Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer


1899: Blackbury, England.



London In The 19th Century by Jerry White

For me this was more research about Victorian times, but the book is a marvellous collection – written in themed chapters and time-lined from 1800 to 1899 – covering how London changed during the 19th century. It covers everything from architecture to government, charity and religion to riot and prostitution, homeless children to the wealthy in their perfect, posh streets. The section on the working class attitude to charity and religion was particularly eye-opening.

Lots of period detail, a terrific eye when it comes to poverty, class and power, and with a great story to tell – very readable and very enjoyable. You wouldn’t have to be researching for a novel to enjoy this book.


Top 10 favourite albums of the year

Not quite a Top 10 of what was released this year, but…


Björk, ‘Utopia’

Having stopped following Björk over a decade ago after the knotty Medulla and the messy Volta, I found myself intrigued by reports of flutes and the return of choirs to her new album. Utopia is akin to my favourite of her albums, Vespertine, and sounds a bit like the sonic equivalent of Art Nouveau. A gorgeous album.


BNQT, ‘Volume 1’

Realising that ace songwriter Tim Smith was never again going to grace a new Midlake album, I wondered what this new direction would be like. It’s the guys from Midlake with an album created from pairs of songs by well-know writers, including Fran Healy from the amazing Travis and that guy out of The Kaiser Chiefs (a band I never got). Volume 1 is a good album, but I can’t help wondering what Tim Smith is up to…


Saz’iso, ‘The Least We Can Do Is Wave Our Handkerchief’

Bought on the strength of not knowing what Albanian music sounded like and some great reviews. Emotional, beautifully sung (and played) music.


Stornoway, ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’

Randomly bought in Tubeway Records on the strength of its terrific cover and packaging, this turned out to be a wealth of great songs and inspired playing. After hearing this I bought the band’s most recent album, which alas turned out to be their last. Vibrant and tuneful.


The Parson Red Heads, ‘Blurred Harmony’

Most of my friends can’t understand why I love this band (who they deem mild American country-rockers) but my reply is the one I always give when asked this question – the songs, the tunes. This release is up to the band’s usual standard, though with fewer female vocals, which is a shame, as that aspect of the singing was one of the high points of their peerless Yearling.


Jean-Luc Ponty, ‘The Atacama Experience’

Having wondered what the violin maestro had been up to recently (I was a huge fan of his ever-evolving works in the ‘eighties) I was pleased to notice a studio album from 10 years ago that I’d never encountered. With more emphasis on jazz than before, and his first ever (!) acoustic violin piece, it’s a marvellous listen.


Fleet Foxes, ‘Crack-Up’

A long wait after the outstanding Helplessness Blues, this third album proved to be a complex, almost progressive work of many instruments and many fragments. It’s got melody and charm, but perhaps lacks something from losing a song-based structure. Still good though, and way ahead of most of the competition.


North Sea Radio Orchestra, ‘Dronne’

I bought this after falling for Arch Garrison’s wonderful I Will Be A Pilgrim, which is a kind of love-letter to prehistoric southern England. This is an orchestrated work, with a similar focus on melody. More complex and less immediate than the solo work, it’s still terrific.


Renaissance, ‘Live At The BBC’

Having been a fan of this criminally under-rated band for decades, and having seen them return to live work in Britain (Annie has for ages been a resident of America) a couple of years ago, I was very keen to get this classic BBC concert from 1977, which before release had only been viewable on YouTube. It’s superbly put together, with lots of extras. They simply were one of the all-time greats, with a songwriter (Michael Dunford) and a lyricist (Betty Thatcher) almost without equal. Wonderful band, and a total delight to see this in pristine DVD quality.


The Coral, ‘Butterfly House – Acoustic’

I can’t believe it took me 5 years to realise this existed. I love the original album – my favourite of their fantastic output – and this highlights the strengths of the songs, provided by the Skelly brothers. Beautifully played and sung, entirely on acoustic guitars. Unbeatable.




Snow Day

Snow day at the 9-5 today…

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Improbable Botany update

‘We do appreciate everyone’s patience. Since submitting the final book proofs, we’ve worked with our printer to make a design change: now all of Jonathan’s artwork plates within the book are to be printed (i.e. upgraded) using the litho process. We’re excited about this and hope to have the final shipment date from our printer this week. We’ll push another update to everyone about this once we have the information in hand.’ – Wayward Plants, 10/11/2017.



Childhood & Death In Victorian England

Childhood & Death In Victorian England by Sarah Seaton

I read this as research for my upcoming novels Monique Orphan and Monica Orvan. The title of the book says it all. These were grim times for children, who not only had to cope with extremes of poverty, exploitation and lack of opportunity, but who also had to deal with the same issues modern children experience in Britain: a culture which doesn’t like children, and which, if not following the old maxim “seen but not heard,” still manages to treat them too often as something to ignore.

One aspect of Victorian life that comes over strongly in this book is how the role of women as uneducated baby-producers limited them to a life of social imprisonment, fit only for domestic duties. But ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance led to millions of appalling lives, not only for women, but for the children they bore.

