The Miracle of the Gulls

Seagull sex. There was loads of it going on as winter turned to spring. I can’t really claim to have ever given much thought to the existence of birds – certainly not Britain’s most ubiquitous coastal avian – but the sheer amount of “activity” occurring right outside my window demanded attention.

Last September I moved into a new flat with my partner. It happens to be four stories high, which means we look out over the river and much of the town. It also means we’re high enough to see a lot of bird goings-on. Gulls, crows and pigeons rule the roosts around these parts, existing in relative harmony. And spring, of course, is mating season. Sure enough, a few rudimentary nests began appearing on the rooftops surrounding us. My office afforded a prime view of three just across the street.

Now, I have to admit that when it comes to animals I’m a bit of a sap.* I don’t claim to have liked seagulls previously, but I also couldn’t help but become intrigued as I watched prospective mother and father gulls taking turns to sit upon their nests. And sure enough, by April those nests were filled with chicks. Tiny little fluffballs, their cheeps barely audible.

Now, I’m not writing this as some sort of gull evangelist. I could pile on fact like –

  • Seagulls are one of the few animals capable of drinking salt water.
  • Seagull parents mate for life.
  • Seagulls can live for 20 or more years.
  • The chicks first cheep from inside their eggs, the tiny calls audible to their parents.
  • Moromons revere seagulls for eating up the locusts that once plagued them (an event they call “the miracle of the gulls.”)
  • Gulls have a complex and highly developed repertoire for communication which includes a range of vocalisations and body movements.

I could bore you with all that, but the purpose of this is less of an RSPCA advertisement more to pay tribute to those fluffy little fighters. For the last three months I’ve watched four different groups of chicks endure all manner of struggles. From west to north there a pair we call “The Chicks”, one on a church steeple dubbed Tower Chick, one on the street corner called Corner Chick or Shy Chick (it hid a lot in the roof weeds) and one particularly big specimen named Big Chick. At first, occupying small ledges on the roofs around about, they were so small it looked as though a gust of wind might blow them to their deaths far below. Their parents took turns guarding and feeding them. They huddled together during a thunderstorm and endured rain followed by May and June heat, unprotected and exposed on their promontories.

After a month or so they acquired a more gangly, teenage-esq appearance, with long skinny legs and hunched shoulders. They began to mob their parents whenever they appeared, demanding food with faint, high cries and furious head-bobbing motions.

They also began to move around alot. That’s when the danger of perishing from exposure was replaced by the danger of perishing from mishaps. Seemingly without fear, they started traversing the sloping, somewhat unstable rooftops around them, exploring. There were repeated falls, saved only by the fact that most of the roofs have wooden boards above their guttering to stop snow cascading down onto the street during winter. These same boards caught at least one of The Chicks over a dozen times in one day. It would try to traverse the slope, invariably slip, and slide all the way to the bottom with its small wings splayed.

How they survived I have no idea – beyond, of course, the attentiveness of their parents in feeding and protecting them. At one point a number of crows mobbed The Chicks (crows, clever beasts that they are, nest inside the abandoned chimneys, rather than out on the ledges), but were swiftly put to flight.

About three months have passed since the first hatchings. The chicks, now as big as the adults and with their wings almost fully developed, recently started beating them excitedly, clearly eager to emulate their parents. Now they can fly, a fact actually celebrated by their parents with whooping shrieks. They come and go from the ledges where they were born, periodically joining a nursery flock of about 20 hatchlings that congregate down at the riverside. With this larger group, overlooked by a few of the parents, they are beginning to learn how to hunt and swim. They have quite literally flown the nest.

One thing’s for sure – I think we’ll have moved out of this flat by next spring. I’m not sure I can watch another generation of rooftop endurance games.

Below: some terribly grainy photos of the Progress of The Chicks.

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*In order to catch a mouse in my uni flat I once sat up in the dark with an upturned bin, a pole normally used for window-shutter opening, and a half-eaten pot of Dominos garlic dipping sauce (the bait). I duly caught the little creature, but then became so distraught at its own apparent distress that I named it Percy and let it go.

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Dad’s VE Day

Today is Victory in Europe Day, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the European theatre of the conflict. I’m lucky enough that my dad, at the time a young child, still remembers that day. Especially in times like these, personal stories can mean so much;

“I remember a clear, sunny morning. I woke up in one of those alcove beds and there was a guy standing at the sink we used for washing up the dishes over by the window, and he was standing stripped to the waist, a pair of braces hanging down, and he was shaving. He turned round and looked at me and said “hello son” and I didn’t know it then, but that was the end of the war. One of these guys got me up on his shoulders and took me outside and there was a great long line of military vehicles, it was amazing. He lifted me up onto a tank or armoured car and let me play with the gun, it was brilliant. And then they all disappeared.”

