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Europe: Project Hope

The European Union is built on a set of ideals that we all value

What matters to Europeans?  The rule of law.  Freedom of expression. Property rights.  Democracy.  The opportunity to build profitable enterprises.  Freedom of the Press.  The right to live with security and dignity.  A safe, clean environment.  Humane treatment of animals.  Scientific progress.  Freedom of belief.  Freedom.

Though other parts of the world share some of these ideals, the EU has been tireless in promoting them across our continent and beyond.  It has given Germany a different path to follow that has transformed it from warmonger to model world citizen.  It has linked Western Europe in a shared progress of economic development and prosperity that has kept the once belligerent region at peace for 70 years.  So important is this set of ideals that most of the former Soviet Bloc countries of central and eastern Europe have now embraced them.  The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its great contribution to European stability and democracy.

In Britain, we tend to see the negative side of these ideals: the administrative burden of legislation that keeps our air clean and protects our employment rights; the foreigners in our cities, who come to Britain because they share our love of freedom to travel and work; the loss of sovereignty that comes from agreeing to support each other and abide by shared rules, many of which British experts drafted.  We forget that while we may lose a little control over our own affairs, we gain new control over the rest of Europe.  We have a say on the treatment of orphans in Romania, on the regulation of banks in Italy, on the safety standards of nuclear power stations in Poland, on the laws governing journalists in Hungary.  Our influence now extends further than at any time since the dissolution of the British Empire.

Shared European ideals are making all of Europe safer, kinder, stronger, better.

 

But the EU does not get everything right, and now its greatest achievements are under threat

Many complaints about the EU are justified.  Its administrators have lost touch with the people they serve.  It has occasionally tried to regulate beyond sensible limits.  Its agricultural policies are wasteful and counterproductive.  The association agreement with Ukraine may have contributed to that nation’s civil war.  These are the understandable mistakes of a large and evolving organisation that is still learning its place in the world.  They are not systemic faults.  The EU needs experienced and pragmatic countries like the UK to help it avoid and overcome these mistakes.

More seriously, the EU is now facing some of the toughest challenges it has ever encountered.  The euro seems to have been a grave error for several member states.  Youth unemployment is dangerously high.  Greece remains in a critical condition.  Hundreds of thousands of migrants are testing not only the EU’s external borders but its internal solidarity.  Russia is threatening the stability of the whole region and challenging EU and NATO unity.  Extremist political parties are gaining support.

Consequently the European Union is, for the first time in its history, at risk of fragmentation and even collapse.  Not only would this mean economic recession for the whole continent, bringing mass unemployment and widespread suffering, but it would also reverse the gains made in the ideals we all share.  The rule of law, democracy, scientific progress, freedom – all would be diminished if the walls go up and the extremists take over.

The fastest way to precipitate such a fragmentation would be for Britain to leave the EU.

We are the straw that could break the camel’s back.

We are the catalyst for a new dark age.

 

We must support the EU and its ideals in every way we can

Yes, we should Vote to Remain on 23 June.  We should vote to stay part of a worthy project that has underpinned a golden age of peace and prosperity for Europe.

But we should do more than that.

We should help steer the EU towards the future we desire.

That means talking to other Europeans about what we collectively want from the EU civil servants who work for us and the funds that are disbursed on our behalf.

It means getting to know our MEPs and challenging them to represent us properly and push for reform.

It means campaigning against the ideas we don’t like – whether closer political union or wider geographic expansion – and in favour of the ideas we do like, so that our representatives and civil servants understand what we expect from them.

It means looking for ways to work together on the big issues we all face, such as youth unemployment, refugees, ageing populations, terrorism and climate change.

It means being a good European as well as a great British citizen.

 

Let’s be hopeful.  Let’s be constructive.  Let’s dream a little…

 

We can make the EU the greatest coalition of sovereign nations ever seen

We’ve achieved seven decades of peace.  Through the EU we can ensure many more.

