The official website of Scottish Author David F Porteous
Hello. The following short story was produced for a thing, with a strict limit of 1,200 words. I thought I'd share it here.
By David F Porteous
Sigurd McAlpine left as confirmed bachelor, dashing colonel and heir to some small fortune. He fought Napoleon – successfully by all accounts – and returned from France, no more married and no less dashing, to find that his father had passed during the Battle of Waterloo itself. And everyone agreed this was rotten luck.
The new Lord McAlpine occupied the suite of rooms at the family castle in Dumfries and had been installed at the estate barely a week when the gift arrived.
Crated carefully and packed about with straw, it was a large Venetian mirror of antique construction; rectangular and bordered with gothic angels and swirls of brass cloud where some original gilding remained. The glass, though darker than contemporary mirrors, had a warmth and character that spoke of true craftsmanship. With the mirror came a note in a familiar, terse hand.
McAlpine, a gift of France – to me, and now yours. Regards, Wellington.
In truth, McAlpine had no great association with the Duke of Wellington, and while he had performed his orders to the Field Marshall’s satisfaction, they were not friends. So the gift, lavish in itself, was all the more valued for being unexpected. McAlpine wrote a brief note of thanks – Wellington would appreciate no other kind of thanks – and had the mirror hung in the drawing room, where he might remark on its provenance to anyone who visited.
Dumfries did nothing to compete with London for company, and McAlpine was not surprised when no visitors came. Still he enjoyed the mirror, and would find himself staring into every day for no reason.
It was a week after he received the Duke’s gift when the second mirror arrived. Smaller than the first, just as well packed, its frame was wooden, but carved in some dark wood not native to Britain. With this mirror came a letter.
My Lord, I understand that you fought with my husband at Waterloo and will be aware that he died fighting for his King and Country. In his will he left you this remembrance of him. Kind regards--
The signature had been smudged, as if the woman who wrote it had been crying, and McAlpine could not guess as to the name. Half a dozen officers of his acquaintance or in his service had perished at the Château d'Hougoumont and the letter might reasonably have been from any of them. The mirror was hung in the drawing room also, though in a place of lesser importance than that afforded to the mirror sent by Wellington.
McAlpine gave the coincidence no more thought until the following week – when a third mirror arrived. This one was plain, of no great age or value, and McAlpine sent it to the attic, returned to its packing, after reading the note.
Sir. My son died at Waterloo. He was in your regiment. This mirror was his only possession of value. Your servant, John Michaelmas.
McAlpine had vague recollection of a Michaels or a Michaelmas – a sergeant, or a corporal – but there was no return address, and he put the thought of replying from his mind as he put the letter into the fire. The sincerity with which the three mirrors had been offered to him put a joke beyond possibility, yet he could not escape the feeling that he was being mocked.
Business called him to Edinburgh and McAlpine spent a month in the city meeting with merchants and lawyers, settling bills and receiving investments, putting the last of his father’s estate to rest. He returned to Dumfries to find the head of his household – an aged castellan who wore the livery of a London butler, in style forty years previous – almost in tears and obviously fearful of some ill-treatment from his master.
In the Lord’s absence, some fifteen mirrors had arrived, the latest only an hour before McAlpine’s carriage. Their sizes varied, as did their quality, from handspan vanity mirrors to pieces almost as proud as Wellington’s. Each came with a note.
You knew my father.
He was killed at Waterloo.
He fell defending Hougoumont.
In the fire.
He died in the fire.
McAlpine burned all the letters. The mirrors he distributed as best he could, until he felt every room was crowded with reflections of himself. Perhaps not dashing as he had been, perhaps running to fat as his father had, and perhaps his eyes were marked from lack of sleep.
When had the dreams begun? Was it the night after the battle? Or only some days later? He remembered the order which had come from Wellington.
Hold position at any cost.
An axeman broke the gate. He held.
Cannons smashed the walls. He held.
The French set fire to Hougoumont. Still he held.
In the sound of rifles and screaming he heard the distant fife. Then he was no more dreaming, and he stood in the Château, and also in his bedchamber. The windows were blue-black and a half moon illuminated the slumbering fields and forests of Dumfries. But the mirrors blazed with light; through them he saw Waterloo, as much as could be seen through smoke – guns as far away as thunder, and fire so close he could feel the heat on his face.
The marching music of the fife – high, shrill, like the song of a bird – was coming from the drawing room and he ran there, covering his mouth against the smoke. In the Wellington mirror he saw their approach.
