Monday, 31 October 2011

Mail fail

The next time the Daily Mail decide to grumble about falling standards in education and the dumbing down of youth today, they should pause to take a look at their own:

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Halloween giveaway

As we're into Halloween season now (and I can't believe we had no-one at the door yet), here's a couple of seasonal stories of mine for you, for free.

Lilies was originally published in Postscripts and then reprinted in Stephen Jones' Best New Horror anthology (it appeared between stories by Neil Gaiman and Ramsey Campbell, which still makes me go all funny).  It's about dead people, war, passion and desperation.

Sighted is a story of a sniper crawling through the ruins of a wartime city, and what he sees through the sights of his rifle. It was first published in At Ease With The Dead, the fourth anthology from Ash-Tree Press, which was shortlisted for both the Stoker Award and the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Both free, you can get Lilies at Amazon (US version) for Kindle or at Smashwords for any other format, and Sighted at Smashwords only as Amazon hasn't matched the free pricing.


Friday, 28 October 2011

And in today's news

The clergy of St Paul's cathedral announce that they are taking legal action to evict the Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors from outside the house of mammon god.

Jesus Christ, when asked for comment on the St Pauls' decision earlier today.

And in no-way related other news, total earnings for directors of FTSE 100 companies increased by 49% last year. Just in case that appears to be a typo, yes it does actually say that their earnings went up forty-nine per cent. In one year.

"It's a competitive market": a director comments today, live on the BBC

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Politics: bought and owned

A persistent criticism of the Occupy protestors is that they don’t have any clear demands, that there’s no obvious focus to the protest, no five point manifesto. To some extent, this misses the point. The point of the protests is to shift the Overton Window, to reframe public debate, to identify problems and to demand that those problems are tackled, not ignored. It’s antithetical to the nature of the protests to demand specific solutions, because the protests are organised around consensus, and it’s not the job of the protestors to impose a solution on everyone else. The protestors want to initiate debate but for people - the 99% - to take wider ownership of the discussion of what solutions might address the problems identified. That’s the bigger job - as Slavoj Žižek says in the Guardian: “There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want.”

But we can’t do that if society, government, politics sticks its head in the sand, and refuses to recognise that there’s a problem.

Hence the protests.

One of those problems is the fact that our political culture is corrupt. Not corrupt in the crude way of brown envelopes stuffed with money - although that goes on - but corrupt in the sense that political culture is shaped - overtly or covertly - by corporate money.

That’s on two levels - the individual level, and the party level. Parties are mindless animals, which exist for one reason only - to perpetuate their own existence. Political decisions are taken, not because they are in the long-term interests of the nation, not because they are the morally right thing to do, not because they help those in society who most need help, but because those decisions will help that party get re-elected. For an example, look at the setting of the budget. Austerity early in the life of a parliament, sweetners as re-election looms. To continue perpetuating their existence, political parties need money. A lot of money.

And there’s no shortage of corporate money to come flooding in. But they want something for it. And generally, they get it. So politics is further distorted, as policy becomes not just about gaining re-election, but about pleasing the donors whose money is vital in order to win re-election.

Against that, one voter, with one vote, is really of no interest at all.

The scale of this distortion is worse in the US, because the money there is bigger (in the run-up to his 2008 election, Obama received over fifteen million dollars in donations from Wall St firms like Goldman Sachs, BoA, Morgan Stanley and others alone). But it’s a problem in the UK too. The police investigation into cash for honours may not have been able to lead to prosecutions, but I have little doubt that for decades - centuries - one of the ways to a peerage is to put your hand in your pocket. The murky revelations around Liam Fox and his friend, and the corporate backers hidden away behind charities lift the curtain a little - just a little. Mandelson sitting on a yacht with Russian oligarchs or intervening on behalf of Indian billionaires making passport application. Andrew Lansley as Shadow Health Secretary, accepting donations from the chairman of a private healthcare provider. The recent round of party conferences where everything had a corporate stamp on it, ‘private dinners’ with senior politicans are organised by business (and which don’t have to be declared on the register of members’ interests) and there appeared to be more lobbyists than party members.