We’ve rebuilt our own continent.  We can find a way to support the Syrian people through their trauma, while keeping Europe secure against excessive economic migration.

We defeated fascism.  We can stand firm in the face of Russian aggression, Islamic terrorism and political extremism, winning on the strength of the ideals we all share.

We invented the modern industrial world.  We can reignite European creativity and prosperity, built on sustainable technologies and renewable fuels.

We inspired free trade, democracy and the rule of law around the globe.  We can set an example for the rest of the world once again.

 

Be optimistic.  Be collaborative.  Be European. 

Vote Remain.

 

This text is published under the Creative Commons Universal license (Public Domain Dedication). You can copy, modify, distribute and perform it without asking permission and without attribution.

Coca, the plant of the gods

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood.  To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances.  His final subject is coca:

 

Erythroxylum coca is a discreet-looking evergreen shrub or small tree. It is the plant from which cocaine is derived and consequently most specimens of this plant fail to make it to the small tree category. The plant can be harvested up to three times a year, which involves the removal of young leaves, effectively keeping it neatly trimmed and compact. E.coca thrives on the slopes of warm, damp, mountainous rain forest found in the Andes, its native habitat. E. coca is cultivated elsewhere in the world but, unlike cannabis and the opium poppy which have long been plants of the world, over 90% of coca cultivation remains in the Andes and associated areas.

The link between the plant and its Andean habitat is a factor in another far more important difference between coca and the other two major narco-plants. This is the nutritional, social, cultural and economic value of the coca leaf to the people of the Andes that predates the development of the white powder known as cocaine by thousands of years. It is thought that E. coca has been cultivated for around 7000 years. Cannabis and the opium poppy have both been important parts of many cultures providing medicine, fibre, shamanic gateways and social inebriants. The coca leaf was different. It was food and it was energy.

The Andes is a challenging environment in which to live. Historically, there have only been limited local food crops (maize up to 3000m / potato above 3000m / quinoa above 4000m) and little fuel for heating. As well as poor nutrition and cold, altitude brings other issues. The Inca hub of Cuzco sits at over 3500 metres. Physical and mental activity becomes increasingly challenging at altitude.  The leaves of E.coca contain fourteen alkaloids which act physiologically on the human body. The most notable of these is cocaine but the alkaloids work together to combat fatigue, mental sluggishness, cold, thirst, altitude sickness and hunger. One hundred grammes of coca leaf contain more calcium, iron, phosphorous, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin E than are found in the US recommended daily dietary intake.

Traditionally, coca leaves are placed in the mouth to form a quid, between the cheek and the gums. The actual amounts of cocaine absorbed are low and the benefits manifold.  The process has proved to be non-addictive. The alkaloid cocaine was identified in the 1860s. Refined and processed cocaine is the coca leaf reduced to a manufactured, hyper-concentrated, highly addictive white powder and stripped of its nutritional value and social, environmental and cultural context. In the past thirty years, the human lust for and antipathy to cocaine has turned E. coca from the plant of the gods into the tool of the devil.  Violence, greed and destruction have trailed outwards from the coca plantations and across continents, bringing death and corruption to individuals and to regions. War was declared on the coca leaf. By 1992, 1.5 million litres of Paraquat herbicide had been sprayed in the Upper Huallaga valley in Peru alone. In many countries outside of South America, little difference is made legally between the coca leaf and cocaine.  Erythroxylum coca, a plant of such importance and generosity to humankind, has become the enemy.   

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When Fiction Changes the World

Popular culture has one big advantage over most other forms of communication: it is popular.  And that means a lot of people are receptive to it who might turn off at the first hint of a political speech, a charitable plea or a social campaign.  People like movies, novels, art and plays, and they will devote many, many hours of their precious time to enjoying them.  In today’s busy, message-crowded world, authors in particular command an extraordinary degree of attention from their readers.  Who else can talk to a stranger night after night, sometimes for hours at a time, without losing their interest?

