Robot Writing

I’ve heard reports that an increasing number of articles are being written by robots. This is a worrying trend. We’ve become used to robots in manufacturing, and accepted that while they might have displaced some human workers, at least the jobs that have gone generally weren’t very rewarding. And the loss of jobs has been at least partially offset by new, more interesting jobs creating, programming, and managing the robots.
But now we’re being warned of a new wave of automation, with so called AI – Artificial Intelligence – machines that can do the jobs we thought machines could never do. And with the machines beginning to encroach on my territory, I’m starting to get twitchy. Continue reading

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Charles Bradlaugh: Forgotten Hero?

If you haven’t heard of the Victorian freethinker and rights campaigner Charles Bradlaugh, it’s probably because the establishment have done their best to write him out of history.

Bradlaugh was an atheist at a time when atheists were expected to stand silently aside and let the church get on with the business of dictating what people could and couldn’t do. Not that things have changed so very much. But staying silent in the face of injustice wasn’t Bradlaugh’s way. Elected to parliament in 1880, but prevented from taking his seat because he refused to swear an oath, Bradlaugh campaigned for rights such as freedom of belief, the right to peaceful protest, the rights of workers, and the right to information about, and to practice, birth control. He supported self determination for India. And in 1866, he founded the National Secular Society, an organisation which is still thriving, and of which I’m proud to be a member. And last Saturday I travelled up to Manchester to attend an event; the inaugural Charles Bradlaugh lecture, organised by the National Secular Society (NSS) as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations.

Despite being a member for some years, this was the first NSS event I had attended. Most are held in or around their London home in Holborn, and I haven’t been able to get down there. But when I discovered they were holding an event in my former home and favourite city, I just had to make a special trip. The venue was the Manchester Art Gallery, home to a magnificent collection of Victorian art (as well as earlier and later works) in a city that was at the heart of the struggle for justice, rights, and fair wages and conditions for ordinary working people.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous. The NSS is an inspirational organisation, with a formidable reputation. Despite being outside the establishment, it moves among the higher echelons in the UK and the wider world. It’s officials make the case for secularism to the UK government, the European Parliament and even the United Nations, and make regular appearances on local and national radio and television. So to find myself in a relatively small (though very full) room with many of their leading lights, including the president, the executive director and the campaigns director, was daunting. Given the nature of their work, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was struck by how friendly, approachable and down-to-earth they all are.


The lecture was very interesting, and well received by the enthusiastic audience. The speakers were Bob Forder, the NSS resident historian, who like me retains a fond affection for Manchester, where he lived and worked for a number of years; and Professor Bryan Niblett, author of ‘Dare to Stand Alone’ the biography of Charles Bradlaugh. There were refreshments before and after, in the lobby of the gallery’s new extension, overlooked, in pride of place at the top of the staircase, by Walter Sickert’s large full length portrait of Charles Bradlaugh. The painting has been in the gallery’s collection since 1911, but had been in storage for some years. It was cleaned and re-hung to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the NSS, and getting it up there was apparently such a difficult job that it won’t be coming down any time soon.

Bob Forder set the scene for us, describing the repression of radical ideas in early nineteenth century Britain, partly a result of fears that the revolutions that took place on the continent might spread to Britain. He talked about Bradlaugh’s predecessors; people like Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, and the growth of radical ideas during Bradlaugh’s lifetime, particularly in the industrial powerhouse of Manchester, and in the labour movement. The NSS was formed in the same year as the Howard League and the Fawcett Society, but that unlike those, the NSS was primarily a working class organisation.

Bryan Niblett went on to talk more specifically about Bradlaugh himself. Apparently he was a great orator, with a powerful voice. When he was elected to parliament (to represent Northampton) he asked to affirm rather than swear an oath (swearing an oath of allegiance to the crown with the words ‘so help me god’ was always going to be a difficult one for a republican and an atheist). When his request was refused, he actually did agreed to swear the oath, but wasn’t allowed on the basis that it wouldn’t be valid. By asking to affirm, he had let on that he didn’t value the oath. He was kept out of the house until the situation was resolved in 1886. He had to swear the oath  to get in, but was instrumental in the 1888 Oaths Act, which gave all MPs the right to affirm, rather than swear a religious oath. Religious people often say that atheism is a negative (because it denies the existence of a deity without necessarily offering an alternative answer to the great question of life, the universe, and, erm… everything). Bradlaugh argued that theism is a negative, and that atheism is therefore a positive, because a negative of a negative is a positive.

