Valentine’s Schmalentines

No one I know seems to like Valentine’s Day. I can understand that in so far as it has become yet another excuse for a commercial binge. The underlying message seems to be; ‘if you don’t spend money then it isn’t love’.

I find it hard to be cynical. But equally I refuse to see love in cash terms. The real leveller is time. Rich or poor you only have so much time on this earth and the giving of yours to those you care about seems to me to be the gesture that really counts.

So I wrote a poem for Valentine’s. It’s not about anyone, though it was written for those I care about; an expression of appreciation. It’s just playing with an idea, one expression of love amongst countless billions; but I liked it.

I love you, he said,

More fiercely than the all-consuming fire

At the raging heart of a star

Its flames neither burn nor diminish me

I shall bask in its warmth

And, in its light, shine all the more brightly

 

I love you, she said,

More deeply than the fathomless ocean.

The weight of the world’s water

Does not, cannot, crush my love

But carries it on its every current

To the last corners of creation

 

I love you, he said,

More wildly than the wildest wind

That holds the trees in its arms

And leads them in a dance

That takes every breath away

Yet breathes life into all it touches

 

I love you, she said,

More steadfast than the tallest mountain

More life-full than the fertile soils

On which long-vanished Babylon flowered

It nurtures me that I may nurture you

And together we may grow.

 

I love you, he said,

Further than the naked heart can see,

More vast than the universe,

To infinity plus one

A love so great it can exist only in the mind of god

It knows no limits and no end

 

I love you, she said,

In all the smallest things,

My molecular desire is bound by unbreakable bonds

Within the nucleus of every atom you will find it,

In quarks, both strange and strangely charming,

There is no part of you in which it cannot dwell.

 

Our love, they said, is…

Without chains

Without rules

Without conditions

And what I give to another

Does not take from you

But makes us both the greater

And though eternity may end next Tuesday or possibly never

It will outlast us all.

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Losing the Last 3kg All Over Again

Feb15Back on August I wrote about my attempt to lose two or three kilos during a healthy September. I didn’t write about the results.
In short they were pretty good.
When I started my healthy September I weighed around 72.5-73.5kg. At one point during September that had dropped to around 71kg. Obviously weight fluctuates but that certainly suggested I shed a kilo or two.
However at the start of my healthy month I had a half hour stint with Olli, one of the trainers at my local gym. He suggested that aiming any lower than 71kg was probably unhelpful. He pointed out that during the month I could expect to lose fat and put on muscle and muscle weighs more than fat.
My gym routine basically consisted of a couple of circuits using a rowing machine, kettlebell and four weights machines for upper body muscles with a two to three minutes plank on the first circuit. During September I went to the gym four or five times a week and did two circuits each time taking about 20 minutes on each. If I went on a fasting day I’d just do one.
At the end of the month I measured my body fat using the special scales at the gym. I’d been aiming (and expecting to fall short of 15%). I managed 12.9%.
Oddly that was a bit undermining. I no longer had a goal and my gym routine didn’t translate well into one I could do at home and I didn’t make the transition back to my old home routine well.
Christmas also took its toll. Lots of lovely people gave me lots of lovely chocolate.
As the plan was to have a healthy month every fourth month January was earmarked. In the event I started mid month.
It took me about two and a half weeks to get back to my end-of-September condition. I upped the circuit count to three and decided not to exercise on fasting days at all as it would allow my muscles to repair themselves. I’ve got a week left – 4-5 trips to the gym. I haven’t weighed myself at all. I’ve been to a wedding dinner. I’ve had the odd glass of red wine but no sugar. And, yes, I did get up to Billingsgate again and bought fish. Overall my diet the last three-and-a-bit weeks has been really good – though not totally free of pasta.
The recipe isn’t really complicated; good, home-cooked food, reasonable exercise and avoiding sugar and being in reasonably healthy shape isn’t an unattainable goal.

