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Suffer little children...

In the aftermath of the Savile investigations and now the Newtown massacre, I wonder about the received wisdom that things were worse for kids in the medieval period

16 December 2012

Note: This article was written before news of the Newtown massacre, in which 20 children aged between 5 and 10 were shot dead, had broken. In some ways it's even more relevant now.

medieval children in an illustrated bookAs part of the education process of being a Viking re-enactor, I sometimes go into primary schools with two or three others, where the bright-eyed weans have been making papier-mache longships and cardboard helmets. With horns. It is our job to show them something of what the Vikings were really like; and I pride myself that they learn more in an afternoon with me – and others like me all over the country – than a whole term with books. And there are no horns on their helmets at the end of it.

Part of what we do involves lining the kids up (boys on the left, girls on the right) and telling them they have all just been born in the same village, in the same year at the same time. Then we take them through a typical life, getting the 'dead' to collapse theatrically when touched.

A good portion of them have to play dead for a long time, because they do not make it past the 'being born' phase. Then, at age 12, the girls marry the boys (much face-wrinkling at that) and, by 13, the girls are tumbling down in childbirth. Thanks to that and hard work, they die faster than the boys, who are disappointed to discover that it is mostly not in battle. Famine, disease and accident – even a simple cut, untreated, can give you deadly blood-poisoning in an age before antibiotics.

In the end, at age 45, the last two survivors are old people. If they manage another ten years they probably become the wizened old wise people of the village… and the first ones out in the snow when the worst winters and famines coincide.

The kids love it – and the lesson is learned.

I am thinking of those school visits because it is Christmas, the time for children and the time the Christ-child is lauded. Also because I recently read an article which stated, sorrowfully, that, with the Jimmy Savile abuse allegations and financial hardships across the world, this period of time is as bad for children as the dark ages were.

Oh – ye think so?

The history of Dark and Middle Age childhood is a new and dynamic field of research. Very little was written about it until the sixties when Centuries of Childhood, by French writer Phillipe Aries, claimed that the concept of childhood didn't exist in the medieval period. He believed children were just mini-adults whose long-suffering parents could not wait until the 'mini' part was done with.

Yet it is almost impossible to support with fact. Aries – like the worst journalism that has given us the Leveson drama – simply failed to research his subject well enough, long enough or objectively enough; and the result has been years of solidified opinion that is hard to crack.

One of the most frequently-mentioned forms of 'evidence' encountered for this concept is the representation, in any extant artwork, of children dressed in adult clothing. If you were clad in the clothes you must have been expected to walk the walk. Now, that's an argument leaping to a huge conclusion. You can't get worse than that – unless it is the media treatment of Christopher Jeffries in the Joanna Yeates murder.

There isn't a great deal of Middle Age artwork that actually depicts children, other than Jesus, but the examples that survive do not always display them in adult garb. The overblown argument is easier to disprove with evidence that does exist: one, medieval laws existed to protect the rights of orphans; and two, medieval medicine approached the treatment of children separately from adults.

What might be causing confusion is the 21st century idea of adolescence, which was not recognised as a development separate from both childhood and adulthood. This is not to say a Dark Age Kevin The Teenager did not exist – just that no-one decided he was anything but an annoying young adult when the hormones kicked in. Such characters were more likely to be given a swift boot up the jacksie and told to 'man up' than be accorded special considerations in court and anywhere else. Still, the social rules of the day did take them into account – inheritance laws set the age of majority at 21, expecting a certain level of maturity before entrusting Kevins with the family fortune.

Then, as now, the media played a part in shaping – badly – the perceptions of social life. (You get the press you deserve no matter the era, it appears.) Contemporary chronicles that include childhood revelations are few and far between – the literature of the day was less interested in the tender years than the adult achievement. Except in some of the Norse sagas.

Egil Skallagrimsson, the dour, psychotic and brilliant warrior poet of the Viking age, tells a tale of when he was around five or six. Getting beaten up by a larger lad in a rough game of stick and ball, young Egil eventually lost the plot and sent himself off. Not a full red card, it seemed – he went home, picked up a wood axe, walked back on the field and smashed the offending left-back in the head with it. This tale is told, not as a morality horror of a child gone bad, but as a backslap of applause at the first signs that young Egil had 'the right stuff' of Norse greatness.

If you want to learn about how a medieval mother felt about her kids, consider this. From a purely economic standpoint, nothing was more valuable to a peasant family than sons to help with the ploughing, and daughters to help with the household. The high mortality rate meant a frantic production of 'replacements' – but those who survived were not simply treated as if another would be along in a minute. In times of famine, disease and war, parents would strive hard to keep their children alive at the expense of all else.

Another instance in which the likes of Phillipe Aries did not dig deep enough is the example of Edward I, the famed Hammer of the Scots. He is reported to have taken the death of his son, John, and then his father, Henry II in typical fashion – saying that it was easier to bear the loss of a son than a father. A son can be replaced; a father's loss it irredeemable.

Well, there you go: proof positive that children were not held in high regard? On the face of it, yes. But a bit of deeper thinking would come up with Charles of Anjou, perplexed and troubled enough to ask Eddie the Hammer to explain himself more fully. And such thinking would alight upon the part of the chronicler, who considered the English king's opinion significantly unusual enough to record. The royal words were clearly considered strange and unusual behaviour. Not the first example of strange and unusual sociopath from Edward I, of course, as Bruce and Wallace discovered.

The harsh life of the times, it is suggested, explains a general lack of parental affection, as personified in all that missing literature and young adult artwork. The favourite banner flown in this is infanticide – the Dark Age concept of, for example, exposing malformed children at birth. Anyone capable of extinguishing the life of a helpless newborn was incapable of feeling or expressing love for an infant, runs the conclusion.

Along with the lack of definition of adolescence, the most misunderstood aspect of past-era thinking is this: life for a child only began once the child accepted. If it was not accepte, it was essentially treated as if it had never been born. In non-Judeo-Christian societies, the immortal soul (if individuals were considered to possess one) was not necessarily considered to reside in a child from the moment of its conception. Therefore, infanticide was not regarded as murder.

It may be surprising to know that the concept is held true in places not too far removed from us to this day. It was happening in rural areas of Scotland right up until the 19th century, when tales of babies supplanted by fairy children were common. It is happening now, with equally horrific tales of children being 'possessed'. Once you have declared that the child is unholy, disposing of the unaccepted 'creature' becomes simpler. It is not murder, runs that argument.

But, then as now, it was not a case of thousands of unwanted Dark and Middle Age weans being killed off by cold, uncaring parents. There is absolutely no evidence to support that picture. There were and are instance but they were and are unusual enough to be noted by chroniclers or reporters.

There is plenty of evidence that young children amused themselves with toys and simple games –the stick and ball game Egil managed to invade with horror, for example. In the end, they traced the path most children take today in that they have roles to follow: girls take to imitating their mothers, boys their fathers; and it is all to equip them for the moment they leave home for the wider world.

Ironically, then as increasingly now, children stayed home with their parents all their lives – and that is not the only lesson learned in a better, more studied understanding of Dark Age and medieval childhood.

