Sport for all

It has been quite a week for sport, much of it involving women. First, there was the marvellous final of the Woman’s Euros soccer. Exciting, good goals and little of the histrionics and playacting of the men’s game. The England team were not encumbered by the nearly 60 years of angst about winning or the continuing historical rivalry with Germany. They just got on with the job and won.

Then there was the T20 women’s cricket at the Commonwealth Games. No men. Unfortunately, the match we watched, England vs New Zealand was not one of the best as NZ didn’t turn up. They scrambled to 71 for 9 in their 20 overs, a very poor score which England knocked off in under 12 overs for the loss of just three wickets (at least one of which was a very poor shot). So, apart form the brilliant effort by the England bowlers, there was no real excitement or opportunity for the batters to shine. Nevertheless, it was a lovely evening, Edgbaston was all but full and there was less raucous beer-fueled noise from the crowd than at men’s matches, although the commentary and deafening music between balls was just as annoying.

There have been plenty of wonderful stories at the Games in Birmingham concerning men and women. One really good point which struck me was the value of mixing up the para sports with the able-bodied. It was possible to compare performances and realise how good the para sportspeople really are. For example the final of the 100m for men with an upper body disability (they all had one partly or wholly amputated arm) was won in just under 11 seconds. The able bodied race was won in just over 10 secs. The difference seemed very small. Then there was the discus for men with a prosthetic leg. It was amazing to see them spinning on their prosthetic and achieving distances of 55m plus.

It has been a feelgood week despite the nonsense spouted by Sunak and Truss and the Bank of England forecasting inflation at 13%. So much for our lifesavings!

Just to return to the sport. There was one group, of course, who weren’t making an appearance. That of course is transathletes. In normal life transmen and transwomen who have fully transitioned don’t announce the fact but live as men and women. I presume that many visit gyms and swimming pools and take part in local clubs without their exercise partners and teammates knowing (perhaps?). I don’t suppose that is possible in elite sport where medical checks are frequent and medical histories shared with authorities. There does not seem to be a problem with transmen competing as men but many sports bodies are now making it all but impossible for transwomen to compete, particularly at national and international level. I really do not know what the answer is. I accept that people who have gone through male puberty have differences and maybe advantages in musculature and bone structure compared to cis-women. However everyone taking part in international sport is at the extreme of the Gaussian distribution in terms of their physical development, to say nothing of the skills they have acquired. I am really not sure how much advantage over a cis-woman a transwoman has having gone through years of hormone treatment, major surgery and their testosterone level reduced to female norms.

Some news this week. Painted Ladies, the 1st Jasmine Frame novel is back on Kindle. A couple of months ago I discovered that it had disappeared. Apparently, Amazon notified Matador (the publisher) that being nine years old its formatting was out of date and substandard. So Matador withdrew it without informing me. Now it has been re-formatted with a new preface and ISBN and is now published under my imprint, ellifont. It’s given me the opportunity to incorporate it with the other four books in the series and so it now comes up on Kindle as book 1 in the Jasmine Frame Detective series. All the novels cost £2.99 on Kindle. Of course, they are all available as paperbacks from me for £9.99 inc p&p (Painted Ladies is £8.99) by order to paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com

This week’s theme for writing group was champagne bubbles. Of course I had to make it a SF story. The group liked what I wrote. I was thinking of entering it into a competition but have decided that it probably isn’t suitable, so you have the chance of reading it. Here is Fizz.

Fizz

“My dear, would you like a drink?”

                Tiffany rested her book on her stomach and gazed up into the sky from her lounger.  The Sun had sunk below the horizon leaving an orange glow in half of the sky.

                “That would be wonderful, darling,” she called out, “How about some bubbles?”

                Jeremy replied with a cheerful call, “I’ll take a look.”

                Tiffany continued to examine the heavens. There was a strange glow. Was there an overcast? No, there were already stars appearing and they looked clear and bright. It was the darkness between them that simply did not seem as dark as usual.  She shrugged. Probably some weather phenomenon she was unfamiliar with. After all she didn’t study the sky for a living. Not like Jeremy.

                He emerged onto the balcony, bearing a bottle and a pair of champagne flutes. “I found one bottle of champagne in the cooler. I think it will do.”

                “Of course it will, darling,” Tiffany replied.

                 Jeremy placed the glasses on the table between the loungers. He aimed the bottle towards the edge of the balcony and applied his thumbs to the stopper.

                Despite thinking she was prepared, Tiffany flinched at the loud pop. The cork disappeared but Jeremy expertly caught the first emergence of froth in a glass and carefully filled both flutes with the lazily fizzing liquid.

                Tiffany took the proffered glass and examined it closely.  “Where do they come from?” she asked.

                Jeremy paused in taking a sip. “Where do what come from?” 

                “The bubbles,” Tiffany replied. “There are none in the bottle before it is opened.”

                “Of course not. It’s under pressure, that’s why. Carbon dioxide is formed by fermentation that takes place after the wine has been bottled, but it is forced to stay dissolved. When the pressure is released the gas comes out of solution and forms bubbles.”

                Tiffany looked over the rim of her glass. “You’re so clever darling. It’s not just the Big Bang you know about but little pops too.”

                Jeremy sighed and sat beside her.  He was used to her joshing. “Actually, there are similarities. Our universe is a bit like a bubble. A bubble of spacetime.”

                Tiffany giggled. “Oh, do you think we’re living in a glass of champagne.”

                “Who knows. Perhaps our universe came into existence when someone let the stopper out of the bottle. But we don’t live in a bubble, we live on the bubble.”

                “There are a lot of bubbles.”

                “There are probably a lot of universes, but we can’t get in touch with them.”

                “The champagne’s in the way,”

                Jeremy nodded, “You could say that.”

                Tiffany held the glass close to her eyes. She watched the bubbles rising.

                “The bubbles get bigger as they float to the top.”

                Jeremy examined his glass. “You’re right. That’s because the pressure on the bubble decreases as it rises.”

                “Ooh, I’m clever too, am I?”

                “Of course, you are, my dear,” Jeremy paused then spoke again. “Actually, that’s another way in which champagne bubbles are a good model for our universe.”

                Tiffany frowned. “Now you’ve lost me, darling.”

                Jeremy sat up and held out his glass. “The bubbles seem to burst into existence like our universe did at the Big Bang, but then they go on expanding – that’s inflation. It’s happening now in our universe. Everything is getting further apart. Of course, the time scale is different. What takes a couple of seconds in your glass has taken nearly fourteen billion years for us.”

                Tiffany stared at her glass. “What will happen when we reach the top?”

                “The top of what?”

                “Of the champagne, silly. The bubbles burst.”

                Jeremy chuckled. “Ah, the Big Rip. We think that if inflation continues a time will come when gravity and the other forces can’t hold everything together anymore so the universe, spacetime, will tear apart. But don’t worry that won’t happen for billions of years yet.”

Tiffany frowned. “Unless someone drinks the champagne, so the bubbles have a shorter distance to climb.”

“Well, that’s the thing with models,” Jeremy shrugged, “they all break down if you take them too far.”

“But what are you doing over at Einstein Lab. You say you’re trying to bend spacetime.”

“Sort of. We’re learning how to manipulate the strong nuclear force just like we do electromagnetism.  Don’t worry, we’re not going to pop our bubble.” He raised his glass. “Just drink up your champers, Mars’ finest. Let’s celebrate your success. To the brightest and most successful architect on Mars.”

                Tiffany clinked her glass against Jeremy’s, took a mouthful of the fizzy wine and rested back on her lounger. She gazed out across the towers of Perseverance, many of them built to her design.

Looking up through the clear dome, the sky was looking brighter even though the colours of the sunset had faded. The stars seemed to shine less brightly than usual against the background of space.  Even the evening star, Earth, was barely distinguishable close to the rim of the crater. She saw flashes of lightning, not uncommon on Mars, but these remained frozen across the sky forming a pattern like cracks in an eggshell. The streaks were bright, brighter than the Sun looked from here.  They were broadening and growing even more intense. Tiffany reached out a hand to grab Jeremy’s arm but he seemed to be receding along with his lounger.  The towers too and the edge of the balcony were becoming more distant and fading.

Her stretched-out arm was lengthening like bubble gum but was disappearing from view as all around her turned to light. The light was in her eyes, in her head. She was all alone and then she wasn’t.    

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Blinkered vision

Politics are a mess at home and abroad; finances are being overwhelmed by inflation; COVID goes on and on; the climate and environmental situation are worsening day by day. It’s difficult to look to the future positively. I suppose the only way to stay cheerful is to live in the present (or the past). It is possible to fill each day with pleasure – fun activities, good books, healthy food, a good night’s sleep and the joy of one’s partner, friends and family for company. Yes, a happy life is possible if one ignores what is coming.

We’ve just had a couple of weeks of just that – happy days. We spent time with the grandkids, enjoyed a beer and a natter with the kids (who are not anymore), and had a couple of very enjoyable days visiting a place new to us (see below). Yet the worrying issues kept on intruding. It was hot and dry in Bavaria though the temperature didn’t reach the record-breaking level that occurred in the UK; there was talk of measures being put in place to cope with Ukrainian refugees; masks had to be worn on public transport to ward off COVID; fuel prices were a matter for discussion; our return flight time was altered because of Heathrow’s staffing problems; and, of course we were no longer EU members when it came to passport control (not that we were delayed at all).

I think that living in the day is perhaps one reason why the human race is heading for disaster. Few people, least of all politicians, look to the future or make plans that will solve the problems that we face as a species. Like race horses we are blinkered so that we focus on the immediate and cannot see the wider picture. Are we intelligent, sentient beings?

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This week it has been announced that the Tavistock Clinic that treats children with gender identity issues is to close. The “gender-critical” (what a stupid phrase that is) tub-thumpers are delighted. Thankfully it does not mean that children who are questioning their birth gender will go without support. Two new centres will open in Manchester and London in 2023 with more to follow. Well, that is the promise; it would be criminal if it was not fulfilled. The truth is that the Tavistock has been overwhelmed by the rise in the number of patients – more than a 10-fold increase. It doesn’t have the staff to cope so waiting times have increased to ridiculous lengths. It is appalling that young teenagers have had to wait years to get even a first assessment. Of course when a service is stretched to the limit mistakes happen. I doubt that any patient received all the care and counselling that they really needed but I do also believe that children and teenagers do know their feelings and can take decisions for themselves. Parents cannot know or understand everything about their offspring. It is to be hoped that the new gender identity centres will be properly funded and staffed although with the NHS in the state that it is in under this government, I fear that my hopes will be dashed.

I did no writing while we were away but nevertheless wanted to present something to writing group this week. I wrote the piece below reflecting on our few days in Regensburg which I mentioned in last week’s blog. I intended it to be reflective – what had the stones witnessed over nearly two millennia but it turned into a fairly standard historical summary. Nevertheless perhaps it gives something of the flavour of a fascinating place.

The Stones of Regensburg

For over eighteen hundred years the stones have rested here, first providing protection but now symbolising the city’s long story. The members of the Third Italic Legion cut the stones from the hillside, each nearly a metre cube, brought them down the Danube to the mouth of the river Regen and erected their fort that they named Castra Regina. It was built to defend the northern limit of the Roman Empire from attacks by the Germanic tribes that inhabited the lands across the long, wide waterway.

                As happened across the Empire, the legionnaires’ fortifications became a home, a trading post, and an administrative centre. Later the fort was overrun, and eventually the soldiers left but the stone walls still stood and the town was not abandoned.

                Regensburg became the major town, the “capital”, though that term had no real meaning at the time, of the tribe of people from the Regen valley who became the Bavarians. It grew rich controlling the flow of goods down the Danube from the west and from the Black Sea to the east. A fine, long, stone bridge with fourteen piers was built across the river. Bavaria became part of the Holy Roman Empire with its Duke one of the Electors who decided who would be the peripatetic Emperor.

                Politics, more than military might, decided Regensburg’s fortunes. With its cathedral, monasteries and convents the Roman Church was a powerful force, as was the Duke. The merchants also held power as they controlled the trade on the river and along the old Roman roads. It was politics that split Regensburg off from Bavaria and turned it into a “free” city of the Empire. Freedom did not add to its wealth however. A population of twenty thousand still lived mainly within the Roman walls and a western extension built in the 920s.

                That was basically how the city remained until 1806, caught up in the rivalry of the Church, Empire, and the Bavarian Dukes. The merchants, who adopted Protestantism after Luther set the Reformation in motion, struggled to maintain their wealth and influence. The city did not modernise. Those Roman stones remained in the fortifications and the tall medieval towers remained the homes of the population which grew only slowly after the Black Death.

                As the Holy Roman Empire drifted into irrelevance, it settled, almost accidentally, on Regensburg as the all-but-permanent home for its assemblies. Representatives of each of the princedoms that made up the Empire met, but rarely made decisions. The Perpetual Assembly sat for the first time in 1663 and continued in session until 1803.

                It was Napoleon that stirred things up. The French first occupied Regensburg in 1800. Bavaria sided with Napoleon in his wars across Europe. These culminated in the final collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 when Bavaria was declared an independent country albeit part of the French dominions. In 1810 Regensburg was handed back to Bavaria but, despite its cathedral, was now very much a minor town compared to Munich and other cities that were growing fast.

                The nineteenth and twentieth century saw some enlargement, industrialisation and modernisation. The last of the town walls were at last dismantled and the stones reused, leaving just a few in the positions they had occupied for nearly two millennia. Nevertheless, the old town by the river retained its compact medieval architecture and became a place of historical interest. Adolf Hitler visited a number of times to reinforce his ambition of becoming a new Emperor of Europe. A vast Messerschmitt factory was built on the outskirts. This was flattened in the war that followed but most of the old town survived.

                Now it is a peaceful, bustling, tourist and university city, given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006. Those old stones, incorporated into later though still elderly buildings are now gazed on by visitors from around the world, photographed and touched to give a sense of feeling the past.

The Roman stones of Regensburg

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Democracy? What a joke

Apparently there are 160,000 members of the Conservative Party eligible to vote for the new leader and hence the next PM. Neither candidate got the support of much more than a third of the Conservative MPs. What kind of mandate does that give them?

Why would one want to become a member of the Conservative Party.  Perhaps there are benefits. If you run a business (or even if you don’t but fancy earning a fortune from one) you can cosy up to your sitting MP and pick up some juicy contracts for PPE or a ferry service, or suchlike. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been involved in such a business before or don’t even have access to the necessary kit.  You’re a party member so billions will be thrown your way.

Another reason for being a pad up Conservative is of course the opportunity to vote for the next PM. I think the chances are that those who join for that purpose are probably somewhat right wing in their views, regardless of the fact that the vast majority of citizens of the UK find those opinions abhorrent. So we end up with the PM who is willing to adopt any wild and wacky far right idea.  I wonder who that will be.

We recently spent a few days in Regensburg, a small city in Bavaria (southern Germany). Its old town is a World Heritage Site as it is little changed (in architecture, at least) since its heyday in the Middle Ages. It had a population of 20,000 in those days, and still houses about 15,000 (including a lot of students) plus many thousands more visitors. It is a really wonderful place, with lots of narrow alleyways between buildings, some of which are medieval tower blocks of eight to ten storeys. Being Germany, lots of money has been thrown at heritage in recent decades; the old buildings renovated and made suitable for modern habitation. The medieval stone bridge across the Danube looks modern but for the ancient design consisting of 12 piers supporting narrow spans that cross the river.

Why the old town lasted so long is an interesting but long story. However, all German histories have to include a piece on Hitler and the Nazis.  Hitler visited Regensburg a number of times because it was the venue for assemblies of the old Holy Roman Empire.  Hitler saw himself as the reincarnation of the Emperor. Of course the histories have to explain how the nazis came to power. It was accidental of course. The population were hoodwinked into voting for the national socialists because the leader was a character who used the media well and promised to make life better for the ordinary folk who felt ignored by the previous governments. Poor living standards were blamed on international interference and scapegoats were found amongst minority groups. Once in power the nazis eroded civil liberties and made sure that opponents were not in a position to win posts of influence. In just 5 years they had complete control and had put the country so much in debt that a war of conquest (over the debt-holders) was the only course of action.

If you leave out the extreme genocidal excesses of the nazis it is a story that has been repeated many times and is happening now in various places.

Again, no new writing this week but I hope normal service will be resumed next week.

What a shower!

What more can one say about the competition for the Tory leadership. Bakeoff or Sewing Bee it is not, hardly even Apprentice standard. All the bickering and narcissism, none of the quality. It comes to something that in the wake of Brexit, Covid, Ukraine, climate change, energy prices, food shortages, inflation, etc, the main discussion is how much of a tax cut they can offer and how “unwoke” they can be.

Penny Mordaunt is possibly the one of the leading three or four least tainted by association with Johnson, who hasn’t broken the law (Covid rules), suggested breaking it (the NI protocol) or repealing it (Human Rights), but has barely displayed the competence which might have been sought in the past for a PM.  It is noteworthy that the other candidates have castigated her for calling transwomen, women and transmen, men. This is after all the law (2004 Gender Recognition Act).  For those who hold a Gender Recognition certificate it is against the law to reveal someone’s previous trans status. But of course the Tory party is uniting in persecuting a tiny minority. Even counting everyone with the slightest questions about their gender, we amount to less than 1% of the population. That’s right, shift the conversation from the big issues to a small group who can do little to defend themselves (despite what the anti-trans people say).

Meanwhile we have weeks of limbo, in which Johnson can play out his petulance.

This week we experienced something of the chaos of Heathrow Airport. We weren’t delayed appreciably but there was a lot of zig-zag queuing.  It’s a familiar metaphor but being treated like cattle or sheep did come to mind. We also have had a flight changed because of Heathrow’s arbitrary cancellation of landing slots. All because of post-pandemic incompetence in management.

No story this week, but I have been reviewing a novel I started some years ago and planning how to continue it. We’ll see how it goes.

Rejoice!

In Margaret Thatcher’s words, “let us rejoice.” Yes, Johnson has been rejected by his cronies. Has he resigned? It didn’t sound like it when he gave his so-called resignation speech outside No.10. He sounded more like a petulant school boy having been told by his gang that he wasn’t the leader anymore. “You’ll be sorry” and “after all I’ve done for you” seemed to be his main comments ignoring the fact that it is his dishonesty, lazy incompetence and narcissism that lead to this situation.. I worry what he’ll get up to while he’s allowed to stay in No.10 – graffiti the expensive wall paper, scribble on the pictures of former PMs, spill wine on the carpets each evening as he drinks himself into a regretful stupor (regret at being shoved out not for all the lies).

Mind you I am not expecting much from the replacement PM. The record 50 or so who resigned this week are tainted by contact with Johnson as are the majority of Tory MPs who stood up for him in public despite knowing he had lied repeatedly. It was as if a drought of integrity was broken by a deluge of righteousness.

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At the risk of boring readers, I want to comment on the reports that Maya Forstater, a researcher at a thinktank, has won her claim that her employers discriminated against her for tweets concerning her belief that “transgender women cannot change their biological sex.” The judgement said that the right to hold and proclaim this belief was protected by the Equality Act. Forstater received support from J K Rowling in fighting her case which she first lost then partly won on appeal.

I accept that people have the right to believe anything and say what they believe. People can believe the Earth is flat, that they have been abducted by aliens, that a man was killed and came back to life. We can argue about those beliefs and present evidence in support or against them but it is wrong to denigrate or mock someone who holds different views and insist that their own view is the only one that should be allowed. Freedom of speech is a right but also carries with it the responsibility not to cause another person harm.

Forstater’s view is that only physical characteristics established at birth can contribute to someone’s identity. She rejects the contribution a lifetime of brain growth and experience make to the development of personality and character. Gender identity does not depend solely on a number of genes on the X and Y chromosomes that make up just two of the 46 in every human cell. It does not depend on the quantity of testosterone (just one of a number of “sex” hormones) circulating in the blood. It is strange that hers and others comments only refer to transwomen. Transmen do not seem to rate a mention.

Do women really want to be defined by their possession of ovaries or lack of a Y chromosome. While genetic and genital sex at birth may be binary (except for the little matter of intersex births), children and adults show a huge range of personality traits of which gender identity is but a part. If we are to allow everyone to be equal in the eyes of the law, then all gender identities must be accepted as valid. Personally, I don’t claim to be a woman but neither do I feel particularly masculine. My gender identity has little to do with my physical characteristics but, I believe, is a result of my complete genome, my development since birth and my life experiences. I consider myself non-binary or gender fluid i.e. somewhere along the male-female spectrum but not at either extreme and see no reason why I should not express that feeling or have it acknowledged.

Stratford-on-Avon

This week’s writing theme was on the topic “addiction”. I don’t want to mock those who are addicts but my piece was intended as a slightly light take on the subject. Nevertheless, there are many things one can be addicted to…

The Addict

The new day had not dawned when Greg tumbled out of bed and limped to the bathroom. Sleep had refused to come and he could feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest. His skin felt warm and sweaty and his eyes just wouldn’t focus. He stood under the shower for a few minutes, repeatedly soaping himself, forgetting which “bits” he’d done. At last, he tired of the patter of water on his head, stepped out and grabbed the threadbare towel from the hook. He didn’t feel cleaner, didn’t feel more awake, just damp.

                He dressed in an old t-shirt and grubby jeans and went to his small kitchen. He didn’t need to look in the fridge and cupboards, but he opened doors, nevertheless. There was no food. Of course, there wasn’t. He hadn’t been shopping for food for days. There were a few grains of coffee left in the jar. He held the kettle shakily under the tap, then spilt water down his trousers as he moved it to the socket.

                Greg took his mug of weak coffee into the living room, squeezing between the piles of books to reach his one easy chair. He sat down but couldn’t feel comfortable so stood up again and moved around the room, lifting books here and there, glancing at the titles, opening to a random page, reading a few lines, then putting the book back down.

                He couldn’t go on like this. He needed a fix. Greg thrust his hands in his pockets. They were empty. He returned to the bedroom and searched the pockets of his old corduroy jacket. Joy! A few coins. He counted them; more than three pounds.

                Anticipation filled him with eagerness to get out. He pulled on the jacket and hurried from the flat. He all but leapt down the stairs, almost stumbling on the bottom step and strode out onto the street.

                The day had started now. People were on their way to work. The pavement became more occupied as he neared the town centre. He bustled through the crowd, occasionally jostling someone walking more slowly or coming towards him. A few people reacted calling insults or elbowing him back, but he didn’t respond, staggering on towards his goal.

                He passed the shops in the high street though most of them were open now. The odour of fresh bread from the bakers did not attract him even though his belly felt empty. He turned into a side street and stopped at a small shopfront. The door was closed. He pushed on the handle. It didn’t move. He rattled the door in its frame then tapped firmly on the glass.

                “Alright, don’t break the door down,” a muffled voice called from deep inside the shop.

 Greg responded by knocking again.

                “OK, I’m coming,” the voice said, growing louder as the speaker approached. A hunched figure appeared behind the grubby window in the door. There was some fiddling with the lock and then the door swung open.

                “Oh, it’s you,” the straggly haired shopkeeper muttered, shuffling backwards. Greg pushed through the door and stopped.

                The familiar, delicious odour filled his nostrils. It was almost enough to still the pangs of desire. Almost. Greg moved into the interior of the shop until he was surrounded by the ceiling high shelves and heaps of stock. All was covered by that particular kind of dust that collected in second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, the spores of the fungus that grew within the pores of the old paper and gave off that delicious perfume.

                After a few moments, the pleasure of absorbing the atmosphere of the dimly lit emporium faded and Greg re-experienced the need to search.

                “Got something you’re looking for?” the aged bookseller asked.

                “Er, nothing in particular,” Greg replied his eyes scanning the stacks.

                “I’ve got a first edition Graham Greene, just come in, here somewhere,” the old man said shuffling to the battered captain’s chair beside the ancient cash desk. He had to squeeze between tottering piles of books to do so.

                Greg felt a pang of lust. “A Greene, you say. Which one?”

                “Er, it’s here somewhere.” He lifted books from a pile until he came to the one he was seeking. “Here it is, The End of the Affair, hardback.”

                Greg’s heartbeat faster, his palms became sweaty. He felt desire, he wanted that book. He imagined it on his shelves alongside the other Greenes, not that he could recall precisely where that shelf actually was.

                “Let me see.”

                The old man passed the book to Greg. He saw immediately that the dust jacket was torn. He opened the cover, noting their stiffness. He turned the yellowing pages, breathing in those fumes that stoked his need. “How much?”

                “Ninety-five.”

                “Pounds?”

                “You didn’t think pence, did you? It’s a first edition.”

                “Yes, of course. Um, you couldn’t give me…”

                “Credit? Don’t ask. Cash, that’s all I take. You know that. Do you want it?”

                Greg caressed the Greene. Of course, he wanted it but all he had were the few coins in his pocket. He handed the book back. “No, not today. Perhaps some other time.”

                “I’m not holding it for you.” The bookseller put the book back on the pile.

                “No, no, I understand. I’ll just take a look at the paperbacks.”

                “Well, you know where they are. Don’t muddle them up.”

                Greg snorted as he moved towards the back of the shop, deep into the gloom. Don’t muddle them up. As if the old man kept things in order. Greg wondered if he’d ever heard of the Dewey system. He leaned close to the shelves trying to read the titles on the creased spines of the old paperbacks in the light of a single dim yellow bulb. His finger shook as he levered out a slim copy of The Far Country by Nevil Shute. Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he turned the beige pages. This was one of Shute’s novels that he didn’t possess. It was a well-thumbed copy but there were no obvious missing pages, no tears. He turned back to inside the front cover. There was some pencil scribbling on the facing page and a figure, £4. Yes, he had that much, he was sure. He pulled the coins from his pocket, three pound coins and a couple of fifty p’s. He closed the book and clutched it to his chest.

                Greg headed back to the entrance. He considered walking straight out, was reaching for the door handle.

                “You found something then,” the bookseller rumbled.

                Greg stopped and turned, filled with guilt for even considering the theft.

                “Er, yes. Four pounds. Here it is.”  He held out his palm holding the cash.

                The old man thrust out his hand. “Let me see.”

                Greg gave him the book. The shopkeeper glanced inside the cover. “Yes, four pounds.” He took the coins and deposited them in his cash machine with a clanging of bells and gears. Greg grabbed the book and dashed from the shop.

                He made his way home feeling elated. The town seemed brighter, people on the streets more cheerful. He was content. Back in his flat, he held his prize to his nose, inhaling the familiar smell, then went from bookcase to bookcase looking for the other Shute novels he possessed. There they were, a half dozen similar old, slim paperbacks with small print and cheap rough paper. He slid the new acquisition onto the shelf beside the others. He took a step back, proud of his collection. There was a small itch at the back of his head. Maybe he could complete his set of Shute’s novels. Just a few more, perhaps one or two at a time. He’d only need a few quid. His fingers twitched.

Things can only get worse

The world doesn’t get any better does it. Are we watching the death throes of human civilisation? It’s a favourite theme, almost a sub-genre, of SF. Part of it is the break up of the USA. Many writers have foreseen it happening. The most recent that I have read is by Richard Morgan in Thirteen (published in 2018). From this side of the pond the disintegration of the USA seems to be happening, as predicted, on Democrat/Republican, secular/fundamental Christian lines. The Democrats under Biden seem impotent in protecting the Union. States controlled by Republicans are continuing Trump’s policies of undermining the constitution to remain in power indefinitely and to prevent a Democrat winning future presidential elections. The Supreme Court has begun to release extreme right wing judgements that undermine the authority of the Biden presidency and the Democrat controlled House of Representatives. The Roe vs Wade judgement was first but now we have the decision which prevents the USA from following its carbon reduction policies. What’s next – rulings against same sex marriage, the freedom to be out as gay or trans?

Republican/Christian zealots seem very active in ensuring they get their way while Democrats sit on their hands grumbling about Biden. Will the populous liberal states of the East and West coasts continue to allow people’s rights and futures to be undermined by the bigots and climate change deniers of the central states?

Of course we can’t be smug here in the UK. Johnson made a chilling statement last weekend. Despite the loss of two seats he’s looking forward to winning the next general election and continuing as PM into the 2030s. He continues to push forward the Tory’s programme of change to the (unwritten) UK constitution. As is happening in the USA they seek to limit who can vote to ensure a far right majority, to repeal the environmental safeguards inherited from the EU and to undermine personal freedoms. It’s happening now. The new laws making protest a crime have been used on the sole guy who has been on Parliament Green for the last six years opposing Brexit. Apparently he is a nuisance and causing inconvenience so must be stopped. Look out for the police wading in to arrest anyone who protests against climate change from now on. I wonder whether the laws will be used to prevent anti-abortionists from intimidating women attending abortion clinics? There are plenty in the Tory party who want to emulate the control over women’s bodies that many states of the USA are giving themselves.

Nadine Dorries wants to stop any trans people (no sorry it only applies to transwomen) from taking part in any sport in a further step to ratchet up the artificial furore over gender identity. After my piece on hopeful signs last week the Guardian published three articles which continued to suggest that some all-powerful trans activists are threatening the lives of women. One instance was in an interview by Julie Bindel with Martina Navratilova. It included the ridiculous statement that transwomen should not compete in women’s sports because men have wider tracheas than women. Has she never heard of Gaussian distributions? Elite sportswomen (like elite sportsmen) are at the edge of the distribution curve based on physical features; they are not average. There are going to be very, very few transwomen who, having devoted their lives to transitioning, have taken hormones for a considerable period and had gender confirming surgery, are going to be able to match top sportswomen, whatever perceived advantage they may have in bone structure or lung capacity.

The Malvern Hills

The theme for writers’ group this week was to include the phrase “I have something wonderful to show you”. While I was writing my pieces (yes, I started writing before I had settled on my idea, and did not have time to go back and revise it) I thought about what “wonder” means. We tend to use the phrase “that’s wonderful” about something that is good and welcome. The definitions of wonder however refer to surprise, an occurrence to remark on, a marvel. They are terms that are more neutral than positive. Something appalling could perhaps be wonderful. Hence my story “Wonders”. It’s a bit rough (and not just round the edges).

Wonders

I don’t know what woke me but when I opened my eyes, ALiS was floating in front of my face.

                “Good morning, Geri.” In my head I heard ALiS’s gentle feminine voice.

                It was still dark; the lights were in night mode.

                “It’s not my waking time yet, ALiS,” I replied feeling a yawn come on.

                “That is correct, Geri. It is twenty minutes till your programmed alarm.”

                “Is there a problem?”  I began to rip off my restraining bands. If there was something wrong that needed my input, it must be a desperate emergency.

                “No, Geri. Systems are working at 99.8% of optimum.”

                That rating was nought point one percent up on yesterday. I paused my rush to get up but still floated away from my sleep dock. A departure from routine was most unusual.

                “Why wake me early then ALiS?” 

                “I’ve got something wonderful to show you,” my robot companion informed me. I admit to being a bit confused. ALiS had the most advanced human personality program available when the mission was established and I relied on it for assistance, my link with the systems and companionship, but I wasn’t used to it making such an esoteric statement.

                “Really? What? Where?” My response was not very precise.

                “Follow.”

                ALiS floated away from me, its ion motors whining. It moved down the corridor. I pushed off from my sleep dock, reaching for the handles on the walls to accelerate my pursuit.

                We didn’t have to go far; there is not far to go in any direction. ALiS lead me to the dorsal observation dome, pausing to let me pass and enter the small hemisphere of transparent material.

                My first sight was the stars that were above the ecliptic. Millions of points of light filled my eyes. I recognised many of the patterns formed by the brighter ones. This was one of my favourite views. For a moment I experienced the familiar joy of gazing out to the edge of the universe, then I realised that there was no difference to my usual experience. Had I missed a supernova? I saw no unfamiliar brightening.

                “What am I supposed to look at, ALiS? What is wonderful about the stars? They haven’t changed.” 

                “Not the stars, Geri. Look at the planet.”

                Having pushed myself fully into the observation pod I took my eyes off the panorama above and looked down. There was the planet, more distant than when I had started my sleep period. The illuminated crescent was still large enough to see that the surface was largely covered in cloud that shone white in the sunlight. This was another of the views that I took pleasure in watching. The steadily receding world revealed its different faces to me as it rotated. What though was different, what had ALiS brought me to see?

                A point of light, so bright that the window darkened. On the night side of the world was a fireball as hot as the surface of a star. It quickly dimmed but did not disappear. A billowing incandescent cloud of dust and smoke spread over a growing area of the surface.

                “Stars on the planet’s surface,” ALiS said, unnecessarily drawing attention to the wonder.

                “Almost,” I replied, “the same energies are being released.” Even as I spoke, another flash occurred on a different part of the planet, and then another.

                “Are they not wonderful?” ALiS added.

                “A remarkable event,” I agreed, “surprising, perhaps not. Marvellous? I don’t know if that term should be used on this occasion. When did it begin?”

                “I woke you immediately after the sensors detected the first occurrence.”

                Now almost the whole disc was illuminated. Night had been banished from the planet, like most of the life. While night would return, life would not. There was nothing to say.

                ALiS interrupted my thoughts. “We are no longer in communication with launch control.”

                “Then it is time we commenced the second stage of our mission,” I said.

                “Confirmed,” ALiS replied, “life support systems entering hibernation phase. You should prepare, Geri.”

                I tugged myself back to my cosy sleep-cum-hibernation pod. I would sleep until we returned to Earth in a thousand years. Until that time we would follow a cometary path out into the cold interstellar space where the Sun was merely the closest star. We had completed the first part of our mission, Genome Evacuation. Later, when Earth had settled, if not recovered, we would attempt Re-Instatement. That might be an even greater wonder.

………………………

Hope, rising

Two down, just a couple of hundred to go. Again we have a pair of amazing by-election results where voters have shown their discontent with the Johnson government. Will it have any effect? Not likely. It will be brushed off as a mid-term hiccough, where two MPs were forced to resign in exceptional circumstances (reading porn in the House Commons and sexual misdemeanours). Johnson has said often enough that nothing will shift him. His cabinet certainly will not push him out. They were all selected as incompetent sycophants who have just about enough intelliogence to realise that they do not have enough support among their colleagues or the public to replace him. I can see Johnson lasting to the next election, and unless Starmer, Labour and other parties work together vigorously, the dead hand of the Tory media could well keep Johnson in No.10 indefinitely.

