Wednesday, 4 July 2012


I was watching James Burke's Connections series, the original one, recently. It's fascinating, the way he stands back from things to get a better look at how actions and reactions shape the modern world.

I thought back on this during the final of the European Championship. Spain thumped the bloody Azzurri 4-0. They were just too damned good, being the best team on the planet, and there might even be a post mortem roundtable on that in due time if we can get the collaborators together.

But for all their mighty passing, and the heres and whys of the interminable debate on the aesthetic nature of said passing, the fact remains: history is made by seconds and moments, and the men who stand up then. Take the last group game, as an example. Ten minutes to go, and it is goalless between Croatia and Spain. As it stands, this, coupled with a victory for Italy, will take Spain and Italy through on the narrowest of margins. Rakitic is through, and should score, but tamely hits his shot. Spain escape, and soon after score the only goal of the game. Had Rakitic scored, everything after that point changed. Perhaps Spain would have upped gears and scored two, or the one necessary to qualify with Croatia on a mere 2-0 win for Italy elsewhere.

But, since we can't go on infinite possibilities, let's take it as it could have been. Rakitic scores. 1-0 Croatia. Where does that leave us? With Croatia top of the group, Italy second, and Spain, world champions, contemplating what it would be like to win a final 4-0 from their slumbers in Andalusia. Croatia/France happens, and surely the French do not go out quite so timidly, hell, they might even win. A Semi v Portugal wasn't unwinnable either, and suddenly their fortunes changed. Italy would have gotten through, and not had the prospect of the World Champions in the final once England and Germany were disposed of. Teams without the fear of facing the unbeatable might have played more openly in the Knockouts but let's not suppose too much! Rakitic scores, all the broken records we saw remain intact. And that's just the tipping point, what we can see immediately in front of us.

Let's see how things are, twenty years hence, when we look back and wonder how different it would all have been, had Rakitic scored.

It's not a question purely of sport. Think of the single worst moment in the 20th Century for a driver to take a wrong turn. But for that wrong turn, the world might not have heard of young Gravilo Princip. He shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. You might have heard of him. Princip was part of a gang which, up to that precise turn of fate, had been very successfully failing to assassinate the Archduke that June morning.

But what if the driver had taken the right turn. Well, Gravilo never gets his chance. His organisation miss five out of five chances to take their man out. Ferdinands retort to one - a bomb in his career thrown away with a "is this how you treat your guests?" - would have gone down in history as's number 1 in their Greatest Ballsiests Retorts of All Time Not Said By Teddy Roosevelt.

Then Franz becomes leader of the various parts of the Austrio-Hungary empire. Poor old Otto of Habsburg gets to have a nice life, and one day might even be a King in his own right. By the time he was shot, Franz Ferdinand was in his early 50s. His uncle, the Emperor, lived to be 76. None of Ferdinand's children could be heir to the throne, as the Emperor was not a fan of his heirs wife, Sophie, who was merely a countess and thus below their station. So the marriage was declared morgonatic and the children left heirless. So, give it till the 1930s or so, and Otto gets his shot. And given he only died in 2011, he gets to be a long lived associate of our Monarchy.

This would be allowed as without the wrong street, their is no assassination, and without the assassination we don't see the build up to the First World War. (Or the second if you follow Winston Churchill and believe that the Seven Years War was the real First World War) A lack of dead heirs gives the Austria a lack of reason to pick at their Serbian neighbours. That fight lacking prevents Russia having a subtext to rush in on, fearful of their inability to protect their allies in the wake of the crushing Russo-Japan defeat. It prevents Germany rushing in on Austria's side, the French on the Russian's and us on the French's once the Germans entered Belgium in their splendid effort to bugger up the Schlieffen Plan.

Then we'd see no fall of the Tsar precipated by a World War. The war that ended the crowned monarchs of Europe would fail to do so. So the Russian Revolution doesn't happen, which substantially changes European history. The technological break throughs as a result of the war fail to happen.

