Saturday, December 23, 2006

Can we learn this simple lesson?

2006 saw the end of the American neo-con dream (as the BBC's Paul Reynolds describes here).

The idea of American domination of the planet based on military might has foundered at the first hurdle -- a tiny, poor country called Iraq. The world has paid a huge cost for the massive mistake made by these extreme rightwing conservatives, who have pulled Tony Blair in their wake. We can only breathe a big sigh of relief, and another huge sigh at the idea that we all have to pick up the pieces and try to carry on from where they began back before 9/11 and the Bush administration's criminal (because based on electoral fraud) rise to power.

I just want to underline one simple lesson to be learned from this unsavoury episode in global history. It is so simple that even a child understands it, and yet some politicians find it terribly hard to get their heads around.

It's just this: opposition breeds opposition. Conflict breeds conflict.

Cast your minds back to the days following 9/11 and remember the global outpouring of sympathy for America. Never has most of the world been so united in such support for the American people. Briefly, there was an idea that out of the carnage of that attack, could come a realisation that to prevent such things happening again, one could talk with one's enemies, negotiate one's way out of a crisis. That by talking to the administrations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, one could isolate Al Qaeda and the Taliban. America at that point was in a position to call in a lot of favours. It seemed to me briefly possible to obtain a non-violent solution to the problem of Osama bin Laden.

Instead, the Bush administration wanted revenge. The Neo-cons like Donald Rumsfeld saw an opportunity not just to attack Afghanistan, but to target their number one enemy, Iraq. In a few weeks, all that sympathy and goodwill in most of the world was squandered. Hatred of America began to spread like a stain. The unjustifiable level of its violence was used as an excuse to foment anti-American activity -- and by extension, anti-British activity -- in many parts of the world. We now know what a disaster the whole episode was.

Many people saw this coming right at the start -- I'm afraid I am one of them, but it gives me no pleasure to think "I told you so" in these circumstances.

It's a simple fact; I say it again: opposition breeds opposition. Aggression and breeds aggression.

For example, just remember the Second World War. When the Nazis bombed the hell out of England, did we roll over and say okay we surrender? Does any country adopt that reaction when attacked? Of course not, they unite against a common enemy. So why is it that an attacker thinks that when they attack another country they will surrender? America may be the mightiest military power on the planet. They may have by far the largest military budget. But that counts for nothing when your enemy adopts different tactics.

Where do we learn how to deal properly and sensibly with opposition? I know where I learnt -- from martial art philosophy. Taoism, t'ai chi, kung fu -- they all explain how the soft overcomes the hard. How the hard and rigid can be easily broken, but the soft absorbs the shock and bounces back.

The bigger they are the harder they fall. Case in point -- America.

Judo explains how to use the power of your enemy against themselves. T'ai chi demonstrates how you meet opposition by moving out of the way, offering no resistance for the enemy, and then with a minimal effort help them on their way using the momentum of their own attack to topple them or let them tumble to the other side of the room.

In warfare such tactics require thought instead of brute strength. It requires wisdom and patience, not the arrogant, self-centred, narrowminded and ideologically driven madness of the neo-conservatives.

The only battle worth fighting is for hearts and minds.

To create loyalty and friendship you behave with generosity and therefore inspire thanks. You lead by example. If your democracy is so great then it will produce a well-balanced, great and prosperous country, and others will want to emulate it. How, through behaving like a bully, can you expect anyone to be persuaded that you are right?

Why should anyone want to adopt a political system which contains such injustice and inequity as that demonstrated by America nowadays? Many of its people are poor, illiterate, and live in daily terror of violence from gun crime. Hmm, that sounds a bit like Iraq.

What the world needs is not a single superpower. It did not need two superpowers. America did not win the Cold War, Russia lost it. Soviet communism and American imperialism both now belong to the past and deserve to be buried there, along with Nazism.

My hope for 2007 is that we can begin to put this behind us and move towards greater global harmony.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tools for Tanzania

Wanted: Tools for Tanzania
We've just had a flying visit from Joseph Sekiku, who runs Fadeco, a grassroots development project in NW Tanzania. This remote area of Tanzania is informally twinned with the Dyfi Valley where i live.

I'm chair of Friends of Fadeco, which i and some friends started eight years ago after I visited the region and met Joseph.

Joseph is a beautiful man after my own heart, a total inspiration, modest and visionary, and supremely resourceful as Africans have to be.

He is one of three people in an area the size of Wales with a population of 500,000 that have a degree. Most are illiterate and subsistence growers.

I am fully aware of the dangers and ambiguities of much so-called 'development', but we support Joseph's work because it is appropriate, sensitive, and necessary.

In particular we are now supporting the building and fitting out of a training centre - The Eden Centre for Sustainability. They need equipment to train people so they can become self-reliant, and gain an income.

Tools for Self-Reliance is making a delivery to the area in January 2007. We want to get as many tools as possible on this trip. The tools they need are:

Sewing machines: treadles, hand or even electric; carpentry sets: saws, planes, etc; mechanics tools: spanners, car jacks, ladders, wielding tools, soldering tools; masonry tools: brick making machines, trowels, squares, tape measures. etc. A 4X4 motor cycle which can pull a small trailer.

Please donate anything you can.

If you're local perhaps you can leave them at in Machynlleth: Peter Harper/Andy Rowland's houses (21 Heol Pentrahedyn, Machynlleth) or Taliesin: Flic and Richard's /Temperance House or Corris: mine (Glanydon, by the bridge). Or we can pick them up. Someone can then take them all down to TFSR Crickhowell (Is anyone going that way in January?).

If you're not local, TFSR has many local branches. Or go to the FoF web site - link above - and join/make a donation.

We're also supporting a radio station - Joseph has just got a licence from the govt. If anyone has a transmitter, or can donate £1000 to buy one. This would allow the broadcasting of vital health and ecological information to an illiterate and rural population otherwise unreachable.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Origins of the modern Christmas

Why December 25? Because The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Natalis Solis Invicti which marked the birth day of a solar deity called Sol Invictus or Mithras. There's a beautiful temple of Mithras, in Merida, Extremadura, Spain.

Sol Invictus is Latin for The Sun Undefeated - as he survived the shortest day, the Winter Solstice.

In the Vatican is a 3rd century mural of Christ as Helios, the Sun God.

Who is Father Christmas? The traditional Father Christmas was neither a gift bringer, nor associated with children. He has his roots in Paganism.

By the time of the Anglo-Saxons in England (around the mid-5th century AD), it was customary for an elder man from the community to dress in furs and visit each dwelling.

At each house, in the guise of "Old Winter" (or "King Frost" or "King Winter"), he would be plied with food and drink before moving on to the next. It was thought he carried the spirit of the winter with him, and that the winter would be kind to anyone hospitable to Old Winter.