The tendency is to believe, courtesy of careless schooling and media short-cuts, that the Dark Ages were just that – dark. Petrach, who coined the phrase at the start of the Renaissance, has a lot to answer for.

The Dark Ages were neither murky nor unenlightened. These are not aliens, they are us, with the same hopes, fears and parental love. Kids could be coddled or abused – and the only tragedy is that nothing much has changed for them in the 21st century. If anything, it is worse.

Proof of this can be found now, when the Dark and Middle Age world comes into sharp focus on the approach of His birthday. This is Good King Wenceslas territory. Bucolic snow-scenes with angels and Jesus in a manger – the very stuff of the medieval church window.

Yet the popularity of the Virgin and Child then could only have been so if people understood the bond of affection between mother and offspring. Those lullabies from Mary to her son in Middle-English literature are cradle songs. The art that shows the virgo lactans came about from a fundamental understanding that breast was best when it came to babies.

If you want to bridge the gap of generations to understand better how our ancestors regarded their children, look at any modern, famine-blighted, war-torn, Third World nation whose plight is blasted all over the telly, particularly at this time of year. The medieval folk are there - us, shaped by circumstance.

In an age when children seem to be more abused than they ever were, we should take this medieval lesson to heart.

Crowbone winner revealed

At last I can tell you who won the signed hardback copy of Crowbone plus the marked-up manuscript… and the question he asked that won it

2 December 2012

Idris Elba as HeimdallViking fan Kieran from Cheltenham has won the signed copy of Crowbone and the marked-up manuscript chapter by providing one of the most interesting queries I have had. Kieran was, he said, surprised to find that not all the Oathsworn are Scandinavian and was taken, in particular, by the character of Kaup, the Nubian. Is there evidence for black Vikings?

The short answer is no. The other short answer is yes. No, there is no archaeological evidence – skin doesn't survive. Yes, there is anecdotal evidence of black men and women in the 10th century (and earlier) and that the Norse came in contact with them for trade and raid.

The Moorish kingdoms of Spain were already well established by the time the Norse began raiding that far south – and Dublin was a major trade centre for slaves taken in North Africa and along the southern Mediterranean. The Norse who came to join the Kingdom of Kiev and fight for the Byzantine Empire would have encountered Arabs, Turks and even stranger, dark-skinned races, who were also serving in the polyglot Imperial army.

So we have thralls and we have warriors who are black. Since raiding bands could comprise Irish, Alban Scots, Saxons, Frisians, Germans and others, it is no great step to include black warriors. Unlkess, of course, you are one of those mouth-frothing ravers who believe they are descended from the pure blood of the Anglo Saxons, or the white, blond Norse.

The Missouri-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which is pretty much labelled as a hate group, is particularly stoked. It was bad enough black English actor Idris Elba as Heimdall in the first Thor – but now there is to be a sequel and Heimdall has a bigger role in it than before. Now they bluster that Marvel has 'declared war on Norse mythology' and rant that: 'It's not enough that Marvel attacks conservative values – now mythological Gods must be re-invented with black skin.'

Get that. Mythological gods – because, of course, no right-thinking white supremacist could ever admit to believing in the gods of Asgard. But, no matter that they are a fairy-story – they have to be a white fairy-story.

But once you look at the Æsir, those Norse gods of Asgard, you find that they are not quite all white on the night. For a start, the term Æsir means 'gods'. Plural of áss, óss. In Old English and Gothic, it is ōs (gen. pl. ēsa). These all stem from Proto-Germanic ansis-ansuz, which itself comes from early Indo-European énsus (gen. ensóus). That means 'life force'. In Avestan, an ancient East Iranian language, aŋhū equates as 'lord; lifetime', ahura is 'godhood' and, in Sanskrit, ásu is 'life force' and 'god' (ásuró)). All of these are related to Hittite and Tocharian B, an extinct branch of the Indo-European language spoken in the oases of the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan Desert.

And, in the Taklamakan desert, they have discovered tall, blond/red-haired mummies, perfectly preserved by the dry desert air who have less to do with their neighbours, the Chinese and Indians, than with anyone familiar with Norse.

The Norse themselves always speak of Asgard, home of the gods, lying 'to the east' and that, if you travelled far enough, you could walk up to the gates.

But the Norse of the 10th century were puzzled by the skin tone – they called them Blue Men, because the only people of that colour they had seen were those who had been dead at least a week and were turning blue with rot. Darker skins were know as Burned Men, for obvious reasons. Now that is revealing – it means black men were not common among folk who did not travel and suggests, to me at least, that Scandinavia was not overly blessed with coloured folks.

And, in all the tales told to frighten bairns round a fire on a dark knight – fairy-stories, Northern-style – the villain who had to be defeated by the hero was always accompanied by a fierce band consisting of vicious dwarves, dragons – and black men.
So there you have it – I am confident enough to spit in the eye of your white supremacist loony and have black men in an Oathsworn band. In fact, it is easier to get folk to believe that than that there were women warriors in a Norse raiding party.
But watch this space…

So, congrats to Kieran – I hope he enjoys seeing how the Crowbone story was put together.

Why I'm starting National Not Writing Month

In direct defiance of the motivational stunt National Novel Writing Month I won't pen a single word during November. That may seem like a 'fuck you' from a Published Author, but I have many better reasons for my protest...

28 October 2012

The LAST thing the world of books needs is more writers. This may seem like a 'fuck you' from someone who has cracked the Da Vinci Code of getting published and doesn't need the competition – but it isn't.

What the world of books needs is more readers.

From what I see online and off, in libraries and schools, is the disturbing trend to replace the art of reading – a selfless cultural space – with the narcissistic demand that you get down and write instead.

Nothing – but nothing – brings this into stark focus like NaNoWriMo, an organisation which already has me grinding my teeth because it has a spuriously fancy coat of arms which includes a horned Viking helmet. Tells me all I need to know already ...

'NaNoWriMo' is not a traditional Klingon love lilt. It is California-speak for National Novel Writing Month, started in 1999 as a motivational stunt for a small group of writer friends. Now it has become a nonprofit organization with staff (all of them with degrees in Creative Writing or Creative Nonfiction), sponsors, a fundraising gala and, last year, nearly 120,000 'contestants'.

I can't really call them anything else because what they agree to do is start and complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. To "win," all you have do is meet that goal – however wretched the result. Last year's NaNoWriMo had 21,683 such winners.

If you complete NaNoWriMo, you now have permission to feel like a winner. If you don't, well you're not a loser either. Just stick another 10p in the slot and try again, possibly with the 45,000-word pile of crap you just failed to get done last time.

It is raising my hackles. This is novel-writing made into computer Scrabble, where if you rack up a certain score inside a pre-set timeframe you win.

The purpose of NaNo – that bloody stupid name just seems to sum up the crassness of the whole thing – seems laudable enough. You kickstart the habit of writing every single day; and if there actually is a recipe for writing a book, that has to be the universal stock-cube in it. NaNo forces wannabe authors to ignore all these inner naysayers of the psyche and just fucking write. No more never finishing what you start. Kids screaming? Fuck 'em – write. Central heating on the fritz? Put on another sweater and write. Complete block of the head? Beat it on the keyboard until it bleeds and Just. Fucking. Write.

