Nailing my (blue and gold) colours to the mast

I've not been posting on here in a long time as you've probably spotted - I tend to do most of my internet access through my smartphone these days and that tends to lend itself more towards twitter or facebook use than long-form writings on here.

However, the European Union is back in the news again and once more I feel compelled to write something long-form, again. I had a bit of a grump about British euro-scepticism back on Europe Day last year and this is probably going to be more of the same I'm afraid.

Here's the thing: the prospect of Britons voting to leave the European Union scares me. It literally scares the bejeesus out of me. I see myself as a European, as I've said before, I feel a kinship with other Europeans and I really love having the freedom to work, live and travel freely around the whole of the European Union. I think it's brilliant. There's probably a couple of reasons I feel this way, and I've probably mentioned them before - simply put, the first of these is that for the whole of my life the UK has been in the European Union (or its predecessor, the European Economic Community). I was born in 1977, two years after the last European referendum in Britain - for me, being a member of a collection of European states has been the status quo, it's simply been a given. The second reason is that I spent four years in my teens living in the Rheinland in Germany, and as a result I feel very much at home there. My parents now live in Spain, which as European Union citizens they are of course free to do, and we visit them once a year and so I feel quite at home there, too. Couple that with the fact that my wife Krissy and I started our relationship when she was living in Maastricht and it won't surprise you to learn that I feel quite at home in the Netherlands too. Basically, where I consider "home" stretches a long way beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

That feeling of "home" as being scattered over a really wide geographical area is probably a personal thing, too - we moved around a lot when I was a kid so I don't really feel a tie to anywhere in particular these days, except perhaps Sheffield where I've settled as an adult after graduating from univeristy.

Sorry, I got distracted for a moment, there. Where was I?

Ah yes. The thing is, I really, really appreciate the freedoms that British nationals like me get from our country being in the European Union, what we as a people get from being European Union citizens - and I don't mean that in a glib way, as in we are citizens of an EU state, I mean that literally, Britons have a genuine European Union citizenship through our country's membership of the EU. There's a page on europa.eu about it, you should go take a look: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/citizen/index_en.htm

At least, we have that citizenship for now. If the UK votes to leave then frankly heaven help us - one thing that worries me is that I think that ironically, people in the UK have gotten too used to being EU citizens that they take things like freedom of movement for granted. How many of those in UKIP heartland in the South-East of England also take advantage of free movement of goods to load up their MPVs and Transit vans with cheap cigarettes, beer and wine in French hypermarkets, knowing that there will be no customs charges to pay when they come back to the UK?

I enjoy being a European citizen, I count myself as a European and I don't want to lose that. It bothers me - a lot - that so many of the arguments I hear on the news for leaving or staying are reduced down to material or economic considerations, with soundbites about how the average British family will be so much better off or poorer, or whatever, depending on who is talking and where they stand. There's more to it than that - there's so much more to it than that. I will begrudgingly admit that the EU is not perfect, I know that. But I believe wholeheartedly that we are a hell of a lot better off inside the union than trying to make our way on our own outside of it. I don't know what the UKIP voters think will happen if the UK leaves but I suspect it almost certainly doesn't involve more expensive travel, excise duties, trade tariffs and a reduced standing on the world stage. I don't know if they think somehow that Britain is still some sort of imperialist superpower, lying dormant and just waiting to "cast of the shackles of Eurocrat oppression" or some other nonsense... perhaps they do. If they do, then honestly I think they're deluded. Seriously deluded. Cut off from Europe, nobody will take us seriously - we will be a small island of rapidly diminishing consequence. Frankly, without Britain gumming up the works and slowing down the "ever closer union" the rest of the Union is geared towards, I think we will see ourselves as a small country with a far more powerful neighbour next door.

I believe a vote to leave the European Union is a vote for isolationism, and a vote to step away from the future and live daydreaming in the past while the world moves on without us. I don't want that for my country, I don't want that for me and I don't want that for my children. I really hope we vote to stay in the Union after this referendum. Because the alternative scares the life out of me.

