We have woken up today with the tragic news of yet another
student walking round a school with a gun, killing. This time it was in the
Crimea and, at the time of writing this there are 17 dead and over 40 wounded.
Valdislav Roslyakov then killed himself in the college library. His mother was
a nurse at the local hospital, treating the victims of the shooting without
knowing if it was her own son whose finger had been on the trigger. As is
fairly typical, the perpetrator was said to be unsociable and spent much of his
time putting depressing messages on social media.
It caught my eye as I was intending to blog about the TV
drama I watched last night. 22nd
July. It’s about the atrocities of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. Firstly,
the bomb attack on Parliament and then he, a far-right extremist, took guns and
ammunition to an island, Utoya, where some teenagers were on a Workers' Youth
League summer camp. Eight died in the explosion, sixty nine on the island. The
total injured was over three hundred and twenty. He was sentenced to 21 years'
It’s uneasy viewing, but very low key on the horror of the
situation. The emotional hook was the boy who Breivik shot seven times but survived. He’s on record as stating that Breivik looked
at him, ready to shoot him again, then walked away. The boy believes his Aryan looks made his assailant think twice. In
the drama, we see his parents go through all the emotions. They find one son
alive, the other is unaccounted for. Then they find him at the hospital,
fighting for his life.
What does come across is the dignity of the Norwegian
people, ‘we shall not react down the barrel of a gun but by the due process of
The drama was heavy on fact, light on horror. The events are
allowed to unravel and tell their own story. I have also seen Elephant, the
film based on the Columbine School massacre. It’s also hard watching, but the
story is there. Yet I suspect there
would be outrage if something similar was made about Thomas Hamilton and the
events at Dunblane Primary School. Is that a matter of emotional distance?
I was doing an event last week and was asked if there was
anything that I wouldn’t write about. The answer is I wouldn’t write about
something that is recognisably true. I am uneasy about a dramatized version of
real life events. Especially if there are no survivors.
And I’ve read books (well half read them as I tend to fling
them against the window) where the events are basically a real-life crime where
real people died with the names changed and little more. Sometimes they are so
close to a well-publicised case, I can tell how it ends. It ends exactly the
same way the real life version ended.
The last two books which have won the McIlvanney Scottish
Crime book if the year are both based on ‘real ‘events. One based on the Peter Manual killings, the
other on the Bible John case. Both cases are recent enough to be in living
memory of victim’s relatives.
Simon Toyne has a programme Written In Blood, were he walks
a crime writer through the case that inspired the book. Sometimes the word ‘inspired’
is accurate. There is very little correlation between the real life crime and
the fiction that comes out at the end of the process. In other cases, it is far
too close, for me, to be comfortable and I can't help but sniff profiteering at
somebody else’s misery.
One book was Alex Marwood’s Wicked Girls, inspired by the
case of James Bulger in 1993. This was the two year old boy that was led out a
shopping mall by two older boys, along a towpath and eventually killed by them.
For all kinds of reasons, it was a horrific and unforgettable crime. Thompson
and Venables were only ten years old at the time of their crime.
The film that shows the two year old being led away
The boys were released, their sentences short (in English
law ) due to their age. One is back in jail for possession of child porn, the other lives under an assumed name. They have been ‘outed’ by the press a few
times, their locations made public, gag orders have been invoked by the courts,
people have been prosecuted by citing their supposed whereabouts on social
media (in an attempt to cause bodily harm to and the persecution of a totally
innocent individual). Alex took that idea, turned the guilty party in to two
girls. What would happen if they grew up to be respectable mums themselves.
Time moves on, they have served their sentence, they have new identities in
every sense. Then somebody finds out who they are.
A lot of what ifs.
The story is far removed from the real life case that
inspired it. And I could see my own imagination taking that story as a baton,
then running a fair way with it before committing a fictional spin off to paper.
What would his mother feel like, picking up a paperback and
reading something she recognised?
I was once asked to read a book which was a fictionalised
account of Britain’s most famous female child killer, Myra Hindley. Hindley died in jail in 2002 without ever gaining
her freedom. The book starts off with the premise that she gets out with a new
identity. The story of her death was faked. The character in the book has the
same name as the killer, it’s in the title. She has plastic surgery, a new
face, a new body, and moves far up the social structure.
It was the kind of book that made me want to wash my hands
after I had finished it.
It doesn’t sensationalise what she did. Myra comes across as
a rather pathetic, unremorseful character. The book is well written, and the
story comes across as not a far fetched as it may sound. But it would, in my opinion, have been so much more acceptable if the main
character had not been called Myra Hindley. Or if the title of the book had not
used that name, or the name of the famous landscape they used as a disposal
But then it was nominated for a few awards so what do I know.
I’m interviewing two crime fiction writing journalists at Grantown’s wee crime writing festival. I think the blurred lines of fact into
fiction might come up in conversation.
19 10 2018
Michael - Thursday
This wasn’t meant to be a rant, but I did feel my blood
pressure go up when I read the transcript of the president’s interview with
Associated Press yesterday. Here’s the piece that upset me (among others, but
this is the relevant one):
"Scientists say this [climate change] is nearing a
point where this can’t be reversed,” the AP reporters said to Trump.
