I was asked during the week if I could speak from The Late Late Show audience in favour of water charges. As it happened, I couldn’t, as I had a prior commitment. But to be honest, if I was free, I’m not sure I would have agreed anyway. Fair play to the RTE researcher who was diligently trying to get some pro-water charge voices into the audience for balance, but the bear-pit format of RTE audience debates on political issues is so awful that I avoid them. It’s not just RTE either. I’ve been elsewhere, and there’s an over-emotional sound-bite culture that drives the format now. No room to make longer points, or actually debate comments from others, and an obsession with getting “as many voices” into the debate, which favours 15 tiny slivers of opinion over say, 4 people discussing an issue. When you’re in the studio, you can see the “Be short, be short!” look of panic in the producer’s eyes, which is understandable. He or she is just doing their job, but it doesn’t help inform anybody. Surely there’s room somewhere in the Irish media for a show with a long discussion and a modest number of participants?
The new polls from Scotland are fascinating, pointing to a Labour meltdown in the next year’s general election. Now, All four of Britain’s main parties look like getting screwed by First Past the Post in different ways, which must be a first. There’s also the possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power, which will be very entertaining. Turns out the Brits may not need Proportional Representation to look like Italy after all. Yet still the Tories won’t concede that FPTP is an electoral system for a different age.
Check out Peter Kellner from Yougov’s Scottish poll analysis here.
The other interesting/milk out of nose from laughing development in UK politics is that the rise of UKIP seems to be making the EU more popular in Britain! UKIP’s repellence towards many voters seems to have made them look at the EU again on the basis of “If these guys are against it, can it be that bad?” Be funny in Nigel Farage turned out to be the man who saved Britain in Europe.
Of course, don’t forget the EU’s ability to be its own worst enemy. Watch how the latest row over EU money causes a sharp drop in support.
Currently reading Pat Leahy’s “Showtime”. Taking ages due to my very limited reading time, but very readable, especially as a snapshot of recent history. It actually jars sharply with Fianna Fail today, in that you get the distinct impression that there were people in Fianna Fail actually thinking about its future in the run up to the 1997 general election. Not sure the same can be said about now.
Also started watching, on Netflix, the science fiction cult classic “Firefly”, which I’ve never seen before. Basically a western set in space, or Star Wars with Han Solo as the main star. I can see the appeal.
I see there’s talk (again) of Lucinda setting up a new party. I have to admit to great scepticism about the prospect. When the PDs were set up, there was both a demand for PD style policies and no party offering them. I’m not sure the same can be said about today. What is it that a Lucinda led party would be offering that there is genuine popular support for and isn’t already offered by an existing party?
Thought I’d repost this again after a conversation I had with someone this weekend.
I’m one of those people who regards same-sex marriage as a litmus test for politicians. That doesn’t mean that every candidate I support or votes for has to be pro-gay marriage, but I certainly could not vote for one who actively campaigns against.
I wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, I was certainly homophobic, as many of my now openly-gay friends will tell you. What made me change my mind?
Well, for a start, I was never homphobic in that weird animalistic way that some guys are, wanting to physically confront gays as some sort of affront to their very being. I’ve always found that sort of homophobia bizarre, indeed suspected that there is a hint of “doth protest too much” about it. I never subscribed to jailing gays or seeking out their lifestyle to destroy it, instead believing in the concept of the comfortable, well-lit tidy closet. How generous I was.
But I did take offense at the idea of homosexuals “forcing” their lifestyles upon the rest of us, of the open public displays of affectation as an affront to mainstream values.
Then two close friends of mine came out within a year of each other. Both were good friends who had never given an inkling of being gay, and it came, to me at least, as a surprise, especially as both had been recipients of many of my gay-unfriendly “witticisms”.
The fact that two of my friends were gay made me confront my own beliefs. Was I “offended” by their life choices? Was I repulsed?
Actually, I was ashamed of my own behaviour, when I examined how I had behaved around these two guys. But what surprised me was how non-threatened I felt. Many straight men have a curious belief that gay men have an agenda to “turn” them. I was reminded of this when a relative of mine questioned how I could feel comfortable having gay friends. He reckoned he couldn’t do it, because he would be constantly afraid of them “moving” on him. When I pointed out that he was probably not good looking enough for most of the gay men I knew he was quite put out, funnily enough.
After that, I then had a girlfriend who had a gay business partner and a gay roomate, and with that a gay circle of friends, and that was that. Whatever about fearing homosexuality as a concept, it’s nigh impossible to fear people whom you actually care about.