Europe Day

Yesterday was Europe Day, though not that you would know here in the United Kingdom. Europe Day is an annual celebration of peace and unity across the European Union, be we weren't observing it here as we were too busy celebrating a transient victory over old enemies rather than a lasting peace between new friends. Which I think says a lot about Britain and its attitudes towards the European Union.

Britain sees itself as separate and distinct from the rest of the Union, a unique special snowflake in contrast to some homogeneous European other - and in two years time we will, if our Prime Minister is to be believed, be given a choice to vote whether to remain within the Union or to leave it and cut ourselves loose. If I might be completely frank, this scares the hell out of me. There is so much euroscepticism here in the UK, especially in England that I really worry how the vote might go. It is my deeply held belief that our future along with that of our European neighbours lies together as part of a close union, not apart, all fighting for ourselves and against each other.

The Union gets a lot of flak in the UK, and we get told a lot of things. We get told it's run by "unelected technocrats" ... I've never been sure who these people are, though, are they the European Parliament, who are elected by us? Um, nope. Maybe the European Council, then, but no, wait, they're just our leaders who are, uh, elected by us. Ah, but what about that awful European Commision then? That would be the one whose president is proposed by our own leaders elected by us and voted on by the European Parliament who are elected by us, and the commissioners themselves who are appointed by the national governments we elected. No, I'm still not quite seeing it.

We get told how we have to pay massive amounts of money to the EU - well it's actually about a half a percent of gross national income for the UK, about a tenth of what we spend on defence and somehow there's always enough money for that. Even on top of that we get a generous rebate back, in any case.

We get politicians complaining about "health tourism" and people coming over here to use our wonderful NHS - don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the NHS and I think it's one of the best things about the UK. But don't forget that we also have that brilliant reciprocal health arrangement where we are entitled to state healthcare across the EU courtesy of the EHIC. So it cuts both ways.

We get told that "Europe" meddles in British affairs, and that's awful. Leaving aside for the moment that we are part of that same Europe, what meddling do we get exactly? The Conservatives complain about the European Court of Human Rights deciding against the UK, telling us that we can't do things like retain DNA samples from people accused of a crime but later acquitted, or deport people to countries where they might be tortured or executed, or denying our citizens the right to vote if they're in prison. Here's some more things the ECHR has decided, see what you think.

As well as this, our membership of the European Union gives us freedom of movement anywhere within the Union, freedom of settlement and the free movement of goods. I sometimes wonder how the UKIP voters in the South-East will feel if we cut ourselves adrift from the EU, when they decide to go on their booze-cruises to the Calais hypermarkets and find that they can bring back only up to a duty-free allowance.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how our students will feel when they find out they can't take part in the Erasmus programme any more and can't go and study abroad in other European universities.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how the 1.8 million UK nationals living permanently elsewhere in the European Union will feel when their lives suddenly become rather more complicated as their right to movement and settlement is pulled out from under them. I wonder how my own parents, living on the Mediterranean coast of Spain will feel about that.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how our businesses will feel when their imports and exports with the EU are suddenly hit with tariffs and protectionism? I wonder how many of them will leave? I wonder how many UK citizens will leave?

Let me put this as plainly as I can - I will as you have probably guessed by now be voting "Yes" to remaining in the EU at any upcoming referendum. You're entitled to your own vote and I won't criticise you whichever way you decide. All I ask is that you read up, think hard about what you're deciding on and then vote based on what you think is best, rather than what anyone else might tell you. If you vote no, do it because you believe in it, don't do it to stick two fingers up at Brussels or Strasbourg, because that would be a really bad reason to vote for anything.

One more thing - if the UK waves goodbye to the European Union, it can wave goodbye to me as well. Those UK nationals I mentioned earlier who might leave? I'll be among them, on the first train, ferry or aeroplane out of here.


This is something I had been meaning to post for a while, but hadn't gotten around to it, what with Christmas and everything. In the middle of December I went to the Sheffield Folk Chorale's Spitewinter concert at the Cathedral. This year they also had folk trio Lady Maisery singing - they're a group I hadn't heard of before, and they were really, really good.