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My Decade in Writing

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Originally this was a twitter thread that I thought I may as well post on here too. For context, in January 2010 I was 17 and halfway through my final year of high school. Becoming a professional writer was a dream away.

In my first year at Uni I published my first short story, “Heavenbloom,” a science fantasy ebook set on an atmos-world that definitely wasn’t inspired by the Storm Hawks TV series. It was with a tiny online publisher, Books to Go Now, and I think I got about $5. Needless to say, I immediately wrote a sequel, “Heavenfall.”

Cue several years of touring the tiny non or token-payment presses that constantly seem to spring up and wither away online. In my three remaining years of undergrad I had nine short stories and a novella published, mostly anthologies (the novella was online only). I earned about $550.

Then in March 2015 I wrote to Black Library. I’d been entering their open submission windows since I was 13, so a decade of trying. To my shock, they took me onboard. I wrote “Deathwatch 4: Redblade,” my first piece with a pro publisher.

My first novel, Legacy of Russ, came out in 2016. Six more followed, up to Scourge of Fate this year, plus two audio dramas, a novella and nine short stories.

This year has been about diversification – I’ve written the narrative and dialogue for a digital game, one non-fiction history book for Osprey Publishing (with another contracted for) and my first novel for a non-BL publisher, Aconyte Books. I’m hoping to keep exploring all those different avenues.

In short if the 2020s are anything like the 2010s then I’ll be very happy indeed. No sanctimonious “writing advice” beyond keep trying. That really is key. Read and write. There are no shortcuts, but if you do those two things constantly you’ll get to where you want to be.

Oh and Happy New Year!

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A Writing Year in Review

It’s the time of year when writers tend to pause and take stock. Clichéd though that may be, it’s as good an excuse as any to  discuss the work I’ve been undertaking for the past 12 months.

The last year of the decade has been one of diversification. In March I started working with video game developer Hi-Rez Studios, providing both the plot and narrative/dialogue for their latest mobile game, SMITE Blitz. I had previously written a novelisation for a video game (Dawn of War III), but this was the first time I had worked on a game directly. Getting to write about stuff like Zeus accidentally marrying Loki while fighting his daughter Athena was great fun, and the technical experience of the writing taught me a lot. I hope I can make further inroads into the digital gaming industry.

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In April I approached Osprey Publishing with a suggestion for a new book in their Elite series, looking at British Light Infantry during the American Revolution. For those who haven’t heard of them, Osprey are a leading publisher of military history and non-fiction, and I grew up avidly reading their books on famous soldiers and campaigns. Getting to write for them is another of the many privileges I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in recent years. At the moment the book is in its final editing stages, and I’m about to begin work on a second volume that deals more broadly with the battlefield tactics of the American Revolution.

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In the autumn I signed on with Aconyte Books, a newly-launched publishing house affiliated with gaming giant Asmodee. Since then I’ve written a short story for the universe of KeyForge (part of the Tales from the Crucible anthology, due for release in June 2020) and a novel set in the high fantasy realm of the Descent: Journeys in the Dark board game. Exploring these new settings has been great fun, as has been working with the Aconyte team. Hopefully the adventures will continue into 2020 and beyond.

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The past year has been busy but exciting. Besides writing, I finished up and submitted my PhD (though I’ve yet to sit the viva). I also moved away from Edinburgh, the city I’ve lived in for over nine years and a place that I love more dearly than anywhere else. Leaving was difficult, but it was time to start a fresh chapter of my life, and I haven’t had a moment of regret since. I’m sure I’ll be back some day.

The 2010s in general were an excellent decade – at the start of 2010 I was 17 and looking forward to going into my first year at University. In the last weeks of 2019 I’m 27, with two degrees and a third, hopefully, on the way. Even more importantly (to me, anyway), I’ve achieved a childhood ambition by working as a full-time author.

Looking ahead, hopefully 2020 will continue to expand my writing base and tackle fresh projects. High on the list is completing my own sci-fi novel, which my poor agent has been waiting on now for nearly a year! There are other top-secret projects either already underway or about to begin, but they must remain under wraps for now. It’ll be worth the wait though, that I promise!

