Airports, cars and a thief

Autumn is here, schools and parliament have gone back, sort of, and the government continues to behave as if it hasn’t the first idea what governing is supposed to be about. Jeremy Paxman says we’re led by twerps, and he’s right. Amongst the silliness is the travel news; which country is on the quarantine list which isn’t. It is a muddle and the travel business must be crying in frustration. Yet, we apparently still do not have testing at airports. Why can’t we have the same system as Germany where arrivals are tested and self-isolate till they get the all clear, usually in less than two days. That’s the way to reduce the chance of international spread of disease.

We’ve been considering going electric – car that is. The fact that we live in a block of flats with a communal car park is a problem which shouldn’t exist. The block was built in the last five years but no provision was made for charging points. Is it a planning rule now? I doubt it. Anyway, I don’t think it would be impossible to get a charging point installed so we’ll put that issue to one side for now. The most important question is, what car. The problem here is cost. A new Renault Zoe, perhaps the best of the small electrics, costs about 50% more than a new Yaris hybrid (which we have at the moment). Having had a test drive of the Zoe, I can report it is a lovely car, quiet, smooth, plenty of oomph (that’s a technical term) and a decent range of over 200 miles on a full charge. But we can’t afford the price of a new one. Running an electric car is cheaper of course, but you have to do the maths. We currently do about 10,000 miles a year. Swapping from petrol-hybrid at 10p/mile to electric at 3p/mile (optimistic) means a saving of about £700 a year. We’d have to run the electric for 15 years to make up the difference in purchase cost. Second hand electrics are more in our range but any electric car over 2 years old has a range of no more than 120 miles. Not really good enough for a trip to south London to see the family. I think the same considerations will apply to most people so going electric is not just a simple job of swapping cars and getting a charging point fitted. It means a lifestyle change.

Some more clouds.

Jasmine news! The editing of Impersonator is complete so now the manuscript is being prepared for publication. I’m still not sure when to go for publication but I hope to show off the cover design very soon.

Writing club met in a village hall this week – our new home. It was great to meet together even though the acoustic was somewhat difficult (too much reverberation from a high, domed, metal roof). The theme we set for the week was “thief” so here is the short piece what I wrote.


Thief

There is a thief about. Unseen, unheard, they slip into your bedroom when you are in your bed. Not when you are asleep, mind. No, it is in that warm, cosy time when your brain is awake but your body is at rest. That time when the ideas come flowing fast, fully formed, word perfect. You are surfing on the wave of your imagination, while at rest. And then, and then.
The thief comes and whispers in your ear and you slip into slumber while they steal your thoughts. You awake in the morning and they are gone, all the fine words and smooth sentences. All gone. Just a memory in a shadow of a memory. You know you had those night-time thoughts, that outpouring of ingenuity, but it is gone, stolen.
Now I know you are thinking that this is just a metaphor, that the thief isn’t real. An excuse for not stirring in the dead of night to scribble down those scintillating thoughts on the notepad kept beside the bed for just that purpose. But no, I am not telling a fanciful tale. The thief is real. I know, I caught them at their secret task.
It was as I have described; a dark night and I lay, still but sleepless. Thoughts buzzing, ideas tumbling, words, sentences, paragraphs, whole articles assembling in my head. And then. . .I opened my eyes. What disturbed my thoughts? Not the thief. Silent and invisible, incorporeal. They were in my head. I could neither hear nor see them, but I felt the gentle caress on my mind. Soothing, numbing, sending me to my slumbers. Yet I resisted. I knew what the thief wanted; to steal my wonderful thoughts, deny them to me, carry them away to be lost to me for ever.
I fought, I struggled, we wrestled, one mind with another. I resisted their enticements to fall into sleep. You shall not take my thoughts, I cried. They did not answer of course; they made no sound. Still we fought, our minds entwined, like a pot of snakes or a net of squid, never quite getting a grip on the other.
Who are you? What are you? I cried. There was no reply. Still they persisted in trying to calm me, to send me to the land of Nod. They won.
I awoke when morning had come and sunlight crept through the curtains. I awoke and remembered. Not my fine words and clever phrases, they were gone, taken by the thief, but the fight lingered. I recalled the struggle we had had, but though I knew I had slept I did not know by what means the thief had overcome me.
Nevertheless, having met them once, I shall be more prepared next time. We will fight again and i will prevail. My night-time compositions will be more than faded dreams.

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COVID distractions, Jasmine and a rainbow

I’m sure that I’m not the first to notice this but the UK government’s latest strategy for coping with COVID in England is a wonderful distraction from its failings, not just in dealing with the pandemic but with Brexit and the rest. Divide and rule is the cry. The regionally based tier system provides and unending stream of distractions to keep the news, particularly the BBC, occupied. Which region is it to be today going up to tier 3? Which Labour mayor is going to ask for more funds? This could run and run until everyone is living under the strictest regime. It might even take us past Christmas. All the time, Johnson doesn’t have to do anything except make a few mumbling comments in Parliament or on TV. Meanwhile Sunak provides weekly updates to his budgets where he seems to be chucking money at the problem, with no thoughts for the aftermath, whether its huge unemployment or bankruptcy.

The publication of Impersonator (10th Nov on Kindle) sort of brings to a close the Jasmine Frame story. I created Jasmine nearly twenty years ago when I was starting to come to terms with my own transgenderism (with Lou’s patient help). I never saw Jasmine as me but wanted to use her to explore the character of someone going through transition while doing an important job – investigating murders. After a couple of short stories and a false start I began writing Painted Ladies. In that story Jasmine is already living full-time as a woman but is just at the start of her medical and surgical journey. Before I had completed that first novel I knew I had a series; I had to see Jasmine through to the completion of her transition. I came up with four more brief outlines giving Jasmine’s progress and the case. Apart from swapping the order of the plots a little those outlines became Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder, Molly’s Boudoir and now, Impersonator. I intended each one to be an absorbing story of a murder investigation while Jasmine experiences the results of the changes she embarks on. Most of the comments I have had suggest I have succeeded pretty well with those aims. But is up to readers to make up their own minds.

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This week’s writing club prompt was this picture. I think “riot of colour” describes it. My first impression was of pieces of rainbow fallen from the sky and that was the theme that I built the story below around. Unfortunately, trying to keep to the approx. 500 words that we aim for in the group, and with lots of other things to do, I think it reads more like a synopsis of a longer tale than a self-contained short short story.

The Day the Rainbow Fell

It was an ordinary morning on Venus. Li and I stepped out of our apartment block and paused as we always did. The morning rain shower had just finished so the paths were gleaming with a sheen of water. The avenue of lime trees lining the boulevard almost glowed with green health. Barely more than head height the saplings were aliens like us. Then I looked up and saw the rainbow. It was always there and of course, it’s not a real rainbow. Up here where the atmosphere is thinner, the Sun shines through and is refracted by the layers of different types of glass that make up the dome. It wasn’t planned when Aphrodite Station, known by all as the Onion, was built, but we’re pleased to have it curving over us, a band of colour and a symbol of hope.
Li and I kissed and parted. Li headed to the rim where he works on the air scoops sucking in the Venusian atmosphere and separating out the microbes. That’s why we’re here of course. They are the only lifeforms in the solar system that did not evolve on Earth. We are still discovering how that has made them different and useful in so many ways
I started my short walk to the hub, along the boulevard. Overhead I could see the “Stalk” rising into space. The Flower with its huge array of solar panels and docking stations, was hidden in the blinding sunlight. The view never changed because the ion rockets on the Flower kept us aligned with the Sun. That meant we circumnavigated the planet in the 224 Earth days it takes to rotate. I like to look out at the sky because I spend my days below ground level. My job is to supervise the power generators that sit in the lower half of the Onion, drawing heat from the depths of the atmosphere through the “Tap Root”.
I was just a few metres from the hub when I heard a noise that was not familiar and made me shiver with fear. It was a loud bang though not an explosion. I looked up and gasped. The dome near the hub was cracked. The cracks were spreading around the curve of the dome. Already pieces of glass were falling. I ran to the hub entrance as the pieces began to hit the ground. Alarms were blaring now as the breathable air was mixing with the Venusian atmosphere. I stepped inside the door which was an emergency air lock, but stood looking through the window as my world fell in. The falling shards of glass of various sizes sparkled and shone, reflecting and refracting the sunlight with blues and red and yellows. It was indeed as if the rainbow was falling.
People were still running to shelter but some had fallen, hit by chunks of glass. I wondered about Li. Had he reached the rim? He had had slightly further to walk than me. Surely, he hadn’t been caught outside.
The inner door opened and arms pulled me into the hub. I shrugged them off and hurried to the elevator. I had to reach my workstation and make sure that we carried on getting power. We were trained for emergencies but this was exceptional. Something had hit the dome, but what? An accident or deliberate sabotage? Answers would come later. First, I had to contact Li.

Jasmine, lockdowns and a fable

She’s ready to go. The fifth Jasmine Frame novel, Impersonator is ready for publication. The e-book will be available on Kindle from the middle of November (price £2.99 in the UK) with the print edition following soon after. That gives me a few weeks to get the news out there and distribute review copies. To whet your appetite here’s the back cover blurb.

Kitty La Belle was the most famous and highly paid female impersonator of his generation, but his generation had passed decades ago. So, why was he receiving death threats now?

Jasmine Frame is leading the life of a housewife, her transition complete, but something is missing. Would a new pair of breasts make up for the lack of a career or was there a different solution? When her former buddy, DI Shepherd, invites her to investigate Kitty La Belle’s threatening mail, Jasmine finds that her life changes, and Kitty’s does too.

What a confused week. Does anyone know where they stand with regard to COVID? Does anyone trust the figures or the UK government’s response? The only thing we can be sure of is that the virus spreads where people socialise close together with minimal precautions. Places like student flats, overcrowded homes, and venues where people don’t care about being crammed together go. Nevertheless the actual percentages affected are still low; a million deaths across the world is just around 0.015%. It doesn’t seem like much does it. Some suggest letting people get on with their lives and let the vulnerable die. As if the survivors will be unaffected. However they would find themselves in a world without health services as hospitals and care homes and health workers and carers collapsed with the weight of cases. The problem is that the solutions aren’t easy. Let the virus rip destroys the NHS; go into lockdown (nationally or regionally) and the economy crashes (again). It would require extraordinarily good leadership to steer a path to recovery for a population as large and as mixed as the UK’s . Unfortunately the leadership we have is anything but good.

This week’s task for the writing group was a variation of the “story with included object”. The variation was that the chosen named thing was ambiguous – the word has at least two meanings with no connection between them and apparently derived from separate Latin roots. In my piece below I attempted the style of a fable. Does it work? It covers all the meanings of the word. Can you guess what it is. There’s a clue in the title.

The Tale of Bedyddfaen

For many years he travelled the plains spending a month or two in each bustling, smoky town. He offered his healing skills and wisdom, but few took up his offer. They did not trust the former and did not understand the latter. Eventually he tired of the squalor and filth of the towns and the greed and feuds of the people. He tied his few possessions in a cloth, took up his staff and set out following a river upstream. It flowed sluggishly, its water clouded with the excrement of civilisation. He skirted around towns straddling the river and continued onwards towards the border.
At last, hills rose beside the river which was now not so broad. The water flowed faster, and to his eye looked cleaner. The path grew a little steeper, but he pressed on. He paused in quiet villages and hamlets, trading the trinkets he owned for food and drink. Then on he went, climbing over ridges and finding new valleys.
At last he arrived in a quiet vale, where trees grew tall and strong among verdant meadows filled with wildflowers. There was birdsong and he observed movement in the long grass. He followed the smell of ramsons into the wood climbing the side of the valley. He came to a small level glade illuminated by a shaft of light from the setting sun. The bedrock was exposed in a cliff-face, twice his height. He approached, bending to examine the strata. His fingers caressed the rock and he sniffed. Then he stood back, raised his staff, and struck the cliff a sharp blow. The noise caused birds to take wing amongst the trees.
He examined the cliff. There was some darkening where his blow had fallen. He stepped back and swung again. The crack of wood on stone, reverberated from the trees. He stood still for a few moments, then smiled with satisfaction. A trickle of water bubbled from a horizontal crack in the cliff.
For a third time he gave the rock a mighty thud. The trickle became a steady clear flow. He held his hands under the font of fresh water and splashed it onto his face to wash away the sweat and dust of his travels. Then he cupped his hands and lifted the water to his lips. It was clean and sweet, and quenched his thirst. He drank deeply, then stood and looked around. The new stream was already finding its quickest route across the glade and down the hillside to the river below.
He smiled and felt content. This place would do. He knew that the vale would provide fruit, nuts, fungi, root vegetables and other edible plants. With water and wood, he could make a comfortable dwelling here.
Over the next few days, he constructed a shelter of branches and built a hearth from stones fallen from the cliff. During the day he foraged for his food and in the evenings he lit his fire on the hearth and cooked his simple but satisfying stew. Afterwards he settled with his back against the cliff. After a few days another traveller, a resident of the valley, appeared. They conversed, the other sampled the water and pronounced it excellent then went on his way. Soon he was receiving visitors every other day or so. They accepted his healing lotions and infusions and listened to his advice. Later they returned with pies and tarts and fresh vegetables from their plots.
He began to carve a fallen piece of rock, a forearm in diameter. He shaped it into a smooth circular cylinder a couple of hands in depth, then dug out an indentation. He mounted it on a pedestal beside the spring and diverted some of the flow into it. Now when visitors came he invited them to drink from the font. The people brought their babies and asked him to bless them. He dipped the back of their heads in the water and called them by the names their parents chose. On quiet evenings he took up his knife and decorated the surface of the font. With straight strokes and curves and serifs and curlicues he incised letters, words, phrases. Soon he had covered both the font and the pedestal. The people marvelled at the designs.
Warm, dry summers passed; icy, windy winters passed. The spring never ceased to flow. The people came to rely on him for their health and for solutions to their problems. One summer, years after he had settled beside the spring, they noticed that he was ageing and his simple home was becoming dilapidated. Without waiting to be asked they set to building a new shelter for him. They built walls of stone on three sides with the cliff as the fourth, enclosing the font of the spring, with space enough for his bed and a place to sit and contemplate. There were windows to let in the light at sunrise and sunset with wooden shutters, a door and a chimney above his hearth. They laid wooden beams to form a ceiling and a roof of thatch. Then they brought colourful woven rugs to lay on the earthen floor and cushions for him to rest on.
He thanked them and continued with his quiet and not so lonely life. Every evening when his visitors had departed he carved the walls of his dwelling, inside and out. They were his thoughts on life, his memories, his solutions to life’s problems. At last, when he had finished, he lay down on his bed and died.
The people came, saw that he had passed from them, and grieved. They placed his body in an oak coffin, buried it in the floor of the shelter and laid stone paving over it. People visited often, to taste the water of the spring and to look and feel the carvings that covered the walls and the font. Their fingertips traced the ornate lettering, but the words were meaningless to them. They could not read and had no need of writing. Instead they told the tale of Bedyddfaen to all who would listen.

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super-spreader, super book and a licence.

The POTUS has COVID, or has had it. At least he accepted that the coronavirus was real enough to infect him even if he seems to think he got rid of it quicker than most people.

I found the reporting and the events around the event somewhat medieval. There was the mad king, lurking behind the closed walls of his castle/lunatic asylum. There was speculation about how his physical attributes might affect the course of the disease -his age, sex and obesity. The bizarre appearance of his medical team as they pronounced on his progress. There they were, a phalanx of them in the shining white vestments with the high priest to the fore making guarded and highly suspect statements. Then the incredible drive-by as if he’d destroyed truth and belief so much that only an appearance in front of his acolytes would prove that he was still on this earth. It reminded me of the scene at the end of El Cid where the dead hero is strapped to his horse and sent out to lead the armies to victory.

And his treatment! How much did it cost? Unicorn horn, phoenix feather and gryphon blood would hardly have been more expensive. Do you think he was presented with the bill when he left the hospital as most american hospital patients are? Actually perhaps they need to pay him since he was a special guinea pig testing out a fantastic cocktail of drugs in untested dosages. The fact is, no one else will receive the such treatment.

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I have completed reading last year’s (joint) Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I enjoyed it; it is an amazing account of the characters and their life-stories. However, I have some queries. Was the design – no capitals or full-stops, each sentence a paragraph – necessary or merely an affectation? Would a publisher have even got passed the first page if a debut author had presented it? Similarly it has little plot, just mild links between the lives of the characters. What it does do is respond to the question – what is an author permitted to write about? Yes, Evaristo is female and of African origin so she can write about black women. Yet some of her characters are male, some are straight, some gay and two are trans, some are african some african-american, some anglo-african. They are a huge variety of characters which can’t all be aspects of Evaristo herself. So authors, write about whatever you like. The reader may form an opinion on whether it is honest, true and valid but not tell you what you can write about.

For obvious reasons I was drawn to the two trans characters, who I think Evaristo rendered very sympathetically. But she also threw in a character who organises a festival for women and wants to exclude trans-women because since they were once men they once had the benefits of being treated as one. Without really giving a reason, another character says this is wrong. The reason is that yes being a member of the patriarchy does confer advantages but anyone who grows up with doubts about their gender is an outsider and will be ostracised (and worse) by the members of the male cabal. Their trials may be greater than women who at least may be cossetted by men on occasion. Being physically male is only an advantage if you join in the activities of the patriarchy.

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Last week one of our writing group members suggested a theme. I have to say, I spent a few days doubting whether I could write a story which did justice to the theme without being too obvious. Anyway, I managed something and here it is. Can you guess what the theme actually was?

Licence

“Er, um, I’d like a licence, please.” The voice was a throaty whisper.
Cathy paused in counting the books of twelve first class stamps. There was a man at the counter. He was short and stooped with wispy, white hair around a bald pate, wearing a grubby raincoat.
“Sorry, Sir, what did you say?” she asked as politely as possible realising that she had forgotten where she had got to with the pile of stamp books and would have to start again.
“I want a licence,” the little, old man said almost inaudibly.
Cathy took a breath. “A licence, sir? What kind of licence?”
“A licence to . . .” a fit of coughing ended the sentence.
“A driving licence?” Cathy said hoping to jump to the conclusion of the transaction. “We have a form if you need to replace or renew your driving licence.”
He shook his head, opened his mouth but only a croak emerged.
“A vehicle licence is it, Sir? You know you can renew your road tax online. We don’t issue paper licences anymore.”
He shook his head again and drew in a breath. He opened his mouth to speak but a paroxysm of coughing interrupted once more.
Cathy was beginning to struggle now. Inspiration made her smile.
“Is it your TV licence? You can do that online too, but I can do it for you.”
“No, no, no,” he said, “I need a . . .” The spluttering returned.
What else could it be if not driving, vehicle or TV? Cathy stroked her forehead desperately trying to think of a solution. The queue behind the coughing customer was growing and the people at the front were beginning to get restive. She examined the man again. His clothes looked more like those of a countryman than someone who lived in the town. A thought.
“Do you want a shotgun licence? I am sorry we do not do those anymore. You have to go to the police station to ask for a firearms licence.”
He shook his head with an impatient shrug. “No, I want a licence. . . a licence to. . . to. . .”
“Ger on wiv it, mate,” said the big, beefy fellow next in the line. The old man looked around startled.
Cathy sighed. “OK, not a shooting licence. Oh, I know, you look as though you may be an angler.” She wasn’t sure about that, but it was worth a try, “Do you need a fishing licence?”
The old man turned back from glaring at the burly bloke pestering him. “No, no, no,” he said waving his hands.
Cathy was reaching the end of her patience. “Well, what do you want a licence for then? A licence to move pigs, or to collect money in the street, or to place a skip in the road, or to licence a house for multiple occupation or to store chemicals used to make drugs, or, or. . .” She ran out of breath.
“No,” he said shaking his head firmly, “I want a licence to crenellate.”
Cathy glared at the little old man in the grubby raincoat. “A what?” she screamed.
“They say an Englishman’s home is his castle. I want to secure my home. Make it safe from attack by thieves and vandals. I’ve looked it up. If I want to put defences in, I need to crenellate the walls, that’s what it said. It said there was a licence for that so that is what I want, a licence to crenellate my home.”
Cathy’s chin dropped. She breathed in deeply and closed her mouth. You got everything in this job, she thought, but this was a first. “I’m sorry Sir, we don’t do that one. I think you’d better try the Council.”
The little, old man sniffed. “Why didn’t you say so before instead of keeping me standing here.” He turned and strode away.

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Getting away and brewers’ tales

We had a few days away this week, the first time since February. We were amongst the few remaining inhabitants of Wales legally free to travel out of our home county and of course we travelled to an area that could accept visitors. Apart from a day in Narberth, we were in the countryside, so were probably as safe from the virus as we could be anywhere. Mind you the people in the tourism areas were getting worried about people escaping from the English lockdown centres. The same ban on travel does not seem to apply to them.

I cannot understand, the cock-up the English government has made imposing local lockdowns. It appears that they make up the rules anew for each area, and are half-hearted at best – no ban on travel, complex rules about who can meet where, still allowing groups to meet in pubs and restaurants. At least the rules in the Welsh lockdowns seem simpler (not being in one I haven’t examined the rules that closely.)

I suppose it is an indicator of the ability of the oafs in the English government.

Anyway we had a few days of quiet enjoyment, walking the coastal path visiting a couple of castles and a museum dedicated to Pembroke Docks and the Sunderland flying boats, and having some very good meals. It was lovely not paying too much attention to the news, which is uniformly gloomy and worrying.

Part of the purpose of the trip was to sell books. Narberth had a Bookfair store but not many people ventured in. I was hoping to promote the publication of Impersonator, which I hope will be by the end of this month (for the e-book, that is). But how to raise interest? All three Jasmine Frame prequels (novellas and anthology) are now available for 99p on Kindle, and there will be special offers on the novels.

The writing club theme for this week related to beer. It was noted that many beers have amusing and odd names. I felt that this wasn’t exactly an original observation. There are hundreds of brands with strange names dreamt up as marketing ploys. I felt that stories about Bishop’s Tipple and Old Peculiar, and Dorothy Goodbody were a bit old hat. I decided instead to see how many names of brewers I could include in a short piece. This probably needs to be read aloud to get the sense of the puns. Anyway, it was a bit of fun and I fitted in 27 brewers’ names.

Brewing up a tale

Old freckled Ken leaned against the bar, a tumbler of rum and coke gripped in his hand. The door creaked and he turned to see a wrinkled crone shuffling in, her Woods leg scuffing the boarded floor.
“Blimey Charles, Wells a Black Sheep returns. An Ansells to my prayers. Hello my ol’ Petunia.”
“You’re not dead yet then, Ken,” Petunia said.
“Not yet. Come and join me.”
“Wadworth’s in it for me then.”
“I’ll stand you a drink. What will it be?”
“A sherry will do nicely.”
“Oi, Tim!” Ken cried.
“Who’s Tim,” Petunia said as she climbed onto a bar stool.
“Timothy Taylor, the new Tennent.”
A tall fellow with what could be described as a Fuller figure appeared behind the bar.
“Pour Pet a Bristol Cream,” Ken said, “and I’ll have a cheese sandwich.”
The landlord reached for the sherry bottle. “will that be with brown, Ken?”
“Na, it’s Whitbread for me.”
Ken noticed that Petunia was gazing at a glass case attached to the wall above the bar. It contained a surprised looking fish.
“Have I told you the tale of how I caught that fish?” Ken said.
“Oh, three or Vaux times, Ken, but remind me is it a salmon or a pike?”
“Bass.”
“Never! When were you ever a fisherman?”
“Oh, in my Younger days, before me legs gave out.”
“Wat – neys?”
“Na, me Arkellls.”
“Go on, then Ken. Tell your story.” Petunia took a sip of her sherry and looked at Ken expectantly.
Ken took a deep breath, “I were up in the Morlands where the rivers run fast and deep.”
“On your own?”
“Na, with me mate, John Smith.”
“Was he Sam Smith’s brother?”
“No relation. Anyway, there was no sitting on the Banks for us. We were in the water up to our But – combe, rain and Gales.”
“That must have taken some Courage.”
Ken nodded. “Yeah, and Brains to trick them fish, but I had no luck for hours. Then I did one last cast and would you Adnams and eve it,,but that there fish Hook Norton to me line and I hauled ‘im ashore.”
Petunia chortled, “That’ a load of Cobbold, Ken, but I’m sure there’s a Morrells there somewhere. I bet you’d like to do it again.”
Ken grinned, “In my Shepherd Neames, Pet.”

COVID fears and a silent scream

When will it end? I expect a lot of people are asking that question about the pandemic. After six months of lockdown during which we’ve had a partial, perhaps too lax, easing, followed now by a tightening of the rules, we are tired of restrictions. But being weary of isolating and social distancing and wearing masks and so on, is not going to bring an end to the pandemic. If a vaccine was released tomorrow, it would be many months before everyone was protected, and that tomorrow won’t be here for at least another year. So what do we do? What can we do to help all the people in the hospitality, entertainment, arts, and tourism who are going to be without jobs? Do we leave older people to isolate themselves and let the young get on with their lives free of regulations? I really don’t know as I don’t have all the facts and figures available. Unfortunately it seems that the people who do need to make decisions don’t have a clue either and that maybe partly because they haven’t got the facts owing to their previous failings.

We really do need to know who has had the virus, who has got it and what are the chances of it being passed on. Unfortunately – no, it wasn’t unfortunate, it was gross incompetence. It is now 8 months since a testing regime should have begun to be constructed (or pulled off the shelf if we had followed urgings to prepare for pandemics), but the UK system has been a mess from the start. For the first three months it was not really known how many people in the community were catching the virus as only those in hospital were being tested. By now we should have an efficient process of regularly testing key workers and everybody in areas where there is an outbreak of the disease. We don’t, so we don’t have a detailed enough picture of who is being infected.

Is it safe to let the virus infect young people while keeping older people isolated? No, I don’t think it is. If a large number of people are infected, it will spread to older people even if they are trying to quarantine themselves. Once again the NHS will be under pressure. So lockdown is necessary. But how do we pay for those thrown out of work? The sums of money are huge. I don’t know what measures are feasible, and that uncertainty creates the fears for the future.

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Coincidentally with my piece last week, the result of the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act was released a few days ago. There is not going to be any change except to make the form filling a little easier and a price reduction. People will not be allowed to self identify. Medical opinions are still necessary to show that an individual is gender dysphoric, and the two year true life trial stands.

Last outing for the summer dress?

This week six of us met for writing group in a church. The acoustic was better but wearing masks made socially distanced chat difficult for deaf old gits (yours truly). Nevertheless, we met and read our pieces. The subject was “scream” or to be precise “they do not scream”. I took the more precise version as my title. I couldn’t get Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I have no mouth but I must scream” (or something close to that) out of my head but wrote something completely different. It’s not a cosy read. Perhaps you can work out who the narrator is.

They do not scream that have no voice

I am dying. They have killed me, they that took my source of sustenance, my senses, my reason for existence. Yet they have no knowledge of me.
For uncountable cycles I have lived. My companions have sent their first shoots towards the light, grown tall and strong, spread their canopy wide, scattered their seeds and eventually fallen and rotted to be replaced by their descendants. For many of their generations, I grew, linking more and more together. I provided their roots with minerals and took their sweet sap as payment. I distributed their conversation, their warnings, their comradeship through my filaments. I united them into a forest, strong and resilient, able to survive storms and drought, pests and disease.
We welcomed others to share our life. Soft plants that grew and flowered and withered and died in the space of one or two cycles. Creeping, slithering, prancing, flying creatures that made their homes within my soil and in the trees. They moved in a flicker of thought and their lives barely lasted longer.
I was content with my life, at one with my companions.
Then they came. The two foots and their gougers.
At first, I hardly noticed them. They scuffed the forest floor, carved trails through the undergrowth, but the damage was slight, little more than that caused by a beast blundering through the bushes.
Then they attacked my trees. It wasn’t a slow infestation as might be made by a beetle or a worm. There was no time for me to respond. No time to spur other trees into finding a weapon to destroy the alien and to share the remedy amongst them. First one tree fell, then another and another. Urgently I commanded the trees to emit their warning signals. Their chemical cries filled the air. The two foots behaved as if they could not sense the molecules floating amongst them. Our appeals met no response. More and more trees fell until the forest was no more.
The canopy was opened up, the soil dried, the tender shade plants scorched. My food was gone and I did not understand why. Yet I could survive for a while. Seeds would germinate, saplings grow. Young trees would spread their fresh green leaves. The forest would be reborn.
But the two foots returned and this time they brought fire. They set alight the remaining vegetation, the remnants of my trees that they had not removed. There was a burning. Even the stumps and roots of the trees. The soil itself burned. I burn. Not just my fruiting bodies that swell above the surface but my network of fibres, my being.
Without me the soil will be no more than dust that will drift away on the wind. Without my administration the fertility will disappear. With no forest, soon nothing will grow. I want to tell the two foots what they are doing but they do not respond to any message I put out. Now, even that effort is beyond me. The fires consume me. I die, my cries unacknowledged.

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Gender fluid rights and an Indian Summer

There’s enough in the news to fill a dozen blogs – spreading lockdowns, COVID testing chaos, Brexit madness, before casting one’s gaze overseas. Nevertheless I want to dwell on a smaller item of news this week, one buried in the middle pages of The Guardian (I’ve no idea if it even appears in some papers). An item that may only concern less than 1% of the population, but it does concern me – non-binary rights.

An engineer has won a case of discrimination against Jaguar Land Rover at an employment tribunal. Rose Taylor (she uses female pronouns – more of that later) became the butt of jokes and insults from the time three years ago that she started wearing feminine clothes. The management did not support her and her claim of constructive dismissal was won. Although it wasn’t actually a court case it is thought that the judgement will influence similar cases.

Why is this case important? Because it modifies the 2010 Equality Act. This Act defines 9 minority groups (protected characteristics) who can suffer hate-crime and who can claim discrimination in court. One of the protected characteristics is “gender reassignment”. The Act makes it clear that this only applies to people who have had or intend to have medical treatment to change their physiology (i.e. genitalia) and who are therefore eligible for a Gender Recognition Certificate (from the 2004 Act). Less than 10,000 people have claimed a GRC which allows them to obtain a new birth certificate in their recognised gender and to be treated in law as that gender. Thus the Equality Act apparently does not provide protection to the tens of thousands of transgender people who don’t wish to have surgery or even other medical treatment and haven’t applied for a GRC. The Equality Act doesn’t protect transvestites who venture out in public and it does not protect non-binary people who identify as neither male nor female – until now.

Judge Hughes who made the decision said that “it is clear …. that gender is a spectrum” and that it was “beyond doubt” that Taylor was protected. (quoted from The Guardian). He added that gender reassignment “concerns a personal journey in moving gender identity away from birth sex.”

I am delighted by the judgement and hope that the Judge’s comments do bring about a reconsideration of the Equality Act which will give protection to all, me included. My only query is whether Rose Taylor is truly non-binary. She has adopted a female name (Rose), and title (Ms) uses female pronouns and apparently taken on a female appearance. The report does not say in what way she is gender-fluid or non-binary. Now it shouldn’t matter how a person identifies; they should be protected from insults and abuse, given support by employers, etc. and have the backing of the law. However, Rose Taylor looks like someone setting out on transition from male to female, rather than someone who has abandoned stereotypical gender roles. Good luck to her, but I am not holding my breath for a change that encompasses those that want to ditch gender labels such as allowing non-binary as an alternative to male or female on official documents.

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And now the reveal. The cover for Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel. Many thanks again to Scott Wood for the design. I think it looks great and I hope the images will have you guessing.

Publication is still a few weeks away and I’ll reveal more, such as the blurb, and the price shortly.

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Writing group met, adhering to the rule of 6 (quite a few were away), back in the field while the sun shone. It was appropriate really as the topic was Indian Summer. I hadn’t really given the topic much thought so my piece is rather whimsical and more a description of a scene than a story. Nevertheless it has some elements that I might come back to – a little old lady who can make wishes come true. . .

An Indian Summer

It was one of those rare, hot sunny days in late September when the Native American paid a visit. He was not taller than me but his long, feathered headdress made him look like a giant. It was fortunate it was a hot because while he was wearing suede leggings, his bronzed, tattooed chest was bare. He carried a bow in his hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. I examined his wrinkled face and saw that he was not a young man, not in experience.
How did such a fellow appear in my small garden that fine morning? I wished him there of course. When I awoke to a bright, sunlit day I said to myself, “I do wish we can have an Indian summer.” There might have been a pause for a breath between the last two words, Here he was, bringing his weather with him.
I was astonished of course when he appeared on the lawn, but probably not as surprised as he. He dropped to a crouch and looked around. He felt the lawn and raised his hand to his nose to smell the grass. He sniffed the air then straightened up, but I could see he remained wary. In watching him I overcame by brief surprise. I was at least familiar with my wishes becoming reality.
I stepped through the French doors to greet him. In a moment an arrow was nocked and pointing towards me, the bowstring taut. I raised my hands and took a step towards him.
“Don’t worry. There is nothing to harm you here,” I said in my friendliest voice. The arrow remained pointing towards me though his arms relaxed. It seemed, nevertheless, that my words meant nothing to him. He called out a brief command that I did not understand, not a European language but presumably his native tongue. I took it that he didn’t want me to approach him so I stood and smiled.
He examined me as carefully as I him. He seemed to relax further as he realised that I was a harmless old woman with no weapons to hand.
“Would you like a cup of tea,” I said as invitingly as possible. He listened carefully but could get no sense from my words. Nevertheless, he lowered the bow, but kept the arrow nocked.
I pointed to the patio table and chairs hoping that he would sit, but he looked at them with curiosity but no understanding of their purpose. I moved and sat on one chair. He got the idea and sat on the other, holding himself awkwardly in the unfamiliar position.
“Stay,” I said and made a gesture that I hoped would reinforce the word. He did indeed remain sitting while I stood and hurried to the kitchen. I put the kettle on, put tea in the pot and laid cups, saucers, plates and a plate of biscuits on the tray. In a minute the kettle was poured and I carried the tray out into the sunshine.
He wasn’t sitting on the chair, but on the grass cross-legged, his bow on the ground beside him and the arrow, well that was presumably back in the quiver. He watched as I placed the tray on the table and poured the tea into the cups. He understood then and nodded with a smile. I sat on the chair.
I offered him the plate of biscuits, taking one for myself and nibbling it. He took one and tested it with his tongue. He obviously recognised the oatmeal flavour and gobbled it quickly and then reached for another. When all the biscuits were gone I handed him a cup which he took. He took a great interest in the china cup and saucer. It looked as though he was searching for meaning in the blue pattern. Then he sniffed the tea and felt the heat of the cup in his fingers. We sat silently watching each other.
After a couple of minutes, I decided my tea was cool enough to take a sip. He copied me. His nose wrinkled at the first sensation of the taste but then he took another sip and another. When the cup was empty he placed it with care on the saucer and handed it back to me. The he stood with his bow in his hand and quiver over his shoulder. What could I do with him? We did not share a language and I did not think I could keep him safe in my home. He was out of place and time, and I did not wish to see him troubled. I wished him away.
The Indian vanished but the sun remained shining.

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6 not out, and a lie

It’s the “rule of 6” now then, is it? The new government slogan intending to get us back onto the straight and narrow path of social distancing and self-isolation. It looks as though it has put an end to our writing group meetings in a village hall that started last week – we usually have at 8 to 10 attending. But does it? As usual with the government the announcement was muddled with Johnson typically unable to put coherent detail to the simple three word phrase. At first it seemed that the six could come from no more than two households but now apparently it can be six individuals, meeting indoors or outside, either at the regulation 2m distance or at 1m with masks. However pubs, restaurants, churches, schools, offices can carry on with as many people as before sitting at socially distanced tables. Does it make any sense? Will it cut the local peaks in infection? Who knows. I don’t know how young people (i.e. the under 30s) can be persuaded to stop gathering together when they know that the chance of them being hospitalised by the virus is pretty slim. OK, so they don’t visit the grand parents; well, that’s hardly a hardship. It’s us oldies who have to avoid the raves and knees-ups.

I’m tempted to think that the latest fuss about the change in rules is a ruse to divert popular attention from the Brexit farce. I don’t usually hold with conspiracy theories; I don’t think any government is competent enough to maintain a conspiracy which requires planning, and long term secrecy. But on this occasion I can just about see Cummings saying, let’s stir up a bit of a fuss about COVID to take people’s minds off us breaking international law and telling the EU to stuff their trade agreement. What further damage to the UK can the Brexiteers do? The referendum trashed the UK’s reputation for common sense and “steady as she goes” politics; the last year of U-turns, COVID mis-handling, and general government incoherence proved to all abroad that we are led by fools; and, the threat to break the treaty with the EU has finally shown any country thinking of making an agreement with the UK that it can’t be trusted to keep it. Can things get worse? Oh, yes they can.

Another cloud – and a spider with its prey.

Well, we did manage to meet as a group on Thursday. Coincidentally there were 6 of us. The subject was lies, quite appropriate in the present times. Here’s my little piece – talking of conspiracy theories. . .

The Lie

His car glided to a silent halt beside the vintage Corvair. The owner of the sports car was leaning on the hood, gazing across the scrub at the launch gantry which was gleaming in the evening sun. Commander Jim Connor stepped out of his car and joined the Director.
“Oh, hi there, Jim. I didn’t hear you. I haven’t got used to those electric jobs being so quiet.”
“You still like the roar of an internal combustion engine.”
“Yeah, and you should too. It doesn’t look good our top astronaut not supporting the great American petroleum business.”
There was a moment of silence before Connor spoke again. “You suggested meeting out here, Sir. I’m not sure why, though the view’s good.” He nodded at the slim white needle of the launch vehicle.
“Yeah, she does look super, doesn’t she. A few more days and you’ll be sitting on the top of that firework and setting off on your journey.”
Jim frowned. “Is that what you want to talk to me about, Sir.”
“Yes, Jim. I wanted a chance for a chat without anyone else listening in. I take it you’ve checked yourself for bugs.”
“Er, yes, Sir. Mind you they’re so tiny these days I could have missed one or a dozen.”
“Stay vigilant. All the world’s press would love an exclusive featuring the Commander of the first lander.”
“The first?”
“Don’t question it, Jim. You know the President sees this mission as the highlight of his third term; proof that he’s `Made America Great’. It’ll help his polling for his fourth term. Not that he needs help now that voting for the one candidate is a formality.”
Connor fidgeted. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. “What are you trying to tell me, Sir?”
“Don’t worry, Jim. I’m not trying to trick you into careless words about our great leader.”
“What then, Sir. What have you got to say that you don’t want the press or the secret service to hear?”
“It’s a warning. There’s huge interest in your trip, but you and your crew will have to be careful what they say.”
“I know. We’ve been practising the script for the landing for weeks.”
“Not just then. Throughout the expedition you must make sure not to make any reference to, er, the last time.”
“You mean Apollo 11 and the others?”
The Director glanced from side to side as if checking for listeners. He leant towards Connor. “That’s just what you mustn’t say. You know the conclusion of the Presidential Commission on the Apollo Programme.”
Connor felt acid in his mouth. He spat it out. “Yeah I know. The moon landings of the sixties and seventies were faked.”
“Exactly, Commander. A Democrat plot to fool the American people which sucked in that loser, Nixon. The President’s own words, you recall.”
Connor shrugged. “Yeah, it’s been drummed into us enough times. We’re going to be the heroes, the first humans to place their boots on the moon.”
“Good, god-fearing. white men, Commander. That’s what you are, and you wouldn’t want to embarrass yourselves spreading alternative truths, would you. Not if you want to come home.”
Connor felt the Director’s dark eyes staring at him.
“What do you mean, Sir?”
“I told you this was a warning, Jim. Displease the President and your return may not go as smoothly as we hope. Of course, by then you will have demonstrated American superiority. A mishap on the landing would be a sad ending, but as it’s a private company’s craft, then that pain in the butt who runs it will take the blame. Take him down a few pegs. Win-win.”
“Except for me and my crew.”
“As I said, Commander. Watch what you say, and you’ll live to celebrate being the first man on the Moon.”

(c) P R Ellis Sept 2020

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Atmosphere and Murder

I’ve been writing educational materials on the atmosphere, air quality and the greenhouse effect. It’s nine years since I wrote on the same topic for a different publisher, and no, I haven’t been self-plagiarising. Not the words anyway; the ideas haven’t changed much. In fact, what has changed in the world with regard to climate change in the last ten years?

There have been a lot of words spoken and written but few deeds. Renewable energy, wind and solar, has grown considerably; electric cars are beginning to increase in numbers, but nothing much has happened to our hold back our increasing emissions of CO2 . COVID caused a brief dip in April and also saw the clearing of smog in cities such as Delhi, but I imagine things are getting back to “normal” as far as air quality is concerned. Climate change continues. What were once called abnormal or freak weather events occur more often. The UK is having its worst harvest for forty years thanks to the sequence of weather in the last year – exceptionally wet autumn and winter, drought in the spring. We have had two named storms in a week, not “normal” for this time of year, while the US has suffered an exceptional hurricane.

Storms Ellen and Francis coincided with two major rail derailments. The first, in Scotland which resulted in deaths, was caused by a landslide definitely linked to the storm. The cause of the second in South Wales has not been announced yet. It involved an exceptionally long tanker train carrying diesel oil, which caught fire and resulted in major environmental damage.

The changing climate and the consequences keep on coming but few take any notice and the growing number of right wing, populist, denialist, uncooperative governments rant and rave about other things and do nothing.

Interesting clouds, and more blue sky than we’ve seen for most of the week

Writing group didn’t meet this week, though a few of us got together for coffee. The topic set last week was “Murder” and sitting in the field watching the birds gave me an idea. I didn’t have much time to realise it (that educational stuff has got in the way of creativity) but here is the result.

Murder most fowl

It was a simple if malicious case. Lacerations to the back and the vicious fatal stab to the base of the skull.
DCI Crow looked up from the bloodied body. “Do we have an identification, Sergeant?”
“It’s one of the Finches, Sir,” DS Dove replied, “They’re well known round here. Lived in the area for generations.”
Crow looked around. Yes, a pleasant suburb, hedges, trees, nice gardens, but a bloody murder could happen anywhere.
“We have a psychopath here, Dove. Kills for the pleasure of it.”
“Any ideas, Sir?” DS Dove hovered a few feet from the body. Mauled corpses weren’t on her usual list of daily fare.
“Don’t think it’s one of our local thugs. The way the body has just been left suggests someone from further afield.” Crow took a walk around the scene, looking more in hope than expectation for some further clue to the killer’s identity.
DS Dove was distracted by a call. She listened for a moment then appeared to flutter.
Crow narrowed his eyes at her. “What’s up, Sergeant.”
“There’s been another one, Sir. On the edge of town.”
“We’d better get over there. Perhaps there will be more clues. I’ll just make a call.”

The victim had been brought down in the middle of a field. There was more sign of resistance in this case. The victim was bigger and stronger and had put up a fight. The result was the same though.
“One’s not enough for this guy,” Crow said, surveying the field, “Insatiable, I’d say.”
Dove was standing a few feet from the body and DCI Crow. “But who is it, sir?”
“I think we’ll soon have an answer. It’s black and white to me, Dove, and you’re the white.”
Dove looked around realised that she was a white object in a field of recently tilled dark brown soil. She heard a noise, like wind, though the day was still. She looked up and the sun was obscured by a shadow. It wasn’t a shadow. She ducked.
Crow called. It was piercing screech. Dark figures emerged from the hedges at the edge of the field. They flew to the cowering white patch and dark shape circling it. The rooks mobbed the assailant, forcing it away from Dove. By sheer force of numbers, they subdued and restrained the suspect.
“Are you alright, sergeant?” Crow said offering assistance to his junior.
Dove shook herself and preened. “Yes, sir, fine sir.” She paused as realisation sank in. “You had me as a sitting duck, sir.”
“I’m sorry, Dove. It was necessary. I knew our killer wouldn’t be able to resist a target such as yourself; but I had the boys ready for him.”
“But who is it?’ Dove said, hurrying after Crow as he approached the huddled mass of the rooks.
“I think we know, don’t we?”
The rooks parted and Dove could at last see the murderer, her attacker.
“Got you, Buzz,” Crow said, crowing somewhat. “We’ve put a stop your murderous activity on our patch.”
“I’ll get you one day, Crow, then we’ll see who’s the top,” Buzzard tweeted his defiance and flexed his talons.

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Exams, again, and Magic

What to comment on this week? Another government U-turn creating a farce of the school exam results and again showing the government’s contempt for the young people of the country. Another scandal of government cronies given an untendered for contract to provide PR for Ofqual, while certain sectors of the pubic are distracted by asylum seekers struggling across the channel. Another Russian opposition leader, on his deathbed, probably poisoned. Another Trump paddy after being criticised by Obama and Kamala Harris while, apparently, trying to scupper the postal vote for the presidential election. So, no change there.

Back to the exam debacle. I can’t understand the exam authorities going along with Ofqual’s algorithm. It seems to go against every principle of education and assessment that teachers and examiners have followed during my career, i.e. concern for the individual student. To attempt to award grades on the basis of a rank order of students compared with the historical results of their school is so crass I can’t believe that anyone thought it would have popular support. If it was really Gove and Cummings’ buddies who encouraged Ofqual down that route, then it shows what idiots they are. Now we have a situation where results have been awarded on teacher predictions which as I noted last week are bound to be optimistic and inflationary. There was time for a more individual approach with thousands of retired teachers, like me, undoubtedly prepared to help with checking and moderation of school-assessed work

An exam is an opportunity for each student to show what they can do. Their work is marked individually (on-line these days rather than their actual handwritten answers). Samples are scrutinised and decisions made about grade boundaries. Only then is each examinee’s mark compared to the others in order to award a grade. If you have to have exams then that is fair. Perhaps a fairer system of awarding grades is to have teachers carrying out assessments continuously throughout a course, advising and encouraging their students before finally announcing an objective mark. There will always be doubts about the honesty of teachers providing the data but a system of scrutiny would solve that one.

The writing group didn’t meet last week so our pieces of “Cake” were held over to this week’s meeting in a surprisingly dry field, given the rain of the previous days. I was delighted by the response to my historical true fiction but I am scared about continuing because of the work necessary to create an accurate historical background. We’ll see. As we didn’t have a topic for this week I’ve hunted through the archives and found the piece below. You can guess what the prompt was.

A taste of magic

Once upon a time there were three witches. They were famed across the kingdom for their spells. There was Negra who was tall and slim with skin the colour of the night sky who had a temper that could snap at times. Then there was Blanche, with long hair that flowed over her shoulders and breasts and skin as pale as the moon. She was dreamy and languid. Lastly there was Milcha. To be frank she was a little plump and homely but her brown skin glowed with health and she was soft-hearted and jolly.
One day the King approached them in their remote cave. He had spent months searching the country for them until they at last allowed him to find them. The King got off his fine white horse and bowed before the three witches.
‘What is it you desire of us?’ Negra asked, looking down her nose at the kneeling King in his finery.
‘I have need of a Queen,’ he said, ‘to rule the country beside me, to be my companion in my bed and to raise my heirs. The King of the neighbouring land has a daughter who I admire and wish to woo, but she is aloof and rebuffs my appeals.’
The witches knew the King to be a strong but just leader, who allowed them to practice their arts without persecution. They were prepared to help him in his quest for a wife.
‘We will provide you with a gift which will turn the lady’s heart to you,’ said Milcha.
‘Return in one week and it will be ready,’ Blanche added.
The King expressed his gratitude, rose to his feet and rode away. The witches set to work, each with her own cauldron, heating, mixing, stirring, chanting. While their concoctions brewed they prepared moulds of gold in the shape of diamonds, ovals, pyramids and spheres. They also prepared a gift box of ebony, silver birch and chestnut. After a few days the thick, opaque liquids were ready to pour into the moulds and were then left to set in the cool recesses of the cave. At last the solidified gems were ready to place in the box. All was ready for when the King returned.
‘Here is the gift for your intended,’ said Negra, ‘If she takes a taste of my dark sweetmeats she will become a strong support for your rule and a bitter enemy of your rivals.
‘When she tastes the light treats,’ Blanche said, ‘she will be seduced by your charms and be a sensuous and passionate lover.’
‘And when she bites into the brown,’ added Milcha, ‘she will exhibit exquisite taste and wisdom in preparing a home for your children.’
The King took the box, thanked the witches wholeheartedly and rode off.

A year later the King returned to the witches. He dismounted from his horse and stood before them with a beaming smile on his face.
‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘Your gift has had the most wonderful result. I now have a wife who sits beside me on her throne as my Queen and joins me in passing judgement on the cases that come before us. In private she delights and entertains me and she has turned the palace into a place of happiness for our new-born heir.’
‘We are pleased that you have the result you sought,’ Negra said.
‘But something brings you to us other than your gratitude,’ Blanche observed.
‘Do you have another request to make?’ Milcha asked.
‘Why yes,’ the King replied, ‘there is something.’
‘Please tell us what it is,’ Blanche said.
‘My wife enjoyed your gifts very much but now they are all gone. She wonders if she could have some more, and she would like to share them with her friends, our courtiers and our guests. Do you think you could give us a regular supply?’
Clouds covered the face of the Sun and the ground shook. Trees burst into flames and smoke filled the air.
‘We are not engaged in industry,’ Negra roared.
‘We do not turn out our spells to order,’ Blanche shrieked.
‘Our gifts are not delicacies for general consumption,’ Milcha screamed.
Then in puffs of black, white and brown smoke the witches disappeared and were never seen again.
The king picked himself up from the ground where the earthquake had thrown him. He dusted himself down and looked at the cloudy sky which looked as if it might rain soon. All that was left to show that the witches had existed was a heap of unusual plant pods. The king picked one up and sadly climbed astride his horse. Slowly he made his way back to his palace wondering how he could tell his wife that her request had been turned down.
Soon the king was in despair. His queen argued in public with his every decision. She refused to share his bed, retreating to her own chamber whenever they were left alone, and the palace became dim and dusty while their son was spoiled by indulgent nannies. The king sent out messengers across the kingdom and beyond to search for the witches but they found no sign of them. He asked his advisors what could be done. Most shook their heads with nothing to say but the chief conjuror had a suggestion.
‘The secret must be in that strange seed you found at the witches coven,’ he said, ‘You should obtain more and find experts who can re-discover the recipe for the witches’ sorcery.’
The king agreed and sent out a proclamation urging his people to embark on the great quest. And so, from that day to this, across the kingdom and the whole world chocolatiers have sought the secret of the witches’ magic that entrances and excites with its taste. None have yet succeeded.

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Heat, exams and cake

After the winter floods and the hot, dry spring, we might have thought we’d had enough record-breaking weather for the year. Yet we’ve just had another exceptional period, a week of very high (for the UK) temperatures. When every year we surpass some previous peak in weather records we should realise that the most devastating problem facing the world is not the coronavirus, serious thought that is, but climate change. We have to move faster – in the correct direction. That means cutting fossil fuels, stopping deforestation, reducing meat production.

Nevertheless, the most striking instance of incompetence this week comes with the A level results (look out for similar news items about the GCSE results next week), foreshadowed by the Scottish results last week. I feel very sorry for all the students who were unable to take exams this summer and are wondering, not just what results they are awrded, but whether they will have any validity.

When schools closed in March it was always going to be difficult for exam boards to publish reliable results. This problem has been made worse by recent changes in the English (and Welsh?) exam system to place all the emphasis on terminal exams. A couple of years ago students at GCSE and A level would have had coursework and module marks which would have been a reliable indicator of final results. Gove dismantled that apparatus.

I don’t know how exam boards have fixed the results but all the talk has been of predicted grades. If that is all the exam boards used then it is no wonder that they had to reduce a large number of grades. Predicted grades are bound to err on the high side. Teachers are optimistic people; they hope their students will achieve the top end of what they are capable of. In deciding a predicted grade they are hoping everything we turn out just right for the student on exam day – they are feeling on top form, the exam questions suit them, and that the last few weeks of revision have produced the improvements anticipated.

The thing that I find absolutely barmy is the last minute decisions made by ministers. They have had five months to organise a robust system with the exam boards to ensure that schools in deprived areas were treated as fairly as those in affluent places. The announcement by Scotland that there was far more chance of a school in a deprived area having its grades cut was a PR disaster of criminal proportions. And for England to announce on the evening before results day that grades would not be less than mock results was startling in its ineptitude.

Whatever happens with this year’s results, I hope (without much confidence) that governments will realise that the risk of pandemics shutting schools means that an exam system based on terminal exams is a liability. A robust and reliable system of continuous teacher assessment is needed. Yes, I know such systems can be abused; I knew of teachers stretching the rules to the limit in previous coursework formats. Yet a fair system is possible.

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This blog has had little to do with Jasmine Frame for some time so I’ve decided to stop the Jasmine xxxx titles. There will be more about Jasmine when the fifth novel, Impersonator, is about to be published. Until then I will continue with the mix of comment on current issues and short bits of writing on whatever topic comes up.

Weather not good enough for this, this week

Writing Group in the Field, failed to meet because of overnight thunderstorms. Four of us did gather for a coffee but writing was not discussed. Nevertheless, a few of us did post our efforts on the theme “cake”. My piece can only be said to be on topic by virtue of the use of the term. It is a piece of historical fiction based on true events (well, sort of, I haven’t got exact details) and is a subject I’d like to write about if I ever felt confident about writing a real historical novel. So, this is just an excerpt, a scene, a hint of what could possibly be.

Saltcake

The pungent stench of the muriatic acid gas made Nicolas cough and splutter into the kerchief he held over his mouth and nose. He watched as old Giraud, the last of his trusted workers, pour vitriol from the demi-john into the vat with the salt, renewing the evolution of gas. Giraud wore a cloth soaked in soda over his face and clothes of sackcloth to protect his skin. He was drenched in sweat from the heat of the fires under the vats. As he put the glass vessel down, he was wracked with a cough.
“Merci, Giraud. Good job,” Nicolas said. Giraud carried on coughing. Nicolas took a glimpse into the vat. There was little liquid left and the pale grey mass of saltcake was all but ready for the next stage of the process. He hoped that this batch could complete all the stages by the next day though there were but a few sickly children to assist the old man. Nevertheless, if he could satisfy the orders he had for soda from the National Convention then perhaps they would release the prize which he had demonstrated many times that he deserved. But who knew what might happen in these troubled times?
There was a clatter of hooves on the cobbles of the yard. Nicolas left the shed to see who the visitor was. There was a sole rider but behind, brandishing pikes and wooden staves were a dozen of the sans-culottes.
Nicolas trembled. Had they come for him? Was he to lose his head like his patron, Phillipe Égalité? The former Duke had support for the Revolution but that had not stopped his visit to Madame la Guillotine
The rider drew the horse to a halt, the motley band behind him.
“Are you Leblanc?” the rider said without a formal greeting.
“I am.”
“You manage this manufactory,”
“I am its proprietor.” Nicolas felt the need assert his position.
“The property belonged to the traitor Égalité did it not.”
“Yes,” Nicolas said, “but it is leased to me to manufacture soda by my patented process for which I was awarded the prize from the Académie des Science.” Awarded yes, but not yet presented.
“Ah, the prize. Offered by the traitor Louis Capet.” The rider spat.
He was King Louis when the prize for a method of manufacturing soda was announced. Nicolas’ worries increased. Was the National Convention reneging on its promise to support his work?
“My process is successful,” Nicolas proclaimed, “and will provide the soda required by the revolution.”
“Indeed, it will, Citizen Leblanc,” the rider said. “You will make certain that it does, but this works is now under the control of the Committee of Public Safety. These fellows here will ensure that you maintain a supply of soda to fulfil the needs of France. I would not do anything to annoy them.” He pulled on the reins. The horse turned and trotted from the yard.
Nicolas faced the surly band. The least scruffy of them stepped forward and addressed Nicolas.
“’Aven’t you got work to do, Citizen. I don’t imagine that soda makes itself.”
Nicolas Leblanc sighed. Another obstacle in his path to deserved industrial glory. He re-entered the shed. Some of the sans-culottes made to follow him but the stench emanating from the works gave them second thoughts.
Nicolas covered his mouth. “Giraud! We have work to do. Dig out the saltcake.”

…………………………..

Jasmine fumes

Corruption is a blight on civilisation, on humanity, on our future. It was corruption (and incompetence) that allowed a couple of thousand tons of ammonium nitrate to be stored in a large city. Was the explosion in Beirut the largest non-nuclear man-made explosion ever? From the pictures it looks bigger than any bomb and bigger than any accidental explosion (though there was one in a Chinese port a couple of years ago that was almost as big). Anyone who has done any chemistry knows the dangers of ammonium nitrate. It is in plentiful supply because of its use as a fertiliser but less in demand than it used to be, which is a reason why it became stockpiled. That is not an excuse for the Beirut authorities allowing it to sit there for six years waiting for the spark. What I haven’t seen yet is the explanation fo the “fireworks” that ignited it.

Nevertheless, despite the horrific drama of the explosion and the aftermath for the Lebanese people, I wonder if it would have been the lead item on the main news if there hadn’t been those mobile phone videos. They were a bit like a found-footage film weren’t they, and we do like a good explosion in our action films. Unfortunately there are no superheroes to save the day, though there are plenty of real heroes in the emergnecy services who struggle to cope with every crisis.

I’m rambling here but the theme was corruption. We are sitting by while the most corrupt government of my lifetime, dishes out peerages, awards contracts to bogus companies (bogus in that they have no experience of doing the job they are contracted for) and seeks to alter the planning laws to allow their cronies to tear up more of the country and rip off local authorities and ordinary people. There are probably other examples.

Meanwhile Labour Party supporters are still fighting amongst themselves and raising funds to take to court their own fellows instead of focussing on regaining their wider support across the country.

Yes, I’m fuming. There is so much to build up a head of steam about.

Enjoying writing club in a field

My mind has been on chemistry this week. That’s what I’m writing at the moment – a commission so I won’t say anymore. It means there is little time for other creative thought. Nevertheless, Impersonator, the fifth (and last?) Jasmine Frame novel has gone off to the copyeditor. This is where she picks out all my grammatical errors but hopefully does not find too many logical or continuity errors.

This week’s writing club theme was “Letters”. We met in the field again, a warm but strangely damp morning. My piece was very quickly knocked out (that’s my excuse for its flaws) and I bent the rules by counting text messages as letters. However the setting is real; it’s where we went for our northern lights trip in February, though we didn’t see anything as dramatic. So here is Lights.

Lights

Text messages recovered from mobile phone found on hilltop in Enontekio province.
Thursday 3rd February 2022
16:22 Phil & Cath
Just arrived at the hotel on Fin/Swede border 350k above Arctic Circle!. Good flight. Took about an hour to drive here. Landscape white (snow) but dotted with trees. Sun was setting as we arrived so temperature falling fast. Down to -15oC already.

17:31 Bob
Glad you got there OK. Sounds cold. Have fun

Friday 4th February 2022
02:32 Phil & Cath
Wow! What an evening. Had dinner, pretty good, then orientation talk. Afterwards, short walk outside (-20oC) to collect our Arctic kit – one piece suit, boots. You can see what we look like in the photos. Took a walk with everyone up the hill to see the lights. Boy did we see them. Curtains, waterfalls, expanding globes of orange and green. The guide said he hadn’t seen better – a grade 5. It went on and on, across the whole sky. Quite dazzling. Finally faded about half hour ago. Time for bed. Early start in the morning – activities!

10.10 Bob
Amazing photos. You must be delighted.

17:56 Phil & Cath
Just got back from a brill snow mobile ride – motorbikes on skis. 2 to a bike, but I got to drive. We had a short practice then set off along the frozen river. Great fun though the cold air blasting your face at 30 mph hurts a bit. Dinner now, but then we’ve singed up to a small group taking the snow mobiles for a night trip into the hills. Hoping to get an even better view of the lights. Forecast is good.

18: 25 Bob
Exciting. Take care.

23:14 Phil & Cath Voice message Unsent
Not much of a signal up here but I hope you get this and the pics. We’re twenty miles from the hotel, it’s -28oC, and it would be dark dark if it weren’t for the aurora. Or is it the aurora? Steve the guide says he’s seen nothing like it. Started like last night – bright coloured moving patterns. Then they seemed to merge and out of the cloud of light came these shapes. Can they be natural, they’re too regular – tetrahedrons, cubes, octahedrons, other shapes. Flashing oranges, green, blue. They whizz across the sky but are getting bigger. Lower? There’s one coming straight for us.
Message terminated

Report of Finnish Army Taiga rescue team. 7th February 2022
Five snow mobiles belonging to the Northern Adventures holiday company were found abandoned on the hills north of Lake Uijajarvi. None of the nine riders was found. No tracks were observed to show that they had left the site. A mobile phone was found on the snow alongside one of the snow mobiles. Weather was good although some mist was reported overnight nearby. .Aurora activity was reported as being unexceptional on the night of the 4th February at observation sites thirty kilometres away. Reports in the text messages recovered from the mobile phone present a report of extensive but anomalous airborne activity. Photos seem to confirm this but are of poor quality
Conclusion is that the missing were disoriented by the lights, wandered from their vehicles and got trapped in deep snow. Their bodies may become visible in the thaw.

Enontekio Municipality, Police report. 27th May 2022
Re, Missing tourists
The rising temperature has allowed a further sweep of the Lake Uijajarvi area. No trace of the missing snow mobile riders has been found. Search terminated.

……………………………………..

Jasmine’s staying home

Well, we’re not going anywhere – not for a couple more months anyway. I expect a lot of people have made that decision now with the chaotic response of the Conservative government to hints of spikes in other countries while doing little to counteract similar occurrences here. The lack of forethought and planning is staggering. Johnson said we were heading back to normal, whatever that meant, but he is about to end the careers of many thousands in the travel and tourism business simply because his apology for a government do not and never have had a plan for a pandemic.

I suppose there are people out there who are heading to the pubs and restaurants and cafes. We’re not. I’ve sat outside one café once and visited a beautician for a quick bit of waxing. All precautions taken. But if there are lots of people like us, businesses are going to struggle – more thrown out of work.

I hate being a pessimist but I am struggling to see life improving for most people. Being retired, we are somewhat protected from the slump in jobs but there was talk earlier this week of taxes rising for the over 50s (?!) which I am not surprised at. There will be effects on all of us.

I’ve got a shorter piece for you this week. The main reason is that I’ve had less time for creative writing because I’m writing chemistry again. My resolve not to do any more educational writing was overcome by flattery (they wanted me) and money (the rate was appealing). I would have let younger, more needy writers take the work but apparently they weren’t there. OK, so that means the publishers were desperate which i’s why they got down to my name. The money’s still good though. Anyway, I’m committed for the next few weeks and I’ll be tearing my hair out (what’s left) with frustration, and then it really will be retirement from professional textbook writing.

Anyway, to this week’s effort. The theme was “code”, prompted by a conversation about a book concerning two Bletchley women. A story didn’t come to mind but the number and variety of meaning and types of code did, along with how they control our lives. So, here is The Coder.

The Coder

Sing a song, pluck a string, blow a note, beat that drum. Whichever score you follow you are playing my tune, for I am the Coder. All the laws and rules of the universe are mine.
From the moment of the singularity, my laws govern the conversion of energy into matter, the forces acting on particles, the shaping of space-time. The universe expands, stars ignite, planets coalesce. There, in a hot, mineral rich, vortex of water my next code takes form. From individual atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and more, complexity grows, life begins, diverse but following one set of rules; the double helix with the G, C, A, T ladder determining them all.
Microbe, worm, plant, fish, mammal, human, survival and reproduction determine their evolution. That’s the law. Consciousness, self-determination, identity, all thought – the exchange of ions in neurons follows my rules, the pinnacle of my coding. Codes multiply, liberating, constraining. The code of phonemes, words, grammar, language, and communication. Thoughts shared, ideas realised, progress, yes, dominance and exploitation too. Justice? A morass of moral codes, religious precepts, laws, and statutes, that govern, protect, stifle and discriminate.
Cryptography, ciphers, Morse, Enigma, they conceal communication but broken spread knowledge.
Binary, ASCII, the languages of machines. Electrons ordered, march in line, calculating, correlating, memorising, deciding. Neuron or transistor, which is greater?
Even your end is governed by my code. The law of the telomeres, capping your strands of DNA, marking the time to your demise. Like the slow decay of protons and the inexorable rise of entropy points to the end of the universe when even my codes will dissolve into the darkness, till the next re-writing.
Yes, I am the Coder. I write the patterns of all that exists.