There was one point in the evening, when they were singing, and I don't know what it was - the harmonics perhaps, or the acoustics of the Cathedral, or just the music itself, but I had this wonderful feeling as though I had ceased skittering over bright, cold ice and instead plunged into deep, dark, calming waters. That's the only way I can describe it. It took me a long time to realise that this unusual feeling was my mind, at peace. I hadn't felt it in so long it took me by surprise.

I would really, really like to try and cultivate that in the new year.

Posted via m.livejournal.com.


Road Trip!!!

Yesterday was rather pleasant - the kids were at school or nursery and I was working at home which meant that K and I were able to go and have lunch together... on our own... as actual grown-ups! This doesn't happen very often.

Amongst other things, we have been plotting our summer holiday - we're looking at taking three weeks over the summer holidays and going on a bit of a road trip around Scotland. The first week will be travelling up the East coast via (probably) North Berwick, to South Queensferry to see the Burryman then up to Stonehaven because I want to visit Dunnottar castle. Swinging past Loch Ness, we'll head out to the Western Isles, where we'll spend the second week. The third week will be split between Glasgow, the Dumfries & Galloway Dark Sky Park and the Lake District before coming home.


All rather vague at the moment... sometime soon we'll have to actually book things and plan dates. Really looking forward to it though :)

Quick round-up (is anyone still reading this?)

Hi there - once again, it's been ages since my last proper post on here. I'll try not to make this a long rambling post about all the things I've been doing over the last few months, but there really has been quite a lot going on.

We went on holiday

Last month, we took a week away with friends to Alnmouth in Northumberland. There were twelve of us in total, eight adults and four kids but we managed, eventually, to find somewhere big enough for us to stay in. The house was an old six-bedroom place with two living rooms (one for adults and one for kids). I was really pleased with the house and I'd definitely recommend it for a big group, I'd stay there again in a heartbeat.

During the week away, we drove up to Alnwick castle, Bamburgh, took a boat trip round the Farne islands, saw the house and grounds at Cragside and spent a lot of time on the beach. I've decided not to do a whole big round-up, mainly for the reason that rich_jacko has already done a cracking job over here.

A series of day-trips

After the holiday in Northumberland, I still had a week left before I went back to work so we took a few day trips. We made it out to Crich tramway village, Conisbrough castle, we walked part of the Monsal trail in the Peak District and drove up to Windermere and spent a day in the Lake District on a whim. As you do.

More recently

Last week my sister came up to Sheffield with my two nephews and we spent the afternoon together - we had lunch in town, then came home and the kids played in the park. It was great to meet up again, as it's the first time we'd spent any time together this year (I'm not very good at this whole "family" thing).

Last weekend we drove over to Wales to see purpletom and tiggothy and celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary with them. In the end there was quite a decent Sheffield contingent at the party and we also got to spend some time with otter_girl and Jim - the last time I saw them was when we camped out in their woods back in 2008 - and meet their two daughters for the first time. Considering their eldest is nearly five years old, I'm probably not very good at that whole "keeping in touch with friends" thing either.

We spent the night camped in a field a few minutes walk away from the community centre where the party had taken place, and in spite of the rain and mud I'm glad we went camping again - it's been absolutely ages and I'd forgotten how much fun it can be. Standing out in a field cooking bacon sandwiches for breakfast and drinking tea out a tin mug was a pretty high point of the whole camping experience for me. Then it was off to purpletom and tiggothy's house to say hello, go see their chickens and spend time with friends before driving back home to Sheffield.

and right now?

Right now I'm trying to sort out our garden - a few years ago a stray firework landed in a neighbour's garden and started a fire which burnt down our shed. I'm properly tidying up the mess now, I'm going to need to lay some new concrete and then we're putting up a nice little summer-house. It's all coming together, if a little slowly.

Ex-pat Brit, living in the UK

It's been a while since I've treated you all to one of my long rambling streams of consciousness, so what the hell, it's time for another one. The truth is I've not been paying much attention to LiveJournal lately, dipping in and out here and there so I've probably missed a fair amount. I've mostly been hanging out in the other place.