A post appeared in my Facebook news this week comparing the current government with the Nazis of the mid-1930s. I usually consider any mention of Hitler or the Nazis a lazy argument stopper. Their actions were so evil and repulsive that anyone mentioned in the same sentence is damned by association. But the Nazis were defeated and the assumption is that we can and will defeat anyone that is likened to them. It is more informative if we look at the actions and intentions of the associated group, in this case the Tory government. They are seeking to limit or even prevent protest; they are seeking to deny the vote to various sectors of the community; they are seeking to prevent government actions from being examined by the courts; they have demonised sectors of the community viz, refugees and immigrants. Yes, all those things were done by the Nazis in the 1930s. They are also being done by Republicans in state governments in the USA, by Putin in Russia, in China, in Hungary, in India and no doubt elsewhere. There is no guarantee that these right wing fascists will be defeated as the Nazis were (eventually). History repeats. Some people learn from history but most people, unless they experienced it first time round, have little idea what to expect. People in Germany were beguiled by Hitler, the majority closed their eyes and ears to what went on around them and then fought for their country when they had few choices left. What can we learn from their experience?

Part of the garden of Birtsmorton Court

This week’s topic for writing group was “an alligator as a pet”. I subverted it somewhat and wrote the piece below which I feel is reminiscent of other things I have written and is hardly original. A comment was that it could have been longer. Indeed it could be but I curtailed it to fit into our group session. Anyway, here, for your entertainment is “My Pet Alligator”.

My Pet Alligator

I had a pet alligator once. He had a long snout with lots of sharp teeth in his mouth, four short legs and a long, broad tail. I didn’t keep him in a cage or take him for walks. He wasn’t really a pet even though he lived in my bedroom and we spent a lot of time together. He wasn’t really an alligator either, though he looked like one when he was lying down. He walked on his back legs like a kangaroo using his tail to balance. His front paws were more like hands with thumbs, though he had long, sharp claws instead of nails. He could use them to pick up tiny parts for repairing his spaceship. I suppose he didn’t look much like an alligator because his scales were iridescent like diamonds and shone different colours in all sorts of light. Oh, and there was another thing. He was only about 30 cm tall when he was balancing on his tail and back legs, and he was fully grown not a baby.

We met one night. I woke up when it was really dark. Mum and Dad must have been in bed and fast asleep. They wouldn’t have heard the sound of the spaceship landing in our garden because their room is at the front. It’s me who has the view of the garden. The spaceship didn’t make much noise, just a low hum as it came down from the sky, but it woke me. I peered through my curtains and could see it there on the lawn. It looked more like a saucepan than a saucer but was as wide as a dustbin. There were little flashing lights in reds and blues and yellows all over it, but the pattern did not mean anything.

                It sat there on the grass for a while doing nothing, so I got out of bed and went down to have a closer look. I never considered that it might zap me and turn me to dust or take me off into space. As I got close to it, a hole appeared in the side and out stepped, Al. That is what I called him later, Al for Alligator, if you like, or Al the Alien.

                He looked up at me with his black eyes, his scales reflecting the light from his spaceship.

                “Hello, Human,” he said. Of course, it wasn’t him speaking, he couldn’t speak English with that great long snout and all those teeth. The sound came from a little box he wore around his neck.

                “Hello,” I replied. It didn’t seem at all strange speaking to a small space alien who looked a bit like an alligator.

                “You are Arthur?”

                I was surprised “How do you know my name?” I asked.

                “We have been watching you for some time. In fact, we have been watching all of you humans.”

                “Oh.” I wondered how they did it. Did the alligator aliens have big telescopes out in space to see us or did they hack our phones and TVs.

                The alien had continued speaking, “But now I want to live with you and see how you live your lives. Can we go into your home please? We should not allow the adult humans to see me.”

                I could imagine the fuss if Mum or Dad met a real live space alien especially one that looked like an alligator even if he was small.

                “Oh yes, come with me,” I said. We started off to the house. With a deep, faint hum the space saucepan took off and disappeared.

Al lived with me for a few months. I took him everywhere. He let me hold him and carry him, so most people thought he was a strange stuffed toy. He didn’t seem to mind being left to sit or stand in places. He just kept still but I knew he was watching everything and probably recording it all on the little box around his neck. When we were alone in my room, eating crisps and sweets, we would talk but he never told me anything about where he had come from.

                Late one night, months and months later, Al said. “I am leaving tonight, Arthur. Thank you for showing me around.”

                I felt sad. I had got so used to having Al. I couldn’t imagine him not being around.

                “Why have you got to go?” I said.

                “I must report to my people. They will want to speak to your leaders about how your planet is being damaged and the large number of humans who are living poor lives.”

                I realised that what Al had been doing was obviously quite important. “Oh. Are you going to speak to the Prime Minister or the President of the United States?”

                “Why would I want to speak to them?” Al asked.

                “They are our leaders, aren’t they?”

                Al’s speaker box made a strange crackling noise which I had learned was his laugh. “Oh no,” he said, “They may think they are in charge but the real leaders, the one that have been pushing you humans and your planet to destruction are the lizards.”

                “Lizards!”  I didn’t understand.

                Al laughed again. “You don’t think that mammals could run things do you. No, it is the lizards. They keep out of sight, but they control everything. You really do not know what they have been doing, do you.”

I shook my head but could not find my voice.

“Well, they’re soon going to find out that we don’t like what they’re doing here.”

There was a familiar hum outside my bedroom window.

“Ah, there is my transport. I’d better go, now, Arthur. Thanks for all the snacks.” He hopped off my bed and scuttled towards the bedroom door.

…………………………..

Ethics, what ethics?

What has our sick government done on our behalf this week?

  • break international law by proposing changes to the Brexit treaty which they agreed to 2 years ago;
  • earn the disgust of many countries by going ahead with the national human trafficking scheme to Rwanda until stopped by the European Court of Human Rights;
  • suggest that the answer to the housing crisis is to encourage people on benefits to buy their housing association home;
  • respond to rising food prices by watering down to worthlessness the recommendations on food production and tackling obesity.
  • threatening rail workers with loss of jobs if they strike (where will that leave the railways?)

No doubt there is more nonsense but to cap the lot, the ethics advisor, Lord Geidt resigns. The PM’s response – to question whether an ethics advisor is necessary.

I do wonder whether the 220 MPs or so who supported the PM last week will ever realise that he is dragging the UK down to the lowest level of honour and respect – a pariah state. Where else is the opposition to come from? The Labour Party seems almost moribund and scared of annoying their former voters up north who turned blue in 2019.

Every week, people say (especially in the Guardian) that he (you know who) can’t survive much longer, but it looks to me as if he is entrenching himself, surrounded by his cronies who wouldn’t have a job if he went, and doing what he likes (none of which helps the people of the UK)

A peep inside Birtsmorton Court (on an open gardens day)

Some good news however – an article in the Guardian titled “Britons not bitterly polarised over trans equality”. It was one of those articles which says “no news here”. Research has found that the majority of British people are happy for trans on non-binary people to be themselves and for schools to support trans kids. It shows that the war between so-called radical feminists and trans people is manufactured (with government encouragement) and that most people are far more accepting of gender diversity than the media suggest. That certainly is my experience. The survey discovered that one in four people know someone who is trans. The number may be higher than that as many transpeople do not reveal that they have transitioned. The article has reaffirmed my determination to be “out” to everyone I meet, boosting that ratio.

…………………..

This week’s writing task was “it all happens in Devon”. Why Devon? Well it seems quite a few of the group have been or are going to Devon. For some reason I could not get the old Morecambe & Wise joke out of my head, so I put its first line at the start of my bit of nonsense.

Views from a deckchair

Two old men were sitting in deckchairs on the Torquay promenade.

                “It all happens in Devon, y’know,” said Bert, mopping his bald head with a handkerchief.

                Fred stirred from his doze and with considerable effort opened his eyes. “What does?”

                “All sorts,” Bert replied.

                “Such as?” Fred’s eyelids drooped.

                “Goings on.”

                Through Fred’s half-closed eyes he watched a young woman saunter past. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, crocs and little in between. Fred felt a rare stirring and his eyes opened wide.

                “You mean like that?” He nodded his head in the woman’s direction.

                Bert’s eyes followed Fred’s. A smile spread across his face. “Sex! That goes on everywhere.”

                The woman walked out of his field of view so Fred’s interest subsided. “What then?” he mumbled.

                “Things,” Bert said.

                Fred wondered why his mate was being so non-committal. His eyes wandered over the marina. It was packed with vessels, many of them large motor cruisers with complex radar domes on their roofs and jazzy blue stripes on their white hulls. What were those craft used for, he wondered, apart from showing off?  How many were paid for by legitimate earnings? How many ventured out for any reason other than to pick up smuggled goods.

                “You mean like crime and drug trafficking and so on,” Fred said.

                Bert made a moaning sound which could have been agreement. “I’m pretty sure that happens in Devon like elsewhere, but no, I meant other things – supernatural things.”

                Fred harrumphed which caused his portly belly in its taut tee shirt to wobble. “What do you mean, supernatural? You gone gag-ga and started believing in ghosties?”

                Bert replied. “So what, if I think there are things out there which are beyond our knowledge.”

                Fred snorted. “You mean like that huge black dog that roams Dartmoor.”

                “Conan-Doyle believed in it,” Bert said.

                “He wrote a story about it.  That doesn’t mean he believed in it. Have you seen it then?”

                Bert shook his head.  “No, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

                “Why not?”

                “I’ve never been on Dartmoor.”

                “Well, what are you going on about then.” Fred felt himself starting to drift off again.

                “It’s them pesky piskies.”

                Fred was shocked almost to a state of alertness. “Pixies.  I thought they were Cornish.”

                Bert shook his head, “They’re Devenish as well.”

                “Why have you got your knickers in a twist about them then?”

                “They keep digging up me teddies.”

                “What?”

                “In the garden. I got potatoes growing and every morning I find the teddies have been dug up and are lying on top of the soil.”

                “And you think the piskies are doing it?” Fred chuckled.

                “I know it’s the piskies,” Bert said.

                “Na, it’s probably moles, or a fox, or something.”

                “It’s piskies, I say. I’ve seen them.”

                “You’ve seen them!” Fred was laughing now.

                “Yes. I’ve watched them in my garden at night, when the moon is shining.”

“Oh, right, you saw them. What did you see then?”

Bert sniffed, then spoke in a quiet whisper. “They were little folk, with strange large heads and big ears. They dug the earth under my potato plants and …”

“Dug up your teddies. Yeah, I get it. And when did you see this happen.” Fred twisted in his deckchair and looked closely at Bert.

“Last night”

“And you just let them get on with it.”

“I think I must have been entranced.  I couldn’t move. They must have known I was there and put a spell on me.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t that six pints of Doombar that made you legless.”

Bert’s eyebrows rose. “Did I have six pints last night?”

“You did.”

“Oh, that explains why I woke up in the greenhouse this morning.”

“The piskies didn’t put you there?” Fred was chuckling again.

“Of course not. How could piskies know I sleep in the greenhouse when ma missus won’t let me in.”

Fred nodded. “That explains it then.”

“Explain what?”

“Why you slept in the greenhouse.”

“Oh, yeah. But who’s digging up me teddies.”

………………..

Small Victories

One of the things that struck me about the vote of confidence (or lack of it) in the PM was his supporters such as Rees-Mogg, clinging to the claim that a majority of 1 was sufficient. Technically true perhaps, but morally and effectively nonsense. This first-passed-the-post idea should have been binned generations ago. I can think of no case when a victory by one vote should give the winner confidence – even in an electorate of 3. It is the epitome of a Pyrrhic victory (King Pyrrhus won a battle against the Romans but had lost so many of his army that he was not in a position to fight again). During the Cold War an American general stated that in a nuclear exchange, if all the Russians were eliminated and one American survived that would be a victory. As it is we now have a government of which 40% of its members have no confidence in its leader. I don’t expect the Conservative MPs to vote against themselves in Parliament – they haven’t got the conscience to do that – but everyone else at home and abroad will be uncertain about how long the government will continue or what it is capable of doing (on present evidence, very little)

The blinkered faith in small majorities is of course why we are in the mess we are in today. Few other countries would have relied on a referendum vote that went 52-48 to make important decisions like Brexit. In 2019 the Conservatives only took 42% of the vote (Labour took 40%) but the Tory majority of 80 seats (56%) makes them recklessly complacent. A system which allows such distorted results cannot be justified. Some complex proportional voting systems are a little better, but not much. For instance in the 2021 Welsh Senedd election Labour took about 39% of the vote and secured 50% of the seats. Together with their partners (not a coalition) in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru, they have around 58% of the vote and 72% of the seats.

I have never lived in a constituency/ward where I have voted for the winning candidate, except for when I voted for myself as a town councillor. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

Stratford-on-Avon canal

Now the pandemic is over (really?) we are beginning to consider ways that those of us with published books can make contact with potential purchasers. I and a group of authors in Monmouthshire have formed a loose cooperative to take stalls at fairs and organise pop-up events around the area. Will I and the others make a profit out of these ventures? We’ll see, but one has to do something to promote one’s literary efforts. We call ourselves Marchers: Authors on the Move. It’s a play on the term Marches, the name given to the border country of Wales. It may also recall the Marcher Lords who controlled the area on behalf of the English King. In some ways I don’t want to be associated with them. There are a lot of people round here who are recent settlers in Wales or have English ancestry and have little or no knowledge of the thousand year occupation by the (Norman) English and their effect on Cymru past and present. Anyway, look out for news of the Marchers in the future.

To this week’s writing for the group. The topic was “The Butterfly Effect”. My piece is intended as a satire but I realise that it bears some resemblance to “Don’t Look Up” particularly Mark Rylance’s character.

The Butterfly Effect

“We must do something about these hurricanes.” 

                Olivia nodded in agreement. The damage caused by the latest hurricane to the huge warehouse in Florida had wiped a couple of billion off her boss’ net worth. It barely counted as a gnat bite to his vast fortune, but Steff Fusk was renowned for his attention to detail, for minding the dollars as well as the billions. Olivia was his right hand, the one who acted on his every whim. Usually, she knew exactly what he wanted but this time she was uncertain what was required.

                “Do something? What can we do, Steff?” He insisted she used his first name although there was no hint of friendship or equality in their relationship. “We can prepare for hurricanes, harden the structures, improve drainage, etcetera…”

                “No, we must stop the hurricanes themselves. Treat the problem at the source, cut to the root of the matter.” He thumped the glass topped desk with his fist.

                It was his way, of course. Get straight to the core of a question, sweep away all the peripheral nonsense. It was what had made him the richest man on the planet.

                “But hurricanes are a natural phenomenon,” Olivia insisted, “Global warming is making them stronger and more frequent, and, well, they’re weather.”

                Fusk glared at her from his halo of curly silver hair. “But they have a cause. Something sets them off. We must tackle that cause and stop hurricanes from forming.”

                Olivia was lost for ideas, “Er, what do you mean?”

                “Butterflies,” he said.

                “Butterflies?”

                “You must have heard of the Butterfly Effect.”

                “Yes, but…”

                “The flapping of a butterfly wing creates a vortex in the air which grows to become a hurricane.”

                Olivia felt her head spinning. “Yes, I’ve heard of it – small changes trigger big effects, but how does that help.”

                “We can find which butterfly is causing the hurricane and stop it.”  His eyes gleamed. She could imagine the brain working behind those distinctive eyes, thinking of solutions to problems that other people had not even realised existed.

                “But there are millions of butterflies, and it may not be a butterfly, it could be a moth or bee or fly or indeed anything else which initiates the air pressure anomaly that might grow into a hurricane.”

                “Yes, yes, I know. I was speaking metaphorically.”

                Olivia felt relief. Fusk had built his business empire on wild ideas that bore fruit and Olivia had been the one who saw that the seed became the fruit tree. His whims though had been become increasingly bizarre and this seemed the weirdest of the lot. But a metaphor, well she could cope with a play on words. Except that he was continuing to talk in that dreamy voice he had when he was thinking.

                “It’s all about the data.” Of course, it was. Fusk’s business was data. “We track and monitor every human on the planet and every vehicle and every machine. We have satellites observing every square centimetre of the Earth’s surface from the bottom of the oceans to the top of the atmosphere. We can do this. It’s just a step change, or two. We can detect every movement of the air from the smallest puff to the biggest hurricane. Then it’s a matter of recognising the patterns connecting them. Yes, Olivia, it can be done.”

                Olivia stared at him. “You mean that hurricanes could be forecast?”

                “Oh, more than forecast. Detected at origin and stifled, snuffed out.”

                “Really?”

“Yes, Olivia, really. It will need the more powerful computers to collect all the data and the fastest A.I. to recognise the start of a hurricane, or a typhoon. Quantum computing is the answer, but we’ll need more than those fools at IBM or Google have managed so far. Get on to it, Olivia. Catch me a butterfly.”

Olivia doubted it was possible, but Fusk kept on about it. It was his new obsession. His billions were diverted to creating the computing and machine learning facility that could record the patterns in the movements of molecules across the surface of the planet. Soon the expenditure was more than the GDP of the most powerful nations on Earth; the workers building and programming and managing the machine numbered a fifth of all those in employment. It was the biggest single project ever seen. Every cent of Fusk’s fortune, and profit from his many businesses was diverted to the venture. Of course, the machine wasn’t just in one place; its parts were spread across the world and in orbit.

                Olivia was exhausted. The scale of the project meant that it was impossible for her or any other single person to follow all aspects of its construction. She had seen Fusk become wizened and aged as he ignored everything but his Butterfly Machine, as he called it while she lost touch with what the machine as doing.

                At last, years after the project had begun, Olivia received a summons to his office. It had not changed much. Just an extra display glowed in the air over his desk.

                “It’s done,” he sighed, a shrunken relic buried in his chair.

                “The thing’s working?” Olivia said, incredulous that Fusk’s life’s work had reached a conclusion, whatever that might be.

                Fusk nodded, his eyes on the display. “All the data is collected; the patterns have been detected and evaluated. It is time to go live and identify the source of the next hurricane. Except there will not be a next one. We’ll snuff it out.”

                Olivia shrugged. Even after all the time and effort and expense she still doubted that it could be done.

                “Run,” said Fusk. There was no sound, no clattering of relays, no hum of fans cooling silicon chips. Around the world quantum bits were stirred, shuffled, entangled, superpositioned, collapsed. The resulting calculations beamed along optic cables to be further processed, the models checked, and the solutions arrived at.

                “There,” cried Fusk. “It’s found one. Now the mitigation will take place.”

On a small island in the Caribbean, a young girl sat on a beach with a butterfly perched on her finger. She admired the colourful patterns on its wings which were drying out. It had just emerged from a chrysalis. She bent close to see the insect more clearly. Her breath ruffled the wings. It flapped.

                A ray of cold light shone from space. The butterfly disappeared in a scattering of atoms.

                The small girl gasped, letting out a disappointed cry.

                Another beam of light descended.

Lovely Jubily

This week we are enjoying the rare (except at Christmas) pleasure of bank holidays on a Thursday and Friday, in order to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s seventy years on the throne of the UK. I think only the most ardent anti-monarchists would disagree that she has performed her role with commitment. The joy of the event is only tempered by the knowledge that the next big royal occasion will probably be her funeral; a platinum jubilee is indeed a unique event.

The celebrations have been the usual mix of pomp and tat. The BBC showed one girl with her face painted with the slogan “born to be queen”. If that is supposed to refer to QE2 then it is of course wrong. Her life was supposed to be somewhat akin to that enjoyed by Zara Philips or Andrew & Fergie’s pair of daughters. It was only when she was 10 years old that she became heir to the throne following her uncle’s abdication. Despite the late and sudden change in her destiny she seems to have quickly found the dedication to the job that she has sustained throughout her reign. In a time when even popes can retire she could have taken herself away anytime in the last twenty years but instead, and, without being cynical about her reasons, she has stuck with the task. It is her obvious and, I think, real devotion to service, that has maintained respect for the monarchy as the guarantor of the our constitution-less democracy. That is despite the efforts of our current PM who amongst other disgraces is suspected of lying to the Queen in order to close down Parliament in 2019.

While I am not emotionally attached to the monarchy neither am I a republican. I cannot agree that having an elected head of state would be an improvement. Just think of the people who might put themselves up for election, the characters who would buy their way into the job. People say that the monarchy is a waste of money but just think of the cost of running a presidency – the palaces they would need, the private transport, the security. I don’t think we would save much. Then look at all the other countries that became republics with supposed electoral democracies and how an incumbent subverted the apparently rock solid constitutions: France (Napoleon), Germany (Hitler), Russia (Putin), India (Modi), Hungary (Orban) et al. I’m not sure there is one place that has not ended up with a dictator at some period. Except, so far, the USA (although it was/is almost there) but they are hamstrung by a constitution which may have been satisfactory 250 years ago but, though it is revered, is abused daily. I’m thinking of the Senate in which less populous states have an equal say to the most densely populated ones, and the article of faith that is the “right to bear arms”.

No, I don’t want any of that, so let’s wave our Union Flags, eat our platinum pudding and cheer for the Queen.

The approach to Stratford-on-Avon, Wilmcote locks

Is it paranoia when they really are out to get you? That must be a question in the minds of any trans or gender-variant person. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see or hear some item denigrating trans-people or accusing them of some ill. It is usually aimed at those transwomen who still have a penis in their knickers but everyone is caught up in it.

The BBC was found to be guilty of poor journalism for a piece saying that lesbians were being pressured to have sex with transwomen. Of course, who one has sex with is a matter of attraction between individuals. Being forced into sex is grooming or rape and should be punished. I do not believe, however, that there is an army of transwomen demanding sex with lesbians. It was pure hyperbole. Nevertheless, the BBC response was that they could say what they like about transpeople because transphobia is not on the same level as racism or homophobia. That is technically true. As I have noted often, the 2010 Equality Act states that crimes against people who are gay or from ethnic minorities are hate crimes, but this is only also the case for those transmen and women who hold a Gender Recognition Certificate i.e. who have been judged by a panel to have undertaken or intend to undertake, gender reassignment surgery. That is a few thousand people. The vast majority of trans and gender-variant citizens are not covered so are not protected from hateful accusations or intimidation. It is not the response I would expect from the BBC; I thought they would at least be fair and balanced.

Even in my local paper there was a report on people opposed to the new Welsh Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum. Notwithstanding that some people are against any form of sex education, one complaint was that the curriculum “promotes trans-ideology”. From my brief reading of the curriculum this is a spurious nonsense. The curriculum merely points to people having various sexualities and genders and encourages pupils to respect others. Once again it is a vocal group making a fuss about a non-existent problem.

While on the subject of education, there was also the statement by the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, that schools are not obliged by law to provide support for pupils who are transitioning – another dig at trans-people, this time the young and vulnerable ones. I am glad to say that headteachers responded that they do a lot of things that are not legally obliged of them and that their schools would provide support to any pupil whatever the reason.

Back to writing. This week’s theme from writing club was “after dark”. Lots of possibilities but I was inspired (is that the right word?) by an article in New Scientist last week. My piece perhaps reads like more of an outline of a story than the finished thing itself, but here it is.

After Dark

It was after dark that the lights appeared. I was waiting with my camera.

I’m an aurora-nerd. I’ve travelled to various places in the Arctic and Antarctic to watch and record the amazing lights in the sky. They’re caused by highly energetic particles from the Sun hitting the upper atmosphere. I’d never seen the Northern Lights from my home in South Wales and didn’t expect to until yesterday.

A notification on my smart phone informed me that a solar flare had been observed. That was a sign that a coronal mass ejection (CME) was on its way to Earth. There was a good chance that it would set off the aurora. Further notifications told me that this looked as though it was going to be quite big CME which meant that the aurora would be seen further from the Poles than usual. I started to load up my camper van with my camera kit and supplies for a night or two away from home.

By this afternoon I was quite optimistic of seeing something of the aurora, even if it was just a greeny-orange glow in the sky not far from my home. I drove up into the mountains to my nearest dark sky area. When I arrived at the car park, I found I wasn’t the only one on the quest. I loaded myself up with cameras, tripods and hot drinks and set off up the path. At the summit there were other people, a few that I knew already, setting up their equipment.

Luckily, the sky was cloudless this evening. I watched the Sun sink below the horizon and the sky turn from blue to violet and then black. The stars came out in their myriads. There was not a hint of the light of civilisation even though I was less than fifty miles from my city home. I poured myself a coffee and waited.

It wasn’t long before I noticed a glow in the northern sky. There was a cheer from my companions. I took a few photos just in case this was the limit of the aurora. It wasn’t. The glow spread across the sky and developed structure – waves, curtains, you name it I saw all the known aurora phenomenon. I was staggered by the sight. I hadn’t seen anything like it even when I had been on expeditions close to the North Pole.

That was when I began to worry. The atmosphere seemed to be boiling. Orange, yellow, green lights flickered and flashed across the whole sky. The stars were extinguished. I imagined I could feel the charge in the air caused by the impact of those particle. It may not have been imagination. The hairs on my hands and wrists stood up and I felt a tingling. When I closed my eyes, I saw streaks of light telling me that cosmic rays generated by the CME particles hitting molecules in the atmosphere were passing through my body. I momentarily worried if I was in danger of getting cancer standing on the mountain top.

That’s when my worries began for real. If this was happening down here what was going on higher up. Were the astronauts in the ISS safe? What was happening to the satellites in orbit? I took out my smart phone. There was no signal, no internet. Was that because I was pretty remote or something more sinister. My observations showed that this CME was one of the biggest if not the biggest ever witnessed. I decided I’d seen enough. I packed up my kit and headed downhill to my campervan.

The lights in the sky were fading but still visible as I drove along the country roads. That they were still visible at all meant that this was a remarkable and unprecedented event. I turned on the car radio. Nothing. Well, it was never that dependable in the old VW, but my worries increased.

I came to the first village. It was dark, no streetlights and none of the houses illuminated. OK, it was a small village, perhaps it didn’t have streetlights. Perhaps everyone was in bed; it was approaching midnight. But surely the display in the sky would have kept some people up.

I reached the main road and was soon heading into the valleys and the beginning of the South Wales metropolis. I pulled up and gazed through the windscreen in amazement and terror. The whole urban area was dark. Well, not completely. In one or two places, flames lit up the sky. Houses, shops, factories, streets though, were dark.

It was no mystery to me. I could guess what had happened. The CME interferes with the Earth’s magnetic field. That causes huge currents to flow briefly in lengths and coils of metal, such as power lines and transformers. That knocks out the mains electric grid. No-one would have any power. Without power the telephone lines would be down, both landlines and cell phones. I had no doubt that communication satellites and GPS would have been damaged, if not destroyed, so the internet was out too. No one would have power for anything – water supply, heating, cooking, TV. It could take months to get the power stations and grid working again. I didn’t want to think about how people would manage during that time.

I did a U-turn in the van and headed back into the mountains. Being remote was safer than finding myself amongst frightened, clueless people.

910 words

Solar Surprise, Stuart Clark  New Scientist 21/05/2022

Tearing one’s hair

It is beyond farce. Satirists must be wondering what is left for them to say. The Gray report reveals the party culture of No.10 – what workplace would allow such wanton drinking and misbehaviour? Meanwhile the PM continues to insist that all the partying was work-related. Having trashed the reputation of Parliament, the Conservative Party and the UK government he has now brought the Metropolitan Police down to his level. And so of course, on cue, we have the Chancellor’s response to the prices crisis with yet more U-turns, on windfall taxes and, help for the poor. I’m not sure why every household needs the £400 rebate. I presume Rishi is making sure he gets it to add to his millions. I’m not sure I can say any more. I certainly can’t bring myself to name the villain who occupies No.10. He said once that it would take a tank to remove him. That is possibly the only true statement he has made.

Who would want to live in the USA, well parts of it anyway? States such as Texas are planning to make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion for any reason, planning to pay informants for reporting women seeking an abortion and anyone helping them, and preparing laws to punish anyone involved in abortions, all to protect unborn children, so they say. At the same time they allow anyone to arm themselves and go into schools to kill young children but will do nothing to limit the sale of guns. It is madness.

I have a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds written by Charles Mackay and published in 1842. It describes some of the madnesses that gripped people prior to that date such as Tulipmania, the South Sea Bubble, and witch hunting. I can only say that if a new version was written today it would fill several volumes and include a large proportion of humanity. There may be sentient species on Earth but I am not sure that humankind is one of them.

It is now a week since we returned from our trip on the midland canals. It was a lovely fortnight, a complete change of routine, hard work at times (180 locks filled and/or emptied) but very pleasurable. It never ceases to amaze me how one’s world can shrink to an area probably less than a mile in diameter which moves with us as we travel the canals. I did no writing when we were away and have done no new writing since returning. However I did have one nice bit of news. A short piece I entered in a local writing competition was “Highly Commended”. It’s always nice to have some sign that one is getting somethings (almost) right. Now I must get down to sending An Extraordinary Tale off, do something about marketing my published books and get on with some actual new writing.

Meandering

Following our visit to the theatre in Stratford we have been wending our way back to base. The weather has been warmer this week and it has been really pleasurable. Even the 21 locks of the Hatton flight passed quickly and easily, with the help of a CRT volunteer. We have met some nice boaters particularly when we travelled through at least a dozen locks paired with a boat owned by an australian couple.

The pleasure of being in the country, on a boat, on holiday does not however diminish my anger at our criminal government. There are lots of things but the fuss over the NI protocol is infuruating. I can only conclude that Johnson and his cronies signed the agreement with the intention of breaking it at some point. The only alternative is that they and their advisors are complete idiots. Of course the protocol puts a border in the Irish Sea because Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement have always been and always will be incompatible. What is even worse now is that the Westminster govt is acting against the wishes of the party that holds the largest nuber of seats in the NI assembly. Democracy? Pah!

This holiday I have not attempted any writing whatsoever, but I have been reading. I have completed a book that was on my presents list and is absolutely wonderful. It is “The Galaxy and the ground within” by Becky Chambers. It has spaceships and aliens and other worlds but no shooting or explosions (well, a few but not involving the characters). It is a beautiful story of people learning to get on with one another in an emergency. The aliens are realised in fascinating detail – their morphology, characters, history – and they really are alien not humanoid. 5 stars from me.

Keeping the Peace

We’ve been out on our travels and it has been delightful. Apart from one day (well morning) of rain it has been dry and largely sunny, though not quite as warm as we hoped. Nevertheless, good boating weather. At this time of year, the leaves on the trees still look and are fresh, there are wild flowers, including bluebells and ransoms, and of course young ducklings, cygnets, goslings, moorhen chicks etc.

We set ourselves quite a stiff target with lots of locks to negotiate (at least 15 per day on average). Some of them can be quite difficult – heavy gates or stiff paddles – but, hey, it’s part of the hols and gives us our exercise. Actually boating for hours on a lock-free stretch can get tiresome and the back stiffens up.

Anyway, we reached out objective, Stratford, which gave us the opportunity to pick up some last minute tickets for the RSC, the first time we’ve visited the re-built theatre. The play is The Wars of the Roses, which is a version of Henry VI part 3. Filled with battles (5 of them) it is perhaps an appropriate theme for this moment in time when war is real for the people of Ukraine and threatens us all. The play highlights the male arrogance and ambition that destroys so much for so little as one after another duke and king fight and kill and die. The irony is that the whole war of the roses thing happened because Henry VI was a pacifist and definitely not your average belligerant male. He didn’t understand the lies and political manoeuvres that preceded the warmaking. Ultimately he was killed to remove his supporters’ reasons for fighting.

The present situation with Russia is not the same but perhaps there are parallels that explain why the last 70 years have been relatively peaceful. I wrote last week about the dangers of nuclear war and MAD. An in-depth article in The Guardian this week explored my points much more thoroughly. The point is that people like Putin (and Johnson) do not have the horror of nuclear war that previous leaders had. Leaders such as Kennedy and Kruschev had seen what nuclear weapons can do. In the 50s and 60s there was a lot of first hand accounts from the few survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Leaders realised that one bomb, one missile, could cause huge devastation. The same is true today but the new “missile defence systems” perhaps give generals and presidents a false sense of security. Nevertheless just one missile getting through would cause unbelievable suffering.

What is the answer? We don’t need Henry VI’s innocent pacifism. We don’t need enough weapons to obliterate everything on Earth many times over. We do need an understanding of what nuclear war really means. The problem is Putin seems devoid of any sympathy for people – his own or anyone elses’. He has shown in Chechenya, Syria and now Ukraine, that he doesn’t care how many people die. Does he care how many Russians will suffer if the west responds to any use by Russia of a nuclear weapon?

Anyway, we lived with the prospect of nuclear terror in the 60s. It seems we have to again. So I’m making the most of visits to the theatre, boating on the canals and enjoying the countryside.

The joy of Spring

It has been spring-like in the past week, as it should be in early May. It has been warmer and sunny rather than merely dry. It was the pleasant weather that made a walk we did so enjoyable. Just across the river and up into the woods, under two miles from our home. There we had that defining experience of spring – a walk through bluebells. The wash of blue under the trees which were just coming into leaf was wonderful. Not just bluebells but ramsons too, a carpet of white and green to accompany the blue. The aroma of wild garlic filled the air.

It wasn’t quite perfect because there was the continuous roar of traffic on the A40 on the other side of the valley. On the other hand we were totally alone, not another soul seen on the entire walk through the woods. Definitely an uplifting and positive experience.

Not to spoil the positivity but the war in Ukraine continues to dominate the news and must be in people’s thoughts. An article in Radio Times by someone who experienced the Russian tactics at Aleppo in Syria caught my eye. She wonders if the availability of graphic footage of the war and the bombardment of Ukraine’s cities on social media platforms such as Tik Tok sensitises watchers to the horrors of war. The frequency of the appalling scenes means they become “normal” but the watcher is removed from the immediate experience so does not feel the pain and suffering of those on the spot.

I can agree with her analysis. I also wonder at people’s reactions to the war and to talk of it turning nuclear. Some of the headlines appear to almost be excited or thrilled by the prospect as if it is the next level up in excitement from the current Russian use of missiles and artillery. They don’t seem to grasp how final a nuclear exchange would be. Since the 1950s the prevailing policy has been MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. If one side used nuclear weapons, the other would respond to annihilate the attacker. That would bring an equal response, so both sides, indeed the whole world would be rendered uninhabitable. It was the terror of that scenario that held nuclear war at bay. It is the reason why we are here now. Both sides had to believe that the other would carry it through. It is madness of course, but has had enough emotional power on leaders of both (all) sides to sort of work. If Putin gets the idea that he can drop a nuclear missile on say, Kyiv, and not be obliterated in return, then he may be tempted to show what a tough guy he is. That will be the end for all of us whether the West does respond or not.