The tradition was strengthened when the Vikings invaded Britain (during the period from the late 8th century to the 11th century) and brought their own midwinter traditions with them; these involved the god Odin, traditionally represented as a portly, elderly man with a white beard.

The custom was still kept in Medieval England, after a decline during the Commonwealth under the Puritans.

Christmas itself was banned by Puritans between 1647 and 1660.

The custom became widespread again during the Restoration period. Father Christmas was also a significant character in Christmas Mummers' Plays.

A book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, The Vindication of Christmas, depicts Father Christmas advocating a merry, alcoholic Christmas and being cynical about the charitable motives of the ruling Puritans.

During the Victorian era, he was merged with "Old Winter", "Old Christmas" or "Old Father Christmas", and the charitable Saint Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox Saint (or Dutch one, depending on the version). This character did give gifts to children.

In 1863, a caricaturist for Harper's Weekly named Thomas Nast gave Santa a "flowing set of whiskers" and dressed him "all in fur, from his head to his foot." Nast's 1866 montage entitled "Santa Claus and His Works" established Santa as a maker of toys; an 1869 book of the same name collected new Nast drawings with a poem by George P. Haddon identified the North Pole as Santa's home.

In 1931 Coca Cola helped popularise this already existing, portly, sack-wielding image of Santa in a successful advertising campaign, but did not create the image, as they would have you believe.

Perhaps it's time to return to the roots of Christmas, and away from the modern consumer frenzy, which is hardly compatible with either Christianity, paganism, or sustainability.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How scientists are stupid

What is it about scientists that they never learn? Isn't the scientific method supposed to be about: theory -> prediction -> observation -> evaluation -> new theory? The so-called falsifiability method?

But here they are in the latest edition of the New Scientist - a special half-century birthday edition - all lining up to tell you all the wonderful things they think are going to happen in their own specialist fields in the next half-century. The leaders in their respective fields wax lyrically about everything from unlimited supplies of transplantable human organs to invisible technology with the potential to create life on other planets, from information sharing between parallel universes to robotic scientists, from artificial life mimicking human consciousness to the death of religion, and whole body replacement.

It all seems strangely reminiscent of the Sixties, when scientists envisaged a future where we would by now have conquered Mars and Venus, be living a life of leisure serviced by robots, and flying around in our own personal hover cars. Instead we are living in a world which is for my money even worse than any of the pessimistic dystopias created by science fiction writers ever since then.

Of course it's not science that is to blame for this necessarily. It's the application of scientific discovery and technology by politicians, society and economists. We are creating the largest amount of species extinction in the shortest amount of time since the asteroid that wiped out all the dinosaurs. We are sitting on a massive population explosion in which most people don't have access to clean water and enough to eat let alone can afford a whole body transplant when they get ill. We cannot eradicate war and the arms trade. We are causing irreparable harm to the planet's climate.

It's astonishing how optimistic the scientists are. Don't they ever poke their heads out of their own research cubicles to look at the world around them? Don't they learn from experience? Isn't that what science is supposed to be about?

None of them even mention climate change, biodiversity loss, the lack of clean water supplies, eradicating war, resource depletion or a hundred other problems affecting the world's poor or the environment.

Are these scientists really any better than the leaders of monotheistic religious cults who themselves never look at the practical effect of preaching that theirs is the one true religion - while claiming it to be morally irreproachable?

Perhaps if scientists ruled the world things might be a little different, but they don't. Instead we keep electing people who don't know much about anything except how to persuade us that they know best and convince us to believe in their vapid promises. We listen to people who appeal to our short-term and narrow interests.

I'm glad that scientists don't rule the world, since they have little idea of the value of the imagination. They are far too specialist to see the big picture.

Perhaps our only possibility of being saved by science is that scientists will one day create a machine that is capable of computing all the possibilities and mapping out for us the best of all possible worlds.

But even if this was possible, I'm sure that nobody would trust it sufficiently to do what it says.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The manufacture of terror

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller of MI5 has made the unusual step of going public to say that MI5 knows of 30 terror plots threatening the UK and is keeping 1,600 individuals under surveillance.

Do we believe her?

The threat from this quarter is certainly higher than it was before the asinine invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But 30 plots? Here are some reasons why we should treat her remarks with some scepticism.

1. She made it at the same time as asking for more government funds, and government departments always want more funds. And yet MI5 is already twice as big as it was pre-9-11. But do we want to live in a paranoid state? Does the potential threat to a few individuals really justify this level of stress for the whole population?

2. Eliza talks of future threats such as dirty bombs, biological weapons and other horrors, designed to make us rush into her protective arms for safety. I'm sorry, I've heard it before, and even if it may be true, again, the potential threat doesn't make me want to live in the kind of country Eliza wants to create.

3. The timing of her remark comes just a few days after Dhiren Barot was sentenced to at least 40 years in jail for planning a series of attacks, for maximum effect. Fear distorts judgement, and she knows that.

4. An example: over 1,000 arrests have been made under anti-terrorism since 9/11. Out of those, 27 have been found guilty of which only nine have been Muslims. Less than 1% of those arrested.

5. Fear breeds fear. We are in danger of helping to create - as we already have done by our meddling - itself caused by faulty intelligence - more of the very thing we fear.

Let's try and learn from history, get some perspective.

The origin of MI5

Modern Britain began in the 16th century with the foundation of a Protestant state. At that time the majority of the British population was Catholic. Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham helped to found the secret service - today's MI5 - to protect this fledgling state from real and perceived Catholic plots and bolster the hegemony which they benefited from.

Yes, the motivation was religion and power.

At this time, wonderful innovations were introduced - such as torture on the rack to extort confessions, usually suspect, sanctioned for use by Queen ELizabeth and employed by one of the most perverted sadists ever to serve the British State, a man called Topcliffe.

Walsingham created a network of paid informers, dubious spies, encryption experts, forgers, shady double dealers, fanatics, criminals, businessmen wanting diplomatic help with deals in exchange for information, and agents provocateur, to gather information (or misinformation) about Catholic priests and their supporters at home and abroad, in order to persecute and prosecute them.

Many of these 'plots' were invented, manufactured or helped along for political ends. This eventually resulted in his entrapment of Queen Mary Stuart, and her execution.

There is no difference between the methods used then and now. They just seem to be more sophisticated. Then, as now, Burghley and Walsingham exaggerated the threats for their own purposes. They used all the techniques of modern spin for propaganda. They spread rumours to stir the population against Catholics.

Walsingham even proposed an alliance with Islamic Turkey against Catholic Spain before the Armada.

How things change - or not.

The enemy changed

Only twenty years ago the enemy was still Catholic - the IRA. How distant this seems now.

