Nicholas Fisk

Posted in Quick Read · Jan. 24, 2017, 11:23 a.m. · 255 words

There's a strange repeating process I've noticed on social media over the past several years, which is that every few months British people of my generation will be talking about their favourite childhood books and suddenly everyone will remember that Nicholas Fisk existed.

People may have forgotten Fisk's name but they remember his stories. 25 years ago his novels were in the children's section of seemingly every library in the UK. Librarians must have loved him. He wrote sf and fantasy and horror for what would probably now be called middle-grade readers; his books were often unsettling and they left an indelible mark. There was Grinny, a sort of sinister flip-side to Mary Poppins. Monster Maker, a fantasy-horror story set in a special-effects studio, which was adapted for television by Jim Henson.

And Time Trap, an odd, troubling book about gang violence and an antiseptic future and time travel and the Blitz: a book I didn't read so much as worry at, the way a dog worries at a bone. I would borrow it from the library every few weeks and try to decide if I liked it. (Last year I happened to notice that my local library had a copy, so I borrowed it again. I'm still trying to make up my mind about it.)

Fisk died last year at the age of 92, after a long retirement. I only ever knew him through his books, and I regret never getting the chance to meet him. I hope he knew how much he mattered.

Deciphering America

Posted in Quick Read · Nov. 9, 2016, 3:55 p.m. · 547 words

I had some business at an Ottawa customs office a few days ago, and the four staff working the front desk lived up to everyone's worst stereotype about Canadians. They were helpful, polite and competent and I was in and out of the office in fifteen minutes. But while I was waiting one of them mentioned that day's news, which was that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. "They're both unfit," he said. "Both unfit to serve." And the others agreed.

That's when I should have known.

Because unless you were in communication with some serious pro-Clinton activists, or decided to basically do a research project on the media coverage of the election, that was the reasonable conclusion to reach from listening to the background noise of the past 18 months. Just about everything she did raised questions, right? Meanwhile Donald Trump's every statement had about the same relationship to the truth as the babblings of a child, and that somehow never became the story. He could have claimed that he personally single-handedly invented the internet and it was the best internet, listen, just the greatest internet you've ever seen and the same people who were writing about Al Gore in 2000 as if he was a pathological liar wouldn't even have blinked.

Here's one reason it was so hard to write about Trump. During the campaign when he threatened to jail his opponent people around the world were shocked and appalled but now it's the day after the election and Trump won and I don't expect him to institute criminal proceedings against Hillary Clinton once he's sworn in. It was just an applause line he threw out to get a response from his base, and many of the people who ended up voting for him knew that. In fact he said so many outrageous things while he was on the stump that every one of his supporters has had to choose which of them to believe or dismiss, assembling their own personal Trump out of a Rorschach blot of pronouncements about NAFTA and sexual assault and border walls and defeating ISIS and on and on and on.

I spent a lot of today looking at Twitter trying to find answers but first of all since people only have 140 characters there is a tendency to settle on a single cause for President Trump rather than try to bring in misogyny and racism and tacit acquiescence to racism and media malpractice and backlash against neoliberalism and Russian involvement and FBI interference and Democrats who wanted Bernie and Republicans who would have enthusiastically voted for Charles Manson over another Clinton in the Oval Office and all the other things.

And second, the key thing is not what progressives are saying today but what they're saying and doing a month or a year from today.

What did I learn from this election? Well, if you're solicitous of white voters, a majority of them will let you get away with just about anything. And if that isn't addressed it leads to catastrophe. I don't know how many wife beaters and KKK members you can get to realise the error of their ways but I have to believe there's hope for at least some of the rest.

Grandad worked the railroads

Posted in Quick Read · Nov. 10, 2014, 6:20 p.m. · 317 words

I don't remember ever seeing my grandfather ride a bike. He was a stocky man, diabetic, and not given to feats of strenuous physical activity, but if I remember my childhood accurately he spent half his retirement years sitting in his workshop with the inner tube from my bicycle in a bucket of water, finding punctures.

Maybe the earliest memory I have of my dad is of him standing on a chair in our kitchen, business end of a screwdriver in the light fixture, being showered with sparks because of some unexpected quirk of the house wiring system.

My Grampa had been a railwayman, a joiner. My dad was a professional computer programmer, but all the same he had a garage full of screws and drills and saws and spanners. From these patrilineal examples I got the idea that when I was grown up I would have practical skills and know how to fix things and might possibly spend my adult weekends tinkering with the engine of a run-down Triumph Coupe kept half-assembled in the garage.

None of this happened, to the point that when the car had a flat tyre last night we called out the recovery service rather than change it myself and risk the spare coming flying off at 60mph halfway down the M74. But I'm not completely without skills. When I decided to start blogging again I spent a few days writing my own blogging web app rather than use anything off the shelf. And I wrote it in a kind of Lisp, which has been around for decades and for most of its existence has been regarded as stylish but impractical, kind of the classic car of programming languages.

So having spent the weekend tinkering with my Triumph, I can now indulge in the modern equivalent of sticking an implement into the light fixture and getting a face full of sparks. Hello.