Most crucially, there isn't a Second. Without the wrong turn, no assassination, no pretext for war, no war, no  crushing Versailles, no psychological effect of defeat allowing a national pysche to turn to the right. And no Hitler. Well, his greatest awakenings and opportunities arose from the fall of Kaiserian Germany. Without, perhaps he is just a footnote, if even that. A failed artist.

There would be no American superpower, as that was based on a resurgence from the First World War. Worse, if the Depression happens anyway, and we had tycoons and stock retails before the War, then the results are more damaging: it took the Second World War to really get the economy going again, not the New Deal. Nothing makes an economy boom like war. Just ask Tony Blair.

Of course, this one ripple changes so much, and is a century old, that one might suspect even speculating is to take things too far. And they would be right. If history has shown one thing, its that things are often repeated. Those who know history are doomed to watch fools repeat it.

A fine woman, Helen Reid, once told me never to use the word inevitable, as it is the last domain of the foolish historian. So I wont.

Let me state though, that the perilous weapons building race of the 1910s between the Germans and the British would have had some tipping point had the Archduke's driver not got lost looking for that big palace thing up ahead. With the interlaced alliances, and households, of diplomacy at that time, any powder keg could send the whole thing up. Had one teenage anarchist with a gun not gotten lucky, another somewhere would. If not that, then a snotty diplomatic envoy taken the wrong way, or a man claiming his ear got cut off. We'd have found some reason.

Three weeks from today, we pass Harry Patch's anniversary. He's not a man who would want to be remembered, for he survived. He was just one of many. But we should remember him. And here's why. He got to be on the news a lot in his later years, and we all remember his forceful personality, his way with words, and the popularity of this wonderful man. Men like him, Bill Stone and Henry Allingham. Or Howard Ramsay, the American vet who announced in 2006 he could "understand many things but not why people would pay two dollars to buy a Starbucks!"  And there was 10 million Harry Patches killed in the First World War. That's why he is remembered, and should be. He's a human reminder in our own lifetimes of the wide-scale carnage.

My family was marked by war on both sides. On my mums, we lost most of the men of a certain age to the First World War, including my Great Grans younger brother, a secret buried until her own death in 1996.

As for George Collins Sr, well, he got left for dead in the middle of a battle, which happened to be the Somme. Oh dear. Then a stroke of luck, a man heard his call. A German. Instead of renacting a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, the two tried to communicate with each other, and wound up being enable to fix up the others injury. Then came a search party, so the German had to scarper, lest he be treated like the Good Samaritan Martian in that episode of UFO. Before he went, they both exchanged medals though. Which is why a Kaserian German war medal is in our families possession somewhere.

Now, as a result of that good Samaritan, George Snr outlived the First World War. He lived another thirty years in fact. He had six children, five of whom survived into adult hood, and used the horrors of the trenches to preach pacifism to everyone he knew, including his old pal and neighbour, Jimmy Maxton. When his eldest son, Richard, refused to serve in the Second World War as a conscientious objector, he was sent to jail for cowardice, and Maxton wrote letters to get him out again. When George Snr died in 1947, Richard fought for and got his mum and several others of her generation war widows pensions: George Snr having died young as a result of wounds from that incident in the First World War.

George Jr was 13 then. In the 1950s, after nearly causing one or two international incidents in Singapore, which you can read about elsewhere, he met and married Ellie, my dad's mum. Then came Dad, who later met and married my Mum. And in no time at all, the writer of this blog was about. And my sister.

So can single twists of fate change history for good? It's hard to tell with the Princip case, as the ramifications   from that point on become too massive to comprehend within the realms of a simple bog.

If one German who thought better of his fellow men, regardless of which side they were on in a War, had not shown up right at that time though? Well, the world would have missed out on a Stroke care expert, a horse rescue centre in Ireland, various nurses, teachers, political campaigners and community organizers. And a certain writer of two bob horror tales.

