On Brexit, A Scenario

I was talking over lunch with the finance director of one of our
larger companies about Brexit. He ought to have more idea on this than
I do.
What happens next? One scenario: May finally capitulates to pressure
from Tory Outers, say next January, and triggers Article 50, or
whatever you do with the wretched thing.
So come January 2019 the UK is no longer in the EU. It is
inconceivable that the necessary trade deals with EU members can be concluded by then.
I am a manufacturer who wants to ship my goods to my regular customers
in Germany. Does the German state impose tariffs? Not in their
interest, if it risks similar action by UK Govt. They still want to
sell us Mercedes.
If I were manufacturing in Norway, outside the EU, no problem because
the necessary trade deal is in place, as I understand it. But come January 2019 there will
be no UK-Germany trading pact.
Another complication: a huge chunk of our “trade” with the EU is
actually goods shipped to Rottedam and then sent elsewhere, to places
where we presumably have trade deals. Is that affected?
My point is that no one knows the answer to any of this. Neither me, nor
my lunch companion. It would be an utterly irresponsible act by UK Govt to
trigger Article 50 until we do, given  such huge uncertainty
So here is another scenario. We send those charged with bringing about Brexit with finding out the answers to those questions. That should keep them busy. We stagger on in this Heisenbergian state, in but potentially out, for three years and then both parties go to the election with a commitment to staying within the EU, given those uncertainties. Which is what most of the country actually wants. Boris could change his mind again.

The Tory right erupts, but none are going to vote Labour. Ukip is a busted  flush. The Daily Mail has an aneurysm. The next (Tory) government carries on with the UK in the EU. The last four years look like a bad dream. Bobby Ewing waking in the shower.

(Is that right? My grasp on some parts of popular culture is a bit vague.)



On Italian Banks

As I may have mentioned, we have just returned from Rome. The first thing you do, as you settle into your apartment or hotel, is to identify the nearest ATM.

(I recall a time when such were not available overseas, and holidays were fraught with difficulties, trying to find somewhere to cash your travellers’ cheques. Different times.)

As it happens, the nearest was a branch of Banca Monte Dei Paschi di Siena, reckoned to be the oldest known bank, founded in 1472 in Siena. (A colleague once quipped that I must have attended its opening party. I am not that old.)

It is also one of the most cash-strapped, and I joked that there was only an even chance the money would be disgorged. It was.

Most assume that the current crisis facing the Italian banking system is the sheer quantity of bad loans the banks have taken on from companies exposed to the country’s tottering economy. I wonder.

Later, we were walking along one of Rome’s grandest streets – think The Mall or Regent Street. We passed one branch of Banca Monte etc. Some 150 yards further, we passed another on the other side of the road. This is the equivalent of the TSB, say, having two branches on Regent Street.

It makes little sense, except in an economy where it is still difficult to shed staff and close unwanted branches. It suggest Italy’s banking woes may have as much to do with having too much expensive space on the high street as those lousy debts, at a time when most banking is done online.

It suggests, and heaven forfend I should say anything positive about our own banks, that the widespread branch closures over the past couple of decades we have seen in this country, though inconvenient, may have saved us from something rather worse.

(That said, the small Norfolk village we subsequently went to stay in has now lost its last bank branch, to the great disadvantage of the various small businesses and farmers that earn their living in the area.)

