Thursday, 12 January 2017

Fake Plastic News

English: A set of online ads featuring fake ne...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There's an awful lot of talk about fake news online, a background rumbling that occasionally erupts as indeed it has this week. We have all enjoyed the controversy surrounding the US intelligence dossier that purportedly places the future President of the land of the free and home of the brave in a Moscow hotel room watching gleefully as a number of ladies of dubious reputation perform vengeful lewd acts involving micturating on a bed previously used by the previous President of the LOFTAHOFB.

The fun thing about the story, which is more than likely total bunkum, is how deliciously fun it is. Liberal America would just love to believe it. So would most of us, no?

The trouble is that it's getting very hard indeed to sift the wheat from the chaff. But fake news is nothing new: we've always been rather surrounded by it. Was King Richard III really a vile, drooling hunchback who murdered two little princes? Probably not, but we've been just a tad under 500 years late coming to that conclusion. At the time, the spread of rumour was mostly by word of mouth - Gutenberg had only just invented the printing press and printed his celebrated bible - and so it was word of mouth, together with a wee dose of Shakespearean bile a hundred years later, that was to seal Richard's poor reputation.

Gutenberg's press - and pretty much every innovation in media and communications since - merely accelerated the process.

Richard was just one of a million historic examples of fake news, many of them classic examples of history being written by the victor. Sitting in Dubai, the issue of the Al Qassimi 'pirates' comes to mind - opposed to the invading British, they were quickly labelled brigands and pirates and so, for a good hundred years, the whole area was happily referred to as 'the pirate coast'. My own novels have often played with the idea that my freedom fighter is your terrorist and vice versa.

From Gutenberg to the Internet we see the rapidly evolving role of news media - from the invention of the 'newspaper' through to the era of press barons and the dominance of media by politics and big business. Idealistic journalists have constantly found themselves challenged by repressive forces, from political interference through to commercial censorship, our media has represented a combination of people telling truth to power and power telling lies to people.

We used to depend on those solid journalists and their editors to help us better understand the world around us from an informed viewpoint and we were, up until pretty recently, happy to buy whatever narrative they decided to shape for us. If we suspected any interference behind the scenes, we tended to gloss it over. For our media and governments would never tell us porky pies, would they? Our government, after all, governs in our name, does it not? Represents us? Why, then, would they lie to us?

It's not just governments, of course. Big business loves fake news. Advertising and PR agencies have long placed fake news stories in media. You can spot the weasel words, 'studies say' and 'most folks agree' are just two of many sure-fire signs that studies don't and most folks wouldn't. Palm oil, gun lobbies, Israeli settlers, big pharma selling GMOs to Africa - you name 'em, they've been manipulating news by seeding untruths and obfuscation disguised as surveys, research and expert opinion.

As the Internet has whipped the news cycle into a news cyclone, we have seen the erosion of trust in 'mainstream media' and politics become a dominant force in our society. Last year's two most savage political upsets were arguably driven by public anger and disaffection with politics, following on from the waves of disaffection which washed around the Middle East and made their way to Europe with the riots in Britain and Occupy Wall Street in the US. We've seen growing disaffection with big business, too. That wave of disaffection has moved with blinding speed because of the Great Networks of our age.

In the face of that disaffection, our media has been failing - plummeting revenues and the slow death of print have led to staffing cuts and a growing pressure to keep up with the twin-headed Gorgon of Twitter and Buzzfeed. We need clicks, boys, and we need them fast - realtime if you please.

If you want to see the result of this dual pressure to make old media models perform in the new media age, you only have to wander around the Daily Mail, the world's most popular news website. It's not a terribly edifying experience, especially if you believe (as I do) that we tend to get the media we deserve. The difference between the Mail's mainstream content and the stories in the 'Taboola' tabs is getting frighteningly slim. Real 'news' is starting to mimic fake news.

Making it all worse, alongside these pressures we have the very nature of the Internet. Ubiquitous, always-on, filled with people, animals, trolls and lice and all their spurious motivations and agendas. What would have been irrefutable proof in Richard's day (a letter, say) or Nixon's (a tape, say) is worthless today. We can Photoshop images, edit sounds, manipulate documents and fake testimony.