But there was another enemy in the '80s - so-called anarchists. I myself was allegedly one of these, and operated on the fringes of various activities in London. I saw first hand the absurd attempts of MI5 to infiltrate and spread scare stories about anarchist activities.

At one point an attempt was made to plant an agent in our collective. He was spotted straight away, so inept was he. Simultaneously it emerged that Greenpeace London's group - the one campaigning against McDonald's - contained more agents reporting on each other than it did real members.

Every so often a scare story about an anarchist plot to blow something up would appear in the press, which we knew was a silly season tactic, more to do with MI5's funding needs than reality.

How times have changed - or not.

Of course there is a threat - but mostly it's from misguided little-more-than-children. A simple change of foreign policy will nip most of it in the bud, don't we know.

So should we trust Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller?

I wouldn't trust MI5 further than I'd trust Tony Blair. Can I make it any clearer? I trust my cat more.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Mass graves of babies in Ireland

I met Barry Simner the other night at our local writers' group. He's a long-time tv scriptwriter. He said that he was researching a story in Ireland recently and came across two mass graves - 5000 bodies each - of babies, being dug up.

This is literally a buried scandal of Irish life... For various reasons - mostly to do with Catholicism of course - unbaptised, some possibly aborted, babies were secretly buried at a locally known spot out of town.

Everyone knew about them but 'officially' they did not exist - no one spoke of them. Presumably most towns have such spots.

As the Vatican is now considering abolishing limbo - the fantasy place where unbaptised babies' souls are alleged to reside for eternity - this topic is coming to the surface, again literally, in Irish discourse.

Parents, unable to grieve publicly for their lost children, need to be able to do so but have been prevented by a moralistic Church.

Another example of the anguish caused by a so-called compassionate religion.

Anybody have any more info on this?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Whose agenda is served?

Last Saturday the lead item on BBC News all day was the one about a BA air hostess suing her employer because as a 'devout Christian' she couldn't wear a cross openly at work.

There was so much newsworthy material around all day, including major riots in Chile that didn't even make the bottom rung of the news. How was it decided this should have top billing? Why? Who sets the agenda? We should be very worried.

People who are so monomaniacal about what they wear (like the teacher/hijab wearer the previous day, whom someone sensibly suggested should be fired) would be advised to have cognitive therapy to 'cure' them were they not claiming to be a member of a major religion.

As it is these attention-seekers are given the attention they crave, which only serves to inflame the siituation further, causing more with their type of mental disorder to come forward.

Politicians are required to 'declare their [commercial] interests' and disqualified if conflicts of interest arise. Any employee who is evangelical or fundementalist has a similar conflict of interest and should similarly be disqualified. There's no such thing as a 'higher calling' - it's actually a form of hallucination.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Praise for Orhan Pamuk

It is entirely appropriate that Orhan Pamuk has been awarded the 2006 Nobel prize for Literature.

I don't believe critics who say his comments on the Armenian genocide have been influential in his winning this prize.

I predicted a year ago he would one day get it. His work simply deserves it.

My Name is Red and Snow are among the best books I've ever read, and the former rivals novels like 100 Years of Solitude in its poetry, scope, multi-levelled effectiveness and ambition. Not to mention its enjoyablity.

He straddles the difficult terrain between east and west, Islam and Europe with imagination, courage and dignity.

I've seen him speak and exchanged a few words at the Hay Festival. A modest man with a thorough and complete approach to his work, who believes in truth and the power of literature to enlighten and have a positive influence. An example to all writers.

In literary and academic circles the announcement that he's become the first Turkish person ever to win a Nobel prize has been justifiably greeted with joy. "He is a representative of modern Turkey," said Cengiz Aktar, an academic in Istanbul. "He will probably now become the conscience of modern Turkey." Let's hope so.

Naturally he has his critics. Especially in a corrupt government that wants to have it both ways - to be 'European' and to abuse the powerless. More power to Orhan Pamuk.

Sad news, Terry jones is ill, gig is off

from Terry's agent:

"Bad news, I'm afraid. Terry has had to go into hospital for emergency surgery (actually it's next Friday) but post op will need other treatment. His consultant is saying it's best for him to cancel things for the next six months. I'm awfully sorry but I'm sure you understand. Keep my email and maybe sometime in the future....."

I've sent our best wishes to him. Thanks everyone. Sadly the gig is postponed indefinitely.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Monty Python Brian's Second Coming!

We've confirmed Sunday 7 January 2007 for monty Python's Terry Jones and Sue Jones-Davies, stars of 'Life of Brian', to be at the Machynlleth Tabernacl and discuss the film and see a screening to raise money for Fadeco. A big thank you to both of them. I don't think they've ever met since making the film, though Sue's made a few more films and is now ... my yoga teacher!

This is the biggest fundraising event Friends of Fadeco has attempted and a big opportunity to raise our profile. [If you're not a member please join by going to that web page and downloading the form!]

It might be nice to have a get-together afterwards at someone's house in Mach as well, to which we could invite Terry and Sue, to chat more informally, with a small buffet. I wonder if anyone wants to volunteer their house and we could all chip in with the buffet?

Could we have a get-together to plan the event, and who wants to do what? I'd like to start on publicity now, to maximise turnout and awareness. Could we meet on Monday 16th in the White Lion at 7.30? Is there anyone else as well - other FoFs - eg in Taliesin - that you could tell about this please? Feel free to pass this on.

With Pete Telfer [of documentary production company the Pixel Foundry] we are hoping to film the event and cooking up an idea for a documentary programme where we might fly Terry and Sue out to Tanzania to see what's really going on there. We're working on the idea 'The Second Coming of Brian'. What would Brian think if he came back 2000 years later and saw the mess people had made of His legacy?

We've suggested the idea to Terry's agent and I'm waiting to hear back.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hybrids proof copies mailed out

Hundreds of uncorrected proof copies of Hybrids have just been mailed out.

Cover blurb

Are you...

  • A slave to your computer?

  • Welded to your mobile phone?

  • Joined at the hip to your iPod?

Maybe, one day, you will be...

Johnny and Kestrella are hybrids, victims of 'Creep', a virus whiuch cauases sufferers to merge with frequently-used items of technology.

As hysteria grips the nation, they live in fear of being rounded up and sent to the mysterious Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation, never to be seen again...

Compelling, contemporary and though-provoking, David Thorpe's sci-fi thriller is esssential reading for the cyberspace generation.

  • Winner of the nationwide HarperCollins/SAGA Magazine competition which attracted nearly 900 entries.

  • The panel of judges included Ornage prize-winning author Helen Dunmore, who says: "The writing is sharp, the dalogue good, and the action pacey and page-turning. But there's real depth to this story too. like all good fiction it makes the reader see the world in a different light, like HG Wells and J ohn Wyndham."

  • Also from the judges: "wonderfully original...totally fresh and exciting...vivid and unputdownable."