In that spirit, NaNo has spewed tutorials, tip lists, wiki-leaks, FAQs, tweets and sundry other friendly medja, all designed to flag-wave the contestants like a crowd at the Olympic cycling. They will take NO excuses."Make no mistake," the organisation's website counsels. "You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create."

Oh, really.

To hit the 50,000 word target you must write at least 1,666 words per day over the 30-day period. Is it a particularly fruitful way to spend a November, if what you have at the end is crap? Personally, I would rather give myself permission to play Skyrim, or World of Warcraft or Guildwars 2 for the month of November – at least there I get to kill obnoxious trolls instead of having to listen to them tell me how to write crap.

Nor will you have a novel at the end of it. Publishers will fall over laughing at you if you submit it. 'Thanks for the pitch, but send us the finished book,' is what they say. Even young adults need 60,000 words or they will put it on YouTube so everybody can have a laugh.

Of course, you could self-publish. I mean, why not? You have just spent a month like one of the infinite monkeys aiming for King Lear, so why not continue the analogy and throw your shit at the plexiglass for the amusement of gawpers?

Why does 'giving yourself permission' to write a lot of crap so often seem to also give you permission to demand that people read it? Nothing about NaNo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read. The last thing the world needs is more bad books – the last thing a publisher wants is a manuscript dropping on their desk with the words 'Here is my NaNoWriMo novel…' on the cover.

Publishers will receive such work because – like the infinite number of monkeys – the contest has produced, if not Shakespeare, then one solid hit: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, who apparently took more trouble over the edit than most.

Set some other figures against that. In 2009, NaNo had 167,150 participants, and 32,178 'winners' – almost a 20 percent completion rate, which seems excellent. However, out of the entire ten years of the event, less than 200 books ever made it to publishing. In the current climate you can bet that is even smaller, Water For Elephants not withstanding.

To be fair, this isn't NaNo doing anything wrong vis-a-vis the publishing side of the equation; but it is an indictment of their cavalier attitude to the logical conclusion of all that writing effort. Getting published is harder than a tax man's heart when he hears the words 'offshore'.

So – does NaNo expect you to stick those 50,000 words in a drawer? Job done? Now back to cleaning the toilet until next year? Probably; because NaNoWriMo is focused exclusively on writers. Far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. It may be a nonprofit organisation but it has the Californian razzmatazz that lets you shop at the store for a T-shirt or a mug. If you are already a mug, you can make donations.

But, I hear you say – you are a Professional Author so you would look at this with a condescending sniff. Damn right.

If I can sit down and write, so can you – but why make it November and 50,000 words? If you think you can do that, then make October 'Research Month'. Make December Write The Other 100,000 Words That Make This A Novel month. In short – tell NaNo to go feck themselves and stop behaving like a writing tourist, dropping in for a look-see at the world I live in all year, every year.

I WANT people to write. I don't want people to think they can superglue their arse to a seat, chainsaw open their skulls and spill any old crap for a month – then stop.

So you want to be a writer? Do it. Use the energy and effort and skill that is a month-long gimmick for NaNoWriMo and transform it into a lifelong love affair. And if you can't, then do the even better thing.

Be a reader.

That's what I will be as I stage my National Not Writing Month in November.

A Quiet Belief in Readers

Why I will not stoop to 'sock puppetry' – the ignoble art of writing my own positive reviews of my books

14 September 2012

CrowboneI don't like sock puppets. Not when they are Larry the Lamb, that bloody woollen sheep scared the crap out of me as a kid; or Irish crime author RJ Ellory, who scares the crap out of me as an adult.

The latter was recently outed as the author of 12 glowingly positive write-ups of his own book, A Quiet Belief In Angels, on Amazon, not to mention a couple of slaps at fellow crime authors Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride.

He's not the only one, of course, nor is the only one outed – bestselling thriller writer Stephen Leather admitted at the Harrogate crime festival that he masqueraded with various alises online, even having debates with himself to build buzz about his novels.

Legitimate and clever use of media? Or sock-puppetry of the worst order? You decide.

I don't like it, but I can understand it. Reviews, in a world of shrinking sales outlets, can help an author sell and selling helps an author write more. A lesser person can be crushed by someone's less than objective prose and a good, well-constructed, well-observed slab of praise can raise your day.

Some of my colleagues hesitate to ask for reviews, but I have no qualms about inviting them – good or bad. All I hope is that they are honest and sensible. I get hacked off by the odd Vine reader on Amazon, who complains about, say, a lack of map, or glossary, or cast of characters when they get a pre-pub copy of a book which has all that in it for publication day.

On the whole, Amazon reviews are interesting and give a good indication, at the very least, that you can't please all of the people all of the time.

At least, from this blog, you will know that the reviews you get for a Robert Low book can be trusted and none are the result of the Big New Thing in writing, the paid-for write-up. The New York Times revealed the existence of a service enabling authors to pay for hundreds of reviews from 'readers'.

Now that sucks more than a Dyson. Paying for fake reviews cheats readers, cheats integrity and just blows away the majority of book bloggers and reviewers whose only fee is a free book for an honest review.

Your heartfelt reviews, enthusiastic or disapproving, are more than welcome. Those readers who judge by the last one-star given are well offset by those with more discernment and I am too thick-skinned to be wounded by objective criticism.

Now read Crowbone – and then tell the world what you think.

The real Crowbone

The fifth Oathsworn novel is published today - a good time to introduce you to Olaf Tryggvason, the king who inspired the character.

13 September 2012

CrowboneOlaf Tryggvason (circa 960s – 1000AD): Son of Tryggve Olafsson, king of Viken (Vingulmark and Ranrike) in Norway, great-grandson of Harald Fairhair, first king of Norway. Crowbone became king of Norway in 995, was killed in battle in 1000AD and, in that time, played a vital role in converting the Norwegians to Christianity. He built the first church in Norway (995) and founded the city of Trondheim.

That's about as much historical surety as we have, though there are some mentions in skaldic poems and, notably, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles have him as the leader of the Viking forces at the Battle of Malden in 991.

The oldest narrative source mentioning him briefly is Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (c1070) and, in the 1190s, two Latin sagas of Olaf Tryggvason were written in Iceland by Oddr Snorrason and Gunnlaugr Leifsson. Snorri gives an extensive account of Olaf in Heimskringla (c 1230), using Oddr Snorrason's saga as his main source. The accuracy of these late sources is not taken at face value by modern historians and their validity is a topic of some debate.

Nevertheless, for fictional purposes, I have used the Heimskringla version – Olaf's father, Tryggve, is attacked and killed by the sons of Queen Gunnhild, one of whom is the famous Erik Bloodaxe. Olaf's mother, Princess Astrid, flees, giving birth to Olaf sometime during the 960s, variously attributed as early as 963 (just after the attack) and then between 964 and 969, which would make Olaf the son of someone other than the dead Tryggve. I stuck with 963, making him three when he was captured by a raider called Klerkon while he and his mother and foster-father (Lousebeard) were making for the safety of Vladimir's court in Novgorod. Astrid's brother, Sigurd, was commander of Vladimir's bodyguard there and the saga has it that he, six years later, eventually discovers and frees the young Olaf, now nine. Olaf then goes on to find Klerkon and kills him, in full public view, in the main square of Novgorod.

