Jasmine protests

Do you suffer from eco-anxiety? I’m sure I do to some extent. Apparently, the story appeared in some newspapers that children are being treated for anxiety caused by fears of eco-disasters  e.g. climate change, plastic waste, etc. Some had even been prescribed drugs. An article in New Scientist magazine followed this up noting that children and young people were indeed becoming anxious about the future. This wasn’t, however, an illness but a sensible and proper response to a real danger. Perhaps if a few more people, particularly those in positions where they could something about it, felt the anxiety something might yet get done. Unfortunately the response in some parts of the media was to say “there, there, don’t trouble the children” and accusing message bearers like Greta Thunberg of causing harm.

The aim of Extinction Rebellion is to bring home the seriousness of the position the whole world is in.  The “12 years left” message has been misinterpreted, we will survive longer than that, but that is the amount of time we have left to reverse our plummet into catastrophic warming and its accompanying severe weather, food shortages, extinctions etc. Putting out the message softly has failed to get governments to act.  On the contrary, increasing numbers of populist leaders are deniers who are acting against the policies that are needed.  So, it is understandable that the eco-protests have to get bigger, longer, more-dramatic in order to make their point. Unfortunately that opens the door to people who either misguidedly think that violent disruption is a way forward and those who want to discredit the eco-movement. I can only assume that it was the latter that had two activists on the roof of a tube train causing disruption of commuter transport. The fact that they were attacked by angry commuters was probably what some sectors of the media wanted to see – the public turning against the eco-protesters.  Disrupting public transport is a foot-in-mouth action.

The organisation of Extinction Rebellion is famously obscure but thy have to tread a narrow path between getting the message out and losing public support. If the protests seem to cause more discomfort than is promised for the future, then the message will be forgotten and the activists become the enemy.  The problems facing the world are far too important to let that happen, but that is just what the Trumps, Johnsons, Bolsonaros and others in power want. It is enough to make me very anxious indeed

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This week’s theme for the writing group was “Tower”. That conjured up several images from super-skyscrapers to medieval fortresses. One that popped into my mind was the simple and popular game which is described in my short piece below. I hope that I have taken a slightly less obvious tack with it.

Fall of the Tower

She leaned forward in the high-backed chair. Like a hawk seeking its prey, her rheumy eyes focussed on the tower. Her thin arm stretched forward and a crooked finger extended to caress the surfaces of the edifice. By some mysterious means she made a decision and a horny fingernail tapped one of the blocks. It moved a millimetre. Tap, tap, the block edged out of position. The structure wobbled and she paused then resumed, tap, tap, tap.  At last, she reached with bent finger and arthritic thumb to slide the block from its slot.  She raised it and ever so steadily, calmly and precisely rested it on the top of the tower. With a sigh she relaxed back in the chair and surveying her handiwork a smile spread across her creased and wrinkled face.
“It’s my turn now, Mum,” Emma said. She reached across the table to the tower. Her cuff caught on a corner; a block shifted. The tower toppled and blocks scattered. Mum cackled with glee.
Joy, the carer, looking on, commented, “Well, that’s the end of that game. You win, Shirley.”  She placed a cup and saucer in front of the old woman. “Here, you are. Have a nice cup of tea.”
Shirley’s gaze was elsewhere; her eyes dull; her mouth open; jaw slack; a raised hand shaking from side to side.
Emma stacked the blocks. “When she played with us as kids it was always this game. I don’t know what she saw in it, but she never lost. She was always able to find that one block that could be slid out if you were really careful. I don’t understand how she can still do it. Look at her now. She’s not there.”
Joy shrugged, “It’s often the earliest memories and oldest skills that remain when everything else has gone. It’s not usually playing Jenga, mind, but in your Mum’s case it’s what she’s holding on to.”
The column of wooden blocks was rebuilt. Emma leaned down to her mother and said loudly.
“Do want another game, Mum?”
Shirley’s eyes sparkled and her finger moved straight as an arrow towards the tower.

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Jasmine flustered

It’s been one of those weeks when there have been things to do and people to see.  While things have been done and people seen I feel that I haven’t done all that I wanted to do – especially finish the novel. . .

I’m not going to comment on the news, depressing though it is. It’s not that I don’t think my opinion is unimportant it’s more that I have no solutions. I can’t see how we’re going to get out of the Brexit mess since any sensible solution requires people to be sensible, honest and prepared to change their minds and none of that seems likely. The madness of Trump only gets worse – will anyone ever trust the USA again? Meanwhile climate change continues, protesters protest and get denigrated, while those in authority do nothing, or sometimes the opposite of what is required. I am currently reading the Hugo award winner, Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal which includes a speeded up climate emergency caused by a meteorite. Despite the desperate situation, Kowal, shows people still reacting in a short term, “I’m alright Jack (now)”, manner.