……………………………….

This week’s writing group was all about plotting. We had a workshop on using a grid to plot out our stories according to the standard 3 Act structure which was useful and thought-provoking. Prior to the meeting, the theme was “losing the plot”. I kept my piece short (800 words) for the purposes of the session and had to stop myself from developing parts further, so here it is – Lost Property.

Lost Property

The last train had long gone, and the platform was deserted. It was illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. I walked slowly past the ticket office (closed) and waiting room (locked and empty) until I found what I was looking for at the end of the building. It was a sign saying, “Lost Property”.

                A bell rang as I opened the door and stepped into the tiny office. A small, grey-haired man sat behind the counter. He lifted his head as I entered and put down his copy of a newspaper.

                He spoke in a cheerful voice. “Good evening, Sir. Have you lost something?”

                “Um, yes.” I hesitated not sure how to describe what I was looking for. “I appear to have lost the plot.”

                “The plot, Sir. Whose plot would that be?”

                “My own, I think,” I said.

                “Ah, that can be a problem, Sir. How do you know it is your plot that is missing?” The little man frowned but his tone suggested he wanted to help.

                “Well, I really don’t know what I am doing, why I am here or where I’m supposed to be going.”

                The man stood but he was no taller than when he was seated.

“I see, sir. That is no doubt a sign that it is indeed your plot that has been mislaid. But do not worry, I have a considerable number of plots in store, waiting to be claimed by their owners. Perhaps one of them is yours.”

                “Oh, thank you.” I did feel grateful although I was somewhat confused.

                The man took a pencil from behind his ear and took a form from the pile on the end of the counter.

                “Now, I do have to ask some questions, which will help us identify your plot.”

                “Of course,” I said, eager to help.

                The man poised the pencil above the form. “Perhaps you could tell me which type of plot is missing.”

                “Type of plot?”

                “Yes, Sir. I am sure you are aware that there are seven classes of plot. Yours must fall into one of them.”

                “Oh, right, yes, um. You’d better tell me what they are.”

                The man adjusted his spectacles and examined the form. “Well, first there is `defeating the monster’. Are you pursuing a dragon or an evil lord?”

                I shook my head, “Not that I’m aware of.”

                “It needn’t be an actual monster of course. You are not divorcing your wife by any chance?”

                “I don’t think I have a wife.”

                “Well, maybe the monster is within you. Do you have your own demons?”

                I shrugged, “I don’t feel, er, troubled, just sort of lost.”

                The little man, sighed. “Well, we will leave that one. Now, class 2, that’s `rags to riches’.” He peered over his specs at me. “No, I don’t think so. You don’t look particularly poor or rich. What about number 3, `The Quest’. That is a very common one. Are you searching for a valuable object or a person?”

                “Only my purpose,” I said, feeling a little bereft.

                “Hmm, well, how about the next one, `The Odyssey’. Are you on a long and difficult journey, sir?”

                “I came here,” I said eagerly.

                The little man shook his head. “I don’t think that counts, sir. Ah, this looks more cheerful. How about `Comedy’?” He stared at me eagerly. I couldn’t think what to say. He rotated his hands urging me to come back with a witty answer, I suppose. I didn’t reply. He appeared to slump.

“Well, not Comedy then. Ah, now the next one, perhaps this is it, `Tragedy’ although the ending may not be what you are hoping for. Are you a hero with a flaw, sir?” He looked at me with wide expectant eyes.

                I shrugged. “I can’t recall doing anything heroic.”

                “No, I don’t suppose you have,” he said and looked down at his sheet of paper. “That only leaves one more. Surely it must be this one, `Re-birth’.  Are you waiting for that one moment when your life will change and you will become a different, a better, person?”

                My past life was something of a mystery to me. It had passed in a blur. Had I disappointed the people around me or annoyed them in some way. Was I waiting for that special event that would change me and my place in the world? I shook my head.

                “I’m sorry, I really don’t know,” I said.

                The little man put his pencil down. “Well, I am sorry, sir. If you can’t identify your plot, I really can’t help you.”

                “But I must find it,” I said, “I don’t know what to do next.”

                The little man brightened suddenly. “That’s the answer. You don’t know what to do because you need a new plot. Now, I have lots in the cupboard which haven’t been claimed. You can take any one you like.”

                I felt happy. “That’s wonderful. I’ll do that. Er, but how did I get here?”

                The little man practically danced on the spot. “It doesn’t matter, Sir. That was another story, and it has just reached its end.”

…………………………..

Being Positive

The news is worrying but I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be so anxious and looked on the positive side of things. That is what I will do this week and indeed there is a lot to be positive about. Of course I am grateful that I have an adequate pension (at the moment anyway. Stop it! Don’t be a pessimist), a warm, safe place to live, good health, and, being retired, I don’t have to worry about work. What else is there – well, quite a lot really:

The Countryside. We live in a wonderful part of the country and the other day we took a walk through fields where there were wonderful views, wild flowers beginning to appear and the sound of birdsong. It was glorious.

Exercise. I play tennis two or three times a week (sometimes more). I’m not very good as I don’t have good control over my strokes nor can I anticipate what my opponent intends to do. Nevertheless, I enjoy the games, feel satisfaction if I hit a good shot and, despite the occasional sore back or pulled calf feel that it does me a lot of good.

Writing. This week I wrote a short story (see below) and did some editing on An Extraordinary Tale. I write for pleasure, to be read and perhaps, sometime, earn a little money. For me, all of those go together – there has to be some point to the writing. So reading out what I have written at writing group is part of the enjoyment (as well as meeting up with friends and hearing what they have done).

Being me. Having hidden my feelings about my gender for so long, and then maintaining the secret while I was still working, I am grateful and happy that I can now be the person I feel I am, dressing as I wish and being open about my gender-fluid/non-binary character. That is helped by the love and support of Lou but it is also encouraging that when I am out and about I seem to be accepted.

Sharing life. We don’t do everything together but just being with Lou is a joy. Going for a walk, a meal, a visit to the theatre/cinema, holidays, just being at home together, fills me with gratitude and pleasure.

So there we are, a happy time, like most times are. That should allow us to be optimistic for the future. We’ll see.

As I mentioned, I wrote a short story for writing group this week. The topic was “Nuns”. I wanted to write an SF story. There are plenty of SF stories with a religious theme and while it may not be original, I started to get a plot in my head. However I was a little short of time and I realised the idea would need to be developed somewhat. So this story is a rather curtailed version. Perhaps I will come back to Mother Superior Ignatia and the convent on the farside of the Moon at a later date. Here for now is Among All the Stars of Heaven.

Among All the Stars in Heaven

Mother Superior Ignatia knelt before the altar. She lifted her head, opened her eyes and looked through the glass cupola high above her. The familiar patterns of the stars shone against the black void. The chapel was the only place where there was an actual window. The high intensity of cosmic rays meant that the rest of the convent was buried in the moonrock. Despite the risks, Ignatia often came here alone to pray to have that view of the Kingdom of Heaven. The realm of humanity was beneath her, beyond the diameter of the Moon and a quarter of a million miles of space.

                A buzz in her ear signalled that her moment of peace and contemplation was over.

                “Yes?” Ignatia said, “What is it?”

                Sister Esther’s voice replied. “We have a visitor, Mother Superior.”

                “A visitor?” The convent had been sited on the Moon’s equator in the middle of the mis-named “dark side” purposely, to be as far as possible from human civilisation.

                “Yes, she has just turned up at the air lock.” Sister Esther sounded affronted that their isolation had been disturbed. “She wants to be let in.”

                Ignatia rose to her feet, a somewhat easier task in lunar gravity than it would have been on Earth at her age.

                “I’m coming. Open the outer door but do not let this visitor pass through the inner shield until I get there.”

                “No, Mother Superior.”

                Ignatia gathered up her gown and set off at the loping trot perfected by all lunar dwellers. It took less than a minute to negotiate the bare and dimly lit corridors and reach the entrance vestibule. Sister Esther stood at the communications and air lock control station.

                “What does this visitor look like?” Ignatia asked.

                “It is difficult to tell while she is wearing a full surface suit. She sounds like a young woman. She is alone and appears unarmed” Esther replied.

                “Let her through.”

                “Yes, Mother.”

                Air rushed into the air lock. The two nuns waited impatiently for the few minutes to pass by before the door sighed open. The woman stepped into the vestibule. She had already removed her helmet and was rubbing a hand through her short white hair. Her face was the lightest shade of pale, flawless, the eyes iridescent blue.

                “Thank you for letting me in,” she said in English with a mild accent that Ignatia could not identify. The Mother Superior examined the woman’s surface suit for signs of identification or origin. There were none. It was, unusually, pure white with no markings whatsoever and no grey moondust adhering to it.

The woman ran her finger down the side of her body. The suit parted, slipped from her shoulders and sank to the floor. She stepped out of the crumpled suit dressed only in a white body-hugging under-garment.

“Pardon us for appearing unwelcoming,” Ignatia said as warmly as she could, “but a visitor is unusual in the extreme. Why have you come to us?”

“I wish to join you,” the young woman said with a broad smile.

“You mean you wish to be registered as a postulant?”

She shrugged, “I do not recognise that term. I come to help you in your purpose.”

Ignatia frowned. “Our purpose is to praise God and pray for His creation.”

“That is not all.”

Ignatia heard Esther suck in a breath at the impertinence of the visitor. The Mother Superior nodded. “That is true. Obviously, we maintain our home, manage the systems that service our needs for power, air, water, and we tend the plants which provide our food. We prepare our meals, keep the place clean and look after one another.”

“And your other task,” the woman insisted.

“You mean our astronomical work?”

The woman nodded.

“There is that of course,” Ignatia went on a little confused by the guest’s questioning. “Our convent was established here far away from interference by human civilisation, shielded by the mass of the Moon from Earth in order to search for signs of God’s creation on other worlds.”

“Is not the whole universe God’s creation?”

“That is true, but we are looking for that which completed God’s handiwork.”

“Humankind?”

“That or something similar.” Ignatia wondered where this conversation was leading.

The woman added, “Sentient inhabitants of another world.”

“That’s a good way of putting it.” Ignatia did not like the term aliens or ETs as they did not sound like God’s creations but “sentient inhabitants” was appropriate.

“You have not found them.” The young woman was making a statement.

“No, but our search is in its early stages. There are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies. It will take us many generations to complete our task. Our techniques are improving all the time.” Ignatia did not expect the search to be completed in her lifetime.

“What if one of these beings found you?”

Ignatia’s heartbeat quickened. “What do you mean? Who are you?”

“I am Gabriel.” Her hands tore at the thin material that covered her body. She bared her smooth, flat torso. White, feathered wings unfolded at her back.

………………………………..

Changing your mind

What shall I write about this week?

  • The appalling behaviour of the person masquerading as our PM whose self-interest is his only consideration;
  • The reported revolt of Home Office staff over the sick and stupid plan to dump refugees in Rwanda;
  • The increasingly desperate position of the people of Ukraine and the assistance or otherwise provided by the West;
  • How Republican states in the USA move ever closer to the state of Gilead as described by Margaret Attwood in The Handmaids Tale – they may not be killing people yet but they are denying women rights to their own bodies and persecuting gay and, especially, trans people.
  • Climate change and the deteriorating state of the Earth.

I could rant about any of those issues but I doubt I have anything say that is original or would have any effect on the people concerned. How does one go about changing someone’s mind? After all there are still many people who think Brexit was a good idea, many who think the Covid vaccinations are some kind of plot by the lizards who rule us or who believe the various other conspiracy theories. There are no doubt millions of people in Russia who believe that somehow Ukraine was a threat to them and Putin is protecting them with his “special operation” which is harming almost nobody. We believe what we read or hear if it supports what we already believe and reject everything else. Presumably, that has always been true yet in the era of social media, the internet and 24-hour worldwide news, it seems that we are far more polarised and stuck in our mindsets than ever before. I like to think I am open-minded but actually I get riled when I hear people spouting nonsense – or what I consider nonsense.

I have just read the book Bitch by Lucy Cooke about sex and gender in the animal kingdom. That and other things I have read makes me wonder even more what is it that sets us apart from other animals. It used to be our use of tools, our language and communication skills, our social civilisation and our ability to problem solve and adjust our behaviour. Now we see that many other creatures can emulate us in each of those skills.

We may have the ability to construct nuclear bombs and a better cheese grater, which no other animals have achieved. We may have thousands of languages capable of expressing complex thoughts which, maybe, parrots and whales are unable to do. We may live relatively peacefully and comfortably in communities of millions watching TV, while thousands of flamingos can only stand in an alkaline lake; and, we can solve Wordle in two or three goes which not even an octopus could do but can we change out behaviour to save ourselves and our planet? Not a chance.

A peaceful Dixton Embankment – can you see the busy A40?

This week’s writing task had two elements. The topic was a loose theme “I might have…” but we also had to write an “elevator pitch”. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, imagine you meet a publisher in a lift and have the time taken to travel a few floors to describe your wonderful novel/story/concept. You have time for one or maybe two sentences. The pitch has to be simple but original. In this case I am pitching just a five hundred word story so it’s not quite a realistic situation, nevertheless, summing up a short story in just a few words to sound exciting is not easy.

The pitch: A super-hero faces his nemesis and contemplates what their life might have been.

(Yes, I know, that could be the pitch for Superman and Lois and number of other super-hero stories)

And so, the story:

The Owl

His super-sensitive eyes picked out the prey slithering through the long grass far across the plain from his perch high in the lone oak tree, Time was short, he had to catch the Viper before it reached the security of its lair. There was still light enough to be visible, but The Owl was confident. He extended his wings and swooped from the branch. His special wing feathers swept through the air without a sound. The Viper would be unaware of his approach. The Owl’s fast, silent flight was one of his super-powers. Another was the strength and sharpness of his talons.

                He skimmed the top of the grass, his binocular vision focussed on the prey. At the last moment, he rotated his wings, extended his claws, and dropped on the snake. The Viper squirmed but The Owl had him pinned firmly to the ground.

                “Get off me, you stuffed ball of feathers,” The Viper hissed.

                “No way, Viper. I have you now. That’s an end to your dastardly plan – again.”

                The Owl felt the Viper go limp under him.

                “Dash it. Why is it always you?” The Viper said, “Why can’t you let me get away with something just once.”

                “Because I’m a super-hero and you are my sworn enemy.” The Owl stretched upright, folding his wings to his side. The feathers melded into the mottled grey, rubber skin of his super-hero suit, the talons retracted into his shoes, and the super-sensitive camera lens folded up into his helmet. He reached down and hauled the Viper to his feet.

                The man in the snake-skin suit whined “But how do you keep on doing it, time after time. Don’t you get tired of being such a goody-goody?”

                 The villain’s words had some effect on the Owl. It touched a raw patch which had been growing. Why did he do it? After all, being a super-hero took up a lot of his time and was exhausting. He had to keep practising too. All those super-talents required training and familiarity with his super-gadgets.

                “You know,” The Owl replied, “It does get monotonous having to save the planet  over and over again. If it wasn’t for you and the other super-criminals, life would be so much calmer. I often wonder what I might have been if I hadn’t stepped into that mad scientist’s laboratory. I dream that I might have been normal, not special at all, an ordinary bloke with an ordinary job and a family who I don’t have to keep secrets from. Just imagine coming home from a day’s work, eating supper with my partner, sitting down to watch a show on the TV, perhaps having a glass of wine or two.”

                “Sounds idyllic,” muttered The Viper. “Why don’t you?”

                “Because of you and others like you,” The Owl replied.

                “No, it’s not. There are loads of super-heroes out there who could take your place. You could give it up tomorrow, or why not now. Go and relax on your sofa and cuddle your wife or whatever.”

                The Owl snorted. “But I can’t, can I. There is no comfy sofa or cosy home. I spend most of my time in a secret lair where I wait for the call to extend my wings and soar to another rescue or tackle another crime. There’s no point in thinking about the might haves. Come on. I’m taking you in.”

………………………..

Flouting the law

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has been found guilty and fined (perhaps more than once) for breaking laws introduced by his own government. That is a shocking sentence to write but flouting the law is not uncommon: many people broke or bent the pandemic regulations though most of us did not hold parties at work or at home; drivers frequently ignore speed restrictions and disregard parking regulations; people drop litter and dump rubbish; dog owners allow their pets to foul paths and hang their little plastic bags of poo on branches and fences; wealthy people find ways to avoid paying the taxes due; water companies pollute the rivers and streams; companies wriggle out of their obligations to pay a living wage and give warning of redundancy; chemical companies manufacture and sell abroad pesticides and other chemicals that are illegal to use here; perpetrators of theft, assault and rape get away with their crimes.

Is it, therefore of any importance that the most important person in the land (sort of) is found to be a lawbreaker and what is more is unconcerned by the ruling. Yes, it is. If those that set the rules cannot keep to them then the whole rule of law loses respect. For most of us, that means life becomes a little less secure, and generally, society becomes a free for all, with everyone out to look after themselves and go hang the rest.

It is also a sign of the utter lack of any morals in the government. That is also apparent in the latest ruse to “tackle immigration” i.e. deal with unwanted refugees. It appears that the way to fight the people-traffickers sending asylum seekers across the channel is for the government to traffic people to Rwanda. I always thought that 2 wrongs do not make 1 right and this is a classic example. Shuffling people who have arrived with nothing off to another country 5,000 miles away is no way to treat any human being. I am sure Rwanda is happy to be paid to treat the refugees with contempt and most of the, no doubt huge, payments will end up in a few pockets, just like the billions spent on pandemic ppe, track and trace etc.

…………………..

The argument about conversion therapy continues. I do not know how anyone can condone or legalise what amounts to abuse and torture. In medieval times the church tortured and burned heretics in a spirit of “love” to free their souls from the Devil. Conversion therapy is the same, coercing people by making their feelings invalid, undermining their identity, restricting their freedom, all to make them comply with someone else’s concept of “normal”. Apart from the forced periods of prayer, the constant pressure to comply and the lack of privacy, what other punishments to the perpetrators employ? Electric shock treatment, beatings?

I’ve shown this before but I do like it.

This week’s writing group task was “tartan”. That could have occurred incidentally in any story but I decided to confront it head-on after a bit of Wikipedia searching. I decided to make my piece dialogue only. I hope it carries a bit of the flavour of time and place.

All Plaided and Plumed

“Good day, Lady Anstell. Oh, dear you seem to be a little damp.”

“I regret I am Lady Macgregor. The weather is not at all summer-like.”

“Ah, I’m afraid it is for Scotland. You are a visitor and will find that Edinburgh is often wet during August. My maidservant will take your coat and hat.  Please sit and take tea.”

“It is very kind of you Lady Macgregor to welcome me.  I am so eager to hear about your presentation to the King, the Saturday before last.”

“Of course. It was a most joyous occasion at Holyrood although not without a certain amount of tedium as we awaited our turn.”

“The King, I believe, was something of a, er, picture?”

“I think Lady Anstell, you are understating the comments that have been circulating.”

“The King was in Highland dress?”

“Well, it depends on what you understand by highland dress. My great-grandfather wore the the full belted plaid when he strode across the mountains. I believe it was Sir Walter’s interpretation of the costume that the King wore.”

“I had forgotten you have highlander blood, Lady Macgregor.”

“It was not that it was something admitted to for some years after the forty five, but sentiments have changed in recent years.”

“Indeed they have. But, King George, Lady Macgregor, tell me about him.”

“Yes, my dear I shall.  He is, um, a big man.”

“Big? I have heard others use less polite words to describe his figure.”

“Well, you are probably right, Lady Anstell. He certainly has flesh to spare.”

“And he was wearing a short kilt in tartan.”

“Yes, it was the bright red Royal Stuart, a striking design, though one whose purpose is to conceal the loss of blood in battle, not draw attention to oneself. The problem was that the King’s kilt was, indeed, short.”

“Exposing his knees, I hear, Lady Macgregor?”

“And a considerable area of thigh, Lady Anstell, though he was wearing pantaloons of a flesh pink to cover his skin.”

“That does sound quite a striking sight.”

“It was, particularly as he was festooned with gold chains, a sword, dirk and pistols with plumes of feathers in his hat.”

“Oh, Lady Macgregor, I am filled with amazement. Yet, I hear that was the only time on his visit that he wore the outfit.”

“I can’t imagine that he felt particularly comfortable, Lady Anstell. Nevertheless, Sir Walter, got his way.”

“To what do you refer, Lady Macgregor.”

“Well, all the clan chiefs and their followers turned up at the balls wearing the same short kilts in a variety of tartans. It was said that the pride of the clans has been re-invigorated and that they will wear this fancy dress again.”

“That will be a sight to behold, all those men displaying their knees beneath colourful tartan. It is enough to make one swoon, Lady Macgregor.”

“One will have to get used to it I am afraid, Lady Anstell. I don’t think it will be long before us ladies are also clothed in tartan.”

“Oh dear. Are we all to be Highlanders now?”

“Indeed we are, Lady Anstell. Scotland has discovered a history it never knew it had. One of Sir Walter’s own invention.”

Note: King George IV made the first visit by a monarch to Scotland in nearly 200 years in August 1822. At the instigation of Sur Walter Scott he wore the newly designed “highlander” outfit which has been adopted as traditional dress by Scots since then and boosted the industry manufacturing tartans associated with particular clans.

Truth and Lies

I’ve probably used this title before but the same issues keep coming up. It’s said that in war truth is the first casualty. The problem is knowing which are the truths and which are the lies. In the case of the war in Ukraine I am inclined to believe the BBC bulletins from reporters on the ground, even though back home the BBC does not seem to question the outpourings of lies and mangled truths from the Johnson government. Of course we are seeing things from the Ukrainian point of view but I think we can all agree that they have right on their side. I just wonder what the Russians people really think about the diet of lies fed by the Putin government. Do they really believe Ukraine are the aggressors? On the other hand, as we have seen in the Brexit debacle people, believe what they want to believe.

War-crimes have been the topic of discussion this week. The whole Russian strategy seems to be a war-crime since civilian areas have been shelled and hit by missiles willy-nilly, to say nothing of the actions of groups of Russian soldiers. The chance of Putin ever being held to account is about zero thanks to Russia’s special position (with USA, Britain, France and China) on the UN security council. However it also looks as though some Ukrainian soldiers may have committed a war-crime (by killing a Russian soldier taken prisoner). To maintain the moral high ground, the Ukrainian government must be seen to investigate the matter and take appropriate action. The problem is that in war the enemy soon become considered to be less than human – it has been said on both sides. As soon as the language allows it, actions follow where the enemy is not treated as human but as vermin. No conventions or “rules of war” can prevent it.

It may not be a similar matter of life and death (yet) but truth also gets lost in the other matter that concerns me. Following on from my piece last week on MP Jamie Wallis, this week has seen the position of transwomen hit the news. Johnson may appear to be a bumbling oaf but he is a clever bumbling oaf or at least he has clever friends. His double U-turn on conversion therapy was designed to place a wedge between the LGB community and trans-people while also causing Labour to tie itself in knots. That Johnson can say that it is wrong to apply abusive therapies amounting to psychological torture to gay people but right for those suffering from gender dysphoria is morally reprehensible. Thankfully the LGBT community has stuck together (for now). But Labour politicians still have not worked out what it means to be trans and why questions such as “what is a woman” are traps that they fall into much to readily.

At least The Guardian showed balance this week. It simultaneously published two articles. One supported the gender critical view that sees trans people as being the biggest threat to women in “safe places” while the other pointed out the lies being told by the proponents of that view. The trouble is that none of the commentators is actually trans and they make mistakes. Firstly, no-one changes gender. Gender identity develops over decades but someone with gender dysphoria has probably never felt comfortable with the sex of the body they were born with even if they are in their 40s, 50s or whatever before they decide that they must transition. Medical intervention (drugs and surgery) is intended to correct the physical sexual attributes in order to match the gender of the subject – it is called gender confirmation surgery. One could say that the person’s body has changed sex to come into line with their gender. The other muddle is with the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and the 2010 Equality Act. The latter recognised gender reassignment as a protected characteristic (for hate-crime etc.). However the small print makes it clear that this only applies to people who are in possession of a gender recognition certificate (GRC) provided for by the 2004 Act. Transwomen with a GRC are women in law and transmen are men. However there are probably only about 20,000 men and women who fill this criteria. The vast majority of transgender people are not protected and have no legal status in the gender they identify as. As for gender-fluid, non-binary people, well, we are not recognised by the law at all.

Nevertheless, the argument that allowing transwomen into women’s safe spaces is a threat to women is a falsehood. There are no cases where a woman has been in danger from a man dressed as a woman in such places including ladies’ loos. The dangers to women come from misogyny, sexism and violent men. Transwomen face the same threats. Trans and cis women are allies not enemies.

Napton Hill

I have had comments back from most of my readers and I am pleased. An Extraordinary Tale has proved to be popular. OK, it needs another edit but my hopes of publication have been raised. Hence I have decided to cease publishing episodes here. I shall revert to offering you short pieces that I have written for one reason or another. This week it is my response to the phrase, “Not that I’m nagging…” set by writing group.

Not that I’m nagging

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the polar bear, swimming in ice-free seas,

“but can’t you stop burning fossil fuels.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the coral, bleaching and dissolving in a warm, acidic ocean,

“but can’t you stop spewing out CO2.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the reindeer, knee deep in mud in the melting tundra,

“but can’t you stop making the planet get warmer.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the orang utan without a tree to climb,

“but can’t you stop chopping down the rain forest.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the tiger with nowhere left to hunt,

“but can’t you stop your cities from spreading.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the turtle with a plastic bag around its neck,

“but can’t you stop throwing your waste in the sea.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the salmon swimming in murky, toxic water,

“but can’t you stop polluting the rivers and streams.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the earthworm trapped in compacted earth,

“but can’t your farmers treat the soil properly.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the koala with the singed fur,

“but can’t you stop the forests from burning.”

“Not that I’m nagging,” says the Earth,

“but your time is running out.”

…………………..

Justice

Again, a week full of news, most of it worrying. The situation in Ukraine remains the most disturbing but despite all the reports from Lviv, Kyiv and the devastated cities it is difficult to really understand the situation. Are the Ukrainians really pushing back the Russians? Is Putin really misinformed? We know the Russian people are fed a diet of false news, is what we receive also biased? Does a population ever get told it’s losing a war.

It is wearing trying to extract the truth from the mass of lies we get told, particularly by our own government. As well as hiding the truth they also cover up their intentions. One of those glossed over points struck me. It was to do with the parole of the mother of Baby P. What she and her partner did was terrible but if the parole board thinks there is no reason to keep her in prison any longer then I accept their judgement. After all keeping people in prison is very expensive. If the prisoners are no danger and have accepted that what they did was wrong then there is no point in keeping them shut up. Of course some elements want people to be punished indefinitely. What made my ears prick up was the statement that the government is planning legislation to allow ministers to overrule parole boards simply on their whim. It is the first stage of government being able to discard the rulings of judges, the first stage to government applying laws in the ways they want on not in line with legal precedent. That is what dictators do.

March 31st was the Day of Transgender Visibility. Some people may think we’re already visible enough and I’m not too sure what the aim of the day is. However, the MP for Bridgend, Jamie Wallis made himself visible as trans. He is obviously still in the confused stage: he feels that he should be female; has obviously ventured out as female hence his problems with a blackmailer, a rapist and leaving his car at the scene of an accident, but he does not apparently know where his future lies. On the one hand I sympathise, on the other I wish our first trans MP was someone who was more settled in their own identity. I imagine Jamie (I wonder if he keeps that as his femme name?) is still at the stage of feeling some disgust with himself since he had not felt confident of outing himself previously. He (the pronoun he uses) has to decide whether he needs to transition to become the woman he believes himself to be, or continue as a part-time cross-dresser (presumably what he has been) or maybe recognise he is somewhere in between – non-binary, gender-queer, etc. and be open and content with that. Good luck to him, although I hope he loses at the next election as he’s a Tory.

Another early spring canal scene

No time to write this week, too many other things happening. I have had various comments back from readers of An Extraordinary Tale, most positive, some very helpful criticisms, plus the usual contradictions (one person’s favourite bit another dislikes.) Anyway here is the next episode.

An Extraordinary Tale, episode 22

                I looked to where he was pointing, to the lane beyond my front garden. Standing there was a huge black vehicle.

                “In a hearse!  How do you come to possess a hearse?” I said approaching the long, tall car.  The black, extravagantly-curved front wings gleamed, as did the chrome bumpers and radiator grill.  The huge, round headlights stared at the road. I approached the ridiculously opulent vehicle.  There was a broad seat in the front and behind a polished wood byre that was thankfully empty.

                Mr Bones opened the drivers’ door. “My life here was spent as an undertaker. I kept the car when I retired, but that was before I arrived. They are all false memories.  Come on, get in. Hugo and Mr Hohenheim in the front. Tenplessium and Aelfed lie down in the back.”

                “Is the mouse coming too?” I said noting that the creature was gripping onto the shoulder of my jacket.

                “Of course, he is,” Aelfed said, “Major Mouse is an important member of our team. He’ll find a cosy pocket I expect.”

                I walked around the high bonnet of the Daimler. Hugo was holding the passenger door open and indicated I get in between him and Mr Bones.   The mouse did as the Elfen girl said and scrambled down into the pocket of my jacket.

                “Are you secure in the back there,” Mr Bones called out.  There were high pitched affirmations from behind me. Mr Bones pressed the starter button and the big engine rumbled into life.  The hearse began to move.

                “Now we just have to find our way to London and the sorceress’ lair. At least we have most of the day.”

                The car rolled as we turned from my lane onto the highway.

                “The sooner we can get there the better,” cried out Tenplessium, “Every extra hour we have to search for the witch will be a help.”

                Mr Bones nodded and bent over the large steering wheel. We picked up speed.

I cannot say that I have travelled in a hearse before or indeed in any transport on motorways, but it would have been adequately comfortable if Mr Bones had not driven like a madman.  He seemed determined to beat all the traffic to the city and swerved around any vehicle that had the gall to remain in front of us. At least I was securely wedged between the broad torso of Hugo taking up half of the bench seat, and the knobbly limbed Mr Bones whose hat was pressed against the roof lining.  I could only imagine how the two smaller people behind us were avoiding being flung around the large space usually occupied by a coffin.

                Despite the hair-razing journey, I did have an opportunity for reflection.  The more I thought about my dreams and what Mr Bones and the others had said, the more memories of my other life surfaced.  I felt as though I had had two existences and it became increasingly difficult for me to decide which was real. This world with its metal boxes speeding along strips of tarmac was obviously real for now, but my life in the other world was so much more exciting than my remembered existence here. It was also filled with such a wide variety of beings – Fairies, Elves, Gnomes, Ogres, plus intelligent and belligerent mice, re-animated skeletons and dark phantoms.

                After a considerable time, I realised we were approaching our destination. The city closed around us, brick and concrete replacing green fields and wooded hills.

                “What do you intend doing when we reach the building you saw in the newspaper?” I asked.

                Mr Bones did not answer but from behind me came a breathless and high-pitched voice.  “Mr Hohenheim is right. What are we going to do Bones? Don’t you think we should discuss a plan?”

                “And have some lunch,” Aelfed added.

                “Lunch?” Mr Bones cried, “When every hour, every minute is vital in our quest.”

                “I think eating is important too,” Aelfed said.  Beside me, Hugo grunted in what I presumed was agreement.

                “Oh, alright,” Mr Bones said, turning the steering wheel suddenly. The hearse lurched to the left.  We left the main roadway and followed a narrower road which led to a group of buildings surrounded by an array of vehicles some large, some small.

                “Oh, good,” Aelfed said with obvious joy. “A service area.”

                The hearse drew to a halt and we all tumbled out.  Aelfed lead us into the nearest building which turned out to be a collection of establishments dispensing what Tenplessium called fast food.  We sat around a table while Mr Bones went to a counter from which he returned with a tray loaded with carboard boxes. My companions fell on the food which I found singularly un-nutritious.

                Aelfed had her mouth filled with a mixture of fried potato, bread and grilled flesh. The fatty smell of it made me feel a little sick.

                “So, what are we going to do when we meet the witch?” she said.

                Mr Bones shrugged. He was contemplating a single chip that he held between a finger and thumb. “We don’t even know if she will be at the building.”

                Tenplessium replied with a raised clenched fist. “Oh, we will find her and then we will take back the electrum that belongs to the Queen of the Fairies.”

                Mr Bones sighed. “You forget that we have no idea what form the electrum takes in this world.  We are all changed to fit in with this world’s laws; the electrum must be changed too.”

                All my companions stared at their food without speaking. Although all obviously human, except for the mouse that remained curled up in my pocket, we were a motley collection of tall, short, broad and thin.  Some of the other travellers looked at us with expressions of surprise.  I suppose it was that that reinforced my sense that we were not of this world and that our quest was not a nonsensical flight of fancy.

                “She must be changed too,” I said, “even though you recognised her in the photograph.  Perhaps she is still confused by this world, like I am, like we are.”

                Mr Bones shook his head slowly. “No, she had some reason for coming through the Parting into this world and was obviously confident that she could pursue her plan regardless of the changed circumstances. The fact that she has become a successful businesswoman, a celebrity, shows that she is adept at fitting into this world’s structures.” He paused. “However, she may not have expected any of us to follow her, so if we confront her we will have the advantage of surprise.” He looked at me and the thin smile spread across his face. “And who knows how your luck will help us, Gnome.”

                “So, let us continue,” Tenplessium said, “let us enter her lair and confront her.”

                “I’m ready,” Aelfed said, jumping from her chair.  She swallowed the last morsel of her meal and swept the whole collection of cardboard packaging into a nearby rubbish receptacle.

                Mr Bones eased himself up to his full height. “I suspect, Elf, that this delay was solely so you could eat one of these ghastly meals.”

                “That’s right, Bones,” Aelfed said, grinning, “but we haven’t lost much time.” She turned and hurried from the building with the rest of us following.

