Saturday, 28 March 2020

House of Melodies

My blog has become a stream of musical interludes and book reviews lately. It's been a long time since I posted anything meaningful about writing.

I'm going to explain why that is.

Basically, I finished writing a book a while back and it sucks. It wasn't meant to suck. It was a really good topic - about post-mortem photography and the history of photography, split between Victorian England and today. Victorian England is weirdly a genre I love in computer games but detest in general. Okay, The Ruby in the Smoke, that was good, but usually it just doesn't float my boat, so I probably shouldn't have written about it. Only, you kind of have to if you're talking about the history of photography, and post-mortem photography in particular.

I've been going through trying to transfer the hard copy edits to the soft copy since the start of the year. It's three months now and I just can't finish it. I can't tell if that's because it's tediously boring to everyone or just to me. There's something about it I don't like and it's definitely not the book I intended to write. But sometimes I write things I don't like and other people write to tell me they did like it. It's utterly impossible to be objective about your own work. 

I don't think it's bad enough to be a bottom-drawer novel, but it's not what I wanted it to be. 

So I don't know what to do with it.

And that's been the sticking point. I feel like I can't move on to another project if there's something left unfinished like this. It's a wall I can't get over. And there is another story I've been meaning to tell. It's another historical fantasy, and I've been researching it for almost as long as I haven't been able to complete Secure the Shadow, but now I've lost all motivation for both books.

I've had no interest in writing anything for ages. 


Not a single twitch of the fingers.

What I have been doing instead is practising the piano. You may know that I have a piano-building project in Kigali. I tune and fix other people's pianos whilst trying - extremely slowly - to build one of my own. Ironically for a piano technician, I play very poorly. But that doesn't stop me trying, and with the C19 lockdown, I've been trying even harder. What I learn to play often links up with what I've been watching on Netflix. Yesterday, I mastered the theme tune to Jurassic Park. One of my favourite pieces is from The Notebook. At the moment, I'm bashing away at Georgiana's piece from Pride and Prejudice, although I was mostly watching Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.

Anyway, I usually practise with the mute on so as not to upset the neighbours. The only time I take the mute off is when it rains. We get some really full-on thunder storms here and, as we all have tin rooves, no one can hear a thing whilst it's raining. I learned the very beginning of Victor's Solo from Corpse Bride, and I call this my 'rain song'. It's the first thing I play when the rain starts because it's so delightfully Gothic and suits the whole thunder and lightning backdrop perfectly.

It was whilst playing this last night that I got to thinking how spooky it would be to live in relative isolation with no discernible neighbours and to hear a piano playing, but only when it rains. Something slow and melancholic, obviously.

The thought just sort of landed, as all the best story ideas do. I think it's because I've been playing computer games recently. Lamplight City and the incredibly atmospheric Call of Cthulhu. Games were always the driver for my desire to build worlds and tell stories. I think I've probably spoken about my love of MUDs before. I haven't played anything in forever, but rejoined Gog thanks to the lockdown. I think it's oiled some rusty connections in my brain.

With no more than the thought of a piano in the rain, I sat down and emptied 2,000 words onto the page. That's more fiction than I've written all year and it was really easy.

I think I was afraid of doing something like that because, 1) it doesn't help finish Secure the Shadow and 2) it isn't the next novel I had planned out and started researching. It's something completely fresh, which could so easily gobble up 100,000 words and turn out just as bad as Secure the Shadow or worse. I've written a few bottom-drawer novels and the older you get, the more you realise how much time they represent. 

It's unpleasantly upsetting that the book I wrote about death and dying has taken a huge chunk of my life that I will never get back. I still don't know what to do with it. I've set aside this weekend to try to stay awake long enough to complete the edits, order some changes to the cover, and reorder a proof copy. 

I'll be amazed if I make it.

I'm thinking I might just self-publish it on the side without any fanfare and forget it exists. 

Though that's difficult, because it'll be out there for someone to read, and I've mentioned how I feel about my backlist. This book doesn't feel good enough to publish and it doesn't feel bad enough to bin. It's a nothing book. It says nothing, it contains nothing... it's instantly forgetable. 