I stuck to this accurately enough – except that it is Orm and the Oathsworn who free Crowbone and end up in trouble when he murders Klerkon in The White Raven.

The name Craccoben - Crowbone – was given to Olaf because he was an unresolved pagan who governed his actions and read the future by the actions of birds and he was reputed to be able to communicate with them, too. Crowbone's odd-coloured eyes and his tale-telling are my own invention, but much in keeping with the character who had a rich and varied career, according to the sagas.

In 977, when Jaropolk ousted Prince Vladimir from Novgorod and forced him to flee the country, it was Crowbone he went to. The pair of them spent three years raiding up and down the Baltic, gathering ships and men until they returned, defeated Jaropolk and Vladimir became supreme Prince of the Rus in 980.

Thereafter, of course, matters cooled between the pair and Crowbone wisely took his popularity elsewhere. In 982, aged 19, he married Geira, daughter of a Polish king who was either Miezko or his son Boleslaus depending on which sources you believe. He stayed in that part of Wendland, variously defending his wife's interests and raiding into Skane and Gotland, for three years – then his wife died.

By 985 he is reported raiding in the Hebrides, in Friesland (Holland) and the Scilly Isles, among other places. In 988, he sailed to Ireland to woo Gyda, sister of the king of Dublin and had to fight a one-to-one duel (holmgang) to win her. In 995, Svein Forkbeard of Denmark organised a huge army to attack England and invited Crowbone to be part of it. It is here that he won the Battle of Malden and exhorted a great deal of Danegeld, thus enabling him to sail to Norway and regain the throne.
He held it only five years, having converted to Christianity and, with newly-baptised evangelical zeal, using brutal methods to convert everyone else. The Battle of Swold (which cannot be identified) ended his reign and his life because all his enemies came together, including Svein Forkbeard's Danes, the ousted Norwegians not to mention annoyed Wends and others.

Crowbone was last seen to slip under the waves, having leaped into the sea from his ship, the Long Serpent. Only his shield was left floating on the surface – yet there are those who knew his ability to swim strongly in ring-mail and swore he never died, but escaped.

Within this framework – which is a saga-tale and not, therefore, an accurate history – is considerable scope for invention as a character. His death was at age 37, so you can see this is still a man with some prime left, even allowing for times – and, if you believe the tales of his escape, lots more scope for adventures.

Fleeting spirit of the Games

My move from Scotland to the heart of England coincided with the Olympics, offering a unique introduction to my new home...

19 August 2012

TorchI have been thinking about legacy these past weeks, mainly because I have moved. I am no longer in sunny Largs, but Malvern in Worcestershire, pretty much the heart of England. Home of Elgar and strange sauce.

For those who drop their jaws with incredulity and want to know why, I give you the definitive and argument-ending answer; the Malvern-raised wife. Those who know me shook their heads with wry horror, pronouncing on variations of 'Goad Almighty – you will kill the first yin who calls you Jockinese' to 'you will miss the good air, clean water and lovely people of yer ain folk'. It did not help my world view when my first weekend there was spent amid a sea of Olympic flags – and a visit by morris dancers to the pub I was having a pint in.

So far, no-one has called me Jockinese, Strap (as in Jock Strap – geddit?) or even Scotch git – well, apart from The Wife, and she has privileges. The water is clean, if a little inclined to furry, the air unremittingly pure and the people as friendly and helpful as any encountered in Largs, though I may grow a little weary of being called 'm'lover'.

However, my surprise at this is part of the legacy of being Scottish. It comes with the fierce pride of country and, if you are unlucky, a large burden of chip on the shoulder. I have, I hope, avoided the latter, that deformity which thinks painting your face blue, dressing in tartan at every conceivable celebration and yelling 'Freedom!' is what being a Scot is all about. I have had arguments to no avail with the ones who turn up at reenactments from Falkirk to Bannockburn and back, trying to point out why they can't take part: no tartan, no blue faces, no basket-hilted swords or long two-handed affairs either in 14th century Scotland.

It has had me thinking about English legacy as well, particularly because the word has been bandied about in the closing stages of the Olympics. It is like one of those brilliant parties, where everyone had made new friends in a feverishly short time and are now at the point of arms-across-shoulders, you're-ma-pal bonhomie and swearing that they will keep in touch. It is all bollocks, of course, because the can-do, musketeer spirit will vanish as swiftly as it came, in a welter of reality – no real money for the promised sports projects, rising prices, rising train fares, recession.

You can see it already – the London 2012 Games were brilliant and you couldn't move for coverage on the telly two weeks before it launched. The Paralympics, on the other hand are not nearly so well spotlighted – and even those with a vested interest, the disabled, are seeing little legacy from the common-sense, good-humoured legion of helpers so lauded in the able-bodied version.

Wheelchair users who want to spectate are discovering that they are permitted only ONE person to accompany them in the seating. So if you have a husband who is a carer, and kids as well, you are in trouble, for the bairns will have to sit somewhere else and probably alone. It seems strange to me that an event designed to inspire a new generation of disabled athletes should have a discriminatory ticketing policy, sending exactly the wrong message.

Of course, this is part of the Other Legacy of the Games, the one which was revealed by the badminton players not being the best they can be so as to pull a perceived lesser opponent in the next round; or the ticket touts that were not supposed to be able to operate, but somehow still did; and the official Olympic ticket seller, Ticketmaster, who did not like a useful service it had not thought of itself, and so banned it.

Adam Naisbitt wrote a computer program that checked the official Olympics ticket site to spot when tickets for events were released, sharing the info on Twitter and helping hundreds buy tickets to watch the Games.He wrote the code after being frustrated by the official Olympics website, which suggested tickets were available when they had all been sold. All his program did was regularly look at the ticket site to spot the most recent changes and reveal which events genuinely had seats available.

It was something Ticketmaster could – and should – have thought of, but didn't; and instead of embracing it, they tried to cover up their lack by closing the site down after 250,000 people had logged in and hundreds sent message saying they had got tickets thanks to the site's info. According to a spokesperson, the block was imposed by TicketMaster, London 2012's ticket agency, on all automatic scrutiny of the site in a bid to stop touts snapping up tickets and selling them for a profit.

Yeah – that worked.

In the end, though, my new English colleagues and neighbours will think the legacy of the London 2012 Games well worth it, probably for the same reason I do. For the very first time in an age, I saw the red George Cross on waving flags and did not at once think I had strayed into a BNP rally. The rehabilitation of that symbol of Englishness in a true sense is alone probably worth the cost of the Games.

