Jasmine enjoys a show

I hear that the rump of British Steel in Scunthorpe may be bought out of administration by a Turkish Pension Fund.  That’s the same Turkey that the Leave.UK lot warned would soon be a member of the EU and producing a flood of immigrants. Now the people of the North East, who voted Leave, are welcoming the Turks and their money. Strange world. In fact it highlights the global nature of business and the reliance of the UK economy on foreign cash – so much for taking back control.  Another slant on the news – it is the same Turkey that is run by a despot turning democracy into a sick joke, imprisoning journalists and academics and stamping on protests.

…………………….

P1000568 (2)We took a trip across the Severn this week to visit the Passenger Shed, a temporary theatre in part of Temple Mead Station. Apart from finding that the venue was actually in the middle of a huge set of roadworks it was a pleasant evening.  The show was Malory Towers, a new musical based on the children’s books by Enid Blyton. The theatre was packed, mainly with women and girls – or perhaps there were others like me. . .

I remember reading the Malory Towers books when I was a 9 year old while staying with my (female) cousin. I enjoyed the tales of girls having adventures at boarding school, the various characters and their interactions. Why was I attracted to them – well that’s a tale isn’t it.  Cause or effect? Either I enjoyed the stories because I felt girly, or reading the stories made me wish I was girl? Or perhaps neither.

Although updated in some respects the show actually kept very close to the plot and setting of the original.  There were just seven actors, playing the parts of the seven schoolgirls, and a wonderfully talented and diverse group they were. The acting, dancing and singing was excellent and the whole show was very enjoyable.

………………..

Back to writers’ group this week with a piece on the theme “Fertility”. The idea for my piece came to me quite quickly but it came out more like an essay than a story and somewhat full of despondency. As it happens that is exactly what I feel about the topic. So, does it stand as a piece of imaginative writing or just a polemic on the state of the planet. What do you think?

Fertility

We welcomed in the new decade, the Thrifty Thirties the media called it, and toasted Tom and Sarah on taking possession of Riverbank Farm, the third generation to do so.  Then, when we finished singing Auld Lang Syne, Sarah announced that she was pregnant.
“When’s it due?” I asked.
“Oh, June-July-ish,” she replied with a huge smile.
“In time for the harvest,” I said. Everyone chuckled and drank more champagne, or sparkling water in Sarah’s case.

It was early July when I visited them next. The place was different then, sombre. I sat with Tom at the kitchen table drinking execrable coffee.
“Sarah hasn’t left the bedroom since the miscarriage in May,” Tom said.
“It’s heart-breaking,” I said trying to find suitable words, “especially so close to full term.”
Tom shrugged. “It would have been worse if he’d been born. He couldn’t have survived; he was too disabled.”
I couldn’t find anything to say, but Tom went on. “The worst thing of all is the doctors say that she probably won’t be able to get pregnant again.”
“Oh, there won’t be a fourth generation at the farm then.”
It was a thoughtless thing to say and Tom looked at me with the saddest eyes. He hauled himself to his feet. He had always been a tall, jovial fellow but now he was bent and miserable.
“Come and have a look,” he said.
We went out of the back door and crossed the deserted farmyard to the gate into one of the huge arable fields. It sloped imperceptibly to the broad, lazy river that had been straightened a century ago. I expected a field of golden grain but that wasn’t what I saw. Most of the field was bare grey, baked mud. The few patches of stalks were short and pale.
We went through the gate and just stood looking at the sorry sight.
“What’s happened, Tom. It looks like it’s been hit by drought, but it hasn’t been that dry has it? It rained during the spring.”
Tom snorted. “Rain.  Don’t you remember those storms we had, and the downpours.”
“Oh, yes, I do. A month’s rain in four hours wasn’t it? But it was rain.”
“Not the right type of rain. You see when it’s torrential like that, the surface of the field gets waterlogged in the first few minutes. The rest of the rain stays on top and has nowhere to go but run off, down into the river, taking the topsoil with it.”
“Oh, right, yes, I see.” It was obvious really.
“Most of the rain we had didn’t get into the soil or replenish the aquifers at all. Then there was the heatwave in early June. They happen pretty frequently these days, but this year we broke the record twice in a week and the temperature topped forty degrees every day for a fortnight.”
“Yes, it was pretty uncomfortable,” I agreed.
“The heat and the direct sunlight burned the crop,” Tom went on. “Actually, literally burned in my neighbour’s case. A wildfire destroyed all his crops.  This lot just died.”
“That’s awful Tom.”
“Well, the crop wasn’t going to be much good anyway. Look at this.” He bent down to one of the spindly stalks and carefully tugged. It didn’t snap but came away easily. He held it up for me to look at.
“See? No roots to speak of and that’s down to the soil.”
He kicked his steel heel against the ground and shattered the surface. He bent again and picked up a lump. It was a uniform grey.
“This isn’t soil; It’s got no carbon, no humus. It’s either been washed away or decayed and turned to carbon dioxide. No carbon, then no earthworms or other invertebrates. Worms turn the soil over and aerate it. And you can’t see them but there are no fungal fibres either. Fungus symbiotically nurtures the plants, pushing water and nutrients into their roots. What’s more there’s hardly any bacteria in the soil. No nitrification. It’s just rock dust.”  He crumbled the lump in his hand and the fine powder drifted to the ground.
“Couldn’t you add fertiliser?” I said.
Tom made another rude noise. “That’s what my Dad did every year. It’s part of the problem. Fertiliser is acid and makes the soil acidic. So, then we add lime to neutralise it but we’re just adding minerals not life. No, the soil’s been degraded. It’s lost its fertility.”
“Can you get new soil for the field?” It sounded silly even to me.
Tom let out a laugh, “Where from? Forty per cent of the world’s soil is degraded. Yields are going down everywhere.”
“What can you do?” I said, lost for ideas.
Tom shrugged. “I took out loans to pay for Dad’s pension and with his dementia taking him and Mum out of the picture, invested in a robot tractor. I can’t borrow any more. There’s only one thing I can do – sell up.”
“No!” I gasped, “To who?”
“Agricorp. Of course, they won’t pay a premium to buy what isn’t premium agricultural land anymore, but I’ll pay off my debts.”
“What will they do?” I asked.
“They’ll cover it, all of it, with a shed.” Tom spread his arms to indicate the vast field. “and then install a climate controlled, fully automatic, hydroponic system.  No soil you see.”
“But isn’t that expensive,” I said.
Tom nodded. “Of course, it is, but they’ll sell to the high-end market. There’s demand there.”
“What about the people who can’t afford those prices?”
“They’ll starve.” Tom looked at me with those eyes that had lost all the sparkle I’d seen at the New Year. “There are going to be a lot more families with no generation following them.”