They were not the relief troops that had come to hold the line that day; in bloodied livery, their death wounds worn like medals, advanced the fallen. He recognised their faces, though they were slackened by the grave; grim and grey as hanging meat.
A dead-eyed sergeant gripped the frame of the mirror as if it were a window ledge. He put one leg over, and stepped into the room. His throat – torn like sacking – flapped when he spoke, and his words were incomprehensible. But he stood straight at attention, as he would have in life, in the presence of his commander.
They all stood at attention.
McAlpine saw the colours carried by his dead regiment and knew his duty. With his nightshirt for a uniform, and with the sergeant’s assistance, he climbed through Wellington’s mirror and returned to the battle.
* * *
At the speed of law it was eventually determined that McAlpine had abandoned his life, or fallen to unknown ill-fortune, and an executor was appointed to determine the legitimacy of claims and pass the estate to the Lord’s legal heir – whoever that was found to be.
The executor, pouring over the papers of the estate, found the note that had accompanied the first mirror, and the tear-stained letter that came with the second – both written in the familiar, terse hand that matched the signature and ledgers of the Lord McAlpine.
Understanding some of what had transpired – these events being far from unusual after the war – he burned all remaining notes and, assisted by the butler, smashed every mirror to pieces.
Hello and welcome to 2016. I thought I'd take the opportunity to recap on what I did in 2015. This is that opportunity.
I recorded my first novel - Singular - as an audiobook. The process was great fun and the final result is, in my opinion, though I believe I'm reflecting general orthodoxy here, the best audiobook ever. Listen to it! here in the UK and here in the US.
My third book - Good Witch - was released just before Christmas. Some early reviewers say it's my best book yet. Read it! here in the UK and here in the US.
Along with my friends David Candy and David Chisholm (who was the sound engineer for the Singular audiobook), I recorded a new podcast. Cheerful Despair is a series of half hour discussions about nothing. It's coming out at the moment and new episodes will air each Monday in January. Listen to it! here on iTunes and here for all other podcast thingamies.
I've also been recording more gaming videos on YouTube in 2015 and I hope this will continue in 2016. There's certainly going to be a new and exciting series of Space Engineers (: Lost In Competents) and the continuation of the absurdly boring multiplayer for Galactic Civilizations 3 (: END YOUR TURN). To be sure you keep up to date with all this, subscribe! to my YouTube Channel.
I'm well progressed on writing my fourth book - Harry Potter and the Something of Something (working title) - so you may hear more about that in 2016.
Otherwise, Happy New Year. You'll see another blog from me in 3 to 18 months.
Another quick excerpt from the book I'm currently writing. This exchange takes place between Isobel Greenhill and her granddaughter Caprice Howard in the back garden of the house owned by Judith Howard (Isobel's daughter and Caprice's mother).
“Why isn’t my mum a witch?” Caprice asked her grandmother. Isobel Greenhill was sitting on a chair in the back garden with her feet propped up on another chair. She had her eyes closed and her face titled to an afternoon sun that was still high above the tall trees beyond the well-tended and substantially decorative vegetable patch. It looked almost as if Isobel were sunbathing, apart from her green coat, which she wore buttoned all the way up to her chin.
The garden at the back of the house was enclosed by high hedges and the only signs of neighbouring buildings were a few roofs and frosted bathroom windows. The village was a place of strictly observed rules, boundaries and privacy. If there were other girls and other grandmothers in adjacent gardens they were as far removed from Caprice as the Martians.
Isobel did not open her eyes when she replied.
“Your mother is a witch.”
“But she never does any spells,” Caprice said.
“Ah. Is that what you think being a witch is?” Isobel asked. “Spells? Broomsticks too, I imagine? And cats that speak to you in Latin?”
“And it isn’t?”
“Oh, yes,” Isobel replied with a puff of derision that clearly indicated the truth was the opposite of that. “If you can be bothered teaching a cat how to speak Latin. And if you don’t mind carrying around a broomstick everywhere. Being a witch can be like that. But those are distractions. The first thing a witch should learn is that there is nothing a witch should learn.”
“I don’t understand,” Caprice said.
It had been dry for several days and she sat on the grass a little away from her grandmother. Bees scoured the lawn for the daisies that grew everywhere else, but which Judith Howard had the gardener regularly excise. The hum of the bees was like the sound of distant mowing and Caprice – who had never been stung and had no fear of it – was not disturbed by the infrequent fly-bys.
