Friday, December 30, 2011


This is one of the BBC’s Twelve Female Faces of the Year.

Yes, it’s a panda. Cute. Furry. And I am sure, at heart, a very nice panda.


It’s a panda.

Among the other eleven chosen, one was the woman who designed Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, while two other women - Charlene Wittstock and the Duchess of Alba - were just famous for marrying someone else.

The BBC also included the female Marine who went on YouTube asking Justin Timberlake for a date.  

Now I know these lists aren’t meant to be taken seriously. But the BBC has a huge platform; it could be a thought leader. Or does the UK’s largest independent news broadcaster just think of itself as, you know, a bit of a giggle?

Can I suggest some alternatives?

photograph: Harry Wad

Why not include the face of one of the three women who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year? There's Leymah Gbowee who, having worked in a trauma centre with the child soldiers of Charles Taylor’s army, became the spokeswoman for a women’s action group credited with bringing about the Accra Peace Accord that brought the appalling war in Liberia to an end.

(read more about this remarkable young woman here )

Or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female president; or Tawaakul Karman, the youngest ever peace prize winner and the first Arab woman to win the prize. She heads the group Women Journalists Without Chains that fights for women's rights in Yemen. She has survived at least one assassination attempt.

But no, I suppose, sitting around eating bamboo shoots is far more important.

Instead of a celebrity dress designer they could have picked Samira Ibrahim, a 25 year old marketing manager who was one of seven women subjected to a so-called ‘virginity test’ after she was arrested for demonstrating against the government. These 'tests' were carried out by male army officers to protect the Egyptian military from accusations of rape - by proving that the women weren’t virgins in the first place. It is a proposition that is at once ludicrous, brutal and insulting (can only virgins be raped?) 

She took the matter to court and won. Can you imagine the guts that took? In Egypt.

To protect myself against accusations of being ageist against the Duchess of Alba, (85), how about Hetty Bower instead? She's 106 and still campaigning for peace. One of the founding members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament fifty five years ago, she still marches, and recently spoke out against ­hospital ­closures and cuts in services for ­disabled people. 'As long as my legs can take me I will be participating in ­anti-war activity.'

I suppose these issues are all black and white for her. But for the BBC that's not good enough - you have to be black and white - and furry as well.

How about Christine Schuler-DeSchryver, who runs the City of Joy, a centre for rape survivors in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 'rape capital of the world'. She set up the centre with activist and playwright Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. 

At least half a million women have been raped in the DRC since 1998, and in particularly brutal ways. One rape survivor said this: "Eve asked us what we wanted ... and  we said: shelter. A roof. A place where we can be safe. And a place where we can be powerful. That's what we now have."

If you have a strong stomach read more about this extraordinary woman and the City of Joy here

Instead of staring at the photograph of a woman who married the Prince of Monaco, couldn’t we rather look at a picture of  Shaima Jastaina from Saudi Arabia, the only country where women are not allowed to drive? This prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300-$400 (£190-£255) a month for a driver must rely on male relatives.

Shaima started driving as a protest against this law; she was caught behind the wheel of a car in Jeddah in July and sentenced to 10 lashes of the whip.

So there’s my nominations for the list. No endangered wildlife there - just endangered people. 

Am I taking this too seriously - or should we expect more thought leadership from our media?

Or is that idea just too quixotic in the age of the celebrity and the spin doctor?

Thursday, December 29, 2011


My poor mother’s memory is going. She’s lived a good many years but these days it’s down to others to remember what she did and didn’t do in her life. Physically she's fine; she was still playing table tennis at 90. She could remember the score but she couldn’t remember my dad’s name or when he died.

It’s very sad, because when I was a kid she was the great story teller in our family, the one who kept our tribe's history alive.

In fact, by the time I was five I felt I had lived my mother’s life. I knew about my grandfather selling his window cleaning business for three pints of beer; about why my Uncle Will was deaf in one ear (my grandfather beat him with the buckle end of his belt when he was eight); about my grandmother being sent off to cook and clean for her uncle and his entire family when her aunt died.

When she was nine.

I didn’t need the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. But stark as these stories were, the little version of me found them fascinating. At six I could have told you exactly what it was like to live in the East End of London before the war.

By contrast I knew nothing about my father’s side; he was one of the most taciturn men I have ever met. I longed to know his stories but his focus was on forgetting. I suspect this had something to do with Adolf Hitler and his part in his downfall.

