James Calbraith is a Poland-born British writer, foodie and traveler.
“The Year of the Dragon” saga sold nearly 30,000 copies worldwide.
Today, 98% of those who took part in the Hungarian referendum voted against the EU plan of resettling the refugees arriving on Europe’s beaches.
People who lived through World War II outside the Nazi-occupied territories had to later confront the pertinent questions: “what did you do during the war? How did you react to the atrocities? How have you helped, or if not, how did you sleep at night knowing what was going on?”
Well, now we know. It’s remarkably easy not to care about others if they’re far enough, or different enough. It’s easy not to think of the victims as human, of the dead as people, of the refugees as anything other than an invading horde. It’s so easy, it doesn’t even take a sustained campaign of dehumanization, by the media and the politicians, to do so – it seems as if all we need is the flimsiest of excuses not to give a fuck about anyone else than ourselves.
What is the point of teaching history, if we don’t see the most obvious of parallels when they hit us between the eyes? What is the point of reading about Anne Frank, and building her a museum, when we don’t care about today’s Annes, like Bana Alabed live tweeting from bombed Aleppo? Only worse, because this time we all know she – and so many others – are there – and still we do nothing to help.
You know what’s the most terrifying? It’s that Syria is so fucking close. It’s the closest war to the West since Yugoslavia – both in terms of geography and culture. It’s one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It is – or used to be – what we like to call a “proper country”, with universities, science, literature, classical music, everything we expect of a people “like us” – and yes, I’m using those awful, racist categories, because this war has shown what awful, racist scum we all have become in response. It’s easy to imagine Syrians a few years ago thinking, “we’re not Afghanistan or Somalia – if anything bad happens, we’ll get help, because we are like them”. But no, all of this wasn’t enough. The colour of skin and the foreignness of religion was all it took to turn a nation of doctors and poets into a barbarian horde of “cockroaches”, swarming against our borders, their real intention to blow us up and rape “our” women.
I could go on, but it doesn’t matter. Those with their heart in the right place, already know all of this. The rest of you – just remember this: karma is a bitch. Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Syria… They used to be like “us”. Like you. One day, your country too could become a living hell for some random, unexpected reason. One year you host the Olympics, or the Euro, the other – cluster bombs and poison gas are falling on your head.
For your sake, when that happens, I hope the world will treat you better than how you treat others today.
Right, so here’s the second installment of my “writing inspirations” series. This time it’s the podcasts I listen to on my headphones. Continuing last week’s theme, these concern artists and artistry – in particular, once again, comedy and comedians.
The one I’ve discovered first, and probably because of that my favourite, is RHLSTP (RHLSTP!) – catchily-named Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theater Podcast, which originated out of Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe interview podcasts.
People of my generation, of course, remember Richard Herring from his 90’s double-act with Stewart Lee; his further career – and he’ll be the first to admit – had its ups and downs, but at some point he moved on to internet-kickstart-podcast presence, which was a great decision for everyone involved, as it gave us, by now, well over a hundred interviews, plus additional podcasts, sketch shows like AIOTM (*aiotm!*) and more.
If you know Herring, you’ll know the kind of humour to expect at first – but among the questions about a 6-foot dick and hands made of ham, it moves subtly towards discussions about creativity and comedians’ life in general.
The other podcast, despite having “comedy” twice in its title, is much more serious. Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian tends to be much further on the “sad clown” spectrum. Stuart doesn’t shirk from controversial subjects and guests; the interviews are more serious and heavy. My definite favourite is his conversation with Shappi Khorsandi (who’s one of my favourite people anyway) – touching deeply on such subjects as depression, self-harm, bullying and racism, all painted with a contagious optimism.
The last podcast I have to mention is Sitcom Geeks: a long, ongoing conversation between James Cary and Dave Cohen about the art of writing and editing – sitcoms, in their case, but most of it is applicable to any sort of writing.
As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.
I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.
Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.
Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.
Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.
The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.
And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.
Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.
I got all my research material in the post today! Also on my Kindle: some Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel, Manda Scott, Simon Scarrow… Can you tell what my next book is going to be about yet?😉
In this somewhat clumsy way, six years ago, started the first draft of the first volume in what would later become “The Year of the Dragon” saga. Last weekend, I put the last sentence of the first draft of its final volume to the digital purpose – thus, at last, finishing the story.
Six years. Eight volumes. Seven hundred thousand words, give or take a few thousand. It’s been a long journey – the longest I’ve ever undertaken. And now I’m at the final stretch. All that remains is a couple months of editing and redrafting. Some details may change, some bits may be rewritten, but there will not be any major changes to the plot. That means that the history of Bran, Sato and Nagomi is complete. I finally know how it all ends. And in a few months – by Christmas, if nothing unforeseen happens – you will know too.
In the meantime, I’m slowly beginning work on a new project – one that, for the first time in six years, will have nothing to do with dragons…! Stay tuned for more details – and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter here – I’m hoping to get it a bit more entertaining over the coming months.
Well, here it is. The cover of the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.
I went for something special with this one, to commemorate this being the last volume cover in the series: I hired the services of the wonderful Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations. You might recognize the style from the cover of Vol. 1-4 Bundle. I don’t think there’s anyone who draws Asian dragons better, so she was a natural choice for this cover – and you’ll see why as soon as you scroll below.
With the cover, there’s also the reveal of the title of Book Eight: “The Last Dragon King”. I leave it to you to guess who’s on the cover this time – and who’s the Dragon King.
The manuscript is far from finished… This one is big: I’m already at 80,000 words and I expect to add at least a third more. I still aim at a Christmas release, though, so have just a little bit of patience! We’ll get there in the end.
And so, without further ado, here it is – the cover for the grand finale, “The Last Dragon King”.
Britain has never understood Europe.
We had made the continent the butt of our jokes, and the root of all our evils. Europe was Napoleon, Europe was Hitler, Europe was Agincourt, Pope, the Great Armada, Eurovision. Europe was humourless Germans, pompous French, cowardly Italians. We treated “Allo, Allo!” as a documentary. If we fought with Europe, rather than against it, it was only ever to defend our own little mercantile interests.
A nation of shop-keepers and petty merchants, we treated EU simply as a trade deal, as if a union of half a billion people from twenty-odd different cultures working together was nothing more than a big discount supermarket, rather than a wonder of history. We’ve joined while still nursing a hangover after the Empire, we fought hard for our privileges, rebates, pounds and vetoes, annoying everyone else. As a result, we were more “tolerated” than liked, because of our money and market. It’s a miracle we’ve even lasted that long. And now we’ve decided even that was too much.
There are still some politicians and pundits who think this may be easy. That we will negotiate some kind of “best of both worlds” deal, some sort of Norway Plus, that we still have some decent cards in our hand. I doubt it. Europe is fed up with us. Germany will gladly welcome the bankers from London; France will gladly welcome the manufacturing jobs; Sweden will take the steel contracts; Italy will take the car factories; they will be fine. We won’t be. We will be punished – not just for our arrogance and insolence, but as an example to others on the Continent who might get similar ideas. At best, we will be forced to accept a humiliating deal, reversing all our hard-won privileges in exchange for the right to trade with the EU. At worse, we’ll be cut off, with Scotland (and maybe Northern Ireland) gone, half of a lonely island drifting away into the ocean.
And Europe will tell us “Good riddance.”
We interrupt our usual programming to bring you this political message.
On June 23rd the people of Britain will have a chance to answer the most important political question of their generation: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
To which the unequivocal, only possible answer is: YES.
I could give you plenty of arguments why that is so, but others are doing a better job of it. Instead, I’ll just tell you some personal thoughts on the subject.
Here is the map of the world (in size-accurate projection):
That little island in the middle is Great Britain. Doesn’t it look tiny? And a third of it is barely even inhabited… Now let that image sink in.