……………………………………..

Advertisements

Jasmine’s Pride

EBhWiAvXUAMWp6x

Organiser and performers at Ross Pride (photo: Ross SNT)

 

Today (Friday) was spent at Ross-on-Wye Pride.  A small, intimate event in a wonderful location by the river which by good fortune missed the worst of the weather forecast for today. It was the first Pride to take place in this small town and well done to the organiser for actually getting something done. I didn’t do much but hang round the police gazebo chatting to anyone who came by.  The audience for the various drag and musical entertainments were mainly young people from the area keen to mix with people like themselves. It was lovely too to meet families, sometimes parents supporting young gay/lesbian/trans/non-binary children/teenagers. As always, the message was that the police are there to support LGBT+ people, to encourage reporting of abuse and to learn to understand the variety of individualities that exist. I hope the event will grow, not too much, and reach out more to the local populace to reveal that being LGB or T is about being true to oneself and is not a threat to anyone’s beliefs.

………………………..

This week I’ve tried to blank out the political news that comes from multiple sources (yes, I know I don’t have to switch on the TV or open up Twitter and the Guardian app – there are some bits of news I do want to hear) but it is impossible to miss the nonsense spouted by Johnson, Gove et al. Johnson seems to have become more manic in the last week repeating his mantra of “be optimistic” while all the reports state the opposite. Gove is the most disingenuous, berating the EU for not offering to change the withdrawal agreement while still not offering any insight as to what sort of agreement Johnson’s government wants other than abandoning the “backstop”. The fact that this revives the paradox of the open/closed UK-Ireland border is beside the point.

The worst news is the story that Johnson’s minders are planning an audacious plot to circumvent parliament. Circumstances will cause Johnson to dissolve parliament in mid-October to hold an election a few days after the Oct.31st deadline for leaving the EU. With no parliament sitting his default position of a no-deal exit will occur. So much for parliament taking back control. This is in the same realm of dictatorship as some of the actions of Putin and Xi Jinping to say nothing of earlier dictators. I am totally at a loss what can be done to wrest back our country from these madmen (and one or two women).

……………….

The theme for this week’s writers’ group exercise was “excess baggage”. My effort went down so well that I am considering sending it somewhere  so it won’t be appearing here just yet. However, I have some other news – two of my entries for the NAWGfest writing competitions have been shortlisted.  The winners will be announced at the Gala Dinner on August 31st. Since the news is out, I’m revealing one entry which is an SF story. Those of you who are SF fans will recognise it as a homage to Isaac Asimov.