Ignorant law is no excuse

Richard O'Dwyer shouldn't escape criminal charges for copyright theft simply because the UK's legal system fails to fully grasp that the internet is an online market stall

2 July 2012

Jimmy WalesYou may have seen Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, stoutly defending the right of Richard O'Dwyer, to the extent of sending out emails to almost everyone and their dog, exhorting them to protest vigorously and loudly about the imminent extradition of the lad to the US to face criminal charges. Jimmy thinks:

… that copyright matters, and is important. Creators ought to be legally able to give their work away freely, as so many do for the betterment of humankind, and to set certain conditions on how their work is used. And I think creators ought to be able to release their work under traditional copyright and have legal recourse against those who are illegally profiting from it.

So far, so good. What has this young student done to annoy America and what has America done to annoy Wikipedia founder Jimmy? Well, the young O'Dwyer created a website, called tvshack.net, which acted as a search engine for people to find out where they could watch - and even download - popular TV shows, typically those not yet available outside the US. Some of the links led to legal sources, others to unauthorised sites.

He was very scrupulous, Wales argues, about taking down content when he received properly formatted take-down notifications. Given the state of US internet law, Wales declares, it is extremely difficult to see how he can be convicted of copyright violation.

Oh, d'ye THINK so? In what way do Richard O'Dwyer's actions not constitute "encouraging or assisting crime"? If you are in any doubt of it, Jimmy will tell you:


Assuming of course, it is accurate. This is Wikipedia, after all.

Publishers are constantly issuing take-down notices for all those who seem to think it no big deal to point file-sharers in the general direction of e-books, available for free. Authors, many of my colleagues among them, are worried about losing money and almost all the websites I have seen - Mr O'Dwyer's among them – make considerable sums out of ads; they are not so altruistic and anarchic as to not see the profit angle.

If he drew similar allegations under British law he would not face criminal proceedings – he would be subject only to a civil suit for loss of profits. Yet if he was nicked dealing dubious DVDs down the Barras, he would be committing a criminal offence for which he could be imprisoned.

The only reason for the current confusion is that the law in the UK has yet to realise that the internet is itself a global market stall.

So why should the UK send him to the US to answer charges that couldn't be brought here – facing a right stiffer of a criminal penalty? Whether Theresa May and the UK government in general should roll over like a pet poodle to the US demands under this extradition law is another question entirely and am I less interested in that. Personally, I would be happy for O'Dwyer to be criminally prosecuted in this country. I would be delighted if one half of one half of all the American SOBs downloading free books written and published in the UK were huckled to this country for trial; but it won't happen because the Law here seems to believe that digital material has no financial value other than the costs of storing and transmitting it.

There is the unspoken idea that intellectual property rights holders should grasp this and change their business models for marketing their wares – in other words, it is the fault of artists for having the temerity to not be lawyers.

Finally, Jimmy declared that:

Copyright is an important institution, serving a beneficial moral and economic purpose. But that does not mean it can or should be unlimited. It does not mean that we should abandon time-honoured moral and legal principles to allow endless encroachments on our civil liberties in the interests of the moguls of Hollywood.

What rat-brain reasoning is this? Copyright is like being pregnant – you cannot be just a little bit. And what are 'time-honoured' legal principles? Either they are legal or they are 'time-honoured', that neat little phrase which encompasses everything from Jimmy Carr to Old Spanish Customs in newspapers – otherwise known as fiddling your expenses and getting paid twice for doing the same job.

Morality? That's the conscience which O'Dwyer and everyone else who creates a similar website has overcome, the justification for making money off someone else's talent. It is also what this country's politicans lack when it comes to handling the problem themselves, instead of handing it off to the big tough boy down the street.

The bottom line, however, is that Richard O'Dwyer and all the others of his ilk will never quite grasp what they are doing until the day they create something meaningful, financially viable and career-making of their own – and watch a student gnaw the whole thing to ruin like a rodent on stolen cheese.

Mythbusters or muckrakers?

The Health & Safety Executive's attempt to improve its reputation by making historical
re-enactors look stupid serves only to make everyone involved look more stupid than
they are… I hope

14 June 2012

HSE logo"Health and safety," says the government department charged with that role, "is often incorrectly used as a convenient excuse to stop what are essentially sensible activities going ahead. The Health & Safety Executive has set up an independent panel, the Myth Busters Challenge Panel, to scrutinise such decisions."

Youngsters preparing to study for the We will leave aside the usual mountain of garbled politico guff, acknowledge our hard-working public servants' point, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Until we read Case 6, that is.

Case 6: A historical re-enactment society was told that there was a new regulation in place for chopping vegetables in a public place. Panel decision: Historical re-enactment societies are normally volunteer run and enacted and will have duties under civil law, not the Health and Safety at Work Act. There are no new health and safety regulations requiring tests for vegetable chopping and the risks to the public from participants chopping vegetables in public areas are so low that a test would be a completely over the top requirement. An application of common sense is clearly needed so that the re-enactment activities can proceed unhindered.

Even when they are trying to do us a favour, H&S manage to muddy the waters by making re-enactors look thick as mince; the first requirement for any investigative journalism is 'do not accept the original story as Gospel'. If there was an original story rather than a trumped-up scenario scribbled together after a quick Google search, that is.

No-one in reenacting was advised of a new H&S regulation requiring a test for chopping vegetables. That would be nonsense, as alluded to above.

But the origin of Case 6 concerns litigation in Living History encampment areas, and what happens if wee Joe Public gets cut, scalded or burned then decides to get injurynonces4u in on the act.

In the event of a civil law action, the first hurdle to be overcome is to eatablish whether the area in question was properly supervised by a Responsible Person. There is little point in arguing that everyone in reenactment has years of experience round food, fires and the like – that cuts no ice with lawyers. What does is a properly constituted health and safety course involving fire safety, food hygiene and the like. A test, with a ticked box at the end of it, all properly logged and making everyone a Responsible Person in the eyes of the Law. A proactive response to the possibility of serious litigation.

This has been done. Every re-enactor in our Society has undergone it – though a few veterans thought it beneath their dignity, huffing and puffing about having to cut up carrots and turnips to show competence with a sharp knife.

Hence the 'chopping vegetables test', which has now come down to the Health and Safety Myth-Busters panel as a Chinese whisper; or a hastily copied-and-pasted Google search.

What bothers me is that the panel is composed of at least two very senior H&S officers, assisted by experienced men and women in other serious fields of work. It depresses me that not one of them bothered to consider WHERE the myth had come from. It devalues all the other exploded myths the panel have undertaken if they simply accept their face value at start.

Not to mention making re-enactors look like idiots – and, yet again, doing H&S itself no favours.

Sun sets on Empire ignorance - or at least it should

Despite the Daily Mail's agenda-ridden panic mongering, there is scope to improve coverage of Scottish history in the school curriculum, and allow our children to learn more about the land they live in… and it does not matter who was driving the tanks

23 May 2012

World War I tankIt should scarcely come as a surprise to anyone that the Daily Mail's cosmetically tartanised version labelled 'Scottish' should have ignored the Euro crisis, the unrest in Greece and the double-dip recession in Britain on Saturday. Instead, its front page was devoted to how the SNP are scurriously revamping the history curriculum in schools in order to promote Scottish Nationalism.