But, if I can't get over that and write something else, I don't think I'm going to write again. I'm just afraid that what I do write will be very disappointing. I want to write this historical fantasy I was thinking about but at the moment I doubt I have the skill to do it justice. I can't afford to mess it up like the last one

The nice thing this random story has taught me, if only for an afternoon, is that writing can still be fun. I still enjoy it. And I enjoy it more when I haven't planned it. When the story is wide open to me. 

It's also a good old-fashioned ghost story, and I adore those. I love reading them, I love writing them. I don't know why I don't do more of that. It was always the dark, ghostly things I was drawn to when I started writing. Simple stories. Abandoned places and lost souls. 

Recently, someone tweeted about Creeper's Cottage, the Hookland novel I wrote. It's a book I think few people have read, but I had a lot of fun writing because it didn't require any research. It was all about story rather than real dates, places and events. I felt very free writing that, even though it was set in somebody else's world. Pure ghostly goodness. 

It makes me sad that I don't talk about writing anymore - and that I don't write much anymore. The start of this year wasn't much fun, and in times of stress I often bury myself in work and movies rather than the page. This time of isolation has given me a bit of breathing space to explore things I used to enjoy, such as RPGs, and bored me enough to be creative. My mind has had a chance to wander and it's come back with an idea. As I have nothing better to do right now, I may as well follow it.

Working title: The House of Melodies, music yet to be written.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Songs To Make Us Happy

My friend Jeremy invited me to join this facebook group where people post songs that make them happy. I am experiencing a world of conflicting, complimentary and downright crazy musical tastes. Helps pass the time. Come join in.

Five of my current happy tunes:

  1. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - Different Drum (which, of course, you then have to follow with The Seekers - just because it's that kind of deal.)
  2. Taper Jean Girl - Kings of Leon
  3. Paradise by the Dashboard Light (guilty pleasure, okay! I defy you not to sing.)
  4. Ezra Furman - Restless Year
  5. One Republic - Counting Stars

Let me know what you're listening to. Or, better still, let the world know by joining the group.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My friend Chris put me on to this after we were having a lengthy discussion about why some countries are technologically advanced and others are not, and about the large historic differences between Africa's technological development and that of countries along the Silk Road such as China and India.

It's one American man's attempt to answer his Papua New Guinean friend's question about the disparity in the economic and technological status of their countries. 

It was written in 1997, and is a pretty dry read. When you're used to receiving your world history from Harari, Frankopan and Bryson, this is more of an academic explanation than an engaging story. Quite a lot of lists of things and I lost count of the number of times 'Fertile Crescent' was mentioned.

However, there were some juicy nuggets of knowledge in there, such as why certain animals were never domesticated:

Zebras  are  also  virtually  impossible  to  lasso  with  a  rope — even  for  cowboys  who  win  rodeo  championships  by  lassoing  horses — because  of their  unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly  toward them and then to duck their head out of the way.

The fact that Japan adopted guns then completely abandoned them:

A famous example [of technology being adopted then given up] involves Japan's abandonment of guns.  Firearms reached Japan in A.D. 1543, when two Portuguese adventurers armed with harquebuses (primitive guns)  arrived on  a Chinese cargo ship. The Japanese were  so  impressed by the new weapon that they commenced  indigenous gun production, greatly improved gun technology, and by A.D. 1600 owned more and better guns  than any  other country in  the world. 

But there were also factors working against the  acceptance of firearms in Japan. The country had a  numerous warrior  class, the samurai, for whom swords rated as class  symbols and works of art (and as means for subjugating  the lower classes). Japanese warfare had previously  involved single combats between samurai swordsmen, who stood in the open, made ritual speeches, and then took  pride in fighting gracefully. Such behavior became  lethal  in the presence of peasant soldiers ungracefully blasting  away with guns. In addition, guns were a foreign  invention and grew to be despised, as did other things foreign in Japan after 1600. The samurai-controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, then  introduced a requirement of a government license for  producing a gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government, and finally reduced government orders for guns, until Japan was almost without  functional guns  again.  

Contemporary  European  rulers  also  included  some who  despised guns and tried  to  restrict  their  availability.  But  such  measures  never  got far in Europe,  where  any  country  that  temporarily  swore off firearms would  be  promptly  overrun  by  gun-toting  neighboring  countries.  Only  because  Japan was a populous,  isolated island could it get  away with its  rejection  of the powerful new military technology.  Its  safety  in isolation came to  an  end in 1853, when the visit of Commodore Perry's U.S.  fleet bristling with cannons convinced Japan of its need to resume gun manufacture.