“How did you learn to speak?” Isobel asked.
“I don’t remember. Probably from my mum and dad.”
“And how did you learn to hold a knife and fork?”
“The same way.”
“And if you had been born in China and your parents were Chinese, how would you be different?”
“I would speak Chinese and use chopsticks.”
“Most likely,” Isobel replied, her eyes still closed. A bee seemed about to land on the old woman’s nose, hovering in the air above her face for a frozen moment until she frowned and the insect sped off like a black and yellow firework.
“So,” Isobel continued, “how would you learn to be a witch?”
Caprice was sure this was a trick question, but she couldn’t think of any way to answer it than by saying, “I would watch other witches and do what they did.”
“Then you would fail,” Isobel said, though there was no expression of surprise or disappointment in the way she said it.
“There is magic that you can learn from books or from instruction, but witchcraft is not like that at all. I could teach you how to spin straw from gold and turn wine into water. I could show you how to fold up space to change a great hall into a cupboard. I could give you the secret of eternal age and ugliness. Under my instruction you might hold a bottle with a bolt of lightning and dance on a dragon’s wing. But having learned all these things you still would not be a witch.
“Witchcraft is the magic we learn from ourselves, by understanding who we are, who we will become and what we want. As we become wiser, we understand ourselves more, and through understanding ourselves we understand everything. All the things you think of as magic are tricks. Useful, yes, but if you understand yourself you can do anything. Or you can do nothing. That is the power of witchcraft.”
Caprice thought about this and replied, “But why doesn’t my mum do spells?”
“A long time ago she fell in love with a boy, who fell in love with someone she wasn’t. Do you know the story of Narcissus?”
Caprice shook her head, and was about to speak – since her grandmother could not see her – but Isobel spoke anyway.
“Narcissus was a beautiful boy—”
“Shouldn’t you say handsome?” Caprice interrupted. “Because he was a boy. Boys are handsome and girls are beautiful.”
“Nonsense,” Isobel said with another snort. “Handsome is a word for horses and hounds. Only a mother should ever call a boy handsome, and only if the boy is her son, and her son is ugly. Narcissus was beautiful. One day he saw his reflection in a pond, fell in love with it, then committed suicide. What does that teach us?”
“Don’t look into ponds?” Caprice replied. “I feel like there should be more to that story if it’s supposed to have a moral.”
“I see. Well.” Isobel cleared her throat. “A long time ago, at the edge of a wood lived a hunter whose family were all passed away. He had a house and a bow and such things as young men of that age of the world were accustomed to; and he was neither poor nor rich, and what he hunted in the forest he ate, and the pelts he sold for coin to meet all his other needs.
“The hunter was tall and lithe and his hair was black as a midnight hurricane. He took lovers when he wished, both men and women – in those days that was more common than not. But never for more than a night and though they loved him, he felt no emotion that survived the dawn of the new day.”
“Shush. It so happened that while in the woods a young witch saw the hunter. She was strong and determined and she decided that she would take the hunter to her bed, and perhaps make him her husband.”
“Oh that’s how witches have always done things. You’ll do the same in your time. Now stop interrupting.
“The hunter did not see the witch as she was, he saw a plain girl of the forest, far less impressive to his eye than the people of the town whom he could seduce as he wished. He did not scorn her, but he did not want her either, and if the witch had as much sense as determination that would have been the end of it.
“It was not.
“The witch followed the hunter and watched him when he bent to a pool of water to drink. The hunter saw his reflection and realised that he was what he desired most in the world. And the witch, who was very powerful indeed, realised that in all the world the hunter was what she most desired. Using her great magic, the witch put aside all that she had learned about herself, all that she had ever been and could ever be, and she became the hunter’s reflection. She rose up from the pool and the hunter loved her as he loved himself.”
“The hunter doesn’t kill himself in that story,” Caprice said.
“No,” Isobel replied. “In that story it is the witch who kills herself; the moral is the same. Neither witch nor hunter had imagined how the years would pass, yet such passage is always predictable. Their beauty faded. Each year they looked the same and each year they liked it less, until their reflection served only as a reminder of those regrets which a lifetime piles up. They died on the same day. At the end, neither could recall who had been the beautiful boy and who had been only his reflection.
“There aren’t a dozen witches in the world who could cast a spell like that, even if they were foolish enough to want to.”