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Another view of me at Narberth Book Fair

One thing  that did get me hot under the colour was a report of people protesting about new guidelines for schools dealing with trans kids. The guidelines suggest that the children be integrated i.e. not forced to use separate loos, changing rooms, etc. The protesters go on about the right of the majority to not feel uncomfortable or threatened by the presence of the trans-children. It struck me that if the references to trans in the protesters’ piece was replaced by  “gay” or “autistic” or “people of colour”,  (feeling uncomfortable about all those is not unknown), then the transphobia becomes obvious. How to get through to these people that one or two trans kids in a school are not a threat? They will be nervous, self-conscious, afraid of being singled out, aware that they are different, and most definitely, not out to abuse other children.

I had two writers’ group meetings this week. I wrote a story for the first but it is quite long. Also I was fairly proud of it and may use it elsewhere; I may even enter a competition!  The topic for my weekly group was “Moral Judgement”. Now there was a daunting title. I had an idea based on an article in New Scientist about the evolutionary origin of moral behaviour e.g. caring for other people not obviously necessary for survival of the species. But I did not have time to write it, yet.  Instead I was writing an article on the 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry which was announced on Wednesday. This year it was a highly relevant piece of research that was rewarded – the development of lithium-ion batteries. The problem is determining the three people most responsible for the breakthrough and delivery of the batteries for commercial use. I think the Nobel committee have made a good choice and you can read my article on the HarperCollins Freedomtoteach blogspot here.  How much does your life depend on lithium-ion batteries?

In lieu of a new story here’s something I wrote earlier, actually so long ago I can’t remember when. It is a somewhat exaggerated version of a repeated childhood experience, perhaps one that we all have.

Watching

It was warm snuggled under the bedclothes but Michael shivered and hugged his threadbare teddy.  Something had disturbed him and now he was wide awake.  He kept his eyes shut tight, pulled the sheets and blankets over his head and curled up as small as he could in the large bed.  He lay still and listened.
Were those footsteps?  He held his breath and waited for the sounds again.  A click and scrubbing against the carpet, a pause then the same small noise again.  It was footsteps, but not Mummy’s or Daddy’s familiar tread.  The steps were beside his bed.  He wanted to call out but his throat froze and no words would come.  He squeezed teddy to his chest and very, very slowly tugged at the sheets.  The edge reached the tip of his ear, a bit further and now the fleecy cotton was on his cheek.  If he opened his eyes he’d be able to see the edge of the bed. Would someone be standing there?
He peered through the narrow gap between half-shut eyelids.  It was dark but there was just enough light to see – nothing.  The door to his bedroom was closed and there was no-one between his bed and the wall.  Carefully Michael rolled on to his back holding teddy firmly.  At the bottom of his bed the wardrobe loomed wide and tall and black as black could be.  It grew larger as he stared at it and he looked into an endless tunnel.  It was a great dark mouth which was swallowing him up. He trembled and shook his head but still no sound could find its way through his lips pressed firmly together.  His eyes were trapped by the enveloping darkness.  He was about to fall.
He turned his head away.  Now he was facing the other side of his room.  In the darkness he could just see the solid dark cone of the lamp on his bedside table and the wall beyond it, the patterns of the wallpaper indistinct.  To the left was the outline of the chair beneath the window.  His eyes followed the vertical parallel lines of the chair back up to the window sill, hidden behind the folds of curtains.  Woven from thick fibres the unlined cloth allowed moonlight to enter the room in myriads of dim sparkles with the window frame forming a dark cross.  To the right of the central spar there was a silhouette.  Michael strained his eyes to make out the shape not wanting to be sure but yes, there were two legs, a body, and a head.  Someone was standing on the window ledge.
Michael stared, his heart thumping rapidly in his chest, the blood roaring in his ears.  How did they get up to his window?  What would they do now?  He waited for the crash of disintegrating glass; the curtains to billow out as the body came falling through the window to land on him, the breath and the life to be crushed out of him.  Still no scream would come.
He watched and waited.  The shape made no movement.
He watched and waited.