There was a popular TV show on NBC this year: Who Do You Think You Are? Celebrities like Lisa Kudrow and Steve Buscemi and Brooke Shields went looking into their past, aided by the resources of the TV company. They uncovered things they never expected.

Do you think you know enough about your family?

I know I would like to start shinning up the family tree this year, find out a bit more about what's up there. As an historical novelist I obviously think history is important, but not just the Battle of Gettysburg or the Renaissance. Every family history is important and to each one of us. History makes nations what they are; it makes us, as individuals, what we are.

But these Stories of Us disappear if no one writes them down.

I did a creative writing workshop recently and one of the students apologized because they were there just to ‘write a memoir. I don’t want it to publish it or anything.’ But I think this is such a great thing to do. Writing is not just about getting published by the big 6.

My partner’s mother has just written a book. She had a truly extraordinary love story with Diana’s father, and so she wrote it down and published it - not online, where anyone can read it, and not for the glory; she made fifty print copies, in her native Italian, for family only, so the story would survive.

Understanding the effect of family history on its members is just as important as preserving it. One example; in my mother's stories, all the good men in my family were quiet and reserved; all the bastards were attractive and outgoing. I cheered for the heroes, of course, but inside I wanted to be just a little bit like the villains. But it seemed to the little me that there was only a choice in life between being reserved and 'good' - or charismatic and an alcoholic wife beater.

I have never been alcoholic or violent, but I struggled for a long time to be a good man while also living my life in a more adventurous way. For a long time I was never quite at home in my own skin. The only way I can sometimes explain those feelings of duality are in terms of my mother’s stories. 

But family history is as often beautiful as it is shameful or sad. When my father was dying, he could not talk; a stroke had taken away his power of speech. So when my mother and father came to say goodbye after fifty six years of marriage they had to write their farewells on paper. They passed the piece of paper back and forward between them for an hour. In the end there were pages and pages of the most blistering, heartfelt stuff you could imagine, reaffirming what they meant to each other.

After the funeral I asked my mother where those goodbye notes were. ‘Oh, I burned them,’ she said.  ‘They just made me sad.’


My brother and I are still devastated by the loss of that last amazing document. It would have been ... priceless. 

What do you think of family histories? Some families keep their secrets. How much will your kids know - and how much do you want them to know?

Is it best forgotten - or did knowing more about your family history make life in some way better - or harder - for you?

Monday, December 26, 2011


The world is supposed to end in 2012 which gives me a problem. Should I wish you a happy new year?

This year's Doomsday prediction is based on the Mayan calendar, which ends December 21 or 23, 2012 (depending on which scholar you talk to.)

Now lookit; the Mayans had three calendars, all much more complicated than the Pirelli calendar hanging in my shed. One followed the sun cycle, the second was used for crop rotation and the third counted the Great Cycle of 1,872,000 days, or about 5000 years. And yes, this year the Great Cycle ends.

But even the Mayans do not believe the world will end when the Great Cycle finishes. They believe that they will flip it over, look at the new picture, read the thought for the epoch, and start again.

Besides, the Mayans were not a lost master race; they did not have the wheel, the arch, the plough or domesticated animals, and they were constantly warring with each other. 

If they could see the end of our world why did they not see the end of theirs, in 900AD - or the Spanish invasion in the 16th?

The end of the world, in fact, has a very long history. Remember Y2K? The whole banking and communications system was supposed to come to a standstill. All that happened was that someone in Des Moines got his credit card stuck in an ATM. 

But that was nothing compared to Y1K. On the eve of the first millennium Christian armies across Europe waged holy wars on pagan countries so everyone could die as Christians when the end came. There was a legend that an emperor would rise from his sleep to fight the antichrist - so they dug up Charlemagne. Unfortunately he just lay there.

In many places, people gave all they had to the church.The church did not give back these gifts when the Lord did not eventually appear.

But fears about the end of the world go back even a lot longer than that. An Assyrian clay tablet dated to around three thousand years before Christ - about the time the Mayans were predicting the last apocalypse, in fact - bore the words "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."

Thank God bribery and corruption is behind us anyway.

So there's nothing new under the sun, (which is every historian's mantra.) Belief in the imminence of Doomsday was rife in Biblical times. In fact, it was the backstory to the modern Gospels.