Jasmine concerned for health

Has the BBC given up on news? The bulletins are filled with the Depp/Heard fracas and Johnson mouthing inanities while riding a dumper or stomping around Scotland. The important news is barely mentioned, for instance the vote in Parliament by the Conservative majority to remove any restraints on the inclusion of the NHS in trade agreements. Why is selling off the NHS an issue? After all it’s been happening for a long time.

It started with “out-sourcing” in the Thatcher era, i.e. giving contracts to private companies for “ancillary” work such as carparking, catering, cleaning, security, et al. It was done to save money, so they said. How did that work? Well, the bidding companies offered to charge less than the in-house work cost but they still had to make a profit for their shareholders. How did they manage it? By charging more (carparking, a cup of coffee), paying employees less (cutting pay or reducing numbers) and of course by cutting corners. The floors may look clean but the superbugs lurk in the untouched corners. The “deep cleans” mentioned during the pandemic mean a thorough going over not the everyday superficial wash and brush.

Then there was the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) beloved by Blair. Large private construction companies would build the hospitals and then charge a rent, a very large one, for decades. The NHS was saddled with huge bills into the distant future but there was another flaw. UK companies can’t wait ten years to turn a profit; they need it now! Remember Carillion?

Privatisation was Maggie Thatcher’s big idea for financing a bankrupt government. Sell off the nation’s assets – British Gas, British Airways, British Aerospace, British Steel, British Petroleum, British Rail, Royal Mail plus the electricity generators and distributors and the water boards. Of course all those businesses made things that people might want – fuels, travel, stamps, water. The big lie was that they would be owned by the British people. Yes, many people did buy a few shares in British Gas but they sold them on. The result, practically all those former nationalised industries are now owned by overseas shareholders and their profits go abroad. The Brexiteers want to take back control!

The NHS is the last and biggest asset. But how is it an asset when it costs £150billion a year, rising inexorably. Why buy into something that costs so much? Because we pay for it. Who wants to make cuts to health services? Who wants to be denied treatment for their ailments? No-one. We are used to having a health service “free at the point of use”. We pay for it with our taxes – National Insurance, Income Tax, VAT. It is a huge and never emptying bucket for greedy private companies to dip into over and over again. Foreign (i.e. American ) health companies will make bids to run parts of the service, maybe even whole hospitals, with the backing of the huge American health market behind them. Nevertheless, like those out-sourcing companies, they will take their cut for their shareholders and services for UK patients will deteriorate. No longer will the control be with the UK government but with the multinationals. Our health and survival will be in the pockets of foreign billionaires.

Another lovely writers’ meeting in the field this week, slightly curtailed by a brief sprinkle of rain. This week’s topic was “Company” or “Nice to see you.” I had little time for fiction writing this week but one image came to me which I wove the following piece of foolery around. It’s barely a story.

Company

The alien was standing on the dark garden path when I opened the back door. It was about five feet tall with a melon shaped head a little too large for its body and spindly legs and arms. A long-fingered hand held an object the size and shape of a cricket ball that glowed with an ever-changing pattern of greens and reds.
“Good evening,” the alien said, although the voice appeared to come from the glowing ball rather than its lipless mouth.
I was glued, rooted (any one of those clichés) to the spot, gripping the door in my hand, unable to flee in terror because my legs would not move.
“g…g..gug,” I replied.
“Ah, I see I have surprised you,” the alien continued in a soft, friendly voice. “That is not unexpected. It has been a while since we visited.”
“Y-you, you’re an extra-terrestrial,” I stammered.
The alien’s unblinking expression did not change. I wondered whether it could.
“I am not an addition. Oh, I see you were using the archaic extra’ to meanout of’. Well, yes, it is true, I am from out of this world.”
“Y-you c-can speak English,” I added.
The alien stepped into the light cast from my open door and lifted the glowing sphere. “That is thanks to this. I believe you call it an apple.”
Apple? It did look a little like an apple, but why call his translator after an earth fruit?
“Oh, you mean the computer,” I said beginning to feel less tense. It was almost as if conversing with a violet-skinned alien was an everyday occurrence.
“That is correct. It translates my thoughts into your speech, among other things.”
“And you’ve come on a flying saucer, I suppose.”
“I think my transit pod more resembles a cup and saucer in your experience.” The alien turned bodily and pointed with his spare hand. On the dark lawn was a dimly shimmering shape. It was indeed circular with a rimmed disc resting on my grass and a structure above it a little like a cup with a domed lid. It wasn’t very big; hardly room for more than the one alien, presuming it had engines and stuff.
“You’ve come a long way then,” I said thinking that I should be conversational.
“Distance is a variable concept. It depends which way you go.”
That was a bit philosophical and I realised that standing here on my doorstep conversing with a lone alien was somewhat ridiculous. Perhaps I should get to the nub of the conversation.
“What are you doing here? Do you want me to take you to our leaders?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I am just looking around, getting a feel for the place.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Company. Space is quite lonely you know. There are not many planets where you can go for a conversation.”
“Oh, I see. Well, why here, now?”
“I picked up your signals. You said it was over.”
“Over? What’s over.”
“Your lockdown. You said it is permissible to visit again.”
“But the lockdown was to stop us spreading the virus – to each other, not to, er, extra-terrestrials.”
“You have a virus?”
“I don’t, at least I hope not, but it’s still around, out there.” I waved may arm expansively.
“Oh, dear. It seems I have been mis-informed. I thought the ending of the lockdown was because you had ceased fighting each other over your limited planetary resources.”
I shook my head. “No, we’re still doing that.”
“In that case I must depart. I am sorry to have disturbed you.” The alien turned and teetered flamingo-like down the path.
“Nice to see you,” I called.
The alien lifted a hand in a wave as it disappeared into the ghostly craft.

……………………………….

Jasmine’s mixed feelings

On the one hand there were signs of things moving on. I don’t say returning to normal, because in no way were they that. I drove to a meeting, a first for four months. Normal? We sat scattered in a large room, 2m between us, so, no. I went to have my eyes tested. Normal? I and optician wore masks throughout (the lenses kept on misting up) and kept our distance, so no. Our writing group met in person. Normal? We were in a field, sat in a circle with 2m between each of us. Very pleasant on a warm dry day, but not the old normal. Shops, cafes, hairdressers are open but working with the new arrangements. It is lovely being out, seeing people, doing things but this is not the old normal.

Meanwhile the world becomes a more dangerous place. Tensions with China increase over Hong Kong and Trump’s perception of the danger they pose. On this one and only occasion he may have been right (although that’s not say he won’t chum up again with Xi). But if it is dangerous to keep working with Huawei what about the Chinese company building the Hinckley nuclear power station at huge expense, to us? The erratic US government with whom we are supposed to be making a favourable trade agreement acts as if it can order the world. The Russians stir up trouble my any and every means, and populist governments around the world feed the fears and prejudices of their followers.

The Johnson government flaps like demented chickens, not having the first idea how to cope with the continuing pandemic threat, the dramatically changed economic scene, or the nonsense of Brexit. Instead it does its utmost to justify itself, dispose of dissenters whether in their own party or in the civil service or look for ways to reimpose their dominance over the devolved nations.

There’s a lot to be worried about.

As I mentioned, the writing group met in person for the first time in four months, well, eight of us did. Hopefully a few more will join us in the field next week if the weather is fine. My pi9ece last week on “the Great Ourdoors”, which focussed on Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965 created a lot of interest. I hinted that Leonov’s problems didn’t end when he got back insdie the Voskhod 2 capsule. So this week’s topic was “Happy Landings” and I was asked to complete the story. So here, it is, the incredible tale of Voskhod 2. What comes out of the story is first of all how intrepid the cosmonauts were and, on this occasion at least, how lucky they were to get back alive. Also, there is the impression that Soviet Mission Control had little communication with the craft. Whether this was because of technical issues or to stop the West listening in to their conversation, I don’t know. Anyway, here is Commander Pavel Belyayev’s tale – in my words.

Happy Landing?

Alexei looked exhausted when he got back into his seat, with sweat running down his face into his suit. Our troubles were not over. First, the hatch distorted slightly while Alexei was trying to get back on board. At last we managed to secure it, and then I jettisoned the airlock. There were to be no more walks in space on this trip.
We spent the rest of the day making observations and preparing for our return. Just five minutes before our retro rocket was due to fire, Alexei spoke in his usual unemotional manner.
“The Automatic Guidance System is not functioning, Pavel.”
I made an instant decision: abort our immediate descent and switch off the Automatic Landing Program. We would stay in space for one more orbit and then orient the craft for re-entry manually. During the extra hour and half in space we received a call from Yuri Gagarin asking where we had landed. It was obvious that Mission Control had no idea where we were. I turned on my microphone.
“We had to turn off the automatic landing system. The engine is low on fuel so we can only make one attempt at re-entry.”
Alexei was busy scribbling with his pencil, calculating our new landing point.
“It’ll be close to Perm, just west of the Ural Mountains. Even if we overshoot, we’ll be safely in Soviet territory,” he said. As pilot I had to orient our craft for re-entry. Except that to do it manually I had to lie across Alexei to take readings out of our tiny window. It was a struggle getting back into my seat before the burn. If we weren’t in our seats when the rocket fired, we would be off-balance and our re-entry could have been a disaster.
There was a roar and the craft jerked. I started counting the seconds to when our spherical landing capsule would separate from the orbital module that carried the rocket and services. At ten, there was clunk but instead of falling freely we seemed be feeling drag. We began to swing wildly. The G-forces grew with the increasing friction of the air and the crazy spinning. My vision blurred as tiny blood vessels in my eyes burst.
“What’s happening?” I cried.
Alexei had a view out of the widow. “A cable hasn’t disconnected. We’re swinging with the orbital module like a bolas.”
The heat of re-entry was tremendous, but we had descended to a height of a hundred kilometres before the cable burned through. At last the spinning stopped but what had become of our planned line of descent I could but guess. I was relieved when a jolt told us that the landing parachutes had opened. Our radio was sending out an automatic signal as for a few minutes we fell with just the whistling of the wind through the parachute straps.
From the brightness of space things became dark as we fell through cloud. Our landing rocket ignited, slowed us some more and then there was a crash and bump. We were on the ground.
“Where do you think we are?” I asked.
Alexei shrugged, “The instruments show us two thousand kilometres east of Perm, but who knows?”
We could be in the depths of Siberia, I thought. We needed to get out to discover where we were. I flicked the switch to blow the hatch. The bolts went off with a bang and a stink pf gunpowder filled the capsule but the hatch didn’t move.
“We’re jammed against a tree in two metres of snow,” Alexei said, peering out of the window. There was only one thing to do and that was to rock the capsule until the hatch loosened. It took all our strength, but we succeeded. The draught of cold air was refreshing and very welcome.
We squeezed out of the hatch and dropped into the deep snow. We had come down in thick forest of birch and fir trees, the taiga, home of bears and wolves. Although we were almost at the spring equinox, the temperature was close to freezing. It was starting to snow. We climbed back into the capsule to keep warm but the heating had failed. Alexei’s space suit boots were full of the sweat he’d produced during his exertions. It was cooling rapidly.
We shivered till late afternoon when we heard a helicopter. We fell out of the craft and trudged through the snow till we came to a small clearing. The helicopter was hovering, but it wasn’t our search party. It was a civil aircraft. A passing cargo plane had picked up our radio signal and relayed it to other craft and eventually mission control. We could not be picked up just yet.
The helicopter couldn’t land and we couldn’t climb on board. Other aircraft arrived and dropped packages to us – a bottle of cognac that smashed, a blunt axe, clothes that got caught in the trees and two pairs of wolf-skin boots. By now it was getting dark and we knew we would not be rescued tonight. We had to get out of our damp space suits before we froze. Standing in the snow we stripped naked, wrung the moisture out of our underwear before putting it back on with the soft layers of our suits and the fur boots. We crawled back into the capsule and spent the night huddled together as the temperature outside fell to -30oC.
In the morning there was more air activity and a squad of skiers appeared through the trees. They were our rescuers bringing warm clothes and food. We enjoyed the feast but were disappointed that we wouldn’t be leaving just yet. They built a huge fire to warm us. Meanwhile a clearing for a helicopter in thinner forest nine kilometres from our landing site was being prepared.
Following a somewhat more comfortable night we skied to the helicopter. After a day in orbit and two days in the snow we were going home.

……………………………….

The true story of Voskhod 2: Commander & Pilot Pavel Belyayev, Navigator Alexei Leonov.

Bibliography
The Nightmare of Voskhod 2 by Alexei Leonov, Air & Space Magazine, Jan 2005 https://www.airspacemag.com/space/the-nightmare-of-voskhod-2-8655378/?c=y&page=5

Voskhod 2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voskhod_2#Spacewalk

………………………………

Jasmine for equality

First an apology. My scheduling went awry last week. The post went up on Friday by accident. I updated it to go live on Saturday as usual but it seems that regular followers didn’t get the anticipated notice. I’ve got no idea why, so I’ll do the PM’s trick and pass the blame, to WordPress – the new interface is simply more confusing and awkward than the old one.