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Jasmine satisfied

Last weekend’s Narberth Book Fair was very satisfying. I sold more books in the twelve hours that the fair was open than in all the other bookfairs I have attended put together. There was a great buzz to the place over the two days, mainly because people were passing through having been or on their way to the Food Fair happening close by. The success was down to the organisers, Judith and Thorne, who had put in a tremendous effort, organising, setting up and promoting the fair and the authors. It was disappointing to hear that they are retiring now. I can understand their wishes and want to thank them for everything they have done. However, it is such a successful event, providing a shopwindow for dozens of authors, that it would be a shame to lose it. Are there Pembrokeshire writers willing to take it on? I’m a bit far away but willing to help in anyway I can.

I attended a workshop at the fair on getting into publishing. It included what to do when one is published i.e. the joys of marketing. It was repeated that social media is important: blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. The speaker also said to avoid politics. Whoops! For the last few years I have been adding my comments on the political situation to discussion and thoughts on my writing, here and elsewhere. Have I driven away hordes of potential buyers? I have no way of knowing but I doubt it. I think we gravitate to the authors who match our world view. However, I may be wrong on that score. Growing up I read and enjoyed lots of Robert Heinlein SF novels. It was only later that I discovered that he is considered to be a right winger. I can’t say I noticed it in the novels at the time, although they did include worlds flavoured by americanisms

Your opinions are one aspect of your writing “voice”. This week’s writing club exercise was to write a piece in a different voice to usual. Good writers can do it. Iain (M) Banks wrote literary novels with a variety of voices or styles, while his SF novels had a different “feel” to them. I think my Jasmine Frame stories have a somewhat different flavour to my fantasy tales, but I’m not sure. Anyway, although I couldn’t get to this week’s meeting, I wrote a short piece, not much more than an opening actually, featuring another of my occasonal characters DCI Art Payne. I tried to make it grittier with shorter sentences but I am not sure I succeeded. Read it and decide; is it a recogniseable P R Ellis bit of writing or not.

High Water Mark

DCI Art Payne peered through the swishing wipers. Of course it was raining. Did it ever stop? The rusting hulks of the Thames Barrage loomed through the mist a mile upstream. The body was at the high water mark amongst the flotsam deposited like a baby’s toys thrown out of the pram. He didn’t expect to be called to such a death. Not at this stage anyway. The SOCO unit was busy. That was a start.
A light on the dashboard winked at him. Just 20% of battery left. Enough to get him back to New New Scotland Yard if he shifted his arse from the aging Jag. Art shrugged, tapped the power button and pushed the door open. He pulled the brim of his hat down over his thinning hair and tugged the raincoat tight around him. A trickle of rain still managed to run down his neck. He trudged over the broken and lifted tarmac to where the body lay. The SOCO unit withdrew its sample needle and trundled backwards a metre. It sat like a giant tortoise somewhat disgruntled by the drizzle running off its smooth shell.
“Report,” Art growled.
There was a click in his ear, then silence. Art pushed the earpiece in firmly. The cell network was playing up again. There was a crackle and pop then the monotone voice of the unit.
“National genome check names deceased as Jaden Davis, born Birmingham, twenty nine years of age, registered for residence and work. Cause of death, unclear, possibly drowning or due to blow to back of skull. Time of death, six to eight hours before present.”
Art crouched down over the body. Rainwater dribbled from the brim over the sodden clothes and face of the young man. The beige colour of the skin was evidence for his lack of citizen status. Permitted to live and work only. Another oddity. Why was he investigating the death of a non-citizen?
“Did you find anything on him?” Art asked aloud.
“Shirt, trousers, pants,” the Soco unit replied.
“I can see that,” Art grumbled, “I meant, in the pockets: jewellery, identifying possessions.”
“Identity was determined by genome and confirmed by his Link tattoo.”
Art sighed. It would be quicker to do the search himself, “I know, but did you find any other objects on the body.”
“No.”
Perhaps he’d had nothing when he went into the water. Or he’d been stripped of personal belongings. Footwear could have been lost before or after death. The cause of death was mystifying. Did the victim suffer a fatal blow before or after he inhaled the estuary water. The body must have been washed ashore at the last high tide. That was a couple of hours ago. That meant he entered the water down stream. Surely he wasn’t a leaver. With a work permit he could earn enough to live some sort of life. Perhaps this death was worthy of his time and effort.

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Jasmine for sale

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Not Narberth but an earlier book fair, elsewhere

Today I am at Narberth Book Fair. Here I am sitting or standing beside my table offering my wares to anyone interested – at some excellent prices.  Here’s hoping!