And the fact that the wheel appears to have been independently discovered in South America as it is found on ancient Mexican ceramic toys, but was never developed for human transport or agriculture due to there being no domesticated beasts of burden capable of pulling it.

There's also some very interesting chapters on the origins of writing and types of writing systems. And it was interesting to learn that modern English shares something with one of the most ancient writing systems, cuneiforme, in that it's still read left to right, top to bottom.

The general theme of the book is that there are many factors that affect the technological advancement of cultures. Largely it rests on food production, climate, and the availability of native plant species and animals that are compliant for domestication. This leads to larger populations and less focus on daily food production - due to reserves - therefore more people can focus on other pastimes such as art, architecture and invention. As the title suggests, it also looks at the role of weapons, infectious diseases and available resources on development, which is interesting in relation to the current Covid-19 outbreak.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Lockdown - Really This Time

I was a bit premature with my last post, saying we were on lockdown when the airport closed. I popped across the road to get beer on Saturday night and came back to discover we'd been placed on full lockdown, meaning we can't leave the house except in cases of extreme necessity. 

This is not a bad thing at all, and all the restaurants and supermarkets in Kigali are doing home delivery. Though Saturday night my electricity went out for several hours and my laptop died. Felt a bit apocalyptic sitting in the dark, waiting for zombies to scratch at the window...

Still, it's important that we all follow the rules, and police are out on every street enforcing them. It's eerily quiet - no sound of traffic or music. The start of April is Genocide Memorial Week and that's normal for then, but not normal for now. Usually, just before memorial starts, people head to the bars and clubs for one last night out. This year, it's not just the bars and clubs that are closed but also the memorial sites.

I class myself as extremely fortunate though. I work for two survivors organisations, one as a programme manager and the other as a funding consultant. I mostly work from home anyway, so things haven't changed much for me. Though the moment someone says you can't go out, that's all you want to do. I'm also lucky in that I live in a nice house in a private compound with a garden. It's certainly no hardship for me to stay home. I was also going to offer my back apartment to travellers stranded by the sudden airport closures, but I didn't get anyone before the lockdown started and KLM are evacuating people back to Europe still. Hopefully anyone who wants to leave will be able to do so. 

Not much to do but twiddle our thumbs and wait it out. Maybe I can get back to doing some writing. Or maybe I'll just work my way through the entire Kings Quest saga, thanks to Gog. Also enjoyed Lamplight City. Audible are also offering a load of free audiobooks to help pass the time. Helped to get my friend Giulia a piano just before the lockdown happened, and I'm also going to take this time to learn some new tunes. What are you doing to pass the time?

Hope everyone is staying safe and well.

Friday, 20 March 2020


I took a picture in the local supermarket in Kigali the other day - all the beer was gone, but there was still plenty of toilet roll. Dad put the above together to illustrate priorities. Legend.

Sitting here talking to my computer and counting down. At midnight tonight, so about three hours our time, the international airport is closing. No commercial passenger flights going in or out for the next thirty days. 

There's a lot of foreigners staying here. Mostly because it's home. If we're going to get sick, might as well be in our own beds, in our own homes, where friends can throw food over the gate if we need it. Also because most of us trust the government here to do a better job than many of our own are. I have an Italian friend working for an organisation here. She didn't much fancy going back. Watching the way the UK government is reacting doesn't fill me with confidence, either. Whereas Rwanda has been on high alert for Ebola since 2015. It's got a proven record of being pretty good at virus containment. They've acted swiftly and consistently. I'm happy to ride it out here.

One of the measures has been to remove visors from all moto helmets. Motorbikes are a common form of public transport, but swapping helmets isn't all that hygienic. The picture on the left is from the first day the measures were introduced and I didn't know. Now I have my old university beanie and a pair of shades to prevent bugs getting lodged in my eye. I like the new look.


Today, I said goodbye to my friend Nick. He's with Peace Corps and they've all been evacuated on a private charter back to the US. It cut his placement short by about six months and I'm going to miss him. We weren't allowed to hug goodbye, so we took this picture with him a few metres back. Our first attempt (right) was not quite as successful.