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Review: My Berlin Kitchen

Luisa Weiss is a thirty something American-Italian who was born in Berlin during the 70s and who grew up between the city of her birth and New England.
Weiss made her name as a blogger with ‘The Wednesday Chef’, back in the days when the internet was more about food than cat memes, and she writes with considerable charm.
It’s quite hard not to get caught up in the story of her relationship with a young German whom she meets as a student in Paris but later leaves to move to New York and a career in publishing. We see her narrowly escape the wrong marriage and return to the man she realises is the love of her life. Seriously, you’d have to have a heart made from the broken remnants of granite kitchen tops not to be affected by it. And I have to say I really rather enjoyed reading it. I like the fact that it’s essentially a mix of memories and food writing and that every chapter closes with a recipe somehow linked to the preceeding events.
But, and I do have buts…, it did leave me somehow frustrated.
Firstly Weiss’s story is rather lightweight. Yes it’s charming and romantic but she’s pretty much breezed through life in Berlin, Paris and New York. Yes she’s hit difficult patches with family and work and relationships. But frankly she’s young and lucky and nothing she’s had to contend with amounts to very much. If this was my life I wouldn’t try to string a narrative around it. I love vignettes that lead into food writing but here I felt they could tell one more about the milieu the dishes are from, a bit more about the people she meets and less about the author’s love life. Her observations and memories would have been enough. The mistake was to seek to weave them into a narrative thread because her life story isn’t compelling enough to be the point, better it had been about the food and the places, illuminated by the personal.
And that’s the other thing; somehow she captures the essence of New York and even evokes Paris and Italy pretty well, but this is called ‘My Berlin Kitchen’ and I just don’t feel her Berlin. She seems wierdly detached from it, as though she hadn’t properly rediscovered it when she wrote this, which to be fair may have been the case because, so far as I could tell she’d only moved back 18 months or so before writing this.
But hey I still enjoyed it, the recipes seem pretty good, it’s more that it could have been a better book without the conceit of its being a memoir.

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes)

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The Future Starts Here…

IMG_2661Science Fiction writers (someone will pop up and tell me I should say ‘speculative fiction’ and not ‘sci-fi’ – *sticks tongue out*) have an interesting relationship with the future.

Actually that’s an understatement. Science fiction writers have an intimate and important relationship not just with the future but also with the human condition.

Ask yourself this; in what other profession do people have such freedom to speculate, not just about the future, science and technology, but about its impact on humanity and the world about us and our place in that world?

‘Oh sure,’ you may say, ‘but that goes for scientists and politicians and people too.’

Except I don’t think it does. Science is a brutal business and very political. It’s very hard to be the person who overturns accepted thinking.

Fred Hoyle springs to mind. He paid a huge professional price for suggesting that life on earth might have extra-terrestrial origins. Or Eric Laithwaite, an engineer who played a key role in the development of maglev technology but who was pilloried for positing that gyroscopes might weigh less under certain circumstances, raising the possibility of gyroscopic anti-grav.

Or more recently the Danish climate-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg was savaged for questioning the consensus, while Mark Lynas and George Monbiot came under fire for backing nuclear as a stop-gap to deal with global warming. I don’t agree with Lomborg, and I’d take issue with Lynas & Monbiot, but we need to be able to have a debate and so long as people don’t disguise having a vested interest (links to or funding from etc) and argue honestly and in good faith then we should tolerate dissent and difference.

But the reality is that the stock of scientists and politicians and many other professionals often falls, rather than rises, when they think outside the box. Apparently we don’t really like them straying too far from the comforting and familiar nor getting too far ahead of the pack.

Writers, on the other had, and none more so than fantasy and sci-fi writers, don’t just have latitude to think outside the box, it’s a pre-requesite that they do. Indeed the more imaginative, creative and perceptive their ideas, the more respect they garner. The ability to imagine the future’s every possible permutation is a core requirement.

I was always struck, reading philosophy (with theology) at university, how readily philosophers ventured into the realms of science fiction to test various ideas. Where does identity reside? Before you know it your asking yourself,  if you take all Dave’s thoughts and memories and transfer them to another brain and body, who is the real Dave? One could quite readily argue that The Matrix was an exploration of some of the issues raised by Berkeleian Esse est Percipi and his argument that objects exist unobserved because they continue to exist in the mind of God.

So writers have not just the freedom to think original thoughts but there’s an expectation that they should. That in turn provides a fertile repository of ideas that are later plundered by scientists and business people.

I worked for a while with a small Swedish team whose idea of building an online knowledge market was at least partly inspired by Charles Stross and they called their company Mancx after Stross’s protagonist Manfred Macx.

