The official website of Scottish Author David F Porteous
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.
Almost every word you ever read was a coward. You write enough words and you get to know them for what they are; their character. Words are pliable, twisty, squirmy little bastards you can’t play chess with. Some are glass fragile, facetted, intriguing and pointing in a dozen different directions. The worst of them are smoke, holding shape and meaning for a second, but changeling like a perjurer’s testimony.
A good word means only one thing and means it only once – he is focussed in one direction and means to expend himself in one purpose. A good word is a punch and should carry all your weight; the lean, the step-in – elbow up!
A good word is something better than fearless: a good word is brave.
Vasily Smyslov, the Soviet Grandmaster, used to twist his chess pieces after moving them, screwing them into the board, daring his opponent to take them; putting up a palisade of oblique bishops and cardinal rooks. And the ambition of anyone who would call themselves a writer must be to put words down with equal conviction. To dare time – our enemy – to take their meaning.
But the brave words perish first. The unexpected. The portmanteau. The found sound. Time melts their faces. And the ones that remain are the reworked words, like train timetables – all gloss and promises that won’t be kept in this country. Survivors, with all the guilt of the colaborator.
Almost every word you ever read was a coward.
For posterity, I include the mock graduation speech I prepared for a contest offered by American author of young adult things to read, Maureen Johnson. In Britain we don't have the tradition of students delivering speeches, but if we did, and if I'd given one, this would not be it.
It's my belief that after submitting this, Maureen blocked me on Twitter.
It was either this speech or the pictures of me wearing only a confused expression.
In either case, here it is.
I have watched you prepare, these last four years, for the war that is to
come. And I am not impressed.
I, who have laid waste to worlds more ancient by far than the tarnished
bauble of this [check note cards] Earth, have seen great civilizations train
their young in a thousand ways. Yet none, I think will prove as inadequate as
Knowing as you must that our attack shall come from the edge of space –
where, even now, our mighty fleet assembles – you must surely realise that your science, your engineering, your mathematics are woeful by comparison to ours. Your study of the history of art seems pointless; almost a parody of reason.
Your art we shall burn – except for the items you have already burned as
artistic statements – these we shall reassemble using advanced technology and put on display. You shall all be made to see these displays. Tickets will be expensive. And the lines shall be long.
Only your swim team seems prepared for the psychological warfare we shall
unleash on you, when our timed-release penis-shrinking drugs kick-in, just
before the Fourth of July weekend.
You believe that because you have endured these scant four years that your
works shall be proud and that in this glorious summer the sting of death will
not touch you.
You are mistaken.
We shall deprive you of all those things you hold most dear. Holiday sales at
electrical goods stores, the beach, apple pie – including combination fruit pies
that contain apple, really good drugs, Dancing With The Stars and almost all
The only place left to eat will be Wendy’s – and not the good Wendy’s, the
And once we have crushed your spirits, we shall install a Vichy government to rule you harshly – as is our tradition. To prevent any feelings of sympathy,
this government will be made up entirely of another species. In Earth’s case,
rule of the planet will be ceded to the bees, and their powerful stings shall
keep you in fear, because that thing about bees only being able to sting you
once and then they die? That’s bullshit. Most bees can sting you as much as they like.
And they like to do it a lot.
Also, the bees who rule you will be Africanised.
Now please stand while Danny plays your new national anthem on the kazoo.
Very exciting day today.
The Goodreads page for The Death of Jack Nylund has been created showing the fantastic cover designed Rob Moran and the full blurb outlining the story. A dedicated page on this website and some preview chapters will follow in the coming weeks, but I added it to Goodreads first so anyone interested can add it as a "to read" book and reviewers can rate it in advance. Would love to hear your feedback.
Release date is still the first of October. Expect more :)
My second book - The Death of Jack Nylund - will be released on Kindle and in print 1st October 2012. This will be the first of nine novellas in the Gods & Monsters series.
The Death of Jack Nylund follows US Federal Marshal Clay Falk and private investigator Walter Black as they move from different sides of the country searching for Jack Nylund - who is lost in all the ways a man can be. Set in an alternative 1922 where the ancient oligarchs work in shadow to rule mankind, and war against each other for wealth and power, The Death of Jack Nylund brings the horror of H P Lovecraft to the criminal world of Raymond Chandler and George V Higgins.
Expect more information about The Death of Jack Nylund as publication date approaches. But for now you can check out the Map for a few location-specific paragraphs from the new book and scan the Wurdle for character names and key words.
Exciting times :)
Singular was finished about a year ago. I always say the best way to appreciate a book is by reading all of the words in the book in sequential order. But a close second is reading only the most common 100 words in the book, as a big mashed-up pile on a page. Enter Wordle.net - one of my favourite free text summary tools.
Now you can, by looking at this simple image, identify the names of the key characters in Singular and see that I have quite the passion for similie. I like like like a man who likely has issues with the word love.
I follow Tim Ferris on Twitter, because this time last year I harboured a secret belief that I too could transform myself with kettle bells and roughage. A successful non-fiction writer and life-guru, Ferris occasionally posts writing-related things and so my interest in him out-lasted my interest in combination vitamin supplements.
This is all preamble, but he posted a link to an article about the value of classics and said that he wouldn’t read any new books for a while. The author of that article made the point that people don’t make the effort with classics because they’re difficult, though ultimately that much more rewarding and worthy than new books.
This put a bee in my coif and I’ve been twitching about it since. Old books are better. New books are too rooted in the now, too trendy, too blah. Whereas an old book is a memorable evening of dining and dancing with an elegant, thoughtful lover – a new book is a hand job in the back of Hyundai: immediately satisfying in a very unsatisfying way. Like as not you’ve heard this argument before. Like as not you’ve heard very smart people agree with it.
I’d recently treated myself to a Kindle and decided that I’d read a few classics – by which I mean free books out of copyright – which I knew by reputation by experiencing them in other media. A few years ago the BBC did a wonderful costumed adaptation of Tom Jones: A Foundling. A thundering, rollicking story full of sex and off-colour humour. I was looking forward to Tom Jones the novel as much as a coach load of elderly ladies on a trip to Vegas look forward to Tom Jones the singer.
I was disappointed. The language in Tom Jones is still entirely accessible despite being more than 250 years old, but it was about as badly written as any book I’ve ever picked up. I sashayed through the first oddball chapter where Henry Fielding berates the critics history has forgotten for opinions they haven’t expressed yet and pushed into the book expecting a little more focus and directness.
I was disappointed. Imagine if you could load sentences into a shotgun and fire them at a page to form paragraphs – that’s Fielding. And indeed most of his contemporaries. The effective, direct structuring of English was yet to emerge and it was perfectly normal for novelists and essayists to wander with the same deliberate purpose found in cats chasing butterflies.
Skip ahead a century and a half to Oscar Wilde – a man better quoted than read – and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde seems to have written a novel only as a way to link together his witty remarks, which are in concentration actually rather annoying and clearly of the same form.
A few years back an author tried sending in the subtly altered books of Jane Austen to publishers and was baffled by the response he got – nobody wanted them. I was less baffled. As far as I was concerned that response was inevitable because, while the books are a delight, they are read today not because of their literary merit but because of the strength of the Austen brand. (Mark Twain, most famously, was not a fan of Austen’s style or characterisation).
The difference between old books and new isn’t just the language and it’s entirely possible for a book written rather in arcane English to be published and be successful – such as the unexpected noughties hit Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But Clarke has a modern – and better – understanding of the mechanisms of fiction than any of her influences. The book is a success not because it reads a bit like Dickens, but because it reads like Dickens would write a book today.
The snobbery of declaring that all the good books were written before we were born and that all of modern literature is trivial is manifestly false. There were contemporaries of Aristotle who felt that all art and reason belonged to a previous age and every generation has been awash with people ready to dismiss to the present. The truth is that modern books aren’t just the equal of the works of previous centuries – they are objectively better. An Austen book submitted today should be rejected by a publisher and there is no classic book that would not benefit from an editor and another draft. Pretending that it’s somehow noble to plough through language abandoned for its uselessness is silly and does considerable disservice to the current generation of writers.
"It's a very small room," he said. "Watch out for the light when we go in".
The room is at the top of Central Library in Edinburgh, a George Washington Brown building constructed eccentrically with Carnegie money in the late nineteenth century. It is an office that would adequately accommodate four people so long as none of them were trying to run a photographic studio.
I'm to be part of a series - authors who have done readings at the library. Those already shot include Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray - who earlier in the day won the Saltire Society's Book of the Year Award, declined the honour, and was given it anyway. It's an exhibition years in the making and I'm sure whether I actually feature in the final line-up will depend substantially on the sales of the second book.
With the umbrella-sized battery of light tubes a few feet from my face, I adopt the pose that all previous sitters have adopted; turned slightly away, but eyes toward the camera. I'm repeatedly told to open my eyes wide, because as it turns out I've been squinting since the mid-80s.
All of this is a prelude to the event itself - my first public reading and a discussion of what it's like to have written and published your first novel. Certain fathoms below the microstudio the guests are assembling in a basement space, expecting to be entertained. I feel like I felt when I did stand-up almost a decade ago - nervous and powerful, like I'm carrying a static charge that makes all my hair stand up.
"Have a look," the other of the pair of photographers bids me and I shuffle around the equipment to peer at a Mac screen. The photo itself is very good, but is let down by the subject.
"I'd be grateful," I say, "if you could trim it so you can't see the contour of my man boob".
The first photographer nods soberly, adding, "Don't worry: we've done this
Mark Douglas-Home and I pass in the green room as he goes to have his picture taken next. He's the other name on the bill and by far the more credible - former editor of the Glasgow Herald and possessed of enough sense to write a crime novel; you know, something people actually read.
I'm presented to the event chair - Scottish veteran journalist Jackie McGlone, who is an immediately appealing mix of Muriel Spark and Mary Portas. I try to correct a few details in the biography she's been supplied with, but she already knows; she's done her research.
When Mark returns, the three of us are mic'ed-up and we all firmly express no preference as to where we sit.
"I'm sure I have a good side," I say. "I just can't tell which one it is".
We laugh, but I'm not writing that one down. Eventually we settle on me on Jackie's right, Mark on her left and descend to the basement where the audience is waiting, the lights are dimmed and the microphones go live.
A few weeks ago the http://www.eastlothiancourier.com/ asked me to write their weekly column "Why I Love East Lothian". This doesn't appear in the electronic version, but I'm able to reproduce it here. This is my original version, which was very slightly changed for the print edition.
I cannot separate East Lothian from my childhood; for me the towns and landscapes are as much memory as brick and weather.
On a stretch of summer-crowded beach past North Berwick I lost a dog for an anxious hour. On the playground of Cockenzie Primary I lost a square yard of skin from my knees (over several years). Likely I’ve forgotten as much as I remember, but some things remain vivid to all my senses.
I can still feel a child’s hands – my hands – pressed to my ears to block the guttural roar of planes soaring overhead at East Fortune. And on an occasional visit to the Museum of Flight, peering on tiptoes into the cockpit of a Vickers Supermarine Spitfire.
But usually we went to East Fortune because of my grandmother. A renowned – and self-acknowledged – raker and hoarder, she found a unique happiness in trawling through the stalls at the Sunday Market. The journey down winding country roads in my grandfather’s orange Skoda was a weekly event and nothing at the Museum of Flight was ever so majestic as my grandmother returning home from the hunt with a clutch of bargains.
When I think about East Lothian as a whole, it’s the view from a car window along that route.
Being from a large close-knit family on my mother’s side, I was never more than six feet from a cousin growing up. We were always playing in a street unsullied by speed bumps, making noise that today people would phone the council to complain about. We had impossibly long summer days entirely without rain and as much nostalgia as we could carry.
I got my first job in 1996 working for RBS at South Gyle. If the tea hadn’t come out of a machine, I would have spent that summer making tea. Instead my inconsiderable skills were employed in collecting the tea from the machine and bringing it to people. My boss, Edinburgh born and raised, referred to East Lothian as “the sticks”. Until then I don’t think it had occurred to me that living elsewhere would be a different experience. Edinburgh was on the other end of every bus route – there wasn’t even passport control between these two foreign lands divided by custom, tradition and language.
I love Edinburgh, I work there and during the Festival there’s no better place on Earth. But it isn’t home and it doesn’t have a monopoly on culture. The growth in local arts and community events – like the Fringe by the Sea happening in North Berwick all this week – has made this an even more vibrant and interesting place to live.
East Lothian is relaxed, the people have more time to be friendly, each village has its own character and around every corner I find a memory and something new. That’s why I love East Lothian.
Really nice piece in this week's East Lothian Courier about me and the book. If you didn't already know a bit about how Singular got started then it's a pretty good intro.
I'm now on Goodreads, which seems like a great way to share reviews and current reads. If you're reading or if you've read Singular and you're on Goodreads, then let me know.
Also, quick reminder that tomorrow is the very last day you can "like" Singular on Facebook for a chance to win the proof copy (signed - try and stop me). Links in the bar above.
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.
(<<< The blog is over there).