What is MSM?

February 25th, 2017
Hulme Crescents

Original Tweet by Neil Claxton

On social media, MSM is usually short for Mainstream Media and refers to national TV news programmes like the Ten o’clock news and ‘red tops’ – tabloid newspapers available throughout the country.

Some journalists refuse to acknowledge this term as they think it too vague and simple as a concept to serve any purpose. Some even deny that ‘mainstream news’ exists at all. They consider its use pejorative.

If anyone is guilty of simplifying concepts and using pejorative language, it is journalists. If anyone is guilty of being biased and manipulative, it is journalists. They are now being hoist by their own petard and they are outraged that someone else has the temerity to use such devices.

Take, for example, this story from today’s Guardian website*. Several questions need to be asked:

  1. Why is this a story?

  2. Who decided it was a story?

  3. Whose interests does it serve?

  4. Why was this photograph chosen to illustrate it?

  5. What is ISIS?

The only reason I took note of the story was because Martin Bryant, a journalist who knows Manchester, commented on his personal Twitter account that the building in the photograph no longer exists and that the area is a lot more pleasant today.

If this was lazy journalism by The Guardian (we don’t have the staff to do a proper picture search on the internet) it could be partly forgiven but this is not lazy journalism, this is a deliberate attempt to mould the story into a particular shape. The journalist was working the raw material of the story—like a sculptor working on a lump of clay—into an effigy of some kind.

The journalist however is working under the guidance of his or her mentor, the editor, who likes works to conform to certain aesthetic standards, ones that invariably are to the liking of their ultimate patron – the owner of the media outlet. The editor might even have told the journalist to create this effigy from somewhere because the media outlet had some interest to serve.

Some journalists might genuinely believe that they are working without supervision from their boss but as Peter Oborne found out when he tried to write critically about HSBC this is an illusion.

So what is ISIS? How is this different to using MSM?

The slightest research into the situation in Syria reveals a complexity of factions and forces that goes way beyond the patience of MSM consumers. ISIS is a meaningless term in reality but it’s useful in giving a bit of detail to a similarly meaningless term – ‘enemy’.

Donald Trump is a useful Geiger counter for highlighting what is dysfunctional in society. His contempt for the media is a sure sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way it operates and that he can exploit it for his own gain.

Of course there are some journalists who are hard working and conscientious but they are like the ‘hard-working taxpayers’ mentioned in so many Tory missives; they don’t really figure in the grand scheme of things and can be safely discounted.

* they have since changed the photograph

Stop Trying To Change The World

January 14th, 2017


Step out of your comfort zone.

This is advice we hear all the time. If you’re a motivational speaker then this will be your core message. The fact that businesses pay huge sums of money to motivational speakers to drive home this message with their workforce suggests it’s safe to assume that this position is beyond question. Clearly, this is how humans were meant to improve themselves.

But is it? I’m not so sure.


Look at graph A. The y-axis represents the highs and lows of life from the extreme high (say winning the lottery or achieving a lifetimes goal) to the extreme low (say being diagnosed with a terminal illness or losing everything due to war). The line in the middle is the mean and 0 represents the perfect level of comfort – however you wish to define that.

The mean should not be derided – we wouldn’t be here if the universe didn’t have a comfort zone. Planet earth exists on this mean line – neither too hot nor too cold, a miracle really considering the unimaginable extremes of the universe.

As human beings, we understand the environment through comparison – to our touch fire is too hot, ice is too cold and blood temperature is just about right. For every positive, we compare it to a negative and everything exists on this continuum.

Let’s go back to graph A. The motivational speaker encourages the audience to achieve goals that attain these spectacular ‘highs’ on the positive side of the mean. What is rarely mentioned is that for every move higher there will potentially be a corresponding move lower in emotional response, and the higher you go the lower you can go too. This has to be the case. If you’ve set your heart and soul on achieving a particular goal (how great it will be to achieve this!) and you fail to achieve it, your disappointment will be proportional to the desire you had in wanting to achieve it. If your disappointment is not too great then the logic dictates that you couldn’t have wanted it that badly in the first place.