If he hadn't shown up, you'd be asking Mandy abut these things. Because I wouldn't exist to be writing this blog.

The ramifications of that chance meeting not happening are mind boggling too. Even the smallest decisions ripple outwards into tsunamis.

So Rakitic's miss, while it hurt him in the short term, will continue to ripple outwards. To what extent, we can't tell yet.

But one day the Connections will be made. And we'll think once more how interestingly balanced all of history is.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Green Children Are Go

Note for the readers - as well renowned as a rambling man that I am, it would be remiss not to mention the review of this book which can be read at Mandy's website: Ghostly Aspects!

"Duncan is convinced tonight will go down in history, from some of the ideas that got bandied about. And this man, a man of multiple books, editorships and over 50 years experience, has instincts second to none. So if he thinks so, I trust him. Even if I'm not sure how. But then, who likes knowing the future in advance."

Me in 2008. I can date the year because in the same article, I referenced Edwin Morgans then recent 88th birthday.

I finished the first draft of Vamp in 2009. Sooner than later, I am meeting with a lovely young proofreader named Kate who is going to smooth out some of my errors to make it presentable to other people. In a few centuries, it might even be publishable.


This is small potatoes. It took Tolkien around sixteen year to finish Lord of the Rings. And a lifetime for Chaucer to get a quarter of the way through the Canterbury Tales. The long game of writing is one that needs patience, perseverance and a nature of a foisonous sort.

foisonous: something which is full of life. See, Alan Coren might be dead, but his ability to improve ones vocabulary lives on...

This brings me to Duncan Lunan: friend, mentor and writer. For all the time I've known him, and Mandy too (for she has known him twice as long as I have), he has had a book on his hands. Well, several, actually, but one specifically. A history/Fortean study of The Green Children, a lesser known phenomena from the 12th Century England. It had been sitting, waiting patiently for a home, among his plethora of manuscripts collected, published and collated over a writing career that has spanned over forty years.

And a prolific career at that. I have a copy of his writing CV (a list of credits) dating from 2006, which stretches to 27 pages!

For nearly nineteen years, The Green Children sat, a book in search of a publication date.

Duncan Lunan: writer, astronomer, lecturer, racounteur, scientist, public speaker, and possible polymath. Heh.

People in Woolpit were as helpful as they could be, but they kept saying, “You’d have to go to the County Records Office for that.” So I went to Bury St. Edmunds, joined the County Archive Research Network, and five hours later, exhausted, starving and dehydrated, I reeled out with the conviction that I was on to a best seller. The answers to the questions were there, and the deeper I went into it from then on, the more fascinating the story became. 

Duncan in 2010.

It had even reached a sort of semi-mythical quality, until I finally bit the bullet one day and asked Duncan about this book people mentioned. The subject matter is not one I have a formed opinion on either way - it sits roughly five hundred years before my history knowledge starts! - but I respect a care bordering on the forensic to put forward a theory which has seen Duncan travel the length of the country to hunt down clues.

Then, last year, things suddenly moved forward. Well, first I should point out the arrival on the scene of Duncan's wife, Linda, who is as lovely a lady as you'd like to meet, but also a first rate champion of her husbands career. The two of them make a team which is hard to beat.

So, yes, last year. And out of the blue, we hear that The Green Children may have found a publisher. It was Mark Harding's fault really. At the launch for his music anthology (where you can find work from Neil Williamson, Vincent Lauzon and Jim Steel), Duncan met the man who would become his publisher, Sean.

The contract discussions went very well, largely, I hear, because Duncan didn't realise they were contract discussions till the deal was practically sealed!  And so the book was published this May.

I was right not to stop believing in it. I feel that way about the Green Children book at the moment: it’s hard to sell because it combines speculation with serious historical research, but I think it will go well when it does find a sympathetic publisher. 