The revolving door that sees civil servants drafting policy and legislation and then - surprise! - leaving the civil service for jobs with companies that have benefited from that legislation. The fast-spinning revolving door that sees Ministers responsible for legislation and regulation and then - surprise! - there’s a non-executive directorship on the board, 40grand for two days work a month. Is that payment for what they’re doing now, or payment for what they did before they were employed?

Rich people get to be rich by not throwing away money for no reason. Donations get influence. Influence shapes policy. Policy shapes law and regulation - or lack if it. That is a corrupting of politics.

On occasion, it’s just plain old-fashioned corruption. The MPs' expenses scandal showed that many MPs were prepared to be shameless - and criminal - in sucking down cash from the public teat, so it is really unthinkable that would turn their nose up at some sweet, sweet money when it came from a company rather than the taxpayer? Anyone who thinks that doesn't happen should really ask a grown-up to hold their hand every time they cross the road.

So, coming back to the start, and what the protestors want, well there's one thing. A decoupling of politics from corporate paymasters and their lobbyists. And why do protestors have to protest? Well, this issue is a scandal now, a cancer gnawing away at the insides of our supposed democracy, and it has been for years, and here is what our political parties have done about it:

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Post Office: now recruiting vultures

An irritation of modern life is that it's hard to conduct a transaction now without the person serving you trying to sell you all kinds of crap that you don't want, don't need, and have no interest in. You could make good money selling badges to people going in to W H Smiths that say 'no, I don't want any half-price chocolate, I just want this fucking newspaper'.

One of the worst offenders is the Post Office. You take some time out of your lunchbreak to stand in a queue for a while, you finally get to a counter and have your parcel weighed, or whatever, and then the person behind the counter asks you if you have a credit card, or a mortgage, or life insurance, or whatever because 'today we're talking to our customers about credit cards/mortgages/life insurance/whatever'. You avoid the temptation to say look, I don't ask my credit card company to sell me stamps, so do me a favour, and just let me get away from here with some time to spare to eat a sandwich, so instead you just politely say 'no, I'm fine thanks.' And that's an end to it.

Or at least, it would be if the Post Office actually valued their customers as people, rather than valuing them like a con-artist values his mark. The smiley-faced counter staff ignore you, of course, and press on, as if you hadn't spoken. 'It's just that we're offering a special rate and...blah blah blah'.

Today though, was something else.

My mum died last month. It's the way things are that when someone dies, as well as grieving, you have to get on with a lot of very mundane bureaucratic form-filling. It's dull, it's frustrating, you really don't want to do it, but it has to be done. And it's best to get on and do it. Today I had to spend an hour in a bank, closing down accounts, and then go to the Post Office to post something to my mum's life insurance company. I had to send it special delivery, so I needed to queue up and see a member of staff.

The man behind the counter who weighed it and stamped it had obviously read the address, because when I had paid he said: 'See that this is to a life insurance company, and we're talking to our customers today about life insurance and --'

'No thanks.'

'It's just we wondered if you have life insurance--'

'Look, I've just lost someone close to me, which is the reason I'm posting this stuff, so trust me, now is not the time.'

What would you say at that point? Would you apologise? Or just end the conversation? Say thank you, and hope that an awkward situation goes away? If you've answered yes to any of those, you're not cut out for the high-pressure sales world of  Post Office counters.

What he said was, 'OK, would you prefer to make an appointment to discuss it, then?'

I had really two choices at that point. Turn around and walk out, or do something that would lead to me getting arrested under the Public Order Act. I walked out. Part of me - the seething, furious, sweary, counter-thumping, display-trashing part of me - regrets walking out. Part of me knows that I could not have stayed there and done anything other than very counter-productive things, which would have ended up with me as the person in the wrong, and weakened my case.