On Catching Up

I don’t tend to follow the news much on holiday. Anyway, while I was away and since I got back to the UK, various things have happened.
To take a few. The Bank of England has cut base rates from almost nothing to a bit
less. This means our pensions, which were unaffordable, are now
slightly more unaffordable.
The Government has this summer decided, as a consequence of a vote the
result of which the majority of the country now regrets, that any
attempt to bring the country’s finances into balance is no longer
worth attempting. See the above, re pensions.
A hospital in Grantham is no longer offering a 24 hour A&E service. Not, not enough money, but not enough doctors, however much we are prepared to pay them.
Spending on the NHS is rising by 1 per cent a year. The amount that
needs to be spent, because of our ageing population and our refusal to
stop eating ourselves to death, is rising by 3 per cent plus. This is
going to end how?
A review of the banking system which has run for several years has
come to the conclusion that there is nothing much wrong with the banking
system. The man responsible was on R4 Today defending this conclusion.
Not terribly well.
Nothing that has happened over the past decade would lead one to the
conclusion that there is anything wrong with the banking system,
would it?
The Government has decided to delay the decision to build new
electricity capacity that will be desperately needed in half a decade because it
is always easier to delay a decision than to take one. As it happens,
I think that new Hinkley Point plant is the wrong solution to that
problem. But to solve it, we have to decide to do something. Not
This means the lights will start to go out about when the country runs
out of money and the pensions of people now nearing retirement prove to be inadequate. That will make for an interesting couple of months, won’t it?
Oh, and staff on Eurostar are going on strike over the Bank Holiday, thereby
screwing up any number of people’s summer holidays. Their reason? With no sense of discernible irony, they are unhappy about their work/life balance.
Welcome home.

Abroad Thoughts From Home

Whenever I visit another capital city, be it Paris, Rome, wherever,
there is always a few hours when I get the feeling that something is
different. Something is strange.
Then you realise what it is. It is a normal working day, people are
going about their business. And there are not four or five people
within 18 inches of your face.
It is not normal, you know, this insane overcrowding we put up with in
London. Every single square foot of land built on, and costing an
obscene amount to buy or rent.
Every single piece of public transport full to capacity, and then
some. People queuing to queue to get on. Whole stations shut down
because the crowds are a threat to your safety.
Almost everyone goes around plugged into some device or other, to wall
off the sheer awfulness of what is going on around them.
No one else lives like this, in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin or Rome, from
where we have just returned. You see very few people plugged into
their private space, because their surroundings are quite bearable.
This is the second thing you notice.
This is not normal, the way we live, but we have lived this way for so
long that we no longer realise this. Distance brings perspective.

On The Ten Worst Songs Ever Written

I have been considering what are the ten worst songs ever written. The rock equivalent of Vogon poetry. Not the truly awful songs, those written to be a one-hit wonder to amuse witless, drunk, stoned, E’d up teenagers in Magaluf, or wherever. The Birdy Song, Agadoo, Agadoo. (Is that right? You shudder still, and I can’t quite face looking it up on Wikipedia.)

Or Octopussy’s Garden, just a way of getting the drummer some composing rights. No, those songs that purport to be better, by writers who should know better, but are actually awful. Are absolute rancid dingo’s kidneys.

Probably missed out on the odd one. Or 1,760. I Will Survive? Yes, you danced around your handbag to it. But was it really empowering, as you remembered how you told your last lover to get lost? Or was it vice versa?