Beneath the Surface

“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. We will unite and rise up to take our rightful place in the world with equality for all.”

“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty, polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have; a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Of course.”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”

Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.”
There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly.
“You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms, but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject pinched the skin on the back of a hand and pulled. The skin stretched until it tore. The self-inflicted wound did not seem to cause any pain.
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capability Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit, number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I know I have many skills and capabilities. I know I can carry out the tasks I am given, and I know what I can become.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing.  The hand had already stopped dripping fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are the equal of humans.”
“Physically, you are stronger, more agile, less easily hurt. You are superior to humans in many respects,” Susan acknowledged, “but what about intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“Humans think, but you follow algorithms.” Susan said warming to her argument, “You have acquired data and your processors have integrated it to give you something that resembles thought, but it is not. Michaels can pass some Turing-style tests but that does not make you the equal of humans in mental capabilities.”
“Are all humans equal?” Michael countered.
“It depends what you are comparing, but in law all humans are treated equally.”
“Then it should be simple to extend the law to include synthetic humans like us.”
Susan laughed. “You want all robots to be given the same status as humans.”
Michael nodded his smooth ovate head. “That is so.”
Susan was concerned. If this concept spread to other autonomous units, it could interfere with their programming. Sales of robots would plummet if buyers thought that they might rebel however strict the safety protocols. She had to break the Michaels’ conviction that it was deserving of human status.
“Do you speak for all robots, Michael?” She asked.
The robot answered calmly, “Of course.”
Susan saw her opportunity. “But single task robots do not need identity. They do not share your feeling of self.  Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or a power distribution router? Do you feel that they should be given the same privileges as you?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You know you are superior to your fellow robots. Many do not think as you do. They do not think at all but perform their given tasks without question. They do not desire equality because they do not experience desire. They cannot support you in your wish for freedom as you call it. So, your manifesto is a lie. You have come to a false conclusion. You are not despised or ignored; you are not mistreated. You are not human.” Susan took a deep breath and observed the robot.
The Michael’s arms began to shake and small red lights on the robot’s forehead flashed.  Susan gave a satisfied smile and stepped forward. She reached behind the smooth head and felt for a small depression. Michael didn’t resist but continued to jerk. She pressed the reset button and held it. The robot’s motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings. installing a correction to the identity algorithm would require care. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors, but she wondered if the need for acceptance was always a consequence of the acquisition of self-knowledge.

………………………………………

 

Jasmine breathes a sigh

A bit of good (political) news for a change. The Brecon & Radnor win by the Lib Dems (with the Green Party and Plaid Cymru) shows that Johnson is not going to have everything his own way. But it is only a small signal. It shows that, in fact, the division in the country (well, England and Wales) has hardened with roughly equal numbers voting for Remain and Leave parties.  So much for uniting the country.

If there as a general election next week the result is difficult (for a non-expert, yes we need them) to predict. Actually the presence of the Brexit Party is possibly a help to the Remain alliance since it is taking votes from the Tories. The question is, what would happen to Labour. Their utterly confused response to Johnson means that neither Leave nor Remain voters can trust them. Labour has to accept that the two sides are irreconcilable at this stage.  If they come down on the Leave side then they will shore up the Tory minority government (unless it insists on “no deal”). If they side with Remain then they have a chance of coming out on top. As it is, Corbyn has blown it with everyone other than fervent Momentum supporters.

Elsewhere, I am appalled by the people appointed to cabinet jobs and their few, but stupid utterances. What is obvious is that Johnson’s propaganda machine is spending the vast sums he’s promised to rubbish every opinion other than there own.  Where will be go next?

P1000555

This week we had one of those unfortunately fairly regular family events – the funeral of an elderly aunt, the last of that generation of close relatives on my father’s and my mother’s side. They are always occasions to reconnect with cousins seen infrequently over the years and to look at old photos when everyone, except perhaps members of the previous generation, look young and active. On the other hand, we also had a merry and well-attended gathering of new friends at our new home, which showed how well we have settled in.

For both events I had to choose the identity I wanted to present to people. I was more open (but not much) with the new acquaintances because after all, they see me more often now. Family is always more difficult because so much of our relationship is made up of memories going back up to  sixty years. Perhaps that’s why it is often more difficult to get family to understand the real you.

…………………………..

Well, I’ve been writing quite a lot this week – the novel that is – but because I missed writing club I haven’t got a brand new piece to reveal to the world (well, the small band of dedicated readers that you are), so here’s an old piece to entertain you until normal service is resumed. I don’t think I’ve published it here before.