In a couple of days I’ll be flying back from a long trip. Cruising at 30,000 ft is the closest any of us can get to seeing the world the way the Apollo astronauts did – like a small blue marble, devoid of borders and countries:
As a sci-fi geek, I naturally gravitate towards a Unified Earth, a World Government, a Federation of Planets, or any such idea. The sooner we achieve unity as humanity, the better. But that is a distant dream, no more achievable right now than warp drive or time travel.
Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Because our world is already big, and vast swathes of it are already united under single governments. For more than two thirds of my journey I’ll be flying over just two enormous countries – China and Russia. But for the remainder, I’ll pass five or six countries, depending on the route, part of that bloody, tangled mess that is Europe. Five or six tiny nations, until recently each thinking itself separate and sovereign – now all part of one European Union.
Going alone as a country makes no sense in a world where our partners and rivals are the likes of China, India, US or Brazil. The Empire is no more – Britain controls nothing but a handful of islets. The Commonwealth? That’s just a ceremonial union, with more of its members looking for a deal with EU rather than just UK.
Another poignant image from my travels are the defunct border crossings between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, complete with barbed wire and guard towers. They, too, thought they needed to be separate, they too thought they can go it alone, despite each having less population than, say, Berlin or Paris, despite the fact that you can drive through all of them in one day. Try to explain that to somebody from China or India… Luckily, the border guards are there no more. They saw the reason, and joined the EU and then Schengen. They are still distinct nations, with distinct traditions, cultures, languages – but they are not separate anymore.
You might think UK is not exactly Latvia, but you’d be wrong. Compared to the billions that inhabit our planet, it doesn’t matter whether we’re 3 or 63 million people, whether we’re 50,000 or 250,000 sq km in size. Staying away from EU makes as much sense as one of these tiny German duchies staying away from the unified German Empire. Possible, at a stretch, but untenable in the long run.
Here’s a map of this pre-unified Germany, a divided country. Depending on the time frame, similar maps could be drawn for France, Poland, Italy or even Saxon England. Unity is an ideal we’ve always strived for. “United we stand.” “All for one, and one for all”. “Where there’s unity, there’s victory”. When, exactly, did being united become bad? Boris Johnson moronically compared EU to Hitler’s Third Reich (forgetting Britain, at the time, still controlled a far greater and more diverse Empire than Hitler could have ever dreamt) – but his spokesman then compared it to Roman Empire, and I thought, wait, Roman Empire is now a bad thing to aspire to? And this coming from a classically educated Etonian? I mean, what have they ever done for us?
So there you have it. It’s not so much an argument, as some incoherent rambling on the subject – it won’t stand up to scrutiny if all you care about are trade deal percentages, or complex democratic procedures. It certainly won’t convince you if you’re afraid of immigrants – but then, you and I don’t have much to talk about anyway. But it’s what I believe in, and in a matter as important as this, saying what we believe in is the least any of us can do.
To the casual tourist, overwhelmed by its splendour, Kyoto may seem like an everlasting, unchanging city, with its ancient temples, regular street grid, and restaurants and guesthouses older than most countries.
In reality, it is anything but. The city had been undergoing changes since its inception; even the first ambitious, Tang-dynasty inspired plan for the Imperial Capital was never fulfilled before reality forced its gravity centre east, closer to the river. Over the following centuries, wars and politics, fires and floods had shaped the city with a constant flux, making the remains of the past all the more precious.
And it is still changing now. The changes range from subtle to dramatic, and perhaps none more so dramatic in recent years than the massive influx of tourists from East Asia. Always Japan’s busiest visitor hot-spot, Kyoto has now become Asia’s Venice, at times stifled and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of people. Not only the Chinese – though they are by far the most visible – but Koreans, and ASEANians have joined this multitude; with its 1.4 mln population, Kyoto is relatively tiny by Asian standards – a mere fraction of places like Hanoi, Seoul or Bangkok, not to mention Shanghai – so it doesn’t take much for it to feel crowded.