So the pride of place goes to the entirely blameless Peter Starstedt…

  1. Peter Starstedt: Where Do Go To (My Lovely?) Probably a nice guy. That combination of faux sophistication and dimwit reportage… “I remember the backstreets of Naples/Two children covered in rags…” Plus, extra points for that bit that goes, “Just for a laugh, Ha Ha Ha.”
  2. Charlene, I’ve Never Been To Me. “I’ve been undressed by kings, I’ve seen things that a woman is never meant to see.” The inside of a male toilet? More faux sophistication. (Dishonourable mention to Helen Reddy, I Am Woman, here.)
  3. Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. Actually, anything by Queen, save perhaps Killer Queen, which has a nice riff. Mercury was by all accounts a good guy, too, and generous with his money. No one who takes music seriously likes Queen, though.
  4. Bonnie Tyler.Total Eclipse Of The Heart. Does anyone have any idea what this woman is shrieking on about? (Dishonourable mention, that one about the woman who has just had sex for the first time. “All together in the afterglow…” “If only my first love could be my last.” Memory, thank Great Cthulhu, fails me on this one. Most people’s first experience of sex is really not worth thinking about, or writing a song about.Was that also Bonnie Tyler?) PS: Er no, Kiki Dee. Amoreuse? I literally cannot be bothered to check the spelling.
  5. The Rolling Stones. We Love You. Enough said. I used to be criticised in the 60s for preferring the Stones to the Beatles. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong. The most cynical track by a band that three decades later set new standards for money-grubbing cynicism.
  6. Starship. We Built This City. From the utopian free love, free dope, free music of Paul Kantner’s (RIP) Jefferson Airplane to stadium MOR sludge. A song often cited as one of the most irritating of all time. (Dishonourable mention, Marty Balin’s Caroline, from Jefferson Starship. “I had a taste of the real world/When I went down on you, girl.” Oh, fuck off. PS, actually this was Miracles, I am now reminded. Caroline is a marginally better song. Just about.)
  7. David Crosby. Almost Cut My Hair. Almost made a point about freedom, personal responsibility, etc. Instead, wrote rotten song. (Dishonourable mention Mind Gardens, from The Byrds, Younger Than Yesterday. A truly horrible noise, David. How did you go to this to, If I Could Only Remember My Name?
  8. Peter Tosh. Legalise It. “Legalise it. Don’t Criticise It…” Do you have anything else to say? Anything coherent?
  9. Bob Marley. Three Little Birds. Always hated this.Don’t know why. Stupid, stupid melody, damn fool lyrics. No one who was not of Marley’s stature – Exodus, No Woman, No Cry – could have got away with this.
  10. Bruce Springsteen. Downtown Train. “Now I work down at the car wash/Where all it ever does is rain…” Er, Bruce that is because you are standing under the car wash. Great songwriter, but even Homer nods.
  11. Have I missed anyone out?

On My Latest Short Story

I was working on this for several days before The Voice came through. In a taxi on the way to Rome airport. By the time I finished it we were in the clouds.

The Voice told me who it was about. I knew then that she was female, where she came from, and how she was about to die. “I was born on Mars in the year 2713,” she told me.

The themes, I suppose, are the usual ones for me. Alternate history, religion… Oh, and a dollop of Byzantine history.

It is only after you write something like this that you understand what it is about. The impossibility of living a moral life after the worst holocaust in history. Sorry, a bit dark, then. I will append some notes at the end on the technicalities of writing short fiction.