Some time after that, Liz O’Donnell expressed surprise that I was straight, and I surprised myself by not actually minding that someone thought I was gay, a suggestion that would have troubled me deeply previously.
On the flipside, it is worth remembering that not everybody who is uncomfortable with homosexuality is automatically a hate-filled homophobe. For the Irish in particular, we do hate in a curious way. We’re great at hating a race or group, but not so good at hating a person.
When the same-sex marriage referendum comes around, if it is fought over giving rights to “the gays” it’ll lose. But if it is about giving rights to “you know, Maura’s youngest, Sean,” it’ll pass.
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.
There’s a small but committed group of people who when they hear the name “Benedict Cumberbatch” don’t automatically think of “Sherlock Holmes” but instead think of “Captain Martin Crieff”.
Cumberbatch plays Crieff in the BBC radio comedy “Cabin Pressure”, which tells the misadventures of MJN Airlines, a single plane charter airline struggling to keep going. MJN is owned by Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, played by the excellent Stephanie Cole (who starred in the underrated 1990s sitcom Waiting for God as the sharp tongued retirement home resident Diana), assisted by her over-enthusiastic son Arthur (John Finnemore, who also created and wrote the show). Cumberbatch plays Crieff, who is chief pilot merely because he agrees to work without pay, such is his love of flying. Finally, there’s the excellent Roger Allam (Peter Mannion in The Thick of It) who pretty much steals the show as the dry-witted fixer co-pilot Douglas Richardson.
The humour is gentle but genuinely funny, and proof once again that good comedy doesn’t always have to be edgy, sarcastic or vicious. The final episode has actually been recorded, and will be broadcast in December, and the entire series is available on Audible.
As newspapers and magazines vanish behind paywalls, I find myself in a conundrum. See, I understand the economics, and it’s one of the few areas I agree with Rupert Murdoch. Quality journalism can’t be free: someone has to pay for the journalists to go places and ask questions and to professionally report on that news. Everything can’t be free.
But here’s the problem: I’ve been spoilt. I want to read more than one newspaper and I don’t want to pay €20 subscriptions for a single one. I want to read The Economist, and New York magazine, and The Daily Telegraph and The Times and the New York Times and The Washington Post and The Guardian and The Independent and Der Spiegel.
So, what am I willing to pay for? Consider the Netflix option. I effectively pay €84 a year for that, but look at the choice. I feel like I’m getting value, and importantly, I’m paying-as-I-go, so I don’t take the hit of a large subscription.
So why not offer me a monthly subscription, but let me pick and swap, say, 10 of the wide selection of periodicals.
I’ve been watching, on Youtube, episodes of an old 1970s US sitcom called “Barney Miller”. You might vaguely recall it being repeated on RTE in the 1980s, or at least its theme tune, which was quite well known. Set in a detective unit in Greenwich Village, NYC, it’s a quirky character driven comedy made all the more interesting by the times it was made in. The cops in the unit (it rarely ever leaves their squad-room, and so feels like a play) pretty much accept that the city is ungovernable, but also display an extraordinary reluctance to actually jail criminals. It’s very indicative of an attitude prevalent in the US in the seventies where criminals were seen, in many instances, as victims of society. It’s a charming show. Give it a look.
On another topic, check out COGS:THE BRAIN SHOP in ST. Stephen’s Green Centre. A new business flogging some pretty cool games for kids and adults, including my favourite, Quoridor. Just the sort of shop I’ll be getting Christmas presents in. You’ve been warned.
Just a quick note to thank all those who nominated and voted for me in the 2013 Irish Blog Awards, where I won in the “Best political blog” category. Genuinely flattered to win. Thrilled that someone is actually reading. Thanks.
I look forward to receiving my €50,000 in stolen Nazi gold prize.
Every year I rewrite this piece to review my experience of blogging:
I’ve been writing this blog since December 2008, and I thought that I’d scribble a bit on blogging itself and my experience of it.
Firstly, from a personal point of view, along with writing fiction (sometimes the two blend) it is a very satisfying outlet. I see things online or on TV and want to scream at the screen, and with a blog I can get it out. Does anyone actually read it? Certainly the number of visits I get every month has risen pretty much every month since I started.
Does it make a difference? Probably not, although I have been told of one former politician who seems to partially blame me for their fall from grace. As an ex-girlfriend of mine pointed out wisely to me, if I wasn’t blogging she would have had to listen to my rants. A fair point.