Hence, any idea of living your entire life in the positive side of the mean is an illusion because we can only make sense of the world through comparison so the mean in the graph would have to be shifted upwards and the graph recalibrated so that 0 appeared higher on the y-axis so that some experiences fell into the negative half.


Most people live their lives similar to graph B where the peaks and troughs are minimised (I’m making this extrapolation from the existence of an industry that actively encourages a pursuit of the bigger peaks and troughs) whereas the ‘special’ people— for example, risk-taking cave divers or mountain climbers, live their lives similar to graph C.


Which is the preferred graph?

The thing we definitely don’t want to experience is a flat line – the undeviating line of the mean itself. In medical circles ‘flatline’ is a sign of death. If you were perpetually comfortable, your body and mind would protest. Sensory deprivation is anathema to our brains – it needs some stimulus thus it’s easy to see where the idea of stepping out of our comfort zones originated—doing so provides stimulus for our brain.

So being perpetually comfortable is practically impossible. Before long, it would become uncomfortable through lack of stimulus.

Most people however, don’t require an enormous amount of stimulus. If you look at graph C and consider it in terms of food intake, it doesn’t look very attractive; imagine many days of fasting followed by uncontrollable binges. It could be argued by a motivational speaker that the longer the fast, the more out of your comfort zone you are (is that a good thing?) and that when you do eventually eat, the food will taste better as a result of your extended fast. Presumably, this is ‘living life to the full’ and should be advocated by life coaches but as far as I’m aware, it’s not often on their agenda. Why is this? Is it because it is probably healthier to be more moderate with your food intake?

If this moderate principle applies to food, why is it not extended to other areas of our lives? In fact, why is the desire to experience life to the full with extreme goals seen as healthy at all?

Maybe the entire premise of ‘motivation’ is misguided? When a goal is achieved or a disaster experienced, where is the impact of it most keenly felt? – In the mind. It is our mindfulness that dictates how we experience existence. We feel ‘amazing’ or ‘gutted’ because our minds create the emotion. ‘Motivation’ is an ersatz way of accessing the mind, like viewing the world through a low-resolution screen instead of looking at the real thing unobstructed. Why not focus directly on the mind?

Stop reading now and pay close attention to what you can hear, listen for every nuance of sound, find all the frequencies.

This is as good as it gets. You’re alive! By learning to be more aware of the now, we can appreciate the ‘simple’ things in life (listening to sounds might seem simple but when reflected upon deeply the unimaginable complexity of it becomes apparent).

Action without thought is mindless. We need Mindfulness Speakers more than we need motivational speakers.

Eventually, food banks will have to go bust.

December 12th, 2016


The number of charities, food banks and ‘pay what you feel’ café’s that utilise food that would otherwise have been thrown away is on the increase. At first glance this would appear to be a good thing, but when looked at closely it is not.

According to the data, the UK is the worst country in Europe for food waste. This fact alone should be the main focus of any reform efforts by charities and concerned people. It is an utter disgrace that so much intensive farming (and all the environmental degradation that it entails) goes to waste when food is thrown away. France has already taken the lead in this and has passed a law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food.

The sheer scale of the food waste was only brought home to me after watching a BBC news article that documented some examples of how food was deemed ‘unwanted’. One example involved packets of dried spaghetti. One packet isn’t such a big deal but when it comes out of a box that has come out of a lorry-load of spaghetti boxes, it does become a big deal. And then when the news item goes on to state that this is merely one lorry out of a fleet of seventeen similarly loaded lorries, the mind starts to boggle.

It is no wonder then that some people are moved to do something about this prodigious waste – hence the springing up of food banks etc. But my argument is that this activity is merely duplicating the waste—albeit disguised in a different form. The volunteers have to get into cars or vans (OK, some may get on a bicycle) and drive to the various supermarkets to negotiate the collection of the food. These vehicles then have to drive around the town or city to drop off the food at various food banks and cafes. This causes pollution and traffic congestion as well as more landfill once the vehicles come to the end of their useful life.