Publication: 8 May 2007

  • Proof mailing to all key influencers including UK buyers, journalists, teachers and librarians

  • Blanket review coverage and features in national, local and trade press, magazines and online

  • Major feature in Saga magazine, as well as reviews and author interviews in teen press and national and regional newspapers

  • Radio interviews.

For more information contact:

ISBN 0 00 724784 4 | £5.99

Friday, October 06, 2006


Word is my friend
I shall not want.
I make him lie down on white
And he leads me to the waters of comfort.
He mines my soul
And directs me towards the light, for his and my sakes.
Even if I am lost in the field of confusion
I will not be afraid.
For he is with me;
His grace and his logic.

You provide me with riches beyond count
And unite peoples.
You have swept a wind of clarity through my mind
And my well of inspiration will never run dry.
But your loyalty and warmth
Will bring me calm all my life
And I will live in the House of Word
For ever.

[from a radio play, The School Play, I'm writing now]

I'm on Wikipaedia. How weird is that?

My younger son came in yesterday and said "You're on Wikipaedia". We looked. And I was.

It was almost as weird as the day nine months ago when I found a book I did a long time ago, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect, was for sale on Amazon, when the publishers melted away 15 years back.

[I've since taken over the stock and ordering of it. So if you want to buy it direct from me, please email me, then I get the whole cover price instead of just 40%.]

Who does this kind of thing? Methinks the latter was a comic shop in the US called Mile High, and I don't know which lovely person did the Wikipaedia entry.

Anyway, being a stickler for truth and accuracy, I have updated it. So you can go and see it - and even change it - if you really like.

Maybe anyone, however obscure, can be on Wikipaedia, for doing hardly anything: "Jack O'Donnell [fictitious name] in 1989 wrote ascreenplay 'The Other Side of My Foot', which was never made." I wonder how at Wikipaedia they decide how trivial something has to be before it goes in?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Science fiction is the main literary tradition of the last 100 years

Science fiction is indisputably the main literary tradition of the 20th century and, for all we know the 21st, although there are some who may not want to recognise the fact. Over the last 100 years, ever since Einstein achieved his revelation with his special theory of relativity, science has pushed back our understanding of ourselves and the universe to an unimaginable degree and brought technological benefits and curses that previous generations would have called miracles and cataclysms.

By using technology to magnify and extend our natural senses we have made exponentially revelatory discoveries about the world around us whether by burrowing deeper into the nano scale or peering further back to the far side of the universe and the beginning of time. We have discovered how tiny and insignificant we are, and how, if there is only one God, He must surely have His hands full with all those billions of galaxies to look after, so what time could He possibly have for us? The more we discover with our hyper-magnified senses, the more we develop and refine our theories of reality -- although each generation of scientists has liked to appear supremely confident in its knowledge. Cumulatively, the effect has been to instil in us a sense of inevitability of progress -- a future which goes on until the heat death of the universe -- in which mankind has the potential to continually adapt himself in order to survive, and in which cultures and societies may be disruptively different from our own.

As a partial consequence, fiction writers have had their imaginations magnified by a greater ability to perceive the possibilities for human endeavour, and compare them with the reality.

One of JG Ballard's insights is that Surrealism is the main visual tradition of the 20th century, as well as science fiction being the main literary tradition. As someone who studied Surrealism and Dadaism, I would say that it is not just the visual tradition of Surrealism but the philosophy of Dadaism and Surrealism together which represents the only sane and the dominant response for witnesses of the tragic vulcanic chasm that exists as a tectonic rift valley between the parallel paths of the development throughout the last 100 years of science and technology on the one hand and human political misgovernment on the other. After all, at the beginning Andre Breton could not even imagine that Surrealism could be a visual art movement.

Dada, Surrealism and science fiction all employ the imagination to objectivise aspects of our present condition which we may find painful or difficult to explore otherwise. From HG Wells through Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Ballard himself, William Gibson, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, Kurt Vonnegut and many more, science fiction has been used to seduce us into accepting the dark and unforeseen consequences of our shortsighted decisions. It has of course also been used to trace the dreams of imperial fantasies, especially when sanctioned by the mighty corporate finance of the planet's dominant hegemony -- we are talking Star Trek, Star Wars and similar space opera. Here we see America dreaming an interplanetary pastoral allegory of how it would like the rest of the world to perceive its benign expansionism. Such films have dominated the top ten box office smashes of the last twenty years.

And then there are comics, specifically American comic books, which frequently merge both Surrealism and science fiction to create, as Stan Lee himself has often said, a modern mythology all the more remarkable for being the product of hundreds and hundreds of authors working in concert to create a self-consistent universe populated with fantastic characters who act out their parts in cosmic dramas of life, death and ultimate meaning, as well as love, tragedy and betrayal. Like any good pantheon from Norse to Hindu mythology, there is always one superhero you can choose to identify with, whether it's the driven, guilt-ridden Batman, the messianic Warlock, the simple-minded, clean cut Superman, the Jekyll-and-Hyde rage machine that is the incredible Hulk, or the macho loner with the sensitive heart who is Wolverine. Although much of this pop art is trash, it has also produced its share of the greatest literature of the last hundred years, from the keyboards of writers such as Neil Gaimon, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, whether or not these are recognised by departments of English literature in any of our universities.

A central principle of Surrealism is taken from Pierre Reverdy, who remarked in 1918 that the most powerful poetic image is one which brings together the most disparate and even opposing elements. The further apart they were originally the greater the charge generated by compositing them side-by-side. A central principle of Dadaism is that rejection and gallows humour are legitimate responses to the absurd atrocities generated by the so-called developed world's way of life. Mainstream 'modernist' and 'post-modern' literature, with the exception of 'sociological' big picture fiction, has failed to tackle these issues with such effectiveness and engagement. Much mainstream literature, particularly in Britain, tends to concentrate on pitiful singular dramas of frequently isolated and alienated individuals. By contrast science fiction takes the big picture and forces us to confront what is at the focus of our blind spot when we stare into the mirror. And it frequently does it by using the above principles.

The greatest exponent of this type of writing and the greatest writer of the 20th century is undoubtedly.... William Burroughs. To call him a science fiction writer is a bit like calling Mozart a pianist. The potency of Mozart lies in overarching virtuoso energy and originality of his total vision, and the same is true for Burroughs. If one were to seek out a single metaphor which more than any other expresses the relationship of the individual to the time in which he lives during the last hundred years it has to be that of the junkie and his supply chain. Eric Mottram's book on Burroughs, the Algebra of Need, explains brilliantly how this metaphor pictures humanity as trapped in the web of exploitation and deceit that is the inevitable result of predicating that society on naked economics, removing meaning from life, and the leeching of power from the individual to those at the top; and how the success of this system is akin to the success of a virus which infects its host and uses it to manufacture further copies of itself, ad infinitum. The means of the infection of our minds is metaphorically the same. The result is the environmental and human suffering and devastation which we see around us burgeoning on every continent on the planet.