……………

Too much news

These days, there seems almost too much news to keep up with. The war in Ukraine unsurprisingly dominates the news bulletins but there are so many other things – the P&O debacle, the cost of living crisis and the Chancellor’s spring inaction, and, always, climate change, to list just a few. Each brings questions to which answers are difficult to find.

The developments in Ukraine constantly call into question Putin’s state of mind and what he thinks is happening there. It is said that his intention was to demilitarise Ukraine. Instead he seems to have turned the whole population into an army determined to stop his forces. How the people of Ukraine survive in cities shelled to landscapes more familiar from dystopic films like Terminator, is another question. I saw a social media post from a Trump supporter claiming that Putin only invaded places during the terms of Bush, Obama and Biden. They omitted the fact that Trump gave Putin a free run in Syria where the Russian military honed its skills by obliterating cities such as Aleppo and Idlib.

Then there is the breathtakingly audacious move by P&O to sack all its British employees. The incompetence of ministers in their response is of course to be expected of this government. I was however intrigued by one statement by the P&O CEO that they were only following the other ferry operators in employing foreign workers at below minimum wage rates. Is that true? Do the other ferry operators (DFDA, Brittany, etc.) pay a living wage to all their employees? I want to know.

I also noticed a report that Johnson had started preparations for an early election. However Sunak has said that the income tax cut will be in 2024. The five year term is up in December 2024 so it does not look as though an early election is planned. However an election campaign would divert attention from the government’s inaction and incompetence on so many issues.

Finally, for obvious reasons, my attention was drawn to an editorial in last week’s Observer. It referred to the Cass report into the Tavistock Clinic, the UK’s only gender clinic for children. I’m not sure why the Observer thought it was an important enough to deserve an editorial but its tone reinforced my opinion that the Observer editorial committee is, disappointingly, rather anti-trans. The Cass report highlighted problems at the Tavistock which is having to cope with 10 times more cases now than it had ten years ago. Children and teenagers often have to wait two years to get a first consultation to look into a problem they are facing day after day i.e. their gender. There is no doubt that the staff have differences in opinion on how to cope with the numbers and what treatments are appropriate. This lead to the Keira Bell case last year, which the Observer seems to have forgotten was decided in the Tavistock’s favour on appeal. The editorial made much of the facts revealed by the Cass report that many (I don’t know if it’s a majority) of the young people presenting with gender dysphoria are neuro-diverse. Apparently the Observer seems to think that this makes their feelings about their gender invalid and they should not receive assistance to achieve their transition. I think the point is that neuro-diverse people are not governed by the stereotypes that “normal” people accept. Those that find that their feelings about themselves do not match the expectations of the adults around them are not held back by fear of upsetting social niceties. Whether they have to undergo surgical or medical treatment to provide them with bodies that match their identity is a matter of debate but, like all young people these transgendered youths need sympathetic advice rather than journalists telling them that they are being misled or “encouraged” into treatment that they may later regret.

And finally, the next episode of An Extraordinary Tale.

An Extraordinary Tale, episode 21

Chapter 6: We go for a drive 

We all stared at the picture in the newspaper. It was a colour photo of a woman standing at the entrance to a modern building.  She was wearing a skirt and jacket that matched in colour her bright red hair. Men in dark suits were to her left and right and behind her but she appeared to be confidently addressing an audience.  I had no idea who she was, but she seemed rather familiar.

                “Are you sure it’s the witch?” Aelfed said to Mr Bones.

                His head bobbed up and down. “I am certain of it. She has been in my dreams always. In our other lives, I know I was her servant.  We became parted before we came through the Parting, before we all gathered together.

                I was confused.  “If she has just come from this other world you talk about, what is she doing in the news. You have to be a celebrity to have your photo taken like that or a criminal or a politician.”

                “This universe has accommodated her,” Mr Bones said, “We each have our place here with memories of a full life.  It seems she has made some kind of impact that has attracted attention to herself.” He bent closer to read the article that accompanied the picture.

                Tenplessium frowned. “Do you think that is the witch’s intention?”

                Mr Bones glanced at the little woman. “I can’t imagine that she does anything without a purpose. It suggests here that she is  someone of great wealth and influence but that her emergence as a person of note occurred quite recently. That suggests that she hasn’t actually been here very long.”

                “What is her plan?” Aelfed asked in a pained voice.

                Mr Bones shook his head.  “I do not know.”

                “But we know who she is now,” Tenplessium said, “We can capture her and make her tell us how to get back home.”

                Hugo grunted agreement and made fists with his huge hands, but Mr Bones looked doubtful. “I am sure she will be wary of enemies.  This article refers to her bodyguards who accompany her at all times.”

                “But we can get close to her,” Aelfed said, “We can find out where she lives and works.”  She opened her leather knapsack and took out a very modern smart phone.

                “We can do that,” Mr Bones acknowledged. “It says here that she owns a company called, well, would you believe it, it’s called Electrum.”

                “The brazen witch,” Tenplessium cried almost bouncing out of the chair. “She’s goading us.  Why else should she name her company after that which she stole from my Queen.”

                I had been listening to the excited conversation and was still somewhat confused. I ventured a question, “Does she even know all of you and me are here? After all, I had no idea of your existence until you knocked on my door.”

                Mr Bones scratched his chin with a long, thin finger. “You are right Mr Hohenheim. She came through the Parting before us and may think that the tales of that border between worlds would prevent anyone from following her.”

                “Tales?” I asked.

                “That nothing and no-one has ever returned,” Mr Bones said. “That is a recurring theme of my dreams. They suggest we are trapped in this universe.  Do you agree?” He looked around our little gathering. The Fairy and the Elf nodded, even the Ogre grunted agreement, and the mouse on my shoulder, which I had almost forgotten about, squeaked.

                I had a thought. “If this witch knew those tales but came here anyway then she must have a plan.”

                Mr Bones nodded. “That would seem to be a reasonable assumption.”

                “So, this company she runs is part of that plan,” I went on. The four of them nodded again. “Perhaps we should find out what the company does.”

                Aelfed held up her phone. “Her wiki page says that having made a fortune in IT, she is carrying out development of innovative energy systems.”

                “Er, what does that mean?” I asked.

                Tenplessium and Mr Bones shrugged while Hugo sat immobile and dumb.

                “I think we need to investigate,” Aelfed said.

                “We do,” Mr Bones agreed, “where does she do this innovative work?”

                Aelfed peered at her small screen. “The only address is in the centre of London.”

                Mr Bones stood up.  “We must go there.  Are you all coming?”

                Tenplessium, Aelfed and Hugo all jumped up. The mouse on my shoulder squeaked excitedly. I stayed quiet.

                “Mr Hohenheim. You don’t seem eager to join us.”  Mr Bones said, staring at me with those dark, hollow eyes.

                “I’ve never been to London,” I said, noticing a whine in my voice which disappointed me. “I’ve never even been out of Little Waggleford”

                “Nonsense,” Mr Bones said. “You are the adventurous Gnome who travelled from the Kingdom of the Fairies to the land of the Elves in pursuit of the witch and the electrum.”

                “I did?”

                “Search your memories of your dreams or rather the dreams of your memories. That was your true life.  This homeliness is the false life.  We need you. We need your luck.”

                “Come with us, please,” Aelfed said.

                Tenplessium came at me with her fists clenched. I thought she was about to assault me but she stopped in front of me. 

                “Don’t worry, Mr Hohenheim. We’ll protect you from danger. I may have been an actor here, but back there I was a fighting fairy.”

                I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.  It was Hugo.  He grunted something which I think was intended as encouragement.

                Mr Bones headed towards my front door with the others behind him.  I followed, finding I was drawn along with them though I trembled at the thought of an exciting and dangerous quest. I had the presence of mind to grab a jacket and pull the door closed behind me.

                “How are we going to get to London?” I asked

                Mr Bones paused and raised a long, thin arm.  “There is our transport.”

Another year older and…

It’s that time of year when one looks back, considers the future and generally assesses one’s life. Yes, it’s my birthday. It’s not an important one this year but as you read this I am commencing my seventieth year. In one year’s time I will have completed my biblical span of three score years and ten but, hopefully, I will be statistically average for this day and age and have a considerable number of years of existence left to me. There is still time to write that best seller!

I read recently that boomers (those born in the period 1945-65) are the most miserable. Nevertheless, when I pause to examine my current life I have to conclude that I am happy. I share my life with the one person I want to be with – my wife/partner/best-friend. Most days I can do the things I want to do – writing, playing tennis, watching TV, reading, going for walks, narrow-boating etc. Indeed I feel privileged to be retired, to have enough pension to not have to worry about everyday expenses (at the moment anyway) and to have written and published eleven novels in the last thirteen years. I am also content that I can now be myself and live my life as a non-binary person, even if the government doesn’t actually recognise my gender.

Being happy doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have anxieties. In fact they seem to increase year on year and I wonder if what I am anxious about or the anxieties themselves may threaten my happiness. I don’t recall being anxious in the 60s, 70, or 80s, when the threat of nuclear war hung over us. I think that then I still had enough respect for politicians, and those in authority, to expect common sense to prevail and our lives to be protected. That respect has been eroded. It is difficult to pinpoint a time when that began. It may have been the aftermath of 9/11. That event was shocking enough but the warmongering that followed actually made our lives less safe and secure. The invasion of Iraq is I think the precedent that Putin is using for his attack on Ukraine. Then there was the crash of 2007/8 which removed all sense of trust in the finance world. Latterly, and most importantly, it has been the growing division in the UK, USA, Europe and elsewhere which have given us Brexit, Trump, Johnson et al. COVID was the pandemic that was always expected. It was actually less deadly than feared. Perhaps that is why a sizeable proportion of the population think it was a hoax, or deliberate or just not serious enough to worry about. Now we have a war in Europe that could spread to engulf all of us (and is, by way of the cost of living) if the madmen in charge (not just Putin) do not feel the restraint that their predecessors of the Cold War showed. All the time we also have the slow but inexorable disaster that is global warming, biodiversity loss, pollution and the lack of response of governments and corporations.

I continue to hope that life will be enjoyable and that I will get inspiration for writing stories and novels (and who knows, even earn some royalties) but I am wary. Those anxieties keep growing.

A peaceful scene on the Grand Union Canal at Braunston

Despite being back home, there was not a lot of time for fresh writing this week. Here though is another episode in An Extraordinary Take. I need to know what needs to be done to it to avoid it languishing in the recesses of my computer.

An Extraordinary Tale – episode 20

I folded my arms and sat trying to ignore the mouse that was still looking up at me.  “Go on, please, Mr Bones.”

“We are pursuing a woman, a sorceress, a witch, who has stolen the Queen of the Fairies’ hoard of electrum.”

“Electrum?  What’s that?”

“An extremely valuable and magical metal,” Mr Bones explained. “It doesn’t exist here. At least, I don’t think it does.”  Aelfed shook her head, apparently agreeing with him.

“What is this witch doing here?”

All of them looked sad and Mr Bones shrugged. I could almost hear his shoulder blades grinding. “We don’t know, but she must have some kind of plan and that’s why we must find her.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about a witch or this electrum stuff.  Why do you need me? Why can’t I just carry on with my life here, even if it isn’t real.”

“Because we do need you,” Aelfed said.

“You’re important,” Tenplessium said.

“Ergh,” Hugo grunted.

The mouse squeaked.

“Because you are lucky,” Mr Bones said.

“Lucky?”  Am I lucky? My life had been quiet and peaceful and totally lacking in any misfortune other than the passing away of my parents at a great age in their sleep. I’d never won any lotteries or raffles, well nothing to speak of.  Was that good luck?

“That’s the impression we have of you from our dreams,” Mr Bones said. The others nodded. “With you around things happen, perhaps not what one might expect but it turns out for the best in the situation. We followed you into the Parting. Perhaps it is your good luck that it’s us that have had to spend all our time piecing together the dreams to find out who we really are, while you are just here now.”

I wasn’t convinced. “I don’t believe there is anything like luck. There is just good planning, common sense and avoiding getting into situations. Why should I join you in this silly quest? I doubt whether any of this is true.  Why should I go off trying to find a strange woman?”

Mr Bones looked even graver that previously. “Because electrum is extremely powerful.  We don’t know what she could do with the hoard she has, but it could be disastrous for this universe.  We have to find her, get the electrum and return it to the Queen.”

“Hmph!” I said in disgust and laid my hands on the table. I glared at Mr Bones, struggling to find words to reply to him.  I felt a tickle on the back of my hand. I looked down.  The mouse had crawled onto my hand and was poking me with his right front paw.

“What is it doing?” I cried but I was too scared to move my hands.

Tenplessium answered. “I think Major Mouse is trying to tell you something.”

“What?” I said.

Aelfed answered, “Well, of course, here, he’s only a mouse, but in our world he is a brave a and resourceful fighter and thief.  I think he’s showing you that he’s not afraid of you.”

The mouse was certainly acting strangely for a mouse. I looked up at my four visitors. They were a strange assortment of characters.  Could they really be telling the truth? I thought back to my own dreams of the previous night. Other scenes came into my mind: a carriage drawn by unicorns; gleaming towers surrounded by fog or was it smoke; and a rolling grey cloud that stretched across the horizon. They were fragments to be sure but seemed to hint at a bigger story.  I thought too of my life.  Pleasant it had been, and I had no desire for anything more exciting, but… yes, there was a but.  The thought of an adventure, a quest, a journey, seemed strangely attractive. Why should I, old homely Philobrach Hohenheim, be tempted by an expedition to find a dangerous witch. It was nonsense and yet I found myself answering.

“Alright.  How do we find this witch?”

“Ah,” said Mr Bones, “that is the difficult bit. Apparently back in our real world I am bound to the woman by some contract that enables me to follow her. But here I simply do not know who she is and I feel no pull from her.” He looked despondent.

The fairy creature at his side spoke up. “Perhaps if we went somewhere where we could all sit down and maybe had some refreshment, we could discuss our plan or at least make a start on one.”

It seemed as though I was being asked to feed the whole party.  Well, a cup of tea would suffice.

“We can go into the lounge,” I said. I started to stand, but as I did so, the mouse jumped onto the sleeve of my dressing gown and ran up to my shoulder. I had to stop myself from shivering and brushing it off.

Aelfed chuckled, “There! Major Mouse has taken a liking to you Mr Hohenheim.”  I tried to look unconcerned as I lead them all down the hall towards the lounge. I noticed that the newspaper had been stuffed in the letterbox while we had been in discussion.  I pulled it out and carried it into the sitting room.  It was small and dark like all the rooms in my little cottage, but it did have seating, of a sort, for five. Mr Bones and Hugo squashed themselves onto the sofa, with Hugo taking up at least two thirds of it.  Mr Bones’ knees stuck up like two tent poles.  Aelfed and Tenplessium sat in my armchair and looked quite comfortable together.

I dropped the newspaper onto the coffee table in the centre of the room thinking to take orders for the refreshments that were apparently required. The paper flopped open to page 2. Mr Bones leaned forward and stared at the page.

“I don’t believe it,” he murmured.

“What?” everyone asked, me included.

He looked up at me.  “It must be your luck. There she is,” He pointed a long bony finger at the photograph in the paper. “The witch. She’s in your newspaper.”

……………….

Life, continued

Life and death goes on for the people of Ukraine. Life for those trying to escape and those stuck in cities being shelled repeatedly and lacking power, water and food. Life too for the regular and volunteer elements of the Ukraine military, struggling to keep their people safe and preparing to face overwhelming firepower and perhaps chemical weapons. Death for those caught in the indiscriminate bombing and all the other ways of dying in a war.

Life, it seems, goes on for our politicians too. Talking a lot but saying and doing little, still protecting their mates who gave them money, still trying to stop evacuees from the fighting treading on English turf (I do mean English, because I am sure the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments would make it easier for refugees to get here). Why are we stuck at this time with the most incompetent government ever filled with dimwits who think they are smart and who “don’t need experts”. Some weeks ago they were talking about living with Covid, (the pandemic is still raging) now it will be living with war. Because of course we are. The rise in fuel prices is only the first consequence. There will be more.

Life too for Putin and his yes-men. Perhaps he hasn’t achieved his objectives – yet, but he is happy to press on with interminable war and inexorable force, until Ukraine is obliterated and he can turn to the next target. It’s obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that this is not the culmination but a stage in a twenty year process. As the BBC was correspondents have said, Russian strategy has been honed first on Grozny, then Aleppo and Idlip. The difference now is that multiple cities and towns are being obliterated at once with citizens as much the target as military installations. He seems to want war with the west and apparently does not care about the lives or deaths of his own people. Can he be stopped before we get to the MAD feared from the fifties to the eighties.

Life for us. indeed, goes on. There is little we can do except donate to reputable charities helping the war refugees, and, if it does any good, pestering politicians to take a more humanitarian view of people fleeing war. We try not to think about what it must be like to be in fear all the time and carry on. So, we have returned from a week on our shared narrowboat. It was pretty cold at the start of the week but spring is springing and we had a lovely time.

After a week’s gap, here is the next excerpt from An Extraordinary Tale.

An Extraordinary Tale, episode 19

Mr Bones raised his hand to make me pause. “I know.  It took me years to realise that it was the dreams that were my real past and not the memories of my life here.”  The other three nodded their agreement.  “Then I began to have some success in making sense of the dreams and following the clues lead me to Tenplessium, Aelfed, Hugo and finally you.”

Aelfed spoke, “Once we met, it all became clear. We had the same dreams, the same memories of where we have come from and what we are doing here.”

“Where we come from?” I was still bemused.

Mr Bones nodded. “That is the point. You see the five of us have come here…”

“To Little Waggleford.”

“I mean to this universe with its stars and planets and Earth and continents but yes, I suppose also your dear little village.” 

“But I’ve been here all my life.”

“Yes, I know you think that. You said so earlier, but it’s not what really happened.  We came here through something which seems to be called the Parting. For reasons we don’t understand we arrived at different places at different times. Some of us have been here for years, for you it is today.”

“Where is this other place?”  I asked.

Mr Bones shrugged. “We can’t say where. It’s elsewhere, but we know it is very different to this universe and we have all been changed by coming through the Parting.

“Changed? How?”  I felt as if my head was about to explode.

Tenplessium grinned.  “In the other world I’m a Fairy no bigger than a fly.”

“And I’m an Elf,” Aelfed said.

“Hugo’s an Ogre,” Mr Bones said. I looked up at the passive, hulk of a man.

“And you?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m just a bundle of old bones, a walking, talking, thinking skeleton.”

“That’s nonsense,” I cried. “How can a skeleton be alive.”

“Because the other world is different,” Mr Bones said, “Everything you think you know about science and nature in this universe is just not true in the world we come from.”

It seemed too ridiculous to be true.

“If I came from there too, what am I?”

Aelfed chuckled. “You’re a Gnome.”

I put my hands to my bald head and laughed. “A Gnome! One of those things people put in their gardens.”

Mr Bones spoke quietly and firmly. “No, not a garden gnome. You are a member of a noble race of beings who mostly live in the tunnels and caves they have carved out under the mountains.  Well, they think they are a noble race.”  He frowned and I wondered if he was telling me everything he knew about Gnomes.

I looked from one to the other, from the tiny, glowing Tenplessium, to the broad solid, Hugo, to the dainty and earthy Aelfed and the frankly cadaverous, Mr Bones.

“You all believe this nonsense?” I asked. Each of them nodded.

“It may sound fantastic,” Tenplessium said, “but we know it’s true.”

I didn’t know what to think or why they were all squashed in my kitchen, but I thought I should humour them.

“So, the five of us came through this Parting thing – “

“Six, actually,” Mr Bones said.

“Six? There’s one more person still to come?” I said, feeling more and more confused.

“No, we believe he is with you now,” Mr Bones said.  I stared at him, speechless but Mr Bones was not looking at me.  His eyes were on the floor.

“Come and join us, Major,” he called, addressing no one I could see.  Then I heard a faint scrabbling of claws on lino. I looked down.  A dark brown house mouse had appeared from behind the cooker. It paused and sat up on its hind legs, its whiskers quivering.

“I knew I had mice, but I have never done anything to get rid of them,” I said.

“Just as well that you didn’t,” Aelfed said bending down. She laid her hand on the floor. The mouse scampered towards her and sat on her hand.  She lifted it up and placed it on the table. The mouse took a few paces and sat looking up at me with its red eyes.

“Meet Major Mouse,” Mr Bones said. “He’s the leader of a band of brave, fighting mice.”

“Oh,” I said, “Can he speak?”

“Of course not,” Tenplessium said, “Mice can’t talk in this universe, but this is Major Mouse alright. See how he recognises us.”

The mouse certainly did not appear afraid of us and was content to sit, cleaning his whiskers, while we talked.

I stroked my beard.  What could I make of this?  It seemed to be nonsense but then I remembered that Mr Bones had said this meeting was just the start of some quest. I thought I would humour them until their story fell to pieces and I would know they were having me on.

“The quest,” I said.

Mr Bones nodded. “That’s right, the reason why we’re all here.”

“The reason why we came through the Parting,” Tenplessium added. 

Mr Bones glared at her. “Let me explain.”

………………. to be continued

Fearing the worst

It is almost impossible for us to understand the horror that Ukrainians are going through and will face in their future lives. There are few people in the UK left alive old enough to have experienced and understood the Blitz and the anxiety of a possible invasion by Nazi Germany. There are plenty of refugees who have escaped civil war and oppression by their own government but perhaps only Tibetans, Kuwaitis, Afghanis and Iraqis know what it is like to have their nation attacked and invaded by a much stronger country. We can sympathise but not empathise. What we can see is that all the diplomacy that took place in recent weeks was totally ineffective and all the brave talk by Ukrainians about standing up to their belligerent neighbour and fighting to the last warrior was perhaps only to ease their own fears. Unfortunately last ditch stands resulting in overall victory only happen in the movies and while there are many performing heroic actions there are no superheroes to win the day in the final minutes.

People ask if Putin is mad. While all dictators, and many elected politicians, become deranged in time, fooled by their own powers, I think Putin is calm and calculating and totally unconcerned about the people of the Ukraine or Russia. He is pursuing a grudge which goes back over thirty years. The break up of the eastern bloc was hailed as a victory for the west but in the all the euphoria about the end of the Cold War little thought was given to helping Russia come to terms with its loss. The satellite countries were absorbed into Europe (though not without the rise of right wing governments that create problems today) while the regions at the fringe of the Soviet Union declared independence. That is what Putin most regrets. The three tiny Baltic States are irritants like a pimple on his nose. Most of the others, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia and the “stans” are largely under his control while nominally independent. Chechnya was a little too late in trying to get independence and was the first to feel Putin’s wrath. It is Ukraine that has been the boil on the bum for Putin. Authoritarian leaders have failed to take control, the people have enjoyed exercising their freedom and hoped for closer ties with Europe. Ukraine was always an important part of the USSR. It produces a huge amount of grain and has an important aerospace industry. As the second largest state of the USSR its loss was an important factor in the weakening of Russia. That is why Putin wants it back. Nothing the west can do can stop him.

Some politicians, notably UK Tory ones, hark back to former European conflicts. The Crimean War has been mentioned. I am no military historian but my understanding is that that was largely a fiasco and ended in stalemate with the Crimea still part of the Russian Empire. Was the recent diplomacy reminiscent of Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler in 1938? No. That gave parts of Czechoslovakia back to Germany. Western diplomats made no equivalent offers to Putin. Chamberlain may have been determined to achieve peace for the UK at all costs or he may have been buying time. Whatever his motives it as the latter that occurred. An extra year passed in which Spitfires and Hurricanes could be constructed and bomb shelters and fortifications built before the inevitable war arrived. World War is not inevitable now. The west has no treaties with Ukraine and so in all probability, once Putin has completed his war games, a puppet government will be installed, opposition will be silenced, and the country will return to being a satellite of Russia. Then the politicians and business people will express their sorrows and get back to smoothing the path of commerce with Putin. Ukrainians will be left to survive as best they can. Before then, however, I do hope the UK stops dealing with the oligarchs. First they ripped off the Russian people in the 1990s to make their billions and then became Putin’s lapdogs in order to retain their wealth and influence, buying up London and inserting themselves into the Tory party thereby making Putin’s task that much easier. I’m glad I’m not a Chelsea supporter.

Cloudy and windy but a happy visit to Rest Bay

Not a lot else to say regarding writing this week, but here is the next piece from An Extraordinary Tale

An Extraordinary Tale: episode 18               

Mr Bones rose to his feet, “Don’t get up, I’ll let them in. I think I recognise that knock.”

                He left the room, ducking his head.  The girl smiled at me. I felt she was trying to cheer me, but it seemed more a smile of pity.

                I heard the front door open and an exchange which sounded more like a couple of grunts. Mr Bones returned followed by my latest visitor. His appearance was as astounding as the first two. He looked and was dressed like a bouncer at a rather sleazy nightclub, not that I have ever visited such an establishment.  He was as wide as he was tall and he was taller than me, with a square head that sat on his shoulders with little sign of a neck.  His scruffy suit did not seem to fit him at all and his hair was odd tufts that stuck out at unusual angles.  He had a wide nose and a hooded brow.

                “This is Hugo,” Mr Bones said. “He doesn’t say much.”

                Hugo stood in the entrance to the kitchen and grunted. I presumed that was both a greeting and an agreement with what had been said.

                “How do you do,” I said.  Hugo grunted again but didn’t move.

                “Why have you all come to my house?” I said beginning to feel that my little kitchen was getting rather crowded.

                “It’s the quest,” Mr Bones said. “As I said, for a long time I had these dreams which slowly began to make sense to me. Tenplessium, and Hugo and Aelfed…”

                “Aelfed?”

                “She’ll be here soon.”

                “Oh.”

                “They all appeared in my dreams as you did.”

                “And so you all came to visit me.”

                “Yes, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It has taken me years to figure out what it all meant and to follow the clues that lead me to meet everyone.”

                “Years? What about your job?”

                “I suppose you could say I was retired.  I have little need for the comforts of life, so I have devoted myself to the quest, and here we are, ready to begin.”

                “Begin?  But I thought you said your quest was to find me.” It all sounded like a strange dream of its own. I pinched my wrist to check I was awake.  It hurt.

                “Ah, but finding you is just the start.”

                “The start of what?”

                Before he could answer there was a ring of the doorbell.  No hammering on the door this time.  Mr Bones rose to answer it but I jumped up.

                “No, Mr Bones, it is my front door, I shall answer it.  Presumably this is your other friend, what was the name?”

                Mr Bones nodded graciously and sat back down. “Aelfed.”

                “Ah, yes.” I pushed past Hugo who was slow to move.  He really was a big lump of a fellow.

                I opened the front door and found a young woman standing there. She was a little shorter than me and had short straw-coloured hair.  She wore a green boilersuit with a satchel over her shoulder.

                “Good morning, Mr Hohenheim. I’m Aelfed,” she said brightly.

                “Good morning,” I replied, “I understand you are expected.”

                “Oh, the others are here already are they. That’s good.”

                I guided her down the hall to the kitchen which was filling up.

                “Here she is,” I said endeavouring to appear in charge of my own home, “Is that all?”

                Mr Bones looked a little uncertain. “Sort of,” he said.

                “Right, well, perhaps you can explain why you have all turned up at my house this morning and what you mean by this quest.”

                “I think you had better sit down again, Mr Hohenheim,” Mr Bones said. “I know it will be difficult for you to accept what we have to say.”

                “Oh, yes,” Tenplessium piped up, “We all thought it was wild before we took it all in.”

                I took a deep breath. “Well, perhaps you had better get on with it. It’s all to do with dreams then.”

                All four of them had their attention focussed on me as if looking and waiting for my reaction.  Mr Bones began.

                “The dreams were the start but really they are memories overlaid with the experiences that this universe has provided us with.”

                “I don’t understand,” I said. 

……..to be continued

World King

In last Sunday’s Observer, David Mitchell (the actor/comedian not the author) wrote that he was becoming weary of the continuing tale of the PM’s impending forced resignation. The story has been going on since Christmas, how all the scandals, parties, wallpaper, etc. would be the end for Johnson. Except they have not been. Like Mitchell I am weary but I am not surprised. Unfortunately, I think that many of the articles in The Guardian and The Observer (and perhaps elsewhere, but I don’t read other news outlets) are wishful thinking and somewhat divorced from the reality of politics in 2022. The truth is that Johnson and his cronies have destroyed the normal rules of politics. If any minister or PM had an iota of honour and conscience most of the current bunch would have resigned months ago. They don’t, so they continue. Thanks to his victory in the 2019 General Election Johnson has a big enough cushion of seats in parliament to resist any opposition to his rule. There may be a few Tory MPs who still have a residue of decency who might change sides, resign or express unhappiness at the direction of the government but the majority know that they only retain power by supporting the PM. That goes especially for his cabinet. Not one of them would be in a job if it depended on merit or competence so they know that getting rid of Johnson, however big a laughing stock he is internationally, is not an option.

He has in fact achieved what commentators forecast was a possibility. He has wormed his way into a position where he cannot be shifted, a dictator by any other name. I suppose there is a possibility at the next General Election but with Labour still so weak and lacking its old powerbase in Scotland, together with the changes made to the voter identification laws, the chances are that the Tories will win again. Johnson says that it will take a squadron of tanks to get him out of Downing Street. That is not a joke, that is how it is.

You will have noticed that the TV news has moved on – Ukraine, Prince Andrew, storm this and that. There is always a distraction to stop the populace from thinking about why living standards are deteriorating. Things can only get worse.

Sker Point, Rest Bay, Porthcawl

We had a very pleasant day on Porthcawl and Rest Bay on Monday, my first visit for decades. It was windy, it always is, but we had a very pleasant walk along the beach and the seafront. It was no coincidence of course that when the coming of Storm Eunice hit the news, Porthcawl was one of the places shown. I had forgotten about the amazing configurations of the conglomerate rocks on Rest Bay. One could spend a day just examining them.

…………………..

I completed the first revision of An Extraordinary Tale last week and now it is out with a few, very kind friends for a read through. A problem I have as a writer of fantasy is that I see the pictures in my head but am not confident that I write about them effectively. I need to know if the words on the page give readers a satisfying picture in their own minds. So, I am very grateful to my readers for taking on the task. I am not sure how much more of the novel will appear here, but for now the next episode follows.

An Extraordinary Tale: episode 17

                “Yes!”  He clenched his fist.

                I didn’t understand. “What has this got to do with your story?  Why have you come here?”

                “I have had dreams too,” he said, “disturbing dreams.”

                “I suppose we all get unsettling dreams from time to time, nightmares perhaps.”

                “No, these weren’t exactly nightmares though some were scary enough. They repeated, became clearer and they set me on a quest.”

                “A quest?”  What kind of word was that to use at the breakfast table? I realised my porridge was cooling.  I took another mouthful.

                “Yes. A quest to find you.”

                “Me? How could I be in your dreams?”

                “Oh, you weren’t.  Not this you at any rate. But there were clues which lead me to you, and some other people.”

                I was about to ask the obvious question when there was another tap on the front door. This was lighter, a rapid set of raps. I sat frozen in my chair bemused by the way the morning was turning out.

                “I think you’d better answer that,” he said.

                I stood up in something of a daze and went to the door. I opened it. There was no one there.  Well, that’s what I thought until I glanced down. There was a little girl. At least she was the size of a girl no more than five or six years old, but as I examined her I saw that she was not really that young at all. She was dressed all in white and her skin and hair were as white as snow. She seemed to glow with her own light.

                “Hello,” she said in a soft, high-pitched voice, “Is Mr Bones, here?”

                “Bones? You mean a tall, thin gentleman.”

                “That’s him.” She rushed past me and sprinted down the hallway.  I hurried after her.

                When I reached the kitchen, they were greeting each other with hugs. Well, she hugged his calf and he patted the curls of hair on her head.

                “Does he know?” she said.

                Mr Bones, as he appeared to be called, shook his head. “No, not yet.”

                “Well, get on with it.  We have to find her.”

                “I know, Ten, but we mustn’t rush him. He doesn’t seem to have had as long as us.”

                “What are you talking about?” I asked feeling a bit miffed that they seemed to know about something that I didn’t. “What haven’t I had so long of?”

                “Dreams, the special dreams,” Mr Bones said. “And you believe you’ve lived your whole life here.”

                “I have.”

                “You only think you have. What would you say if I told you that you’ve only been in this universe since last night?”

                “That’s nonsense. I told you. I can remember spending all my life here.”

                “Ah, yes, memories. Those come with the universe.”

                It was all very mysterious. I sat on my chair, with my cooling porridge in front of me. The strange little woman stood next to Mr Bones. She was just about able to peer over the table.

                “He doesn’t get it,” she said.

                “I haven’t explained much yet,” Mr Bones said.  He leaned forward as if examining my face. “Despite appearances and your memories, you don’t belong here, Mr Hohenheim.”

                “Don’t belong here? Me?” His words were meaningless to me.

                “That’s right. You, me, Tenplessium here, have all arrived in this universe from another. What is strange is that we seem to have turned up here at different times and places.”

                “But I’ve never been anywhere else.  I haven’t been abroad or anywhere.  I’ve always lived here.”

                “I know, I know,” Mr Bones said. “It is difficult to believe especially as it’s your first day.”

                The white girl with the strange name piped up, “Yes, I was confused for a long time, months.  The dreams were so real but different to everyday life.”

                I wanted to know more about her. “What is your everyday life?”

                She smiled. “I’m an actress.  I get parts in shows where they need a little person.”

                “I see,” I said, “I’m sure you’re very popular.”

                “Oh, I am, but now I know it’s not real. It’s never actually happened and I don’t care if I never act again.”

                “The dreams?” I ventured.

                “Them and the stories Mr Bones and the others told me.”

                “Others?”

                Mr Bones nodded. “Yes, they’ll be here soon.”

                As if on cue there was another knock on the door, a solid thump.

………………. to be continued

Honour and profit

Following many scandals which diminished their authority and asked questions about their judgement they have taken the honourable step and resigned. No, not the PM. The shuffling, wild haired dispenser of sick lies continues his disruptive reign. It is Cressida Dick who has retained her self-respect by stepping down as head of the Metropolitan Police. It is I suppose ironic that someone who was hailed as a symbol of equality when she was appointed five years ago has been brought down by the misogyny and prejudice of some of her officers which she has failed to root out. Most police officers are honest, kind and hardworking. It is the few who give the rest a bad name by their abusive and discriminatory actions. The trouble is that the Police is like other institutions – the armed forces, fire service, certain boarding schools and some companies – which place a lot of emphasis on “team” building. Learning to work together is important but often the “team” encourages degrading and non-inclusive banter and is a cover for bigotry and abusive behaviour. Whatever Dick’s failings were, we now await her replacement. Unfortunately, that is in the gift of Priti Patel, Home Secretary, although London Mayor Sadiq Khan does have some say. Nevertheless watch out for a new Commissioner of the Met willing to enforce this government’s anti-democratic criminal and policing policies.