The most immediate effects on the tourist infrastructure are drastic, but of course not all bad. Gone are the “busy” and “quiet” seasons – the Japanese may only care about Kyoto in spring bloom and autumn leaves, but foreigners come and go as they please. The influx of money is noticeable – new ryokans, shops and restaurants spring up everywhere, old ones get a new coat of paint and some badly needed update of decor. Enriched by increase in taxes, the city splashed out on fancy new boulevards all along the Kamo River. Knowledge of English language is now properly enforced: the “old guard” of native English speakers from US or Australia may have been more tolerant of the Japanese ways, but the new tourists had to learn English themselves, and they don’t have patience for the clerks and cashiers being unable to utter anything beyond a few platitudes. In a surprising twist, it seems the locals now welcome Western faces with relief and almost joy: such is the paradox of the casual xenophobia that makes the old, familiar devil appear better than the new one. And yes, some of the new wave can be famously rude, and each such trespass of manners is widely reported in the local media, but before the Chinese it used to be the Americans who bore the brunt of all that pointing and mocking, and let’s face it, compared to the Japanese anyone will seem rude and obnoxious.
But that is not the only thing that’s changing in Kyoto. The other change is more subtle, one that needs several visits to appreciate: the skyline. The modern buildings in Japan tend to have a lifespan of about 20-30 years. That means most of the current crop, built at the threshold of the Lost Decade, is now horribly outdated: bad taste renderings of post-modernist kitsch, gaudy monstrosities in raw concrete and ceramic tile. Luckily, this era is coming to an end. One by one, the old cubes are being replaced by buildings of the new style. Gone is stained grey concrete, shaped in random protrusions, patched with plastic or ceramic to look like a bathroom turned inside out. In its place are black panels, cold steel, wood trimmings. The gaudy arrogance of the 1990s is replaced with the subdued elegance, matching the old environment rather than shouting over it. It is all very heart-warming, though it does keep me wondering if in 20-30 years these new builds won’t look just as old and out-dated?
And then there’s yet another change – the cars. For some unfathomable reason – whether it’s the newly found confidence in Abenomics, prevalence of hybrid engines or changes in road tax – or all of the above – the Kyotoites ditch their fun and practical, colourful, small kei cars, in favour of massive, tank-like people movers, all shining chrome and black steel. Once cars like these would have been the domain of mobsters and celebrities, now they’re parked everywhere, sometimes dwarfing the houses they’re “attached” to. Quite what anyone may need these monsters for in the streets that are barely wide enough for two mopeds to pass, is anyone’s guess.
The smallest scale of change is also the most personal. Of the ancient couple making red bean paste sweets in Tominokoji street, only the husband remains fit enough to serve customers – the wife is now too frail and ridden with diseases of old age. Since they don’t seem to have any apprentices, inevitably one day we’ll find their small shop closed forever. And they’re not the only ones in Shimogyo-ku – these are the streets filled with tiny old shops run by tiny old men and women. Their passing marks the passage of time in the most poignant way. But despite all of this, the Kyoto – our Kyoto – remains, and, against the odds, thrives.
After being available as a pre-order on Kindle, Book Seven of the Year of the Dragon, “The Shattering Waves”, is now available with all other e-book retailers. See links below for your favourite shop!
It is the time of Darkness, as prophesied by the priests and soothsayers. Armies clash, cities burn. The sparks of hope are few and scattered.
The Kiheitai, leaderless and purposeless after the disastrous Battle of Heian, flee to the harbour city of Naniwa. Hiding among them, Bran and Nagomi plot to release Sato from the clutches of the Serpent. In the South, Dylan, Gwen and Edern assist the rebel army marching against the Taikun, just as the Gorllewin dragon riders begin to have second thoughts about their alliance with the Fanged.
And if you need to catch-up, “The Year of the Dragon, 1-4” is today only for a bargain $0.99!