“No, no,” he replied. “Some say that, and some say
differently. I mean, you have scientists on both sides of it. My uncle was a
great professor at MIT for many years. Dr. John Trump. And I didn’t talk to him
about this particular subject, but I have a natural instinct for science, and I
will say that you have scientists on both sides of the picture.”
Okay, so let’s digest this. The president had an uncle who
was a scientist. (He was an electrical engineer at MIT, but he died thirty
years ago so it’s not too surprising that Trump didn’t discuss climate change
with him.) He goes on to claim that he has “a natural instinct for science”.
Well, the bad news is that science is not always intuitive. Sometimes it’s
counterintuitive. It’s not something that works on the basis of who your
relatives are. Certainly, you may have an aptitude for it, but it’s 10%
inspiration and 90% perspiration. Come on. General relativity intuitive? Natural
instinct for soft quantum hair around black holes?
Of course, you could say that the president is talking about
the more everyday stuff that’s actually important to us. Well, let’s go there.
If you swing round a corner fast, you can feel the force pulling your car away
from the centre of the bend, right? It’s like when you swing a weight around on
a piece of string. It wants to fly away – a force is pulling it away from you,
right? It even has a name. Centrifugal force. The only thing is, it doesn’t
exist. There is no such force. Newton’s laws of motion explain what’s going on.
Not intuitive, then. Not what one’s natural instinct would suggest.
And climate change is the same sort of thing. “Natural
instinct” might suggest that we are seeing a normal cycle as in the past. That’s
Trump’s argument. Actually, that’s not at all what the evidence suggests – in
fact, all the natural explanations fail to explain what’s going on. Here’s a
really good link to see a graphical summary of that evidence by NASA people
who actually put in the 90% of work instead of relying on the 10% of natural
And the mathematics is complicated and predicts chaotic behaviour. (I talked about that here.) It does not, for
example, imply that we will experience stronger and stronger hurricanes. (Trump
pointed out that a much stronger hurricane than e.g. Michael was recorded in
the nineteenth century. True, but totally irrelevant.) It implies that we will
have less predictable and more extreme weather. Anyone notice any
of that recently?
It seems that Trump’s natural instinct has led him to the
wrong conclusion, as natural instinct so often does in science.
El Yunque National Forest
So much for the rant. I actually wanted to talk about an
update on the windscreen phenomenon. I
blogged about that before here. Briefly, it’s the observation that when you
drive over some distance these days, you find less bugs squashed on the
windscreen than you used to – the suggestion being that we are seeing a die off
of insects. There are a variety of explanations for this “bug apocalypse” as
someone called it. Among the most obvious are loss of habitat, insecticides,
But a new study has trumped what’s been done in Europe, and
it was reported in The Washington Post under the heading: ‘Hyperalarming’ study shows massive insect loss. The new study took
place in a pristine rain forest in Puerto Rico – El Yunque. It’s been a
protected area since the king of Spain claimed it as his private preserve in
the nineteenth century. So it seems that loss of habitat isn’t an issue. At
28,000 acres, and situated on mountain slopes, the area is at least reasonably
protected from chemical impact. Also, the use of insecticides in Puerto Rica has declined by 80% since 1969.
The study by a team of biologists was recently published in
the Proceedings of the National Academy. In the seventies, they recorded a
detailed inventory of the populations of insects, birds and animals in the
forest. They returned forty years later (but before last year’s hurricanes) and
found an almost 50% decline in the insect populations. Everything was down – butterflies, bees, beetles, grasshoppers,
spiders… Some were worse off than others – ground insects measured had
decreased 60 fold in biomass.
Ruddy quail dove
There were corresponding declines in the numbers of insect
predators – bird and animal – but it was variable. The population of the ruddy
quail dove was the same as before. The colourful Puero Rican tody had declined
by 90%. The former eats seeds and fruits, the latter eats insects.
So what’s going on? Here are a few clues. The average
temperature of the forest has increased by 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the forty
years. Insects can’t regulate their body heat, and above a certain point they
don’t reproduce. A recent paper in Science on the effects on insects of climate
change predicted a decrease in tropical insect populations. An analytic
technique applied by the authors of the study to six specific populations
produced strong support for a correlation between temperature increase and
population decrease in five of the six populations.
Puero Rican tody
And the rain forest itself? So far it looks pretty good. But
most plants rely on insects for pollination. If the insects go, the whole
system will inevitably collapse. May as well stop worrying about that illegal
logging in South America.
At the cafe today someone was saying it's the hottest October in 75 years. It's almost 80 every afternoon...not complaining but the trees on the boulevards seem confused. Their leaves are crinkling brown and orange but some have green leaves on top.
I felt like hopping off the bus and jumping in the fountain at Saint Sulpice.
Instead I hung out with Penelope Fletcher who has opened her Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore (formerly in the Marais) bordering the Jardins du Luxembourg.
Here she is with Bruce, her pal and Canadian publisher who just came from the Frankfurt book Fair.
We all had lunch next door and who's sitting in the cafe but my fave French actress Sandrine Kimberlain ! I shamelessly asked for a photo and she graciously agreed! No shame is my motto!
Back in the Red Wheelbarrow
Caroline, a documentary film maker joined us!
Cara - Tuesday