New additions to the family: Part 2

By , 29 August 2008 12:38 pm

First things first: many thanks to all of you who congratulated me, and by extension, my son and daughter-in-law on their new offspring. We went to see them at the weekend along with Alison’s mother and it was a great moment to have all four generations present. (Although, for those of you who have forgotten, four-day-old babies do very little.) The significance of the event was enhanced by a newspaper report the day before saying that Britain now has more elderly people than children. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly the statistics and how they defined ‘elderly’ but you get my point. We are an ageing population; babies are getting to be an endangered species.

Anyway, the other new addition I promised I would talk about is my new iPhone 3G. As readers of my books will know, my protagonists in the Lamb Among The Stars use a ‘Diary’, something so close in shape and size to the iPhone that if we do come to filming (and thanks for those suggestions, by the way) there will have to be some clever work done to stop people from saying ‘oh look he’s just copied the iPhone’. My diaries have vastly superior facilities: most notably a ten-year battery, which is clearly fantasy; you’d be pushed to get an iPhone 3G to last 10 hours. Anyway when I started writing the books, this type of thing was very much science fiction; laptop computers were weighing in at 20lbs and had coarse green-on-black screens, and mobile phones were brick-sized. Is it any wonder people write about swords and sorcery rather than technology?

The reason I got one was that my old phone had come to the end of its contract and I felt that an iPhone would save me having to fire up a computer quite as frequently. So, after two weeks use, what do I make of it?

Well, I’m pretty impressed. I have been using Windows Mobile/Pocket PC organisers and phones ever since they came out around eight years ago and have amassed a considerable expertise in handheld computing. And you know what is the best thing about the iPhone? I don’t need to use any of it. The thing just works. One of the most damning things about the Pocket PC was that you never saw a woman using one. This isn’t sexism: women, of course, are far more sensible than men and shun any sort of technology that is far more trouble than it’s worth. They took one look at the tiny screen and saw that they had to poke around with a toothpick on it and decided that it really wasn’t worth it. The iPhone however is very different. Not only do you not need to know anything about computers, you are positively discouraged from fiddling around with the insides. You can only get applications (for the most part sensibly priced at a dollar or less) from Apple. This means that your phone is never contaminated by poorly written bits of software which you can never completely uninstall but which gradually accumulate, slowing your phone down. Towards the end I used almost every day to have to reset my Windows mobile phone and each time it took three or four minutes before the thing would boot up properly. I don’t even know how to do a reset for the iPhone; it doesn’t seem to need them.

No, in almost every way it’s a super piece of work and I’m looking forward to some of the applications that we are promised. One slight negative is that so far there is no real word processing software, probably because Apple, in their wisdom, have not yet got round to creating a cut and paste facility. So you don’t get to write a book on it. Yet.

But everything else just works. Ultimately, in terms of operation, it’s made not for geeks, but for users. And the beauty of that is that the iPhone itself rather retreats into the background. In that respect it’s a little bit like a good writer; the tale – not the teller – is what engages our attention.

Have a good week


On seeing the next generation

By , 23 August 2008 5:41 pm

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that our elder son and his wife were expecting their first baby. Well, on Tuesday, after some delay, Simeon John finally emerged into the world. He is doing very well and we hope to see him and his family this weekend.

Inevitably one’s first grandchild brings back memories of his parent’s birth.
John, Simeon’s father, was born in Beirut in the spring of ’82. It was a jumpy, uneasy time as we were expecting an Israeli invasion any day. After seeing the new baby, I remember heading off through the badly lit streets of West Beirut where PLO gunmen lingered nervously in doorways, up to the bright lights of Commodore Hotel which was one of the few places where you could guarantee getting a phone line out of Lebanon. The place was full of journalists trying to file stories about the war brewing in the south. Eventually, at what seemed an enormous expense, I managed to have a few minutes on a crackly, distant line and passed on the good news. The next day I took some photographs and got a roll of film developed (some of you youngsters may not remember this process), had duplicate photos printed and sent them off by airmail to the grandparents. I think it must have been two weeks after the birth when the photos arrived in the UK. With Simeon’s birth, the happy father (who has inherited an interest in photography from both sides of the family) e-mailed us some good digital images within hours. Technologically the world has changed a lot.