In closing, I’d like to saw a huge thank you everyone reading this and to everyone who has supported by fledgling career so far, whether by buying books, following me on social media or just offering general encouragement. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

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Things the Battle of Winterfell got wrong… and a few things it got RIGHT

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The 3rd episode of the final season of Game of Thrones aired last weekend amidst, it seems, equal parts acclaim and opprobrium. Armchair generals the world over saw an opportunity to tear into what is, quite honestly, a classic example of unrealistic, Hollywood-esq fantasy medieval fighting. The battle of Winterfell saw our plucky ensemble of living characters successfully resist a horde of zombies commanded by the undead revenant known as the Night King. A flurry of articles have since appeared listing the common-sense faults involved in the defence of the seat of House Stark. While the majority of the criticisms are very valid indeed, I thought I’d perhaps play devil’s advocate with a few. While I rarely need an excuse to get pedantic when it comes to depictions of warfare in sci-fi and fantasy settings (hello battle of Hoth), I thought reiterating the episode’s big faults while offering up a few things they actually got (sorta, kinda) right might give everyone a bit of perspective.

Without further ado, let’s look once again at the biggest failings in the defence of Winterfell, as well as a few of the things its garrison got right.

  • How to get rid of your wife and kids

Sick of having mouths to feed in the impoverished, frozen North? Unable to handle another bout of squalling and nagging from your poxed relatives? Just seal your wife and kids in the depths of a crypt in the presence of an all-powerful necromancer!

Seriously, regardless of the military SNAFUs committed by our heroes throughout the rest of the episode, the decision to relegate the civilians to the “safety” of the crypts in Winterfell was honestly the most annoying mistake. We have here a gathering of the most worldly and intelligent people in the whole of Westeros, including multiple royal advisers, battle-hardened knights and members of the Night’s Watch. The Night King’s ability to effortlessly reanimate the dead is well-known to all of them, and yet not one of them thought “maybe the crypts full of dead people aren’t the safest place to be?”

Riposte: I’ve not read the books (fake fan, I know), but someone has previously told me that the Starks are interred beneath heavy northern-made longswords that are supposed to stop necromantic resurrection. Also, given they’re the premier Northern family, you’d think there’d be at least some tradition of cremating the dead. Lastly, it did appear that most of the tombs in the crypt were made of stone. The ability of the undead to burrow through stone using just their desiccated fingertips never ceases to amaze me, regardless of the film of genre. But hey, maybe it was “magic.” Given all these factors, none of which appear to have come into play, perhaps we can relegate the decision to seal the helpless families (without a single guard!) beneath Winterfell from the status of “really stupid” as to just “ stupid.”

  • “What’s he doing, what’s Ney doing?”

My girlfriend was the slightly nonplussed recipient of this quote the moment we saw the Dothraki open the battle with a headlong unsupported charge into the undead horde. Anyone who knows of the battle of Waterloo or who has seen the 1970s epic screen adaptation will understand that you don’t send the cavalry forward without infantry support. That becomes even truer when you’re fighting zombies. It’s even more astonishing to think that, prior to the surprise arrival of the Red Priestess, the Dothraki were apparently totally fine with charging the undead without even the benefit of flaming weapons. Seriously, just which Dothraki chieftain was at the council of war when the others said “let’s kick things off by sending all of the Dothraki in on their own.” And he was just like, “sounds like a plan to me!” Seriously?

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Riposte: I’ve seen a lot of comments about using the cavalry to flank the undead, some citing the Rohirrim in Return of the King. Interestingly, while glorious-looking, Theoden’s charge in that film isn’t necessarily much more accurate (they do so into a fairly well-formed, and incredibly dense, wall of orcish spears, which should really spell their doom. At least in The Two Towers Gandalf pulls a light trick to invalidate the Uruk Hai pikes). There’s also the fact that flanking, while a far more valid use of cavalry, isn’t really an effective option when the enemy is so numerous that the concept of “flanks” barely even exists. A flank attack is most effective because it brings great force to bear against a small portion of the enemy army, and can incite a great deal of panic, but these aren’t a factor when the enemy are near-numberless zombies. I can also understand a reluctance to send the Dothraki off into the dark when nobody at Winterfell could really be sure of the full extent of the horrors at the Night King’s disposal – who knows what gristly fate may have befallen detachments sent out into that icy, impenetrable night? Honestly while it may have been a bit wasteful, on the ground I think the best use of the Dothraki besides some scouting would have simply been to dismount them and augment the castle garrison.

  • Stone Rain

If Napoleon would have been pissed at our heroes’ use of cavalry, as an artillery officer he’d have been even more incensed at the use of the siege equipment. In another utterly incomprehensible decision, the Good Guys decide to deploy their indirect fire weapons – trebuchets and catapults – right in front of their infantry battle line. Thanks to this they are literally able to launch just one salvo in support of the doomed Dothraki charge, before being abandoned and overrun. I’m genuinely confident that a ten-year-old child would have suggested the more obvious, superior tactic – site them inside Winterfell’s walls and have them launch their rocks over the parapets.