This can be the only valid topic for any self-respecting and compassionate writer nowadays. The corporations have hypnotised us by letting us wallow in one end of the Horn of Plenty, but at the other end of this supply line is a vision of hell on earth. Science fiction writers can help us visualise a better alternative.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Richard Collins

Richard CollinsRichard Collins is a local writer and an old friend. He is the author of two published novels, the first of which, The Land as Viewed from the Sea, was shortlisted for the whitbread First Novel Prize in 2004.

The Land as Viewed from the Sea by Richard CollinsThis novel is set in unnamed but recognisable locations around this part of west Wales - anyone who knows the area will have a great time recoginsing them. And anyone who knows our community, will have fun trying to identify the real people his characters are drawn from too!

It is a Chinese box of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, a beautitiful love tale lyrically told.

Overland by Richard CollinsRichard's second book, Overland, was published in May and is a road movie set on the continent.

I have a feeling his third novel, in development on now, will be even better - like his first, a complex interweaving, this time of identity, outdoor theatre and gardens. He is currently seeking an agent.

Richard and I are co-chairs, with his partner Flic, of Friends of Fadeco (there's a picture of us both on this link!), which supports local development work in one of the poorest and remotest parts of the worls. We have all been to this part of NW Tanzania and come back enriched.

We urge you to join the FoF, and send us donations to help the grassroots developmnt work there, including building and running a training centre.

Richard is a great guy, and one of these days I'm going to build his web site. In the meantime, you can discover a bit more about Richard Collins here, here and here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Happy Birthday David Rudkin

David Rudkin was 80 very recently. Quite amazing, the man doesn't look much older than me, with his pepper-and-salt beard, and his stocky, fit frame. He looks more like a sailor on shore leave than one of the UK's foremost playwrights and screenplay author.

I felt very privileged to be invited by David Rabey and Charmian Saville (of Lurking Truth theatre company) to a celebration in their garden of the occasion, and of the Aberystwyth Unversity Theatre Dept giving Rudkin an Honorary Professorship.

Some of the cream of the old guard of British theatre were at this small gathering, including Howard Barker, Arnold Wesker, John Arden (with a halo of white hair), and Margaret D'Arcy (resplendent in a brown headscarf and dark glasses).

Tributes were read out from friends present and absent, and Rabey read an extract from The Sons of Light, about turning the pain of human existence into raw material for creativity, which I thoroughly identify with.

He co-wrote the screenplay to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - still relevant today, as is most of Rudkin's work.

There were guests from as far as Sweden, and a sprinkling of local writers and artists. I had an inspiring conversation with Lucy Gough, who has just finished writing for Hollyoaks - she wrote 300 episodes - I can't imagine what that would be like.

She's working on a stage version of Frankenstein, sympathetic to the monster. My own work is on similar themes. Because of my health, I'm fascinated by science-human interface, by health issues, and by 'outsider' status - how it happens.

We agreed to share progress on our work.

And we all toasted Rudkin's health - happy birthday and many more to come!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Art on trial in Turkey

Michael Dickinson - or Mick Dick as my friend Frank Jackson and I knew him in Brixton - faces trial in Turkey for displaying a collage.

Tony Blair has intervened asking the Turkish PM for his release. As Mick is an anarchist I'm not sure of his attitude on this!

Anyway, he's also performed a play in Istanbul which insults both Islam and Christianity.

Regardless of the merits of both works, we should support is right to perform and exhibit. Many people are under trial in Turkey for speaking out - like Orhan Pamuk, one of my favourite writers, who got off due to his fame and an international outrcry.

Here is Mick's latest email bulletin.

At present I'm still waiting to hear the date when I will be called to court.

The story has sparked interest.

Tony Blair's appeal for my pardon was featured on the front page of a popular Turkish daily yesterday, and last night an interview with me was shown on a Turkish tv station.

Today I was interviewed and filmed by an international tv news agency, along with pictures from my latest collage exhibition at a local cafe.

You can see the picture (and others) and read the story at the Stuckism site -

Charles Thomson, the founder, has been very supportive in the troubles I've had since I joined the Stuckists.

Talking of the real story behind Easter, I finally got that darned play on at a theatre here in Istanbul last month with an international amateur cast. If I do get imprisoned for this (?), I would like my supporters to hold public readings of the script in support.

Seriously though, who knows what the next stage is?

Perhaps, as Charles Thomson said in his last letter to me -

"I think it's win-win now. Either they think better of prosecuting because of the fuss it could cause, or they go ahead, and everything's primed for an international outcry, which could have much bigger political repercussions on Turkey."

It could drag on.

I'll let you know when things get official.

This is a good site about cases of people being charged in Turkey with this sort of thing.

I spoke on the phone to them today and told them about my situation.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saga review of Hybrids

The link on yesterday's blog doesn't seem to work so here's the text:

After an astounding 883 manuscripts, months of reading, weeks of deliberation and one delayed announcement due to that staggering response: ladies and gentlemen – we have a winner.

David Thorpe, 51, has won the Saga/HarperCollins competition to find a new children’s book-writing talent with his book Hybrids. His book will be published in Spring 2007. Our congratulations go out to him. “It’s a dream come true,” said David from his home in Snowdonia, near Aberdovey. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve written, and wanted to be a writer. But I had a lot of bad luck with getting anything published, and sort of gave up. Up until now.”

As outlined in the editor’s letter, David, an environmental journalist, sometime scriptwriter and cartoon-strip inventor, had to dictate his book using voice-recognition software, as mild childhood cerebral palsy had matured into painful carpal tunnel syndrome, making typing almost impossible.

His 50th birthday saw him living in Wales with his two children, Dion, 17, Nemos, 13, and Greek wife Zoe, and a complimentary copy of Saga magazine sent to him to commemorate this landmark just happened to be the issue in which we began the competition.

“I had a feeling it might be OK when my son took a draft to school and a group of kids started reading it over his shoulder. They were saying ‘Turn the page! Turn the page!’ It’s simply fabulous that I’ve won – I wrote it simply for myself, not what I thought the market was looking for, as so often tends to happen. And this is a vindication of that approach.”

One of the judges, Orange-prize winning author Helen Dunmore, said of the book: “Hybrids questions our human dependence on technology, and the loneliness of children and teenagers who may have a stronger relationship with computers and mobile phones than with flesh-and-blood family and friends. It’s a powerful ‘What if?’ fantasy, whose central premise is that humans - especially young humans - begin to bond with the pieces of technology that they use most.