Incidentally, six weeks after John was born the long predicted war erupted with appalling violence and where we lived and the hospital came under sustained artillery and aerial bombardment by the Israelis. We fled an already encircled West Beirut and then Alison and John were evacuated courtesy of the French Navy while I stayed on for another few days. We were out of all contact for the next week or so. One would like to think that the technological changes over the last quarter of a century have been matched by political progress and the Middle East is now a saner and safer place. Oh well….

Anyway Simeon’s arrival means of course that we are grandparents; we will by agreement be ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’. Frankly, I’m still coming to terms with this. I only just seem to have got out of adolescence and now I am a grandfather? Well I can live with it. The main thing is that it is a great blessing. To have children is a blessing and to see them have children is doubly so.

Anyway next week I hope to talk about the other new addition to our family, my new iPhone 3G, which currently carries on it – amongst other things – yes you guessed it, pictures of Simeon John.

Have a good week.

A sign of the times?

By , 15 August 2008 12:00 pm

There are lots of things I feel inclined to comment about at the moment; including the great topic of British conversation: what happened to the weather? We seem to have seamlessly slipped from a wet and windy spring into a wet and windy autumn. Hang on, isn’t there supposed to be something in between? I’ve also got an iPhone 3G which I think is fantastic and I want to make some observations on it coupled with some damning comparisons with Microsoft’s offering in this area. But that can wait. And no, the phone hasn’t yet rung to say ‘you’re a grandfather’. Mind you given the weather, I can understand why the baby is staying inside as long as possible.

Curiously enough, the topic this week is that of Hamlet, that most curious of plays. Having watched the excellent Kenneth Branagh version recently I felt that it is really one of those southern European Catholic revenge dramas which has mysteriously (and not terribly convincingly) been transposed to a Protestant Denmark. Anyway, as you may or may not know depending on which part of the globe (no literary pun intended) you’re in, a new production of Hamlet has opened at Stratford starring David Tennant as dithering hero. That is of course the David Tennant, the current Doctor Who. To round things off nicely, the villain of the piece, Claudius, is played by no less than Patrick Stewart. That is, of course, the Patrick Stewart, formerly Captain Picard of Star Trek. And the reviews have been very good indeed. The reviewers have, however, all gone out of their way to remind us that both are highly trained actors and had good credentials well before they became famous in science fiction.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Does it indicate that, in order to make the fantastic credible today you need to get the best possible actor or actress you can? Or does it indicate that fantasy/science fiction is now coming in out of the cold and is something that no longer blights an acting career? Frankly I rather hope it’s the latter. Indeed, I hope that Hollywood will realise one of the advantages of filming epic fantasy is that actors are prepared to fight for what is a proven career-building privilege. If they want an epic fantasy to test this theory then I suppose I can think of a trilogy that might be suitable.

Have a good week


The problem of encountering excellence

By , 10 August 2008 8:46 pm

As previous posts have explained, we have just had a great holiday in France which was also something of a stimulus in many areas. Yes, I did get some notes jotted down towards new books but frankly, dear reader, I am still recovering from having produced The Infinite Day and am reluctant to commit myself to the vast number of hours of labour necessary to write the sequence I want to. (An attractive offer of a publishing company/wealthy fan/visionary could change all that.)

Anyway, while we were in France we got the chance to look at two sites in the Dordogne, that vast area of dissected limestone plateaux that drape onto the western edge of the Massif Central. The two sites were the village of Rocamadour and the small town of Sarlat and both feature highly in any tourist guide.

Rocamadour is a suite of ancient churches and chapels spilling down the steepest of slopes. It is all steps, spires and dizzying vistas down on to red roofs. At times you feel you could be in some mediaeval romance.

Even if you have very little sympathy with much of the religious elements (and I am too good a Protestant to be fond of the multitude of statues and icons) it is an awesome place. Allegedly it is the number two tourist site in France and understandably so.

Sarlat is supposed to be France’s best preserved mediaeval town. When you finally get in past the traffic you are soon in lost a tumbling maze of ancient buildings. Winding streets present a constant succession of half timbered and honeyed stone buildings with the steepest of roofs pressed together with endless and varied doorways, courtyards and arches. It is one of those places that that it belongs more on the film set than in reality.