……………..

Further to what I wrote last week about the rise in energy prices, of gas in particular, I was still wondering why if only about 20% of the gas we used was purchased on the open market, we were suffering such huge rises. The answer of course is simple and highlighted by the news in recent weeks of huge profits made by the oil and gas production companies, such as BP and Shell. While over 40% of the gas we use still comes from the UK sector of the North Sea, the energy supply companies have to pay the market rate to the production companies awarded licences by the UK government. It’s not costing them any more to pump it out of the seabed hence the massive windfall profits. The same is true of the 30% we get from Norway. However the news is better for Norwegians as the production company, Statoil, is state-owned. Its profits go to the Norwegian government and is used to invest in renewable energy schemes, a charging infrastructure for electric cars and the welfare of the citizens. Oh, for a similarly enlightened government.

This time last year, just about. We’ve had one or two days like this this year.

A bit of writing and a bit of editing this week. The next episode of An Extraordinary Tale is below. The intrepid band have entered the Parting and left their familiar land of Fairies, Elves, Gnomes etc. Part 2 finds them beyond the Parting and the story takes a (hopefully) unexpected turn.

An Extraordinary Tale: episode 16

Part 2: Beyond the Parting

Chapter 5:    An ordinary morning

Wake up. I fought off the foggy tendrils of sleep, batting aside the half-remembered memories of dreams: a pigeon flapping wildly; riding (on what?) through the night; a stabbing pain in my foot.  My eyes opened to a grey dawn with an autumn mist visible through the gap in the curtains. I drew in a deep breath and lay back on my pillow reluctant to leave the warmth of my duvet. I wanted to recall those dreams but the images in my head were confused, jumbled, incomprehensible.  All I had was a feeling of anxiety, of a task uncompleted.

                Minutes passed as I delayed getting up but just as I was beginning to accept that perhaps it was time to move, it was gone eight o’clock after all, the doorbell rang and there was the banging of a fist on my front door.  With my temper, good or otherwise, shattered, I rolled out of bed, dragged my dressing gown off the hook on the door and hurried to the hall.  As I paused to pull the dressing gown around me, the banging was repeated.

                I dragged the door open. “OK, OK, I’m here. Er?”

                I know I am not very tall, shorter than the average, but the fellow standing on my doorstep appeared to be a giant.  A very thin one, apparently lacking in any flesh at all. Although he wore a long black overcoat, it hung from his shoulders as if they were a very thin coat hanger. The legs below the coat were as thin as broomsticks though clothed in tight cloth. On his head he wore a black trilby hat that contrasted with the white skin taut on the skull.

                “Good morning, Mr Hohenheim,” he said in a quiet rasping voice. His almost lipless mouth barely moved.

                “Um, good morning,” I replied, my politeness belying my confusion. How did this ghoulish fellow know my name? I certainly did not know his, although something about his extraordinary appearance seemed familiar.

                “May I come in?” he asked. “This cold mist is getting to my joints.”

                Again, I reacted out of habit rather than common sense. “Of course,” I replied, stepping back into the hall.  I did have brain enough to add, “Should I know your name.”

                “I doubt it,” he said, closing the door behind him, “We have not been introduced.”

                “Then why have you called on me at this early hour.” I was beginning to get some control of my reason.

                “Is it early? Hmm, the Sun has only recently risen so I suppose that for night sleepers it is early. I hadn’t thought of you as a day person.”

                “Oh,” I responded, confused again. “But I haven’t had breakfast yet, so it is early. Would you like to join me?”  I retreated into my kitchen. My tall guest ducked under the lintel as he followed me.

                “No, no, no, I couldn’t eat a thing,” he said.

                I paused with my hand half raised to the cupboard where I keep my porridge. I turned to face him.

                “Then what can I do for you? Why have you come here?”

                “That is a long and complex story, Mr Hohenheim,” he rasped, “Perhaps you should make your own breakfast and then I will explain.”

                What he suggested seemed a good idea, so I busied myself filling the kettle and preparing my porridge.  The man folded himself on to the spare chair at my kitchen table and spent the ensuing period gazing around the room.

                It took just a few minutes to have a steaming cup of tea and bowl of porridge in front of me. I blew on a spoonful of syrup laden oats.

                “So, what is this tale of yours?”

                “Have you lived here long Mr Hohenheim, in this little, low cottage under the hills?”

                “Uh, yes, all my life in fact. It was my parents’ house, of course, and when they died, I inherited it.”

                “You have never travelled, never had adventures?”

                What was the fellow getting at? Yes, I know I am a bit of a stick in the mud, boring I suppose, but I don’t bother other people. I get on with my life and I’m happy in my little house, digging the garden, growing my root vegetables. I shook my head.

                “You recall your life here?”

                What an odd question. “Of course.  Not every last moment, but yes, I remember being a child here. I recall my mother cooking in this very kitchen.” Using the same old cooker. “I remember helping my father to dig the new potato plot. It may not be exciting, but I do remember my life.”

                “Hmm,” the tall, thin man looked thoughtful. “Do you have dreams?”

                “Doesn’t everyone?  I thought I’d read that they were a normal part of healthy sleeping.”

                “Yes, but do you remember any dreams?”

                “Well, occasionally, I suppose, there are snippets that stick in the mind.” The images that had been in my head when I awoke reappeared. “Only last night there were –“

                “What?” The man was suddenly alert, excited although his white face did not display the emotion. “Did you have some different dreams last night?”

                I shrugged. “I don’t know about different.  They were a little strange; something about falling in darkness. I don’t suppose that’s so unusual.  Then there was a pigeon. There was something about it, I can’t remember what it was. And something jabbed me in my foot.”

                The man leaned across the table. “What stabbed your foot?”

                “Um, I don’t know.” A memory floated into my consciousness. “No, I do remember it was… no, that’s silly.”

                “What?”

                “A mouse holding a sword.”

………………………….to be continued

Energy for all

Another week of chaos, another week of wriggling and excuses. While adviser after adviser falls on their sword to allow their boss to continue in No.10, refuses to take responsibility for his leadership (or lack of it).

Meanwhile we hear, as forecast that household energy prices are rising, by 54% in April and probably by more in the autumn. Why is there little outcry about this? Why is no-one held responsible? It is not an Act of God, it is not something that has “just happened”. It’s due to the governance of the UK. The problem is the world market in natural gas. The UK is poorly placed as far as bidding for supplies of natural gas because we need a lot of it and because we have hardly any in store to tide us over peaks in the price.

Natural gas is our main means of providing heat and hot water in our homes. This has been the case since the 1970s when abundant North Sea gas was seized on to replace burning of coal in homes and businesses. Burning natural gas also supplies about 40% of electricity. This is as a result of the “dash to gas” initiated in the 1980s and supported by the Labour government of the 2000s and the Tories since 2010. Compared to comparable countries, for example in Europe we use more gas per household for these reasons. Unfortunately, North Sea gas is running out. Now only about 47% of gas is home-produced. About 33% comes from Norway (from their bit of the North Sea, which is also becoming exhausted). The rest comes from Europe and elsewhere in the world (only about 3% is from Russia). The price of gas on the world market has gone up by factor of 4 in the last year partly because China is using more, last year was a cold winter in in the northern hemisphere and countries used up their stores.

The combination of a heavy reliance on gas and a failure to stock up for the bad times means that the UK is exposed to the changing prices and this will only get worse as North Sea supplies run out and countries like China and India shift from coal.

What is to blame for the UK situation? Not using the revenues from North Sea gas and oil to shift to renewable sources of energy soon enough; not pressing on with alternatives to fossil fuels fast enough in recent years and in the near future; not storing enough gas to smooth out the peaks in price, although the price will rise inexorably. So, simply, the fault lies with the short-termism of successive governments. We are stuffed.

On Thursday we had a half day out in Bristol. Not something to write about perhaps but it was notable for four reasons. Firstly we pre-booked and paid for parking via an app Just Parking which worked very well and gave us a convenient reserved slot at one of the city centre hotels. Secondly we walked through the old parts f the city centre and up to the university area, something I haven’t done since I was a student teacher 47 years ago. It appeared to gave completely changed (shops, cafes etc.) while staying the same. Our first port-of-call was the City Museum and Gallery in order to view the Grayson’s Art Club (Channel 4) exhibition. The artworks were displayed in two of the galleries and interspersed with the regular exhibits of the museum. For example a papier-mâché tiger made from waste paper was with a dinosaur, while Philippa Perry’s plates were in the English china section. The art was impressive, amusing, thought-provoking and an excellent record of the last two years. It really should be kept together on display to remind us of what the lockdowns were like.

The main purpose of our visit was to attend the Old Vic theatre for a performance of Semmelweiss, played by Mark Rylance. It was my first time at the OV. It’s an impressive place which still has its C18th dimensions. It was packed and we all wore masks but up in the gods where we were it got very hot. The play, a personal venture by Rylance, is about the life and work of the Hungarian doctor Ignatz Semmelweiss in the mid-C19th. He discovered that women were dying after childbirth from puerperal fever because doctors were carrying “decaying organic matter” from autopsies of the victims straight to their patients. It was one of the crucial discoveries in the history of the germ theory of disease. However, Semmelweiss’ contemporaries could not accept that they were the cause of the deaths. The play shows how Semmelweiss arrived at his theory and his solution – washing clothing and bedding and washing hands in chlorine solution. He was successful in almost eliminating the deaths but failed to get backing partly because he was a foreigner in Vienna and because he was driven to madness by his sense of guilt and the rejection by his fellow doctors. Rylance was superb (of course) and the cast were excellent (including the understudy who took one of the major parts) and the whole performance, which included a fair amount of dance, was riveting.

It’s a while since I’ve shown these – all five Jasmine Frame novels, still available…

Having finished the first draft of An Extraordinary Tale, I have now begun the edit hoping that I do not find to many inconsistencies arising from having written the novel off the top of my head with little or no planning. The episode that follows closes the first part of the novel – there’s a big change in next week’s part.

An Extraordinary Tale: episode 15

            Ahead was the towering, seething cloud of the Parting that stretched from the eastern horizon to the west and rose so high that it was impossible to see if it ended. No top to the cloud had ever been found or reached.

                We had not taken many steps when I heard heavy footfall behind us.  I paused and turned. An ogre was pursuing us. He, or it may have been she, joined us and grunted a few times.

                “You wish to join us?” I interpreted, guessing rather than translating.

                The ogre inclined its head on its neckless shoulders.

                “Right well, come along. The more we have for this mission into the unknown the better.” I had no idea what use a mindless oaf would be but perhaps its muscles would become useful.

                We resumed our trudge across the plain, leaving the village and the assembled fairies, elves, mice and ogres behind. The Parting was a grey wall ahead of us though it was impossible to say how far because of its height and length defied perspective. Nevertheless, it could not be more than a few furlongs from the ogres’ homes.

                “We are still following her?” I said to Bones.

                “Yes,” he replied, “she passed this way.”

                “How was she travelling?”

                “On a sunbeam.”

                “Beats pigeons, winged horses and a swarm of fairies I suppose.” To be truthful I was becoming apprehensive about what would happen when we entered the mysterious cloud. Despite my words to the gathering, I wasn’t enamoured with adventure, and my idea of real good luck would be to find myself in a comfortable armchair with glass of malt beer at my side and a plate of jam tarts.

                I was musing on whether blackcurrant or strawberry flavour were my favourite when Aelfed tugged on my hand.

                “We’re there.”

                “There?”

                “Alright, here, within it. Look around.”

                I did as she suggested and saw that the Sun was no longer visible overhead and the sky was grey. We were surrounded by the cloud of the Parting yet it was not completely dark. A faint grey light came to us from all sides, but there was nothing to see.  I turned and could not see the plain we had just crossed. Ahead, to the sides, above and below was all the same grey although I could feel solid ground beneath our feet.

                “Can you feel her path, Bones?” I said.

                “Hmm, it is faint, as if spreading out and merging with the cloud.”

                “Great,” I muttered. “If we have no route to follow, how do we know where we are going.”

                The fairy, Tenplessium, flittered above my head.

                “That perhaps is the essence of the Parting. There is nowhere to go.”

                Anxiety gripped me. “Perhaps we should retrace our steps and make sure we can still return.”

                “I think that opportunity has passed,” Aelfed said. “Can you say precisely which way we came into this fog?”

                I spun around but only succeeded in making myself dizzy.  Every direction was the same and I had no idea where we had come from or where we were going.

                “Remember, nothing emerges from the Parting,” Tenplessium said, a reminder I did not need. “Skeleton, can you still lead us?”

                Bones hadn’t moved since we had commenced our discussion.

                “I believe it is this way,” he said and took a step forward.

                I hurried to fall into step with him, Aelfed beside me, Major Mouse at my feet, the ogre a pace or two behind and the Fairy above our heads.

                Whether the cloud grew thicker or the fog was in my head, I do not know, but in a few more steps I felt lethargic, confused, disorientated, drousy. I just wanted to…

………………………….. to be continued

Happiness quotient

Everything I wrote last week still seems to apply. We’ve had another week of vacillation, excuses, lies and little actual government. It’s enough to make one explode with anger, frustration and anxiety. Nevertheless life goes on and with it the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness is the topic for a major feature in last week’s New Scientist magazine. It is being touted as a replacement for GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a measure of a nation’s standing. The thinking is, I suppose, that a happy nation is a stable and successful one. The surprise is that in recent years the happiest place to live is apparently Finland, while the other Scandinavian countries also score highly. It seems that it is not the long winter nights and summer days that are the attraction but that Finland has almost zero economic growth and the least amount of financial inequality in its population. Those two factors go hand in hand. Countries that seek and achieve fast economic growth, the US and UK at the top of the pile, also have the widest pay gap between the richest and poorest. The old “trickle down” principle put forward by various governments doesn’t work. Apart from the obvious extremes of rich and poor, the NS article suggests that where there is economic growth (and hence inflation and uneven pay rises) people are constantly looking at their neighbours and comparing what they have to the detriment of their happiness. Another factor is that Finland and the rest of Scandinavia are high tax, high welfare states. The availability of good health and social care, education opportunities for all and fair treatment of women, makes for a happy society. Oh, for some of that in the UK.

The article focussed on mainly democratically governed countries (I use democratic in a fairly loose sense). I wonder if the same applies to autocratic states. I imagine that there is a wide gap between the rich leaders and the poor in places such as Russia (Putin with his cronies and the oligarchs) and China (the top party officials and leaders of state sanctioned enterprises). I wonder how high the happiness quotient is in those nations?

Nevertheless, the secret of happiness seems to be contentment with what one has (so long as it is enough for the essentials and a few luxuries of life), good health (helped by being active as well as a free and available health service) and good contacts with family, friends and neighbours. And perhaps not worrying about all the problems facing us.

The Sugar Loaf, north of Abergavenny, summer ’21

This week’s topic for writing group was “Waiting”. I recycled a piece from over a year ago. I couldn’t quite recall my thinking behind the piece but it set off a good discussion, about the subject matter if not the quality of the writing. The time released from not writing a new piece has meant I have got on well with the novel. By the time this is posted I should have finished the first draft, just over 75,000 words. In the first revision I will no doubt cut and add bits to make sure it is a coherent tale. For now, here is the next instalment.

An Extraordinary Tale: Episode 14              

  “Why me?” I asked, thinking I had no wish to depart this world for the unknown existence in or through the Parting, if indeed existence continued.

                The Fairy flew around my head. “You, Gnome, seem to have exhibited a certain resourcefulness in pursuing the Sorceress up to now.”

                “That’s just my luck,” I replied and wished I hadn’t.

                “Your luck?” At least half the members of the gathering repeated in unison.  The Ogres added a few grunts too.

                “Yes,” I said, realising that I would have to offer some sort of explanation. “You see I am an adventurer. I’m no swordsman, or wizard. I don’t command any forces or possess great intellect, but I am lucky. Things happen to me. I happen to be on a train where I recognise one of the passengers as a great sorceress and I just happen to overhear a conversation about a theft occurring in Fairyland.  I jump out of a tower in Elfholm and just happen to fall into the path of the Knight. These things happen.  Another piece of luck gave me these.” I raised my cap and the dragonflies flew up from my head. The Fairy withdrew to a safe distance. I clicked my fingers and the dragonflies settled again.  I replaced my cap.

                The Knight let out a roar of laughter that sent a gale across the square blowing most of the gathering off their feet.

                “Well, Gnome, it looks like you are the ideal person to lead your expedition into the Parting.  It will need a good dose of luck.”

                “A Gnome as leader?” Lord Pelladill sneered, having regained his footing.

                “He’ll do,” the Fairy said.

                “But you don’t trust a lone Gnome to apprehend the most resourceful sorceress that ever lived, do you?” Pelladill added.

                “Not at all,” said the Fairy, “He will have companions. A Fairy.”  The cloud of fairies contracted as each tried to hide behind another. “An Elf,” he added and the Elves all looked at each other with dismay. “And the skeleton of course, as he follows his mistress.”  Bones shrugged as if he expected nothing else.

                “And a mouse,” Major Mouse said, “I’m not getting left out of this little jaunt.”

                I raised my hand to attract attention. “Um, I think you’re assuming that I want to go on this mad expedition.”

                The Fairy flew into my face. “You will go or you will take the place of the missing electrum in the most secure cell in Fairyland.”

                It looked as though my choices were limited.  The various parties had turned in on themselves to choose my companions. I turned to Bones.

                “Are you happy with this?” I asked.

                He shrugged. “Why not?  Entering the Parting will either bring a blissful end to my second life or we will discover new wonders.”

                “Putting it like that makes it sound almost attractive.” I said.

                Major Mouse was jumping up and down. “We will be hailed as heroes.”

                I frowned at the mouse. “I think I need to remind you Major, that no-one and nothing has ever emerged from the Parting so being celebrated here will mean little to us.”

                Lord Pelladill was walking across the square towards us with a young Elf maiden dressed in working rags by his side. He pushed her towards us.

                “This is Aelfed, the daughter of my electrum smith.”

                “The one killed by the sorceress’ charm,” I said.  I observed some likeness between this fresh-faced maid and the wizened old smith.

                Pelladill nodded. “She is keen to avenge her father and, as his apprentice, she is well-trained in the storage and treatment of electrum. She will join this expedition.”

                The Fairy flew around us accompanied by another.  “This is my deputy, Queen’s Guard Tenplessium who also will join the party.”

                The Knight leapt on to his horse, his black armour clanking. He took hold of the reins.

                “That is good. The team is selected.  Now I must return to my duties. Farewell.”  The great horse beat its wings and rose into the sky. The darkness lightened as the Sun leapt into the eastern sky and resumed its path

                “Go then,” the leading Fairy said. “Follow the sorceress and ensure the electrum is not misused.”

                The Fairies and Elves and Ogres moved to create a path out of the settlement towards the Parting. I hesitated. The Elf stepped towards me.  She was shorter than me so looked up into my face. She smiled.

                “Come Gnome, let us begin.” Aelfed grasped my hand in one of hers and took hold of the Skeleton’s in her other. She tugged and pulled us along the track made for us.  The Fairy, Tenplessium, flew ahead of us and Major Mouse scampered between my feet.

…………………….to be continued.

Still Hoping

I have spent this week hoping that something might really happen in the government. Surely the bulk of “decent” Tory MPs must have had enough of Johnson to urge him to go, but still he hangs on, blustering and whining while his heavy mob twists arms and his “loyal” cabinet try to express excuses for his behaviour. The trouble is with those words in quotes. How many Tory MPs are decent, by which I mean have integrity, conscience, truly are working for their constituents rather than themselves. What does loyalty mean to this government? They mouth about being loyal to the country and the crown but really supporting Johnson is just about keeping hold of a post in government. When the leader of the governing party has no honour, no conscience, no loyalty to anyone but himself, the normal rules of society are meaningless. Meanwhile he tries to find diversions from his appalling behaviour such as pulling the financial rug from under the BBC and “freeing England” of COVID regulations. All of this also acts as a diversion from the most important issues which are numerous and include:

  • the Policing bill which removes the right to protest,
  • the bill which will make it more difficult for many people to vote in elections,
  • the growing crisis in energy costs and the effect of inflation on people’s pockets,
  • the consequences of brexit on the economy and relations with Europe,
  • the continuing pressure on the NHS (COVID has not gone away),
  • the slow but inexorable slide towards climate disaster,
  • the worsening world political situation with Russia threatening Ukraine, China threatening anybody who annoys it, and the USA sinking towards trumpist chaos.

Each of these would be enough to stretch any competent government but with this shower in charge one doubts their ability to carry out any coherent action. But still I hope that something positive and encouraging may happen.

Blaenavon Ironworks (Britain’s industrial heritage and the origins of climate change)

Another short piece written for writing group this week and further progress made on the novel. The end is in sight, of the first draft anyway. Then will come the editing and revisions, which may be significant in this case because the story has meandered along since it began last June. I will have to go through it to see if the plot is coherent, the characterisation consistent and the action interesting. That’s not a task I particularly enjoy. It’s much more fun having ideas and setting out on the writing journey. We’ve reached episode 13 here, but at this rate it’s going to take over a year to reveal the full story.

An Extraordinary Tale – episode 13

                “I am not her accomplice,” I protested. Before anyone had a chance to disagree with me there was a noisy fluttering of feathers and the giant pigeon landed on one of the roofs.  It promptly collapsed and the bird disappeared in a cloud of leaves, twigs and rock dust.

                The chief fairy buzzed in my face. “A friend of yours, Gnome?”

                “An acquaintance,” I replied.  The pigeon flapped its wings some more and stepped through the collapsed walls of the cottage to join our growing band.

                The Sun had been descending towards the western horizon but suddenly fell from sight. Darkness spread across the sky. I felt rather than saw the arrival of the Knight on his mount but there he was, amongst us, his figure almost but not quite absorbing the light the Fairies emitted.

                “Ah, so this is where you are meeting,” the Knight boomed. The Elves and Ogres huddled together in two groups and stepped away from the tall knight and his huge, winged steed.

                “Greetings again, Sir Night,” the Fairy said. “I think our gathering is complete.”

                Lord Pelladill took a step forward from the other Elves. “We responded to your invitation, Fairy, but we wonder at the purpose of this meeting and the others in attendance.”  He glanced at the cluster of Ogres with distaste.

                The Fairies and the Elves eyed each other suspiciously. The Fairy leader flew into the middle of the space between the groups. 

                “We are here because we are all involved in the loss of our Queen’s electrum, although I’m not certain about the pigeon,” he said.

                “She’s with us,” I said without thinking.

                “The damage sustained will be your responsibility then Gnome,” the Fairy responded. I didn’t like the sound of that.  I avoid responsibility if I can.

                “Get on with it,” intoned the Knight, “I can’t stay here, er, all night.”

                The Fairy buzzed in a circle. “Yes, of course, Sir. We are here to decide what to do if, as we suspect, the sorceress has carried the electrum into the Parting.”

                “It is lost then,” Lord Pelladill said.

                “Not necessarily,” the Fairy replied, “We do not know what becomes of anything that enters the Parting, just that nothing has ever emerged from it. But the Queen sorely regrets the loss of her hoard. You Lord Pelladill have spent your life acquiring electrum and have concerns about its influence on your nation’s economy.  The Knight here has worries about the powers someone like the sorceress could wield in possession of such a quantity of the extraordinary metal.”

                Another finely dressed Elf stepped up alongside Pelladill.

                “And what of these other beings?” he said pointing at me and my companions.

                “They were involved in the theft,” the Fairy said, flying around me, Bones and the mice.

                “I was not,” I protested, “I was pursuing the sorceress in order to return the electrum to its owner.”

                “That’s your story now, is it?” Major Mouse said, glaring up at me.

                “It’s the truth,” I said. Well, it was partly true, though I felt I was losing the plot.

                “Ahem,” Bones made a strange coughing sound. The Fairies, Elves, Ogres, mice, the Knight and the Pigeon stared at him. “As a bonded revitalised skeleton who has no control over his actions, I served my mistress as I was bound to. I take exception to being lumped in with these miscreants.” He waved a bony hand across me and the mice.

                “We understand your position,” the Fairy said, “and when we capture the sorceress you will be freed from her service and allowed to rest in peace.”

                Bones nodded his acceptance.

                “But what are these fighting mice doing here?”  Pelladill’s companion said.

                “Oh, they were after the electrum too. Ouch!” I said. Major Mouse had jabbed my foot with his sword.

                “Well, that is everyone’s position explained,” the Knight boomed, “What are we going to do to retrieve the electrum and return it to its place of storage?”

                “Someone must follow the Sorceress,” the Fairy said.

                “But you said she has entered the Parting,” Lord Pelladill said.

                “The Skeleton says that she headed in that direction,” the Fairy replied.  Bones’ skull rocked on his spine in agreement.

                “Who will follow her then?” the Elf asked, casting his gaze over the throng.

                The Fairy raised his tiny hand and pointed. At me.

………………………………..

Cancelled

This week the talk has all been about the philosophical question of when is a party not a party and has it happened if you cannot recall attending it. It is has been amazing to read of the extraordinary contortions cabinet ministers have adopted to justify the PM’s abject apology for breaking the rules that his own government put in place. They really do live in another world.

There is another topic that simmers constantly and increasingly bubbles over. That subject is cancel culture. One small area of it concerns the accusation that transactivists are preventing trans-deniers from speaking their mind. The activists seem to be singularly unsuccessful in this as deniers find plenty of ways of putting across their contradictory and flawed arguments. Some people seem to think that the whole of (western?) culture is policed by some liberal army preventing forthright bigots from having their say. Maureen Lipman was in the news one week for saying comedy was being stifled by restrictions on what could form the subject of a joke. Then last week she popped up again to criticise the choice of Helen Mirren (a non-Jew) to play the part of Golda Meir (former Israeli PM) in a film. This kicked off another round of comment about who can play which parts to which Davie Baddiel added his two-pennorth. It is agreed that white people should no longer black up to play coloured parts, but the debate continues about who can play other minority roles, such as Jews, disabled people, gay or trans characters. Part of Baddiel’s argument was that as Jews have particular idiosyncratic behaviours only someone born to them could do them justice on stage or screen. Using that argument every character must be played by an actor from the same area or background. David Tennant can stop playing English characters but should revert to his native Scottish accent and only play Scots.

Personally, I want to see more members of minorities on TV, in films and on stage but I am not bothered if actors are not identical in every way in their normal lives with the characters they are playing. I don’t think a MN sufferer could have played Stephen Hawking as well as Eddie Redmayne did in “The Theory of Everything”, Dev Patel was a very good David Copperfield, and Mark Rylance was superb as a techno-billionaire with a sociopathic disorder in both “Don’t Look Up” and “Ready Player One”. I certainly don’t think a character or a minority group is slighted if an actor from a different background plays a part. Nevertheless, no doubt some people will take offence at almost anything, or indeed, will argue that they have the non-existent right not to be offended.

Sailing away.

After the extended festive break it was back to a busy, “normal” life this week. That meant a little less time for novel -writing but An Extraordinary Tale did progress into its final quarter. I did knock out a short piece for writing group but here for your edification is the next episode of the novel.

An Extraordinary Tale: Episode 12

I had not known how fast fairies fly. With my gleaming flying suit, we soared down from the peaks and across the broad plain towards the looming cloud that was the Parting.  Fast, maybe, scary, definitely.  I decided I preferred the firm but soft surface of a pigeon or a winged horse beneath me.  Bones, borne alongside me seemed similarly terrified with his lower jaw hanging limp in a silent scream all the way.

                As we travelled, the Sun passed rapidly overhead. Was time passing quickly? No, I think it was the Sun trying to catch up the day having been slowed by the Knight’s little detour.  By the time we started our descent to the ground the shadows were lengthening.

                The plain adjoining the Parting is covered largely by grassland and shrubs with the occasional village that nestles surprisingly close to the ominous cloud bank. We landed in the centre of one such community though it was hardly more than a hamlet.  The buildings on the four sides of the square, no, more a misshapen quadrilateral, scarcely deserved that term. The walls were low heaps of rubble, roofed with branches torn from the bushes.  We landed amongst the rest of the fairy swarm as the inhabitants emerged from their dwellings. They formed a cluster staring blankly at me, Bones, the mice who disembarked from my clothing, and the Fairies. They were Ogres.

                They varied in size but it was impossible to tell their age or which were male or female. They were all a little taller than me, as broad as they were tall, with little tufts of mud brown hair sprouting from all over their round heads. Little eyes were spaced widely above a wide piggish nose and thin lips concealed a mouth filled with odd-shaped, yellow teeth. Having stared at us for a while they conversed with each other in a series of grunts that conveyed no sense to me.

                “Why did we land amongst them?” I said to the gathering of Fairies. I wasn’t sure which was their commander.

                “It was a landmark,” came the reply.  The Fairy leader flew up and hovered a hand’s breadth from my nose.  I felt my eyes crossing.

                I boldly questioned him. “Do we need a landmark? We can see the Parting. That’s where we’re headed, isn’t it?”

                “That is true, but we need to assess the situation and make some decisions.”  He flew to the skeleton and addressed him, “Can you still sense the sorceress?”

                “I can feel where she has been,” he said.

                “Has she been here?”

                “She passed through here.”

                “Where is she now?”

                “I don’t know. Don’t you listen. I follow her presence but know not her location.” I could sense Bones grating his teeth with annoyance.

                “Hmm,” the Fairy mused. “So she is still heading towards the Parting?”

                “She was,” Bones said, “She may have entered it by now.”

                “Hmm,” the Fairy said again.

                “What are you planning?” I asked thinking that the fairies must have a plan for getting their electrum back.

                “We’ll let you know soon,” he replied.  At that moment there was a noise that was familiar but unexpected; a puffing and clanking and bell ringing. Beyond the roofs of the Ogre homes, small puffs of grey smoke rose into the sky. The noise and the smoke were approaching.  In a few moments, a steam engine drawing a single carriage drew to a halt just beyond the Ogre village. Why did the Elf railway network include this remote village?  Well, Elves are inveterate sightseers so I suppose that some like to come to gaze at the Parting, though why they should want to view the mysterious barrier defeats me.

                Doors were flung open and there came the muttered cries and groans of travel-weary Elves. They appeared between two of the Ogre buildings.  I recognised Lord Pelladill at the front but there were other expensively attired elves, a small platoon of Elvish pike-holders and a handful of the downtrodden working Elves. They joined the Ogres, the Fairies and my companions in the square.

                Pelladill addressed the Fairies. “Ah, I see you have captured these accomplices of the sorceress.”

………………….. to be continued.

Taking responsibility

One week into the new year and there is plenty to worry the anxious: reports from the USA about how the Republicans are breaking down democracy preparing the way for a Trump return or at least a return to his madness; the rising energy prices causing unrest elsewhere but in the UK hardly being considered a threat to people’s standard of living; more examples of Johnson’s failure as a PM; etc.

What can be said about Covid? Are any measures slowing the spread? At least those who are vaccinated can be fairly confident that they won’t experience serious symptoms. However the number of people isolating has consequences for more than the NHS. Postal workers, police, teachers etc. are all under pressure as their colleagues go on sick leave. We are each responsible for keeping ourselves and those around us fit.

One good bit of news was the acquittal of the Colston 4. They had admitted pulling down the statue of the slave trader in Bristol but pleaded not guilty to criminal damage. And the jury believed them. Under the law proposed by the Tory government they would each be facing up to 10 years in prison for such a heinous crime which just goes to show how out of touch with the majority the right wing government is.

I’m not totally certain where I stand on the subject of removing statues. Firstly I think our towns and cities are littered with far too many statues and memorials to people and events that few know anything about. Secondly I do not think we should celebrate as heroes historical figures who engaged in practices that we now abhor. However we do need to present an accurate account of our past to everyone, especially the new generations growing up. Colston doesn’t deserve a statue in the middle of Bristol but his role and more generally the part that the slave trade played in British history should be clear and well known. I don’t think just picking on people like Colston (or Picton in Wales) is enough. There was no part of the British economy in the C17-19th that wasn’t touched by slavery. Certainly the stately homes built in that period must be tainted by the blood of slaves. Even the working class were involuntarily part of it – just think of the cotton mills in the north-west working with the cotton plantations of America; the coal and iron workers that supplied the iron for the shackles, the seamen on the slave ships and ships that served the plantations. The rise in living standards in the UK in that period was largely down to the trade that the slaves generated. Does responsibility lie with all of us? I wouldn’t go that far but we’re all connected.

Autumn on the Grand Union Canal

Moving on with the novel writing this week. I’m in the final quarter or thereabouts and looking to the ending. For the first time with this story, I actually have something of a plan and making things link up. However for this week’s episode we have to go back a long way when I had little idea of where the story was going.

An Extraordinary Tale: Episode 11

                “I seek a large hoard of electrum and follow the sorceress who possesses it.”

                “Ah, we suspected that our Queen’s electrum may have something to do with these events. How do you know that it is heading north?”

                “I have a guide.”

                “The passengers that ride with you? A gnome and a skeleton.”

                “That is correct. Now let me continue.” The Knight raised the reins as if to urge the horse into forward motion.

                “Hold, Sir Night,” the Fairy called. The army of Fairies became agitated. “We know of your desire to capture all the world’s electrum, but that which you seek is the property of the Fairy Queen.”

                “I need to ensure that the electrum is in safe hands and its powers under control.”

                “That is the Queen’s desire too. Please sir, return to your duties as the Knight of the Night. Allow us to apprehend this thief and sequester the electrum once again.”

                “Hmm.”  The Knight hesitated, perhaps disappointed not to continue with his routine-destroying mission. “I suppose you have a point. I am certain the Sun is becoming impatient. It is not good to arouse his fury. I will return to ordering the succession of night and day.”

                “Thank you, sir, that is most noble of you, but before you depart, please hand over your guides to us so that we may continue the quest.”

                I had listened with growing anxiety to the conversation between the Knight and the Fairy.  Now my anxiety became fully blown terror.  What would the fairies do to me and my companions?