One of the things that's caught my attention in the last couple of weeks has been the "British Forces Brats" group on Facebook which has suddenly gone into overdrive and is filling my spare time with happy nostalgia. As most of you probably know, but some might not, when I was growing up I spent four years on an army base at JHQ Rheindahlen, Germany. I'd just turned 14 when we arrived and I was 18 years old and about to go to university when we came back to the UK. They were probably the most formative years of my life, spent in a little piece of Britain in the Rheinland. Needless to say, I absolutely loved my time out there and before too long I was completely settled and had come to view Germany as home, as though it were a second home nation alongside the UK.

There was a problem, though - when we finally did come back to the UK, I came back to the same town I'd left four years earlier, but everything was slightly "off". I spoke the lingo, could find my way around with ease, but the UK felt like a foreign country. There was a lot of stuff I didn't recognise and there was a big - seriously big - pop-culture gap happening. People would talk about TV shows and bands I hadn't heard of, and looked at me funny when it became apparent that I was faking my way around UK life. Classic culture shock. Or the other way round, I would mention something that to me was as familiar as jaegerschnitzel and, oh, the blank faces. To a lesser extent I still get this these days, though I've now had nearly twenty years to practice my fakery - but the UK isn't home, not really. Not any more.

So... anyway, this Forces Brats group on Facebook - it's bloody marvellous is what it is. For the first time in years, I've been catching up with other folks who've had the same sorts of experiences I had when I was growing up, we've been sharing stories and remembering old places, characters and the things we miss from our travels. We're all mixed up third culture kids, we identify more strongly with each other than what you might term the "home culture". The last couple of weeks nattering have been really wonderful for me, and everyone's so welcoming, it's like a big old family reunion going on. It's been made a lot more poignant by the fact that JHQ Rheindahlen, my old home, and home to so many of us, is finally closing down this summer after nearly sixty years of Forces, MOD and other supporting families passing through those old gates. It was an incredible place and I've always felt lucky to have lived there, but from what I hear now it's little more than a ghost town. I daren't look, it would be too awful.

It's a funny old thing, but I've realised in the last couple of days what this community that's sprung up on Facebook actually is. With all of us getting together, sharing old stories, reliving memories and keeping our culture alive, it feels exactly like an ex-pat community. Which means that for most of us these days, it's a community for ex-pat Brits, living in the UK. Which makes me chuckle.

When I first came back to Blighty and met new people, they would quickly spot that I wasn't a local and would ask the inevitable question - so where are you from? where is "home"? It would get very confusing very quickly... was it the place I was born, or the place I went to school, or the little village we used to live in, or... or...? I think the last couple of weeks have brought me to the realisation that "home", for me, is the place where I became me. It's a little town a couple of klicks west of Mönchengladbach, it's where I went to school, it's where I fell in awkward teenage love, it's where I snuck off during study periods to go play cards and computer games with the other nerds, it's where I first got embarassingly drunk on Apfelkorn, it was home for but four years, but by golly they were good ones. And come July it won't be there any more.

image originally from an article on the Rheinischer Post site, thanks to my friend Anja for sending me the link.

New phone recommendations? (Just in case)

In other non-book-related news, my phone took it upon itself to play up this morning - it's an HTC Wildfire S that I bought about eighteen months ago. When I fetched it out of my pocket at breakfast it had gone into "Car Mode" entirely of its own volition... and kept doing this even after I'd told it not to. A spot of googling suggested that this could be caused by a hardware problem, a short between two of the pins of the micro-USB charging port on the side (this is presumably where it would be docked in a car, I would imagine).

After powering down the phone, and cleaning an almost inconceivable amount of pocket lint out of the charging port it seems to be back to normal, but it did make me think - this phone is getting on a bit now and much as I like it, it is quite under-powered. If it starts playing up again I think I'd probably start looking for something else, so with that in mind what would people recommend?

Book review - "Schild's Ladder" by Greg Egan

I picked this up on Monday as part of a two-for-one deal at my local bookshop (the other book I picked up was "Coldheart Canyon" by Clive Barker but I shan't be reading that for a while as my other half has "borrowed" it for herself). In "Schild's Ladder", a terrible accident at a deep-space research facility twenty thousand years in the future spawns a new kind of vacuum - more stable than the vacuum we know - which then begins expanding out in all directions at half the speed of light, gobbling up ships, planets and stars in its wake. Two political factions form - the Preservationsists, who want to undo the damage and turn back the encroaching "novo-vacuum", and the Yielders, who are more accepting of this new state of affairs and either aim to outrun disaster or somehow adapt to life within this new form of spacetime.