Then there are famous examples such as Arthur C. Clarke’s communications satellite, the hypo-spray in Star Trek and countless others.

So today, as the first of a new year, seems an apposite oe on which to publish this discussion from the summer, recorded alongside the one I published a few months back with the same three contributors; Charles, Ken McLeod and Ann Vandermeer.

With them I explore the releationship between SF and future tech, indulge in a little crystal ball gazing and generally have fun. I hope you enjoy this. Thanks to all three for their thoughts.

Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, Anne Vandermeer talk SF as catalyst for innovation; WorldCon London 2014 by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

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A Sussex Year

sunset july 10 2Profound apologies. It’s been months since I blogged.

sunset 2 july 25What happened? Well I’ve been writing. Not only did I finish rewriting Ozymandius but, despite vowing to take a break, I had the opening lines of the next novel pop into my head and I couldn’t not write them down. And once you start…

stormy eveningAnd as if that weren’t enough I now have three publishers interested in my children’s book and that necessitates tweaks and rewites and all that.

dawn sept 9 2So I really haven’t been able to justify the time and energy that my blog demands.

September 21 earlyHowever to make up for it here is the second part of the photography project I took on for the year.

dawn sept 22Twelve months ago I decided I’d shoot the views that dominate my life and record them through the seasons.

Sunset OctoberThe first six months worth can be found here. These are from July to December.

sunset post rain novIt’s sad there was no snow. (You no snow Jon nothing).

dawn 6 NovAnd, yes Padraig, I should have cleaned my camera sensor.

dawn Nov 24 2The truth is that I’ve had that Canon 350D for almost ten years and while it was a perfectly servicable DSLR for a keen amateur back then, these days it’s due replacing.

dawn dec 9 3Perhaps I’ll give it to Luca.

dawn dec 30 3So what have I learned this year? Well, I learned a lot about love. I learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that I can drink a remarkable amount of good whisky and feel none the worse for it. I learned I really enjoy going to the theatre. I learned that there’s an awful lot a seven year old can teach you.

And knowing what I’ve learned I hope that 2015 is going to be truly wonderful. So endless thanks and profound love to all those who have shared my life this year.

dawn dec 30 2

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Is Sci-Fi Still Literature’s Unacknowledged Offspring?

From left: Jonathan Kent, Charles Stross, Ann Vandermeer, Ken McLeod

From left: Jonathan Kent, Charles Stross, Ann Vandermeer, Ken McLeod

I found myself at WorldCon last month. I say found myself because although it had been on my radar (thanks to a tip off from someone more plugged into all things sci-fi and fantasy than I) I’d pitched the idea of a piece to the radio edition of the BBC’s Click! and had heard nothing back. So I rather let it slide.

However one Saturday in August I made my way up to town to interview Andy, a guy doing good things for charity, also as part of a piece for Click! which took me to the Excel (awful venue). And Lo! Well blow me if I didn’t find myself walking past WorldCon which happened to be in the same venue as the start of Andy’s charity race.

So being there with my recording kit, and being given to seeing coincidences as opportunities, I blagged a press pass for myself.

I have to say it was great fun and few things give me as much pleasure as interviewing authors. I’m fascinated by the process of writing. I write myself not just for a living but because it’s what I do. I write. It makes me happy.

I’m also very intrigued by sci fi. I read reams of the stuff in my teens much of it pretty awful. When sci fi was very good the publishing establishment would tend not to label it sci fi. When it was bad it would be offered up as fodder to the spotty and stupid (for thus I suspect consumers of sci fi were seen by publishers).

But could this be changing? It was a subject I explored with the Edinburgh-based writers Charles Stross and Ken McLeod and with an editor, Anne Vandermeer, who hails from the US.

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Ten Books That Changed My Life

Hobbit_coverThe Facebook meme du jour is all about listing the ten books that changed your life. The fad has inevitably produced a backlash from people convinced that their dull and illiterate ‘friends’ couldn’t possibly have read half the weighty, intellectual tomes they’d claimed.

I think it’s an interesting exercise. It only becomes pointless if it’s turned into a chance to pull open your intellectual raincoat so unwitting passers-by get an unwanted opportunity to see how big your bookshelves are.