                “They are no longer of use to me,” the Knight bellowed. “You can have them.”

                The Knight jerked the reins. The horse folded its wings and we descended in tight circles accompanied by the glowing ball of fairies. I hung on to the horse’s hair tightly until its hooves made contact with the ground. It tucked its wings to its sides. The Knight’s great hand came down and scooped up me and Bones. He leaned down from his saddle, dropped us to the ground not ungently, then kicked his spurs. The horse beat its wings and rose, soaring into the sky. As the Knight departed so the day returned.

                I scrambled to my feet and dusted down my attire. The mice too stretched, stamped their feet to remove the stiffness caused by clinging to me for so long. Bones also loosened his joints. Now that I could see again, I examined our surroundings. The Knight had left us on a narrow ridge overlooking the broad plain that bordered the Parting. The line of the dark impenetrable cloud was visible in the distance. We were not alone.

                The swarm of Fairies had spread out to surround us.  Their silver brightness exceeded even that of the Sun that again shone from the sky.  A Fairy flew towards me, his wings buzzing like that of a bee which he resembled in size if not form.

                “So, you have fallen into our power, Gnome,” he said, “You are an accomplice of the thief.”

                “No, no, no,” I waved my hands to emphasise my rebuttal. “I was following the woman to recover the electrum for the Queen.”

                “The Queen of the Fairies has no need for a Gnome to recover her electrum.”

                Bones turned to me. His eyeless sockets looked at me accusingly.

                “You said you were commissioned by the Fairy Queen to follow my mistress?”

                I puffed out my cheeks, “Yes, well, that was a slight exaggeration. I haven’t actually met the Queen.” Truth be told, I had never spoken to a Fairy till now. I felt sharp points jabbing at my ankles.  I looked down.  The mice were prodding me with their swords.

                “You told us a pack of lies,” Major Mouse shouted. “And you stopped us from getting the electrum from her bag.”

                I leaned down to face the mice. “You had no chance of getting that bag open at all, and, while some of what I said was not strictly true, I would not call them lies.”

                “Ahem,” said the Fairy, “Time presses on us. I need the truth from you, Gnome. You were with the sorceress, as was this heap of bones.”

                “I beg your pardon, sir,” the Skeleton said, “I take offence at being called a heap of bones. I am a revitalised skeleton in service to the lady of whom you speak.”

                The Fairy fluttered into Bones’ face and emerged through an eye-socket a few moments later.

                “Well, there is certainly no living flesh in there,” he said, “so you are bonded with the woman.”

                “I am.”

                “And you know where she is.”

                “No.”

                “No? What then?”

                “I know where she has been.  I am drawn along her trail.”

                The Fairy circled Bones’ head. “So, which direction is she headed?”

                Bones raised his hand and pointed towards the distant cloud of the Parting. “That way,” he said as if that was the end of the matter.

                “It cannot be,” the Fairy muttered, flying up to join his companions. “Why would she approach the Parting?”

                “To enter it?” I offered.

                The Fairy buzzed down to me, hovering over my nose. “Enter it! What madness is this?

                “I don’t know,” I replied, “But I cannot imagine another reason for heading in this direction.”

                “What will become of the electrum if it enters the Parting?” The Fairy was making figures of eights now.

                “I don’t know,” I said, “but I’d like to find out.”

                “We must catch her before she enters it,” The Fairy said. “Come fellow Fairies, to the Parting. Oh, and bring them.”

                The Fairy and a proportion of the swarm flew off northwards. The remainder clustered around me and the skeleton, under our arms, around our legs and under my buttocks and Bones’ nether regions. I felt myself lifting off the ground. The mice scurried to grab hold of my trouser hems before they were left behind.

                “Not again,” a mouse cried, “How many more ways can we be carried through the air?”

……………… to be continued

New year, new hope?

It’s a new year. Are we celebrating its arrival or are we fearful of what it may hold? Looking back gives a mixed picture. Personally it wasn’t at all bad. We were vaccinated three times, avoided catching the virus, had a few breaks away from home including a visit to Germany to visit family (for the first time in 23 months) and spent four weeks on our shared narrowboat. Looking outside our cosy existence things are not so rosy. At home we find the UK government stumbling from one self-inflicted disaster to another, each making the plight of the less-well-off more difficult (I’m not counting the vaccination programme, the success of which I put down to the scientists and the NHS). Abroad, worries grow as nation after nation seems to be run by idiots whose only policy seems to be to look after themselves while oppressing their peoples, some of whom don’t seem to notice it. Despite Biden being president of the USA the state of government and democracy in that country does not provide a source of encouragement that things might be improving. With so many authoritarian narcissists in power nothing is done to solve problems whether it is the need to increase vaccination rates across the world in order to end the pandemic’s worst effects, or tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, et al.

The future seems to promise more of the same. How far will Xi go in extending Chinese domination and influence across the world? How fixed is Putin on reclaiming old Soviet lands? What chance does Biden have of holding back republican erosion of individual rights and reason? What of Germany and the EU now that Merkel has retired? All that and questions about future governance and the experiences of the peoples of Afghanistan, Brazil, India, France, Poland, Hungary, Australia, etc, etc. Closer to home – how long will Johnson hang on before even his closest cronies realise he is an incompetent jerk; but, who else in the Tory party is anything more than a self-serving fool.

No, I don’t feel much optimism for the future looking at it with a broad perspective. I just hope that little of it will affect our own lives and those of our family and friends. I hope we can continue to keep fit, to carry on having fun in the things we do, and to not feel too much anxiety about the things happening around us. Am I wrong to hope for that?

A reminder of a pleasurable trip, August ’21

What about my writing “career”? 2021 was a year when I had nothing published barring a few articles in the Beaumont Magazine. I still hope to find a publisher for The Pendant and the Globe but it does mean actually sending it to more agents and publishers. Self-publishing is not on because my experiences with the Jasmine Frame novels (still available on Kindle or from me) shows that expertise (or perhaps just time and energy) in marketing is needed, which I lack. But its not all gloom and despondency. I have been getting on well with An Extraordinary Tale. The ideas keep coming and over the Christmas period passed 50,000 words. Success is not all about wordcount but for writers it means something to have stuck it that far. When that is done, perhaps I will return to the two other novels becalmed at around 25,000 words or perhaps I will turn to other ideas. The point is I am still enthused by writing. I would just like to find more readers.

So here is the next episode of An Extraordinary Tale. We’re still quite early in the novel so there’s a long way to go.

An Extraordinary Tale: Episode 10

Chapter 4: We encounter watchers in our flight

We flew in the darkest of nights.  Not through. We were at the core of the night, the source of the shroud of darkness that must envelop half the continent. What must all the peoples beneath the untimely night be thinking, I wondered. Their day plunged into the black of night without reason.

                It was impossible to see where we were headed.  The only sense of movement I had was the air blasting my face and tugging at my jacket and trousers where the mice hung on.  I kept one hand on the brim of my hat to stop it and the dragonflies from being swept away. I felt Bones at my side with his arm still raised, still resolutely pointing our direction.

                Northwards. Why north? I did not understand. There were many lands further south reaching to the ocean, the unnavigable and un-charted ocean, which marked the edge of the world.  To the east there were many days of travel until one reached the wasteland at the end of the continent where the Sun rose, and similarly to the west where it set.  All of these provided ample hiding places for the woman and the electrum. There really was little to the north except for the Parting, the dark rolling cloud from which nothing emerged and from which nothing returned having entered it. Why was she headed in that direction carrying the Fairy horde?

                We had not been in flight for long, though my freezing limbs thought otherwise, when I noticed that the blackness of our surroundings was no longer complete.  Tiny lights appeared, first one or two, then a few, then more. They were all around us. While they shone and twinkled like stars, they were not stars. They did not stay in fixed positions but moved in unpredictable ways around us as if accompanying our flight. I started to have the feeling that we were being watched.  These points of light were eyes, unblinkingly examining us – myself, the skeleton, the Knight and his mount.

                The number of miniscule lights increased steadily until, all at once, there was a burst of light in front of us made up of thousands of the fiery pinpoints.

                “Whoa!” cried the knight above my head. He tugged on his reins and the flying horse raised its head, neighed loudly, beat its wings and brought us to a halt, hovering in the air.

                The lights approached and at last I had sight of them although their brightness hurt my eyes which had become accustomed to the gloom of the night.

                It was like looking through a microscope.  Although each lantern was tiny, I was able to make out its form and shape. Each was a miniscule silver being with arms and legs and head and beating wings of silvern gossamer. They were fairies.

                They approached, surrounding us in a ball of light that banished the Knight’s darkness.

                A thin, high pitched but clearly audible voice cried out. “Sir Night we bid you cease your flight.” 

                “By what authority do you command me?” boomed the Knight.

                “The peoples of the world are disconcerted by this disturbance of day and night.  The Sun is halted in its path, and you travel north instead of from east to west.  Tell us why?”

                “I am on a quest,” the Knight replied as if that explained everything.

                “A quest?  What is the nature of this quest?” the fairy spokesperson said, “Pray tell us what quest is so important as to disrupt the passage of time.”

……………………………to be continued

Merry Christmas

Today (i.e. the day this blog goes live) we are celebrating – Christmas, the mid-winter festival, whatever. Perhaps we’re not with family, as is traditional at this time, but many of us can be thankful that we have plenty to eat and drink, somewhere to feel safe, warm and comfortable, and remain healthy. Lots and lots of people have been testing positive for COVID whether its the Omicron variant or not, and that has upset various festive plans. The fact that being vaccinated alleviates the worst symptoms of the virus is a great reassurance but huge numbers infected still mean the NHS is stretched not least through having many staff on sick leave. It seems amazing that during last year’s disrupted celebrations the vaccines were only just beginning to be administered. I fear that until a much higher proportion of the world’s population, including children, is vaccinated, new variants will continue to arise and be spread and we have no idea whether they will be more transmissible or dangerous. To some extent we will have to live with the virus; society requires support of many people still prepared to go out to work. Nevertheless, continuing to require regular boosters, avoid crowds where there may be infected people, and take tests means that living with it does not mean a return to “normal” life of 2019. With anti-vaxxers becoming more extreme and violent one wonders what constitutes normal any more.

……………..

Perhaps I was wrong and maybe there are some honourable Tory MPs. Caroline Nokes could be one. I don’t know her record of voting on Brexit, for Johnson, COVID regulations, refugees or a host of other right wing measures that have passed through Parliament but she does seem to have a moderate view on transmen and trans women. She has pressed the government to proceed with the reforms to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 which were suggested during May’s period as PM and since dumped as a sop to transphobic supporters of Johnson. Nokes says, quite rightly, that the present system is “outdated, intrusive and bureaucratic”, requiring two diagnoses of gender dysphoria, two years of living in gender and an anonymous and unseen panel assessing whether a candidate for gender recognition is masculine or feminine enough. In the17 years since the Act became law probably less than 10,000 people in the UK have had their gender recognised and been allowed to amend their birth certificate. This is a tiny proportion of the number of transgender and non-binary people in the country. Of course Nokes has been attacked and abused for suggesting such a thing, but she is standing firm. I am a little disappointed that she doesn’t strongly refute the suggestion that “men” will change their gender in order to attack women in loos and women’s spaces. I don’t believe that has ever happened whether the person accused has a Gender Recognition Certificate or not. Anyway, good luck to Caroline Nokes. She has my support, notwithstanding that any changes to the GRA will have no effect on me or any other non-binary, or gender fluid person. What we do need is for the insistence for gender identification and titles such as Mr, Mrs and Ms to cease to be required on official documents. I don’t believe they help with identification especially as styles of dress and appearance become increasingly mixed between the genders.

Hanbury House, Worcs. On the day of our visit it was decorated for a 70s/80s Christmas – great fun!

No writing group meeting this week as those of us who were considering meeting decided that the rising numbers of omicron infections meant it was perhaps not wise to gather in public places immediately before Christmas. I have however been getting on well with An Extraordinary Tale. Whether it is a coherent novel is another matter, but here is the next episode.

An Extraordinary Tale, episode 9

                “Who are you?” I called.

                “I am the Knight,” the voice replied.

                It was indeed as dark as night but I did not understand what he meant. “But it is morning, the Sun not halfway to its zenith.  How can it be night?”

                “It is night wherever I, the Knight of the night, roam.”

                I was confused. Bones extricated his wrist from my hand. “I think he means he is a member of the class of chivalry, and we are on his charger. Together they are the cause of the darkness.”

                “Ah,” I said, “Thank you, Bones. I think I understand. If only we could see.”

                Just then one of the mice struck a spark. I heard the metallic click as steel hit the flint. The spark ignited a tiny candle. Though the light was dim and small, being the only source of light, its glow enabled me to see something of our surroundings. We indeed were sitting astride the broad back of some mighty horse.  To the front, its mane rose to a dark and distant head while on both sides, great wings with feathers as black as jet extended into the night. I twisted around to view the rider who sat behind and above us. I could see little. The pommel of a great saddle rose like a wall obscuring my view but above was a huge figure in black armour which was only visible because it glinted in the feeble candlelight.

                I gulped with awe at our situation and wondered whether this armoured knight was our saviour or another threat to our wellbeing.

                I summoned my voice. “Thank you, good sir, for saving us from a deadly fall. Yet, I wonder at your timely arrival since it was day when we stepped from the Elf-lord’s tower. It seems to have been a strange chance that brought you to our rescue.”

                “Not a chance,” The slow, booming voice said from above. “I sensed activity in the capital of the elves and decided to investigate. Our trajectories appear to have coincided.”

                “Um, what was this activity that attracted you?”

                “The exposure of a large quantity of electrum.”

                The subject of my pursuit, the sorceress, must have shown Lord Pelladill the fairy electrum she carried in her bag.

                “Why does electrum interest you, Sir Night?” I asked in my most innocent tone.

                “Its luminescent quality causes me anxiety. My task is to extinguish all sources of light so I must seek all hoards of electrum that are revealed to the world.”

                “All sources of light?” I asked. “What about the Sun?”

                “He and I have an arrangement.  He drives his chariot across the sky each day following the agreed route. He leaves half the day to me.”

                “But not today. You have interrupted the Sun’s passage.”

                “It was an emergency. It’s not unknown for there to be an eclipse.”

                Bones tugged on my sleeve. I heard his grating whisper in my ear.

                “You are annoying him with your insinuations. Take care that he does not cast us off his mount.”

                “Um, yes,” I replied quietly then raised my voice. “I too wish to return the electrum to its place of safekeeping with the Fairy Queen.  Perhaps, sir, you and I can cooperate.”

                “Me, cooperate with a gnome?” boomed the voice.

                “Well, perhaps we can assist you,” I said. “You seek the sorceress who carries the electrum.”

                “I do.”

                “She stepped from the window a short while before us. You were a little late in your arrival.”

                “I was on the other end of the world.”

                “Of course, you were.”

                “Hmm. If you are pursuing the electrum, perhaps you could be of some assistance. The hoard has been hidden from my view again and I do not know its location.”

                “She’s closed her bag,” I said. I leaned towards Bones. “Can you still feel her path?”

                I heard Bones’ neck bones grate as he nodded. “Yes. She flies northwards.”

                “Flies?”

                “I know not how. She carries no broom in her bag and had no means of flight when we fled the Fairy Kingdom.”

                “Hmm, well, if we follow and catch her, we will find out how she travels.”  Again, I raised my voice. “Knight. We can direct you to the bearer of the electrum.  The skeleton will point the way.”

                The booming voice replied. “Do so and I will allow you to travel with me. First however extinguish that insufferable lght”

                Bones stretched out his right arm, hand and fingers. Each white bone glistening in the dim, guttering light of the mouse’s candle. The wick hissed as the mouse put it out with its paws. The wings of the horse rose and fell in slow, immense flaps. I had to grip the coarse fur on the horse’s back, the skeleton and the mice too, as the horse increased its speed. We soared blind through the night, no source of light to show us the way, only the current of air rushing passed us showed we were moving.

…………………. to be continued

Christmas cheer

Of course it’s a protest vote, but what a protest! The stunning victory by the Lib Dems in North Shropshire provides lots of talking points. It is not, however, signs of a re-birth of Liberal supremacy. I don’t suppose many of the voters feel that they have suddenly become life-long Liberal voters. It is also a warning to Labour who dropped from second to third. Many Labour voters obviously did not have confidence that their party could pick up sufficient disillusioned Tories to pull off the shock result. Labour has to do a lot more to pick up middle of the road Conservatives. The Tories will try and pass of the loss of a seat as a mid-term blip but it is certainly more than that. There have been many such blips in the past (I can recall the SDP winning by-election after by-election in the 1980s during Maggie’s pomp but failing in the general elections). There are differences here though. The loss of such a safe Tory seat by quite a margin is remarkable, especially when the party has done what its voters in North Shropshire said they wanted i.e. delivered Brexit. Perhaps it does show that people in Shropshire and elsewhere are fed up with the lying and incompetence and sleaze of this government and particularly that of its leader. Will he be dumped? I don’t know. Maybe his MPs think that they can live with (and cover up) his incompetence and falsehoods for another two years and win again. Is there another amongst this bunch of privileged and dim Tories who could lead the party and gather the support of voters?

Locking down, Braunston, November ’21

A Christmas lunch for the writers’ group this week (seated, 8 of us all vaccinated and LFT’d so as omicron safe as we could be). I wrote a short piece for the event along with most of the others. Instead of an episode of An Extraordinary Tale, here it is – a bit of fun that maybe makes you think.

Christmas is Coming, Turkeys are Getting Fat

“Trevor, have you heard the rumours about Christmas?”

                Trevor paused pecking in the dirt. “Christmas? What’s that? What are you gobbling about now, Tina?”

                Tina scratched at the ground with her foot. “Trixie was telling us something she’d heard some of the others said. They had heard the Providers talking about what they would be doing at Christmas.”

                Trevor shook his tail. “And what sort of things do the Providers do at Christmas, whatever that is?”

                “They put their feet up, so Trixie said.”

                “You mean they take their feet off. That’s nonsense, feet don’t come off.”

                “Oh, yes they do. Don’t you remember Theodore telling us that he saw one of them pull their green feet right off so that they were standing on these strange pink things at the end of their legs.”

                “OK, Tina, so the Providers do strange things with their feet. What has this Christmas thing got to do with us. Our feet don’t come off.”

                Tina stepped closer to Trevor and gobbled softly in his ear. “Trixie said that someone told her that when Christmas comes the Providers will kill us and put us in a fiery furnace.”

                Trevor stood up straight and stretched his neck. “Now, now, Tina. You shouldn’t go listening to all these stories of doom and despair. We’re nice and comfortable here. There’s plenty of room to wander around. The Providers give us food to eat and check the fences to keep us safe. The Providers look after us. What evidence is that they are suddenly going to turn against us?”

                “I heard it from Tommy too. He says he heard some Providers talking about preparing for the end.”

                Trevor shook his head so hard his wattles wobbled violently. “You mustn’t listen to all these conspiracy theories Tina. Like that story that Toby passed on about our food containing medicine to get rid of worms. Have you had worms? No, of course not, so why would anyone think that the Providers put medicine in our food to prevent a problem that hasn’t happened.”

                “But Trevor, what is going to happen to us at Christmas?”  Tina’s neck had turned quite pink.

                “There’s no such thing as Christmas for turkeys, Tina. It’s just something these other turkeys are saying to get you anxious and put you off your food. They probably just want a bigger share of the lovely seeds the Providers give us.”  Trevor bent his neck and plucked an earthworm from the soil. “I’m not going to worry about nonsense like the world ending at Christmas. I’m just going to carry on eating to stay happy.  That’s what the Providers want. You’ve seen them smiling at us and commenting on how fit and content we are.”

                “Oh, Trevor, you do reassure me. You’re such a wise turkey. It must be because you were hatched days before most of us and have so much more knowledge.”

Tina waddled to Trevor’s side and together they pecked at the ground.

……………..

Just desserts

Is he on his way out then? Surely enough Tories resent being dumped on and made to support his lies and excuses to force him from No.10; but, I wonder. What honour do Tory MPs have left? Do they think they can weather the storms of sleaze and incompetence that will buffet them in the next two years as they have been for the last two? If the political storms were given names like the meteorological ones I wonder what letter we would be up to in this parliament now – L, P, Z? Tory MPs can be very fickle and if they see their comfortable seats in the House of Commons even slightly under threat, they can ditch their leader surprisingly quickly. Just think back to 1990 and Maggie’s final days. They turned on her very rapidly after she had given them eleven years in power and three election victories. Of course they went on to win under John Major again in 1992 but the Iron Lady had gone. Could the lying toad get his just desserts as quickly? I don’t know, but I have my fingers crossed despite worries of which eye-swivelling idiot will replace him.

………………….

It’s Christmas card time. Lou thinks they’re waste of money – why give one to people who you can see often and wish seasonal greetings to and why send one to people whose only contact is the card they send with no message and just names. She makes a charity donation in lieu of cards and postage. I agree up to a point. I do send them to family and family friends and to close friends who I have fond memories of, even though we hardly, if ever, see them. I do however write a message, not one of those “Christmas letters” but a few personal points and news highlights. I am delighted when I get the same in return, disappointed when the usual cards arrive with just the names of the senders. Sometimes we get cards from people whose names I do not recognise at all, with no message to help identify them. Why bother? So to those of you out there who are friends. Don’t worry if you don’t get a card, I still wish you all the joys of the season and best wishes for the next year.

Another sunny morning on the Grand Union

Last week I was in a bit of a dip with the writing of An Extraordinary Tale. I’d got to the 25,000 word mark, perhaps a third of a novel. I’d got to the same point with two other novels, Malevolence and For Us, The Stars. Those had ground to a halt partly because I didn’t think they were interesting (i.e. good) enough and I wasn’t sure where they were headed (although I did have a brief outline for the latter). But my principle with AET is to go with whatever ideas, wacky or otherwise, come into my head. Sure enough some ideas arrived and now I’m up to 31,000. OK, so it’s still not halfway to a full novel, but I am having fun writing it. Anyway we have to go a fair way back for this week’s episode, but here it is.

An Extraordinary Tale, episode 8

               I asked, “Did she indicate where she might take the electrum next?”

                Pelladill shook his head. “Where could she take it? Everyone wants electrum but none can afford it and no-one wants to experience the effects of a sudden glut of the stuff.”

                “If she did not have you lined up as a purchaser, why did she steal it in the first place?”  I was quite at a loss.

                The elf spread his hands. “Not my concern. Presumably, it is one that exercises your gnomish brain.”

                “The Fairy Queen is very determined to have her electrum returned.”

                “I am sure she is. But with no purchaser, the sorceress may decide to use its properties for her own purposes.”

                “She will need to find a smith that will carry out her wishes.”

                “That is true, and she will not find such a character among us elves. All the electrum smiths in Elfholm are indentured to the Lords.”

                I downed the last drops of mead in my goblet and placed it on the table with its fellows.  I stood up.

                “Well, if you do not know the woman’s whereabouts, we must follow her trail further. I must thank you for your hospitality and for answering our questions, especially as you cannot know what we might do with such information.”

                Lord Pelladill gave me a smile which seemed to contain more malice than goodwill. “I care not what value you attach to my words, Gnome.”

                 “Why speak so freely, then lord elf?” I said mystified by his response.

                “Because they bring you no benefit but bought me a little time.” His smile grew even broader.

                My suspicions aroused, I grabbed Bones’ wrist and tapped Major Mouse with the tip of my shoe. The mice took the hint and took hold of my trouser cuffs.

                “Time for what?” I asked, hearing my voice tremble somewhat.

                Lord Pelladill, rose to his feet and clapped his hands. “This!”

                The doors opened and a wave of armed elves flooded into the room. They carried short pikes and advanced towards me with the points lowered in a very threatening manner.

                “Time to leave,” I cried and ran for the window that the woman had departed by. I dragged Bones along. I leapt and skeleton, mice and I exited the tower with our only destination, the ground.

                As we tumbled, somehow I kept my grasp of Bones. The mice, with their steel-tipped claws, retained a grip on the cloth of my trousers. For a moment I felt the warmth and light of the morning Sun around us.

                Everything turned dark. I landed with a thump onto a firm but yielding surface. That we were no longer falling was my first perception then, as I groped in the darkness to orient myself, I realised that the material of our landing was not grass but a coarse fur and though soft and springy had a strong sturdy base. It felt warm. Bones was still by my side, his wrist clamped by my hand. I was sitting and reluctant to get to my feet because, although our fall had been arrested, our support was in motion.  In the absence of light, blacker than a cellar, my eyes told me nothing of our new situation.

                Still keeping a hold on my trouser leg, Major Mouse squeaked. “Where are we? What has happened to us?”

                “A good question,” Bones said, “I anticipated being dashed into a million fragments, but it seems we have landed on some creature that is airborne.”

                Before I could reply, a deep, booming voice came from the darkness above my head. The words came slowly.

                “What is this flotsam that I have collected?”

……………………….

The future comes

We’ve joined the internet of things, I think. My much loved Epson printer/scanner/copier, fourteen years old, had developed a serious addiction to inks, getting through the cartridges at a prodigious rate, only liking the genuine Epson stuff, and still not producing decent colour copies. I decided that the time had come to replace it. I have therefore purchased a new all-in-one printer which is linked to our wi-fi and is set up to order its own ink over the internet when it feels it needs a new cartridge. It is supposed to be considerably cheaper than buying cartridges the old fashioned way. We’ll see, but let us hope we can trust the new printer not to develop a compulsive buying disorder and keeps within its budget.

I managed to attend writing group this week after our week away. The theme for the week had been “something wintry”. I didn’t have a lot of time to plan some fiction and so following COP26 and last weekend’s Storm Arwen (don’t forget to roll the rrrs) I knocked out the following short essay.

Something Wintry
The polar jet stream circles the planet, migrating north and south with the seasons. It drives depressions across the Atlantic Ocean carrying winds, rain, and sometimes snow, to the British Isles. Ocean currents carry warm water from the tropics to lap at the shores of the islands bringing with them warm, moist air that provides mild, wet winters and warm, wet summers. These and other factors make the British climate temperate and changeable. Rarely does the weather remain the same for more than two or three days at a time. On any day, one can experience two or three seasons in quick succession with the temperature changing by up to ten degrees Celsius.
A thousand generations have lived with the unpredictable British weather and the seasonal lengthening and shortening of days. Crops, meadows, and woodlands have been nurtured by the gentle rain and mild temperatures, while the warm, coastal waters have provided abundant sea food.
Since the last ice age ended about ten thousand years ago, there has been a slow, steady rise in temperature of a degree or so. As the ice receded, plants and animals and people adapted to that slow change. Yet now their comfortable home is threatened. In the three hundred years since the industrial revolution commenced, average temperatures have risen by over one degree, with most of the change occurring in the last fifty years. The huge increase in burning of fossil fuels of recent decades promises global warming more than double that in the next fifty years.
The polar regions are warming faster than elsewhere. This is weakening the jet stream and its path is becoming chaotic. Loops can cause the weather patterns to “lock” for weeks on end resulting in extended heatwaves or freezes, sometimes “out of season”. Kinks bring storms to British shores more often and they are stronger because the warmer air carries more rain and wind power.
The disappearing Arctic Ocean ice and the melting ice cap of Greenland make the seawater less salty. This will slow or stop the conveyor belt of ocean currents. With less warm water flowing around the islands, in the darker months Britain will become colder. While most of the world will be experiencing rising temperatures, Britons may shiver. Winter is coming.

A cold, autumn morning on the Grand Union Canal

My main aim in writing is to continue with the novels, so here is the next episode of An Extraordinary Tale.

An Extraordinary Tale: Episode 7

                I stepped forward and pushed on the doors. They swung silently open and revealed a spacious circular room with windows offering a view of the towers of Elfholm on every side. The pillowy clouds far below hid the sordid ground level of the city. The morning sun reflected off all the shiny surfaces and objects in the room, shiny because they were made of precious metals or encrusted with valuable gems. In the middle of the room stood an elf. He was the shortest adult elf I had ever met, the top of his head hardly coming up to my chin. He made up for his unimposing presence with fine clothes. The usual elvish tunic was green satin adorned with gold thread in complex patterns over which he wore a cloak formed from hundreds of butterfly wings stitched together. On his feet he wore silk slippers which came to the longest points I have ever seen. They were rolled into a tight spiral.

                “Well, I have visitors, I see,” he said with an unexpected jollity. “A skeleton and a gnome. What a strange pair.”

                I was about to reply when the mice erupted from my jacket and trousers and advanced across the marble floor, swords at the ready. A flicker of fear crossed the elf’s face but when the mice stopped and took up a defensive formation, he regained his apparent cheerfulness.

                I addressed the elf. “You are Lord Pelladill, the owner of the electrum establishment down below?”

                “That is true,” he replied, “Do you have business with me?”

                “It’s the business you may have done with a certain red-haired lady, that interests me,” I said.

                Pelladill smiled. “Ah, you mean the sorceress.”

                I thought of her more as a witch, but sorceress would do. “That is true. Did she make you an offer of a quantity of electrum? A considerable quantity in fact.”

                The elf lord did not reply immediately but crossed the room to sit on a well-padded and ornate easy chair. He indicated a similarly decorated and embroidered sofa.

                “Please sit while we continue our discussion. I will call for refreshment.” He clicked a finger and from hidden doors in the walls beside the liftshft, a parade of elvish servants emerged with trays bearing jugs and goblets.

                I sat on the sofa. Bones took a glance at the elf-sized furnishings and decided to remain standing beside me. I signalled to the mice to stand down. They retreated under my seat. I took a goblet from the tray offered to me and found it contained mead, a favourite of elves, sweet and syrupy with an alcoholic kick. Bones declined but Lord Pelladill took one and swallowed the contents in one go. He placed the goblet on an occasional table.

                “To your question,” he said. “The lady you mentioned did make me an offer.”

                “And?”

                “I refused it.”

                “Why?”

                “The quantity of electrum she had in her possession was, as you said, considerable. If I had introduced it to the markets of Elfholm the finances of the city would be ruined.”

                “How?” My questions were apparently stuck in a monosyllabic form.

                “That amount of electrum would have destabilised the value of the metal reducing it to the value of gold. Electrum holders, of which I am the most important, would find our fortunes reduced in value. Not a good result of a business deal.”

                “So?”

                “I told her to go elsewhere with her electrum.”

                “Not hers, the Fairy Queen’s.”

                “Ah, yes. That was another reason. While we are not exactly on good terms with the Fairies, my fellow Lords of Elfholm would not thank me for bringing a fairy siege upon us.”

                “They would be forced to defend the city?”

                “The chance of my fellow lords cooperating sufficiently to resist an invasion of fairies is very small. We hardly ever agree to act together on anything.”

                While I am no financial wizard, I could understand the elf lord’s unwillingness to bring both financial ruin and the wrath of the Fairies on himself and his fellows. That left the problem of where she had gone next with the electrum.

                “How did she respond to your refusal?”

                Lord Pelladill smiled. “Not with good grace, Gnome. She tried to charm me but I have strong defences up here. No fairy, sorceress or gnome can overcome me in my own home.”

                “Unlike in your workshop, down below,” I noted.

                “Oh? What has happened?

                “Your smith died when we asked for the lady’s whereabouts.”

                Pelladill shrugged. “They’re always dying. I can find another.”

                “Really? Are smiths with the skills to shape and mould electrum so common?”

                The elf lord declined to answer.

                “So, what did she do?” I asked.

                “She left.”

                “How?”

                The elf pointed to the window through which the Sun’s rays shone. “That way.”

		

Away from it all

I’ve been away for a week though not so far from civilisation (?!) that I couldn’t follow the news on both TV and internet. Nevertheless I felt as if I was in a different world and it was the world of Johnson as PM , Pritti Patel as Home Secretary and Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary who seemed to be living in wonderland. All of them (and the whole Tory party) seem able to believe a host of contradictory statements simultaneously or accept fanciful and nonsensical idea as fact. Peppa Pig as the model of future British business, a government that isn’t at all corrupt. What about Brexit gave the UK control over its borders but now according to Patel the migrant problem requires international cooperation, while her offer of UK police on French soil is refused because it breaches French sovereignty. I’d laugh if I wasn’t crying.

Nevertheless, away from the (dystopian) fantasy world of Johnsonist politics, I found peace and contentment, even if the heating on our narrowboat packed up, we got stranded mid-canal because dredging hasn’t been done for years, and an electric charging point played up causing some considerable angst before we got a charge for our car. Such are holidays.

An idyllic canal scene – an amazingly quiet Hawkesbury Junction.

I didn’t do a lot of writing while away but I made a little progress on the novel. Here though is a part I wrote a while ago – the next episode of An Extraordinary Tale

An Extraordinary Tale, part 6

Chapter 3  We meet an elven lord

The workshop was probably the most cramped and untidy in all of Elfholm. There was barely room for Bones and I to enter. Around the perimeter of the tiny space were strewn barrels, bottles, jars, boxes, cans and a variety of other containers I could not name. All empty. Only the worktable in the centre of the room was clean and bare but for the nugget of electrum. It was tiny, hardly the size of my thumb, yet its blue-white glow filled the room and spilled into the smoke-filled alley.

                There was just one elf in the room.  His back was bent, his hair grey and wispy and he was dressed in a filthy and torn tunic. He stood at the table staring at us with a frozen expression of terror. That was probably because the mice had emerged from my pockets and cuffs and had rushed across the table to surround the morsel of electrum.  They had their swords raised, daring the elf to oppose them.

                “Do not touch the electrum,” I commanded. Despite the small size its value was probably greater than all the gold in Elfholm.

                “But it is electrum,” Major Mouse appealed. His sword trembled as he contemplated the object of his desire.

                “It is not that which we seek,” I said. “This is obviously the property of the elven lord in whose workshop we stand.”  Indeed, the Fairy Queen’s stolen horde was considerably larger. The mice paused in their advance but took up defensive stances to prevent the elf from removing the glowing metal.

                I addressed the visibly shaking elf. “Is that true, elf?”

                He looked at me with contempt mixed with fear. “Yes, Gnome, it is the property of Lord Pelladill.”

                “A woman came here recently. Do you have the electrum that she carried?”

                The elf froze as if transfixed. No sound came from his mouth. 

                I turned to Bones, who was having trouble standing erect in the low-ceilinged workshop. “She has been here has she not?”