So, formal complaints are now in, and I am not in a cell, and I have dealt with it all very maturely and blah blah. How terribly grown up.

I'm interested to find out whether it's Post Office policy for their staff to read the address of letters they are being asked to post, and to do a sales pitch to the customer based on them, so I have asked that question, and to check the answer I've asked for  bunch of documents under FOI. I think it's very wrong if that does turn out to be the case, as I'm supplying them with that address to provide the service I'm paying for, not to use it as a chance to up-sell me on all kinds of shit I don't need or want or care about.

I know it's Post Office policy for them to encourage their staff to not take no for an answer, and to go on and on about said shit, even if the customer is patently uninterested, because I experience it every time I go in there. I also know that they do have a policy which says that Post Office staff 'deserve to be treated with respect'.

And I don't disagree. They absolutely do. Which is why it would also be fair if the Post Office also treated its customers with equal respect. And by that, I don't mean putting a pointless poster on the wall and a statement on the website with the usual anodyne platitudes about we value your blah blah blah while acting in a way which makes it patently obvious that you do not give a flying fuck about your fucking customers if you can screw another sale out of them.

So, no. I don't want any life insurance. I don't want a credit card or a mortgage or car insurance or home insurance or van insurance or motorcycle insurance or pet insurance or a cash ISA or broadband or telephone. I really, really don't. If I did, I would ask you. But I don't. I JUST WANT TO POST A FUCKING LETTER.

Might get that put on a tee-shirt.

Oh, and I'd like to be able to do it without some twat using my mum's death to try and sell me life insurance. Is that too much to ask? Looks that way.

Monday, 24 October 2011

catching up

Catching up with things a little bit. Amazon have finally reverted One Step Closer to being paid, after about a month as a free ebook. It was a good run while it lasted. The story stayed at #1 in the Amazon short story charts for free ebooks for the whole month, and although I don't yet know the final totals, a week or so ago there had been over 10,000 downloads of the book across Amazons US and UK.

The intention of making it free was to get my name in readers' minds and for OSC to act as a gateway to Nowhere To Go. Not much of a jump in sales, but it could be too early to judge. I will be disappointed though if it makes no difference, as it will leave me feeling a little what-the-hell-do-you-have-to-do.

Why it had such a good run is interesting, even if I don't quite understand it. I think the unknown is the trigger, what kicked it off to do well in the first place. I do believe though that once it did, that sales/downloads do become self-sustaining. Once that initial pulse of downloads happened, the book became visible: it was at number #1 in the short story charts, high up in the general free stuff charts, appeared on lots and lots of 'also boughts'. In other words, if the much talked about Amazon algorithm picks your book up, from that point on, impetus will drive sales. Obviously at some point some form of saturation will occur and sales will drop off, but I reckon a good run can be had in the interim, and that also it would be unlikely that sales would drop back down as low as they were before it all took off.

So, it all comes down to that initial pulse that creates that self-sustaining visibility. How do you that? Well, with OSC...I have no idea. Which is helpful. But I would love to work it out.

I've written a new short story, for Luca Veste's song-themed charity anthology, Off The Record. Purple Haze is a story about getting way out of your depth. Luca has his own collection of short stories out, Liverpool 5, (I have my fingers crossed that the follow-up will be called Man Utd 0), and speaking of good people with new work, Julie Morrigan has a new novel out called Heartbreaker)

Great review of Nowhere To Go appeared in the last few days too, over at Eva Dolan's Loitering With Intent: "Some of the best short fiction out there.  Buy it." You know what? I can't disagree with that.

infinity plus singles

infinity plus are now established as an ebook publisher of a wide range of high quality fiction from a diverse and interesting set of authors (and, uh, me: declaration of interest here: both Nowhere To Go and One Step Closer are published by IP too).

They've now released the first of a range of bite-sized ebooks with gorgeous cover art, short stories that can be read in a single setting, cheap and accessible samples that might provide an introduction to the work of a particular writer. Dip in, try a couple, and see what you like.