Having visited both of these places a problem emerged. We went to what we would have once considered an attractive French town a few days later with some lovely old buildings and both concluded that sadly ‘it wasn’t Sarlat’. In other words the good had been spoilt for us by our glimpse of the excellent.

It is a phenomena I have come across before. There are three sites in the Near East of global stature: Lebanon’s Roman temple of Baalbek, Syria’s sprawling Crusader fort of Krak des Chevalier and the jawdropping city carved into rock that is Jordan’s Petra. Baalbek is the greatest Roman temple preserved anywhere; Krak the greatest castle anywhere; and Petra the greatest… well, ‘city-carved-into-rock’ anywhere.

I am grateful that having seen these things, and especially, this summer, Sarlat and Rocamadour. But they expose the danger of focusing on excellence to the point that we overlook that which is merely good. I suspect there is a spiritual lesson here. Maybe we need sometimes to turn our eyes away from superstar excellence (which, in all probability, is utterly unattainable) and focus instead on a more down-to-earth ordinary kind of goodness.

On living in France

By , 5 August 2008 8:29 pm

Anyone who travels to France cannot fail to be astonished at the number of British people there. We visited one small town where in the centre literally one in three people seemed to be British. It wasn’t just holidaymakers either: the cafes were run by Brits and there was even a fish and chip shop. Many shops had either advertisements that were either bilingual or in English alone.

Which raises the question: what is so attractive about France to Brits? The answer seems to be that it is no single thing. An almost universal attraction is that the weather is so much better. And here one can sympathise: for instance in Swansea we have had heavy rain for the last two days with not a glimpse of the sun. Other people like the food and the cheap wine.

Still others relish the fact that you can buy a large property relatively cheaply. Certainly it seems to be a cheaper place to live than the UK. There are other things: for people of my age and older it is the still largely rural nature of France that is attractive. It has widely scattered, quiet villages, rustic hamlets, hedgerows, tree-lined lanes, vast rolling woodlands, abundant wildlife, dark starlit night skies and the absence of the eternal roar of roads that is almost universal in most of Britain. The irony here is that the attraction of France is not because it is France but because it is like a long lost Britain.

I haven’t heard that many people go to France because they like the French. In fact the quite revealing fact is that most Britons buy up country properties out of the towns. They say it’s because they want the peace and quiet; I have a niggling suspicion that, in some cases at least, it’s so that they don’t have to deal with the locals. In some places the Brits were trying to create an alternative community of English-speaking shops, hairdressers, electricians and plumbers so that you wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of a) learning French b) having to be nice to Pierre and Sylvie. Once or twice we had to insist that people spoke to us in French rather than English. They seemed grateful for our efforts.

Let me hear make two Christian points. After all I suspect that something equivalent to France occurs in most countries. From what I gather, California or Florida often seems to have the same role in the northern US.

The first point is that there is a real danger that you see in this France or its equivalent, paradise. It is the place where, finally, everything will go right; the place where joy will be yours eternally. And of course expressed like that, you see the fallacy of the argument: there is no paradise other than God’s paradise and we are separated from that by more than the English Channel. (Indeed from passing comments, we heard much of France can often be bitterly cold in winter. The bureaucracy is often impenetrable. The inner cities have dreadful problems. The state is bankrupt. And in the rural areas over winter you find large numbers of people traipsing around blasting little birds to bits in the course of la chasse. I get the impression from a few of the expats we talked to that disillusionment can set in very quickly.)

The second point is that we cannot – and should not – divorce ourselves from people. There is probably a whole theology that centres on the incarnation about getting involved with local life.

Anyway I’ll make no bones about it. If I could sell the film rights I would very seriously and prayerfully consider moving to France where I would continue to write and my wife would continue editing by e-mail. With the fast rail and plane links we properly wouldn’t be too far away from aged parents. But on the one hand we would be under no expectation of paradise and on the other, we would make every effort to get involved with the local community and especially that rarest things, a French evangelical fellowship. Anyway, it’s all a fancy at the moment. But cannot a man dream? Especially a fantasy writer?

I hope to get back to a regular Friday pattern as soon as possible. Oh, and no news on the baby front yet.

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