Even though you're happy, there's still a moment of mild unease. Being a writer and a homeworker, I'm used to self-isolating even when there isn't a pandemic, but when you suddenly know that you can't go out something inside really wants to. I think everyone's feeling the same. Even though you're fine where you are, knowing you can't leave can be a bit of a strange sensation. Thankfully, life is still pretty normal here for me, though I am mindful that for some this is going to be a very rough ride. Especially those in the tourism and service industries, and who face financial difficulties because of it.

Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, stay well. As we say here, turikumwe, komera (we are together, be strong).

Friday, 13 March 2020

Pitch Meeting

One of my favourite distractions. This guy is very funny. Here's a couple of my favourites, but he's covered most of the greats from Breaking Bad and Harry Potter through to a two-hour compilation of all the Avengers films.

I also like the Honest Trailers series. Their latest one on The Witcher and 'the minimum number of syllables' made me spit tea across the keyboard.

And if you run out of all that, try Bad Lipreading. They've covered Game of Thrones, The Last Jedi, and Carl from Walking Dead.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Stuck in a Moment

Oh, woe is me!

Was so excited when I saw this. You have to listen to 500 hours of audio before you get the Master level. That's almost 21 days of listening.

So, you can imagine my confusion when I hit 21 days and three hours of listening and it still said I had an hour to go.... 21 days and four hours... and five hours... and....

It got stuck at 1 hour to go!

Then my phone crashed completely and when I rebooted everything and reinstalled Audible, I was down to 19 days of listening and around 36 hours left to go to Master level.

I cried.

I know it's sad. Measuring yourself by how many hours of your life you've spent on Audible, but I was quite enjoying seeing the count go up. It was as though someone had thieved time and stolen part of my life.

I contacted Audible. They said the one hour thing was a known issue and suggested these fixes:

I am sorry to hear your concern. I want to inform you that this is a known issue and our team is aware of it and working diligently to resolve this issue.

Further, if you have recently updated or reinstalled the Audible app, it is possible that your Stats and Badges have disappeared. Follow these steps to re-download your Stats and Badges:

1. Open the Audible app.
2. Tap the menu button in the left corner and tap "Library."
3. Tap the 3 vertical dots in the upper right corner of the screen.
4. Tap "Refresh."

The app will refresh all content within in, including your listening stats.

To see your listening stats and badges in the app, tap "Stats" from the left navigation menu.

If your stats and badges are still missing after refreshing your app, follow the steps below to sign out and back into the app.

1. Open the Audible app.
2. Tap the menu button in the left corner of the screen.
3. Tap "Settings."
4. Scroll down and tap "Sign out" followed by "OK" to confirm signing out.
5. Tap "Sign in" from the Welcome Screen, followed by entering your Amazon/Audible account information.

After signing back in, you should now be able to see your Stats and Badges by tapping the "Stats" section on the left navigation menu.

I hope this helps. If the issue persists, it will require additional research and investigation by a next level of Technical Support who will review your case and care for it accordingly.

I tried those suggestions but they didn't work. Hopefully they do for someone else. My badges were still there, so I was still a member of Amazon Brownies, and I didn't feel like spending the rest of the week back-and-forthing with tech support to fix the issue, so I just let it go.

So, I'm now working my way back towards mastery, and hoping I can finally break the 1 hour to go! barrier.

Sunday, 1 March 2020


It's been a while since I did a book review. I finished this one a few weeks back, but got distracted before writing about it. Not something I'd usually pick up but it was on sale and sounded interesting:

From one of the world's most highly regarded social scientists, a transformative book on the habits of mind that lead to the best predictions. 

Everyone would benefit from seeing further into the future, whether buying stocks, crafting policy, launching a new product, or simply planning the week's meals. Unfortunately, people tend to be terrible forecasters. As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study, even experts' predictions are only slightly better than chance. However, an important and underreported conclusion of that study was that some experts do have real foresight, and Tetlock has spent the past decade trying to figure out why. What makes some people so good? And can this talent be taught? 

In Superforecasting, Tetlock and coauthor Dan Gardner offer a masterwork on prediction, drawing on decades of research and the results of a massive, government-funded forecasting tournament. The Good Judgment Project involves tens of thousands of ordinary people - including a Brooklyn filmmaker, a retired pipe installer, and a former ballroom dancer - who set out to forecast global events. Some of the volunteers have turned out to be astonishingly good. They've beaten other benchmarks, competitors, and prediction markets. They've even beaten the collective judgment of intelligence analysts with access to classified information. They are "superforecasters". 

