Ever Young?


I turn 52 next week, and I have a confession to make: I feel like a complete failure at "adulting". Adulting, loosely defined, is that set of activities and behaviours which we judge to be characteristics of grown-ups. You can stop now and make your own list: what I'm going to suggest, speculatively, is that you probably feel like a failure at adulting too. (If you don't, you can stop reading here.)

I'm not alone in this self-defined failure. Lots of people I know, my own age and younger, also admit to feeling like failed adults: "I haven't grown up" is merely the tense-shifted version of "I don't want to grow up". But what does this really mean?

Well, in addition to formal educational processes, we humans learn like most mammals—by observing and imitating. Play in young mammals is all about practicing life skills, but unlike most animals we have a huge load of cultural skills to acquire, stuff we aren't born knowing more or less how to do and just need some practice to get right. And we work out what an adult is, and does, by observing the adults around us.

To say I feel like a failure at adulting doesn't mean I am a failure. I'm a middle-aged novelist who lives in an apartment he owns, has a car, is married, and so on. If I make a checklist of things grown up humans do (as I suggested in the first paragraph above) I actually come out pretty well insofar as the things I don't do are mostly optional. But I still feel like I'm missing stuff. So ... why?

Like most of us, my first experience of observing adults in the wild was as an infant, watching my parents. And—I mentioned that I'm nearly 52?—I'm not giving the game away if I say that my parents are not youngsters. They grew up and came of age in the 1930s and early 1940s; they, in turn, will have internalized their own models of adult behaviour from my grandparents, (only one of whom I ever met). And they came of age during or prior to the first world war.

So here's the thing: I suspect that when I was a pre-teen I internalized a model of adult behaviour that is familiar to anyone under 30 today mostly from TV shows like Mad Men. Men wore suits and hats and went out to work, women wore dresses and stayed home to raise kids, the trappings of material success included cars and maybe a black and white television and a vacuum cleaner (a luxury item in 1950s UK) and air travel was exotic. People went to church (or in the case of my family, synagogue) and society was determinedly homogeneous and a little bit bigoted on the side. And because I don't wear a suit and tie and smoke a pipe while surrounded by my nuclear family in our suburban house I feel kind of slightly like a giant overgrown kid who never managed to grow up and attain the complete grown-up checklist.

This is of course complete bullshit. It's imposter syndrome for grown-ups, and about as valid as imposter syndrome ever is. The reality of being an adult was never like that for everyone, except perhaps the rich and famous role models; it's just that the image of middle class success in the prevailing cultural narrative supplied a template, and insecure, frightened people who are trying to convince themselves that they're adults try to conform to what they perceive as the expectations of everyone around them. The generation that lived in 50's suburbia in turn had inherited their mental map of adult behaviour from their parents. They probably felt like adulting failures too—as witness the sky-high rate of tranquiliser use and alcohol and tobacco addiction in real-world mid-20th century suburbia. And you can trace it back further. The conformist parents of the 1920s were probably trying and failing and feeling like utter failures at being a Victorian paterfamilias or home-maker, or faintly inadequate because they couldn't afford to employ a cook, a maid, and a butler (the Victorian equivalent of a microwave oven, a vacuum cleaner, and a broken metaphor).

We base our vision of an aspirational lifestyle on our parents, who in turn got it by looking at the culture they grew up in (and their parents in turn). The rich are okay; they can afford to buy whatever trappings they think they're supposed to have—butlers for the mansion, finishing school for the kids, whatever. "Downton Abbey" was popular for the worked example of the classical lifestyle of the rich that it supplied: a place for everyone and everyone in their place, including the viewers sitting in front of the TV and wondering if that was why mum was always so fussy about positioning the cutlery just so when laying the table for family dinner. (It's not like the silver spoon novel doesn't have a history.) But the rest of us are struggling to find relevance in a slew of anachronistic cultural detritus that we'd be a lot happier if we simply learned to let go of.

So if you're slouched in front of your laptop wearing a hoodie and joggers while listening to 80s bubblegum pop on a streaming audio channel, and if you've got a collection of bobble-heads or models of the Starship Enterprise on your desk, and your kids (assuming you have any) are wearing retro fashions that remind you of photos of your parents back when they were dating, relax: you are not a failure! Cultural change happens over generations and you're going with the flow rather than trying to cling onto the past like these folk. As Terry Pratchett said, "inside every 80 year old man there's a bewildered 8 year old boy wondering what the hell just happened to him." Give that 8 year old a hug, and tell him he's doing just fine.

State of the Charlie


I'm not blogging a huge amount this month because, well, it's autumn, I always have fun adapting to the shorter days at this time of year (as I grow older I tend to hibernate for 10-12 hours a day for about a month as the Scottish autumn and winter comes calling), and in those hours I'm awake I'm busy with other stuff.

~~Tomorrow~~ Sunday I'm flying out to Tel Aviv where I will be spending much of the week as guest of honour at the ICon Festival 2016, Israel's largest SF convention. A couple of weeks later (from the 4th to 6th of November) I will also be attending Bcon, the 2016 Eurocon in Barcelona.

And when I'm not at my last two SF conventions of 2016, I'm keeping myself busy working on "Ghost Engine", the space opera for 2018. (The first draft of which is just past the halfway mark—it's shaping up to be a big-ass 400+ page beast, longer than any other stand-alone novel I've written since "Iron Sunrise".)

I'd like to apologize for not giving you more chewy essays to gnaw on; it's just that time spent blogging is time spent not writing the next novel, and time spent traveling is time spent not writing anything at all.

Facts of Life and Death


(This blog entry is about British politics. If you aren't interested, don't bother commenting. I have to live here, so it's a matter of considerable importance to me. NB: While I appreciate that other countries have their own problems—one could point to Donald Trump's presidential campaign as reflecting the same disturbing populist reactionary xenophobia—this isn't about you, it's about me, and comments referring to the US presidential campaign will be deleted (until we pass the #300 mark, as is customary here).)

Brexit is going to kill people. And soon.

This week saw the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, and in among the rather scary exclusionist rhetoric it became apparent that the Nasty Party has decisively swung away from representing the interests of the business community and is staking its future on the xenophobic anti-foreigner vote which came out of the woodwork to swing the Brexit referendum in June. In particular, the Prime Minister has a plan for Brexit and it appears to be trending towards the hard option; that her priority will be to clamp down on immigration, and to do so she will abandon the free movement of people that is a keystone of the European Union.

Note that the EU has made it glaringly clear that retaining free movement is a non-negotiable prerequisite for retaining access to the European single market—they made this clear to Switzerland earlier this year—and there is clearly an appetite among other EU heads to state to drive a hard deal with the UK.

Now here is a graph (sorce: xe.com):

Sterling/USD, one week exchange rate

What does it mean?

The UK is a small, very crowded island—hence much of the political pressure to cut down on immigration.

But Britain is not self-sufficient. We don't mine and export raw materials (the last big domestic resource extraction sector was oil, and North Sea reserves are in terminal decline and depressed by external factors, notably the drop in world markets). We export goods and services. Most of the physical goods we export rely on reprocessing materials imported from overseas, so a weak Pound means the cost of raw materials or components rises—and generally they must be paid for before the processed final product can be exported. (Clue: we're part of a global supply chain.) Services are another matter: if I write a novel and sell it abroad, that's a plus on the balance of payments sheet. But the biggest part of the British service sector is banking and finance.

A hard Brexit means that we will lose access to the Single Market—the WTO default terms the hard Brexiters so glibly talk about mean that anyone exporting goods from the UK will have to pay a 20% tarrif, and exports to the UK from the EU (our largest trading partner by a huge margin) will also be liable for duty at that rate. This is in addition to VAT at 20% (and dislocating UK VAT and tax revenue from the rest of the EU is going to be a nightmare on its own). We have to buy those raw inputs using funds in Pounds Sterling, which (see graph above) has just fallen off a fucking cliff. Translation: anything we buy from overseas now costs about 10% more than it did a week ago, and Sterling has dropped by roughly 20% since the Brexit referendum 4 months ago, to an all-time historic low.

But what about services? Well, a hard Brexit means an end to passporting, and the financial services sector will take a hit. Currently London punches way above its weight as a global financial center because the unacknowledged truth is that Sterling is the EU's unofficial secondary reserve currency—with Britain in the EU, if the Euro turns wobbly, funds managers can switch to Sterling, and vice versa. If Britain leaves the EU Sterling will no longer be a safe haven for EU investment vehicles, and so a rather large chunk of the financial services industry will go down in flames (or, more accurately, relocate to Frankfurt, Paris, and even Dublin).

Upshot: the service sector will be hit, and hard, at a point where the goods-producing industries will be undergoing a protracted cash flow crunch: the labour they apply to imported raw materials to turn them into exportable products will be cheaper in global terms, it's true, but they'll be buying the raw materials on credit using an unstable, rapidly devaluing currency. (See also Russia. Except we don't have Siberia to strip-mine.)

But here's the worst part of all.

The UK is not self-sufficient in food. The UK imports roughly 40% of the total food consumed, and the proportion is rising. Nor is it obvious that we can produce more food: to get close to self-sufficiency from 1939-45 required a world war, mobilization, and the conversion of all private gardens into kitchen gardens, along with rationing, and the UK population has grown by roughly 25% since then. While modern technology-intensive agricultural techniques can improve productivity, this is capital intensive, and the one thing a Post-hard Brexit Britain with a crashed currency and a financial sector fleeing to the continent is going to be short of is capital. Also, it takes years to roll out that sort of infrastructure upgrade, even if the will is there.

Food bank use is at record levels and hunger is a desperate concern for low-income (including low-earning employed) families. And the currency we buy our food imports with just crashed 10% this week, and 25% over the past four months.

If a Hard Brexit happens, then Sterling will almost certainly dip below Dollar parity for the first time in history. Imported foods will cost 40% more in real terms than they did in 2015. And there will be additional 20% tarrifs levelled on top.

I'm calling Hard Brexit a road to mass starvation and famine-grade deaths on a scale not seen in the UK since the Hungry Forties (that's the 1840s, not the 1940s).