III was a right wing Tea Party supporting billionaire who thought that President Obama was a communist. Throughout his life, most of which was spent as America’s ninth richest man, he had funded right wing candidates who held such extreme positions that many of them would have been arrested had they opened their big yaps in Europe, or Canada or any of those countries where not letting poor people die from illness was not regarded as proof of Marxism.
However, acute observers of Wentworth would have noticed one surprising factor about the candidates that the billionaire generously funded. They all kept quiet on gay issues. Continue reading →
Note: this is a very long bit of fun I wrote in June 2013. It is obscenely long, so you might want a biscuit and a nice cup of tea. Alternatively, you can download it here as a PDF for enjoyment later.
Part One: A woman named Valerie.
The image, of a sad looking Adolf Hitler wearing a blue armband with a European Union flag on it, said as much about The Daily Mail as it did its cover story.
“Freedom at last!” the headline declared, with a smaller picture of young Conservative activists burning an EU flag in Trafalgar Square. Inside, a well-known right-wing historian speculated, perhaps through the use of a medium, as to how disappointed Adolf Hitler would have been at the news of British withdrawal from the European Union.
Repost: Ever since I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a published author. In fairness to myself, I had no illusions about being the next Hemingway or the next Fitzgerald, that was not the goal. I was reading Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum and later John Grisham and these were what I wanted to do. In short, I wanted to see people reading my books in airports, and made into TV mini-series starring that gruff one from Simon and Simon and one of the lesser girls from Baywatch.
So, I went and did what you are supposed to do. I wrote a 65,000 word novel, The Unisio Agenda, which was pretty awful (a suspended animation Hitler was just one of the minor features in the plot), and sent the first chapter to a load of literary agents, having researched and discovered that these were the fabled gatekeepers to the great publishing houses, or at least had coffee and a bun with them occasionally.
In the following weeks, self-addressed envelopes would make my heart thump just slightly faster as they lay on my hallway floor before telling me very politely that “this was not for us, but best of luck elsewhere”. One or two even gave a little advice on the novel. Not one, to their credit, sent me the fabled “Do humanity a favour and take a hammer to your PC” remarks.
I set that novel to one side, and started on my second, The Ministry of Love. This novel was the result of a running joke with a friend of mine about the government deciding to intervene in people’s love lives for the better, and the more the joke ran, the more I felt there was material for a story. It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finished it, and sent it out to the agents, feeling more hopeful that I was now a better writer and perhaps my subject was a bit more commercial. That and the fact that it featured a serial killer butchering celebrities in various creative ways, which I felt was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the time.
Again, the rejection slips came back.
At this stage, the aspiring writer can do one of three things. The first is rail against the conspiracy in the publishing industry to keep his/her unique voice out. The second is to keep trying, normally by writing another novel, and the third is to just accept that it is not to be, and give up.
The first was not an option, because I just didn’t believe it. I had started to read a lot about the publishing industry and realised that it was not a vendetta against me personally, but an industry in crisis. Being an HR manager in my day job, I knew that rejecting a candidate for a vacancy was not a judgement call on their fitness but a reflection that someone else fitted the profile better.
Of course they could not take risks with unknowns like me. Just look at the piles of books on sale now, and how many have to be fronted by a celebrity who (hopefully, at least to the publisher) brings his or her own market with them. It was just too risky for publishers to take a punt on people like me. The “What about JK Rowling, Dan Brown et al?” argument would be thrown back at me, but they were just flashes in the pan. Traditional publishing, through its own economic necessity, was looking less likely as an option.
The second option was to keep trying. A funny thing about writing is that you’d probably do it anyway, in that the desire to commit a story to page is there no matter what. It’s a question of getting it out of your head; so continuing writing is not a painful option. However, there is also a question of ego, which plays a huge role. You can see yourself being transformed from the romantic notion of The Guy Who Is Writing A Novel to guy in Firefly tee-shirt sitting in back room writing his 15th rejected novel about teenage vampires who are allergic to blood but can travel through time. It’s a thin line, and you’re very conscious of it.
Option three is to just give up, leave your manuscript in a drawer or on your hard drive, and carry on with life. Many do, especially when you realise how long it takes to write a novel, and without the validation of publication, you query as to whether you are wasting your life on this?
I say three options, but there is a fourth. The dreaded “self publishing”. Up until recently, self-publishing triggered certain images. An author announcing a new book. Admiration from friends and family, followed by realisation that author has not being endorsed by professionals putting faith through cash on his skills as a writer, but has paid for book to be published. Slightly grimaced “God bless your diligence” smiles all around. Embarrassed author either lashes out at industry for not recognising him, or feels like a fraud, or a nut. Or both.
Then I read about Amazon’s willingness to let self-published authors sell direct for shared royalties, dangling the keys to the kingdom in front of me. It’s here that you make a decision.
You accept that your book will probably never see the light of day traditionally, so you can either wait for the day the Great Editors In The Sky recognise your genius and come calling, or you can put it out there yourself, and that is the biggest temptation of all.
The opportunity to deliver direct to the marketplace, either as a Print-On-Demand actual book or as an eBook. It’s a brilliant strategy by Amazon, because it triggered the “what if” in every aspiring writer like me to put my book out there just to see what happened. It taps into the brilliant “what’s to lose?” section of the writer’s brain. In fact, it even goes one step further, because the old argument, that traditional publishing houses want nothing to do with self-published authors has been killed stone dead. If anything, self-publishing has become a form of showcase for the publishing houses to see how potential authors perform in the market without investing a cent.
There are costs. I commissioned a professional cover designer, ebook formatter, developmental editor and copy editor, and all that costs money, but I reckoned that as I was competing against professional books, I had no choice. Actually, the copyediting turned out to be a huge challenge, and to this day I am still finding typos despite professional eyes having roamed the manuscript on multiple occasions. Interestingly, I also find typos in professionally published eBooks too, which makes me wonder about the format itself.
After much effort, I launched my novel, The Ministry of Love, and a year and a month later, a radically rewritten version of The Unisio Agenda, The Gemini Agenda (now Hitler free). I hyped it a bit on a politics blog I write, and with my modest following on Twitter and Facebook.
A tiny number of people bought my books. Were the publishing houses right? Quite possibly. But here’s the thing: people are buying my books every month, books that would have sat on a hard drive otherwise. I’ve received reviews and emails from people who have read and enjoyed them, and more to the point, I’ve actually enjoyed the whole process. Will I lose money? Probably. But as a hobby, like photography or cycling it has its financial costs but also its pleasures. There are some, like E L James and Amanda Hocking, who will make fortunes from it. There are others, like JA Konrath who see a new business model and a means of making a decent living.
But for me, it allowed me to not quite live an aspiration but get close to it. Will I write another book? Possibly, although the sheer effort required mixed with the feeling that I am just indulging myself expensively will act as a deterrent. There is also the fear, in the back of every self-published writer’s mind, that his friends and family, behind nodding heads and encouraging smiles are rolling their eyes at his putting out this stuff. But regrets? Not one.