The line-up of initial releases looks like this:

One Step Closer (singles #1) by Iain Rowan
Has Anyone Here Seen Kristie? (singles #2) by John Grant
The Time-Lapsed Man (singles #3) by Eric Brown
Head Shots (singles #4) by Keith Brooke
Old Soldiers (singles #5) by Kit Reed

But infinity plus have stories lined up from Lisa Tuttle, Sarah Ash, Neil Williamson and Anna Tambour, as well as the authors listed above and a growing list of others. Check out all of the details at the infinity plus website.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

First Time Buyers

An excellent and unnerving story from James Everington's very good collection The Other Room, available free as a Halloween treat. Check it out.

Then draw the curtains.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The October Country

My favourite time of year is coming. I can smell it.

photo thanks to Quapan

Cool, clear mornings, the night stealing in darker by minutes every evening, the first low, hanging mist, grass starry with dew and the promise of frosts to come, the smell of autumn in the air, warm yellow lights on in the windows of dark houses, the leaves spinning round and round and down, halloween and the gunpowder stink of fireworks and the woodsmoke stink of bonfires and the the not very hidden child inside kicking through piles of leaves and relishing the run up to birthday and Christmas, the expectation always the best part because expectation always turns out to be better than the thing itself.
"That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain." (Ray Bradbury)

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fruit loops

This is about a week out of date, but what the hell. I like a lot of the products that Apple make. I'm typing this on a battered Macbook, with one of the command keys not working due to the introduction of the tea virus, and various bits of plastic chipped off the body. Before that it was an ibook, that worked for years and I passed it on and it worked for years more until I was helpfully moving it and dropped it (less six inches, and it daughter dropped it down an entire flight of stairs and it was fine). My next computer will probably be a mac. I rarely go out without my little ipod in my pocket, and although I don't own one, the phones and ipads are shiny too, and look fun.

Steve Jobs was a clever businessman with a single-minded vision, and I admire him very much for his insistence that things should look good, as well as work well, a piece of simple design philosophy that had somehow managed to bypass pretty much the entire tech sector. He sounded like quite a tosser as a person, but I didn't know him, so that's just based on other people's stories. His company makes nice stuff. His other company have made some excellent films.

But I did see the commotion around the time of his death, and it was interesting because I was wrapped up in my own thoughts about such things too. The sight of people holding candlelit vigils outside Apple stores (did I really just type that?) reminded me of something that stuck in my mind after the surreal paroxysm of faux-grief that gripped much of the UK at the time of Diana's death. It was a story from a girl, whose close friend had travelled to London to be there for the funeral, and to lay flowers out on the street. The girl telling the story had lost her father a while earlier, and the 'close' friend had never laid flowers for him, or given any to her, yet embarked on this pilgrimage to do so for someone she only knew through the media. The mourners outside the stores, with their little post-it notes and their candles burning on an iPad screen - an image I honestly thought was from The Onion or the Daily Mash - reminded me of that story.

The free ebook experiment

Not sure it's conclusive yet, but a progress report nonetheless..

On 22nd September, we made One Step Closer, the first story from Nowhere To Go, a free stand-alone ebook as a sampler for the collection. A gateway drug that will draw readers in, give them a taste, and make them crave another hit of short crime fiction. One Step Closer won the Derringer award, is a decent short story, and I think it's reasonably representative of the rest of the stories in the collection. The experiment was to make it free, and see how well it worked as a promo for Nowhere To Go.

In the subsequent three weeks, One Step Closer has been downloaded over 10,000 times from Amazon. It's been the number one free short story across the whole of Amazon UK for just about three weeks solid. I'm surprised and pleased in equal measure.

Impact on sales of the short story collection?

Pretty much zero, to date, but it might be early days, and I don't know how many of those 10,000 copies have been read. Given my suspicions that free stuff gets hoarded, I don't know how many of those 10,000 copies will ever be read. We'll see.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Bernadette Rowan, 10 August 1932-30 September 2011.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields.