Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Christmas Coincidence

For Fiona, the run up to Christmas was marred by getting her left index finger trapped in her car door when parking at Marsden Station. The rest of the morning was spent at the NHS drop-in-centre in Boots at the Manchester Arndale centre, getting the offending didgit dressed. A pm visit to casualty in Huddersfield confirmed a break.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Flash forward to Christmas day; the champagne is flowing, the turkey is done and Duncan gets out the carving knife which he sharpens like a practised butcher, catching the index finger of his left hand in the process, going in to the bone. Is this a totally unique Christmas coincidence I ask myself?   
After a quick wound dressing, carving continued with feeling and the succulent bird was enjoyed by all. Wine highlight of the Christmas meal was was a bottle of   
Zeltinger Schlossberg-Rotlay Trockenbeerenauslese 1969, Duncan's birth year. It was a perfect accompaniment to the Christmas pudding.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder e-book at,, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback edition on

Friday, 23 December 2011


This is our family Christmas tree with a few presents around the base. May I use it as a backdrop to say happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to all my readers.
My writing news of the week is that my first novel, The Stuart Agenda, has now been published as a paperback available from, the US site. We are still working on how to get it to British and European readers without transatlantic shipping costs, so watch this space.
     Today I want to talk about motivation as a character driver in writing. In particular I want to look briefly at what drove Leo Stuart to  kick off the Stuart Agenda, aimed at getting his brother's grandson, Robert, an untested French youth, onto the throne of Scotland. It looks like a formidable challenge; impossible you would say!
     Leo's starting point was a historic grudge against the Hanoverian usurpers who had been put onto the British throne, finally displacing the Catholic family of James II, from whom he claimed descent. It was a resentment that seemed to build as he got older and the burden of it was turning him melancholic. Into that troubled pond, the French Justice Minister throws a veritable boulder. Leo's beloved elder brother didn't die in a boating accident; he was murdered by the British Secret Service, adding fuel to Leo's anti-Hanoverian fire. Leo perhaps over eagerly accepts this new version of history and is easily led by the Minister's anti-English stance, cloaked in EU speak. The Minister's suggestion that Scotland would sooner or later go independent and hints at a process for funding and manipulating the political and constitutional outcome created a plausible way forward.
     So Leo's emotional motivation was partly his own, fired up by new information about his brother's death from the Minister. But can we take the Minister's classic French anti-Englishness at face value? He was a friend of Leo's brother. Is he more deeply involved than he seems?
     So, we have two legs of The Stuart Agenda in place. Leo's motivation and the opportunity for constitutional change presented by Scotland going independent. The missing leg is the candidate, a credible Prince who could persuade the Scots to change horses and dump the Hanoverians for him. Enter Leo's beautiful wife, Francoise. She sensed greatness in the child Robert as she held him shortly after his birth and supported Leo's strategy all the way. She was sure that Robert would have the qualities to make a good king. But was there more to it than that?
     Robert's motivation was also crucial. He quickly inherited Leo's anti-Hanoverian grudge in an emotional visit to the Culloden battlefield, scene of the disastrous defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. The battle ended the long series of Jacobite rebellions that challenged the new Hanoverian order. At Gordonstoun School, Robert excelled at rugby and fell out spectacularly with Prince Henry, the Hanoverian heir apparent. Robert concluded that he was a far better candidate for kingship than Henry, a strongly positive driver as he entered into the final scenes of the maturing conspiracy that had been seeded by his family many years before.
     Summarising; the obvious motivations of the key characters get the story going. However many of the characters are being driven by unseen issues that reveal themselves later in the drama. And of course, motivations change in response to events, particularly when Robert falls in love with a Hanoverian!

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder - e-book at,, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback edition from

Thursday, 15 December 2011

String Theory- Infinite Parallel Universes

String theory has been around for some time as a total physical explanation for the existence and behaviour of the cosmos. The Physics is awesomely impenetrable and the implications mind blowing. So, just the thing to write a poem about! I don't begin to understand the physics but do want to explore what it might mean for we humans, stuck in our three dimensions, with brains that have evolved to operate within these limits.
News from CERN is interesting. The shy Higgs Boson particle has at last started its Dance of the Seven Veils, so we might see it soon, fully revealed. Just as interesting for String Theory, an experiment firing neutrinos at Italy has come to the amazing conclusion that they travelled faster than the speed of light. This is absolutely forbidden under Einstein's rules, so a whispered explanation is that perhaps the neutrinos flipped into a different dimension, within which the different laws of physics allowed them to go faster than 'our' speed of light.

                                   Infinite Parallel Universes

The Princes of Cosmology have decreed
that matter consists of endless numbers
of infinitely long wavy thin strings,
like a billion children holding hands
then lined up head to toe in sheets;
our universe a membrane or a bubble
floating in the eternity of hyperspace.

But what happens when membranes collide?
There we have a big bang but not
The Big Bang; it’s happened many times,
ripples creating clumps of matter
that formed the stars the planets and us.
It takes time back beyond the singularity
with a new shiny theory of everything.

Our world is a spec of dust in the cosmos, 
an infinite series of parallel universes
in eleven different dimensions,
each with different laws of physics

The next dimension hovers very close
alongside, just above our skin; invisible,
where history is different from ours;
Elvis still alive and singing in one,
Nelson losing the battle of the Nile,
friends, family and lovers all different
and one where none of us was ever born.

Alas there is no link, no spy hole to let us see
what’s happening to the other versions of us,
running in blind parallel next door.
We can’t share the joy or the pain
of triumphs or disappointments
that  might have been our other lot,
even if emotion was an allowed state.

Unless the link is our unexplained dreams,
full of people and places we barely know,
or have never even met in this version of life;
each dream a  Technicolor film of detail
so clear that we could hardly make it up.
Are they our friends, loved ones and enemies
in the dimension that hovers just alongside?

Our eyes can’t see it in bright daylight,
awake it’s blotted out by the senses.
When we’re asleep the brain can focus
and make secret contact in the night,
delighting in our parallel fortunes and foibles,
meeting ourselves to swap outcomes
from the hidden world that’s just next door.

But why does the brain bury the dream?
Only fragments come through to confuse us
like snapshot trailers from an unseen movie
that can frighten and move in equal measure.
Is the brain protecting us from something?
Could we handle two or more versions
of ourselves with our evolved  3D brains?

Do the dimensions come in coupled pairs?
One for our bodies, DNA within its rules
the other limited, only electrons and electricity;
no angels or virgins to please the martyrs,
only energy to file away the endless spirits
of every man and animal that ever lived
in a digital Noah’s Ark of heaven and hell.

This is the other world that the mystic, the
shaman and priest always knew was there
and sometimes shows when ghosts get
charged up and stumble onto our stage
as holograms of their former selves.
Is this everlasting life, an electronic store
in that hidden twinned dimension?

Could love cross between dimensions in dreams?
Faithfully hopping between realities, a source
of happiness or sorrow we can’t explain.
For symmetry there must be evil spirits
that drive us mad with unseen delusion.
They were the enemies of our forefathers,
in the dream time, before we lost our sight.

Is God in the theory of everything?
The eternal dimensionless mathematician,
father of the veiled Higgs Boson
creator of mass in the standard theory.
He’s free from Einstein’s rules of the game
with his own perfect universe, reserving
the parallel ours for his experiments in chaos?

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder e-book at,,, Barnes and Noble. Paperback edition coming soon on Amazon.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Choir, Brass and the Veto

Last night I attended the Huddersfield Choral Society Christmas concert in Huddersfield Town Hall, the finest statement of Victorian civic pride in the North of England. The Choir was accompanied by the Black Dyke Band, the best brass band in the world. The concert programme was a terrific mixture of choir, band and audience participation, belting out Hark The Herald Angel Sing and O Come All Ye Faithful, although I thought the descant in the former was a little thin- come on sopranos!
     The choir’s rendering of Still the Night was haunting and thought provoking. The middle verse of three was sung in German, something of a linguistic sandwich. That made me think of poor David Cameron, the filling in yesterday’s rye bread/baguette concoction delivered by chefs Angela and Nik. The bread turned out to be very hot and meat Dave was squeezed out as the Franco/German pincer movement engulfed him. His plea for The City of London was just too small a pimple on the vast fat arse of the Euro crisis. It was a bit like sending a poem into a novel writing contest.
     Worse still, nobody joined him in the refusenik lobby, so, not for the first time in history, we stand alone, to the delight of British Tory euro-sceptics, ever seeking opportunities to widen the English Channel.
      To describe this brutal exercise of realpolitik as the British using their veto spins the meaning of the word well beyond the Oxford English Dictionary. Cameron did not veto a treaty; it will simply be made without Britain. Having said that, I don’t expect the treaty to amount to all that much. It will take years to build on the sand of fudges and test the markets’ patience perhaps to destruction. Even then it won’t be implemented by those countries that choose to behave badly, perhaps rightly when you think of the democratic deficit and pain to come.
      Huddersfield Choral Society and Black Dyke Band both have their roots deep in our world beating Victorian industrial culture, outliving the factories and mills that spawned them. It looks as though Britain will have to look more vigorously beyond Europe, as we have so often done in the past. A degree of reinvention is required, beyond the 'big society' although more of that would help. How do you follow post-Empire, post- Industrial, post-European?