Last week I said I would offer my three e-book shorts on Kindle for free. Trained By Murder will indeed be free on Saturday and Sunday.  Unfortunately the vagaries of Amazon’s administration mean that I may not be able to get the promotion for Murder In Doubt and Discovering Jasmine organised in time, in which case they will be available free for Monday and Tuesday. My apologies.

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No I’m not going to say anything about Parliament and Brexit, etc. . .

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This week, after a couple of months of eager anticipation I got to see the new Brad Pitt starring film, Ad Astra, on the big screen. It was a complete load of codswallop and a serious waste of money. I am coming to the conclusion that the writers and the director hate SF. Surely they couldn’t have put more people off serious, hard SF, drama if they’d tried so they must be deliberately trying to prevent the filming of future serious, hard SF dramas.

There is so much at fault in the film it is difficult to know where to start. The fundamental plot is unscientific hokum and rather gets lost along the way anyway. The setting is confused – the space technology does not look much more advanced than what SpaceX and NASA are planning and building at the moment, but there are multiple quite large colonies on the Moon and Mars, which are apparently at war with each other. Nevertheless, the US Tycho Base is still a disneyfied tourist destination for thousands.  The plot interludes, the pirates on the Moon and the baboons (sorry if these are spoilers), serve no purpose other than to show Pitt’s character as being a super-human astronaut, and are, in the context of the technology shown, impossible. Tommy Lee Jones’ character took 13 years (?) to get to Neptune, Pitt takes 70 days in a craft re-purposed from a Moon-Mars shuttle. Really! It is all just far too silly, unbelievable, humourless and actually pretty boring. I can’t believe that Mark Kermode, the Observer movie reviewer, actually thought it was pretty good. It has been mentioned in the same sentence as 2001, but it doesn’t even deserve to be crushed under 2001′s feet.

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This week’s writing theme was “scar”. There were a variety of responses – fiction (erotic?, historical, contemporary), memoir, essay, all excellent of course.  I attempted to base mine on the lesser-used definition of the word, i.e. a sheer cliff, usually of exposed, hard limestone, seen most often in the UK in the Peak District and North York Moors. I’m not sure whether geologists call it a scar, but Carreg Cennen castle in West Wales sits on such a crag. The much fought over castle is the inspiration for the story.

The Scar

“I must tell you about the Scar,” Grandfather said to me. It was the time for stories, usually recounted over and over as we sat around the dying embers of the fire in the longhouse. I was feeling sleepy after feasting on mutton and Grandfather’s soft, slow voice was just what I needed to send me to my slumbers.
“How you took a sword thrust to your side in the battle? Yes, Grandfather we’ve heard that one and the miracle of how you survived.”
The old man shook his head. “No, not my scar. That came later as we fought for the Castle. I must tell you of the Scar.”
“What do you mean? What is the Scar?”
“A cliff of sheer, white limestone, on which the castle stands.”
“So?”
“They thought it was unassailable.”
“Who did?”
“The Lord, of course, and our commanders.”
I was mystified. The tales of the battle for the castle, the ruins of which we had occupied for longer than my lifetime, had been told many times.
“I know the story Grandfather.  You found the secret passageway inside the cliff and an advance party surprised the defenders from inside the castle.”
“That’s the tale that has been told,” Grandfather said, “But now, before I die, I must tell the truth.”
“Why has that account been repeated endlessly if it wasn’t true?” I asked.
“Because it demoralised our enemies.” There was satisfaction in grandfather’s voice. “It suggested that they had been betrayed by some of their number. It meant they stopped trusting each other and gave us an advantage.”
I thought I understood. “So, you’re saying that didn’t happen.”
Grandfather shook his head. “We didn’t find the cave until after we’d captured the castle. There was no betrayal.”
“So how did you capture the Castle?”
Grandfather chuckled. “We climbed the Scar.”
“The cliff that was unclimbable? How could you climb it if no-one else could?”
“My homeland has many such. I spent my youth learning how to climb the bare rock.” He drew breath and went on. “It was a dark, moonless night when we set out, just me and two others, carrying ropes. We had examined the Scar for days, planning our route. We climbed by feel, gripping the bare rock in our fingers and toes. We toiled up the cliff throughout the night and many times we nearly fell.  By dawn we had almost reached the top but there we rested beneath an overhang. If the defenders looked out from the battlements, they could not see us, just our army camped beside the river. We stayed hidden all day. When darkness came again, we clambered up, secured the ropes and flung the ends down below. Our fellows swiftly and silently climbed while me and my two fellows tackled the castle itself.”
I was amazed, “You climbed the wall?”
“They had become careless thinking that the Scar alone protected them. The wall was rough and pitted. Weeds grew out of it. It was an easier task to climb than the Scar itself.”
“What happened when you reached the top?”
“There were no defenders keeping a lookout. We lowered more ropes and in moments we had a small force inside the castle. The surprise was perfect.  We caught them off guard. Of course, some had their weapons to hand and fought valiantly.”
“That was when you were injured?”
He placed a hand on his side and winced with the memory. “After succeeding in the climb, it was annoying to sustain an injury in the fight that followed. But I lived, and now you know the true tale of the Scar.”