But books can change people. They can open our eyes to new ideas and new worlds and leave a profound impression. However when sat down to consider what my ten might be I realised two things.

Firstly most of the books that really made an impression did so when I was much younger. When you’re a blank page it’s that much easier for the words from another to end up on your own. Compared to books I read before the age of 18 I really struggle to think of many that have had as profound an effect since.

Secondly the books that made the biggest impression weren’t necessarily the best books I’ve read, indeed my list of my 10 favourite books would probably be substantially different. Timing is important. Read a mediocre book at a point in life when you’re looking for answers to the questions or issues it tackles and it may hit home much harder than a great book read at a less critical moment.

So my list tries to cleave as closely to the spirit of the question as possible. This isn’t a list that will impress many. That’s not the intention. But it might give anyone who is interested an insight into my formative influences.

 

  1. The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkein. I read The Hobbit when I was six. I read voraciously from a very early age and this was the first big book I read. It was that big I went back to much easier things thereafter. But I loved the story. A few years back I had an amusing conversation with a guy I worked with at a software company for which I did comms. He’s a bright bloke. Our minds work in different ways but he’d always give me a run for my money. It was pretty typical of him and spoke volumes about our relationship that I once mentioned to him, feeling a little self satisfied, that I’d read The Hobbit when I was six, and he came right back and said, a little insouciantly, ‘well I read Lord of the Rings when I was six.’ And I thought ‘well fuck you.’

The other thing it did was make me unduly anxious about Luca’s reading. We fought over his lack of progress when he was five and six. Hey, mea culpa, totally. I was being pretty stupid about it. However I solved it by telling him he could have a Wii U if he read the first Harry Potter book before he turned seven. He did…with a week to spare, and in the eight months since he’s read the next four and a half books in the series. Well that’ll teach me. Hopefully.

Grimble

  1. Grimble/Grimble at Christmas, Clement Freud. I could equally have said ‘My Friend Mr Leakey by J.B.S. Haldane. Both these (the Grimble stories were in a slim single edition so I don’t really think of them as separate books) had a defining influence on my sense of humour. Both were written for children by polymaths; Freud being a restaurateur, broadcaster and politician, Haldane a mathematician and classicist who became a Fellow of the Royal Society and was honoured for his work in physiology, genetics and evolutionary biology. What they also had in common was a very, very silly sense of humour. The line I always remember from Grimble was about a Garibaldi (aka ‘squashed fly’) biscuit on which was written, in green ink ‘do not eat this biscuit because green ink is bad for you.’ My Friend Mr Leakey was actually written in the 1930s but has aged well, though references to collar studs might leave some feeling a bit bemused these days. There’s a lovely scene where Mr Leakey, a magician, helps a postman by turning a troublesome dog’s teeth to rubber. Now I write children’s books and to these two I owe my greatest debt. Curiously my agent, Ben, shares my appreciation for these two as does Neil Gaiman. Great minds and all… and both illustrated (the editions I had anyway) by Quentin Blake who drew childhood for anyone growing up in the 70s.

 

  1. The Illustrated Self Sufficiency, John Seymour. This was the self sufficiency bible of the ‘Good Life’ era. I didn’t read all that much of it, just dipped into it and dreamed. But the illustrations of how to manage a one acre plot and a five acre plot fired my dreams. I still fantasise about writing and living off the land.

H2G2_UK_front_cover

  1. The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, et al., Douglas Adams. I don’t think any single radio programme has ever made such an impression on me as H2G2. I was eleven or twelve, I think, and hung onto the radio every time it was broadcast. The music still transports me right back. And for once the books not only lived up to but bettered their progenitor. Adams, once a member of the Pythons’ writing team, fused a wonderful sense of the absurd with a fascination for life’s big issues. His answer to the big unanswerables was to be silly – indeed expecting an answer to an unanswerable question is preposterous and Adams captured that beautifully. So why such a big impression? I suspect H2G2 set me off on my own quest for the outer bounds of the ridiculous and the profound.

 

  1. The Quest for Gaia, Kit Pedlar. This I read at sixteen and went vegetarian as a consequence. Pedlar’s case doesn’t centre on animal rights but on the unsustainability of feeding an increasingly crowded planet on meat given its resource intensiveness and environmental impact. If any book was responsible for my turning towards green thinking this was it.