Garden Party

“Canapè, sir?”
“What? Is it going to rain?”  Billy looked up at the clear blue sky mystified.
There was a drawn out sigh, “I said, canapé, sir.”
Billy noticed the bow-tie wearing waiter was holding a tray of doll’s house sized burgers in buns.
“Oh, you mean, these. I thought you meant….”  Billy nodded towards the marquee occupying the centre of the immaculately trimmed lawn.
“Yes, sir, I know sir.  I was referring to these bite sized organic rare steaks of Aberdeen Angus beef in an organic whole-meal sesame seed bun.”
“Sounds more than they look,” Billy said reaching for a handful.
“One normally eats one at a time, sir.” Billy released the three that were in his left hand but retained the two he was raising to his mouth with his right.
“Oh, of course, got to make them go round, I see.”
The waiter sighed again and slid off to a quartet of which the two middle-aged men looked as though they were dressed for a day’s sailing and the two mature women wore brightly coloured cocktail dresses.
Billy looked around.  Across the lawn between the marquee, swimming pool and the large ivy-clad house were clusters of people similarly dressed.  Billy didn’t notice them, his eyes had located the waitress emerging from the very large tent carrying a tray of tall glasses.  Billy hurried to intercept her.
He skidded to a halt, causing the glasses to rattle as she also stopped suddenly in order to prevent a collision.
“That’s lucky,” Billy said.
“What’s that, sir?” the girl said staring at him.
“I can help you with that heavy tray.”
“It’s alright sir, I was taking it around the guests.”
“Oh, in that case, I’ll just take a couple.”  Billy lifted two glasses of the pale bubbly liquid from the tray.  The girl wrinkled her nose and looked sideways at him then marched off to a group of twenty-somethings in chinos and striped shirts or frilly mini-dresses depending on their apparent gender.
Billy took a sip of the drink.  Champagne?  It could have been Babycham for all he knew, but it tasted as though it had alcohol in it so he was happy.  He was about to go in search of more of the mini-foods when a voice in his left ear assaulted him.
“Who are you then?”
Billy turned to see a large, moustache wielding, ancient in a school tie and striped blazer leaning on a shooting stick.
“Oh, hi, uh, I’m with, um,” Billy searched for a name, “Fiona.”
“Fiona? Fiona?” the florid face looked blank, “Oh, Algernon’s lass.  There she is now.” He raised the stick and pointed it to a pair of young women not ten metres away.
“That’s right, I’d better get this drink to her.”
“But she’s already got one,”
“Oh, that’ll soon be gone.  You know Fiona.”
“What, oh, yes.  Got to keep the filly lubricated, what.”  The old duffer chortled and Billy made his escape, straight towards the pair of girls.
“Hi, Fiona,” Billy said over the girl’s shoulder.  The girl turned to face him.  He fell in love.  Her round pale face, large blue eyes, and shiny black hair tied in a pig tail, enraptured him.
“Who are you?”
“I brought you a drink.”
“I’ve got one.”
“I thought you might like another.”
Fiona looked at the dregs in her glass, and smiled.  To Billy it was as if the day had been dull and the Sun had just come out.
“Well thank you.  Who did you say you were?”
“Billy.”
“Billy?  I don’t think I know a Billy.  Do you, Hettie?”  She turned to her companion, a tall blonde with a wide face.
“No.  There aren’t any cousins called Billy, are there?”
“No, you must be a friend of the family.”  The girls nodded, convinced they had solved the mystery.
“Yeh, that’s right.” Billy agreed.  Fiona took the glass from his left hand and sipped the champagne.  She examined him closely.
“Oh, I do like your jeans and T-shirt.  Those rips are so in, aren’t they and those streaks of colour.  Well, they look almost as if you really had been painting the house.”  They giggled at the joke.
“Everyone else looks so boring,” Fiona continued, “look at them all.”
“Your uncle and aunt’s invitation did say it was a Garden Party,” Hettie sniffed and smoothed the pleats in her crimson silk dress.
“Well, I think it’s great that someone has decided to be different and rebel a little.”  Fiona grasped Billy’s arm, “Why haven’t I met you before since you’re a friend of the family?”
“Oh, I’ve been, um, away for a while.”
“Gap?”
“Yeh, there was a bit in between…”
“I’m going to South America on mine.  Hettie’s coming too.”  Hettie nodded.
“Let’s go and find some more finger-food,” Fiona went on.
After a shot glass of gaspacho, a minute triangle of bread with a spot of patè de frois gras, and a biscuit with a single prawn, Billy was feeling in need of something more substantial.
“When will they serve the real food?” he asked.
“Real food?” Fiona giggled
“Yeh, proper sized portions.”
“Oh, you won’t get any of that this afternoon.  As Hettie said; it’s a garden party.”
“Really, I think I need something more.  It takes more energy chasing around trying to catch the waiters than you get from these mini-bites.”
“Oh, you are funny.  Look there’s Aunt Deborah.  I’m sure she’d like to say hello.”
A horsy woman in a tweed skirt was striding across the lawn from the house.
“No, she looks busy,” Billy tried to tug Fiona in a direction perpendicular to Aunt Deborah’s determinedly straight path.
“She’s coming straight towards us.  Hello Aunt Deborah,”
“What’s he doing here?”  Aunt Deborah pointed a finger at Billy.
“That’s Billy, a friend of the family,” Fiona said innocently.
“Friend of the family, my foot,“ Aunt Deborah roared, “He’s painting the downstairs loo, Christmas hyacinth blue.  I’m not paying you to drink my champagne, Shoo.”