As lockdown eases in leaps and bounds in England and by cautious steps in Wales, we see the growing problem of unemployment. It was bound to happen with businesses driven to the brink by lack of business, whatever the Chancellor did. It is worrying, as worrying as the possibility of spikes and second waves of the virus. We simply do not know where we, as members of the public, are headed. I would like to think that there are experts in economics, in business, in sociology, etc who are advising the government on how to manage the growing numbers of destitute families and the civil unrest that will follow. But I wonder whether this government has the brains to listen.

In sunshine, a year ago

I have grown a little irritated with some of my trans colleagues. It all comes down to what it means to be masculine or feminine or some blend of both. In recent years there have been a number of books by respected scientists, who happen to be women, that have torn apart the idea that men and women are as different as two species, or from two planets. Cordelia Fine demonstrated that hormonal differences between men and women are not as marked as people thought; testosterone is not king. Gina Rippon in, The Gendered Brain provided evidence that there is no such thing as a female brain or a male brain. It is impossible to sex a brain by looking at brain scans. While praising Rippon’s work, some transpeople still seek to rationalise their experience by suggesting that someday we’ll find that transpeople have brains (or hormonal histories) that resemble the gender they identify with. They appear to need this as justification for claiming to be real men or real women.

I’m sorry, that’s not how it works. You cannot turn Rippon’s findings on their head to find an explanation for transgender identity issues. More to the point they are not necessary. I think it is marvellous that recent scientific discoveries have found that we really are individuals. Brains are plastic and develop throughout lives in response to our experiences. Our feelings, emotions and sense of self do not just arise in our brain but are influenced by all our organs, plus the trillions of microbes that reside in our gut and elsewhere and even our bones play a part. All this adds weight to the argument that laws and customs that distinguish one group of people from another whether on the grounds of race or gender are misguided and wrong.

My feeling is that some transwomen want to uphold old stereotypes of what being a woman means. Then they can behave in that manner and prove that they are women. That antagonises some women who see those stereotypes as detrimental. Each side is angry at the other. The anger is misplaced and should be directed at those who want to pigeonhole people according to some inappropriate characteristic. People are people and everyone should have the right to live as they wish if it does not bring harm to others, and by harm I do not mean causing offence. Any offence someone feels is purely their own.

…………………..

The writing theme this week was “The Great Outdoors” because we hoped to meet outdoors – it rained. I thought, what could be more outdoors than space. So my piece turned out to be a companion piece to last week’s. Here it is.

The Great Outdoors

The outer hatch swung open and Alexei floated out. No, not floated. Floating implied a fluid, water or air, to provide buoyancy. Here he was surrounded by nothing. Nothing! A tug on his tether set him rotating slowly. He looked out on darkness, the black of space. There was nothing between him and the edge of the universe but stars. Not that he could see the stars. The filters in his visor, intended to prevent his eyes from being dazzled by the Sun, rendered the stars invisible. Still he could experience the vastness of space which was impossible inside the cramped Voskhod craft with its tiny window.
He felt motionless. He turned a bit more and the Voskhod 2 came into his field of view, itself appearing to hang stationary in the nothing. Intellectually he knew he was falling at sixteen thousand miles per hour, but this was nothing like skydiving. There was no air to push against his suit and he, like the space capsule, was in orbit. Turning further, the great bright globe of the Earth came into view. Beneath the brilliant whiteness of the clouds he could make out the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and across the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea. They were just starting their second orbit passing a little south of their launch site, Baikonur.
Pavel’s voice came over the radio from inside the craft. “It’s time to come back in, Alexei.”
Had ten minutes passed already? He was reluctant to give up his unique view of the expanse of space. There was at least another half hour of air in his backpack, but he knew he needed to keep a good safety margin and their orbit would soon take them into the freezing cold of night. There were things to do as well as get back inside. He must take some photos of the Voskhod in space.
There was a problem. He couldn’t bend or move his limbs sufficiently to operate the camera on his chest. He knew what had happened. With a vacuum outside his spacesuit, the air inside had caused it to expand like a balloon. It had become rigid. The photos didn’t matter, a bigger worry was getting back into the airlock which was only just over a metre in diameter. He was supposed to go in feet first, but he could not move his legs and arms sufficiently to manoeuvre himself into the correct position. He had to go in head first. The expanded space suit jammed in the airlock. He couldn’t turn to close the outer hatch.
There was only one solution, but it was a risky one. He could just reach the valve that would let air out of the suit. That was not supposed to be done in the vacuum of space. The drop in pressure would be like a diver rising too fast from the depths. Alexei may suffer the bends and lack of oxygen to his brain could cause him to black out. Nevertheless, he had to try.
Air vented into space until he was able to twist around. It was a struggle and many minutes passed but at last he pulled the hatch closed and locked it. Only then could Pavel fill the airlock with air and open the inner hatch. Overheated and drenched in sweat, Alexei Leonov finally pulled himself back into his seat beside Pavel Belyayev. They had another day and sixteen orbits to complete and a landing to achieve, but that was another nightmarish story.

Taken from Alexei Leonov’s account of the first spacewalk on 18th March 1965

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Jasmine finds the words

This week I am going to say a few words about words. Words that have been overused and misused during the coronavirus crisis to the extent that I tremble whenever I hear them. It won’t help get us through the coming years but it will do me good.

The first is unprecedented. No, I don’t mean it’s never happened before; that’s the first word. Almost every news item, particularly early in the pandemic and latterly when companies are justifying laying off a large percentage of their workers, it is used as an excuse for whatever is being suggested. It’s a catchall word which means that the speaker doesn’t have to supply any other explanation. Why didn’t the government have enough PPE? The unprecedented pandemic. Why is Airbus laying off a quarter of its workforce? The unprecedented economic crisis. Using the term, unprecedented, is the equivalent of throwing our hands up in defeat and doing nothing.

The thing is that the pandemic is not unprecedented. We have had pandemics before and warnings of them repeatedly in the last twenty years. Plans were even made to deal with them which governments failed to implement. Similarly there have been economic crashes before and while this one is huge, some economists have been warning of the failure of the world economy, particularly because of climate change, for a long time. All those billionaires out there who are so bright to have been able to make their fortunes in the first place should surely have been able to plan what to do in the event of a catastrophe. Perhaps they are, and their answer is to let the rest of us go to hell.

My second word is actually the one I have grown to fear the most recently and it isn’t necessarily COVID related. It is “potentially”. Potential is good. It has a scientific meaning which most people don’t understand but otherwise implies a capability which may be latent i.e. hidden. Writing tutors always say we should cut the adverbs and potentially is one that should be disposed of. It is used for any action or effect that could, should or may happen and is usually unnecessary. It is just added for emphasis or by reporters as a spacing word like other people use “fuck”. “A second COVID spike could potentially occur” No, it could occur, that’s all. It is used so often these days, that I cringe whenever I hear it.

The last one, for today, is a word that has become popular as the lockdown has eased, used by government spokespeople (actually almost always spokesmen) and especially the PM. It is “bubble”. We have been told that we can form a bubble with another household. Primary schools were told to form bubbles of up to fifteen pupils. Now the great plan for getting all schools back to full attendance in September is to form year group bubbles. That could be two to three hundred students in each bubble in large secondary schools. Apparently within the bubble students won’t have to social distance. That gets the government out of the problem that there isn’t room in classrooms for 30 pupils to be 2m or even 1m apart all the time. How the bubbles move around the school or manage at the beginning and end of the day or at break time and lunch time, I haven’t the foggiest idea and neither I imagine do headteachers. But the talk of bubbles ignores their properties. There are unstable. One puff or prick and they pop. Their contents are dispersed over everyone nearby. It is another example of this government’s delight in empty slogans and lack of any idea of what to do.

Time for some more words, carefully chosen ones put in a pleasing order. At least I hope so. This week’s writing topic was “Freedom”. The prompt was the increasing liberation from lockdown. But I didn’t want to do that. The word tickled at my memory. Wasn’t one of the American spacecraft called Freedom? It was, and here is the story of it. I wanted to make it a bit more SFfy and spiritual but I didn;t have the time and it didn;t turn out quite like that. So, this is it.

Freedom 7

The roar of the Redstone rocket ceased. Just two minutes and twenty seconds from launch and now he was coasting into space at over five thousand miles per hour. But he had no view enclosed in his tin can. There were no windows in this Mercury capsule. Two seconds later and a clunk signalled that the escape tower had been jettisoned. Another two seconds and another lurch. The craft’s own rockets gave him an extra kick pushing away him from the spent Redstone. Now he could peer through the eyepiece of the periscope and see the curve of the earth, the blackness of space above and the brilliant white of the cloud below.
The craft had its own rattles and buzzes and the thinning air still roared past, so it wasn’t a silent flight. A few more seconds and the capsule rotated automatically. Weightless, he was soaring into space bottom first but at least the heat shield was correctly aligned for re-entry. There was still over two minutes before he would reach the peak of his journey and there were things to do.
Shepard was the second person in space. Unlike Gagarin he was not going to reach orbit but merely loop beyond the atmosphere before falling into the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, he could do something that Gagarin was unable to do. The Russian had been little more than luggage on his flight, with no control over his craft’s path. Now Shepard was officially in space, more than sixty miles above the surface, he operated the manual controls, giving short bursts to the thrusters. He could alter the orientation of his capsule, rotate left-right, tip up-down, roll clockwise-anticlockwise. He was the first space pilot, free of earth’s gravity – for a few minutes. Back on automatic control the capsule settled into the correct attitude for the remaining period of freefall.
He peered through the periscope, seeing through the clouds to the American continent and the islands of the Caribbean, but was unable to distinguish the great cities of the eastern seaboard. Then the retrorockets fired. The capsule slowed a little and dropped more steeply. The periscope retracted and now he was enclosed again within his tiny craft. The thickening air caught the capsule, slowing it still more but heating up. The exterior of the heat shield under his seat began to glow red hot and burn away. The g forces built, briefly making him eleven times his normal weight. He didn’t black out.
The air roared, the capsule shook, and slowed. On time, the parachute opened and he fell more slowly towards the ocean. Freedom 7 was back on Earth.

Jasmine’s fears

With England’s lockdown hailed to end on July 4th (Wales will be somewhat later), perhaps its time look at what we’ve learnt and consider what the future holds. It is over three months since the UK entered lockdown, and six months since word of a new disease emerged from China. Personally, it hasn’t been an unpleasant period. The fine weather meant we have had lots of walks, losing most of my appointments meant more time for writing, and being retired meant that we had no financial worries (for the moment). In fact, thanks to not using the car for three months or going out, we’ve saved a fair sum. Neither have we suffered from the virus or had anyone close to us suffer serious ill-health.

That doesn’t mean that we are complacent. While we look forward to a loosening of the rules and the chance to meet up with family, the future appears foggy with heavy storm clouds looming. The mistakes of the last six months are yet to have their consequences. I have followed the weekly reports on the coronavirus in New Scientist magazine. These have covered the response across the world and the “science” of the virus and its associated disease. There are two points. One, a pandemic was expected and second, most governments had signed up to a pandemic protocol for concerted action. The problem was that many governments, especially the UK, took the risk that no pandemic would affect them and no government followed the protocol to the letter.

In other words, the government of the UK and many other countries, were unprepared, had no plan, were slow to react and were unable to understand the science. Scientists have learned a lot about the coronavirus and COVID19 but there is still an awful lot that is uncertain. How infective are child carriers? Do you acquire immunity if you are infected and for how long? How many people have been infected? What are the risks of infection from taking various actions? If the agreed protocol had been followed and countries had learned from each other, many of those questions could have been answered sooner, reducing the costs to everyone.

We now have the situation, in England at least, where most people think the crisis is over. Social distancing is in confusion – is it 2m, 1m, >1m, inside, outside, on the beach? How many families to a “bubble”? Can the contents of the bubble change every day? There will be second waves as there have been in China, South Korea, Germany et al. Perhaps they will be localised. Who knows? Certainly not the Johnson government.

The economic repercussions will be as bad as the disease itself and perhaps cause as many deaths except they won’t be reported as such. There will deaths from the mental health problems caused by isolation and redundancy, deaths from diseases left untreated, deaths from increased poverty and maybe, deaths from unrest and increased crime caused by unemployment. Yes, there are storm clouds ahead.

Last week it slipped out that the Johnson government is not proceeding with the consultation on gender self-identification, i.e. the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is not being amended. First, I’d like to point out that the Act is still in operation so transmen and transwomen who have received a Gender Recognition Certificate are legally men and women respectively. No argument. The problem is the rights of the many thousands of other transgender people who have not or do not want to meet the requirements of the act. Neither the 2004 Act nor the 2010 Equality Act protects transgender or non-binary people from discrimination and prejudice if they have not acquired a GRC.

It should be simple. It should be a basic right to be the person you identify as. Gender should be eliminated from the laws of the land and everyone treated equally. This doesn’t mean that there should not be help for pregnant women for example. As far as the law and provision of care and benefits is concerned their characteristic is being pregnant not that they are female.