My reasoning is that as the food is already on the premises of the supermarket (which is situated in a central location of a large community) the logic is screaming out that the most efficient way to redistribute the food is for the supermarkets themselves to give the food away directly to those people who need it the most – the end customer.

This however is where capitalism appears to become outraged. If you have free food next to food that has to be bought, which are people going to choose? The obvious answer is the free food every time. This however does capitalism a disservice and underestimates its power – it’s far cleverer than that.

Firstly, the free food would probably be housed in a separate warehouse section so that it doesn’t take up prime floor space in the well-lit, heated supermarket. This means customers have to exit the pleasant area and enter a downmarket one to access the free food. Capitalism says that people respect tiers of status – many people would not allow themselves to be seen in the warehouse section (I’m not judging here, merely observing) so they would never enter it.

Secondly, the food in the warehouse section is less fresh than in the supermarket so again, status would come into play; many people prefer their food to be as fresh as possible.

Thirdly, the free food lacks choice. In the example given earlier, you might have lots of spaghetti on offer but very little else. I don’t know many people who eat spaghetti on its own; they usually want some kind of sauce to go with it. If the ingredients for that sauce are not available in the warehouse section then a lot of people would probably go into the supermarket to purchase those few extra ingredients.

In practice then, the frugal customer could enter the warehouse section first, pick up whatever free foods was on offer and then move onto a consultation point manned by volunteers who could advise them on what meals to make from those foodstuffs. And here’s the crucial bit: by advising them on which added ingredients could make the meal nutritious, the customer could be tempted to go into the supermarket and buy them if the cost is not too prohibitive.

It’s counter-intuitive at first but in the long run this could actually work out to be beneficial for the supermarkets, they might even sell more produce as a result. The supermarket gets rid of its unwanted food as efficiently as possible thereby eliminating food waste and landfill and it potentially sells more food overall. It’s a win-win scenario.

Whichever supermarket adopts this model first will garner enormous media coverage, terrific PR and increase its market share.

The time has come to think beyond the old models. If implemented this could be the first step towards making other radical ideas—like Universal Basic Income—a reality.

*The photograph above is from Unsplash.com, a website that offers high-resolution images to anyone for free.

Planned obsolescence

November 11th, 2016


This is the on/off switch from our electric kettle. When we bought the kettle I could immediately see that the plastic switch was so inadequate for the job that it must have been deliberately designed that way to limit the life of the device.

Sure enough it lasted for about eighteen months which seems to be the industry standard for any small electrical good these days.

I’m now supposed to throw the kettle away and buy a new one so that the relentless process of consumerism can continue.

Can we follow the example of Trump and call it like it is? Why don’t manufacturers honestly admit their strategy of planned obsolescence and insert a chip into a device to stop it working after a certain period of time so we can actually plan for the obsolescence? The date of the failure can even be printed on the packet when we buy it from new.

We could also set up specific recycling depots in our redundant high street shops for the non-functioning devices so a certain amount of sustainability can be built into the insane consumerist model.

The Sun is probably smarter than you think

October 23rd, 2016


On the day that The Sun’s highest paid journalist is sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice the paper decides to attack one of Britain’s National Treasures – Gary Lineker.

What heinous offence did Gary commit that trumps the reporting of one of its own journalists being sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice?

All that Gary did was express an opinion on his private Twitter account. He wanted to show some compassion for the refugees fleeing the war in Syria. To most people, this would be considered normal and decent and in keeping with someone being considered as a National Treasure.

The Sun however had a different agenda and needed to hide the fact that its highest paid journalist had been found guilty of perverting the course of justice. To any rival newspaper, this would be sensational front-page news requiring the journalists to dig out a copy of the Thesaurus to fully express the evil of the perpetrator and his employer.