Caprice considered that for a long time. She hadn’t thought of her mum and dad ever being in love. They just were. They ate dinner. They went to church. On birthdays and at Christmas they gave each other small gifts. If that was love, it wasn’t as interesting or exciting as books and films made it seem.
Caprice asked, “Is this why you and dad don’t get on?”
“I don’t get on with most everyone, my dove,” Isobel said. “Don’t let that worry you.”
“Will I be a powerful witch?”
Isobel opened her eyes and looked at Caprice for the first time in half an hour. She smiled, and Caprice thought it was a sad smile.
“Yes,” Isobel said, in her style of answering questions simply and directly, while giving as little information as possible.
“Will I be a greater witch than my mum?”
“We must hope so.”
“Will I be a greater witch than you?”
The question made Isobel’s Greenhill’s eyes bulge, and she made an attempt to smother a laugh with a throaty cough.
“Who knows?” the old woman asked after recovering her composure and she shrugged dramatically. “Let’s begin, and then we’ll see.”
Just sharing a small piece of work in progress on the third book - which has a title, but which I'm not going to tell you. This a conversation that takes place between Campbell and Stockton, relating the latter's experience with werewolves . . .
"I met a man once, his eyebrows were heavy and his hands thick covered with coarse black hair.”
“He told me a story that I believe, about how he had been bitten and lived and did not change when the moon waxed full. I asked him how and he told me—”
“Drink lots of water,” Campbell interrupted. “Pretty much all health advice comes down to sleep, exercise, diet or drinking lots of water.”
“He told me that the wolf is hungry because it needs to be fed. He told me that his brothers knew he had been bit and they knew he had to die. Remember in those days every credulous villager went around wreathed in garlic and amulets, and alternated the veneration and immolation of toothless crones who spoke to trees. According to the mad old woman they most recently listened to, the proper way to deal with a werewolf was to cut off all of its limbs with an axe, bury the four limbs in four graves aligned towards Jerusalem, then put the body, head and a pile of rocks into a barrel of wine and throw the barrel into the ocean.”
“That’ll do it,” Campbell confirmed.
“Understandably the brothers couldn’t bring themselves to do any of it. This man was their brother, they loved him, they had no idea which way Jerusalem was, and wine was very expensive. Instead they found a cave in the mountains near where they lived, they put their brother inside and they rolled a stone over the entrance. For six days they waited; three before and three after the full moon.
“On the morning of seventh day they returned to bring out his body and give him a proper burial according to their traditions. He was their brother, they loved him, they couldn’t leave his bones to rot in some mountain cave, and – what was even more important – he’d taken all the family’s money into the cave with him so he knew they would have to come back for him.
“Rolling a stone into place was, the brothers discovered, much easier than rolling it back out again. It took them hours to uncover the entrance and, as is so often the case, after so much work the final revealing happened quickly. Rather than find a beast, or the body of a man starved to death, their brother stood at the entrance to the cave—”
“How big was this cave?” Campbell asked.
“He may have crouched at the entrance of the cave. In any case he emerged; a little thinner perhaps, but alive and well. Now the brothers rejoiced. Because they loved their brother, and they had their money back, and they hadn’t told their elderly mother about the whole cave in the mountains bit before they did it and she was furious.
“So they went home and all was well. Though nobody doubted that there were werewolves, people began to disbelieve that the beast that had bitten our protagonist was such a creature. Others said that the cave in the mountains was obviously magical and suggested that anyone with an illness should be confined inside for a week to see if they got better. This idea did not immediately appeal to any sick people in the village and was never tested.
“Never?” Campbell asked.
“No. A few days short of a month later the first brother – the one who had been bitten – should I have given them names?”
“You’re the writer.”
“Let’s say the older brother was called Krebotkin and the others brothers . . . well if I name them then I have to decide if there were two or three.”
Campbell said, “I was imagining three.”
“Tom, Dick and Harry,” Stockton said. “A few days short of a month later Krebotkin killed Tom and Dick. Harry and their mother had gone on a pilgrimage to a distant church, to pray on the bones of a saint who was known to cure feelings of homosexuality.”
“Oh that Harry,” Campbell said ruefully. “He just couldn’t leave the miller’s son alone.”
“The pair returned to find slaughter,” Stockton said. “And Krebotkin had fled into the woods, or mountains, or another terrain feature, and they never saw him again.”
“So this Krebotkin in your story was a werewolf?” Campbell asked.