In this groundbreaking and accessible book, Tetlock and Gardner show us how we can learn from this elite group. Superforecasting offers the first demonstrably effective way to improve our ability to predict the future - whether in business, finance, politics, international affairs, or daily life - and is destined to become a modern classic. 

This article on the BBC reminded me about it. 

It interested me because I quite like statistics and I often wonder how so many people get to positions where they are influencing major decisions with what appears to be subjective opinion rather than tested prediction models or at least a relatively evidence-based, educated guess. 

This book also wondered this aloud.

Unfortunately, due to an Audible glitch, which I'll talk about later, I lost all my notes on this one, so it'll be a pretty short review. All I can say is that it was interesting. It went into quite a bit of detail about how we guestimate probability and touched on a few of the things covered in Eagleman's The Brain and You, such as there being two parts to your brain, the slower-thinking, reasoning part and the snap decision, quick-calculating part, and how we need to quiet the second in order to make better decisions, which isn't easy when you're put on the spot or in a stressful situation.

The bit about the 'wisdom of the crowd' was interesting, and how the greater the individual input, the more accurate the overall prediction tends to be. There were also some clever examples of how accurate someone can be when they break down a large problem - such as how many piano tuners there are in Chicago - into ever smaller parts: how many pianos, how many times they need tuning, how long tuning takes. By taking a very rough guess at potential figures for each unknown, the final figure proved to be not far off. 

I don't think I'd make a superforecaster, but I do enjoy thinking things through, and it was heartening that, although maths is an important component in superforecasting, you don't have to be a brilliant mathematician to be a good reasoner. I've always been fairly numerically challenged, but I like looking at trends in statistics. 

Anyway, it was nice to know that forecasting accuracy is something that people are pushing for. It does appear that news is more and more driven by personality and misinformation, and it would be wonderful if the people we turn to for insight actually had to show their track records on prediction. 

[UPDATE: Trevor Noah just nailed the above point about accuracy.]

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Traditional Dancing

Your Saturday morning dose of traditional Rwandan dancing. I was at my local bar, CasaKeza, in Kigali earlier in the week with my friend Solvejg. First time I'd seen flutes being played. I believe it's called an urusengo. You can see more traditional dancing here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020


I'm posting this on behalf of a project I got involved in called Frightseers. I don't think the website has gone live yet, but it's a map of the UK pinpointing fictional works written in those places. So, people can traverse the horror history of the local landscape. I'll post more about this once it's up and running, but they're going to be at StokerCon in April.

Each year, the Horror Writer’s Association presents the Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement, named in honor of Bram Stoker, author of the seminal horror work, Dracula. The Bram Stoker Awards were instituted immediately after the organization’s incorporation in 1987.

This year, StokerCon is coming to Scarborough in the UK and Frightseers will be hosting an event.

They sent out this message. I've never met them myself, but I love their project and perhaps some horror buffs reading this might like to learn more:


Heide and I are off to Stokercon in Scarborough this Easter where we hope to meet up with a lot of writer friends and spend time discussing the kinds of fiction that we love the most.

We’ve booked a party slot and we want to use it to celebrate what we’ve all achieved so far with the Frightseers website, and spread the word out to others who might want to take part.

We’re hoping that some of you will be able to join us.

We’d love to see you on the day and throughout the convention weekend, but whether you are coming to Stokercon or not, you can support the event.

Here’s how:

- Spread the word on social media – there’s currently at Facebook event although the exact times need confirming.

- We’re planning a ‘Tour of Britain Horror Quiz’ at the party. Maybe you have something we can use as a prize?

If you have thoughts about how else we might push this project forward, both at the event and afterwards then please get in touch!

Hope to hear from you soon,

Iain (and Heide)

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash

Following on from Will Save the Galaxy for Food, I've just finished Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash by Yahtzee Croshaw.
The hero of Will Save the Galaxy for Cash returns to do what he does best. Which is - what again, exactly?

With the age of heroic star pilots and galactic villains completely killed by quantum teleportation, the ex-star pilot currently named Dashford Pierce is struggling to find his identity in a changing universe.