This gives authors a remarkable platform from which to influence others, allowing them the space to explore complicated issues in depth, setting out an argument that can be both complete and devastating.  Even more so if it doesn’t sound like an argument.  Readers can be drawn to empathise with characters who, through their actions or experiences, effectively live the argument.  Dickens didn’t have to spell out the reasons why conditions in the workhouse should be improved – he simply showed his characters suffering.

The Constant Gardener drew our attention to unethical pharmaceutical trials in the developing world.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin transformed American opinion on slavery.  The Riddle of the Sands raised the spectre of German invasion in 1900s Britain, and led directly to the formation of the first modern intelligence agencies.  A recent academic report, The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge, praised books like The White Tiger and Brick Lane for improving general understanding of complex social development and migration issues.  The Kite Runner "has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research", said the report.

Movies and TV have a similar impact.  Blood Diamond has made plenty of young wooers check the provenance of the stones in their engagement rings.  A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest kindled important debates about how the state treats citizens incarcerated in correctional and mental institutions.  Philadephia helped make AIDS discrimination unacceptable, and Syriana forced viewers to question our dependence on oil.  The Wire and Traffic both added new perspectives to the highly controversial debate on drug reform.

In Rogue Elements, I tackle the same subject, with three courageous politicians leading a worldwide campaign to legalise narcotics.  The book is a spy thriller – it’s meant to be fast-paced and entertaining, and there isn’t time for long discourses.  But over the course of the narrative the theme of drug reform keeps coming back, here with a focus on health issues, there with a cold hard look at the violence and destruction Prohibition causes.  One book alone won’t persuade our law-makers to debate the subject intelligently and objectively, but it might contribute to the groundswell of opinion gradually shifting society in a more progressive direction.

Of course, fiction can also be influential in what it prevents.  Every time a dystopian novel or movie shocks a wide audience, it serves as a warning for what might be if we don’t look out.  Nineteen Eighty-Four wears the crown in this category, its title now a useful shorthand for every commentator worried that their society is taking a step down the road to totalitariansm.  Perhaps The Hunger Games will play a similar role for younger generations unsettled by conspicuous consumption and extreme reality TV.

Fiction is powerful stuff.  Whether on the page or the screen, it can engage and mobilise citizens in a way few other communications media can touch.  If you have an issue to raise, or an argument to make, consider telling a story.

 

Help strengthen the arguments for drug reform in Rogue Elements at www.AdvanceEditions.com

The Potent Poppy

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood.  To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances.  This week, the poppy:

 

Papaver somniferum is a beautiful annual plant with a delicate flower. “Somniferum” means sleep-inducing. P. somniferum grows over one metre in height and is usually unbranched with bluish-grey, green leaves. The flowers can be up to 18cm across and are found in a range of colours from white to purple. Once it has finished flowering the poppy produces its characteristic globose fruit or seed head. This is the source of the milky latex from which the world’s opiates are made. Opium, morphine, codeine and heroin are all derived from this poppy. The latex is traditionally collected from shallow incisions to the seed head from the plant’s splendidly-named articulate lactiferous vessels.  It is thought that the opium poppy has been in cultivation for over 8,000 years; the first known reference to it dates from Mesopotamia around 2000BC in The Assyrian Herbal.

Human interest in the poppy’s latex has been responsible for its spread from the Western Mediterranean region across the globe but its fertile seed must not be underestimated. It’s easy to forget that the seed head has a very real purpose for the plant. The small flavoursome black seeds are familiar to most from the tops of loaves and bagels but they are also extremely efficient at propagating the species. The poppy becomes naturalised very easily, particularly in disturbed ground. The flower’s significance as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War is testament to this. However, it is as a cultivated plant that we know the opium poppy best.