After the lecture, there was a Q & A session with the speakers, and the president and executive director. Some of the questions highlighted the confusion over the difference between atheism and secularism, something the panel were keen to clear up. Though many of its members are atheists, the NSS is not an atheist organisation. It campaigns for freedom from religion, but also for freedom of religion. It wants to take away religious privilege (such as the right of bishops to sit, unelected, in the house of lords) but not freedom of belief. Some NSS members are religious- the president said he knows of at least one vicar who’s a member – and in fact the organisation sometimes campaigns alongside religious groups, where there’s a shared interest.

Charles Bradlaugh may have been a little known figure up until now. But in addition to persuading the Manchester Art Gallery to display the Sickert painting,  the NSS recently commissioned a bust of Bradlaugh, and this is now on permanent display in parliament. So perhaps at last Bradlaugh’s name will take its rightful place in history, among those who were so influential in fighting for the rights and freedoms that we can all enjoy in today’s Britain.

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England is Mine

The Smiths were my era, and while they weren’t one of my favourite bands, they were one of the few pop bands whose music I had time for. So when I heard there was a film about their singer, Steven  Morrissey (a biopic, in the jargon of the film industry), I was interested to see it. The film title – England is Mine – is taken from the Smiths song, ‘Still Ill’ (England is Mine, and it owes me a living).
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Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last – Book Review

The Heart Goes Last is set in an almost contemporary America where the distribution of wealth has become so unequal that large numbers of people are falling out of society.

The book follows a couple who, without steady jobs and a home, are living out of their car and at constant threat from thieves, druggies and mad people. They’re trapped in a downward spiral that’s almost certainly going to end badly. So when they see a television advert recruiting people for a newly formed utopian society sealed off from the rest of the world, they ignore the rumours and sign up, believing that it can’t be any worse than the life they are living. After a promising start, of course things begin to go bad.
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Independent Bookshops


On Saturday, Mrs Literarylad and I went for a long walk along the Beacons Way which, as the name suggests, is in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Our walk started in Crickhowell, described on the information centre website as a ‘picturesque town nestling in the beautiful Usk valley, to the south of the Black Mountains’. I don’t think they’re overselling the place. We saw this independent bookshop, called Book-ish’ and couldn’t resist going in for a browse. The signage and window displays were so enticing it would have been difficult for us to walk past without going in, but when we saw it had a cafe downstairs, that settled the matter.

I find all bookshops a draw, but the independents are generally the most interesting, and have more focussed selections of books than the chains, which tend to cram in the standard range of three-for-two’s that are thrown at them by the big publishers.

Book-ish is a lovely shop, with a great selection of books. They focus on their location on the edge of the Brecon Becons by stocking a good range of walking books (that’s books about walking – the books themselves don’t walk) and maps, as well as some tasteful Crickhowell themed merchandise, like bookmarks and mugs. I dream about one day having the time to browse for as long as I like, to buy books, to start reading them, over one, then maybe another coffee, to browse some more and finally come out with an armful of books. And then to have the time to read them. One day. When I’m retired. The Spanish for ‘retired’ is ‘jubilado’, which is a fabulous word, describing retirement as a time to celebrate. I love the idea of joyously embracing retirement as a time of endless possibilities (reading being one of them).

The coffee was pretty good too, and set us up for a long, tiring but ultimately enjoyable walk through some lovely countryside. Books, coffee, a good walk, and some beautiful, scenery, all in the same day. I needed a sit down after that!

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The Rabbit that decided the Election

It’s still not clear how a rabbit got into the cabinet room. And in fairness to the then Prime Minister, it had been a difficult meeting. Her ministers didn’t like the new policies they had been made to announce, as the election drew close. She could understand this. Building council houses, capping energy prices and, worst of all, giving workers more rights, were the kind of ideas they would have expected from the opposition. She could understand their discomfort, but winning the election wasn’t enough. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The PM wanted to win big. Being able to mobilise ninety percent of the media as her own personal propaganda machine wasn’t enough. That ten percent of dissenting voices niggled her, chipping away at the size of her majority.