The Sun needed a metaphorical dead cat to throw onto the table during the conversation and what better pet of the British public to murder and toss casually onto the polished wood than the cuddly Gary Lineker. The move would provoke outrage on the part of decent folk everywhere but also strengthen the relationship between the prejudiced sector of the population and the newspaper.

This is where it gets clever though.

The Sun’s power emanates from its wealth. Its wealth derives from its circulation which is enormous. Advertisers are attracted to the huge circulation and pay big money to access it. The company always sees any furore that attracts eyeballs to The Sun’s content as welcome traffic as it simply convinces advertisers to spend their advertising budget there.

The Sun is currently sponsoring a poll to discover who is the favourite presenter on TV. It invites the public to vote. I’ve seen tweets that encourage people to go to the site and vote for Lineker.

If Lineker wins, this may seem like one in the eye for the media company but the upshot is this; The Sun gets more coverage from this apparent backlash and also acquires legitimacy for the poll it is sponsoring. It wouldn’t even surprise me if it were The Sun itself that came up with the idea of getting people to vote for Lineker.

Liverpool has demonstrated that it can hurt The Sun. It has done this by effectively banning the sale of it in the city. This equates to millions of pounds of lost revenue for the company.

Don’t buy the Sun but don’t acknowledge it either. The thing it hates the most is being ignored*.

*I realise I’m writing about The Sun but I only do so to remind people that its highest paid journalist has recently been sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice and that not engaging with it in any form ultimately destroys it.

Stepping into the unknown

October 5th, 2016


I recently gave an illustrated talk at a pop-up arts venue in York. The building they had commandeered was an old fire station complete with pole through the ceiling. To my astonishment the organiser announced that if anyone wanted to have a slide on the pole they were welcome to. I say ‘astonishment’ because as an event organiser myself, the insurance implications of such an activity sent my liability calculations zooming into orbit.

As the evening wore on, I watched lots of people take up the invitation – undeterred by any risk – and slide down the pole with joyful abandon. I said to my sister who was with me at the event that ever since I was a schoolboy and our class had visited a fire station where the use of the pole had been demonstrated by one of the firemen I’d always wanted to have a go on one.

“Well, now’s your chance” she said and rummaged in her handbag for her phone to take a video of the stunt. She held the phone and looked at me expectantly. I could see that a significant moment had arrived. I turned for the stairs.

As I climbed the echoing steps to the top floor I passed through various empty rooms that had been stripped of their furnishings. The crumbling plasterwork and general dilapidation of the building reminded me of my own advancing years and how my reflexes and suppleness weren’t as good as they used to be.

I arrived at the vestibule where you launch yourself onto the pole and I studied the scene. The pole was within easy reach but I made the mistake of looking down through the hole to where the pole was bolted to the floor of the fire station. Lord! It was a good ten metres down and I began to weigh up all the possible outcomes of the stunt. The one that loomed the largest was the one where I miscalculate the slipiness of the pole and I go whizzing uncontrollably down it to crash awkwardly onto the concrete floor and break a few bones in my feet incapacitating me for months to come. As a self-employed man the risk was simply too great and cautiously I backed away from the orifice slightly shame faced and greatly disappointed.

Back in the event room I told my sister it was higher than I had anticipated and I simply balked at the risk of something going wrong.

Later in the evening I got talking to a member of the audience and he asked me if I had been down the pole. I answered truthfully and explained to him all the reasons why I thought it was a bad idea for a man of my age.

“You’re over-thinking it,” he said. “Come on, let me show you how easy it is” and with that he encouraged me to follow him as he walked towards the staircase door. Another significant moment arrived: do I politely decline or trust this stranger with my life?

I followed him.

Once again I stood by the vestibule with the stranger in front of me. He stood poised to launch himself when he turned to me and said “Don’t look down, just grab the pole and commit fully to the slide” and then he effortlessly reached out for the pole and was gone.