Youngsters preparing to study for their Highers will be told, trumpets the Mail, that Britain is an 'arch-imperialist villain' and will learn about the Great War purely from the perspective of the Scots who took part in it.

Which is all bollocks of course – and stems from a very slimy cuttings job by a journo with a clear agenda using this obscure article by Neil McLennan, president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.

(No, I have never heard of SATH before now either, which is not to say that it isn't a worthy organisation with something constructive to say. I am slightly despairing, however, to find out that their Saturday night talks have been cancelled due to low numbers.)

Mr McLennan's piece has some cogent points on the new curriculum to make, such as:

For a start, the first chronological course option starts in 1286. There is a real danger that pupils will believe Scottish history began with Alexander III's death in a riding accident and the subsequent conflict with southern neighbours. Pupils must be exposed to Scottish history long before 1286.

It needs to be made clear that Scotland was not always a country. Pupils need to understand that it was made up of many different peoples who had traditions and roots in countries as diverse as modern-day France, Ireland, England and Scandinavia. Only then will they have a better understanding of the multi-ethnic and connected world they now occupy. Picts, Vikings and Columba are all fascinating for pupils.

I am standing alongside you there, Neil – sadly, the existing curriculum does not start earlier than 1286 either. Only Primary schools deal with Picts and Vikings, etc. Mind you, it means that wee Bettany or Brad already has a fair idea of what went on pre-Wallace and Bruce by the time they go to Big School. I humbly submit that my own input with school visits has contributed a part to this. Incidentally – shame on the fragrant Bettany Hughes for lending herself to a comment on this Daily Mail folly; I can only surmise that she was ambushed.

Should the Higher exam include Picts, the formation of Alba, the arrival of Columba? Of course it should – but how would the Unionists view that, I wonder? If it aint Tudor, it's SNP propaganda, according to the Mail.

Neil goes on to say:

Nevertheless, the flash of tartan and cries of "Freedom" will attract students to some of the Scottish units. The British history units pale into "dry", "boring" insignificance against this populist history. Indeed, many units portray Britain as the consistent arch-imperialist villain of the piece.

For 'Britain' read 'British Empire'. For 'British Empire' read 'English Empire' – Scots may well have taken part in it, willing and unwilling, but they weren't anything more than the stormtroopers. They may have moved and shaken, but it was for a government at Westminster, not Edinburgh – and a deal of them did so because they either had been driven off their own lands, or could wear the prohibited tartan only if they fought on behalf of the English Crown.

And no-one has anything good to say about the Empire these days, much to the bewilderment of Jeremy Paxman, who went through his entire BBC series on the subject with a plaintive bemusement at how his perpetual question – 'Is there nothing you can think of that the Empire did for you?' – was met with a blank 'no' from Burma to Canada and all points between.

Neil continues:

The make-up of the Great War course in the Scottish unit is of particular concern to many. One principal teacher commented: "Will sources from the Western Front be omitted unless Hamish Macbeth was driving the tank?" The Great War is one of the most popular strands in Standard grade and is a major recruiting sergeant for history departments up and down the country.

I doubt Western Front sources will be discarded unless Hamish is driving a tank (though pupils might actually discover that tanks did not come into the Western Front until near the end) any more than, say, Shakespeare's play will be downgraded in the English curriculum by the discovery that Macbeth was a historical Scot/Viking.

Of course the Great War is a major recruiting sergeant, as Neil puts it. Because it is a curriculum question for the Higher exam, not because it is 'sexy'. WWI and WW2 drove the History classes in my day at school, to the exclusion of almost everything else; and teachers weren't devoting time to it because they were themselves were obsessed by 20th century wars. They did it because the exam paper had set questions on it.

But even now, in the existing curriculum Neil finds good enough not to tinker with, I can see a mention of how the Battle of Loos had more Scots in it than any other nation, and that Scots casualties in actual fighting were higher than any other nation. I see nothing wrong with this 'Scotcentric' approach. I did not know that in my own schooldays – though I did learn that Rudyard Kipling lost his son at Loos and the old Queen Mum her brother. It's nice to know that more than two people died in that affair and that a deal of them were probably related to the kids learning about it.

I am always hopeful that Scotland will, at last, have a History curriculum in schools that will let future generations know that the successor to Elizabeth and her Golden Age was a king of Scots whose accession to the English throne united both countries. Or that Clydebank was as devastatingly blitzed by the Nazis as was Coventry or London. I would like them to learn that Scotland is a country in its own right and not, as journalist Cliff Hanley put it in the 1980s: a land of tall, rugged people from the mountains who live on a diet of oatmeal porridge and whisky, wear kilts of a tartan weave, play a deafening musical instrument called the bagpipes, are immediately hospitable, but cautious with money, have a hard and Spartan religious faith and regard virtually any activity on a Sunday as a grave sin.

But the bottom line is that Neil, SATH and that militant arm of Right-Wing Thought, the Daily Mail, are scouring, trawling and dredging up any possible old muddy bollocks, no matter how unreal or surreal, to throw at the Independence Referendum in the hope that some shit sticks. We have had this latest lot, plus recent stories on how Scotland will be drummed out of Europe and the euro (before, of course the whole edifice started to crumble), on how we will be unable to police our borders successfully (before, of course, the whole immigration control/Theresa May fiasco hit the headlines) and how we will have to give the pandas back.

Now, I understand, the PM has put a halt to MoD plans to amalgamate regiments because too many weel kent and much-loved Highland ones were vanishing and he does not want anything upsetting Scotland. Any more than it is already. It occurs to me, as Cameron gets all humble about being too close to the Murdoch media, that perhaps he is cursing he was not cosier with the Mail. So he could ask it to shut the feck up and stop annoying the Scots even further.

We DO need another hero

STV have announced they are to make a drama about Wallace, to star Gerard Butler… but as Scotland's historical heritage gains a higher profile than it has in decades, must we return to the same old stories yet again? I know what I would do if it was my choice – and it would certainly move away from a production that might be more Halfheart than Braveheart

7 April 2012

The announcement that STV are producing a new historical drama series based on William Wallace came as a surprise, it seems, to most of Scotland's meedja. Which either explains the parlous state of the newspaper journos of today, or the reputation of STV. Probably both.

I have to admit a general sinking feeling at the thought of STV's involvement in anything. That's Old School, from the days of truly awful Hogmanay shows right through to Brighton Belles from the Nineties and Red And Black, that Simon Cowell roulette pish of a few years back.

However, the aptly-titled Wallace is being made in association with American partners and a London-based production company, with cash also coming from Creative Scotland. That, and the better production values of STV generally these days, fills me with some hope. Executives tell us to expect a production 'In the gritty style of Game Of Thrones and Spartacus' and that sounds good – but is hastily tempered with something about lower levels of sex and gore. Which, let's face it, is what made both of those series compulsive viewing.

So where does that leave us? With Gerard Butler, it appears. Or, at least, a desire for Gerard Butler to play Wallace, at which my heart sinks once again. I know he is Scottish and I know he is an 'action hero' but, well –– he is Gerard Butler. I saw his one and only half-decent performance and it was in a version of Beowulf, but even then he just wisnae a Wallace.