“The writing is sharp, the dialogue good, and the action pacey and page-turning. But there’s a real depth to this story, too. Like all good fiction it makes the reader see the world in a different light.”

Gillie Russell, the publishing director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said: “I was so impressed with not only the quantity of submissions to the competition but the quality of the writing. It has far and away exceeded our expectations and has been an incredibly hard job to choose the shortlist, let alone a winner.

But someone had to win, and for us the clear champion was Hybrids by David Thorpe. His wonderfully original and compelling story is told in alternating voices of the two young teenage protagonists in a totally fresh and exciting way. The reader is instantly drawn into the world which is current, but not quite; which is real, but only just; which is horribly close to our fears of what is happening and may happen in the future. Exciting, page-turning, vivid and unputdownable, Hybrids and David Thorpe will, I’m sure, be a real winner - not only within Saga, but in the children’s book market as a whole.”

Of the shortlisted three stories from a longlist of fifteen, each had their own particularly enjoyable and well –written plot, characterisation and compelling narrative. Each was very different from the other: a comic fantasy, an atmospheric ghost story and a sci-fi thriller – which certainly made the task of reading and selecting the winner varied and enjoyable.

The other two runners-up were The Standing Stones of Fowlis Wester by Alexander Gardiner, and Lord of Aldhammer by Annemarie Allan. Orange-prize winning author Helen Dunmore compiled these reports on each.

The Standing Stones of Fowlis Wester by Alexander Gardiner

Lively, fast-paced and well-constructed, this is the story of the battle between good and evil and the awakening of forces which want to destroy the human race. There are giants, ogres, dwarf armies, magical swords, a talisman and creatures which grow fat on the oozings from coffins ... and above all a very well-handled interface between the everyday human world of policemen and supermarkets and the world of magic.

Comedy and strong characterisation are the main strengths of this story. Moss Tudloch, the dwarf who drags the human boy Roger into the magical world, is very well developed. His earthiness grounds the fantasy. His romantic secrets have a humorous edge to them, and his tough, stroppy, loyal personality is completely convincing. When Roger crams the dwarf’s injured body into a stolen pushchair, and his maliciously curious neighbours pull down the tartan covers to see the ‘baby’. “Moss’s gnarled, meaty hands shot out, grabbed both women by their noses and twisted them – violently”. Moss may fit into a pushchair, but he is no pushover...

Lord of Aldhammer by Annemarie Allan

The setting is an isolated Scottish community on the shores of the Firth of Forth. This story has emotional depth as well as a strong dramatic structure. It’s a ghost story: in Aldhammer the past won’t lie down, just as the dead won’t lie peacefully in the graveyard. The past sucks the life out of the present, deforming it in a way which is uncompromisingly ugly and cruel. Aldhammer, with its bleak shoreline covered in seaweed, broken bricks and sea-clutter, its walls of mist and rain, and its bored, deviant teenagers, comes to life from the first pages. Maura’s quest to save the souls of her unborn sister and her mother from the voracious Lord of Aldhammer reveals that her own identity hides a mixture of dark and light. The quality of the writing and the solid, believable setting anchor the drama of Maura’s journey and make this an atmospheric and compelling book.

But for Helen Dunmore too, Hybrids pipped them to the post. Her review went thus: The central premise is that humans begin to bond with the pieces of technology that they use most. This hybrid virus - Creep - can give a girl a mobile for an arm, or a boy a computer monitor for a face. Like all pandemics, it creates hysteria.

David Thorpe has imagined his world through and through, with its Gene Police, its Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation, and its feral, desperate kids who have hybridised and want to stay out of the clutches of the authorities. The question of what it is to be human isn’t asked directly, but the whole book implicitly deals with it. The characterisation is very good; Johnny Online, rejected by his mother, struggling to survive, tough, feisty and wary; Cheri Winter, an idealist trying to provide refuge for the victims of hybrid plague; the street kids who pool their knowledge and don’t trust anyone; the boss of technology corporation Mu-Tech who may have released Creep into the world without reckoning on the power of the virus to mutate.

Friday, May 26, 2006

What's a hybrid?

A few notes on the origins of hybrids as used in my novel.

First, a link to the competition results page where more judges' comments and details of the runners-up can be found.

Hybrids have many qualities:
  • Are part human-part technology
  • The technology has to be electronic
  • The victims must merge with gadgets they use frequently
  • The condition is the result of a transmissible disease, probably a virus
  • The sufferers have to be adolescent when they get the disease
  • The disease operates on the dna of the subject.

Where did the idea come from?

I get asked this a lot. As there are so many aspects to hybrids, the different ideas have different roots:
  • Flan O'Brien's Third Policeman contains a literary antecedent. A character uses his bike so much he ends up swapping molecules with it and the bike begins to display human qualities - it can be found in the bar - and vice versa - our man is seen weaving down the gutter late at night. That's not electronic though.
  • There's obvious parallels with cyborgs - Star Trek's Borg, Cybermen - except that they have the emotion taken out and are mindless enemies. Hybrids are very definitely human. Maybe more like those in Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner by Ridley Scott) as they lament their lack of humanity (but androids aren't cyborgs, they're artificially created humans)
  • Mutants - like the X-Men - have their DNA altered. But it's always puzzled me why they always seem to benefit from their mutation - and either want to save the world or destroy it. You never get a mutant who is in agony due to their condition. But that's the limitation of the superhero genre. Nevertheless, since I used to edit and write Marvel comics, I'm a big X-Men fan, especially Grant Morrison's version.
  • Aids, and how it and its victims were seen in the '80s - and still are in many places
  • On a personal level, being slightly disabled, I have always felt the discomfort and sense of 'outsideness' disabled people feel when they look at the able-bodied world. Hybrids are outside the system.
  • This can transform into growing political awareness as you realise the socially-constructed barriers to acceptance, and where they originate.
  • Genetic engineering; our dependence on and obsession with technology, how it is permeating our lives, dematerialising, and how this is fed and led by corporate expansionism. Bio-chips.
  • Our changing relationship to our bodies - we often despise and want to change them.
As regards the storyworld, this is a development of that found in my '80s work, Doc Chaos.

Is that enough?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hybrids - what the judges said

The judges were: Gillie Russell, Fiction Publishing Director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, Emma Soames, Editor of Saga Magazine, and author Helen Dunmore, winner of the first Orange Prize for Fiction.

They said:

For me the clear champion is Hybrids by David Thorpe. His wonderfully original and compelling story is told in the alternating voices of the two young teenage protagonists in a totally fresh and exciting way.

The reader is instantly drawn into a world which is current but not quite; which is real but only just; which is horribly close to our fears of what is happening and may happen in future. Exciting, page-turning, vivid and unputdownable, Hybrids and David Thorpe will I am sure be a real winner.

The alternating voices of the two protagonists will draw children in immediately with their fresh contemporary and compelling teenage voices.