Riposte: There’s not much that can be said in defence of this, besides the fact that I don’t think they’d have been able to fit all of the siege weapons and equipment inside Winterfell’s courtyard. They’d still have been better placed behind the fire trench though. Speaking of…

  • Chevaux de Fries

The fire trench was pretty cool. It could’ve been wider and deeper though, and they could’ve set up more spike/fire pits further out, as well as bonfires to illuminate the approach of the undead. Even more egregiously though, I can’t comprehend why they didn’t deploy their battle line behind it instead of in front of it. At a stroke they’d have made the assault more perilous and removed the fact that it’s almost impossible for any of them to retreat to the castle (except the heroes though, conveniently).

Repost: A lot of the criticisms of the defence of Winterfell assume an ideal situation where the garrison has all the time and resources in the world at their disposal. In reality, from what we can glean in the two preceding episodes they were pretty strapped for supplies and working flat out on a number of fronts, especially the construction of the trench and dragonglass weaponry. I think it’s unrealistic to expect them to have all of the potential defences they could have utilised set up. That doesn’t excuse their deployment though. Also well done to the Unsullied for fighting like actual soldiers and not one v. one fantasy herowarriorchampions.

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Heroes, and don’t they just know it?

  • Archer Glitches

The undead are literally at the gates, but they’ve inexplicably paused. What do you do? Stop shooting them, apparently? Until they decide to swarm the fire trench, Soviet-style, of course. On the face of it this looks like another act of base stupidity from the garrison.

Riposte: Have you ever fought a horde of zombies with nothing but a bow and arrows? No, you haven’t. Beyond “undead” nobody at Winterfell really has a good grasp on what motivates the Night King or how the specifics of his necromantic army works. If they all suddenly freeze up, an adrenaline-addled mind in the midst of a battle may be as inclined to think “oh hey maybe that’s them all about to collapse” as it would “keep shooting!” Perhaps shooting them if they’ve abruptly stopped would trigger another attack? It’s all a bit illogical, but there’s nowhere quite as illogical as a combat situation. Not shooting was dumb in retrospect, but I can see why it might have happened.

  • Closed Gates and Unmanned Parapets

As long as a sizable portion of the garrison was still outside the castle walls, it actually made military sense to keep the main gate (as the only means of communication), open. Not having the walls manned until the trench was on fire, however, didn’t.

  • A Spearwall, or a Young Child?

The Good Guys knew the Night King had at least one Zombie Giant at his disposal. How is it going to get into the castle? Through the gate, obviously! And how do you kill giants? With spears or pikes, as demonstrated by one R. Bolton. The defenders of Winterfell certainly have spears, but why form a reserve behind the gates when you can rely on a young child to die while saving the day?

Riposte: I can’t think of one for this. Keep a spear reserve, people.

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I love that they felt the need to represent the undead horde with an actual tonne of blocks. Like they couldn’t just say “they’re an unorganised mass occupying half the battlefield.” Nope, hundreds of blocks so we know how many blocks Winterfell has in its strategy closet!

  • Air Support

This is yet another obvious one. Johnny Snowgaryen and the former Mrs Drogo have a two-to-one dragon air superiority advantage. If the Night King tries to counter that personally, they can gang up and quite possibly take him out, if he doesn’t they have a free napalm bombing run on a very, very target-rich environment. Instead they decide to either get lost in the snowstorm, separate and/or fly so close to the ground that dead people can perform mid-flight boarding actions.

Riposte: I don’t think it’s ever been explained just how dragon fire works in the show, but presumably they don’t have an unlimited amount – I imagine spewing fire is draining, and the drakes are required to rest and/or eat after a prolonged bout of immolating. In that sense no, the dragons couldn’t just have burned up the whole zombie horde on their own. Jon and Danny’s relative incompetence during the battle can also probably be quite safely ascribed to the snowstorm/night conditions, desperation, the split desire to support the castle but also take out the Night King and, in Jon’s case, his lack of familiarity with dragons. I don’t think either of them behaved hugely out of character.

That last point really sums up my general thinking. Yes, the tactics and general battle scenes didn’t really make much sense. Often, however, some benighted armchair generals (myself included) don’t pause to consider the reality of the situation on the ground, where less-than-ideal conditions, nerves, basic human error and a total lack of hindsight can change things profoundly.

Episode 3 was, for me, neither the worst battle we’ve seen in Game of Throne, or the best (my personal least-favourite was the battle of the Bastards, with its stupid pike envelopment thingy and literal Here Come the Cavalry. Conversely I think the Dothraki ambush of Jaime’s Lannister convoy got almost everything right). Speaking personally, I was able to suspend enough belief to actually really enjoy it (and yes, I could make out the characters most of the time). The biggest shame for me was the abrupt death of the Night King and, with him, the Big Bad they’d literally been building up for the entire series.

The night is dark, but apparently no longer full of terrors.

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