I don't see why the news raised meedja eyebrows since the timing is perfect: the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn is coming up and, with it, the referendum over Scotland's fight for independence (or secession if you are modern Unionist) is right up there on the calendar. It is hardly surprising that a group of TV high-heidyins sipped their Highland Spring round the table and thought they were on a sure-fire ratings winner.

Which is the most worrying part of it, of course: it must be a ratings winner, to the exclusion of many other things viewers might like it to be. The best that Alan Clements, STV's director of content, can come up with by way of a mission statement is: "To set it in Scotland with a Scottish lead. The film that this series owes more to is not Braveheart but 300, the Spartan movie starring Butler. It is just a terrific idea. We are creating a drama based on a great historical character."

Clements continues: "Put it this way: Wallace is not going to lose at the battle of Stirling Bridge." Well, I know Braveheart was riddled with errors, but even it didn't have Wallace lose at Stirling Bridge. If the best that STV have to offer as credentials is "It won't be worse than Braveheart," I am back to that sinking feeling.

I am not surprised that 300 is the influence – it seems that movie has had a seminal effect on every producer in TV. When I was involved, in my wee way, in the making of BBC Scotland's History Of Scotland series, fronted by Neil Oliver (Billy Connolly Lite) there was a big book on the production desk called The Making Of 300, which did what it said on the cover, scene by scene. I never saw so many post-it notes in one volume. I have to say History of Scotland worked out quite well – I like the series. In fact, I was seen deid in it. I wonder if it would have worked any better with Gerard?

It seems that if you are a Scottish telly station and you are going to use Scottish history as a theme, it has to be either Wallace or Bruce – the Che and Fidel of Scotland's fight for freedom. Personally, if I was thinking of taking advantage of the increased profile of the nation's heritage, I would be more inclined to cover the Darien Scheme: that desperate attempt to compete with the English financially which turned into a disaster, bankrupted the country and forced it into Union. Or the Scots who fought at Culloden against Bonnie Prince Charlie – there were a lot of them who didn't care for a lisping French limp-wrister for their king.

But that's just me. Old School.

Selling Scotland by the pound

The Duke of Sutherland sells a Titian painting, the Catholic Church plans to sell a Bonnie Prince Charlie letter, and natural heritage campaigners fear 'Scotland owned by Scots' isn't a strong enough argument to keep hold of Dumfriesshire forests. But do we devalue our own family silver through the act of selling it – and will anybody care once politicos of all parties join the bid-up bandwagon?

6 March 2012

IT IS ALWAYS a clear mark of a failing household when you start selling the spoons. It means even the tally-man considers you a bad risk, and thinks all he will get back from the stone of you is blood rather than money.

So I am not surprised to see the Duke of Sutherland – recalcitrant unreconstructed old aristo that he is – taking £45m for a Titian. That's a painting of some fat naked tarts waving their arms about (From this you will see I am more Vettriano than Venetian School; nothing wrong with Jack's work, as time will tell.)

On reflection the seventh duke's move is a distinct improvement from his ancestors. Last time they were cash-strapped, they simply told their tenants to bugger off to Canada, and replaced them with sheep.

But that is not my point. The point is that heritage not only sells, it dazzles.

The Nats are happy to use it. Witness their tactic of latching on to 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Witness, too, the ravings of Joan McAlpine MSP, who has graduated from calling people traitors for questioning SNP policy to braying about how good the arts have become under Devo, and how brilliantly cultural Scotland will be when it is Independent.

(Her position is slightly at odds with her ex husband, Pat Kane, who scathingly points out that World Book Day is not about reading but about 'distributors, percentages, marketing strategies, the perfidy of agents.' He views Creative Scotland, the government body as 'an enterprising generation of dodgers, divers, duckers and weavers.' For Pat, 'The song has changed from nationalism to commercialism; from "What are we?" to "Here we are – buy us."')

My concern is that heritage has become Scotland's last bankable asset – even as those who stand for independence are proudly trumpeting about the financial viability of a split from the UK.

Even the Catholic Church is considering flogging some of its treasures, including a letter from Bonnie Prince Charlie. The move is causing uproar, from those who don't want to see the document vanish into private hands (though I have never had any idea of where anyone could view it) to those who think that accumulating treasures is honouring God.

The Ettrick Forest estate of Talla and Gamehope is up for sale, and conservationist charities are mounting an appeal for cash to buy it. It's a good enough cause: keeping Scot's land in the hands of Scots. You'd think that would be argument enough.

It isn't, of course. Instead, the estate is being touted as a refuge for Wallace during his years of battling for independence in the 1300s. Ettrick Forest, for sure, was the big hold-out area for brigands and outlaws everywhere, and Wallace knew it well, long before he was mantled in glory. But even the most rabid of the marketeers can't bring themselves to announce, categorically: 'Wallace sheltered in Talla and Gamehope'. 'Would' and 'Could' are the key words – but they hope it is enough to dazzle.

What worries me about this general trend is that, as the independence or separation debate continues, the Scottish Labour, Tory and Lib Dems will almost certainly become more nationalist in an attempt to combat the nationalists. In the process, all will lay hands on the delicate mantle of national heritage in an attempt to wrap it round their own crowns.

My fear is that they will tear the actual history to shreds in the process.

Afterwards, when the dust has settled, we may find ourselves staring at the space on the sideboard where our last prized possession was once proudly displayed. And be so heartily sick of heritage that we won't much care.

Bananas for books

The digital piracy plague finally enters the world of publishing… but with close-fit examples to learn from, like the games industry's failed attempts at preventing copyright theft, will book creators get it right? At first glance it does not look that way…

5 February 2012

IT TURNS OUT that copies of my book are turning up on free book download sites. Not just mine, I hasten to add – there are a lot of my colleagues' works involved, too and they are somewhat perturbed and stoked about it. So are the publishers among them my own, HarperCollins.

It takes me back to the old days, when websites including Napster undermined the music industry by putting music on the web for free. Pirates, but not the cuddly ones of the Caribbean, are now doing the same with ebooks.

The response has been splutters from Amazon, who see their vast Kindle profits threatened. And an agreement between six major publishers, including HarperCollins, recently saw prices rocket for many ebooks; some of them are more expensive than the paper version, because there is no VAT on real books, but there is on ebooks.

History, as it always does, repeats itself. And yet again, no-one took notes.

I did stories on the subject at the time. I read analysis and laughed at the antics of Metallica taking people to court over the pirating of their music – so very rock'n'roll, that. I remember, too, that the debrief on it all was brutally simple: music CDs were too expensive, which is why people downloaded it for free when a computer made it easy.

Reduce the cost of music CDs, was the cry, and volume will make you more profit.
Too much is going for free, was the response. Thousands of downloads. Millions. Soon we won't be able to pay bands, no new music will be coming through, all pirates must be hung.

But wait – think it out. In my days on a newspaper, I learned a single, salient, vital fact: if you run a competition to encourage people to buy the paper, it is axiomatic that folk will buy it to get a free, in-your-hand banana rather than the chance to win a million quid. Even folk allergic to bananas.