That was why she’d come up with these new measures. For Mrs May, it wasn’t enough simply to have the right-wing press tell the ordinary people she was the best choice for them. She needed to prove it, with policies that would take away what little remaining claim the opposition had to the votes of the little people. That was the way to really clean up. This had all been explained to her ministers, on a one-to-one basis (in private, of course). Did they have so little trust for her that they imagined she would actually implement these new, rather socialist policies after the election; after she’d achieved her record-breaking majority?

On reflection, it had perhaps been a mistake to let the cameras in for the last section of the cabinet meeting. She was angry with herself, realising – too late – that she hadn’t sufficiently prepared her ministers. None of them had shown outright dissent, but it hadn’t been the stylish showcase of a group of ministers, at the top of their game and working together as one, that she had planned it to be. Mrs May could barely control her anger. There was no question of the party failing to win the election, and with a big majority – that was in the bag – but her colleagues’ behaviour, in front of the media, may well have compromised the size of that majority.

When the meeting closed, the PM knew that she would be expected to smile – not to do so would be a public relations disaster. But however much she tried, her face just wouldn’t respond; she was too angry. And this inability to produce a smile that she was confident would be convincing, only served to increase her rage. She stood up, moved her chair out from the table and began to make her way to the door, her face fixed in a twisted parody of a smile.

It was at precisely this moment that the rabbit decided to break cover from the piece of furniture under which it had been hiding, and set off across the room. Concentrating on her attempted smile, the PM didn’t see the bundle of fur that ran across her path, until she caught her foot on it, tripped and nearly fell. The rabbit, confused, dazed, but apparently unharmed, froze. The PM’s face, never having quite achieved an expression of jollity, flipped suddenly to a fearsome embodiment of rage that would have sent permanent secretaries running for cover. And in a momentary and catastrophic loss of control, she swung a designer-heeled foot at the offending animal.

The rabbit, fortunately, hopped out of the way just in time, so there was no contact, but it hardly mattered. In a single moment, Mrs May went from a strong and stable leader, lauded by the media, to that evil woman who kicked a bunny. Her reputation was destroyed. As if that wasn’t enough to bring about an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the Home Secretary had been seen to laugh openly at the woeful action, and several other cabinet ministers had covered their faces, or turned away to hide their amusement.

What was a disaster for the Conservative Party in general, and for Mrs May in particular, didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing for the rest of us. The rabbit survived, unscathed. The Labour government hasn’t proved to be the catastrophe the right-wing media told us it would be. And the photograph of Jeremy Corbyn stroking a docile white rabbit, which was sitting on his lap, has become an icon of the age.

 

Text and graphic copyright © Graham Wright 2017

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The Short Story as Abstract Art

They say that in art, it’s impossible to be truly original. There can be nothing new, because everything has been done before. But in the world of fiction writing, some people are going to extreme lengths to make their writing different. Maybe their approach to writing needs a name. Abstract Literature, or Ab-Lit, might fit the bill.

I had some emails recently reminding me about a couple of short story competitions. One, an Australian competition, particularly caught my eye, partly because it appears to be quite prestigious, and partly because the prize money is substantial (although the entry fee is large too). It made me think I should really be entering some competitions this year. For that, I would obviously have to write some more short stories. It’s difficult to find the time, whilst working on the final edit of my latest novel (now completed) and keeping the blog up-to-date, as well as setting up a new blog, on gardening (www.pullingweeds.co.uk). But I’ve made a start. I found some inspiration, and I’ve written one story so far.

I thought perhaps I should research the kind of thing the organisers are looking for, rather than just send them my story and hope for the best. In fact I entered this competition last year, with a not very short, short story (just under 5,000 words) called Drop Bear. Part parable, part fantasy, it’s an anthropomorphic, dark, adult fairy tale. I think it’s quite original – I don’t think I’ve read (or written) anything like it before, so I thought the Aussies might take to it, particularly as it centres on everyone’s favourite irascible marsupial.

The organisers were kind enough to put the three winning stories from last year on their website for all to read. I did. And now I know why I didn’t get anywhere. My storylines might be unusual, but my writing style is almost certainly too conventional. Unlike the winners, whose writing is anything but. For instance, they’re not big on punctuation. Two of the stories don’t have any full stops. One apparently marks the end of each sentence with a blank line. Initial caps don’t figure greatly. One uses a lot of questions, but no question marks. The sentences (if that’s what they are) get longer and longer, and ever more unintelligible as the story goes on. Another apparently uses initial caps to mark each new sentence (but there are no full stops to end them).
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