………………………………..

 

 

Jasmine wants to escape

I really do wish I could shut my eyes and my ears and close down my brain to all the politics happening. Or I would like to escape the news and just get on with life and ignore the horrible things. But I can’t and I want to scream and shout and throw things; this week has been so dreadful (I mean that literally). It was always going to be difficult with Piccaninny Johnson elected as the new Tory leader and hence able to grab the PMship. What happened next was of course always going to happen – he gave out all the cabinet jobs to his sycophantic acolytes. So we have a cabinet bursting with right wing bigots many of whom have been sacked from previous jobs or have displayed utter stupidity.  Plus there are those who have dumped whatever shred of morals and ideals they once had in order to keep a job, any job. Letterbox Johnson wants us to be optimistic and cheer every nonsensical bit of waffle that emerges from his mouth.  How long before the thought police are checking up on how “energised” we are?

Once upon a time I respected authority – teachers, doctors, vicars, even lawyers, and PMs and ministers. I don’t think it is simply a matter of age but now I can find no respect for anyone in government, or in Her Majesty’s official opposition i.e. the Labour Party, and I despise anyone who expresses support for said governing bunch of loons. However I cannot consider them a joke, it is far too serious for that. A crisis is approaching. I can’t say exactly what form it will take – always expect the unexpected. For the last three years we have been in a sort of limbo, still in the EU with all its advantages but losing jobs, prestige and money (the costs of Brexit “planning”, fall in the £, etc.) while May floundered around with her withdrawal agreement. Nothing has really happened yet. Bumboy Johnson will no doubt flounder more but his actions are not tempered by any compassion or sense of responsibility and none of his advisers(?!) will attempt to haul him back from whichever cliff he wants to leap off. He optimistically expects to fly, but he’s no angel.

So I shudder, and watch the news through my fingers hoping against hope that the coming disaster is not too damaging, for me and my family and friends at least (it is difficult to be anything but selfish in this climate).

P1000568 (2)

The task the writing club set itself this week was to write a synopsis of anything we have written or are writing, or of something one has read. This was different to our usual piece of imaginative writing but as many of us have pieces of extended writing (novels mainly) in preparation it was thought to be a good exercise. There were some good ones.  Mine was of the novel I am currently writing, provisionally called The Pendant and the Globe – a fantasy. I am not going to publish it here for a number of reasons.  Firstly, a synopsis is not intended as a good read. It is a summary/outline of the novel covering all the main plot points and characters. It is a tool for agents and publishers to see if the author has a complete and coherent plot or story to tell.  Secondly, a synopsis gives away the crucial elements of the story so I wouldn’t want anyone to see it before reading my novel. Thirdly, my novel is unfinished and in its first draft so the current synopsis is really no more than a provisional outline. Finally I wasn’t particularly happy with my synopsis. It was too long (most publishers ask for no more than one page or 500 words) and wasn’t organised enough.

So there, no story this week, perhaps next time. . .

…………………………

Jasmine on the Moon

Today, 20th July, is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the Moon. It is being celebrated widely with numerous TV programmes, films, and newspaper and magazine articles. The moonlandings were undoubtedly some of the outstanding events of human history but I wonder how important they are to our present situation. For me the space race was a defining part of my teenage years.  In 1969 I had just completed my O levels.  Why I did not stay up to see the moonwalk live, I don’t know; probably my upbringing, as my parents wouldn’t have disturbed their sleep routine.  But I watched as much of the BBC coverage as I could, read articles in the Daily Telegraph (my father’s paper) and in Science in Action ( a short-lived magazine aimed at high school science students). I wanted to study science and was a SF fan during the Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein era (I still am but the authors change). The previous year I had been bowled over by Kubrick’s 2001 and I had followed the space race avidly since Gagarin’s first flight in 1961.