The author writes so that one is immediately drawn in -- shown rather than told the story, which is key and critical for success and isn't always the case with new writers.

It questions our human dependency on technology and the loneliness of children and teenagers who may well have a stronger relationship with their computer, iPod and their mobile than with their own families and is a powerful and interesting way of dealing with an ever present difficulty in writing children's books, that is the way of "removing the parents" from the main thrust of the plot, in an original way.

It shows the reader our world in a different light and, like all the good, seminal writers of sci-fi, it takes the new technology and pushes it further and faster than is actually happening -- thereby tapping into our fears that things are changing faster than we can really cope with -- just as the great writers like John Wyndham did with Day of the Triffids and HG Wells with the War of the worlds etc.

The narrative is vivid and the imagery is strong -- I believe children will get a real buzz from Hybrids -- it will snatch the imagination and change the world a little bit each reader, which is what good fiction does. If strong imager stay in the mind, e.g. the Gene Police chasing the boy who had bonded with a scooter and forcing him to crash.

I believe we can take Hybrids into the marketplace in a way which is fresh and exciting and that it will attract good reviews and publicity on the strength of its writing and originality.

Friday, April 21, 2006

"The new J K Rowling"

It began with a copy of Saga magazine falling gratuitously through my letterbox.

When you're 100 you get a telegram from the Queen but when you're 50 you get, through the dubious machinations of database and personal information management, a copy of Saga magazine.

Oh no, I thought. This is it. I really have joined the ranks of the oldies. From here on it's downhill. Pension funds and bus passes here I come. Zimmer frames can't be far behind. It's over.

[Which makes me think, now that more and more people are living longer, perhaps Saga should launch a new mag for Centenarians - called Gaga perhaps. I didn't say that.]

Anyway as I thumbed despondently through the pages of adverts for cut-price cruises and vitamin supplements and creams to fight aging next to pics of Cliff Richards, I came across a competition announcing in big letters "Could you be the next J K Rowling"?

Sure, I thought. Why not.

Actually, no, as I'm male and not particularly good looking.

But anyway I like literary competitions since at least it means someone is going to read what you write. And with entry restricted to over-50s, that would increase the odds.

So I started writing, in the odd hour I could snatch here and there. This work was made possible and speeded up thanks to voice dictation technology.

Yet, one year later, as the pixels coalesced on the final draft, I firmly believed that what I'd written - for myself - not calculated to aim for any market - was too 'old' for the competition's stated target readership - 8-14. But what the hell, the competition had spurred me to write it and I could always send it somewhere else. So I sent it in anyway.

Two months later, I'm phoned by Sally Gritten, MD of the Childrens Books Division of HarperCollins, to say I've won.

'Hybrids' will be published in April 2007.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on earlier drafts, including my sons Dion and Nemos, and their friends Tudor, his girlfriend (sorry forgotten your name), Izzy Rabey, Malachy Doyle, Richard Collins, Zoe Savvidou, Lucinda Beatty, Cheryl Huntbach, Frank Jackson, Betty Jackson, and anyone else I've forgotten.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

How to be an adept

I'm dubious myself, since trying to put this stuff into words literally either sounds weak or pretentious. But here is an attempt...

We are all novices. It takes years to become an adept.

An adept at what? Ho ho.

Being an adept is about managing change. To manage change you need to understand change. All change is relative, so your terms of reference and your scale are important. You want to exert change relative to what? By how much?

These terms and scale can change for each project or operation you undertake.

For each project you must know the territory inside out. This requires substantial research, the necessary resources to be gathered, and a calm mind.

The terms of reference which you employ must coincide with the real and the potential worlds.

The potential contains the real like a bowl contains suspended solids. If you work in a nearly saturated environment, in other words one where the potential events nearly precipitate into real events, then success is more likely.

We assume that the universe operates according to natural laws and that randomness also exists.

You must be rooted in the Creative and operate in the Receptive. These exist in a reciprocal relationship, and roughly correspond to the potential and the real.

If things are in their proper place relative to each other then harmony occurs. If things are not fulfilling their function where they are then disorder results.

The role of the adept is usually to restore order. But first she must attend to this in her own life. Then more powerful actions are possible.

Harmony brings good fortune. This is called preparing the base or HQ. It follows that brute strength or surface charms are not sufficient to bring results although they may have temporary success. For example Blair!

Identification with deep structure (the laws of the universe) is important for it yields understanding of consequences, the key to managing change.

Of course it is not just about strategy but judgement too. How good is yours?

Some people rely a lot on symbols. These are useful tools but one must not be seduced into believing they are real. They are arbitrary and to be discarded by the true adept, who only needs to be guided by his or her intuition as if instinctively.

The adept's consciousness is like a membrane. On one side is the mind, the creative. On the other: the real, 'out there'. Sensations pass through it each way. It does not hold on to or judge what comes up to or onto its surface but lets it pass through, while noticing it.

The adept's centre is protected at all times, fed and nurtured by constant practice. What form the practice takes is important only in that it does not have disharmonious consequences anywhere. Otherwise it can be anything, since all is arbitrary.

Only belief and persistence are important. While belief is fundamental, you must know it is only belief -- a metaphor, a symbol, a tool. Not a thing in itself.

Powers fade. Nothing lasts. Balance is always temporary. It reforms elsewhere.

Friday, March 31, 2006

'Hybrids' achieves competition shortlist

I have just received a phone call from Sally Gritten, MD of the Childrens Books Division of HarperCollins, that my new novel, Hybrids, has been shortlisted (with two others) from a total of 850 submissions, for the Saga Magazine HarperCollins competition to find a new childrens' writer - "the next JK Rowling". It doesn't guarantee publication but is still amazing news. The final decision is expected April 20.

Monday, March 13, 2006

No such thing as Green Tobacco

David Thorpe opens up a second front attacking nicotine addiction...

Forgive me. You probably are fed up with hearing about smoking and its controversies; there’s been plenty of articles and talk about it recently. Smokers being banned from here, there and everywhere. Oppressed minority. The health and mortality statistics. But I wrote this when my father died of lung cancer having smoked all his life, and now I’m going to publish it.

If you’re a smoker, you probably know all the health arguments for giving up. Short of taking you into the future to actually see the suffering you’re causing yourself at the other end of your life, which unfortunately is not yet possible, none of those arguments has yet convinced you to quit. (Why don’t they show schoolkids videos of people having radiotherapy, lungs removed, coughing up blood, etc. to put them off?) But if you’re interested in matters ecological and ethical, and if you’re a smoker too, that’s the contradiction I want to explore.