Then, a face from his past returns and makes him an offer he can't refuse: take part in just one teeny weeny, slightly illegal, daring heist, and not only will he have the means to start the new life he craves, but also save his childhood hero from certain death.

How hard could that be? If you need to ask - you don’t know Dashford Pierce.

Before long, Pierce is surrounded by peril, and forced to partner with the very same supervillains he'd spent his heroic career thwarting. But when he's confronted by the uncomfortable truth that star pilots might not have been the force for good they had intended to be, he begins to wonder if the villains hadn't had the right idea all along....
I did enjoy this, but perhaps a smidgen less than the original, just because I read it immediately after and the return of old characters would have meant more if I hadn't just left them a page ago.

However, the introduction of the Biscotti made up for that. A race of strange little people left behind on their planet after the closure of an interstellar service station. It's hard to explain, but very funny to listen to. 

The book continued the run of strange and unusual similes:

Her eyebrows shot up like the birth rate nine months after a prolonged power outage.

Witty banter:

"I'm stopping you from making a mistake."...
"The mistake was your mum going off birth control."

And the occasional piece of useful advice on life:

Once again I'd beat the odds by getting knocked unconscious without suffering crippling permanent brain damage. The trick is to have lived a life of adventure and have so many memories from it that you can lose quite a few before you start feeling the loss. In this case, I was apparently out for less than a minute, so I was probably only going to have to ditch a few more months of high school.

There was a new super villain, and a few old ones trying to rehabilitate themselves by attending addict meetings, where they learned that 'a super villain without villainy is just a super person.'

It's fun, it follows from the first, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the adventure goes next.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Kirsty Henderson

I'd like to give a shout out to my friend Kirsty Henderson who is blogging her journey to build a house in Portugal. You can read all about it on her blog Portugal from Scratch. The picture above is from her latest post documenting a building course she went on in Costa Rica. 

Kirsty was a long-term resident in Kigali and I help her to manage the Living in Kigali community forum. She is incredibly driven and created the first tourist maps for Kigali, Nairobi and Kampala. 

She also had a travel blog called Nerdy Nomad, which explained how to travel the world on an internet income, and you can read more about her early adventures in this interview from 2009

She passed through Kigali last year and we had lunch together - though I was (unknown at the time) suffering from malaria, so mostly sweated at her and picked at my food.

Kirsty really is an incredible person. She's done so much in life already and I'm looking forward to reading about her Portuguese adventure.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Will Save the Galaxy for Food

There is no other reason than sheer serendipity that this should be the next book I finished after the last post on bat soup.

As mentioned before, I rarely read several books by the same author, but I have really fallen for Yahtzee Croshaw. I picked up Differently Morphous in an Audible sale a while back and have since started working my way through the rest. He's literary junk food - exactly what you need some days. 

... day broke on the planet below. An orange crescent slashed brilliantly across the blackness and the sleeping world was gradually unveiled, the rising sunlight spreading like glittering marmalade across the toast of God.

I'm starting to see a few character archetypes: the disgruntled yoof, the dry-witted reluctant hero, the smart, efficient female character who never goes so far as to become a love interest. They crop up in each, although this one doesn't have a super villain. A villain, yes, but as Megamind would say, not a super villain. He doesn't have a cape.

I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it as I'm not much of a space fan. I like Star Trek, Firefly and all that, but it's not my genre of choice. Croshaw's got a real way of pulling you straight in, though. His plots are always very neatly tied together, even if the chapters themselves revel in chaos. 

This was just as good as the rest and I've zoomed straight on to the sequel, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Hard to Swallow

Picture from this article.

I very rarely have a major political waffle on here, but I'm about to.

This one's about the Chinese coronavirus. I recently unfriended someone after the sheer vitriol on their feed about it.

There's been some articles circulating that the market it came from was selling a lot of different animal products in unhygienic circumstances. Part of the story was about cooking certain animals alive, including bats, which is where the virus might have spread from. And, yes, this does bother me. Animal cruelty is something I'm very much against.


The issue I had was the sheer level of hate speech towards 'them', meaning the Chinese population in general, and suggesting they deserved this virus because of what they eat. Whereas I don't agree with the preparation methods, it was incredibly divisive language and a few things that ran throught my mind were...