Which is why people download. It is free, available and immediate – but who can listen to umpteen thousand songs on their music player? There must be stuff being downloaded and deleted, unheard, all the time.

Some authors consider free downloads to be A Good Thing. Neil Gaiman, for example, encourages downloads spurred by research that suggested that Russia, the Pirate Portobello of the 21st century, actually shows increased sales of both real and digital books. He put up a free online download of his book and sales went up 300 per cent the following month. Paul Coelho was selling a thousand copies a year of The Alchemist in Russia until people pirated it on to free download sites. Then sales went up to 10,000 and convinced HarperCollins to issue free, promo print versions.

I hear you say: that's fine for those selling physical books, but what about the digital-only publisher? If someone pirates it, they have the whole chest of treasures, so what's the incentive then to pay for it? Piracy of digital files might help print sales, but they'll cause digital sales to walk the plank, for sure.

For sure?

Somewhere, in another part of the forest, the little animals of the games industry have been fighting piracy a lot longer than book publishers have; and the comparisons between games and books is creepily similar. They're an entertainment choice, story driven. Developers have every incentive to get you to pay for it and creating a new major-release game is a huge financial investment in salaries, marketing costs, etc. More than a book and more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster – let's face it, films are pirated to the extent that most people's first experience with the concept is that big anti-piracy ad on the screen before any feature. The only film immune to it that I can see is the new one, The Artist, since even a crappy download cannot be worse than black-and-white, no 3D and no sound.

For years I wrote a weekly column about the burgeoning games industry, in addition to my other duties and because I liked the genre.Those were the years when Glasgow and Dundee were kings of the street and, for all that time, creators and publishers concentrated on fighting piracy with increasingly complex registration systems that were supposed to reduce piracy. The end result was Steam, a third-party interloper who holds part of the code while the 'owner' of the game holds the other. For a great many people, Steam is an unnecessary, irritating pile of crap, because all it does is reduce the number of legitimate buyers, who don't want the hassle; the hackers can crack the codes in weeks.

It would have been cheaper for games companies to make a huge pile of money and set it on fire and the salutary lesson learned was, again brutally, simple – if you make life harder for your paying customers than for pirates, you'll make less money. Simple.

So if the games industry is increasing the ease of buying at the expense of piracy, then digital books should take note.

It is hard, however: you see a hundred thousand downloads and you panic at the loss in sales. But think it through… are we seriously to believe that, suddenly, the world has become a global village of readers? Like, books have become the new must-have, to-die-for commodity for The Yoof? OMG. LOL. And – naw, it isnae.

Like the music downloads, these are not the same as 100,000 books stuffed up the jumpers of shoplifters in Waterstones; these are 100,000 books riffled through by browsers. About 75 per cent of them never open the file above a cursory glance to see if they like it and, as an author, I would have to say OMG, that's a product placement to die for. That's if I was an arse trying to be hip and under 30. Even as an old fart I might unwrap a mint at the idea of having so many people taking an interest. If only 1000 go to the library and borrow the sequel, that's good, because half of them might buy the next one.

So – am I convinced that giving stuff away helps sales? Yep. Works for others and can work for the book industry, although I am aware that publishers, agents and my colleagues might have a different take on it.

Here's the thing, though – make sure your house is clean. How many of you scoffing at this because your books sales are endangered have downloaded music you did not pay for? I mention this because one author has already been outed for it – Ann B. Ragde, Norwegian children's author went incandescent and public over her estimates of £70,000 in lost revenue thanks to piracy.

During the interview, her teenage son let slip that Ms Ragde had an mp3 player with more than 1800 songs illegally downloaded. You can always trust your offspring to drop you in it. A flustered Ms Ragde declared that she had never listened to most of the songs – see paragraph above – and fumbled for a tissue.

In her knock-off Prada handbag, which she also had to admit to.

Same story, different century

England offers to help Scotland with its independence issues, but only if Scotland accepts England's word is law. That is what's happening now – and what happened 800 years ago

13 January 2012

Spirit of 1979: Only a late rule change stopped Scotland from becoming independent 33 years agoIT IS ALWAYS a boost when current politics helps out an author. My new book – The Lion At Bay, part two of the saga of Scotland, Wallace, Bruce et al – is out next month and it does me no harm to have the Scottish bid for twenty-first century freedom so prominent.

The good folk of Scotland – ie, the leaders – are trying hard for self-determination. Their dominant neighbour, the English, are conciliatory and offer help in the process towards independence – but insist that, first, the Scots should admit that they are only legitimate if England decides it.

That sound topically familiar? Well, it would to anyone living in 1290, for that was the situation facing the lords of Scotland following the death of Alexander III. They needed a king, had too many claimants and invited the smiling, bland, flower of chivalry Edward I to adjudicate. He agreed, on condition that the Scots admitted his word was law, so that there would be no argument – and when this was signed and sealed, showed his true colours by claiming Scotland as his own. Despite the intervening centuries, Bannockburn and all, the inheritors of Edward have never stopped interfering.

It is no accident, therefore, that Alex Salmond looks to 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn as the date of the Referendum. It is no accident, therefore, that Cameron insists only England has the right to decide when Scots decide on their self-determination.

Back in 1979, they dreamed up the 40 per cent rule – essentially, it meant that 40 per cent of the total population of the time would have to vote 'Yes'. Since around 70 per cent of the population voted – and that was high for any voting process – the bid failed, despite more than fifty per cent of the votes being 'Yes'.

Once again, Britannia waves the rules and insists on Scots admitting that Westminster alone has the right to permit a vote in the first place, as well as deciding the very question. It will do the Unionist cause no favours – 1979 rankles still, even among those uncommitted and the increasing finger-wagging from a posh southern PM and his Lurch-lookalike Scottish Secretary is doing what Salmond and Sturgeon alone could not, which is to focus the waverers to indignancy. Thatcher was one of the greatest assets Scotland had in the struggle towards Devolution and Cameron is performing the same function for Independence.

I have banged on about this before and wearily do so again – when Westminster politicians start treating Scots as equals, then the SNP will have a tough fight of it. The problem is that none of them can – if Scotland is a nation, then it has to be treated as such. If it is no more than a 'land' or a 'region', then that has to be admitted. But David Cameron and ilk cannot do the former and dare not do the latter, so they fall back on manipulation of legal niceties and spluttering obfuscation about 'damage to investment'.

Considering that Baxters have just bought out Fray Bentos, Tunnocks profits have tripled, Scottish& Southern Energy have invested £90bn and Weir has just bought Seaboard all of that seems a little thin as an argument.

Of course, two can play at the legal niceties game and there is no cannier politician in the UK – I would argue in Europe – than Alex Salmond, like him or loathe him. I am sure he has spotted the possibilities of European courts and the UN, not exactly available back in 79. If Cameron wins his argument re the right to determine how Scots determine their own future then he has won nothing but the raised hackles of even the most moderate in this country.

But surely the best argument against total Independence is simple – do you really want to see a Scottish entry in Eurovision? I think not …

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