                Bones shrugged his shoulder bones. “My bond has brought us here, but I do not know where Madam is at this moment.”

                “She must have come to trade the Fairy electrum. What have you done with it?” I demanded of the elf.

                He shook once then curled up into a ball and rolled across the floor.  I bent to examine him. He was quite dead. I straightened up.

                “She must have charmed him to stop him from speaking to us.”

                “There is no more electrum here,” Major Mouse said sniffing the air. “Only this miserable but enticing fragment.”

                “Then she must still have it,” I said.

                “May I make a suggestion?” Major Mouse said. I nodded agreement. “She had a large quantity to get rid of. The only person who could deal with that amount would be the elven lord himself.”

                “That is true,” I said, “What do you think, Bones?”

                “The rodent is correct. I feel that my mistress is or has been somewhere above us.”

                “That’s it then,” I said as I crossed the workshop. “We must ascend to the lord’s dwelling above the clouds. I pushed the door at the back of the workshop open and stepped into a circular space. There was no ceiling above and the walls rose up into the tower.

                Bones and the mice joined me.

                “It is a stairwell with no stairs,” Bones said.

                “That’s correct,” I replied, “You would not expect an elf with status and a fortune to climb steps all the way to their penthouse, would you?”

                The skeleton nodded. “That thought had not occurred to me, but this is my first visit to Elfholm. How do we then ascend?”

                “Climb on board, mice,” I said and grasped hold of the skeleton’s thin wrist. The mice scrambled up my trouser legs. Once they were settled about my dress, I added, “A stairwell without stairs is a well. Imagine falling into it.”  I stepped forward into the centre of the empty column.

                A dry cry issued from Bones’ throat as we fell upwards. A high-pitched squeaking emerged from my pockets. I too, let out a scream of delight. There really is no other experience like an elven elevator.

                We tumbled and rolled but our fall was over in moments.  I found myself lying on my back on the parapet at the top of the tower. The conical roof rose to a point somewhere above. I got to my feet and brushed myself down.  Over the edge I could just see the ground floor far below.

                The skeleton, fitting some bones back into place, said, “I can’t imagine that the elvish aristocracy travel in the same manner.”

                “I believe that the well-off elves who live up here ascend and descend in a more elegant fashion,” I agreed, “but I haven’t mastered it.  That was my first, er, solo experience of it.”

                “Perhaps you will give us a little more warning of unfamiliar experiences in future,” Bones said straightening out his joints with a series clicks.

                “I’ll try to remember,” I said, “Now where is the woman?”

                Bones pointed to a wide pair of gilded double doors.  “She passed through there.”

…………………

A year on

What can I say? Johnson has not only created a laughing stock of the UK thanks to his attempt at a speech at COP26 but now he has given a picture of parliament as a sty full of greedy, snorting, double (or triple) jobbed Tories. All this while doing nothing to to tackle the major problems facing everyone – COVID, energy costs, climate change, inflation, etc. There is no more to add.

It is a year since I published Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel. It was intended as the last in the series and while a few people have said, Jasmine must go on, I have not sterted a sixth novel, although I’ve had one or two thoughts. The idea was to have a public launch of the paperback edition to celebrate the completion of Jasmine’s journey but of course that did not happen because of COVID. Nevertheless, sales have ticked over (that’s an old clock ticking not a modern internal combustion engine, so slow). So here is a reminder that all the novels (and the three novellas/collections) are available on Amazon Kindle and the paperbacks are available from me by order to paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com for £9.99 each (except Painted Ladies which is £8.99). or you can have the full set for £45. All prices include postage and packing. Just a reminder of the titles:

Painted Ladies

Bodies By Design

The Bride’s Club Murder

Milly’s Boudoir

Impersonator

And so to the present, sort of. Here is the next episode in the madcap fantasy, An Extraordinary Story. It is growing slowly and steadily but will I run out of ideas before it peters out?

An Extraordinary Tale

Chapter 2 Episode 5

Elfholm was laid out rather like a jigsaw completed by a jigsaw cheat, one who squeezed the pieces together without a concern for the design. Streets ended in dead ends, alleyways doubled back on themselves, buildings were crunched together competing for space. Then of course it had all probably changed since my last visit, as if the jigsaw had been tipped up and the pieces fitted together again in new, wrong positions. It was all due to the elvish lords striving to outdo each other with the tallest towers and most active manufactories pumping out their noxious fumes.
At the outskirts of the metropolis, just visible at the edge of the smog was the railway station. The train was there, its engine adding to the emissions.
The pigeon tucked in its wings and we plummeted in a tight spiral downwards. I gripped the pigeon’s neck and Bones even more tightly, wondering if the bird had tired and was going to dash us against the ground. At the last moment he flapped his wings energetically and we descended to a gentle if untidy landing on the platform beside the train.
I dismounted; my legs reluctant to take my weight. My back complained as I stretched the hours of immobility out of it. Bones too straightened out his joints, clicking tarsels and carpels into place. The mice meanwhile scampered along the platform, leaping onto the carriages to squeeze through partly open windows. They were not gone long before returning to me and scrambling up my trouser legs and jacket.
Major Mouse sat on my shoulder. “All the passengers have left. She’s gone.”
“We must look for her in Elfholm,” I said, “Surely a female such as her will stand out amongst the elves.”
“Elfholm is a big place. It may take some time to trace her,” the mouse said, “She may not need long to dispose of the electrum.”
“Hmm,” I said. I was lost for ideas.
“There is a quicker way,” the Major said.
“There is?”
“Yes. Him.” The mouse pointed a steel tipped claw at Bones. “Isn’t he bound to the woman by contract? He should be able to make his way to her.”
“What an excellent idea,” I replied. “Bones, did you hear that. Do you know where your Mistress is?”
The skeleton shook its head. “No, but the mouse is correct. I am drawn towards her.”
“Let’s go then.”
“But that will lead you to her.”
“That’s the idea.”
I lifted up the brim of my hat. The dragonflies’ wings buzzed.
“If you don’t start moving, Bones, I’ll set my dragonflies on you. I wonder what they will do when they get inside your skull.”
The skeleton shrank away from me raising its hands in an ineffectual defence. “No, not that. I can’t bear it when insects get inside my head. The noise is maddening.”
“Get moving, then,” I urged.
Bones set off along the platform. I followed a step or two behind. In a few heartbeats we were in the city with the smoke swirling around us. We passed foundries beating metals into complex shapes, the cacophony of the hammers accompanied by belching clouds of sulphurous fumes. Glimpses through filthy windows revealed bubbling vats processing hides and fibres of all descriptions, the effusions adding to the toxic atmosphere of city and a noxious slime seeped from doorways and into the streets crowded with elves. There were factories taking in materials of all sorts, metals, textiles, wood, stone and turning out products for all classes and types of customer, each process it seemed involving some noise or emission.
In every workshop and factory were the elves, the working elves that is, short thin creatures with gangly arms and legs and pointed ears, clothed in tattered bits of cloth, backs bent from the loads they were carrying or the tasks they were engaged in.
Elsewhere I had been told that I could be mistaken for an elf but for my grey beard. Yes, we were of similar height, but I carried rather more flesh around my girth and my conical hat proudly stood up while that of the elves hung limply over their shoulders or backs. I would not have looked kindly to being taken for an elf, though here there was little chance that I would be. Of course, the lords in their towers provided a different picture, but that is another part of our story.
Bones lurched onwards through the understorey of the city, his bones and joints rattling. Our passage was observed but was rarely of interest. Occasionally an elf gave us a glance before bowing their head to their task. I supposed it was not unusual for strangers to visit to make purchases. The mice, however, stayed out of sight because of the enmity that existed between their sort and elves of all levels. I pursued Bones, hoping that some time he might slow down. The heat from all the works of Elfholm was exhausting.
At last, in a narrow, cobbled alley, Bones paused. There were no elves around us here. Little light penetrated the tall spires and the orange-tinted air. We were outside a workshop, smaller than most although it stank just as much. The door was open and a bluish-white glow emerged.
I recognised that light. It was the glow of electrum.

…………………

Travelling in the time of COVID

We’ve returned from visiting family in Germany (the reason why I didn’t write anything last week). It was a lovely week of games with the kids (especially for Lou), walks in the country, cricket on various patches of grass to the bemusement of the locals, and celebrating Guy Fawkes’ night with a bonfire and Guy. No fireworks unfortunately – they are banned in Germany except on New Year’s Eve when all Germans seem to go fireworks mad creating a barrage not dissimilar to the “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad by the US etc.

We didn’t visit the city much but it was interesting to experience another country’s COVID precautions. There was much more emphasis on wearing masks, the heavier duty medical type, in all public places. We had to show our vaccine proofs when eating in a restaurant. Preparing for the flights were rather anxious times, particularly filling in the various on-line forms which seemed to be designed to cause the greatest confusion. Still we made it and now just await the results of our PCR tests.

On our return, the COP26 conference in Glasgow seemed to have been relegated to a minor gathering of civil servants while the main news was apparently MPs’ second and third jobs and the associated sleaze. Looking at the draft agreement for COP26 perhaps its relevance has diminished as the proposed measures to combat global warming are very unlikely to have any effect. The influence of Johnson and the Tories seems to have been – say a lot, do nothing, carry on as before, pocket what you can. The future looks bleak for our descendants.

The not so distant Bavarian Alps

I didn’t do any writing while we were away except for a little on the two flights. Since then I have added to the tale of the gnome and his companions and the quest for the stolen electrum. Here then, is the next brief episode.

An Extraordinary Tale – episode 4

Chapter 2 The city of the elves

As we flew, I reflected on the night’s activities. Things hadn’t quite gone as I had planned. The thief of the Fairy Queen’s electrum, the red-haired woman, had proved more resourceful than I expected. How was I to know that she would carry a bottle of ambrosian gin solely for the purpose of tempting an innocent gnome and putting him to sleep. How was I to know that a motley band of fearsome mice would be after the electrum too. And how was I to know that the woman would use a skeleton as her decoy. What I did know was that the Fairy Queen was expecting the return of her electrum to Fairyland and if it wasn’t me who returned it then her notoriously bad-tempered guards would be after me as well. We had to find the woman again and this time extract the electrum from her. How to do this remained a mystery to me.
The pigeon followed the railway line. Even as we soared straight over the Danann mountains while the railway track meandered its way up to the pass and down again, there was no sign of the train. It had raced on ahead of us.
Despite the cold air blasting into my face, I decided I must know more about Bones the Skeleton.
“Have you been in the woman’s service long,” I shouted at him.
“All my life and beyond,” he replied, the wind whistling through his eye sockets.
“You mean…”
“I was indentured to Madam, or rather, her forebears, as a child, to serve them all my days. They looked after me but worked me hard. I looked forward to death when I would be free, but I had forgotten the eternity clause.”
“Eternity clause?” I had heard the term but had no idea of its meaning.
“Yes, it said I was bound to my employers and them to me forever.”
“Forever, meaning, er, forever.”
“Yes. I died and was buried but I only enjoyed a brief period of peaceful decomposition before Madam had me dug up, my bones cleaned and set to work again. A different type of employment of course, I no longer have the muscles for heavy work nor a name, hence I am referred to as Bones.”
“I see. So, you accompanied your mistress to Fairyland…”
“Let me stop you there, gnome. Madam has set a charm forbidding me from recounting her dealings in Fairyland.”
Foiled again. How would I ever found out how the woman came to possess the Fairy Queen’s electrum?
After hours of flight, I was heartily tired of being the pigeon’s passenger. My hands ached from gripping the skeleton and the pigeon’s feathers, and I could no longer feel other parts of my anatomy because of the cold air rushing past us. Dawn had appeared on the horizon ahead of us when I felt the scrape of tiny claws against my cheek.
“Look. There,” Major Mouse squeaked in my ear. He was pointing to the ground. Ahead of us, the spires of Elfholm were poking out of what appeared to be a morning mist except that I knew it was nothing so harmless as water vapour. It was the smoke from all the elvish workshops and manufactories that hung in the air close to the ground morning, noon and night.

…………………….

Only a tale

No rants, no opinions, no criticism. Not this week anyway, for reasons that will become apparent next week – I hope.

A peaceful canal scene. Memories of summer and anticipation of the future

Here, nevertheless is the third episode of my ongoing fantasy novel, An Extraordinary Tale. Enjoy!

An Extraordinary Tale

Chapter 1

Episode 3: the flight of the pigeon

“Follow that carriage!” cried Major Mouse in his squeaky voice. The pigeon swooped towards it. I held onto my hat to prevent my dragonflies from being blown away, while gripping the neck feathers of the bird.
While the unicorns drew the carriage at breakneck speed, the pigeon was faster despite or perhaps because of being encumbered by my weight. We dived toward the carriage, gaining on it.
“Will we land on the roof?” I cried.
“Of course, not,” the mouse squeaked in my ear, “The pigeon doesn’t want to be carried into the Parting. You must leap on to the carriage when we draw close.”
I thought of protesting but I could see no alternative way of getting aboard. The pigeon flapped it wings furiously and approached closer and closer to the roof of the carriage.
“Now!” screeched Major Mouse. I released my grasp of the pigeon’s neck and reached down to grab the edge of the carriage roof. My legs slipped from the pigeon and I was spreadeagled on the roof as the carriage careered along the track. Mice emerged from my pockets, forming a rodent chain over the side of the carriage until the bottom mouse was able to bounce up and down on the door handle. The door flew open and the dangling mice flew inside. My heart almost stopped as I eased myself over the roof and scrambled inside.
The skeleton sat on the seat, alone.
I drew a breath and cried out, “Where is she?”
“Who?” the skeleton asked.
“The woman, your mistress. You know who I mean.”
“Ah, not here.” I’d swear that the skeleton looked smug except it had no flesh on its face for making expressions.
“Where’s the electrum?” I asked.
The skeleton shrugged, “I don’t know what you are referring to.”
“It must be in her bag. Where is it?”
“Her bag? With her I presume.”
Major Mouse had climbed back onto my shoulder. He squeaked in my ear. “The Parting is not far away. I don’t know about you but I have no wish to enter it.”
Neither did I.
“Stop the carriage,” I said.
“Why?” asked Bones.
“We don’t want to be swallowed by the Parting.”
“Ah, well that is where we differ. I am quite happy to travel into the darkness. An end to existence is an attractive prospect.”
“There’s no time to argue,” Major Mouse squeaked. “We have to disembark now.”
“Alright,” I said, “But he’s coming too.”
I reached through the skeleton, beneath his ribs. My fingers closed around his spine. Then I launched myself through the carriage door.

Neither Bones nor I bounced. Luckily for us, the ground at the side of the track was somewhat boggy. We landed with a languid splash. Well, I did. There were a number of splashes as bits of Bones parted and made their own landings, and there were a dozen plips and plops as the mice reached ground level too.
I sat up in the mud to see the unicorns, whipped by the ghost, draw the silver carriage into the Parting. The black fog closed behind them and all sight of them was lost.
I found I was still gripping Bones’ torso. I hauled myself to my feet and stepped onto the harder ground of the track. A trio of mice rolled Bones’ skull to my feet. I picked it up and slotted it back over the spine.
“Thank you,” Bones said. “I would appreciate it if you could retrieve my limbs.”
Other pieces of his anatomy were scattered around, gleaming in the moonlight. I picked up his right leg and pushed the hip joint into its socket. I did the same with the left leg. Meanwhile the mice retrieved the arms. I put those back into place and released the skeleton. He tottered on his bony feet.
“Well, that was embarrassing,” he said, “I do dislike coming apart and I seem to have mislaid a digit.” Bones held up his right hand which was missing its little finger.
“I’m not bothered about you,” I said. “Where is she, the woman?”
The skeleton pulled himself upright. “I’ve already told you. Not with me.”
I was in a good mind to separate his bones again, but I felt a tugging on the bottom of my trousers. It was Major Mouse. I stooped to scoop him up.
“It’s obvious isn’t it,” the mouse said.
“What is?” I replied.
“This lark with the carriage heading for the Parting, was another ruse. She was never on the carriage. She probably stayed on the train.”
I stared across the plain. We’d come some way from the railway line and there was no sign of the lights of the train.
“We must catch the train and find her,” I said, “Call the pigeon.”
“I thought that’s what you’d say. I already have.”
As the mouse spoke there was the familiar performance of the pigeon landing.
“Room for another one?” Major Mouse said. “There’s not a lot of weight on him.”
The pigeon examined the skeleton with one wide round eye. “Get on, I expect I can manage,” it cooed.
“I’m not getting on that creature,” Bones said.
I glowered at the skeleton. “You’re coming with us in one piece or many. Which do you prefer?”
The skeleton clambered onto the pigeon. “One dismemberment in a day is enough,” he said. I climbed on behind him with the mice in my pockets.
“To the train,” I shouted. With a noisy flapping of wings we rose into the air once again.

……………………………….

Budgets, balls and bounty

Can I summon the energy to comment on this week’s budget? It was hardly a surprise after all the announcements made in the previous days and it is quite obviously a mess of unfounded wishful thinking. I was sickened by the sight of Sunak grinning broadly as he proclaimed “optimism” while revealing a budget that left most of the population worse off. On Thursday the Guardian did an article looking at the effects of the budget details on various bands of earners and tax payers. As we don’t pay NI, us pensioners ended up slightly better off, but the unemployed and families are hit badly. That is all before the inflation rate of 4% plus is taken into account. I think poor families will be even worse off because they will be most affected by the rise in energy and food prices. It really is a case of the haves having no idea about the lives of the have-nots and I fear I can be included in that group too.

I was most astounded by the reduction in tax for internal flights. How can that be justified in the face of climate change? Why not encourage rail travel instead – with a little bit more help for the ferries to Northern Ireland and the Scottish islands. At least we at last got some truth about Brexit from the Office of Budget Responsibility, the government’s own watchdog. Before the pandemic cut the UK economy by 25% a drop of 4% caused by Brexit would have been seen as a massive recession. The pandemic has done this government a lot of favours in giving them a diversion to obscure the truth, even if their incompetence in the face of COVID was and is a scandal.

I am sure that this winter charities will be under even greater pressure to provide help for the rising numbers of homeless and the poverty-stricken even if wages rise because of the shortages of labour. I do want to see the media reporting impartially on the true situation in the country and not follow the government’s propaganda.

That’s enough of a rant. I feel exhausted by the everyday antics of this government as well as the sheer inertia around the whole world to doing anything urgently about climate change and all the associated environmental disasters. It’s not just the governments at fault. I feel that a large proportion of the population are so focussed on their own struggles or pleasures, that they can’t see that their grandchildren’s lives are going to be a lot worse unless we make rapid changes to our lives.

…………..

What has there been to lift my spirits? Well playing tennis is one pastime I enjoy. I played on four successive days this week which was a but tiring. I don’t mind if it is sunny or dull, warm or cold however I don’t particularly like playing in the rain – tracking the ball through rain spattered spectacles can be difficult. We did get soaked a few times in the last fortnight. I have played a few men’s doubles team matches. I’m no asset to a team and rarely make a winning contribution to the team score. Nevertheless, I enjoy a bit of competition even if I’m on the losing side. I was accused of being aggressive (by a teammate) because I volubly berate myself for making errors, congratulate and encourage my partner and celebrate small victories such as winning a point. It’s all great exercise and takes place outdoors so I’ve continued to play for the last eighteen months except in the darkest periods of the pandemic when no organised activity outside the home was allowed. I’m looking forward to winter games.

Low tide in the Bristol Channel. Looking across to Portishead

There was a little more time at my desk this week so I’ve made some progress with the fantasy novel, An Extraordinary Tale. It continues to meander onwards, I hope in an entertaining manner, but I still have no idea where it is headed. I’m taking it one chapter or scene at a time, while hopefully, building the characters (on paper and in my head). Here is the second episode.

An Extraordinary Tale

Chapter 1

Episode 2: the chase commences

I awoke to find the compartment was empty. Well, not quite. An armoured mouse with slightly singed fur stared at me from the couch opposite.
“A fine example of a gnome you are,” he squeaked.
I yawned and sat up straight. Ignoring his comment, I asked, “Where are they, the woman and the skeleton?”
“Gone,” the mouse replied, “with the electrum, of course.”
I realised that the carriage wasn’t rocking from side to side, wasn’t moving at all. “The train’s stopped,” I said.
The mouse clapped its front paws together. “Well, we have a genius of a gnome here. Of course, the train has stopped. How do you think our passengers got off?”
I peered into the dark beyond the window. It was a clear night, with a Moon. I saw a platform.
“How long since they left?” I asked.
“I thought you’d never ask,” the mouse said. “A few minutes. The ambrosian gin didn’t knock you out for long.”
“It must have been charmed,” I said, “Ambrosia doesn’t usually have that effect on gnomes.”
“But you can’t resist it can you. She knew she had you when she offered you the glass.”
“Yes, well, we do have that slight weakness.” I hauled myself to my feet, still feeling as if I should be asleep. “I must go after them.” I reached for the handle of the door.
“You’re not just interested in their tickets are you,” the mouse said.
“No,” I said, “that was a disguise, a ruse to put them at their ease.
“Like attacking us with your dragonflies was.”
“You were trying to get at the electrum,” I protested pushing the carriage door open.
“And you’re not?”
I paused. “I’ll have you know that I have been engaged by the Queen of the Fairies to recover electrum stolen from the Palace of Fairyland.”
The mouse laughed. It was a high-pitched squeaking. “She must have been desperate to ask a gnome.”
“A gnome with dragonflies,” I said.
“Ah yes,” the mouse said nodding agreement, “But don’t you think you could do with some real assistance?”
“Such as?”
“The first platoon of the Grand Order of Renegade Mice.” The mouse whistled. A dozen other armoured mice appeared from the upholstery brandishing their swords.
“I don’t need your help,” I said.
“Do you know where they’ve gone? Do you have transport to follow them?”
“Er, no and maybe, maybe not,” I replied.
“Well, then you need me, Major Montgomery Mouse and my fellows.”
I considered their offer. I weighed it up, looked at the pros and cons of working with a bunch of ruthless rodents. I replied instantly. “I accept.”
The mice leapt from the couch in trajectories that saw them land on my arms, my shoulders and the pockets of my velvet jacket.
“Let’s go then,” said the leader clinging to my lapel with all four feet.
I pushed the carriage door open and stepped down onto the platform. It was deserted but illuminated by a line of lamps. I looked towards the end of the station. A silver carriage drawn by two unicorns was lurching into motion. The ghostly driver cracked a whip and the carriage raced off into the night.
“They’ve got away,” I said, again regretting my species’ weakness for ambrosian gin.
“Just for now.” Major Mouse said, now standing on my shoulder alongside my right ear. He let out another piercing whistle. There was no response for at least three moments, then there was a gust of air and a great commotion of flapping. A huge pigeon descended from the dark sky and landed on the platform in front of me.
“Here is our transport,” the Major said to me, then addressed the pigeon. “Do you think you can manage one medium sized gnome?”
The pigeon turned its head to one side and looked at me with one eye. “It’ll cost you,” it cooed, “that will be two bags of best seed not one.”
“Don’t worry,” Major Mouse said, “You can have as many bags as you want when we get our hands on that electrum.”
The pigeon nodded its head and crouched down. The mice poured from my jacket onto the pigeon’s broad back.
“Come on,” squeaked the Major. “Get on. We have to catch that carriage before it reaches the Parting.”
I understood what the mouse meant and scrambled onto the pigeon’s neck. Its wings beat against the air making a noise like an elephant rampaging through the jungle.
There was little to see as we climbed into the night sky but for the silver glow of the carriage speeding along the track towards the black fog of the Parting.

………………………..

Up and away

In preparation for a proposed foreign trip I have had to get a Covid pass from the NHS. It is supposedly quickest and most convenient to get this online, but what a complicated, hair-tearing affair! Six times I got an email a couple of hours after completing the procedure saying that there was something wrong with the data supplied or in confirming my identity i.e. the computer couldn’t read the photo of my driving licence or somehow couldn’t match my photo with the short video I had to make reciting some numbers. It never said exactly what was wrong, so it was just a case of having another go and hoping that it would be accepted. Eventually, after a day of frustration, it was. The webiste itself was a clunky and longwinded as it could possibly be. So, I can travel. We have our PCR tests booked for when we return – yes, I know, they won’t be needed but hey, it’s done and it’s only money isn’t it.

Actually, the whole matter of Covid has become a concern, and not just the travel arrangements. With the numbers so high we have been concerned in case we get infected before we fly or don’t. It’s not a small worry. I have heard of a number of people quite close who have gone down with the virus despite being double-vaccinated. We are still venturing out – shops, theatre, cinema, restaurant – but we are keeping our distance and wearing masks. I certainly do not want to be in close proximity to someone who has not had the vaccinations.

It’s a shame that our concern is not shared by the UK government. The attitude of the Tories seems to be let people be infected and catch the disease; they have less chance of dying than they did last year. Who cares if the NHS is run ragged and is unable to provide proper care for those with other ailments. Will they react too late as they have done many times before?

…………………

We have been to see Dune, the new film directed by Denis Villeneuve, which was only released in the UK on the 21st. It has been promoted as a blockbuster and has a blockbuster budget but I wonder whether it will have mass appeal. It is not a superhero movie in the Marvel mode even though the lead character is a super hero with amazing powers. I do hope it makes a good profit because it only covers the first half of Frank Herbert’s book. And I do want to see the second half. It is a remarkable film. Remarkable because it follows the book closely (I haven’t done a page by page match but I reread the novel last year and to my memory it seems pretty close). For once the credit “Based on the novel by…” is something of an understatement. The characterisation is good, the sets and special effects are excellent and the music matches the mood, if somewhat loud. Of course, I knew what it was all about and what happens next so I can’t judge how someone coming new to the film would experience it. Lou watched it with me and enjoyed it. She has never read the book but she did accompany me to see the first film version 36 years ago. I was always fond of that film, especially Kyle Maclachan as Paul Atreides, although I hated the ending. The new Dune is an order of magnitude better and I look forward to discussing it in more detail with other people. I just hope the second film gets made and is released soon.

What do you do with a collection of telegraph poles? The Openreach training area at Yarnfield, Staffs

An article in the Society of Authors magazine, The Author, discussed the serialisation of stories, novellas, novels. Of course in the C19th this was a common route to publication for authors such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. In the mid C20th many SF&F novels were serialised in the pulp magazines of the time. Series such as Foundation by Isaac Asimov (now being shown on Apple+ – the first episode is excellent) were published over a few years in various issues of magazines. Today with the availability of lots of online platforms such as this one, serialisation prior to publication of the complete novel is becoming common. I’ve already done it with my many prequels to Painted Ladies and the other four Jasmine Frame novels. I had become reluctant to reveal more of my writing because I worried that it may preclude subsequent publication, particularly by a traditional publisher. Apparently not. So, I have decided to serialise the fantasy novel I am writing at present. It is appropriate as it began as a series of connected pieces written for my weekly writing group meetings. It is not planned and I am trying to be as inventive as I can be (perhaps not in every episode, but often). The point is that this is a first draft. While I have done some superficial editing for typos and grammar, I can’t guarantee that it is completely consistent. I welcome comments, and offers of publication. Here, then is Episode 1 of An Extraordinary Tale (working title!).

An Extraordinary Tale – Episode 1

Part 1
Chapter 1 A meeting on a train

The woman who sat in the corner of the railway carriage with her eyes shut was attracting a good deal of attention. A band of armoured outlaw mice scrabbled at the catch of her capacious handbag with their steel tipped claws. The skeleton sitting beside her swatted at the creatures with its brittle white fingers with no obvious result.
I leaned against the entrance to the compartment, swaying with the carriage as the train rattled along the rails. What was it that the mice desired so much in her bag? It could only be the precious metal, electrum. The woman obviously had a valuable stash in her bag. With red hair that matched the fur collar of her tweed jacket and hem of her skirt she looked a class above the usual couriers, but mice could smell electrum in the next county. They would have been driven into a frenzy by its proximity. Simply telling them to stop would not persuade a fighting mouse to give up its quarry. I had to act.
I raised the brow of my pointed hat, releasing my flight of dragonflies. They flew at the mice emitting tiny gouts of flame. Some of the mice defended themselves valiantly with their short swords. Others continued to scratch at the bag while getting a roasting from the dragonflies’ fire. Nevertheless, I could see that my dragonflies could not defeat the mice alone. I stepped forward, brushed a couple of the rodents from the bag and booted them away from the woman. That did the trick. The remaining mice paused and looked up at me.
“Gnome!” one sneered in its squeaky voice. Then they scampered off into the upholstery and were gone. I whistled and the dragonflies returned to roost on my bald head. I replaced my hat.
The woman stirred and rubbed her eyes. “Are we there yet? What’s the time?”
The skeleton spoke in a dry, hoarse voice, “Not yet. Madam. It is half passed midnight.”
“Then why did you awaken me.” Her eyes opened and she looked up at me standing in front of her. “Who are you?” she added with a tone of disinterest.
“This gnome drove away some mice that were attacking you,” the skeleton explained.
The woman gave the fleshless creature a disdainful look. “What were you doing, Bones? Just sitting there?”
I addressed the woman. “They were too numerous for your fragile companion, ma’am.”
“Oh, you can speak as well as provide protection,” she said looking me up and down.
“They seemed intent on gaining access to your possessions,” I said pointing to the cloth bag on her lap. It showed little evidence of the mouse raid.
She gave it a cursory glance. “I suppose they would, but no mouse, even one equipped with an electrum blade could succeed in penetrating it.” She seemed unconcerned about the attack on her person. However, the skeleton felt a need to respond.
“The mice were determined, Madam. They could have caused you some injury if this person had not intervened.”
She sniffed. “In that case, it seems I must thank you for your intervention.” She gave me one of the least sincere smiles I’ve seen.
“It is my job,” I replied, offering an excuse for my presence, “although my usual task is to simply check your ticket.”
“Ah, a gnome with a job and public spirit. How rare.” She seemed not to realise the insults implicit in her words nor my lack of a ticket inspector’s uniform. Perhaps my face did reveal my emotion because she immediately went on. “I’m sorry, that sounded rude. Please join me for some refreshment.” She raised a gloved hand to indicate the vacant seat opposite her. “Bones, find that bottle of ambrosian gin.”
The skeleton clattered to its feet and reached down a small valise from the luggage rack. It withdrew a glowing bottle of the liquor and two small glasses. The woman held the glasses while the skeleton poured the luminescent liquid. She held one glass out to me.
“I really shouldn’t while on duty,” I said knowing that I would be beguiled by the scent of the fiery liquid assailing my nostrils.
“A gnome refusing the offer of ambrosia,” the woman grinned, “Surely not. Take it and sit a moment so I can thank you for your assistance.”
It was impossible to resist. I took the glass and sat down. “What about you, Sir?” I said to the skeleton.
“How do you expect me to drink?’” Bones replied, “I don’t have any guts. Enjoy.”
I took a sip. The sweet, oily fluid slipped down my throat and filled me with warmth and contentment. My eyes closed.

……………….

Back to normal

Are things returning to normal? What does that even mean? It’s been a busy week of face to face meetings. Yes, I’ve actually been out to speak to people without a glass screen between us. That in itself has been pleasant but of course, it comes with the travel – time consuming, expensive, contributing to climate change even though we have an electric car. The most notable event was a trip to London for a day of talks. This was my choice, pure pleasure, and unnecessary. Still, it was a pleasant day out. I was surprised how busy the train to London was – nearly every seat taken. Most people were wearing masks. The same was true of the London underground which may have been somewhat quieter than in the past but I have used it so little it is difficult to compare. Piccadilly was busy but not crowded and the pub where I had lunch was quite quiet. So all in all, perhaps not “normal” quite yet. However with COVID case numbers still high, the NHS under pressure and vaccination pretty-well stalled amongst adults, how long will it be before some further precautions are needed?

………………

This week is Hate-crime Awareness Week. Did you know that? I am quite sure it has passed by the vast majority of the population. I can’t say I have noticed any information about the week outside of my inbox. I receive information because of my activities on behalf of trans people with police forces but I don’t think any other promotional effort has been made. So, what is the point of a week of awareness raising if little awareness is raised? It looks to me like an opportunity for self-congratulation by the organisations involved in the hate-crime industry – the police, victim support groups, etc; a chance for members of minority groups to share experiences with others but not with the wider population.

There are two problems. The first is that events are cobbled together at the last moment to show that the authorities are taking hate-crime seriously. The second is the usual difficulty of marketing – making your voice heard outside your own little sound-proof box. What I would like to see with reference to hate-crime, is not just the data on the numbers of reported hate-crimes but some kind of analysis and evaluation. For example, what percentage of the reported hate-crimes end up in court? What proportion of convictions had enhanced sentencing? What percentage of victims of hate-crime felt that having the crime labelled a hate-crime was of benefit? Has the hate-crime legislation contributed to greater awareness of the problem of prejudice and discrimination?

The problem I keep coming back to is the definition of who can be a victim of a hate-crime, as determined by the 2010 Equality Act. It is both broad and narrow. On the one hand the protected characteristics include both age (not specified) and gender (so sexism and misogyny is included) which cover a large percentage of the population, but for transgender people you have to be intending to have or have had gender reassignment procedures and diagnosed with gender dysphoria. That means that the vast majority of us with non-medical gender issues are not included and hence not protected.

There. I won’t go on about it any more, for now.

The view from the top of the balance tower at Blaenafon Ironworks.

Thanks to all my other appointments this week, I didn’t get to writing group nor have I written anything. Luckily I wrote two pieces last week. Here is the short story I wrote to the prompt “are you in?” It struck me that this question had a number of meanings which I tried to include in the story. What do you think?

Are you in?

“Are you in, EP1?” Sasha’s voice in my ear was calm, not displaying any anxiety at all. “You can enter the airlock now.”
Perhaps that last bit showed a little concern. it was superfluous. I could see the airlock hatch was open. I just couldn’t get into it.
“I am unable to proceed,” I replied between breaths that were coming at a faster rate than they should be. Sasha may not be anxious, but I was. Over pressure had made my suit limbs become rigid. My arms were stuck out like fixed wings. I couldn’t bend them to fit in the airlock. My pump was still pushing air into my suit, but the circulation had failed. The head-up-display showed that I was running out of oxygen. Verbal commands had no effect. I frantically tongued the helmet controls but there was no response.
“I need some help here,” I said, knowing my worry was showing.
“We’re doing all we can, EP1,” Sasha said as unemotional as ever. “We’re having a problem with your suit interface. Hold on.” That was one thing I couldn’t do since I could no longer move my fingers.
EP2 had already cycled through the airlock but I wasn’t sure anyone else could get suited up to come out to me before my oxygen ran out. If I couldn’t get inside in a few minutes, I was a goner. Is that what Sasha expected?