We can harness the news cycle and network effects to put untrue stuff out there and by the time anyone's got around to saying, 'Wait, what?' it's too late. Site X has run it, sites A-W have picked up from site X in the relentless rush to harvest those early clicks and suddenly the whole Web is full of the Spurious Thing. You can probably correct Site X, but that's about as far as you're going to get in terms of actually slipping a cork in the bottle. By about now you've got yourself a nice little hashtag and you're the talk of the town.

But this all has just democratised demonisation. We've always had fake news. It used to be the preserve of the wealthy, powerful and the victors. Now spotty Herberts in tenement bedrooms can do it. And there are companies out there who are harvesting clicks by the million by intentionally creating alarmist rubbish and pushing it with 'clickbait' headlines. Filtering the truth from the fake these days can be a bewildering game. And most people couldn't be bothered.

Which is, to be honest, a worry...

Monday, 2 January 2017

That British Airways Belfast Customer Experience

Tails of British Airways Jumbos lined up near ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sometimes an organisation's priorities are all too evident in the way it comports itself. Let's be clear here - comportment is what you do, not what you say.

Some of the most egregious customer service behaviours I have seen in my professional career have been on the part of organisations which spend a lot of time and money broadcasting their customer-service values and claiming they put the customer first.

These have mostly been Middle Eastern banks and telcos, which tend to pay a lot more money pushing 'we are customer-centric' messages than they do on actually helping customers in any way. This common attitude to 'customer experience' has always confused me, to be honest. It tends to have made its way from the analogue to the digital world, BTW - these organisations under-invest in UX, search and content compared to old-fashioned one-way communication efforts and still tend to consistently confuse outreach for broadcast. And they tend to see public relations as a way of managing and obfuscating their failures rather than as a positive force.

Critically, the pain resulting from this behaviour rarely gets felt by the management taking the decisions on where to allocate resources - the customer-facing front line is stuffed with minimum wage drones who have no escalation path. Rather than listen to them, the company will issue customer opinion surveys direct to customers which invariably result in initiatives to squeeze more out of the drones rather than drive any fundamental change in behaviour.

In the case of an airline like British Airways, it's understandable that the big expensive flying machines are what matters most. You'll claim it's all about the people, but that's not really the case (comportment, remember?) - the money's in the capital equipment and shifting that equipment around with optimal efficiency (slots/routes/lading) is the ultimate key to success.

When things go wrong, for instance when your home airport is closed through fog or any other circumstance, the operational challenges can be immense. Suddenly you face the collapse of the carefully stacked house of cards that is your optimal routing/resource utilisation. Minimising time to recovery is key and, despite your loud protestations, customers tend to be one of the great inconveniences to this process. They have a nasty tendency to be where they're not supposed to be and fail to be quite where you'd like them to be.

They get, in short, in the way.

When we arrived for our scheduled flight from Belfast to find the usually minimal check-in queue was a long, snaking affair stretching almost out of the airport door, we were puzzled. We'd not been keeping up with the news - too busy doing Christmas - and found out from friends online that there had been flight delays at Heathrow due to freezing fog. British Airways - which had our email address and contact number - hadn't reached out to advise of any delays or issues.

The queue wasn't moving and there was nobody from BA 'working the line' and telling people what was happening. The boards showed later flights to LHR than ours that day had already been cancelled, which had us trying to call a friend we knew was connecting from BHD through LHR to DXB later on. Clearly her travel plans were already scuppered, even as ours still held out a dwindling prospect of hope.

After an hour or so, a tannoy advised us that check-in was slower than normal and assured us that 'we would be processed' as soon as possible. This would be my first piece of 'customer experience feedback' to British Airways. Processed is not, as eny fule no, a 'feel-good customer experience' word.

A long time later, we were duly processed and went through security to the departure lounges. We were on the 15.05 flight and watched the 12.05 flight departing shortly before we were due out. There was clearly a delay in the offing here, but we took heart on not being cancelled. Minutes later, the tannoy rang out - our flight was cancelled and we were to collect our bags and a 'rebooking form' from the baggage area.

The rebooking form was an A4 sheet being handed out by harassed looking baggage handlers who assured me that they had no information beyond the form, didn't work for BA and weren't responsible for anything. Repeated requests to speak to someone from BA were ignored or refused. The form itself had been knocked up in an annoying, hard to read 'handwriting' style font and carried a wrong number for the call centre and the instruction to 'call between XX:XX and XX:XX'. As the primary instrument of communication to passengers of a cancelled flight, it was pretty shoddy and almost utterly useless. At this stage the BA app and website were equally useless, showing the flight as either still departing or delayed. There was no rebooking option available on either platform. The British Airways call centre was dropping calls with a message that they were too busy to talk to us.

We hired a car and fled back to Newry for our unscheduled night's layover. By the time we arrived down the road (it's an hour's drive away), the flight was no longer showing as cancelled, but as delayed to 6am the next day. After 30 minutes on hold, we finally got through to the call centre, clearly managed at a distant location, which could only confirm the delayed flight or refer us back to Because your flight is delayed and not cancelled, the message was clear, rebooking isn't really an option.

With no information other than this, we had no option but to get up at 3.30am to arrive at the British Airways check-in at Belfast City - both officially and fondly known as George Best - in time to present on time for the revised 6am flight. Once again, a long, long queue and no BA staff on hand. Getting to the front of the line, we learn BA1417 is a 'free' flight - a plane is on the tarmac surplus to requirements and they'll fill it as soon as possible and get it off when they can. As it turned out, this was finally to be at 5.30pm that day.

In all that time, BA staff were notably absent. Information and updates were just as sparse. Throughout, our fellow travellers were anxious and unsure how to act in the total absence of information, given no option but to hang around and wait for the next reluctantly divulged snippet. Families, old people, kids and all - confused, concerned and effectively marginalised - were all systematically kept in the dark.

The overwhelming theme throughout this whole process was the lack of communication or concern for the messy carbon-based life forms which British Airways claims sit at the very centre of their business. The BA app was less than useless, the website poorly structured and lacking in any useful information, transactional capability or interactivity - especially given the circumstances. The BA Twitter team pushes out platitudes but there's little empowerment on show here - they had as much information (or as little) as we did.

BA's only attempt at 'customer communication' was a badly formatted letter packed with errors and carrying no useful information. There was no proactive outreach, no attempt at interactive person-to-person communication or 'Customer Experience Management' (at one stage the Twitter team told me they'd share my comments with their 'Customer Experience Managers' which had me in stitches and, to be honest, rather fed my Twitter output for a while. I managed some 100 tweets in all, a flow of admittedly somewhat therapeutic scorn that eventually drew the attention of the dear old BBC).

It was clear time after time that BA staff had knowledge of the developing situation which they were not prepared to share with their customers. was often updated before any communication was attempted with customers waiting in the lounge, while staff would only offer information in response to direct questions - literally, if you didn't ask (pointedly), you didn't get.

We couldn't face a long haul flight directly after the BA debacle and so re-booked our subsequent flight with Emirates. It took 5 minutes using EK's website.

BA followed up the whole frustrating experience with a customer experience survey yesterday (twice, for some reason), which actually just confirmed my views of them as an organisation. Did the pilot serve us well? Was he proactive? Chatty? Good at making us feel warm and welcome?

I don't care, BA. That's not his job. His job is to drive the thing effectively and safely, not to make up for your lack of investment in customer service by bantering and pandering to your ill-served customers.

I'd like to think they could learn something from this: listen and perhaps even consider changing their behaviour as a result of the feedback. But they won't. British Airways didn't learn a thing from the Eyjafjallaj√∂kull debacle, which cost us four days of BA-induced hell back in 2010 - because every single awful lack in communications and customer care or customer experience management evident then was evident now.

So much could change and for a relatively small investment. Because an organisation is judged not on how it acts when everything's going as expected, but how it acts when the extraordinary happens. British Airways' performance in the face of the extraordinary has been consistently, arrogantly, infuriatingly sub-par.

All it would take is reviewing British Airways' operations from the customer's point of view. It's a serious suggestion - it so clearly hasn't been done, ever.

Meanwhile, my abiding takeaway is that a 'Customer Experience Management' team is employed by this company.

God forbid. What do they do each day?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Oh noes! Here Comes COMPLIANCE!

English: Postage stamp of Umm-al-Qiwain (UAE),...
The cold weather's here alright, but this is just silly...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was ranting on Medium the other day about the Evils of Conformity but there is a much darker, brooding evil stalking my life right now. Compliance.

As an Ancient Expat, I deal with a number of financial institutions. Some look after my company's money, some my own money. Some act in a number of ways to impair my access to my money (not that I'm giving HSBC a long, hard stare at this point, you understand) while others are entrusted with our plans for jam tomorrow.

The times they have been a-changin' for some time now. I remember walking into the Bank of Ireland in Thurles waving a wad of UAE Dirhams and asking the teller if I could please change them into Irish Punts.
'Of course,' came the answer. 'What are they?'
'They're UAE Dirhams.'
'Is that right? Is that what they look like? Well, I never!'
And they were then duly changed at the prevailing rate.
I swear it's true. Nowadays they'd have to take all my biometrics, my DNA and a snapshot of my current mind-state before they'd even talk to me.

Try telling a British financial institution - one that's happy enough to take money from overseas but clearly make no concessions to an environment that's different to the UK - that you only have a PO Box number. That even though they put up street signs on your sand road a few years ago, nobody uses them. Particularly since a lorry knocked down the sign on the corner a couple of years back and nobody's replaced it.

We need two utility bills, they trill, addressed to your home address. Except they aren't, here. They're all addressed to our PO Box. All our statements and other financial institution correspondence comes to our PO Box. Nobody uses our physical address, nobody. If you HAVE to find us, for instance to deliver Lebanese food, you get talked in from the Sheraton Sharjah.

Since my first visit to the wonders of the Gulf in 1986, I have found my way to innumerable meetings 'Past the second water tank after the Herfy on Sitteen Street, turn left and we're below the ALICO sign' although I must pause to point out that all directions given to locations in Abu Dhabi are followed by 'it's really easy', words which strike a chill of fear into my heart because they invariably mean 'You're going to die trying to find us.'

The British Embassy doesn't certify documents anymore. The Irish Office in Dubai will, for Dhs60, certify a copy of a passport but really wants an Irish connection and isn't too happy about doing my Brit passport. Getting two hours away from work to trot off getting documents legally translated and certified is, oddly enough, not very easy. I'm actually busy. And that certification of identity doesn't help with the old physical address thing, either.

It's been plaguing me. Everything I try isn't quite good enough. The electricity bill gives my area as a different area to the other document. Try as I might, I can't get 'em to understand that Muntaza and Rifa'a are the same thing. They might even be Fisht or Heera, depending on your mood and desire for geographical granularity. Any physical address given simply doesn't matter anyway. There is no standard, there is no infrastructure that relies on or requires physical addressing. And when a utility goes askew, we have to go to their office and bring the chap back to our house because they'd never find it otherwise. Oh, unless they want to cut off the supply when they suddenly and miraculously know precisely where we are. Quick aside - the other week SEWA cut us off for non-payment when we'd paid. 'Why didn't you knock first?' we asked, getting the immortal response, 'Because people hit us.'

We have an Etisalat location ID, but as far as I can tell even Etisalat doesn't use that. The wee plaque affixed to our villa displaying it is actually most used by local gas companies and AC repair men to wedge their stickers and business cards. Even the tenancy contract (legally translated and certified, natch) is no good as it only refers to me because it's in my name rather than joint names because we're in the UAE and that's just how it is here, right?


In impotent fury, I point out our money was good enough to take in the first place. They opened the account. Why now, with each new shift in pottiness, am I faced with fresh swathes of idiocy dressed up as 'compliance'?

'Yes, yes. We understand. Nevertheless, we need two immutable and incorrigible proofs of your residence address signed in wet ink by a bearded ocelot. And then stamped, signed, sealed, translated, attested, fumigated and duly immolated.'


Friday, 2 December 2016

I've Been Busy...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've written a children's book.

I could tell you that it was because we were riffing around with my wee niece Ellen in the summer and teasing Nanny Webster about her obsession with cheese, and so I eventually decided to write the book in time to make it one of Ells' Christmas pressies but you wouldn't believe me.

You'd probably think I did it in an explosion of jealousy at 'I only have to write 10,000 words' lunatic and childrens' writer Rachel 'Poo Pants' Hamilton. That I got sick of watching her relieving small children of their money at a rate of thousands of Dirhams an hour and decided to get myself some of that 'scoop the wee brats out of their pocket money' dosh action. And you'd be basing your assumptions on some pretty decent science - Rachel literally hoovers the stuff from kids when we do markets and stuff together. Hoovers it, I tell you.

But the truth is - honestly guvnor no word of a lie, trust me on this one - it's a present for Ellen. A book as a Christmas present is, if I say so myself, rather inspired. If you are in the fortunate position of being able to write, edit and produce books, they make a rather fun personalised gift!

And the idea for Nanny's Magical Cheese Box did, in fact, come during our stay at the wonderful Inchiquin House in the County Clare. Ellen's Dad (the book's cover designer, as it happens) had the idea and then I made up some daft story for Ellen about how Nanny saved the world using nothing more than various types of cheese and she was entranced.

I remember being like that when my Dad used to tell me stories about Charlie the Chipmunk every night when he put me to bed. Charlie was a major highlight of the day. He used to get up to all sorts of high jinks. Wonderful stuff. When I was about eleven I asked him, 'Whatever happened to Charlie the Chipmunk, Dad?' He promptly responded, 'Oh him? He's dead.'

There went innocence.

So this is going to be an interesting addition to the old Amazon profile: Middle Eastern thrillers, nukes, whores and deaths by torture alongside decent bombers and psychological thrillers about girls going bats and then we have Nanny's Magical Cheese Box.

There's precedent. Aldous Huxley, James Joyce and even Mr Macho Hemingway himself have all written children's books. Few people realise Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Bond author Ian Fleming, for instance - although the original Fleming novel (published posthumously, Fleming died of a heart attack before the book went into distribution) has little to do with the story told in the popular film. Actually, something of a worry, one scathing review of Fleming's book said, "We have the adult writer at play rather than the children's writer at work."

Fleming, by the way, was an unmitigated shit as a human being. The only Bond book in which the female lead is not referred to as a 'stupid bitch' is The Spy Who Loved Me, which is (uniquely) written in the first person - that of the female protagonist, who doesn't let the side down by herself announcing, 'I know I'm a stupid bitch, but...'

All that apart, the world of children's fiction can likely rest easy. Nanny's Magical Cheese Box is going up on Createspace for the hell of it and I'll print a short run of Christmas presents with Jamalon's POD operation. I'll probably 'properly' publish it to Kindle for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2017, where I'm doing a 'how to publish books' workshop thingy. Having said that (and sales of NMCB are truly the last thing on my mind), kids' books don't sell well on Kindle. It's A Great Truth that kids like paper best.

It was a whole lot of fun to do, by the way. But I think Rachel's safe. It's not really 'me' as far as the old writing career goes. Now that Nanny's Magical Cheese Box is done, I'm back to working on next novel project, The Dead Sea Hotel.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Croutique. Books. Gifts. What's Not To Love?

Croutique is a sort of Middle Eastern Etsy, a place for crafters to sell their crafts to people who value something a little off the usual beaten track of marble malls and shiny brands. We're talking individuality, personalisation, a splash of quirkiness and perhaps even a dash of difference.

It's a CRafters bOUTIQUE, really. Croutique. Geddit?

The site comes to us thanks to the marriage of global expat community website and their acquisition of deal-tipping site Cobone, which added transactional capabilities to one of the region's most successful pure-play web publishing sites. ExpatWoman has always been strongly about communities and long supportive of the UAE's 'crafter community'. Sounds a bit hipster, like a mad sort of tax-free Amish, doesn't it?

As a vendor, Croutique lets you easily set up a web store within their store, with easy to build pages that let you sell items with varying degrees of personalisation and choice. I should know, I've built one myself. Yes, you can now buy my books - signed and dedicated as you fancy, and have 'em delivered to your home anywhere in the UAE without even letting go of your beloved mouse. And all for a mere Dhs17 above the retail cover price.

No more Christmas present dilemmas! Have a book dedicated to your loved one and signed by the author! Get the whole Olives/Beirut/Shemlan trilogy for a never-to-be-forgotten gift. Or A Decent Bomber for your father in law who's interested in Ireland and that sort of thing.

Or Birdkill for anyone who likes reading really quite screwed up psychological thrillers. Or, better, for that over-sensitive aunt you loathe who suffers dreadfully from her nerves.

Requests for 200,000 word dedications beginning 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' will clearly not be considered...

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair And Selling Books. Live As It Happens.

It's become sort of traditional to live blog the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair, which I usually share with madcap children's author Rachel 'Poo Pants' Hamilton and winsome author of 'domestic noir', Annabel Kantaria. Annabel can't make it this year so it's just me and the lunatic. And I'm ill. This could get twisted.

This is not starting well. I've been sick as a dog for the last two weeks and its showing no signs of abating. Up all night in a terrible state, shivers, sweats, yarking up boluses of phlegm and generally gibbering. My stomach's not good, I've got a head like Oliver Plunkett. Thank God I loaded the car yesterday. Coffee is making things better but I guess I don't really need a day standing in the sun right now. I hope to God Hamilton hasn't remembered the bloody gold dinosaur.

I have set up next to Hamilton's mad empire of tottering popups and branding, a huge display of THIS IS RACHEL HAMILTON GIVE HER YOUR CHILDREN'S MONEY. I'm not well. There's a lady shouting at us over the tannoy which makes talking to people quite difficult. Hamilton is running around banking money and screaming CHING CHING.

It's warm enough but we're nicely shaded. Books have been moving which is nice and there's been a lively run on Birdkill. Chatting to Hamilton about Jamalon's POD operations, she suddenly breaks off and dances around the table. There's a small child looking at her books, face illuminated in awe. Two seconds later, small child has been relieved of money. It's terrible...

People are funny, they really are. I just sold a copy of Beirut to a Lebanese lady who doesn't read in English. She's off to try the experience and has promised to let me know how it goes for her. It's hot. I'm still alive, the waves of nausea and misery have receded, probably burned off by the sun like morning mist. Hamilton is on a massive run of book sales. Depressing, really...

Rachel's daughter Jodie has been sent on a leafleting mission with 100 flyers promoting Poo Pants and me. This is a cunning scheme indeed!

Five minutes later she's back, all dispirited. They're all really rude,' she complains. She's been given 50 shades of 'No, thank you, we don't want your leaflet little girl now go away' from the general public. Cunning plan thwarted, then. That's a new one for the marketing things wot I learn at ExpatWoman Festive Fairs list. I'm melting. Someone's cooking sharwamas and I hate them. The person, not the shawarmas. The shawarmas, I want.

There's something of a lull on. Hamilton goes for a wander around, but a small child approaches her table. Quick as a flash she does a double take from way over on the other side of the courtyard and there's a Matrix-like blur and stop-motion emergence from hyperspace aaaand she's back. One small child relieved of funds later, she takes off for her wander. Honestly, it's beyond belief.

I've just put something strange and wrong in my mouth. It's supposed to be a hot dog, but it reminds me of something out of Terry Pratchett. I remember Elton John once describing a gustatory experience with, 'I've had stranger things in my mouth.' Well, while Elton (or Reg, as he should really be known) and I have different tastes, I can honestly say I can't recall anything quite so odd passing my lips. It was very kind of Hamilton to take a few seconds out of vacuuming money from small children to get them, but they are very, very strange.

A lady has just told me she loved Olives so much she lent it to all her friends. I managed to keep smiling, I'm not sure how, with my heart so black and murderous. Oh, I loved your book so much I photocopied it and put it up on a torrent site. Yvette and Flora from the LitFest have swung by to laugh at Hamilton and I being slowly reduced to sweaty, crumpled heaps. It's just struck me how much I've earned today compared to my hourly fee in my day job. I am now in a deep depression. But it's all about the readers, honestly. Truly, really, honestly. I mean it. Most sincerely. My lovely, lovely readers. I burp an aftershock of turgid pink proto-meat sausage, HFCS laden tomato gloop and scabby mustard and think of all those super, wonderful readers.

I'm on the downward spiral here, I'm running out of energy and things have slowed up a bit. Reckon I'll hightail it in a while. Even the madcap Hamilton has become less assiduous in her thieving of innocents. The Christmas music in the heat and hacienda style architecture of the Ranches Polo Club is endearingly odd, perhaps even slightly surreal. This is starting to trigger visions and this is probably not a good thing.