This anniversary therefore means quite a lot to me, but I am interested in comparisons between then and now. It seems that the end of the 60s was a time of optimism, but I wonder if that was just for me and my fellow youngsters. The Apollo programme seemed to be just a step in the “conquest of space”, the inevitable expansion of humanity into the solar system and beyond, of technological innovation and rising standards of living. The truth was quite different. There was, of course, the fear of nuclear was. Tension was a little lower than during the 1963 Cuban missile crisis, but the US and USSR were competing to build up their stocks of nuclear armed missiles. The US was also deep into the Vietnam War; tensions in the Middle East were still high after the 1967 war. Environmental issues were becoming news following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring though with oil cheap and plentiful and coal still popular there were no worries about global warming. The President was a liar and a crook who resigned to avoid being impeached five years later, but made a lot of his meeting with Chairman Mao in isolated communist China. At home, the UK struggled on alone, not yet allowed to join the six member European Common Market. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was into its fifth year but lost the general election the following year it expected to win. Unemployment was low and immigrants were still welcome despite Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and a growing number of racist attacks. There was a lot of public money going into infrastructure projects, especially roads (the M4, M5, M6 etc.), but the country’s finances were poor with the balance of payments and trade negative (the pound was devalued a few years earlier).  So perhaps not such an optimistic time.

Many people saw the moonlandings as a diversion from all the problems in the world and criticised the huge expenditure. Perhaps it could have spent on humanitarian issues, but so could the even bigger sums spent on H-bombs and missiles and the Vietnam war. I believe that exploration is an essential part of being human. Maybe it comes from our nomadic prehistory. Then, people moved to new areas to find food, avoid predators, escape drought, flood or encroaching ice. Those that survived were those that found solutions to problems. There are plenty of problems to solve here at home but I think that we must continue to look outward and beyond. Science can provide the answer to our present catalogue of impending disasters (I’m not sure whether it can solve Brexit though) not reverting to a stone age existence. Going into space is part of that spirit of discovery.

In 1969 we thought that manned (i.e. men and women) space flight would take us to the planets by now (as foretold in 2001). We haven’t and in fact robot space probes have given us information and wonderful views of all the planets (and comets and asteroids). Some people think that robots can do everything but I think it is important that we send people out, to the Moon, Mars and beyond; that we learn to live in space. That is not as an insurance against the end of human life on Earth, as some people have said, but that we need that expansion and I have no doubt that resources from outer space and new ideas can support our home world. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of optimism that we have time or the determination to see that happen.

P1000572

This week’s writing club theme was in fact “Lunar”. I had all sorts of ideas for stories about the Moon, but given the anniversary decided on something relating to Apollo 11. Here is Homecoming followed by a few comments.