Duncan in 2010

There were a few moments in the way still, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the most tragic: the death of one of Duncan's oldest friends and most long term champion, John Braithwaite, this past February. Like my grandfathers at our wedding, he was missing from the final furlongs of the publication chase, but as Duncan himself said, he and the similarly late and lamented Chris Boyce were both there in spirit, and no doubt cheering on their peer.

"Put it this way - if it's not Contact with Other Intelligence, you've got the political thriller of all time." 
John Braithwaite

The 13th Note was host to the book launch. I'd never been at a book launch before. Actually, that's a lie. I was briefly at the launch for Hal Duncan's Ink, for about five minutes with a massive migraine, before Neil Williamson took one look at me and almost ordered me home! Which was a while ago: a university degree, breakdown, marriage and three flats ago even! Long enough for me to forget the jist of them. (Yes, I was wary of a third sentence ending with an exclamation mark there too. Phew!     Oh damn.)

It was also an unexpectedly eventful night for me, as it was my first out of the house in a month, due to asthmatic reasons and other medical ones you can find elsewhere on the blog. As such, the natural element of doing things was a wee bit knackering. But so it goes.  I got a friendly reaction from most of the writers, some of whom I hadn't seen in years. Most of them went:

"My god, Michael, you're not dead!"

Neil Williamson, stunned to see yours truly out and about. Mandy, even more stunned to see me laughing at something. Me, as stunned someone left a seat free, which I was about to dive into. I think we were discussing the Euros, Neil being possibly the only writer I know who loves football more than I do.

I know, it even surprised myself. But the good thing about a get together is the amount of people who are together. So there was hellos to Marco Piva (an Italian translator) and his wife; Chris O'Kane, astronomer extraordinaire; and many others. Jim Steel even popped in briefly, but couldn't chat for reasons of having kids that needed looked after. Then there was Neil, who I hadn't seen since my wedding (that'll be the Michael S Collins method to being a great pal there), Gary Gibson and his wife Emma also. Apparently Gary was in fine form at a recent Q&A on the rather hackle raising subject of "Is Genre Fiction Necessary?" or words to that effect, which Neil was on the panel for. And Bloody Hal Duncan! I hadn't seen him in... something scarily near four or five years. He hasn't changed a bit. He had us in stitches explaining an idea he was writing which, in the best way to put it, was a pure 100% Hal Duncan story. Watch that space, so to speak.

The star of the night was Duncan, however. And his book. The star wasn't the sound system at the 13th Note, which was non existent, so Duncan had to speak sans microphone. He could be heard by little ol' deaf me, but the acoustics in the place aren't the best even with a mic at times. Unless, of course, you are Phil Raines, and you can project your voice to Mars if need be. Another fine writer, Phil.

The sound I believe curtailed lengthy readings of the text which sold the night, but the book was soon sold out anyhow. Fifty copies bought within a few hours, a success by any definitions.

Duncan and his editor Sean.

I don't like to dish out praise like candy at an American Hallowe'en. It needs to be earned, not frivolous. So take my view for what its worth, that of all the people I know, and there are many hundred writers in that category, that few are as deserving for this success as Duncan is. I know of few writers as willing to help others writers, be they successful authors or wannabe newbies, who keeps a word schedule to make the hardest academic wince even at an age many would be calling it quits.

I said to Duncan once, years ago, that if he lived to 95, he could have two renaissances in that time period. With this book, another on the cards, and other exciting projects I can't speak on here on the horizon, he's officially Mr Renaissance. Which is lovely.

If this new found success will finally get Wikipedia to change his Home town though, is another matter. The interview I did with Duncan last year at Winterwind - now incredibly out of date in places - has been cited on Wikipedia, and discussed in the talk section as evidence of an "atrocious source". I'm so proud.

But not as half as proud as I am of Duncan. Here's to a success more than earned.

And here's to the next fifty!

You can find more at Duncan's website here.