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Jasmine goes to Narberth

logoThis time next week I will be at the Narberth Book Fair. Narberth is a delightful small town in Pembrokeshire and has a fantastic Food Fair happening  at the same time. Everything you could possibly want to know about the Bookfair is here.

I’ve “done” a number of bookfairs but this one looks hopeful. The team lead by Judith Barrow has done a brilliant job of organising and publicising it and the authors taking part. With the food fair happening at the same time there should be plenty of people in town over the weekend and the venue allows people to drop in off the street.  Other events I have been to have been up flights of stairs or hidden in hotel conference rooms with no contact with the outside world.

Anyone attending the Bookfair can take advantage of my “special offers”:

A FREE copy of Painted Ladies with one of the three other Jasmine Frame novels.    Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder and Molly’s Boudoir will be on sale at £8.  A bumper pack of all 4 novels (a box-set without a box) will be just £22.

Also for £8 will be my stand-alone  September Weekes YA fantasy, Cold Fire.  The trilogy, Evil Above the Stars will be £20 complete.

I can’t do better than that!

For those of you who can’t get to Narberth, I will make the same offer with the added sum of just £3 for postage and packing, whatever the quantity of books ordered.

For the duration of the Bookfair, my three Jasmine Frame short e-books will be free i.e. Discovering Jasmine, Murder in Doubt and Trained By Murder, yes, all three, FREE on Kindle!

Send your orders to paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com  I will reply with the invoice stating how to pay. Don’t forget to give the address you want the books delivered to.

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I am not making a comment on the political situation at the moment because, at the time of writing, the Supreme Court have not given their judgement on the suspension of parliament. Mind you I have lots of thoughts on the matter. . .

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awards presentations at the NAWGFest 2019 Gala DinnerThis week was the start of our second year of Welsh lessons. They say learning a language helps the brain. I hope so as mine was quite sore after three hours of struggling to recall vocabulary and past tense conjugations. We seem to be a cheerful bunch so I am sure we will help each other. I am wondering if I will ever have that facility of being able to think in more than one language. It has always seemed an alien concept to me although some have expressed the same doubts about understanding maths or chemistry. I’d just like to be able to chat without struggling for words, and I do want to support the language and culture of my homeland which is now, after 47 years away, my home.

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This week’s theme for writing club was “Fall”. That of course has multiple meanings and drew a wide variety of responses including description and memoir as well as fiction. I tried to represent the term in two ways in my piece called Freefall. Was it successful?

 