I stood alone looking at the pole. I was calculating the physics of -

I jumped.

I knew if I stood there any longer I would go through the same looped thinking process that would talk me out of reaching for the pole and so before I did I launched myself.

To my astonishment I had near total control of my descent (my logical mind immediately understood why the pole was approximately 5 inches in diameter – it greatly increased the coefficient of friction) and I could have stopped mid-slide if I’d wanted to.

Safely on the floor of the fire station I turned to my mentor and we high-fived the little achievement. I was genuinely grateful to him for pushing me out of my comfort zone and then he exited out of my life, possibly for good.

As I walked back to where my sister was sitting I couldn’t help thinking of the famous quote “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My sister missed the photo opportunity because I acted impulsively and didn’t let her know. Sometimes it’s better to trust your gut than your head.

Great lessons can be learned from small incidents; I was honest with people about my failure, they offered to help, I welcomed their help and together we achieved success.

After waiting many decades, the fire station pole is now off my list.

Your private life

August 23rd, 2016


I’m appalled at the indifference most people express regarding the Edward Snowden revelations.

The general attitude seems to be, so what if the authorities know practically everything about my private life, why should I care?

Let me explain the enormity of this issue with a few personal examples. I was called recently on my mobile by a company wanting to sell me a box to add to some equipment I already own. I sensed a scam and so I ended the call but it was only afterwards that I asked myself, where did they get my mobile number from and how did they know about this piece of equipment I own? To find out I called them back on the number logged into my ‘phone only to discover it was a convenience number that is bought and sold by companies wanting to disguise their activities.

My guess is that the company that sold me the equipment originally passed my details onto anyone who wanted them for a fee. I don’t know if they’re allowed to do this but I’m guessing even if I’d told them at the beginning that I didn’t want any of my details to be passed onto anyone else it wouldn’t have made any difference because there is no way you can enforce such a request.

Again, a personal experience bears this out.

A few years ago I cancelled an insurance policy prematurely. I know for a fact that this kind of information is confidential and covered by the data protection act but within days of me cancelling the policy I was being bombarded with unsolicited calls from companies offering to ‘review’ my financial arrangements.

I surmised that my data had been sold onto an unscrupulous third party. I gathered they were unscrupulous because after a few of these calls I became so angry I used every swear word available to me (and I’m creative) to express my displeasure with the caller. This made no difference whatsoever to their sales pitch which suggested that they weren’t legitimate.

I officially complained to the insurance company I’d bought the policy from about the data leak but all I got back was a ‘report’ that reassured me no such leak had occurred. All I had was their word for it. How on earth was I supposed to prove that they (or someone within their organisation) were selling personal data? Unless you bait a premeditated trap from the outset it’s impossible.

Now, if that’s the reality, then a huge amount of your personal data is available to commercial organisations that can target you with specific sales pitches and can call you day or night on your mobile phone. Are you happy with that? I’m not.

There’s a famous story about a retail company emailing a family with promotions for baby items. When the parents complained to the company they discovered that metadata had told the company that their daughter was pregnant due to the recent change in her buying habit. When the parents confronted their daughter she admitted that she was pregnant.

The company knew before their parents did purely from metadata.

Now, if that’s what commercial organisations know about you imagine what authorities with special privileges know about you…

Sex and death

August 16th, 2016


The cabbage-white butterfly dances provocatively above the purple-sprouting broccoli plants in the hot July sunlight. The butterfly doesn’t know it but the broccoli plants are mine.

I’m sitting on the patio and watching this display of intent with growing anxiety and alarm. Soon the butterfly will alight on one of the defenceless turquoise leaves of the broccoli plant and lay one of its tiny grenades of destruction. I have my usual reflex urge to jump up, rush at the butterfly and wave it away from the garden but the two glasses of red wine I’ve just enjoyed has ambushed that reflex midway between my brain and my legs and detained it with inane conversation about how wonderful it is to be alive and how some things just aren’t worth the candle…

So instead, I observe proceedings from my seat with a resigned inevitability.