“Yes,” Stockton said. “He was. Obviously when he finished telling me this story he tried to kill me and so I broke his neck, hacked off his limbs, buried the pieces in several graves orientated towards Jerusalem and drowned the rest of him in wine. Because really, if you didn’t, after all that, you’d have to be some kind of schmuck.”
From December 2014 to May 2015, I worked with sound engineer David Chisholm on recording the audiobook for Singular. During what turned out to be our third-last session - which, for the purposes of narrative we were pretending was our last session - my friend and occasional co-conspirator David Candy dropped by to take some obviously staged photographs "behind the scenes".
Only people called David were involved in this project. These are real people, not other personalities I have.
Anyway - photographs!
DFP asks whether, even to the untrained eye, it will be obvious that much of the equipment in this photograph is being used incorrectly
DFP pretends to listen to audio using only one headphone, because he's seen other people do that in like films and shit
DFP pretends to have made a risqué joke while David Chisholm, who hasn't dressed like a batman villain but is instead wearing normal clothes, looks on in bemusement
in easily the most awkward moment of either man's life, DFP and David Chisholm fake a high five for the fake ending of the recording sessions. At the actual end of the recording sessions, some weeks later, there was no actual high five. Look at the awkwardness - that's almost certainly a future leader of a political party right there.
Late spring in the northern hemisphere is a time of endings. University students are graduating, high school students are completing their final exams, and there is a sense that a great and abiding illusion of permanence is being swept aside. Reality intrudes. The minute hand ticks. And so on.
A few years ago I wrote a high school graduation speech. I think mine is at least as good as those delivered recently by some of my favourite authors - Ian McEwan discussing the necessity of freedom of speech, Neil Gaiman advocating creativity and the making of things, George R R Martin explaining why he enjoys killing the people you love and that you can't stop him.
I think this is also an excellent time of year to reflect on ourselves and how things are going. New Year is entirely the most grim and dark point of the annual cycle for those of us on the north bit of planet earth. Any assessment of one's self conducted on the cusp of the dying light of December's fireworks and the bleak house of January, is surely going to conclude that you're fat and a disappointment and that you're career isn't what it could be.
In May . . . all of those things are still true - but at least it's sunnier.
This year my "Spring Summary" highlighted that I'm not doing enough to engage with people. That there's about a 65% chance of me dying alone, probably of heart disease. And that I need to get a light, breathable summer jacket that doesn't look inappropriate in formal meetings.
I've been looking for that jacket for a long time.
I DON'T WANT TO HAVE A BLOG!
Hopefully the warmth of that opening has encouraged you to read more. I don't like blogging. Blogging feels a lot like I'm an old man sending letters to the editor of a print media artifact created from wood pulp and spit. It seems old hat. Even older than that, perhaps - it seems pre-hat.
But here I am, blogging. And there you are, reading. I presume.
I'm going to keep this blog updated more regularly and more frequently. If you're following me on Facebook and Twitter then you'll have seen a number of updates about cover art and the forthcomingness of an audiobook. These things will be the subject of future blogs.
What I wanted to introduce to you today is the concept of regular progress, behind the scenes work on what I'm doing right now. I'm going to call these posts IWHSYDHT(F) - which stands for I Write Harder So You Don't Have To (Facepalm) - and in them I'll introduce you to terrible, inhumane acts of crassness which I commit in first drafts and which I then correct in subsequent drafts.
That's a good idea, right? There's no way this could ever come back and bite me in the future - like suddenly in the future, like before the end of this post? Nah, that's never going to happen.
The first change is in Singular itself. With the revision of the cover I took the opportunity to dip back into the book and make a small change due to an issue we encountered when recording the audiobook. It was only when listening back to a section featuring the creature (It) that I realised I'd put a really lazy and repetitive sentence in and somehow this had got by my normal editing process.
The original sentence was:
"The world grew from fist-sized sphere to fill the whole of its vision in three exhilarated breaths - and grew larger still until it felt the jarring strike of something hard against its whole body as it broke the threshold that separated one reality from another."
The reason it struck me was because there are three "hole" sounds. "Whole of its vision", "whole body" and "threshold". Using the same word twice in one sentence is criminal; thrice is . . . more criminal. Mugging an old lady, criminal. Punching a goat, criminal. Low class, unwashed, criminal.