Freefall

“Hey, guy, you’re Santiago Davis!”
SD lifted his heavy head and looked along the bar. The speaker was a Hispano man, mid-fifties, not as fit as he should be with an alcohol flushed face.  Pretty much like him then. Santiago lifted his whisky glass in an ironic salute, hoping he’d go away and groaned when he saw the man approach and climb onto the stool next to him.
“I never imagined I’d meet SD, the Space Diver. I’m you’re main fan.”
“Good for you,” Santiago muttered.
“What it must have felt falling from orbit. . .I can’t imagine it even after watching you hundreds of times. Me? I can’t even look out of a tenth-floor window without feeling queasy.”
SD drained his glass, thumped it down on the bar and nodded to the robo-barkeep.
“Let me buy you a drink,” the man said flicking his hand with the id-tattoo at the robot.
“No, need,” Santiago grunted but picked up the double placed in front of him.
The fan went on, “Fancy stepping out of the space station and just falling to the ground.”
“It wasn’t like that,” SD groaned, “I had a rocket pack to slow me from orbital speed. I ditched it when I was stationary with respect to the ground.” How many times had he explained that.
“What a view you had during your freefall.”
Santiago shook his head. “I hardly saw a thing except for my helmet display. I was the frankfurter in the hot dog; cocooned in silica foam.  Couldn’t see, couldn’t move.”
The man ignored him, “Surfing the thermosphere,”
SD grunted. “That’s what they called it.  I was standing on a plate like Captain America’s shield to stop my feet being burned to a crisp.”
The man was just reciting headlines now. “Over two hundred miles of freefall.”
That’s what it was supposed to be except that the rules guys decided that he wasn’t actually skydiving till after he got rid of the heatshield and the cocoon. By then he was at a lower altitude than Alan Eustace had been when he began his freefall in 2014.
The man seemed to see him as he was for the first time. “What’s up? Why the gloom?  You’re the Space Diver.”
“Was,” SD growled and turned to look at the man with a frown and a look that should have told him to get lost.
“Hey, chill out man. I’m doing the hero-worshipping here. You should, be lapping it up.”
“A hero, eh. To whom? You and a few other Hispano dudes like you.”
The man slid off the stool and stepped back. “What’s got into you?”
“I’ll tell you what’s got into me. I spent my life planning that space dive, every cent I earned and every minute of every day. I went through college, internships and jobs in the space industry until finally I got there. And look what happened. The record got struck down, the President of the US of A decided I didn’t match his image of an American hero because my mother was a refugee from Honduras and my dad was a black people smuggler. NASA wasn’t interested in the rocket pack or the cocoon and my backers sued me because they didn’t make their money back from the merchandising. I haven’t had a job since I did it, no home, nothing but the clothes I’m wearing.”
There was a slightly more sympathetic tone to the man’s voice. “No wonder you’re in a Texan dive like this. We don’t get many heroes in here. So you’re drinking to forget how far you’ve fallen.”
He still doesn’t get it, Santiago thought. “Nope, I’m drinking to forget that I want get back into space and do it all over again.”

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Jasmine troubled

I’ll get the politics over quickly. Another troubling and confusing week. Still no idea where we are heading although the government’s own forecast doesn’t make the future look at all comfortable. You know why Johnson wants 20,000 more police officers? Because of all the rioting and looting that they’re expecting. Unfortunately the time it takes to recruit and train officers means that they won’t be in time.

Following the judgement of the Scottish court that Johnson suspended parliament illegally, the BBC reported that the Scottish and English courts had produced opposite results. No, they didn’t.  The English court didn’t say that Johnson had not lied or that the suspension was legal, they said they couldn’t make a judgement because it was politics not law. It seems that our parliamentary government as well as having no written constitution also has no basis in law. Where does that leave us?

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awards presentations at the NAWGFest 2019 Gala DinnerI was disappointed to learn that a LGBT youth club in Caernarfon is being targeted by homophobes and that reported hate-crime against LGBT people in the area has more than doubled in recent years. Young people need safe places to go to meet others like themselves and to learn about their identity.  These places should be protected. While the police have run campaigns to increase reporting of hate-crime, this increase, which applies elsewhere, is worrying and symptomatic of the recent changes in society that make it easier for people to express their hate.  I want to know what the police in Gwynedd and elsewhere are doing to engage with the communities they represent. Producing papers, posting on websites, and holding meetings is insufficient.

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I listened to the author, Ann Cleeves (“Vera”, “Shetland” etc.) talk about her life, writing and new book the other evening. She made it seem so easy. Okay, her “overnight” success came after 20 years of publishing not very successful books and a remarkable piece of luck. She still loves writing, hence she is embarking on a new series, set in North Devon, having done Shetland but is still putting Vera Stanhope through it in Northumberland. She has honed her skills so well that it seems every new book is a winner. She insists she doesn’t plot nor prepare detailed character files; she just writes, one chapter at a time, wondering where the story will take her. However her detailed knowledge of the setting gives her the background and the characters are alive in her head as deep and complete people.

I can’t claim to write anything like as well as Ann Cleeves but I do tend to write in a similar way; an idea springs up, I write and it might develop, but I do lack her remarkable feeling for place. Anyway, this week’s writing task was on the theme “betrayal”. I was struggling, not with a lack of ideas but ones that I wanted to write (Gove betraying Johnson after the referendum was one idea). Then I read an article in New Scientist and had inspiration. I resurrected a character that I have used before, secret agent Kappa. As it is a fairly short, short story I think I have somewhat rushed the reveal and denouement. Perhaps I’ll develop it further, or perhaps not as there is so much else to do. I’ll put the New Scientist connection at the bottom.  Here is A Diet of Treachery.