In 90CE Saint Clement 1 predicted the world was about to end imminently. There were other close calls in 365, 500 and 968 predicted by church figures, including one anti pope. In 992 there were reports from Germany on a Good Friday that 3 suns and 3 moons were fighting. (But German beer is quite strong.)

Other near things: 
1033 (the one thousand year anniversary of Christ's death), 
1306, (alignment of planets - via John of Toledo) 
1284 (666 plus year Islam was founded - via Pope Innocent III.) 
1524 (world destroyed by flood in London - one of the driest years on record) 
1553 (via Melchior Hoffman, founder of the Anabaptists)

The Black Death was seen as an obvious prelude to the end. The population of Europe was decimated. It was apocalyptic - but the world survived.

The Old Believers in Russia believed that the end of the world would occur in 1669. Twenty thousand burned themselves to death to protect themselves from the Antichrist.

More predictions; 1736 (British theologian and mathematician William Whitson) 1783 (following an Icelandic earthquake that caused poisonous clouds to blanket much of Europe), 1792, 1794; on October 22, 1844, the Millerites enthusiastically expected Jesus' return in an event now poignantly called "The Great Disappointment." Afterwards, many followers wished they had not sold their possessions and quit their jobs.

            Then there's the predictions of the Watchtower Society. One of their number, Nelson Barbour, said that Jesus would return in 1874. After his followers camped out to wait and ended up seeing nothing, Barbour said he had come back but he was invisible. More forecasts followed: 1878, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, 1932, 1941, 1975, 1994. 

In 1806, there was the Prophet Hen. It began laying eggs in the English village of Leeds with the words “Christ is Coming” on them. The town went into panic. Then it was discovered a local prankster had been writing the words on the eggs in corrosive ink, then reinserting them into the hen. Ewww.

            When the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in 1997, there was a rumour that an alien spacecraft bent on destroying Earth was trailing it. 39 of the San Diego-based UFO religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate committed ritual suicide over the course of three days while wearing identical Nike sneakers and arm bands that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
            A former NASA engineer wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is in 1988 from his own calculations drawn from the Bible. “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” It's still listed on Amazon.

It sold four and a half million copies. You can see it here: Why the Rapture is in 1988 

Last year the end was prophesied on 21 May by Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping. Camping convinced thousands of his followers that those not carrying signs or wearing neon-yellow shirts would meet their maker. 

Someone in New York poured his life savings into ads for Camping’s campaign.

I am sure, one day, the earth will become a red giant and consume the earth. I just don't think it will be next year. But if I'm wrong ... remember you heard it first!

And if the end is nigh you have only 360 days to read 'HAREM.' If you'd like a giveaway, send me your prediction for the end of the world with your email address and the type of reader you have to colin underscore falconer underscore author at hotmail dot com and I'll send you one!


Until next time - if there is one - Happy New Apocalypse!

Friday, December 23, 2011


There was a lot of Christmas stories around this week. I guess that was because it's nearly Christmas!

My favourite was at Auguste McLaughlin's blog where she fessed up about stealing Jesus when she was a teenager - and the little Christmas miracle that followed. Wonderful. You can read about how this abject sinner found redemption right here.

But just being religious doesn't mean you're necessarily good. I found this over at Lynette Burrows blog; two churches going to war over whether dogs have souls or not. 

This intense theological debate takes place on the signboards outside. See for yourself:

Personally I think dogs do have souls. In fact, I think they're actually in charge. After all, you don't see them picking up our poo after us and putting it in plastic bags, do you?

So thanks for finding that one Lynette. See her blog right here.

Carol wrote in a comment about my car insurance blog, (DRIVING INTO A COAL SACK), telling me that she found it hard to read in the office because she was laughing so hard. What would have happened if Carol had let the giggles out? Perhaps something like this, as reported on the news this week:

This apparently happened on a subway train in Berlin. Laughter, like yawning, seems to be naturally infectious, and if you watch these two babies going at it, you'll see what I mean.

Thanks to Kellianne Sweeney at her blog right here, for sharing that one with us.

Can you imagine life without Facebook, Twitter or a Smartphone? Scarily enough, neither can I any more. And I think this graphic at socialmedia says it all:

And here's something I can't get my head around. In the news this week: the big new thing in Indonesia - CHEESE TIM TAMS. Apparently they love them. Really? But then last time I was in New York I couldn't even bring myself to try an Oreos Pizza so maybe it's just me.