  1. Ebola is also thought to originate from bat or gorilla meat. However, when the Ebola outbreak hit Sierra Leone and DRC, it was largely referred to as bushmeat and I didn't see many people saying 'disgusting Africans, they deserve it.' There was definitely a more sympathetic tone.
  2. People who frequent markets to eat local food often don't have a Sainsbury's next door and, if they do, probably couldn't afford it. Local markets are a source of cheap daily sustenance for most of the world's population.
  3. Most of the world's population who buy from local markets haven't had a high level of education. Food hygiene and virus transmission probably aren't on their radar. If someone does something because they don't know it's a bad idea, is the correct response: well, you deserve it?
  4. Generalisation is the death of reason. To say that 'all' of 'them' (the entire Chinese population) do something or eat the same food is strange. It's also an observation that people do something, not a constructive solution. 
  5. Diet is often something hugely culturally ingrained. Every culture eats something that another culture finds disgusting. I have a hard time eating zingalo in Rwanda, which is a delicacy made from cow intestine. Aborigines eat live witchetty grubs. Bushmeat is a staple part of millions of people's diet and has been for generations. Saying 'eww, that's disgusting,' isn't really helpful when trying to change mindsets. If it took centuries to evolve, a few irate westerners screaming racial insults online isn't going to have an impact, it just shows that some people's mindsets are as disgusting as they find other people's food to be.

You don't agree with something, fine. But what do you hope to achieve by shouting slurs and outrage? You need a conversation.

Conversations are changing dietary habits in many economically developed countries with an awareness of plant-based diets and eating less meat. But it happens slowly. It happens through education on how mass farming affects the environment, on health implications, and when demand for alternative foods makes them convenient to source and brings the market price down to a level that more people can afford. As for food hygiene, it's taken centuries for western countries to introduce health safety standards. We used to put chalk in bread and hang meat up outside butchers' shops like markets still do in many countries. It didn't happen overnight. Animal rights certainly didn't, it's still a completely new concept in many countries.

The idea that people eating traditional food for a price they can afford deserve to die because of that is very strange thinking, and more than a little disturbing. It shows an extreme lack of compassion. They may think it's justified because 'these people' don't always show compassion in the way they prepare food, but it neglects any reflection on socio-economic circumstances, access to clean water and cold chains, or education.

Anyway, just my thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Pretty Lights

I've been spending Sundays over at Kigali Heights lately, researching ancient Sumer whilst watching the lights of the Convention Centre swirl. Taking lots of notes for my next novel. It's going to be a while until I start writing, but I'm looking forward to it.

The only thing that could make this better would be...


Talking of pretty lights, my dad posted these pictures the other day. It's a beautiful display at Gloucester Cathedral in support of asylum seekers. Really pretty. Wish I could have seen it.


And, in other news, the gloomy start to the year seems to be resolved. Health is back to normal and patched things up with my fella, who is hopefully returning from India in a month. So, light at the end of the tunnel - and hopefully not an oncoming train. Feel I've got my bounce back.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Fulu Miziki

Shout out to a fantastic band, Fulu Miziki, who completely rocked Kigali last night. Kinshasa's answer to glam rock. They were so much fun to watch. Incredible energy.

Most of their costumes, and some of their instruments, are made from recycled materials. If you ever get the chance to see them, get right on it.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Born Lippy: How to Do Female

New Year was bloody awful and I spent much of it under the duvet waiting for it to be over. My partner left me on New Year's Eve. 

I mean, left, left.

The country.

I've just about sorted myself out, but I was not doing great at the time. When I'm not sure what to think - I try not to. I look for distractions, and that's what this book was. A brilliant distraction.

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman and sometimes it's time to be a hard woman... This is a book for all those times.

Once upon a (very very) long time ago Jo Brand was what you might describe as 'a nice little girl'. Of course, that was before the values of cynicism, misogyny and the societal expectation that Jo would be thin, feminine and demure sent her off down Arsey Avenue.

The plot thickened, when due to a complicated fusion of hormones, horrible family dynamics and a no-good boyfriend they hated, Jo ended up leaving home at 16. Now she's considerably further along life's inevitable bloody 'journey' - and she's fucked up enough times to feel confident she has no wisdom to offer anyone. But who cares? She's going to do it anyway...

Born Lippy is a gathering of all the things Jo Brand wishes she'd known, all the things she's learnt, and all the things she hopes for the future. A century after women got the vote (albeit married women over the age of 28) it's time to take stock of exactly what it means to be female today. And if there's one thing women are entitled to, it's having a bloody good moan about things big and small - so here goes...