A Diet of Treachery

Selene Tillington took her seat in front of the armoured glass screen. Beyond it, Agent Kappa slumped in the steel chair that was screwed to the floor of the small chamber. That a fine agent should have been reduced to this. Selene suppressed a sigh before starting to speak.
“You know why you’re here, Kappa. We need answers before we let you rot in prison.”
Her words had some effect on the prisoner.  He flinched as if pierced by a stiletto but did not reply.
She continued, “Your treachery has cost us the lives of a dozen agents.  Good men and women all of them. Why? How did an agent as highly trained and competent as you, come to betray so many people?”
Kappa raised his head and she saw his face for the first time. The pain was visible in every crease.
His voice came in a slow whisper. “I can’t explain it.”
“Were you tortured?” Selene asked. She knew the answer. There were no signs of injury on his body, not new ones anyway.
He shook his head. An agent of Kappa’s calibre wouldn’t have given away so many secrets whatever pain had been inflicted on him.
“Drugs then?” Selene persisted. That too was rhetorical. Medical tests carried out when Kappa has been recovered showed no traces of truth potions or mind-altering drugs, other than the chemical signals of the depression that Kappa had undoubtedly sunk into when he realised the extent of his betrayal.
Kappa shook his head again.
“The enemy looked after you well,” Selene commented. “You weighed more when you returned than when you set off on your mission.”
“The food was good,” Kappa admitted with a shrug.
That was strange, an anomaly, Selene thought. Captured agents were usually put through all sorts of trials to break them: beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, sexual abuse. Simply treating an agent well wouldn’t turn them, surely.
“What did they feed you?” She asked.
Kappa’s eyebrows rose. He probably hadn’t expected this line of questioning.
“Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Regular.  It’s how I kept track of time.”
“No, not the mealtimes. What foods did they give you?”
Kappa looked bemused and then she could see him thinking, remembering.
“Lots of ruddy muesli, seeds and grains, with yoghurt; soup, Japanese stuff, miso is it? Dinner was usually some stuff made to look like meat.”
“Tofu?”
“No, made with soybeans.”
“Ah, tempeh,” Selene said, nodding.
“Yeah. There was usually sauerkraut or kimchi, with it.”
“Sounds pretty healthy,” Selene said. Kappa grunted and subsided into his depressed slump. The diet sounded pretty strange. Something was tickling the grey cells in her skull; something that might answer the questions about Kappa’s behaviour.

Just half an hour later, Selene returned to her seat. Kappa didn’t seem to have moved.
“We’re going to need a stool sample, Kappa,” she said.
The agent stirred and for the first time looked at her with something like his old interest.
“You’re taking the crap?”
“That’s right, Kappa. Those foods the enemy fed you, they’re all probiotics. Great for getting bacteria into your gut.”
“So, they were looking after my health,” Kappa said.
“Not really. We think they were getting some particular bacteria into your system, a tailored strain of Prevotella to be precise.”
“So what?”
“Once in your intestines they secrete neurotransmitters that give you the symptoms of depression.”

A month later, Selene visited Agent Kappa in his rooms. Still in a secure unit but no longer technically a gaol. He looked more like the agent she knew, smartly dressed, hair combed, alert. There was still a deep frown on his face.
“Good morning C. I gather I am no longer accused of betraying my colleagues,” he said.
“Technically you were responsible for that Kappa, but now we know you couldn’t help it.”
“What happened to me?”
“Your, er, sample, showed the presence not only of a highly active Prevotella strain but other psycho-biotics. Together they gave you severe depression and a form of dementia. You literally weren’t in your right mind. It took little suggestion by your interrogators to persuade you to hand over the information they wanted.”
Kappa shook his head.  “I do, kind of, remember how I felt. There was no point to anything, I was useless and unimportant. I couldn’t care less about the other agents.”
“That was the effect of the bacteria in your gut.”
“But I don’t feel that way now.”
“No, we fed you antibiotics to kill off everything in your gut. Then that faecal transplant you received has packed you full of good, mind-enhancing psycho-bacteria. You are fit for duty, Kappa, fitter than ever. Now you can avenge your betrayal.