That's it. I'm out. Totally done. Sold some books, met some people, chatted with some nice strangers, watched Hamilton's mad pop-up empire come tottering down around her ears like a great metaphorical thing, caught in the breeze and dominoing disastrously. I manage to laugh long and loud enough so she notices.

It's funny how people are with books: how much convincing they take to pick up something new, how people will come back for more if they like what you've done before. As usual, the seminal importance of covers and blurbs reinforced but, oddly enough, how many people will just walk past books with absolutely no curiosity at all - anecdotally from today, at least, I'd say the majority of people don't actually, you know, care about books. And that's hard for me to say.

Sick, exhausted, sweaty and shivering, I retire with a few thousand Dirhams in my pocket and only one box of books left to carry to the car. Which is just as well, because I don't have the energy for anything else.

Until next year, then... Yay.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Of Books And Festive Family Fairs

Next Saturday, the 12th November, is the ExpatWoman Festive Family Fair. This hotly anticipated annual occasion takes place at Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club (opposite Arabian Ranches just behind Studio City) and is a family day out packed with crafter's stalls, food, diverse and lavish entertainments and dazzling exhibitions of polo, the sport of kings - as eny fule no.

It's well worth the trip out, not least of which because you'll be able to come and meet Old Poo Pants (Beloved Children's Author Rachel Hamilton in other words) and myself and buy our books. You can buy mine for adult Christmas presents and Rachel's for small people's Christmas presents. This way we don't compete and it cuts down on the fighting and squabbling. Unless she brings a bloody gold dinosaur along again, in which case there'll likely be fisticuffs.

Rachel and I often collude at this event, usually joined by Domestic Noir author Annabel Kantaria who can't make it this year. Rachel leaches money from young children like a mixture between a Dyson Money Hoover and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and I spend the day reeling at how she'll literally take the sweets from a baby's mouth.

Rachel trying to look foxy in a bucket. 
Seconds after this image was taken, she fell out of it.

I, on the other hand, being altogether more noble of soul, only sell to those of an age to take responsibility for their actions. This is why I sell less copies than Rachel, not because my books aren't as popular as hers or anything like that. Oh no.

So here's a chance to pick up that paperback copy of the Lovingly Restored Author's Cut of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy, or update yourself and pick up a sneaky A Decent Bomber or Birdkill. Or even buy a friend that lovely new revised edition of Olives - A Violent Romance with its spangly cover.

These books, by the way are very different in one critical respect. They're printed in Jebel Ali, not America. So a) I don't get hit with ruinous shipping charges and b) you'll soon be able to buy my books shipped anywhere in the world for FREE and anywhere in the UAE same day from bookselling megawebsite Which is all a rather cool development for UAE and regional book publishing, I can tell you.

Do feel free to come along and pick up a book or five and even have a chat about how YOU can now sell books with virtually zero inventory in the UAE!

Saturday 12th November, 2016 
10.00am - 5.00pm 
Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Birdkill On Air. Will It Fly?

Every Saturday, the Emirates Airline LitFest crew take over the Dubai Eye Radio studio for three hours. They do unthinkable things behind the scenes and bring cookies and coffee into the hallowed halls of studioland, then settle down for three hours 'Talking of Books', a generally unhurried and relaxed conversation about books which usually combines a Book of the Week, a kids' book slot, a 'book champion' slot where a book geek is brought in to rave about their given favourite right now and much general book talkery.

The Book of the Week is read by the team prior to the show and then discussed on air as they share their views and generally dissect the whole thing, effectively a book review by several reviewers at once. Occasionally, they drag the author on air, too, for a light grilling.

You can see where this is leading, right? Right.

This Saturday, they're reviewing my fifth serious novel, Birdkill. It's subtly promoted to the right of this here post and gently highlighted over at my website. As many of you will know, I don't like to make a fuss of these things.

This should be interesting. Birdkill is pretty different, IMHO, to my other books. It's the first time I wrote a book entirely for myself, without a thought for agents and publishers. Its genesis is the first story I ever tried to tell and its inspirations lie in dreams: particularly scenes at the beginning, middle and end of the book. I think it could be harrowing reading for some - it certainly packs a few punches and twists a few earlobes. It's based around a premise which seems a bit mad but which is actually frighteningly real. And it's either about a woman battling a psychic child or a woman going mad. Or both.

My favourite review for Birdkill on Amazon so far came, sadly, with two stars attached. These were more than made up for by the text of the review, which still delights me every time I read it: "This is a cynical negative, depressing book. Everyone decent died. I'm sorry I read it."

Let's see what happens on Saturday, then...

Talking of Books airs on Dubai Eye 103.8FM from 10am - 1pm GST (from 7am UK time) and streams here on this handy wee link. I'm sorry about the advertising, it's not my fault. But do drop in for a listen anyway!

Friday, 21 October 2016

McNabb, Illinois Is A Thing. I Am Institutionalised. Only Not How I Thought I Would Be...

Somewhere in deepest Illinois, sort of left of Chicago, there is a village of some 280 souls (down from 300, apparently) called McNabb. I have to confess, I do love their water tank. They even have a website. It's mostly concerned with sewage and stuff, which seems about right.

I'll go there one of the days, you mark my words. I'll probably be wearing a 'Hello, Illinois, my name is McNabb' t-shirt. There's a much slighter chance I'll go incognito.

It's nestled deep in a huge patchwork quilt of squared-off fields and right angled roads. On Google Earth it looks flat and dull and utterly boring. I hope to God it's not. I hope it's a mad and nutty place filled with joy and carousing, anarchy bubbling under and a constant middle finger raised to the world around, most of which seems to consist of squares of ploughed tillage.

Don't even ask me how I found it. I don't even know myself. But I now have a new Twitter icon which I am deeply delighted with. And if ever there were a place to open 'McNabb Books', this would be The One...

Monday, 17 October 2016

On Information Literacy In The Middle East

As we are exposed to the raw feeds of information in our interconnected world, we are increasingly forced to a much greater degree of editorial responsibility than was previously the case. We need to filter what it is we're seeing and hearing, what we're being told. As mainstream media outlets struggle to keep up with the need to beat 'real time', we see that not only do 'context and analysis' frequently suffer, but also the movement of information is also prone to network effects.

Worryingly, if a newspaper, say The Guardian as an example, publishes a story with a duff fact or premise and you manage to get that story corrected, it's too late. Because fifty other outlets have picked up The Guardian's story and happily repeated it. In the inexorable march to harvest clicks, the most dramatic and counter-intuitive stories are snapped up and media outlets are happy cannibals. Your chances of getting that genie back into the bottle are pretty much zilch.

We're not - despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary - stupid, us humans. We've quickly worked out that this network effect can be used to great benefit. If we're first out with something nice and dramatic sounding, by the time anyone gets around to saying, 'Wait, wat?' the world's already chowing down on our spurious claims. Think Trump.

Even Google is now experimenting with fact checking features, adding fact checking links to news search results.

Now we take all that stuff and we squeeze it into the oddly shaped bottle that is the Middle East, where media have long been cowed and access to unfettered opinion and anything else generally regarded as 'dangerous' for our social well-being and morality has been repressed. This has arguably resulted in societies which lack the practice in questioning and critical faculties to handle the sudden cornucopia which social media and the real time news cycle have unleashed.

We have already seen how the initial reaction to this bounty resulted in tectonic change in the region, I have argued before that Occupy Wall Street started in Lebanon. But if we look at where we are today and at the challenges of understanding and processing all of this information, we can not only see the problematic aspects, but also the opportunities this stuff represents.

It is those very opportunities which have driven veteran journalist, founder of AUB's journalism training program and all-round journalism trainer Magda Abu-Fadil, together with fellow editors Jordi Torrent & Alton Grizzle to produce Opportunities for Media and Information Literacy in the Middle East and North Africa, a report (actually the 2016 Yearbook from the International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media) which highlights the need to teach information literacy in the region's schools. The report makes fascinating reading for anyone who cares about media, the flow of information within society and the need to enhance the critical faculties of a young generation brought into a world where the dizzying flow of fact and fallacy can sometimes threaten to sweep us away.

What I like about it is that the report doesn't sit on its hands and bemoan the parlous state of things, but makes concrete recommendations for positive social change which can be relatively simply and effectively implemented. The time, as the report notes, has never been so propitious...

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...