I really like Jo Brand, and I listened to the whole thing in two sittings over New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. It was exactly what I needed at the time. No-nonsense, practical advice for surviving life. 

It's true, books are there through the good times and the bad. Who needs therapy?

It opens with the line:

No men have been harmed in the writing of this book.

 And goes on to say:

I worry about writing a book in which I impart my ‘wisdom’ to my ‘daughters’, or in other words, ‘females who are very much younger than I am and have some hope and optimism left.’

Preach away sister, it's running thin. 

Excuse typos, transcribing again. 

There were some great bits on language and female anatomy:

If we go back in time, language has always been sexist, misogynistic, and any other word you can think of for unfair etymological treatment of women. So, 'hysteria' comes from the Greek word for womb, and I'm sure you're all aware that if women lost their equilibrium in those days it was assumed that it was because their womb was wandering unhelpfully about their body and confusing them. Vagina is the Latin word for 'sword sheath' - ouch - and the term for the general genital area, 'pudenda,' literally means things to be ashamed of.


So let's start with the wonder down under. Vaginas are amazingly stretchy. Well, babies come out of them, and that's a conjuring trick far stranger than anything covered by the Magic Circle. But the really surprising thing is the clitoris. Although anatomists have known since the 1800s that the visible bit is just the tip of the iceberg, it has remained a medical curiosity unmapped by many a male explorer. Five points if you spotted the man-can't-find-the-clitoris joke. While the penis is described in exhaustive detail in anatomies and textbooks, as late as 1948 Grey's Anatomy chose not to label the clitoris at all. Maybe Grey should have gone to Specsavers. Ten points.

Apparently the clitoris has 8,000 highly sensitive nerve endings. Double that of the entire glands of a penis, and considering its much smaller surface area this makes it fifty times more sensitive. We are fantastic creatures.

Wouldn't it be great if women everywhere embraced the idea that their vagina could be such a powerful weapon, rather than something shameful that needed to be silenced, or at the very least some extra storage when you're shoplifting in John Lewis.

She also mentioned the tampon tax, which is something Rwanda abolished in December. Apparently, periods cost women an average of £18,450 over a lifetime. 

Why are tampons luxuries? Because men don't have periods. That's why.

What she was saying about reading and the importance of reading was also good:

Most people I know who don't read books say that school put them off. The relentless, tedious analysis of character, motive and structure, and all those other things that thankfully I've forgotten, which shows how interesting they were. No one is denying that Shakespeare is a fantastic writer, but most kids come out of school basically wanting to shove his winter up his discontent.

I've had a bit of a gripe about this myself.

And I especially appreciated her chapter on How not to fall in love and other advice you'll ignore. How to avoid mooning about in 'a psychotic bubble of love' - it really isn't good for your health - and how to rescue yourself from yourself.

Of course, the reality is, we're forever being forced into boxes marked 'that's what you are,' and if we try and crawl out of them it makes some people's brains melt.

The book is full of coping strategies for life, disastrous relationships and disastrous jobs. At one point she quoted the statistic that 40% of bosses in big business have an identifiable personality disorder, and was surprised it was that low. For more on that, check out The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.

She ends on the following thought:

I think what women would like is a world in which they can be lazy and average and yet still be superior to men, rather than having to be 2.5 times better than their male equivalent. This has been calculated by social scientists, I haven't just made this up, and if I had I wouldn't be quite so restrained. I'd be suggesting women have to be ten or even twenty times better than men. That's really shit isn't it? That we have to be 2.5 times better just to be equal. And the fact is that a lot of men don't like women who are more competent than they are, and that is why they regress to playground name-calling and attempting to belittle women.

But she also states that she has a lot of hope for the future, and I'm with her on that. I work with a lot of young women packing confidence, and a lot of young men with respect and decency. I think things are progressing. I've also been lucky enough in my life to have dated people with strong values and kindness, even when personal dynamics didn't always work out. Sometimes it's difficult to separate what feels personal from who a person actually is. Time helps. 

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. It was what was needed at the time. A bit of sound wisdom and some funny jokes. Things happen and we carry on, because women do tend to be resilient, especially when they have good friends, a good sense of humour and good gin.