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder- e-book at,, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback version coming soon.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Your Body Chemistry

Here we have two statues, two representations of human figures. The figure on the left is a 'black' madonna from a church in the South of France. She was in a side-chapel at the back of the church, hidden out of the way. Tradition says that this is a representation of Mary Magdalene, a relic from the Cathar set of beliefs that were never quite completely stamped out by the Roman Catholic Church. On the right we have a figure of Scottish reformation man, general difficult character and scourge of popery, John Knox from St Giles Catherdral in Edinburgh. 
In sculpture the human form is mainly depicted in marble or alabaster, both forms of calcium carbonate and less frequently in wood, an organic material composed mainly of cellulose.
The real bodies of the madonna and John Knox would have had a very different compositon, consisting of approximately - water (40 litres), muscle (28 kg), bone (14 kg) and fat (14kg). Looking at the elements and minerals in more detail we would have -
Carbon (16 kg), enough for 9,000 lead pencils.
Calcium (1 kg), the same amount as in 1,450 pints of skimmed milk.
Potassium (140 g), the same amount as in 333 bananas.
Sodium (100 g), the same amount as in 32 bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup
Iron (4.2 g), enough to make two 2.5 cm nails
Fluorine (2.6 g), same amount as in 26 large tubes of toothpaste
Zinc (2.3 g), the same amount as in 181 0ysters
Copper (72 mg), Gold (0.2 mg), Uranium (0.1 mg)

So each one of us is a walking chemistry set, put together very carefully under the influence of sets of genes that scientists are just beginning to unravel.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder e-book at,, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback print version coming soon at Amazon.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Know your Vitamins

The picture above shows the contents of our 'vitamin box,' not that we take all of these all the time. Rather it's an accumulation of dietary supplements recommended over the years for various ailments or more particularly their prevention. These are the products of a multi-billion dollar industry, selling us products that the fit and healthy who follow a balanced diet don't really need. The understanding of the link between paticular vitamins or rather the lack of them and specific ailments was worked out mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by pioneers in the world of biochemistry.
    The critical breakthrough was announced in 1912 by the English biochemist Sir Fredrick Gowland Hopkins who laid the foundations by creating a model artificial diet of highly purified carbohydrates, proteins and fats plus essential minerals. When fed alone, rats failed to thrive but the addition of small amounts of milk or yeast extract to the model diet restored vitality, indicating the presence of powerful life enhancing substances. His work persuaded a new generation of scientists to begin the search to understand the chemical structures of these substances, then dubbed 'vitamines' subsequently shortened to the modern 'vitamins'.        
    That the absence of certain nutrients causes disease was of course not new. The Scottish surgeon James Lind showed in 1753 that fresh lime or lemon juice protected sailors from scurvy. In the nineteenth century it was shown that the incidence of beriberi was reduced among sailors who ate unpolished rice rather than the pure polished material.
   Work on rice polishings continued before and between the wars to uncover the B group of vitamins. Thiamine (vitamin B1) was identified as the agent whose absence from polished rice caused beriberi in humans. Hopkins himself showed that margarine lacked  vital nutrients present in butter. These were subsequently identified as vitamins D and A. Vitamin D, plentiful in cod liver oil, protected growing children from rickets. The structure of the active principle of lime and lemon juice, vitamin C or ascorbic acid was also established in the nineteen thirties. These discoveries had a profound influence on public health policies and led to the state provision of milk in schools as well as cod liver oil and orange juice and influenced nutrition policy worldwide.
     As the father of the science, Hopkins was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1929 jointly with Christiaan Eijkman. Think of them the next time you pop a vitamin pill.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, and Barnes and Noble