“Are you in, Kath?” Sasha said. As External Movements Controller, it was his job to check that the functions of the suit I was wearing were optimal. The suit closed around my body and the clamshell locks clicked. My arms, hands, fingers slid into the sleeves and gloves. The helmet lowered over my head and slotted into the suit.
“I’m on suit systems,” I said, hearing the welcome hiss of air circulating from the tanks to my lungs and back to the scrubber.
“All systems A1, EP1,” Sasha said confirming that I was the lead extravehicular operative. Alongside me Jay also gave a thumbs up. We were set to venture outside the station. It was a routine mission to replace a couple of photovoltaic panels in our solar array, but I always relished the chance to get outside the confined quarters of the station.
Floating out of the airlock, I was greeted by my favourite sight. The grey, cratered bulk of the Moon, hundreds of klicks below us, and way over to my right the shining blue ball of the Earth. The airlock hatch closed and reopened two minutes later as Jay, EP2, joined me. My sightseeing period was over.
“You’re go to proceed with the mission, EP1,” Sasha said in my ear. “We’re watching you.”
Was the last necessary? Did I need convincing that Sasha was looking out for us? We had work to do; no time to think about Sasha’s intentions.

“Are you in, Kath?” Sasha’s brown eyes were focussed on me alone. Sasha, me and Choi, the transhipment officer, were squashed into the observation dome. It was the only place on the station where there was any privacy but was comfortably spacious for just two. Of course, pairs didn’t come here just to look at the view. We weren’t looking out either.
“I’m not sure,” I stalled. “Tell me again how this is going to work.” Sasha and Choi had explained their scheme for making money. Money for us, not the corporations that financed the station and were opening up the Moon for mining operations. There was a market back home for artefacts that had been to the Moon. They may only be trinkets, but the Lunar Administration frowned on free enterprise by its employees. Choi could manage the manifests for the shuttles, but they needed me as the senior extravehicular person to conceal the merchandise outside the station between transfers to and from the Moon and Earth shuttlecraft.
“Come on, Kath,” Choi muttered. “You’re bright enough to pick it up in one hearing. Think of the extra credit. You need it as much as we do.”
He was right of course. Not even a space worker’s salary could provide for an extended family in today’s world. I had my doubts though. If the Administration found out about Sasha’s scheme, we’d all be grounded and then who would be the earner?
“We can’t take a no,” Sasha said with an edge to his voice I hadn’t heard before.
“I’m not going to tell anyone about your plan,” I said.
Sasha’s eyebrows squeezed together. “No, you won’t.”

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Bobo, Bond and Bo Peep

Quite a lot of news this week. I suppose I must start with the Tory party conference although what a non-event that was, wasn’t it. I can’t bring myself to read Johnson’s incoherent speeches but having seen a couple of interviews with him on the BBC news I wonder how the Tories maintain their lead in the polls. His attitude to the recent chaos was smug, complacent, uncaring and lacking in any sense of responsibility. A minor adjustment to the economy! A number of times he referred to the “failed former economic model”. That would be the one adopted by Thatcher in the 80s i.e. kill-off heavy industry, rely on the financial services sector of the City and sell off the national assets in a whirlwind of deregulation. New Labour hardly made any changes to those policies between 1997 and 2010 and to it has been added the austerity of Cameron/Osborne. Johnson did not give a hint of what the new economic model would be but went on about low-productivity. I wonder what the workers of the Toyota, Nissan and the closing Honda factories have to say about that. We are heading for a period of high inflation with the huge rise in energy and haulage costs feeding through to every other purchase. A minor adjustment? Johnson talked of wages rising. Perhaps they will, but I guess that prices will rise faster. And still no-one will mention Brexit as a cause, not even the opposition. Only Welsh Labour put the blame for many of our current difficulties on that madness.

To get away from real life we went to the cinema. Yes, we sat in an auditorium but, as it was a weekday afternoon, social distancing wasn’t a problem. We went to see the much-delayed Bond film, No Time to Die. I didn’t read any reviews so that I came to the film with few preconceptions though I gathered that the ratings were good. I won’t give any spoilers but I am sure most people know it was Daniel Craig’s last outing and that there had been a lot of discussion of Bond’s place in modern society, to say nothing of the role of the British secret service in today’s political climate. We enjoyed the film – lots of dramatic action (including the longest pre-credits sequence there has ever been in a Bond film) and typical Bond touches. Personally, I think it would make a really good final episode in the long series but the last frame at the end of the very long credits (yes, we stayed to the absolute end) said “James Bond will return.” I think a total re-boot is likely. A younger actor cannot take the role over from the aging character that Craig depicted. He is the first Bond actor, I think, to have had a say in the manner of his own departure, the only one to have had a story arc over all the films he appeared in (his obsession with Vesper Lynd). For all the others, Connery, Lazonby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan each film was a stand alone episode with a jolly conclusion, their last being no different to their others. I don’t know what to expect for the next one but I hope they don’t do what J J Abrams did to Star Trek and change the passage of time and the character’s life.

Not the everyday view of the 2nd Severn Crossing

Two writing groups this week and I managed to write a short piece for each. For my monthly group the topic was “undercover”. We had a couple of police stories, a mountain walk under cover of night, a C7th century historical saga and others. Mine was a short piece of fun owing a lot to Jasper Fforde who does it a lot better, as you can tell from what is below.

Undercover

It was news that Mr Woolff was active in the area that persuaded me to start the operation to apprehend him. We already knew of the case where Woolff had terrorised three ordinary pigs in their homes, resulting in two of the dwellings being destroyed. There were also unconfirmed sightings by a shepherd boy of Woolff posing as a sheep in order to defraud a farmer. It was likely that Woolff was hiding out in the Big Wood. We were concerned that he might attack old Mother Hubbard who lived alone deep in the wood. The problem was that the wood was a large area to stake out. Woolff was clever and would keep away from any police officers in uniform. We had to draw him out and Mother Hubbard would have to be the bait.
Choosing the appropriate agent was a difficult choice but luckily, one special constable, a young shepherdess called Bo Peep, volunteered. The plan was to disguise her as Mother Hubbard’s granddaughter. Bo put on her walking boots and threw a red cape over her shoulders. We gave her a basket which we thought might suggest she was carrying food for the old woman who was well known to be low on provisions.
Bo pulled the red hood over her head and set off into the wood. I followed some distance behind disguised as a woodsman. Bo gave a good impersonation of a young girl, skipping a long and singing songs. It wasn’t long before Woolff made an appearance. I hid out of sight as he chatted to Bo, then they separated. I trailed behind PC Peep as she made her way to Mother Hubbard’s cottage. I saw the door open, and she stepped inside.
A few minutes passed, then two shots were fired. I rushed for the cottage brandishing the axe. Before I reached the entrance the door opened and there was Bo Peep blowing smoke from the barrel of the pistol she had concealed in the basket. I looked over her shoulder and saw the body of Woolff lying on the floor of parlour in a pool of blood.
“He won’t be troubling anyone again,” Bo said with a broad smile. “He was trying to pretend he was Mother Hubbard with her shawl wrapped around his head. But I saw through him straight away thanks to his big eyes, big ears, big paws, and big teeth. He tried to resist arrest, so I shot him.”
“Well done Officer Peep,” I said, “but what about Mother Hubbard? Did Woolff harm her?”
“No, Sergeant Stiltskin. She was hiding in the woodshed as she was told to do. Now I need to get home to help my father bring in his sheep. I won’t need this anymore.” She pulled off the red cloak, dropped it into my arms and skipped off back to her fields.

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Take back control

I think it’s a deliberate ploy by the UK government. Keep the disasters and foul-ups coming, one after the other, so that no-one has time to reflect on the causes of each and hence hold the government to account for its utter incompetence. There was the slow and muddled response to the pandemic, not just the first wave but the second and third too; the queues of trucks at the channel ports last Christmas; the disastrous introduction of the Brexit regulations for Northern Ireland; the withdrawal from Afghanistan; the empty supermarket shelves; rail re-nationalisation; energy bills and company failures and the self-inflicted fuel shortage. Is that what taking back control meant? Of course, there is little mention of the cause behind many of these failures. BBC news will allow no blame to be landed on the government’s Brexit deal, and with one crisis following another there is little in-depth discussion of the reasons we are in a mess.

In one respect the PM and his cronies are lucky. The pandemic has provided distracting camouflage to hide the Brexit failures. It’s just the masses, the people who voted for Brexit and those who didn’t, who are left trying to cope with rising costs, deteriorating services, the erosion of rights and the slow, inexorable slump in living standards. By living standards I mean availability of homes and shelter, pollution-free surroundings, good health care, etc.

The trouble is that I can’t see a way out of it. The government doesn’t have to worry about losing votes in Parliament. The Tory sheep will follow their leader (actually that’s an insult to sheep who have more personality, morality and independence than most Tory MPs). With Labour still reluctant to call out the government for its Brexit bungling, where is the opposition to come from? I do note that Mark Drayford, the Wales First Minister is not afraid to blame the UK government and Brexit for many of the problems we face but he has little influence outside Wales.

What are we to do? Grin and bear it? Posting criticisms on Facebook or writing self-indulgent blogs (like this one?) is no solution. Apart from the climate change activists blocking motorways and a few people protesting about the cutting of the £20 a week benefit boost, there is not a lot of dissent on show. Is it that everyone is too busy queueing up for fuel? What should we do to make positive changes in the country? Answers on a postcard please (well, a comment will do, actually).

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A little bit of writing done this week but nothing to post here just yet. Instead, here is another photo, this one taken from our window.

Victory in court

In a week filled with stories about rising energy costs and small energy companies going bust, empty shelves and filling stations because of the HGV driver shortage and Johnson trying and failing to act statesmanlike in the US, there was one piece of news that cheered me. That was the judgement of the Appeal Court in the case of Bell vs the Tavistock Clinic. It’s not a subject that draws attention from anyone other than those on either side of the trans debate/dispute/war. Just a reminder that in the original case, Bell won a judgement that caused the clinic to effectively stop treating minors with gender dysphoria. The Appeals Court have overturned that result. Of course there is one more stage, the Supreme Court, which could again decide either way.

I never could understand the original judge’s decision. Bell had been treated by the Tavistock and was helped to transition from female to male. She was given puberty blocking drugs quite late and then went on to take male hormones after she became an adult. Later she decided to detransition. She accused the Tavistock of not providing her with the care she needed, of being too speedy to hand out drugs and she stated that teenagers, i.e. minors, cannot judge for themselves what there gender identity is. The judgement supported that view and took away from the medical staff the decision of when to provide the drugs. In effect the court became the decision maker in all similar medical cases.

The Appeal Court has now decided, quite rightly that only medically trained practitioners can possibly have the knowledge and experience and hence the ability to make those decisions. From what I know, it is never a quick decision. The clinic is so overwhelmed with cases that years can pass between consultations and the medics only prescribe puberty blockers if they think it is necessary to preserve the teenager’s mental health while they wait to to start transitioning medically and surgically when adult. Many teens suffer agonies of despair waiting for consultations and treatment.

Are teenagers competent at knowing their own identity and in deciding their own futures? I think they are, particularly when they are provided with the facts, a sympathetic ear and a safe environment. The same argument has arisen in connection with the coronavirus vaccination. While parental approval has be sought by the medical authorities, children can decide for themselves and go against their parents wishes. If there is a principle that minors have a legal right to make medical decisions that affect them then determining their gender must be part of that.

I would also suggest that forcing children to be either male or female is also wrong. Perhaps, and this is just a guess on my part, fewer people may go on to full medical and surgical gender affirmation if they have a chance to experiment with gender before and during puberty.

Of course, the court case wasn’t simply about Bell’s treatment. It was highjacked by the anti-trans brigade who want to stop anyone from transitioning from their gender assigned at birth. I am surprised (no, I’m not) by women who seem to be content to be defined by their biology. Now they say it’s not that they have a vagina that determines femininity, because transwomen have one of those. It’s whether they have a cervix! How one can tell without a gynaecological examination, I don’t know. Perhaps these women are suggesting that all women should be tattooed with a visible mark indicating that they are in possession of one. And they consider the Taliban to be misogynists.

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At least I got to writing group this week but the only writing I’ve done has been on the fantasy novel. The current chapter developed nicely so now I need some ideas for the next. I’m trying to give my imagination free rein and follow any wacky idea that comes to me. Is it the way to write a novel? Well, we’ll see. So instead of a piece of writing here’s a pretty photo.

Disappointment

Another week, another week’s news to make you want to tear at your hair. Perhaps the most notable event was Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle but what a damp squib of disappointment that was. Just moving the pawns around the board. Does any single one of them inspire confidence that they have the necessary skills to run the country? No, not one. Even ignoring their rabid right wing, fawning support for the PM himself, they all seem to be dim narcissists with little knowledge of real life or of world problems and fewer skills. We will stumble on into the darkness.

For us the bigger news was more local. Our greengrocer is closing down. He is well passed retirement age and deserves a rest from the long and heavy hours a greengrocer has to put in. It is most disappointing that no-one has come forward to take on the business. That may be partly due to the fact that the premises the business rents is in a somewhat dilapidated state with the landlord apparently unwilling to renovate. The closure will make a big difference to our shopping. There is no other independent green grocer in the town. No longer will we be able to just nip down to the shop to pick up some fruit or veg. We will either have to get more of our greengrocery from the supermarket or get in the car and drive to farmshops or other towns.

It is more than just a matter of convenience. There are three reasons why losing our local shop is more than just sad. First of all there was very little packaging. One picked what one wanted and either put in our own reusable bags or used a paper bag provided. Secondly we could buy as much or as little of each product as we wished. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly he stocked a wide variety of local, seasonal produce. It was difficult to beat the local cherries or strawberries that he sold other than travelling to the farm that supplied them.

A local greengrocer means low food miles, little plastic packaging, seasonal produce. All the things we should be aiming for in this warming world. I’m not just sad at losing our friendly, humorous grocer, I am upset that we will almost certainly have to go further afield to find the goods that we want.

I’ve managed to find some time for actual, original writing this week. Coming back from the festival I was fired up to restart my novel writing, but which one? There is the hardish SF one and the wacky fantasy one. Well, it’s turned out to be the latter. While the SF novel has a pretty firm plot and lots of background planned, I’m more drawn to the seat of the pants, off the cuff, writing of the fantasy. Is that me being lazy; procrastinating in a creative way? Probably. I really don’t know where the story is leading but in what I have written so far I have developed a cast of characters which are beginning to take on a life of their own. I’m letting my imagination wander to take them in to situations that I haven’t previously thought of, one scene at a time. That’s what fantasy is all about, isn’t it? So long as it is self-consistent and not a boring trudge through familiar fantasy territory. We’ll see how far it gets but I won’t be posting it here, just in case I find I have something publishable.

Instead, here is something I wrote a while ago. It was an exercise in gothic romance, not a genre I write in at all. It may be a little derivative but it was fun going over the top with the emotions.

Desire

The wind off the sea swept her long, blonde hair from her face leaving beads of moisture clinging to each strand. Ignoring the rain-flecked gale, she looked down at the waves crashing over the dark rocks far below and then her gaze lifted to the boundary between the dark green, angry sea and the narrow band of red-hued dawn beneath the glowering clouds. No masts broke the smooth line of that horizon, no ship was tossed on the roiling ocean.
‘When will you come?’ she whispered. The question was superfluous. There was no answer. Her wait would end when it would end. There would be no precognition. One day, perhaps like now at dawn or perhaps at sunset, the sails would appear and then, soon after, she would be in his arms, their lips touching.
A cry made her turn. The house brooded in the vale a couple of hundred paces from the cliffs, crouching low out of the storm winds. The glass in the windows of the top floor just now reflected the light of the early morning, but the fiery glow hardly lifted the gloom of the stone, as dark as the rocks of the cliff, from which it was built.
Another cry, and now she saw him fighting his way along the narrow, over-grown path from the house to the cliff-top. He beat at the nettles and brambles with his crop as he strode towards her.
She shivered, not with the cold, though her thin woollen shawl hardly prevented the cold easterly from freezing her pale skin. It was anticipation that made her shake. She turned again to face the sea and looked down to where the jagged rocks withstood the besieging tide.
‘Jump,’ part of her told herself, ‘Leap to oblivion. Leave this world of pain and sadness.’ She remained motionless, limbs frozen not by cold but by indecision. Her eyes rose again to the distance. If she ended it now, what would he feel when he returned? Did she want to give up all hope of love and happiness?
Hands thudded into her shoulders. Arms encircled her, dragged her back from the edge, spun her around. She looked up into his bearded, scarred face. The single open eye, glaring at her.
‘I’ve told you before, Emily,’ he growled, ‘There is no point to you staring out to sea. He’s not coming back. You are mine.’
She dropped her head. There was no response to give. Declaring her last remaining iota of hope would bring her no joy, more likely a stroke from the crop tucked under his arm. His hand grasped the hair at the back of her head and tugged. Her face tilted up and his rough, chapped lips descended to hers. His tongue forced her lips apart and she tasted the stale, last night’s whisky. She gagged and coughed. He pulled back, straightened, grabbed her wrist in his hand and dragged her back down the path towards the house. She stumbled along behind him, emptying her mind of the dread of whatever he had planned for her this miserable morning.

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It’s not fair!

The writing festival is over so life returns to normal. Normal? What does that mean? Well, for a start it means yet more Tory incompetence and mal-governance. This week the government secured agreement in parliament to raise the cost of National Insurance (NI) for all employees and employers. Why? To pay for the National Health Service and social care. I think it amounts to £12billion extra for the government a year. Of course the NHS has been stretched to, if not beyond, the limit with the pandemic but was struggling before March 2020. It always needs more cash as the population rises, people live longer and new treatments are introduced for diseases. It is a dilemma which needs consideration but cuts during the austerity that lasted from 2010 to 2019(ish) made it difficult for the NHS to meet ordinary demands on its staff and services. What about the £350million/week that Brexit was going to provide? Ha, ha, ha! Haven’t heard that mentioned by the government since the referendum. No, it’s the workers who are going to make up the shortfall. Of course Brexit has also seen the loss of a lot of valued European health workers.

The rise in NI payments is also supposed to pay for the government’s new social care policy. What policy? That’s the other joke – there isn’t one, and the new funding won’t arrive for another two years. Meanwhile care staff are leaving their jobs and care homes struggle to maintain budgets. For those without a huge bank balance the prospects of care in old age or disability are dismal.

However badly mishandled, there is no doubt that the health and care services need more cash. Rational, caring people may have expected the government to increase taxes on those who can best afford to pay. No, this government is not rational or caring. I would have voted for an increase in income tax, not because I have lots of spare cash, but because it is a fair tax – those who earn most pay most. I voted for the Liberal party when it pledged to ad1p/£ to income tax to increase funds for education. Those on very low wages would not pay much, if any, extra because of the tax allowance (the first £12,000 of income is tax free).

The government has not done the fair thing. It has increased National Insurance. This is a charge on the whole of a working person’s pay and also on their employer. The NHS, as the country’s biggest employer, will also have the largest extra bill to pay as a result of this increase. Actually (correct me if I’m wrong) but I think that the poorest paid will pay proportionally more of this increase than those on high pay because I believe there is a ceiling on NI payments (I never reached that). The Tories think that they can hoodwink the electorate again because NI is not branded as a tax. It’s insurance like what you pay for your car and your possessions and your holidays. You pay it hoping that you won’t have to make a claim. When NI was introduced that was the thinking behind it. Everyone paid into the fund so that those that needed health care or unemployment benefit or welfare could receive it. Of course, everyone needs health care and most people draw a state pension. In fact NI is just like any other tax (Income tax, VAT, fuel tax, etc.) in just adding cash to the government coffers. But NI is a charge on the whole of a person’s employment income; there is no allowance, and employers also pay a contribution for every employee. Landlords hauling in rents don’t pay NI (unless they do so voluntarily as self-employed people).

Actually the only people who won’t be hurt by this tax increase are people like me – pensioners. We don’t pay NI because we are not in employment. So, the Tories are protecting their core vote – grey hairs. However they are also removing the triple lock on pension increases – but this year inflation is probably going to be above 2.5% so the increase will be above the minimum guaranteed.

When will voters realise that they have been skewered by the Tories? I don’t know the answer to that because the opposition seems to have great difficulty in getting the Tories skulduggery across to the electorate.

Relaxing on the water (hopefully not contaminated by untreated sewage)

I haven’t had any time this week to write but I have another story for you.

No doubt you have seen empty shelves in the supermarkets. The explanation is that there are not enough truck drivers to keep the supply chains moving. Why are there not enough drivers? The government would like to blame the pandemic – drivers being pinged and told to self-isolate – but it in fact many drivers were European and have now, because of brexit, returned home. However it’s not just the shops which are failing to get deliveries. The water companies also require regular supplies of materials used to purify water for drinking and to treat sewage before the waste water is discharged into rivers and the sea. The government has told the water companies that if they do not have sufficient supplies of substances such as iron sulfate, they can discharge untreated sewage into our rivers. Those are the same rivers that are already contaminated with run off from chicken farms and other forms of intensive agriculture. Another of brexit’s little benefits!

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Looking on the bright side

We returned from a lovely three week break last Friday. Being on holiday I should have been relaxed and happy but I do accept that some (all?) of my recent posts have been rather depressing and pessimistic. In many respects I think my feelings of foreboding are justified. We have a worsening climate emergency, the immensity of which seems to be failing to get through to governments, businesses or most ordinary people. The political situation worldwide seems to worsen by the week and the UK government becomes rabidly more right wing and corrupt day by day. My fears for the future grow steadily.

Nevertheless, I agree that negative feelings do no good and just make one depressed. I should look on the bright side. So what is there to be cheerful about? Well, a lot really. I am retired so do not have to worry about a job. My pensions are sufficient to give me a comfortable home, more than adequate food and drink, pleasurable exercise and entertainment. I love my partner, Lou, and my family and have many friends to share ideas and experiences with. I am fit so can do the things I want to do, and I live in an area I adore.

That’s all rather passive and sounds a bit like I am taking rather than giving. That is not the impression I want to present. I am not someone who feels that having spent 35-40 years working we are somehow entitled to many decades of idyllic retirement. It wasn’t long ago that men, in particular, were lucky to have more than five years of retirement. Yes, I did work hard, but most of the time it was pretty pleasurable so I don’t think of my retirement as being a reward for a life of struggle. Retirement is a pleasure but is also an opportunity to contribute to society and the world using one’s abilities and resources. It is also a time to be true to oneself.

So, what is it to be – voluntary work, activism, creativity? All of these can be of benefit to one’s environment and community. I have my bits of voluntary work which I hope to continue with. I shall continue to work for the acceptance of gender variant people in society, and I shall continue to give anyone interested the fruits of my imagination in my writing.

Getting back to writing is one of the ways of overcoming the pessimism. This week has been busy administering competitions but I did get a brief period in which to write to this week’s club theme which was “step”. One phrase immediately came into my mind and here is the piece that developed from it.

Step

“That’s one small step for a man…”
A breath caught in Ed’s throat. The picture on the TV had disappeared in a blizzard of grey and white. The voice was replaced by a noisy hiss.
“No!” Ed cried, leaping from the sofa to kneel in front of the glowing screen. He thumped the top of the wooden cabinet.
“Hey, careful there lad,” father said from the depths of the armchair. “That there’s a valuable instrument.”
“Valuable! Like heck,” Ed moaned. “We’ve had it years and years, since I was born nearly.”
“Nineteen fifty-eight, we bought that television.” Ed’s dad said, fingering his pipe. “Cost a packet, so look after it.”
“But its knackered, Dad, can’t you see.” Ed gestured to the screen. “The sound’s gone too. Just as Armstrong stepped on to the surface. We’ve missed the most important event of the century.”
“I’m not sure about that my boy. I reckon D-day were a might more important than sending a rocket to the Moon. When we got on that beach. . .”
“Not just a rocket, Dad. Three men. Two of them are there on the Moon.”
“Well, ‘appen they can go for a walk without you watching ‘em.”
“But they’re sending pictures all the way back to Earth so that everyone can see that they are there, on the Moon, doing it for real.”
“Could be Blackpool beach as far as I could make out. The picture’s not a lot worse now than it was.”
“Yes, it is, Dad. You could see Armstrong coming down the ladder from the LEM. He had one foot on the surface of the Moon. You could see that couldn’t you.”
Dad shrugged, “Can’t say I was paying much attention.”
Ed sighed. “But you heard him speak. What was it? One small step.”
“Sounded like he was starting to make a speech.”
“Well, it was important wasn’t it. The first steps of a human on the Moon. The first steps of anyone.” Ed paused. “That is. Unless.”
“Unless what, lad?”
Ed’s eye’s opened wide. “Perhaps aliens got there first. Perhaps they’ve attacked the LEM. That’s why we’ve lost the picture. Maybe Neil Armstrong was killed by aliens before he finished his step.”
“What are you rambling about now?” Dad heaved himself out of the sagging chair. “If there’s nothing to see I’m going to bed. Time you did too, my lad.”
“No. I’ve got to find out what happened.” Ed said, thoughts racing through his head. Perhaps Aldrin and Armstrong had been captured and the aliens had broken the TV link.
“OK, son, but take care with that TV. No more thumping it, do you hear me.”
His father left the living room as Ed focussed on the controls at the back of the cubical box. He turned the tuning knob, the vertical hold, the horizontal hold but the picture remained a flickering blur and the sound was that of waves on a pebbly beach.
It had to be the TV that was faulty, surely, but what if it wasn’t just this TV. What if no-one could see what was happening in space. What if the astronauts stepping on to the Moon had been met by aliens?

535 words

An undignified retreat

We haven’t been avid followers of the news for the last week or two but Afghanistan has featured quite a bit, hasn’t it. Mind you that could be said for the last twenty years, or forty or couple of hundred. The country has been a playing field for warring factions all that time with the people the victims. First it was the British and Russian Empires struggling for supremacy – Russia wanted a route to the Indian Ocean, Britain wanted to stop them. In the eighties the West supported rebels fighting Soviet occupiers. Then the Taliban emerged from amongst the warlords to stamp their authority and terrorise their own citizens. For a few years the West looked on, tut-tutting, until 9/11 changed things. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on US citizens demanded a response. Was an invasion the correct one? The quick victory over the Taliban government and destruction of the terrorist bases provided a feeling of satisfaction for Western governments as did the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gadhafi in Libya. In none of those little wars was the whole operation thought through nor the consequences of being occupying powers considered by the various NATO leaders. Each, like others, has turned into a disaster. In the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban never went away. They remained in power in the rural areas while the sophisticated armies of the West remained holed up in the cities and their fortified camps. Hundreds of western soldiers died and many thousands were maimed and injured.

I’m not sure if the last twenty years can be called a stalemate but while the city dwellers experienced a bit of the western lifestyle, and women, in particular, were able to exercise their human rights to freedom and education there was always the threat of the Taliban returning. Now in a deal negotiated by Trump, accepted by Biden and totally ignored by Johnson and Rabb, the Taliban have been given everything they wanted. Not surprisingly, the Afghan army dissolved away and the puppet government fled. Why not surprising? Because the Taliban have fostered the reputation as merciless, sadistic, religious fundamentalist. In fact they are the ones full of fear. They fear any opposition or dissent so resort to barbaric violence to force their people to comply with their rules. They fear the past so seek to destroy remnants of the country’s pre-Islamic culture and history, and they fear the future so attempt to hold back any use of modern technology or science to give their citizens a better life.

How do the Taliban manage to be so successful? Surely they must have support providing equipment and ammunition. But who is it? I note that spokespeople still dodge questions about who is backing the Taliban. Is it the Russians? They were embarrassed by the Taliban and their predecessors in the 80s and 90s but perhaps Putin has put that aside in order to out one over the West. What about the Chinese? They are unscrupulous in securing access to resources but they are ruthless in stamping on religion amongst their own people. Iran or the Saudis? I really don’t know. But I do know that in following the USA’s lead over the last twenty years many British lives have been lost or damaged, for nothing.

In fact, has any USA intervention since WW2 been successful? Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have either ended up in uneasy truces, abject defeats or unmitigated messes.

What Afghanistan does exemplify is that the world today is riven by violence mainly enacted by men on other men but very often women too, much the same as in previous centuries. Yet, the countries of the world have to sit down and come to agreement on how to deal with a far more serious, extinction threatening, problem – climate change. The Montreal Protocol that tackled the ozone destroying CFCs is often held up as an example of what can be done. However, while a serious threat, CFCs were relatively easy to deal with – ban their use and the ozone would, eventually, recover. As CFCs could only be produced by a relatively advanced chemical industry that generally recognised the danger, it was job done. Climate change is much more complex and requires lifestyle changes in both developed and developing countries. I don’t think the ruling men (and most of them are men) have it in them to reach the compromises that are necessary. Marxists, Fascists, religious fundamentalists of any belief system don’t and can’t change.

The competitive and aggressive nature of men in positions of power is apparent in everything they do. One TV programme we did catch this week was a bit of fluff about the history of the crisp and snack industry in the UK, specifically the battles (that’s the correct term), between Smiths Crisps, Golden Wonder and Walkers. The leading figures, all men, in each company used the language of warfare to describe their struggles. It wasn’t enough to produce a good product and promote it to the public. No, the competitors had to be destroyed by whatever means possible. In the case of Walkers, the eventual, or rather current, superpower, that meant using the financial might of their PepsiCo owners to match competing brands, take advantage of slip-ups by competitors (such as convenient fires in their factories) and, if necessary, buying up the opposition. The effects on the workers were not considered so long as the executives could taste the success of victory. I’m not saying that Walkers are the Taliban of crisp manufacturers but they both provide examples of male belligerence which will be the death of humankind.

Relaxing away from the news.

No story again this week. Perhaps normal service will be restored next week if I feel that writing fiction has any purpose.

……………………..

Shock and Horror

It’s difficult to add anything to the news reports on Ukraine. It’s the little things that one hears or reads that stick in my mind. Such as Patel’s use of the old name, The Ukraine. It shows her concern for the country is about the same as Putin’s. He sees The Ukraine as part of Greater Russia like she sees The Midlands or The Lake District as part of England lacking self-determination. That is why she isn’t too keen on England taking in Ukrainian refugees – why can’t they go and live in Russia, it’s closer.

Then there is the issue of what to do with oligarchs. I thought an oligarchy was when the rich ran the government. Russia is an autocratic dictatorship not an oligarchy. The rich men (are they all men?) ripped off the Russian economy in the 90s, bought heavily into western businesses to build up their riches but then found they had to be nice to Putin to keep hold of their fortunes. They are not a government just greedy thieves. So why is the UK taking so long to confiscate their property as EU countries are doing. Surely it’s not because of all the friends they have made in the Tory party. Perhaps Johnson and the rest are reluctant to cast off their old mates after so many lovely dinners together and cosy games of tennis.

Why is the war in Ukraine having such an emotional effect on me and most, if not all, other people? We are used to seeing pictures of death and destruction on our screens – there have been enough of them throughout my adult lifetime. Is it because this time it’s not an internal conflict, it is a country with a democratically elected government being attacked by a larger, more powerful country governed by a megalomaniacal murderer.

I have no idea what the future will bring. Will Putin achieve his aim (it’s taking a while) and assimilate Ukraine into a larger Russia and then everyone will get back to doing business with him again. Or is this a clean break where the horrors of Ukraine will preclude business as usual? Is Putin unhinged enough to escalate further: invade other former Soviet republics; invade former eastern bloc countries; take his nuclear threats further. Each of those steps brings us closer to the annihilation we have feared since 1945. I thought that civilisation would end in the chaos of climate change anarchy (lots of little wars over resources), but it could be we have to dig out all those old stories of nuclear winter written in the 80s. Or, will people in the Russian government come to their senses and realise that Putin has dragged them down a particularly dangerous rabbit hole, and take action.

Whatever happens, for the second time in three years the future has changed.

No, episode of An Extraordinary Tale this week or any other writing to report. Other things are happening…

Revival

This week I am away at a writing conference, my annual revitalisation, although, of course, it didn’t happen last year. A weekend of workshops, chats to other writers, a dinner with celebration of winners and runners-up of competitions and a general good time, usually gives me the incentive to get down to some of my own writing. Let’s hope it works this year.

So, no rants, no anxieties, no doom and gloom (well, there is plenty of that but I won’t mention it this week). What I will do is give a plug to my five Jasmine Frame novels – on sale at the conference but also available direct from me at paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com. The e-books are also on Amazon Kindle. Painted Ladies, Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder, Molly’s Boudoir and Impersonator are each stand alone cases for detective Jasmine Frame but as a series tell the story of her transition.

Finally, here is a short story I wrote for the writers’ group. The topic was “file” and it got me thinking about how in English many words have more than one meaning or two words may have similar pronounciations. Can you guess what the title means? (Answer at the bottom)

A dwelling for speaking tubes?*

 

It started when I was invited to a game of tennis.  When I went to the court they asked if I had my own racquet.  The judge said it was a serious offence and handed me a sentence.  I thought it was the start of a novel, but they put me behind bars, and not for the first time.  I pulled a couple of pints and shook up some cocktails but then they called time. They put me in a cell with the door locked and bolted. They brought me back after a while. I asked for a ream of paper and a ring binder. I put the paper in the binder and made a file. I used the file on the window, but it was a hard steel. I couldn’t even nick it.  I asked for some refreshment, and they brought me an apple and a lemon. The computer was connected to the web but there was large spider on it, so I didn’t touch it. The lemon was sharp, so I began to carve a pattern on the surface of my cell.  When I had done the whole of the wall, I crawled through it.

I was free but getting ten pound an hour was my intent. Coming out of the marquee I tripped over the guy. He was just a stuffed shirt and trousers but a nice chap. He gave me a long stick and suggested we shoot a few balls, so I joined the long line of people at the pond.  It was a long wait, but I carried it on my shoulders. I was so tired that I cried. I cried out so much I got hoarse. I mounted the horse and rode off to the desert.  It was only a trifle, just a small matter but it meant that the end was close, so I’ll shut up.

 

*Homophones

320 words