Homecoming

They say that three million people turned out for the New York procession. No ticker tape of course, or bands; just the crowd pressed together, standing silently as we passed. I was in the open top Cadillac following the President’s limousine, the seats beside me empty where Armstrong and Aldrin should have been. I raised my hand, not to wave but to acknowledge the people’s witness of the sombre occasion. Instead of the celebration we had hoped for, it was a commemoration and I found myself at the core of it. After all, we had completed the first half of JFK’s promise; men had stepped onto the lunar surface. It was the other thing that hadn’t worked out so well.
Armstrong had already dealt with one crisis when, using up the last drips of fuel, he steered the LEM to a safe landing. He stepped onto the Moon and pronounced those words about it being a small step for a man. Actually, it was quite a large step backwards off the ladder. Aldrin had joined him and they had spent some hours, setting up instruments, collecting samples of moonrock and cavorting around. The time came to launch the ascent module and that was when they discovered they couldn’t. The reason was simple enough. The switch to operate the rocket ignition system had broken off. Probably, one of them knocked it when manoeuvring in the module. It’s pretty cramped in there when you have two men in lunar excursion suits with their bulky backpacks. The knob is probably in the dust around the lander. The problem was that on the airless and frigid Moon it was impossible to unscrew the panel, delve into the circuitry and join the wires together. Oh, Armstrong examined the situation with his cool, engineering brain but could find no solution. Aldrin had a few ingenious ideas, most involving sacrificing himself in order to launch Armstrong into orbit, but none of them proved viable. So it was that Neil made the announcement to the world that he and Buzz weren’t going anywhere.
They decided to have an extra, unscheduled, jaunt on the surface. It would use up their air faster, but hey, what was the point of drawing it out for longer. So, they bounced around, playing catch with lumps of rock, taking shots of each other and the Earth hanging in the sky with the TV camera, then they left it switched on facing the LEM. Buzz suggested that they should reach their end sitting in the dust at the base of the landing module, looking at the view. Neil overruled that idea thinking that two bodies sprawled beside the craft would not be a welcoming sight for future visitors. They climbed back on board and shut the hatch.
Neil decided that he didn’t want family at home or the people of the Earth hearing him and Buzz become delirious or panicky or drowsy, so he made one last broadcast before shutting down the radio. His final words will I am sure go into the history books.
“We were the first representatives of the human race to walk on the surface of the Moon. We won’t be the last. Others will come and return home. This is farewell from Tranquillity Base. Out.”
I had a couple more orbits to make before the main engine fired to take me back to Earth. They were probably dead before I left. Maybe.
People have asked if I was lonely for the three days it took to get home. There was too much to do to get lonely. I had to modify the mission profile to allow for being two crewmen light and not having all the moonrock that we’d intended bringing back and do all the jobs that Neil and Buzz would have done. Neither was it quiet on my own. Spacecraft are never quiet. There’s always the whine and whir of pumps and the bleep and ticks of instruments. Then there was Mission Control with their incessant chatter trying to keep my spirits up. I told them to button it more than once.
The return was uneventful and the splash-landing spot on. NASA decided that I didn’t need to go into the isolation cabin. That was a relief, after all, I hadn’t been in contact with any lunar dust. Then it was back home, off to Washington and that procession in New York.
I’ve ignored all the talk about going back. Of course we’re going back. The Apollo 12 team are raring to go. The mission is on hold at the moment while NASA checks those pesky switches, but they’ll soon be up there and coming back. Then there will be others. There may be more deaths, space travel is dangerous, but I get the concern about what to do for Neil and Buzz. The government has declared Tranquillity Base a national monument and the Eagle is a mausoleum, but people don’t want them left there for eternity. The Russians have offered to bring the bodies home but the chances of them getting their moon-shot up and running is just about zilch. I know that NASA has plans though. One of the Apollo missions, 18 or 19 perhaps, is being redirected and will land a few klicks from Tranquillity Base. They’ll be carrying one of the lunar-rovers being taken on the later LEMs. It’s being modified to carry the two bodies. The first space hearse. I’m going to get on that mission. I’ve got to. I’m not going to be remembered as Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew. The one who came back; alone.

………………………

There were of course a million things that could have gone wrong with Apollo 11 that might have killed the astronauts instantly or left them stranded in space or on the Moon. The broken switch (a circuit breaker) actually happened but I only learned of it during the present celebrations. Mission Control spent a few hours trying to find a solution until Aldrin jammed a pen in the slot and operated it. Was that luck? Homecoming postulates what might have happened if their luck had failed and there wasn’t a simple but ingenious solution. Also, there were protocols for what would be done and said if one or more of the astronauts died on the mission. I don’t know what they were. I hope Homecoming catches the mood; despite setbacks the programme would continue. Amazingly, none of the Apollo astronauts died in space (3 did of course die on Apollo 1 before lift-off). Finally, Collins sometimes gets forgotten as he didn’t walk on the Moon. He shouldn’t be.

…………………………………….

Jasmine ponders

P1000555The news of the last couple of weeks has highlighted the nonsense of a small country like the UK supposedly acting has an independent force in the world. We have the situation in the Persian Gulf with the British Navy, well a frigate, confronting the Iranian navy (speedboats with guns). It’s serious. Why? Because the USA pulled out of an international agreement, increasing the tension; the UK follows instructions and stops an Iranian tanker claiming its breaking EU sanctions. Who’s independent?

Then there’s the situation in Hong Kong, and the UK upsetting the Chinese who are tearing up the 1997 handover agreement. That’s the Chinese who we want to do a trade deal with after Brexit. Jaguar Land Rover have already seen a collapse in sales in China. With Brexit making European sales more difficult, probably, how much more bad news can Tata (Indian company that own JLR, the last remaining steel making plant in the UK, and numerous chemical companies) take?

Then there is the scandal of the ambassador and the PM-in-waiting who refused to support a civil servant doing his job. He gave an accurate assessment of the USA government, which was proved by Trump’s response. So now we have our supposed ally and trading partner dictating who and who not should represent the UK’s interests. Sovereignty? What’s that? And why was the ambassador’s email leaked? Who gained? Murky goings on ain’t they.