Some of the stories related here are extraordinary. The male-created need for birth legitimacy led to some terrible crimes. In an ironic conclusion, the author remarks on how little seems to have been learned since 1901 when it comes to looking after children. Too many readers of her book would agree with her.


Black Friday, Steely Dan style

More wisdom on what happens if you live beyond your means:-

When Black Friday comes
I stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor

When Black Friday comes
I collect everything I’m owed
And before my friends find out
I’ll be on the road

When Black Friday falls you know it’s got to be
Don’t let it fall on me

When Black Friday comes
I fly down to Muswellbrook
Gonna strike all the big red words
From my little black book

Gonna do just what I please
Gonna wear no socks and shoes
With nothing to do but feed
All the kangaroos

When Black Friday comes I’ll be on that hill
You know I will

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul

Gonna let the world pass by me
The Archbishop’s gonna sanctify me
And if he don’t come across
I’m gonna let it roll

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna stake my claim
I guess I’ll change my name

Written by Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group 1974


Consume & Die

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, today said that the prediction that average UK earnings in 2022 could still be less than in 2008 was “astonishing,” adding that the economic forecasts published in yesterday’s Budget made for “pretty grim reading”. He added, “We are in danger of losing not just one but getting on for two decades of earnings growth.”

On the face of it, this seems straightforward; even reasonable. But there is an alternative view. Perhaps people in the West have for decades enjoyed artificially inflated wages owing to the pillage of the environment, which all capitalist systems handily ignore in their calculations, assuming use is sustainable when in fact that use is unsustainable. This system is supported by psychologically acute advertising methods (which in any other arena would be classed as abuse) and an economic model which assumes that growth is the single most important aspect of the world we live in.

The Western world has over the last sixty years expanded with unprecedented speed, at the expense of the environment and of the lives of individuals themselves. This is why wages have been so high and why so much has been manufactured for people to spend those wages on. The West has become used to its own rapacious greed, and now mostly assumes that state of affairs to be the economic norm.

It is not. Consume and die.

“We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.” – David Attenborough.


Happy Anniversary Elton & Bernie

While a few people today are celebrating the anniversary of a couple of grotesquely rich British parasites, others are celebrating something far more important – the fiftieth anniversary of the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

When, thirty or so years ago, my good friend Pete Wyer told me that Elton John was his favourite songwriter, I was surprised, imagining Elton to be some kind of light pop music act. Of course, my naive thoughts were proved hopelessly wrong in subsequent years of musical discovery. Elton John is one of the all-time greatest writers of melody, up there with Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, and others of their ilk, while Bernie Taupin is a great lyricist. When I listen to Elton’s albums, especially the classic ‘seventies albums, it’s always the melodically gorgeous or otherwise musically beautiful songs which move me. My own favourite albums are those such as Elton John, Madman Across The Water, Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Blue Moves and Songs From The West Coast, all of which have a high proportion of exceptional tunes.

Last night, ITV showed a ‘Top 20 Elton Songs’ tribute (which clumsily opened with a song written by Pete Townshend), and many of the songs would be on my top 20. I have to admit, I was a tad disappointed that Elton’s melodic gift wasn’t mentioned – though there was brief reference to unusual chord changes – but, hey, at least the anniversary has been recognised and celebrated on popular TV and radio.

So here’s my own favourites – thirty wonderful songs by a man of timeless musical genius.

Skyline Pigeon
Your Song
Sixty Years On
Come Down In Time
Tiny Dancer
Indian Sunset
Rocket Man
Blues For My Baby And Me
High Flying Bird
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I’ve Seen That Movie Too
Grey Seal
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
Shine On Through
It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy
Song For Guy
Blue Eyes
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
Sad Songs
I Want Love
This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore
The Captain And The Kid


Imaginary Companions by Marjorie Taylor

Imaginary Companions & The Children Who Create Them,

by Marjorie Taylor

A fascinating book, read as research for my upcoming work Monique Orphan, but well worth it in its own right. Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist by training, looks at the phenomenon of imaginary companions from a broad perspective, and right from the beginning she picks away at the cultural idea that a child with an imaginary companion must necessarily be a loner, alone, or have some underlying mental condition. She is blunt about the world of media – film especially – getting the phenomenon of imaginary companions wrong. In fact, as her thorough research shows, children with imaginary companions are slightly better at navigating the social world than those without. Imaginary companions are common, a sign of a normal and active, albeit relatively unformed imagination. There are many reasons why children create imaginary companions, all dealt with in depth here. An interesting digression is the gender difference between girls (who tend to create independent companions) and boys (who tend to impersonate their own creations). Subsequent chapters deal with the phenomenon in older children and in adults, with a particularly revealing section on the nature of adult creation – eg. that of the author.

Properly researched and referenced, this is a terrific book, both academic and thorough, but also easy to read for the non-academic reader, who might be interested in memories of their own childhood or who can see their own children creating imaginary companions.

m taylor