For the source material go to New Scientist

………………………………

Jasmine waits

Well, that’s been quite a week hasn’t it. The government has shown itself to be arrogant and inept but at least one (male) Johnson has shown he has some conscience – a pity a few more of the Cons who recently said no-deal or proguing parliament were madness don’t show the same degree of morals. I still have no idea where we’re headed. I’m waiting but not holding my breath

A couple of things that annoy me.  One is whenever the BBC wants to gauge public opinion it sets off for a Leave town. On Thursday it was Crewe. They speak to half a dozen Leave voters and maybe one or two Remainers (often choosing Europeans living in the UK to express the Remain viewpoint). It doesn’t strike me as balanced.  The referendum itself is almost ancient history now but perhaps a reminder is needed that the result was very close.  Secondly, is referring to the opposition in Parliament as “rebels”. A rebel is someone who  “rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government”.  I don’t think that quite describes the Queen’s official opposition made up of Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green + a few independent MPs.  I’m not even sure it describes the 21 or so Conservative “rebels”.  The opposition is doing the job that our Parliamentary system (albeit without a written constitution in law) gives it of restraining  a government that does not have a workable majority.

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Last weekend was great fun at the NAWGfest at Warwick Uni. Disappointingly, I didn’t win either of the categories where I was shortlisted but I received my runners-up certificates at the Gala Dinner from the guest speakers, the husband and wife writing team, Nicci French.  I’m sure the winning the entries must have been brilliant. awards presentations at the NAWGFest 2019 Gala Dinner

The workshops I attended gave me plenty to think about. On Saturday, I attended two sessions run by Helen Yendall on short story writing.  Helen concentrated on the type of stories that are welcomed by the commercial market (People’s Friend, The Weekly News) which do not appeal to me (the themes are insipid tales of relationships) but I learned a lot about technique.  Sunday was spent on crime, particularly historical true crime. The tutor, Stephen Wade, was a true enthusiast ,rhapsodising searching through court records and archives. I can see how enthralling that can be but not sure if it is me. Nevertheless, it was educational to see how Stephen’s works take shape. I may do a little of it to gain inspiration for fictional crimes – if I continue to write crime once I’ve completed the fifth Jasmine Frame novel (well , I have to start it before I complete it).  I also did a short stand-up at the open mic evening on sex and gender, pronouns and titles which went down well; a short reading from Molly’s Boudoir; and generally enjoyed myself.

This week it was back to writers’ group with the subject “Sweet and Sour”. The group had a few angles on this, not all food related.  Here is my short effort, dashed off rather quickly because I wanted to get on with the novel.

Sweet and Sour

The whole school knew them as Sweet and Sour. Mr Sugar, “Sweet”, taught history while Miss Sharp, “Sour”, was the chemistry teacher. Their form rooms were next door to each other as they were the Year 8 form teachers.
Mr Sugar was short, somewhat rumpled and aloof.
The boys said. “He sweet on the girls. He’s a soft as toffee with them but hard as rock with us.”
The girls replied. “Yes, he’s a sweetie, but he’s so dull. He always wears the same old jacket and trousers.”
Miss Sharp was a large woman; some would say fat. She was not a popular figure with the girls.
“She’s a real sour puss, always picking on us for having the wrong uniform or wearing make-up.”
The boys said. “She drones on about acids being sharp and sour. She’s the sour one; always got a comment to put you in your place.”

Years passed and generations of pupils passed through Sweet’s and Sour’s classes with no extraordinary occurrences.  Then one spring term, the comments started.
“Hey, did you see that Sweet has changed his shirt. He’s wearing a yellow one.”
“Yes, and he’s got a smart new tie.”
“What’s happened to him?”
It wasn’t just Sweet that the talk was about.
“Have you seen Sour’s new hair-do?”
“I’d swear she was wearing lipstick yesterday.”
“She’s lost weight too.”
At the start of the summer term the talk became agitated.
“I saw, Sweet and Sour chatting yesterday.”
“So what? They’re always talking, they look after Year 8.”
“Yes, but they were smiling.”
Just before the half term break another rumour went around.
“Sour got out of Sweet’s car this morning.”
“You mean they arrived at school together?”
“Uh huh.”

It was the school assembly on the Monday morning after the holiday. The Headmaster rose to his feet and addressed the school.
“Welcome back all of you. I have some important and very happy news.  During the holiday Mr Sugar and Miss Sharp became married. We congratulate them and wish them a happy life together. Miss Sharp has said that she now wants to be known as Mrs Sugar.”
As the pupils left for lessons the talk was all of the nuptials.
“Do you think Sweet and Sour are going to have sex now they’re married.”
“Ergh, they’re so old.”
“Hey, we can’t call her Sour now that she’s Mrs Sugar.”
“Hmm. What do you get if you put sweet and sour together?”
“I’ve got it! They’ll be the Sherbets.”

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