Having said that, I am constantly surprised at the people I meet who read the blog. I did get a column with Dow Jones Marketwatch.com out of it, occasional invites on to radio shows and TV, the odd newspaper or magazine interview, and even get the odd stranger introducing themselves to me in the street. Also invitations to speak at things. It’s one of the curiosities of the modern media: there is a demand for people who actually think about stuff.
But what’s more amusing amusing, of course, are the people, from a political background, who actually state to me that what they tell me is “off the record”, which I find incredibly flattering.
What have I learned in these five years? What advice can I impart to a new blogger?
1. Be consistent. Either commit to regular posts or don’t bother. I have actually reduced the number of posts to maybe one every two days or so, unless something interesting pops up that warrants an instant comment. I did this because a number of regular readers pointed out that I was posting stuff faster than they could read it, that is, they only pop onto the blog every few days and were finding reams of material. But unless I have written a very long piece, I try to give readers omething new every 48 hours at least.
2. Not every post has to be a tome or a well thought out treatise on a subject of great gravity. Funny things happen to people all the time. Write about them. Don’t forget that book or new TV show you’re reading or watching.
3. You will be surprised how some posts, which you put a lot of work into, fail to take off, yet other casual posts catch people’s attention and end up being tweeted all over the place.
4. Controversial one this: don’t be afraid to recycle posts. Depends on the subject, of course, in that there’s no point running a “But where is Osama now?” post. I write a series on Irish politics, “The Occasional Guide to Irish Politics”, and I find that many of the topics remain live and unchanged years later, hardly a surprise in Irish politics, I know, but still. Recycle, but tell people you do it. I have never had a complaint. Don’t forget that not everyone pays as much attention to your blog as you do.
5. Twitter. I’m not hugely active on Twitter, as I haven’t really the time given the nature of my job. But as a means of drawing people to new posts I find it works well. But be very choosy as to what posts you highlight, as there is only so much naked self promtion people will tolerate. I tend to go for the more thoughtful ones, and get a good response.
6. Ireland needs more partisan bloggers. I don’t mean party drones pushing out the usual “My party or die” garbage, but thoughtful stuff from a party base. For example, my readership spikes every time I write a piece about the future of Fianna Fail. Not an attack on FF, but a piece on “should FF do this or that?”. I get contacted privately (a lot) by FFers on the posts, some complimentary, some critical, but it’s all robust and sincere debate. Only once has an FFer got cranky with me, outraged that I, an Irish voter, had the cheek to write about his party and that I should “mind my own business”. I asked a couple of FFers about him, and one summed him up as “Yeah, we tend to put him in a corner with a packet of crisps and a Club Orange, and try to avoid startling him with loud noises.”
7. There are some nasty types out there, but not as many as you think. The web has given every anonymous mouth-breather an opportunity to get out into the world in an attempt to wreak revenge on their frustrations, and I have attracted a few. Some would say I’m one myself. I’ve been accused of being paid money by large and secret corporations (which I would take if offered, by the way), snorting cocaine, hiding my former Progressive Democrat affiliation (seriously?) and, most bizarrely, and one poor soul regarded this as a cutting insult, liking Bearnaise sauce. Just be aware that the poor bastards are out there watching until their mother calls them down for their tea. Do not engage with the crazies, though. You make their day, and they always have more time than you, because this is all they have. Don’t forget, they regard their anonymous vomits on politics.ie as a “body of work”.
8. Recognise that not all of your audience are from your own country. About 40% of my readers are from outside Ireland (US, UK and, cough, a certain city in Belgium) so occasionally write a piece aimed at them. And don’t be afraid to invite guest bloggers. Just make sure they don’t libel anyone.
Finally, be nice to the people who take the trouble to engage with you. I try to reply to all the emails I get from people, and NEVER EVER quote non-public people without their permission. I get a lot of emails from political people telling me stuff going on in their respective parties. Some of it will be of the hatchet variety, which I don’t use, but other stuff can be very telling. Take Ogra Fianna Fail’s transformation into THE place for young gay political activists to go, for example. I was tipped off to this not by openly gay young FFers but still-in-the-closet young politicos who were surprised at how open Ogra had become.
Is blogging worth it? If, like me, you carry a notebook around with you and always have a few draft blogs knocking around in your head, yes it is. It’s the cheapest form of therapy you’ll ever find.