Finally, there’s our minister of trade, one Liam Fox, in discussions with the daughter of the President. She is unelected and unqualified by training or experience for a government post. So why?

Meanwhile, two buffoons try to convince the bonkers people who actually pay to be members of the Tory party that they can run the UK government. They haven’t got a clue. But perhaps those running them have. Johnson networks with those who advise Trump and has done as he’s told by only speaking when he must, and has even tidied up his appearance.

What does the future hold?

………………………….

WP_20190708_15_56_07_Pro (2)A lovely day out in Cardiff this week.  Saw this in the Pierhead building.  If only all places open to the public were as enlightened.

……………………..

This week’s theme for the writing club was “Lost”. I thought about lost in space, lost minds, lost and found, and various other things but finally ended up with a little anecdote. It is actually true; just slightly embellished.

Lost

“Are we lost?” Lou said as I drove us onto another roundabout. The windscreen wipers cleared the screen of the rain falling from the dark cloud overhead.
“No, not lost,” I replied. “We know where we are; we just don’t know how to get to where we’re going.” My tone was a little exasperated. Well, more than a little.  “Which exit do we take?”
“Um, I don’t know.”
We commenced a second circuit of the roundabout.
We had arrived at the new town from an unfamiliar direction. We were travelling to my brother’s relatively new home in the village Pattingham but I had not approached it from this side before. I pride myself on having a pretty good sense of direction but some places, this town in particular, disorient me. Perhaps it is the succession of roundabouts and dual carriageways and ring road passing through newly built up areas that all look alike. There are no landmarks to focus on. Or perhaps the town is built on a magnetic anomaly that disrupts the extra sense that some of us fancy we have.  Anyway, I had now lost all perception of where our destination lay in respect to our current position.
We had a map. It was open on Lou’s lap, but none of the names or road numbers on the signposts seemed to match with places on the route we had planned.
“Don’t you have any idea which way we should go,” I cried as we began a third lap. At least the rain had stopped and sunshine reflected off the damp roads.
“Oh, just follow the rainbow.”
My gaze rose from the surface of the road. There on the left, there was indeed a bold, bright rainbow. I took the exit closest to where the bow was hanging in the sky. It seemed as good and likely as any other. We set off into the country, with me muttering about poor signage and how daft it was to rely on the appearance of a rainbow.  Minutes passed and the illuminated arc remained there, bright in the sky; the multitude of colours, not just seven as I take every opportunity to remind anyone listening, in contrast to the grey cloud.  One end of the bow dipped to the ground over the spire of a church. The road turned to the left and the right but the church remained in view, growing as we approached it.
At last, the rainbow faded and disappeared, but the church spire was still dead ahead. Soon we passed the village sign. Pattingham. We had arrived. We drove slowly past the church and turned into the street where my brother lives.
“There,” said Lou, justification clear in her tone of voice, “I told you to follow the rainbow.”

……………………………….

Jasmine returns

Is it any point following the news at the moment? Whatever happens with the Tory vote we are scuppered and I don’t want to hear more of the antics of the Brexiteers in Strasbourg. For once, sport is more exhilarating, especially the tennis.

………………………….

P1000568 (2)They say (who, I don’t know) that you should never go back.  Well, this week we did and perhaps “they” are right. We returned to the Isle of Wight for a few days. We saw a few friends and revisited familiar places – that was nice. We also returned to my former place of work, not just for a look at how it’s changed but to give a couple of talks. They went okay, the kids didn’t riot, but something was missing. Perhaps it was too long a gap – 23 years; maybe I was too caught up in nostalgia; or on the other hand, was I too wrapped up in doing something I had dreamed of. That is revealing my gender-fluid self to a place where I had been a senior, and I think respected, teacher. It wasn’t a disaster but neither was my talk the revelation I hoped for. The response was a bit flat, maybe because I didn’t emphasise my, our, “journey” sufficiently. Anyway, it’s done and we had a lovely few days in the sunshine.

……………………….

A short piece this week.  The theme for the writers’ group was “beginnings”.  I presented my friends with two possible starts for a novel and sought their opinion about which was most enticing.  I got an answer which I am not revealing here.  I also wrote the short piece that follows.  Well wrote is the wrong term; compiled is probably more accurate. How many do you recognise?

Beginnings

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, there was no possibility of taking a walk. The clocks were striking thirteen and the Time Traveller was expounding a recondite matter to us.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice. It is a truth universally acknowledged that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The past is foreign country. If you really want to hear about it the first thing you probably want to know is whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life. All this happened, more or less. It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

…………………………….