The revision was:
"The world grew from fist-sized sphere to fill its vision in three exhilarated breaths – and grew larger still until it felt the jarring strike of something hard against its body as it broke the threshold that separated one reality from another."
Now, those revisions having gone to press, as it were, I see that second "grew" laughing at me. And I realise it isn't the word "grew" laughing at me - it's god.
Hopefully future blog updates will make me seem less of an idiot.
Most years I make my own Christmas cards. Some years I draw the images on the cards and write very short stories to accompany them. Other years I find an image that inspires me on an existing card and a write the story behind that image.
Last year I thought about collecting all of these stories into one bundle and doing something with them – if for no otherreason than to let everyone see what I’d written for other people. But I was in the middle of writing that difficult third novel (it’s coming, it’s coming) and nothing happened.
Next year I want to make this collection a reality with the help of crowdfunding and collaborators. I’m a writer first and an illustrator seventh – so my own artwork needs some support.
Is there an artist amongst my readership who’d love to work with me on this project? Do you know someone who might be interested? I’d like to have a chat with you about what might be involved in this project, but I’ve outlined roughly where my thinking is at the moment – in the style of Kickstarter reward tiers – so you can see where artist(s) might fit into this.
Tier one – my love, signified through a tweet. Possibly the love of any artists too, but it seems very forward for me to promise that.
Tier two – A digital download of the short story collection in aformat of your choosing (text only). Plus tier one.
Tier three (there may be multiple of these for the same valuefor different art / stories) – A set of ten Christmas cards bearing a single illustration on the outside and the short story on the inside. All cards will contain a link so that the person who receives the card will be able to download their own copy of the full short story collection. Plus tiers one and two.
Tier four – a quality hardback book with the illustrations and stories presented together in full colour. Suitable as a gift for a friend or as a sturdy weapon to kill an enemy. Plus tiers one and two.
Tier five – tier four plus tier three. Plus tier one and tier two.
Tier six – signed print of the artwork. Plus tier five.
Tier seven – signed original artwork. Plus tier five.
Also as I’m in the process of recording an audiobook forSingular at the moment, possibly an audio recording could make its way into that list.
Looking to put this out to crowdfunding in the middle of 2015 and deliver in time for Xmas 2015 (which really means November 2015).
Happy to share a story with anyone who contacts me to give an indication of the style. Fairly grim, alternative stories, magical, otherworldly and funny is where I’d see the project going.
Please use the contact form or hit me up on social media in the first instance if you’re interested.
You'll have heard about the incident at a school in Newton Connecticut where a man shot and killed 20 children, six adults and himself - after shooting his mother at her home. I remember the Dunblane shootings - we listened to the news reports on the radio while in our Maths class - and those events seem as surreal to me now as they did at the time.
As a writer, I often have my characters do terrible things and I try to understand the world - as I'm sure many of us do - through the lens of my art; because understanding why things happen is important to make us feel safe - even if safety is an illusion - and help us prevent the same incident occuring again. Although it seems that such events, at stark angles to our normal lives, are becoming increasingly common.
I want to talk about four different things, but three of them only briefly. Access to guns, mental health, the media and some of the opinions around gun control in the United States.
Access to Guns
The United States has the most famous pro-gun policy in the world. At the heart of its constitution, right after the guaranteed right to freedom of expression, is the Second Amendment, which says:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed".
This law has been generally interpreted as meaning that an individual in the United States should be allowed to own and carry a gun. This is, of course, not what the amendment actually says. The requirement is for a well regulated militia and the purpose is for the security of a free state - while war with Britain and France (and Spain and Mexico and the Native American Nations, etc.) was still a likely prospect it was a sensible precaution to ensure that militias could be formed and would be effective.
I think it's worth pointing out that after the US won its independence from Britain, Congress disbanded the army, such was their distrust in standing armies. Instead their intention was that militias would protect the United States. The wars with the Native American Nations prompted the United States to finally create a standing army, but it's fair to say that this was not their first choice. It is in this context which the Second Amendment needs to be viewed and in this context it's clear - to me at least - that the law's intention was not to put a gun in every waistband in perpetuity.
But that is a moot point because, as I said, the interpretation of the law for at least the last fifty years has been to guarantee individual rights to weapons.
I've been to America several times now and have visited nine states for varying lengths of time. During one trip to Pennsylvania I was taken to a gun store. A warehouse-sized building just outside of Pittsburgh, the variety of guns on display was impressive. These were not simply devices for killing - their was craftsmanship and artistry involved in making some of the weapons and the wooden boxes that held them.