The opium poppy was the British Empire’s most infamous cash crop of the nineteenth century. Britain wanted tea from China. In 1820, Britain imported 30 million pounds of tea for its thirsty citizens. China wanted nothing from Britain other than silver and, following the Napoleonic wars, silver was something that Britain lacked. In order to create a market, British merchants brought bales of cheap opium from India and sold it illegally for Chinese silver. By 1830, 12 million Chinese people were smoking opium, 12 million customers paying cash to British merchants. The First and Second Opium Wars ensued, hastening the collapse of Imperial China.

The poppies were cultivated and processed in India on land secured for the East India Company by Robert Clive. His generalship and victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 was a decisive moment, providing the Company with some of the best agricultural land in India: land that was put to use in the production of opium. Clive died in 1774 from an opium overdose, a drug which he had taken for a bowel complaint and to which he had become addicted.

Next week: coca

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How to write a spy thriller: the video guide

Over the five years it's taken me to write Rogue Elements, I've learned some useful lessons about the craft of spy fiction.  Somehow, the Advance Editions marketing team managed to talk me into going on camera and sharing some of those lessons.  Here are the first three:

Download the first half of Rogue Elements for free here, or buy the complete ebook at a 60% advance discount from KoboAmazon or Barnes & Noble

Why the English authorities loved cannabis

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood. To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances. First up is cannabis:

The Cannabis plant is commonly identified by its digitate (shaped like fingers) leaf, whose image must figure as one of the most reproduced of any leaf in the world. The flowers are nondescript but their buds have certainly proved appealing. The female flowers produce a resin, rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which may help protect the plant from high temperatures and moisture loss during reproduction. The genus Cannabis most likely has its origins in northern Afghanistan, but for thousands of years it has been truly a plant of the world, so great is its popularity and use. 

Its psychoactive properties are well known but it is a plant that has a practical human story beyond millennia of stoners. To understand this, one needs to see cannabis as a living organism rather than a small parcel of dried herbage or lump of resin. Left to grow freely, a cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa) can reach up to 20 feet in height. To achieve this elevation it needs a strong and fibrous stem, and it is these fibres that have resulted in cannabis’ widespread use by humans since Mesolithic times. Across the globe, from Neolithic China to Ancient Egypt, the remains of hemp cloth and rope have been discovered by archaeologists, indicating a long and close association between humans and cannabis; a relationship independent of intoxication.

In China, the very word for hemp (ta-ma) makes this clear: it means “great fibre”. Hemp even had its place in national defence and expansion. On occasion the maritime ambitions of the English produced a particularly strong bond to cannabis. Ships needed rope and so important was cannabis for its production in the 16th century that English farmers were encouraged by royal decree to grow hemp as part of a national effort to support the burgeoning navy. 

If ever there was a man to celebrate cannabis as a plant, first and foremost, it was William Robinson. Born in 1838, Robinson was one of the most influential figures in world horticulture. For Robinson, cannabis was an ideal plant for small London gardens where the more tender sub-tropical plants could not be enjoyed. It was perfect for the backs of borders and mixed groups. The uses and applications of the plant have never been confined to getting high. 

 

Next week: the poppy

The woman's place in spy fiction

A highly regarded figure in the British publishing establishment did me the kindness of reading an early draft of my new spy novel, Rogue Elements.  He was complimentary, but he worried that some of it was a bit clichéd: in particular, “a Mossad killer, a female boss”.  Perhaps he was right about my assassin (although I’m struggling to recall other spy novels with an Israeli finger on the trigger).  But his suggestion that having a woman in charge of an espionage operation was some kind of failure of originality did shock me.

Presumably he was thinking of Judy Dench playing M in the Bond movies.  Yes, that was quite an innovation twenty years ago when she first took the role.  But now?  Should we still think it’s remarkable to see a woman in charge?  Shouldn’t we in fact start from the position that fifty percent of fictitious spies ought to have a female boss?