And then there was this interesting bit of research - SPOILERS DON'T SPOIL ANYTHING - that claims that we like stories better when we know the ending. Really? If someone had told me the ending of Sixth Sense I don't think I would have been too happy. 

But then again ... I will admit I'm one of those weird people who actually enjoyed 'Silence of the Lambs' more the second time round.
What do you think?

I'd like to leave you with the funniest video I've seen all week. Here's two Scottish guys trying to work a voice recognition elevator. It had me rolling on the floor.

I hope you enjoyed that. I also hope you all have a fantastic, safe and peaceful Christmas break. And whatever you do, don't steal your family's baby Jesus!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Life isn't always roses. There have been times for me, as I am sure there have for you, when everything seemed just too hard.

I have lost those I did not think I could live without; and there was a time when I was so burdened by a sense of guilt that I could barely function. 

There were other moments when I have clung to that one last long shot that would bring about financial reprieve; then that fell over too. I have known acute failure, as most writers do. There have been times I looked in the shaving mirror and muttered: 'You suck.'

But this is nowhere near as bad as it gets. I have two friends right now struggling with situations that are as close to a waking nightmare as you could possibly imagine. I just don't know how they drag themselves out of bed every day.

Some people don't, of course. There are other options and, sadly, they take them.

Whenever I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, or I feel like giving up, I take a look at this guy:

Nick was born with Tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder that left him without all four limbs. He does however have two toes and a foot - he calls it his flipper.  

As a child he was prevented from enrolling at a mainstream school because of his disability. When he was finally allowed entrance he was very badly bullied and struggled with loneliness and depression. Who wouldn't? He says that at 8 he contemplated suicide. At 10 he tried to drown himself in his bath. 

But one day his mother showed him a newspaper article about someone else who had overcome a severe disability and he realized he wasn't alone in his struggle. 

Inspired, he learned to write using his only toes and even used to learn a computer keyboard. He then taught himself to get a glass of water, comb his hair, brush his teeth and shave.

By grade seven (11 years old) he was elected captain of the school.

At 17 he started his own non-profit organization, Life Without Limbs. At 21 he graduated with a double major in accounting and financial planning. 

He now runs a new organization in California called Attitude is Altitude. He presents motivational speeches like the one above, to corporations, church congregations and schools right around the world. 

His mission: to encourage people never to give up, by being a living example that struggle leads to strength. He markets a DVD for young people titled: No Arms, No Legs, No Worries.
As you see from the video he also has a wicked sense of humour. ("This boy came up to me and goes 'WHAT HAPPENED!?' I go, 'CIGARETTES!' ")

He likes to embrace his audience physically as well as emotionally, as you can also see in the video  ("If you leave here without a hug, I'm going to run after you. And if you run fast, I'm gonna get someone to throw me at you.")

If you fall over a hundred times, and you fail, the important thing is trying one more time. I like to remember that now whenever things in my well favoured life get a little tough. If he can do it, so can I.

And I hope you, too, find some measure of inspiration in the life of Steve Vujitic.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Here's a glimpse of the good old days - the Middle Ages. If the Spanish Inquisition didn't get you, the plague probably would.

Of course as highlighted in Friday's mash up, you can still get executed for being a witch in Saudi Arabia and Dutch scientists have isolated a strain of the bird flu that can jump from birds to humans so we're not out of the woods just yet.

So I think we can learn a lot by looking at the past - and one of the things I continually plug is the fact that history is not only relevant it's a lot of fun. I have the fanaticism of a convert I suppose because I hated history at school. I wish they'd taught it to me this way:

I hope that was helpful. In fact, the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II, which had some synchronicity, because as you've seen it was established during the reign of Isabella I three hundred and fifty years before.

I suppose you could say is that it was a very extreme response to multi-culturalism. Iberia had been dominated by the Moors for five hundred years until the Reconquista of the thirteenth century; and the Spanish Jews had actually thrived under their reign. Now both Moors and Jews lived under Spanish rule and were barely tolerated.

It was Alonso de Hojeida, a Dominican friar from Seville, who poisoned Queen Isabel against the Jewish population. They had been required to adopt the Christian faith but he said they were only pretending. King Ferdinand appointed Torquemada to enforce orthodoxy and he set to work with a rack and a box of matches.

Like the East German Stasi he had the people spy on each other. You could be turned in for the absence of chimney smoke on Saturdays (possibly a sign the family might secretly be honoring the Jewish Sabbath) or buying too many vegetables (possibly stocking up for Passover.) 