After looking through many of the displays, I was taken downstairs to a sound-proof room where I was given ear protectors and was talked through and shown the correct way to load, hold, aim and fire a gun. (Normally there would be protective goggles as well, but my glasses were sufficient). Then I picked my target sheet from a range of imaginative designs including aliens, muggers and animals - I chose five bulls-eye targets - and bought fifty rounds.
As it turns out I'm a pretty good shot - if I had a gun, and I could see you, and I wanted to kill you, then you'd be dead. That's how guns work. The movies show hundreds of shots being fired and almost nobody ever getting hit - that's what happens in a war zone, when the other guys are firing back and everybody's hiding behind a rock. Otherwise, it's easy to shoot something. You don't need hundreds of hours of practice to be lethal - I'm not even good at 'Call of Duty'.
The experience solidified for me a very simple belief - people shouldn't have guns. I enjoyed the shooting range, I found the gun itself to be a palpably powerful thing; an extention of my will that almost became alive when fired - it was visceral. As a result I have never been more keenly aware of how incredibly dangerous both guns and the experience of using guns are.
A gun is the simplest, easiest way for an unstable individual to actualise their insanity. I'm not clear that it's terribly useful for anything else. Certainly widespread gun ownership doesn't make the general population safer.
More guns equals more murders using guns. Fact. The Harvard Injury Control Centre's review of studies on the subject concluded:
"A broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries... We found that states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation." - The Harvard Injury Control Centre
More guns = more murders with guns.
Frequently the argument against gun control is that there are only estimates of the number of guns in the United States. Millions of guns are registered to individuals, but that isn't all of them (by the way, most mass murders have been committed with legally-owned weapons). How would those guns be recovered from a population that doesn't want to give them up?
The answer to that question comes down to political will. And the answer should be: one at a time, if necessary.
I want to talk about some broader but related themes, but I felt it was necessary to begin with this. The facts say that the more guns in a society, the more of its people will be murdered using guns. I do not ask this question rhetorically - why isn't that enough for the US to ban guns?
The blogosphere produces an abundance of material in the wake of all these incidents. Grief. Outrage. Fear. Hate. Human emotions made digital broadcast media - doing credit to neither human emotion or digital broadcast media.
But while I strongly believe that reducing the number of guns will reduce the number of deaths caused by guns, there are also undeniable mental health issues that need to be discussed. I do not know if we have more people today who have mental health problems, or if we are only now recognising the breadth of the human condition, but in either case our approach to managing mental health issues needs to be rethought.
Just as we would promote exercise and healthy eating for long-life, we should also promote positive behaviour that affects our minds and our societies.
"For fifty years we've aimed relentlessly at higher incomes. But despite being much wealthier, we're no happier than we were five decades ago. At the same time we've seen an increase in wider social issues, including a worrying rise in anxiety and depression in young people. It's time for a positive change in what we mean by progress." - Action for Happiness
Action for Happiness highlight the growing problems of society and promote individual and collective behaviours to address these. Now, I'm a solid red socialist, so I think societies with really poor people and really rich people are inherently unstable - I believe that we need to make the poor richer and the rich poorer and that everyone would be happier living in that society. But Action for Happiness wants to promote different ways of thinking about our society other than just income - and support their goals.
In addition to general, social unwellness, there's the issue of how you deal with the individual. How do you prevent a child with mental health issues growing up to become a murderer? This is a question of self-interest as much as altruism. And answering that question must involve money.
A blogger calling herself "The Anarchist Soccer Mom" wrote recently and vividly about the problems of raising a son who has not so far been treated effectively for his mental health problems. A short excerpt, then the link below, the full piece really is excellent.
"I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me." - Thinking The Unthinkable, The Anarchist Soccer Mom
Mental health is no longer something we can ignore. As we all live longer and managing dementia becomes a universal concern, as more of us are living alone and in virtual worlds rather than real communities, as the number of young children recognised as having mental health problems increases - we need to be explicit about what our strategies are for dealing with this. What are our 'five a day' for mental health? How do we, as a society, deal with children like Michael? If we don't have a plan, we probably need to build a lot more prisons.
The media get blamed for "sensationalising" mass murder. Now, I don't believe there is enough news to justify 24-hour news channels and I don't think those news channels do enough to explain real news issues in a way that is useful for society - there are exceptions, but that is the rule. However the specific charge I've seen put is that mass murders are made famous by the news and this encourages further murderers.