And then, out of the infinite blue sky, another butterfly appears and doubles my anxiety but almost immediately a third butterfly joins the dance and my alarm switches to curiosity– such a grouping means more than just the routine laying of eggs, is the new arrival going to cut in on the dance?

Such is the hard-wired sex drive of many species that it doesn’t take me long to recognise the primitive, timeless moves of a courtship dance and the posturing displays of males vying for the sexual favours of a female.

The female butterfly settles on the green lawn immediately adjacent to the broccoli plants and disports herself invitingly for the males. One of them attempts to land on her back to mate but the other male interferes and the two take to the air to do battle.

My curiosity aroused, I stand up and walk the few paces into the lawn to get a closer look. The female is only slightly perturbed by my appearance and flies a couple of feet further along the lawn before settling on the grass again. I shadow her move and step closer to her but this time she is content to lay on the grass, such is the abandoned urgency of sex.

One of the males has clearly won the effeminate duel of wing slapping and descends on her open and welcoming back. As they mate I watch their intimacy.

The progeny of these insects will eat my food that is undeniable. As beautiful as they are in their design and movement I can’t get rid of the selfish idea that I should kill them.

I continue to watch their mating, my feet only inches from their copulating bodies. If I stepped on them now during the very sex act they would know death as well – how perfect and tragic.

A sober me would no doubt have let them perform their ritual and then shooed them away afterwards in a delusional belief that they would not return to my garden but the wine had done its damage and in the long, sad history of that drug it momentarily facilitates my base instincts. Taking me by surprise—my moral considerations suddenly swept aside like a wooden beach hut in a tsunami—I witness my foot, armoured in scarred leather, shoot forward and land firmly on the copulating pair.

With a pang of guilt I instantly withdraw my foot but the two white butterflies lie inert among the leaves of grass, dead as petals. The third butterfly sees its chance and returns, dancing to within a few inches of the female, but then must get a sharp scent of death because it quickly departs for good.

Sex and death under a careless sun – the enormity of the incident makes me return to my seat on the patio and ponder my actions.

Several minutes later, I awake from my reverie to see two wasps hover like malevolent angels over the carcasses of the butterflies. They set down on their victims and immediately begin to butcher them.

Again, curiosity gets the better of me and I step forward to witness this new act. With ruthless efficiency they neatly saw off the wings, then the denuded bodies are carried aloft and away like freshly harvested souls for the hell that is the wasps’ nest.

Nothing is wasted in nature. The circle is renewed: the bodies of the butterflies will give birth to new life only not in the shape of caterpillars. Another species will flourish instead.

Then, whilst still standing at the scene of the slaughter on my lawn, I hear a faint but powerful droning sound. It is as if a swarm of monstrous bees is slowly filling the air. I jerk my head up in panic and wildly scan the heavens. And there in the distance I see them. I keep my eyes fixed on the rough black line getting nearer and wider. The droning sound grows louder and louder until it is an all-consuming roar – my empty wine glass, stained red, trembles faintly on the patio table.

The sky darkens and a primitive fear grips my intestines, as I look directly overhead at the heavy layer of bombers sweeping across the sky like a swiftly moving stain of fresh blood. Collectively, they look like the underside of a giant boot poised to crush an unsuspecting town where the inhabitants might be dancing, courting, making love…

I think of the pilots, drunk on their own insane power.

Technology is a great liberator but it’s also a great oppressor

July 22nd, 2016

I got some kind of group invite through my email account which didn’t work properly because the operating system on my computer is too old to deal with it. I only discovered it was an invite when someone replied ‘to all’ confirming they could make the date.