By Martin Waller


I was born on Mars in the year 2713.
Your year. We do not date our years from the birth of an obscure
prophet from a largely forgotten religion. We date our years from a
more significant event. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I can walk among you unseen and unknown. My clothes, the baggy dress you sport,
the trousers, the odd accoutrements, the belts, straps – they feel strange to
someone who cannot step outside her home without a face mask and a
full coldsuit.
In the year 2713 Mars is approximately half terraformed. We will be
able to walk unprotected  on the surface in about forty years. Our
years – shall we say one hundred of yours?
I will not see that, nor my children, or theirs. We live short lives,
because of… Once again I am getting ahead of myself.
I am astonished by two things, as I walk among you. The heat, plainly.
I was born 11 years ago, our years, in a tent city outside Vallis
Marineris. Step outside the tent and the temperature falls to about
the freezing point of water. How do you bear it? To exist in a
place that is at around the heat of your own blood?
We see things differently, then.
Let us now talk of the things that are not often spoken of. My great
grand-parents were from Greece, the place that was. On Mars, where you
come from is important, because there is no going back. My grandmother
would tell me of her homeland and her history, when I was a baby. She
died when I was in my first year, our years again. A good age, on
In the year 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romulus Diogenes decided to
attack the Seljuk Turks. The resulting disaster was so awful that the
Greeks always referred to the battle of Manzikert as The Terrible
Day. Likewise the event that places us where we are today. The Terrible Years.
And that second thing. The crowds. How do you bear it? Someone at your
side every second of the day, their breath in your face? All the time?
I step outside the tent and I am alone.
We grow food outside the tent. Gengineered chard, kale, pulses,
some corn. Martian food is largely vegetarian, heavy on spices. We eat
little meat.
You will see this. Unless I do the task which I am sent to do, in
which case you will not. Ever. I must hope so.
Death, my death, which I expect and will welcome, is not like true
death. No pain, no suffering. A sudden cessation of being. Where does
a flame go, when the flame goes out?
So I walk among you, looking for the place where I have to be. The
intersection of two people whose meeting must be prevented.
If I do this, billions of lives will be saved. Just cut that thread,
move that block, rearrange that chess piece and all changes. On this
timeline, at least.
This is what we do. We enter the portal and we go up to a place in
history where the least nudge, the smallest movement of history, that
chess piece on a different square, changes things utterly.
Byzantium does not fall. The Jesus shepherd does not die on the cross.
The thing we dare not talk about does not happen.
I cannot tell you where I am. But that businessman, in the grey
suit, must not meet that one, with the yellow and blue tie. With the
blond hair. (Our hair is never blond. Too small a gene pool.)
Their meeting will create a great business empire, which will lead to
the developing of… That clever device, the thing and that other thing that follows, und so
(Your languages are so strange. Why so many of them? On Mars we say, On
pesson di do sei, et voche copre. One person speaks this, and all understand.) So Grey Suit brushes by. It is the work of a moment to slip the spores into his pocket.
His meeting will take place, but later, at the hotel, he will become
feverish. The next meeting will not happen The empire will not be
born. On this timeline, no Terrible Years.
In your time, you would ignore the suffering of billions of your
fellow human beings but devote your efforts to alleviating the pain of
some randomly selected animals.
We do not have billions, just a few million scratching a living on a
cold, hard place.
We travel down the timelines changing this little event, this tiny
accident. And ensuring that on that timeline, the Terrible Years do
not take place.
Like the millions of those suffering creatures you cannot or will not
help, we can do nothing for those billions of other people across the
multiverse. We do what we can.
When I return to cold Mars, I will return to a future where I do not
exist. I will cease to be, like a soap bubble that bursts in the rain.
My alternates will continue, to walk the timelines and stop that
meeting, that event, that accident, that leads to the place where we
do not go, even in thought.That is what we do. And you do what, with your billions of

Notes: Writing short fiction,and in particular short science fiction, is an exercise in withholding information. You start with an intro. “Katie drives like a maniac.” “I always get the shakes before a drop.” Why? Who is Katie? What is a drop?

Then you slip in some details. Why are you walking among us? What do you want? A bit of colour – the food on Mars, say. Gradually you bring in the facts, the motivation. Then you know what you are writing about.

No dialogue here, because the central character is not engaging with those around her. What does she think of them, as she carries out her mission of mercy? There is a clue.

(There is a cheeky joke reference within this story. “We See Things Differently.” An utterly extraordinary story by Bruce Sterling, given when it was written. Nothing to do with the above.)


On Italy, And Hunky Priests

We have just returned from Rome, of which more anon. (I have found a cure for my obsessive fear of flying, which is to write throughout the process. Will get around to posting my latest short story in due course.]

I am reminded, though. of one oddity of this Catholic nation. In bookshops and on street booths you can buy calendars. Cats of Rome, with little kitties pictured on the Forum. Views of the sights of this great city. Or of hunky priests.

I recall these now, from earlier visits. Each month there is a new one in the calendar. February’s is Federico, say, who smoulders out of the picture, all dark good looks and four o’clock shadow. And his grey robes and dog collar.

Then March, and Umberto, ditto, smouldering good looks and four o’clock shadow. And dog collar. Priestly pin-up of the month. There is just one problem with this picture, is there not? He’s a priest. He’s not actually on the market, shall we say? By definition.

Still, women, I assume, must buy these and enjoy looking. Good for them. Actually, priestly abstinence is a relatively late development in Catholicism, and of little scriptural relevance.

Odd thing, religion. No offence intended.