We've all heard of copy-cat crimes - so we know that some crimes do prompt others to change their behaviour. Whether it actually makes people commit crimes or just changes the nature of the crimes they would commit anyway is hard to say. But it seems to me that there was a conscious decision made by the murderer in Connecticut (whose name I chose not to write) to leave the house, after killing his mother, to achieve some other goal. Perhaps he simply wanted the world to acknowledge his existence at all - speculation.
It seems that we gain nothing by promoting a particular killer's brand and there is some logic to the notion that forming a league table of mass murderers, filling the airwaves with stories about mass murderers, writing gruesome stories and making films about mass murderers - all this surely must have an effect.
This view, which is only that: I present no data, is controversial. In particular the computer games industry denies that violet games make children violent. The film industry denies that their product sexualises children. Producers of content wish to be divorced from the consequences consumers of interpreting content - is that possible? Ideas have set countries on fire - history is full of examples - and while sometimes those ideas are liberty, egality and fraternity, sometimes they are about the rise of a master race. Children are, apparently, having sex younger than ever before. And those kids who used to be on a PlayStation in their bedroom are now the ones piloting drones. Is there a defined end to individual responsibility? And if not, as an advocate of free speech, how do I square that?
Opinions on Gun Control
Since 1993 the Pew Research Centre has been tracking opinions about guns - asking respondents whether it's more important to control gun ownership or protect the rights of Americans to own guns. In 2000, 66% of Americans said gun control was more important - the highest the suvery had ever recorded. However, since around 2010 those feelings have been about equal - it would seem that the US is divided on the issue.
Ezra Klein's excellent Washington Post Wonkblog post cites Pew and a number of other sources and is well worth reading. Pew's research is matched by the GALLUP poll which Klein references on whether Americans favour a) stricter gun control or b) same / less strict gun control. Most Americans now appear to favour the same / less.
I'm pretty sure that most Americans don't know what current gun control law is. And I think that because a) the massive opposition to gun control laws has meant the law has been specific rather than sweeping, state-by-state rather than national and thus obscure - and b) most people don't know what the law says on anything. Have you ever played monopoly with a group of strangers and argued about what happens when you land on Free Parking? Imagine that, but with fifty different sets of rules depending on where you're sitting in the room - that's gun control legislation in the US.
What I think has changed over the polling periods of both these surveys is what people believe gun control law is. The rhetoric of the pro-gun lobby (while the people at Fox News bang every drum, every box, every tin and trash can just because they like the noise) has made people think that every democrat candidate is poised outside of their door, ready to steal their guns at a moment's notice, then release a gang of angry black men to ravage the nation's white haired grandmothers. In fact a huge amount has been talked about gun control, but very little has been achieved.
When people are asked about whether they support specific measures, rather than more measures, the responses are different:
(I've taken that graph directly from the Wonkblog. I'm not entirely sure what the law is on copyright - though I'm fairly sure we need more of it, or possibly less - so let me know if citing the source and linking back isn't enough.)
Firstly, I'm curious about the ~7% of people who want to give guns to convicted criminals and the mentally ill. Are 7% of Americans criminals and / or mentally ill? Because that's the only way that makes sense.
But what's clear from this is where an actual policy has been seriously discussed (and implemented), the majority of people are in favour of it. I think progress on the gun control issue needs to be framed in the form - "there's really not all that much gun control" and then "here's some specific things we think need to be done".
I'm glad people are being polled on the issues, and I understand that most Americans feel owning a gun is a right. I don't believe most Americans understand that owning guns makes them less safe, rather than more. I don't believe most Americans know what current law is. And I think that there will come a spasm of knee-jerk reactions motivated by fear and divorced from reason. (Let's make sure all teachers carry guns, let's give children gun training to make them safe from bullets).
Finally I think there is some collective responsibility that everyone needs to take for this. One man always has his finger on the trigger, but every man emerges from a time in which he wasn't a killer, where perhaps he was a child with undiagnosed or untreated medical problems, and at that time perhaps a better community or a better society could have changed his path.
Newtown Youth & Family Services is a local non-profit directly assisting the families involved in the Newtown shootings. You can donate via their website using paypal.
Where Am I?
dfpiii.com is the official website of David F Porteous. Use the tabs to learn more about David, his books: Singular and The Death of Jack Nylund, or read his blog.
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