Zen_motorcycle

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig. I read this when I was in my late teens, if I remember right, into 60s counterculture, motorcycles and even philosophy. Consequently I signed up to study philosophy and theology at Oxford. I guess my real interest was in ethics and practical philosophy. Oxford’s main focus was impractical philosophy. Seriously people, even empiricists look both ways when they cross the road or they quickly become ex-empiricists because busses still exist even when they’re not observed. Not sure whether to hold Pirsig responsible for my decision to study philosophy, or not, but the book (and it’s not really such a great book) really did capture my teenage imagination.

 

This is where the list gets a bit harder. By the time I left university many of my ideas were fairly well formed. I’d spent three years studying Locke and Hume and Aristotle with oodles of New Testament theology thrown in. No one thing I read there made a huge mark.

 

  1. Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson. I could equally have said Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 or The Great Shark Hunt. I read these at university or shortly after and confirmed my inclination towards journalism. Thompson invented Gonzo – first person reportage where the writer is a protagonist and objectivity flies out of the window faster than you can say ‘pass me the drugs’. True objectivity in journalism is impossible. We may strive for it and strive hard. But when I was reporting from Malaysia I could not shelve my commitment to liberty, democracy and human rights, nor buy the government’s inference that these concepts were somehow different in an Asian context. Thompson simply dropped any pretence to anything other than total subjectivity and in doing so was uncompromisingly honest.

 

  1. Tales From The City, Armistead Maupin / Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins. By the time I turned thirty I realised I wanted to be a writer first and foremost and a musician second. Turning thirty gave me the impetus to sit down and write properly for the first time. The book I wrote almost got published but no cigar. I returned to it late last year after a gap of almost 17 years and the rewrite is almost done. But when I originally wrote it I sat down to re-read both Robbins and Maupin – Robbins for his freeform use of language (currently reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain which plays with language in a similarly unfettered manner and arguably in a much more powerfully elegant manner), Maupin for his command of dialogue which is both captivatingly natural and moves on the plot with apparent effortlessness, and both for their outrageous refusal to let truth be stranger than fiction and in their strangeness they somehow find truth. I recently picked up a Tom Robbins (Fierce Invalids…) and I have to say his ‘wildly original’ use of language seemed positively laboured and clunky at times. It may be that Jitterbug wouldn’t bear re-reading now, but then it gave me permission to write however I pleased.

white mughals

  1. White Mughals, William Dalrymple. I hate William Dalrymple. No one should be able to write as well at 23 as he did when he produced In Xanadu; literate and erudite without any apparent need to wear either his learning other than lightly. I so hope he had a good editor or he’s simply to damn good to be allowed to live in peace. Actually I don’t hate him at all. I think he’s a monstrously talented writer and researcher. White Mughals tells the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident at the court of Hyderabad and his affair with a local princess. It also tells the story of the British in India at a time when many Brits were becoming Indianised and the Indian courts Anglicised, and documents the end of that era with the growing racism at the heart of the East India Company. It’s a great book. I read it towards the end of five and a half years in Asia when I was conscious of becoming Asianised and it resonated strongly. But it also influenced my choice of name for Luca. I wanted to call him James Achilles. The ‘Achilles’ was sadly vetoed but he is James Alexander Lucas after James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a man with a foot in Asia and a foot in England, just like Luca.

 

  1. Tom Paine, a Political Life, John Keane. I read this about four or five years ago now. After a lifetime being interested in politics (I was already hooked by the age of ten… sad I know, but true) I finally found my political hero. I loved the Paine Keane introduced me to – flawed, self pitying, irascible, wont to pick fights for the hell of it (verbal rather than physical ones) but the most brilliant polemicist of his (and arguably any other) age. He wrote the three most widely read works of the 18th Century, helped spark a movement for independence in America, tried to remain principled as a participant in French revolutionary politics and was a deeply humane and idealistic man until the end. Consequently Paine’s thinking has shaped my own immeasurably.

 

So there you are – books that have changed me. I’ve read and enjoyed countless scores of others, some the kind that I could name drop I suppose, but enjoying a book and being changed by it are two very different things.

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