But orthodoxy is like chocolate peanut butter ice cream; get a little and you want a lot more. Soon, no one was safe. 

The Inquisition's three chief weapons were surprise, fear, a ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the Pope. The worst thing was that no one ever expected them.

But their reign of terror only resulted in around three to five thousand fatalities in all. What you should really have been worried about was the Black Death.

The plague, or Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in history.  Most theories attribute the outbreak to the yersinia pestis bacteria. Although hosted on flea-infested rats some scholars think its rapid spread could only have been enabled by humans. It is thought to have travelled along the Silk Road in the 14th century. From there it hopped on a boat. 

It killed a mind-numbing 30–60 percent of Europe's population. Half of Paris's population of 100,000 people died. It spread right around the Middle East and killed about 40% of Egypt's entire population as well.

The most common symptom of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in the groin, the neck and armpits, and the appearance of gangrenous black spots.  Some people died within two days of infection.

Medicine was rudimentary at best back then; most people believed the plague was sent by God as divine retribution. So of course the answer was to attack immigrant minorities; in August 1349, for example, the entire Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated.

It's good to look back and see how far we have come from those days; thankfully stupidity, ignorance, violence and religious hatred have no part in the modern world.

On Wednesday I have something that will truly inspire you and may even bring a tear to your eye. I hope you'll join me for that - you won't be disappointed. 

Also anyone who joins my blog between now and then wins a copy of HAREM. Its available now through WDW publishing on any electronic format. 

One last question: does the Inquisition still exist? Answer Wednesday.

Friday, December 16, 2011


One of my favourite things this week was the chameleon getting his first taste of an iPhone over at Myndi Shafer's blog here at :One Stray Sock From Insanity

She has a lot of crazy and funny stuff like this. See for yourself.

Debra Kristi's blog got hijacked by monkeys. What I really liked was the monkey that cut loose with the AK-47. You can find it here:  Debra Kristi's Everything's Coming up Monkeys

I really enjoy Debra's blog; and if you're a Buffy fan you would have loved this next post. I'm not a vampire sort of person, but I loved how she wrapped this. I think there's a good writing lesson here. The thought that went behind the character dynamics in the series bears thinking about. I guess it was what made it such a successful show. 

There's seems to be something about animals this week: I came across this by accident. A visitor to a Washington animal sanctuary waved to a bear and got a real shock when the bear sat up and waved back. She didn't know the residents were mostly retired show animals. 

It's a very funny bit of video: bear waves back at tourist

Moving away from dumb animals who aren't really that dumb at all, to people who can be really very, very dumb and have no excuse. 

If you can explain to me what this girl was thinking - or not thinking - I'd appreciate it: WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?

But it is Christmas. And although I'm a sucker for Christmas carols I loved these two songs on Tamari Etherington's blog a whole lot more.

The second one's from SNL, and it's a little blue, but I laughed out loud right the way through.  Absolutely brilliant. All I Want for Christmas and Justin Timberlake
Then I stumbled upon this. It's supposedly an actual McDonald's job application from a 17-year-old. Well, whether it is or it isn't, it's very funny: McDonalds job application

I'd never come across Jillian Dodd's blog before, but this was where I found this absolute gem. She posted a video piece about a student at Utah State University asking a bunch of other students whether it's possible for boys and girls to be 'just friends'. 

They are all unanimous in their answers. Oh, except one small point of difference; the boys all say no and the girls all say yes. See for yourself: why men and women can't just be friends

And here's one to make your hackles rise. An Illinois mother encouraged her son to open a savings account. He made the mistake of letting the account fall to $4.85. That attracted $229 in banking fees. 

Another heart warming story about banks.  WHY WE ALL LOVE BANKS

And then there's this from Saudi Arabia: as an historical fiction writer I sometimes operate under the mistaken belief that mankind has progressed from the stupidity and cruelty of the Middle Ages. Articles like this remind me that we haven't. SAUDI ARABIA IS NOT A COUNTRY IT'S 600 YEARS AGO

But let's not finish on a down note. Do you have trouble getting your kids to stack the dishwasher? Here's a solution; just make sure it plays Michael Jackson when you open the door. It worked for this family!

He's got great moves. Today Fisher and Paykel, tomorrow MTV! Avagoodweekend Mister Walker!