I’m being slightly disingenuous.  The gender of my spymaster, Madeleine Wraye, does have some bearing on the plot, at least in her own mind.  She sees it as a contributory factor in her downfall.  For unlike Dench’s magisterial M, Wraye is not in charge of the Secret Intelligence Service; she’s no longer even employed by the organisation better known as MI6.  She’s out, an ex-spook, ousted by a cabal of male colleagues who – she believes – feared she was getting a little too close to the top.  As a freelancer marshalling other freelancers, she’s remarkably successful; as a former government servant with dashed hopes of a place in SIS history, she’s a little bitter.

No one could claim that women are adequately represented in the upper echelons of most organisations, and this is undoubtedly as true for intelligence agencies as it is for our banks, supermarket chains and governments.  But if a novelist were to include a female commissioning editor or marketing director in a manuscript, would anyone bat an eyelid?  What’s so special about female spymasters?

Admittedly, the Secret Intelligence Service has never had a female Chief, and we know almost nothing about its other senior officers.  High-ranking SIS women never get featured in “How does she do it?” columns in the Sunday papers.  But the Security Service (MI5) has had two female Directors General: Stella Rimington held the top job from 1992 to 1996, and Eliza Manningham-Buller took charge from 2002 to 2007. 

Things are even more progressive across the Atlantic.  The Deputy Director of the CIA is a woman, and a young one at that: Avril Haines is just 44.  Following the Snowden revelations last year, Frances Fleisch was given the unenviable job of Acting Deputy Director at the National Security Agency.  And the next Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency – the CIA’s military counterpart – is expected to be Lieutenant General Mary Legere.  The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Office, both key members of the US Intelligence Community, are run by women.

None of which should surprise anyone with a passing understanding of what intelligence agencies actually do.  Forget the breakneck excitements of Bond and Bourne, or even the occasional bursts of action in Rogue Elements.  The job of the spy is to collect pertinent information that others would rather keep from them.  Mostly, these days, that is achieved by electronic means.  Sometimes it is still done by talking to people with access to secrets.  There is little call for machismo in espionage, as celebrated practitioners from Violette Szabo and Daphne Park to Valerie Plame and the marvellous fictional Carrie Mathison have all shown.

So I’ve kept my female boss.  She’s without doubt the most interesting character in the book.  But in no way should anyone consider her gender remarkable.

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Taking on Spy Fiction

As any craftsman will tell you, it can take a long time to master a new skill, and the same can be said for a new fiction genre.  I published my last novel, The Storm Prophet, in 2007.  A year later, I decided to write a spy thriller.  It was to be another five years before Rogue Elements was complete.

Admittedly, I've had a few distractions.  My business consulting work really took off in that time, and www.BookDrum.com has been an all-consuming passion.  But distractions aside, it has been a long road to build the kind of ingrained familiarity with the Intelligence world one needs to write with confidence and authority about it.  There is the complex technical, political and psychological reality of modern espionage to be internalised, as far as it can be ascertained from publicly available sources; and then there are the conventions of the genre  to be respected or subverted.  A lot to take in before the story of Rogue Elements could be developed.

The story itself, though intricate and multi-faceted, came naturally.  Now that I understand better what a spy story is, I can see all the main elements in my earlier books.  There are secret identities and hidden agendas in The Hummingbird Saint, a complex deception coupled with uncertainty and paranoia in The Mind Game, persuasion and influencing strategies in The Storm Prophet.  My protagonists are constantly attempting to uncover one secret or another the essence of Intelligence.  It's not surprising that I wrote like a spy novelist long before I dared write an actual spy novel – I grew up on a diet of John Buchan and Ian Fleming, of Forsyth, Greene, Le Carré and Ludlum.  Spies and their intrigues are in my blood.

I have loved writing spy fiction, and I plan to continue.  But first, I want to hear what readers think of Rogue Elements.  The next few months will be dedicated to a process of reader feedback and involvement through innovative new publisher Advance Editions.  There will be much more to say about that shortly, but for now please get reading!  You can download half of the book for free here, or buy the complete ebook at a 60% advance discount from Kobo, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  I sincerely look forward to hearing what you think.