I persist with my old computer because

  • it still does everything I need to do on it
  • I don’t buy into the consumerist ideology of having the latest thing just because it is the latest thing.
  • I’m conscious of unnecessary waste

Unfortunately, not everyone has these criteria and nor would I expect everyone to have them, that would be unreasonable. So why then do most people in industry think that everyone is using the same level of technology that they are? I don’t use a smartphone because I don’t want to volunteer all my information to whoever can hack into it.. This makes me some kind of Luddite in the eyes of most people.

What happens next though is really interesting. Smartphone users (I’m using this generalised label purely for demonstration purposes) assume everyone in their demographic has a smartphone and behaves accordingly; they use the technology available on the phone. This means if you don’t have a smartphone, you’re excluded from lots of functions. Eventually, the divide will become so great that the smartphone users will literally use a different language to non smartphone users.

What you then have is fractured and marginalised groups in a society that moves in a direction further away from ‘community’.

Part of me knows that this is a deliberate ploy by manufacturers to a) sell more product and b) to maintain the learned helplessness in the consumers.

I’m aware that there are some people who don’t even have internet access. I can’t even begin to imagine how disadvantaged they are in society.

Technology is a great liberator but it’s also a great oppressor.

The future of creativity: machine code

June 3rd, 2016


I was at my local lending library looking for a book to read when I spotted a Wilbur Smith hardback on the shelf. Wilbur Smith had written River God, a book I literally couldn’t put down it was so compelling. He’d also written some other novels that I found quite easy to put down (literally and metaphorically) so it’s a bit of a lottery when he publishes something new.

I plucked the tome from the shelf and looked at the cover, it depicted the usual themes of his books—historical Africa or Egypt and bloody adventure—but something odd caught my eye; the author’s name was not alone, in smaller writing it said ‘with Giles Kristian’. What could this possibly mean?

I took it to the desk and quizzed the immaculately dressed, white-haired, bespectacled lady that was the librarian.

“Can you clear this up for me please, who is the author here?”

Without hesitation she explained the mechanics; Wilbur Smith comes up with the idea and Giles Kristian then does the grunt work of writing the book (she actually used the phrase ‘grunt work’ which amused me more than it should have done).

“So it’s kinda ghost written?” I said.

“Yes” she said “but the co-author is usually well known for writing in a similar style.”

“So it’s like Damien Hirst coming up with an idea of say, a flayed baby in a bath of formaldehyde or something and then saying to one of his hundreds of assistants ‘here, you make this into reality”.

“Yes” she said, “that’s pretty much how it works.”

I was astonished. Not because of the discovery of ghostwriters or artists’ assistants—I already knew of their existence—but because of what it presaged.

Ghostwriters are usually employed to supplement the missing talent of the celebrity, namely, the ability to write. But here, a perfectly capable writer is employing another perfectly capable writer to do the heavy lifting. Wilbur Smith is so prolific and so popular that he has become a brand that is easily recognised and easily emulated.

Presumably, the faithful readers of his books aren’t too bothered about this development so long as their metaphorical Corn Flakes continue to taste exactly how they liked them in the past no matter who is the new owner manufacturing them.

Now lets jump into the future a hundred years. Wilbur Smith is dead and so is Giles Kristian but new Wilbur Smith books continue to appear every year, regular as clockwork. You might think that dozens of authors are employed to maintain this booming franchise but you’d be wrong.

A sophisticated algorithm writes all the books. The preferred language, styling, plot twists and characters that appear in all the previous Wilbur Smith books are analysed by the algorithm and a clever refinement in the programming allows it to devise new story lines with similar characters but with enough differentiation about them to sufficiently fool a human brain into thinking ‘this is novel’ (pun intended).

This is the future: creativity done by a machine. I’m not sure whether I should be excited or depressed. Can I be both?

Footnote: A year or so ago I did a caricaturing gig in Leicestershire at a private birthday party. The house turned out to be a mansion and my small talk with the guests during my sketching revealed that it was the party of a successful author. Nearly everyone at the party was a published author or creative artist of some kind. When I came to draw the birthday boy himself he told me a little about his glittering past and that he had recently been working with Wilbur Smith.