Have you noticedthe number of environmentalists who smoke? Usually roll-ups. Now I’ve not done any market research, but from personal experience I know that these same people will make conscious and deliberate choices, sometimes involving extra expense and serious effort, to buy ethically sound or low-impact products: fair trade coffee, organic veg., low-energy lightbulbs, meat-free food, boycotting multinationals, and so on. But when it comes to smoking there’s a total blind spot. Ask them a question (and I have) like “why can’t you buy organic tobacco?” and “do you know what’s really in that thing?” they act like the thought never crossed their minds.

So here’s what I’ve managed to piece together. It’s not much: the industry is notoriously secretive. Don’t wonder why.

What’s in a fag?

When you take a drag, besides the nicotine and tar you are inhaling some 4,000 toxic chemicals. Some of these are naturally present, some derive from the pesticides and fertilisers used in the growing, and others are added during the processing. Unlike other substances you put in your mouth, they’re exempt from the requirement to describe the contents on the packaging: funny, that. But they include:
  • arsenic and cyanide (classic poisons)

  • formaldehyde (used to preserve bodies after death)

  • lead (causes brain damage, weight loss, stunts growth)

  • shellac (used in wood varnish)

  • xylene (used to be used in marker pens until discovered to be carcinogenic)

  • cadmium (highly toxic metal causing liver, brain and kidney damage being phased out in batteries)

  • phosphorous (in many foods - and rat poison)

  • ammonia (turns nicotine into a gas rendering it more swiftly absorbable - but do you want a disinfectant in your bloodstream?)

  • propylene glycol (to moisten the 30% reconstituted tobacco dust present in the average cancer stick)

  • acetone (a solvent used in nail polish remover)

  • butane (the sniffing of which is reputedly more brain-damaging than crack cocaine)

  • bleached beeswax (reason unknown)

  • turpentine (inhaling too much of which brings on seizures, vertigo and worse)

  • methoprene (due to its function as an insecticide, sprayed on tobacco crops, and one of many similar chemicals)

Of course, you are also inhaling carbon monoxide, also appearing at car exhausts, where it is sometimes tapped for the purpose of suicide.


This gas, and carbon dioxide, also produced when tobacco is burnt, is a greenhouse gas; of course, enough tobacco is replanted to compensate by the emission of oxygen from photosynthesis, but what of the other pollutant effects of smoking?
Every day some 15 billion coffin nails are smoked: that’s a lot of empty packets, not to mention nub-ends.

Where do they all go? Many of them end up in the street, littering the countryside, and are certainly not recycled. Most of their constituents are of course biodegradable, although visually intrusive before they disappear, but not so the metal foil wrapping inside the packs. The cellophane outer wrapping also takes a little longer to decompose. Think of all the natural resources and energy that goes into just making the packs and transporting the tobacco and its products around the world.

Talk about food miles: no local-grown box-system golden virginia is possible I’m afraid. In fact, in the States at least, it is illegal to use the natural, fresh leaves, known as khat in Yemen and Western Africa, so you can’t grow it yourself. Such is the power to sway governments of the seven multinational companies who form the cartel that controls this global drug pushing empire.

Land use

Almost three quarters of tobacco is grown in developing countries as a cash crop. 4.1 million hectares of land is squandered in this way: if anyone tells you there isn’t enough good agricultural land to feed the world, let alone the impoverished populations of some African countries like Kenya where tobacco is grown for foreign exchange, quote them this statistic.

Much needed food crops could be grown on this land whose soil is instead ruined. For example Zimbabwe’s growing tobacco export industry has taken 3% or 72,000 hectares of arable land away from food growing, and yet the country still relies on international food aid. That land, if converted to food growing, could feed up to 17 million people a year.

Tobacco consumes soil nutrients, particularly phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, faster than many other plants, and so the soil needs to be enriched by a cocktail of fertilisers, including organophosphates, which leach out and pollute the surrounding water table. The same applies to pesticides, which are often applied at paranoiac levels.

It doesn’t stop there. Once harvested, tobacco has to be ‘cured’, which means heating it for a week so it dries and ferments. Vast amounts of wood are used for this. Save the Rainforests reports that to cure one kilo of tobacco leaf uses between four and 13 kilos of wood. In Tanzania, a 1989 survey found that 12% of the trees cut there were being used for this purpose. Tanzania is a country which has lost most of its natural forest.

The industry also uses labour, which is often needed at times of harvest and planting, that should ideally go towards food crop planting and harvesting.


It is now well known that there is a relationship between economic health and environmental health. Poor people are not able to look after the environment. Besides, ethically, workers should be paid fairly for their labour.

But farm workers on tobacco plantations are some of the poorest paid. Even in the US growers earn less than a fifth of what they earnt 40 years ago, as a proportion of the price of a pack of coffin nails. A 1995 survey of 529 US tobacco farmers revealed that three quarters favoured a 5% increase in federal tax on tobacco if the money went to help them diversify into other crops and to promote public health. Farm workers in developing countries are frequently paid little more than starvation wages. Food crops can secure much greater revenue for farmers: for example by switching from tobacco to corn, African farmers could boost their income by a third.

With smoking declining in the West, the pushers are furiously encouraging addiction in the developing world. More than half the population of China smokes. The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a 1990 per capita income of just $830 a year. But people spend four times more on fags than they do on food.

Throughout the world’s poorest regions, tobacco advertising, like that for Coca Cola and Pepsi, is ubiquitous. The poor are ignorant and need their solace, so they’re suckers for the pictures of affluent and sexy white people with those smoke sticks in their mouths. And the money goes straight out of their local and national economies back to the countries which host the drug pushing companies: for the top seven that’s the USA (33% market share) Japan (5%) South Africa (3%), South Korea (2%) and Turkey (1.6%).

That’s how the rich countries drain money from the poor ones. And the US government is aggressive in its promotion of Philip Morris, British-American Tobacco and R J Reynolds into new territories, in ways that are sometimes reminiscent of Britain’s opium wars against the Chinese in the last century.

The governments of the victim countries do not mind at the moment as they harvest millions from the taxes. But wait till the health bills start rolling in, and the lost production hours from smoking-related illness.

For, while you could, macabrely, argue that the most efficient way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet is to cease to exist, and that by smoking you are probably going to do that an average of 13 years earlier than you might otherwise, the fact is that the health bill and other damage to the economy caused by your illness significantly mitigates against this dubious benefit. In the developed world it is estimated that lung cancer treatment costs $18,000 per year of life gained. Anti-smoking campaigns cost between $20-40 per year of life gained.

Consumerism kills

In fact, smoking and the tobacco industry can be seen as an illuminating example and metaphor for the way we screw up each other and the planet through our addiction to unnecessary products and damaging production and distribution processes.

So next time you light up, remember, it’s not just you you’re damaging. There’s a life cycle here, and even this incomplete analysis demonstrates that on environmental and ethical grounds, to be consistent with your other lifestyle choices - give up now.