The picture of the universe painted by Egan is an interesting one, with no faster than light travel, where people can live for thousands of years and journeys between populated star systems can take centuries, forcing people to leave family and friends behind when they travel, perhaps returning one day to find many generations of descendants living on their old home worlds. People now have far greater control over biology and technology, tailoring their physical bodies and implanting quantum computers into their brains allowing them to span their minds over the biological and technological divide. Amongst all this fantastic high technology are the anachronauts (an idea that I love) ancient spacefarers from the twenty-third century who were the first to leave Earth, travelling for thousand years in suspended animation, unwilling to adapt to the times, characters out of ancient history wandering between the stars exploring the future as it evolves over the millennia.

The story centres around a group studying the expanding border between vacuum and novo-vacuum, matching the half-light-speed pace of its expansion aboard a starfaring habitat called the Rindler. We see the story from the perspective of Tchicaya, one of its inhabitants, as the scientists on board attempt to understand and turn back the expanding border, probing it with particles and "quantum graphs" fired from a device called the Scribe, whose stylus-like point hovers a hair's breadth above the border.

I have to say, I did enjoy this book in spite of the far-fetched far-future physics which was perhaps a little too close to the surface at times, and a rather peculiar third act set within the sphere of novo-vacuum, but I think upon reflection that I actually enjoyed the setting more than the story that was being told within it which perhaps isn't the best of signs. The setting reminded me a little of Alastair Reynolds' indifferent and uncaring Revelation Space universe while the disaster aspect of the story reminded a little of Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" so with that in mind I think I'll move onto those next...

The internet has made me angry today...

The news that the current pope is stepping down did not escape me today, and neither did the sadly all-too-predictable reactions from certain quarters of the internet that I shan't name, including friends who I had really hoped would have known better.

I think that it's fair to say that there are a good many people I know who are no fans of organised religion and heaven only knows it's all too easy to take cheap shots at someone online - what's made me really angry today though are the people I've seen who have referred to Benedict XVI as a "Nazi", presumably because he is (a) elderly, and (b) German. Or perhaps it was his membership of the Hitler Youth during the Second World War? After all, the Hitler Youth was a youth movement created by the Nazi Party, so you can see how being a member would obviously make someone a Nazi.


When I was still in my teens and living in Germany, I met a man named Eric. He was at the time seventy years old, born in 1924 - making him three years older than Benedict XVI. Eric had grown up in the Rheinland, in North-Western Germany, and in 1938 he had joined the Hitler Youth, as was required by law for all boys when they reached fourteen years old. Membership was not negotiable, as it had been made legally mandatory in 1936. If you didn't attend, or said the wrong things, suspicions would be raised and that was something you really didn't want to happen. When Eric spoke to us about coming of age in Nazi Germany, you didn't need for him to tell you what it had been like - you could see the fear still in his eyes, fifty years later. His family lived in fear throughout the war, afraid of neighbours, afraid of friends, fellow workers and especially afraid of the black Gestapo staff cars when you saw them on the street. Because you never knew - that was the worst thing, he told us, you never knew what would happen and you could never feel safe even in your own neighbourhood. "You might wonder", Eric said all those years ago "why it was that we never stood up, never protested or fought back? We were terrified."

You might now, with the benefit of hindsight, sitting here comfortably in the twenty-first century, think that you would have stood up, you would have made a difference if you had been back there - let me tell you straight, no matter how brave you might feel here and now, you almost certainly wouldn't. That wouldn't make you evil, it wouldn't make you a Nazi sympathiser, it would just make you human and scared. I don't think I would be any different in the circumstances.

Joseph Ratzinger was a boy of twelve years old when the war broke out. Whatever you might think of his career in the church, or his time as pope, to refer to him as a Nazi is to tar all German nationals of a certain age with the same brush. It's lazy, it's insensitive, it's ignorant and it's just damned wrong. He was a boy, who had the misfortune to be the right age, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. That's it.