There that’s said.

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The theme for writing group this week was inspired by the news of the death of Vera Lynn. Vera was the topic. We had a variety of tales and memoirs which as usual were very varied. Here’s mine inspired by Vera’s visit to Burma in 1944.

Forces’ Sweetheart

My mind was foggy when Nobby burst into the tent and announced there was going to be some entertainment. I can’t say I felt up to joining the poker circle. Snap was about all I could manage after our last patrol up the hill. I’d picked up a nick from an enemy bullet and had a touch of the fever that we all got from time to time.
“Not another card game. I already owe you all my pay for the next year,” I said turning over on my camp bed. I just wanted to stretch out close my eyes and dream of a cool beer and a bath.
“Come on Sid, you’ll want to see this. It ain’t cards, it’s a performance.”
It seemed Nobby wasn’t going to let me be. “What is it? Those three gunners dressed up as the Andrews Sisters. They look good enough to kiss, but I hope they’ve learnt to sing now.”
“Na, Sid. It ain’t them. It’s the lass from home. The forces’ sweetheart. You know ‘er.”
“She sings those sentimental dirges. Leave me alone.”
“Aw, come on, Sid. Everyone’s going. It’ll cheer you up.”
“What, one girl singing to five hundred knackered tommies.” But, Nobby had pricked my interest. No one else came out from home to entertain our forgotten army, so it said something for this girl to make the effort.

Nobby managed to get us in a few rows from the front, so at least we had some chance of hearing. She’d brought her own pianist with a small battered honky tonk that had gone out of tune and they gave her a microphone connected up to the camp loudspeakers powered by a couple of truck batteries.
After the customary shouts of “ger off” when the CO made his welcoming speech, she stepped onto the makeshift stage. There was a roar which the enemy must have heard up in the hills. She was a vision of an angel, to my tired eyes anyway. Her blonde hair may have been flattened by the sweat and the humidity, but her face and long legs were still a few shades closer to white than our burnt hides. She was wearing khaki in an imitation of our uniform but who cared what she wore. When she opened her mouth and let her voice take flight, well it silenced the lot of us.
Yes, the songs were poignant and nostalgic, and we probably all suffered homesickness, but don’t we always. She soon had the lot of us joining in the choruses and we sounded like we were all together for once. I thought of home. Were Mum and Dad still hanging on through the blitz? How was Dick doing in Africa? Was Betty still waiting for me or had she fallen for one of these GIs that everyone said were over there now.

I slept well that night. Perhaps a good sing is good for you. There were still the dreams of course, well, nightmares, but I dreamt of this pale angel with the soaring voice who had come to encourage us towards the end. It was the end for some of course. Nobby bought it on our next patrol. I’ll miss him but I’ll get to keep my pay.

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Jasmine hopes

Education, Education, Education. That was a certain politician’s slogan over twenty years ago. He was right. Education can be the solution to many of the world’s ills. Now, and not for the first time, Black Lives Matter are calling for black history to be a significant part of the curriculum. They think it will eliminate racism. While their request is right I think they are being over hopeful of the effectiveness of schools. Whenever there is a social issue, the call is for it to be made part of the curriculum – black history, female history, LGBT history, religious tolerance, climate change and many more. All to be made part of the learning of every child. Perhaps you can see the problem. Schools have a limited time with students. Yes, part of a school’s job is to open a child’s eyes to the people and the world around them, but the school also has to give the pupil the skills and knowledge to go out and make a life in the world. There is only a limited time to study the speeches of Martin Luther King or the life and work of Mary Seacole. In fact in the English system only a minority of students study history at all after the age of 14. History prior to that is a whistle-stop tour (or perhaps it is more up to date to say a cruise) of the ancient world, the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxons (i.e King Alfred), the Vikings, the Normans, the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorians and perhaps the Industrial Revolution. Older pupils may study the world wars, the cold war, China. It is all very superficial. I don’t hold out much hope that a school study of black history will get very deep.

On the other hand, the emphasis of education should move from being white European and, in the UK, focussed on the “victories of England”. I was educated in Wales and we did have Welsh history as a minor part of our history O level (showing my age there). However, the bulk of the history I was taught was English history – kings, queens and English prime ministers. Even the colonisation of Wales by the (Norman) English was told from the English point of view. Today, tourists marvel at the dozens of impressive C12th and C13th castles that ring Wales. Imagine what their effect must have been on the Welsh inhabitants at the time – at least as intimidating as the appearance of regiments of redcoats with their muskets and cannon in India, Africa and elsewhere. Where should the reassessment of history begin?

Attitudes have to change everywhere. It has been said often enough, that no one should be selected for good or ill by their colour, gender, or sexuality. Nevertheless, while schools have an important role, parents, governments, employers, and communities must examine their attitudes and behaviour and ensure that all forms of prejudice and discrimination are eliminated.

Oh, and another thing. Saying sorry is pointless. I note that the Bank of England, the Church of England, et al are saying sorry for taking part in the slave trade. Just saying sorry is a cop out. As a teacher, I would not accept the mouthing of the word without a commitment to a change of attitude and behaviour and a eagerness to put things right. Didn’t always work of course, but saying sorry with nothing more is meaningless.

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Last week I was invited on Facebook to sigh a petition demanding that the UK government restore rights to transgender people. Now, I know that there are members of the government who are not friends of trans people and it was confirmed this week that Johnson has binned the consultation on easing the path to obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate, but I was not aware that any of the laws protecting trans people had been rolled back. I asked what rights the petition was asking to be restored. I got a single sentence reply referring rather vaguely to the dignity of trans people. The petition was a vague, misguided attempt to gather support. I was also deluged with a heap of other stuff from trans activist groups.

I am trans. To be precise I am gender-fluid. I believe that if someone says they are a woman they are a woman, if they say they are a man they are a man. I don’t believe that giving transpeople the right to be who they say they are has done or would do any harm to the rest of society. Claims that letting transwomen into women’s “safe places” would result in assaults on women are bogus and inflammatory. However, both sides in the “trans wars” are as bad as each other in using intimidation, lies and exaggeration to promote their cause. In this time when discrimination is top of the news, it seems strange that on the one hand transpeople are being villified while responding with vile and incendiary attacks on those that do not support them.

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Writing proceeds. I have completed the last (I hope) revision of The Pendant and the Globe and I am midway through the second edit of Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel. I think I am doing a reasonable job of tightening up the writing and making most of the changes suggested by my readers. Soon we will move to the publishing stage.

This week’s writing group task was suggested by what I did last week – a dialogue only piece, no description, no speech signifiers. I didn’t write a new piece but took a short section of Pendant and Globe and stripped out all the non-dialogue. Could the characters be distinguished by their voice?

There are two ways of writing dialogue. You can tell readers who is speaking by using “he said” or by giving hints – “she took a breath”. Or you can show by giving each speaker personality – dialect, idiosyncratic phrasing (think Joda) or slip in words which signify who is speaking. I think it is impossible to convey tone or timbre without description but many writers have the skill to give each of the characters an unique voice although too much dialect is irritating. It is a skill I aspire to but haven’t yet acquired as you can see from my excerpt from P&G. There are 3 speakers, the third joins partway through. Can you tell where?

The Pendant and the Globe – excerpt, dialogue only

“I have prevented the disasters you set in motion.”
“You accuse me?”
“Yes, I do. Your foolish and ill-considered meddling with the Pendant nearly brought destruction to the coast of Keyah, the plains of southern Nyumbani and the forests of northern Adre.”
“I didn’t mean . . .”
“I don’t have time to argue. There is a greater danger than that which your childish behaviour caused.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jabutsk.”
“I do not know the place.”
“A city of Homin in eastern Yazhou.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“I don’t believe you. If your Tomte friends have been training you to steal the Pendant and use its powers, you must know what they have been planning with the Homin of Jabutsk.”
“No. Torn talked of a diversion while I became familiar with the Realms, but he did not give me details. What are these Homin of Jabutsk doing?”
“Attacking their neighbours with war machines such as have never been imagined. Metal monsters that crawl over the ground spurting fiery death, and machines of the air that rain destruction on the innocent below.”
“No, Torn would not envisage such a thing. You were the only enemies that were mentioned to me. The Tomte would not harm Homin.”
“Do not be so sure of your mentor. I sense great disturbance in that area of Yazhou. Activity that was hidden from me previously.”
“I have seen the machines of Jabutsk slaughtering Veterhom, destroying the homes of Homin and killing those that fled. Homin are inquisitive and inventive but the materials used in the Jabutsk machines must have come from the Tomte mines and manufactories.”
“No, I don’t believe you. Torn warned me about the lying and cheating of Eminent. The Tomte would not help Homin to harm Homin.”
“You foolish girl. Why would we lie to you? You are nothing without the Pendant or the Ostung sword.”
“My sister does not lie. You have no power and cannot harm us. But the Tomte who have filled you with hate since your birth have brought war to the Homin. I will show you.”

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Jasmine adds her voice

The Black Lives Matter protests in many UK towns and cities, as well as across the USA, is obviously the news of the week. I detest all discrimination whether it is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or aimed at those with non-standard aptitudes (know what I mean?). It is not a competition to find which group faces the most prejudice but non-white ethnic groups together make up the largest minority in the UK, after women, and so receive the most abuse. The protesters should be targeting the Trump and the Johnson government to introduce measures to eliminate discrimination in the police force, education, health service, welfare system etc. Instead, in the last week, the protests have been diverted to focussing on people who are dead and gone. (I’d loved to know who initiated the statue campaign; I bet it’s not the leaders of the BLM movement). Images of the toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol resembled the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Lenin in the former Soviet Union, and the Taliban blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan. Nothing good came of any of those photo opportunities.

I’m not a fan of statues. Most of those I see in my home town are forgotten figures who have lost their context. I wonder what people will make of the statues of Gareth Edwards, Eric Morecambe and Victoria Wood in a hundred years, lovely people though they are/were. Bronze lasts longer than memories. Statues represent people and times that are gone. You can’t change history but we can use a knowledge of history to influence our futures. Thus, while I don’t see why streets and parks should be littered with effigies of Edward Coston or Margaret Thatcher, et al, they should be in exhibits visited by all which give a true and comprehensive story of our past.

Making a fuss about Colston is a bit like blaming the Holocaust on the owners of the German railways. Colston was just one of hundreds or thousands of white men to make money out of slavery. The fact that he gave a lot of it to his home town doesn’t justify him but does explain why he got a statue. I am no historian, but my understanding of British history is that the growth of Britain as a major trading and industrial nation between the late C17th and the late C19th had the slave trade at its base. Hardly a person in Britain was untouched by its influence, from the workers in the shipyards building the slave boats and the warships guarding the trade lanes to the workers in the cotton mills spinning American slave picked cotton. Today if you wear cotton (most likely produced by wage slaves paid a pittance in the far east), have jam on your bread and butter, drink coffee, or smoke a cigarette, you are commemorating the heritage of slavery. If you visit the Tate Modern or, probably, any National Trust stately home you are participating in the fruits of slavery.

Can every white Briton or American atone for the sins of their ancestors? No. When Nelson Mandela took power in South Africa he didn’t ask for atonement for the evils of apartheid. He sought truth and reconciliation and asked all the citizens of South Africa to work together to build their future. We must do the same in the wider world to give all peoples freedom from prejudice.

I am not going to say much about J K Rowling. I haven’t read all that she has said about trans people. What little I did hear revealed that she has no idea what being trans means and is exceptionally muddled by her own experiences which seem to have nothing to do with transgenderism at all. Perhaps she should read some of my Jasmine Frame books (I’ve read most of hers) to get something of an insight.

This week’s writing theme was “a change in the weather”. I decided to make my piece an exercise in dialogue (or rather trialogue). Does it work?

A Change in the Weather

“Weather’s not so nice today is it, Poppet.”
“I don’t care Dad. It’s just fantastic being out of the flat and meeting up with you guys.”
“That’s right, love. Don’t be a misery guts, Gerry. The children don’t care. Look at them splashing in the puddles.”
“First chance they’ve had to run around in weeks, Mum. They’ve probably forgotten what outdoors is.”
“Well, all I was saying is that it’s not like a week or so back when it was wall to wall sunshine.”
“Thank goodness, Dad. Can you imagine what it was like in our flat in that hot weather. The windows hardly open a crack. It was sweltering. Self-isolating for a fortnight was hell.”
“How is Tom, dear? Has he got over it?”
“Well, Mum, what do you mean by got over it? Yes, he’s stopped coughing all day and all night but he’s not right. Says he has these weird aches that come and go, and it still feels like he’s got an elephant on his chest. Mind you if it was an elephant, he wouldn’t be breathing at all.”
“At least he didn’t end up in hospital, Poppet.”
“It was close, Dad. There was one night; the kids were asleep in their room and I was trying to get some rest on the sofa. Tom was coughing so loudly I couldn’t sleep. I almost rang for an ambulance. I called to Tom, but he said no, he didn’t want to go to one of them places where everyone was dying.”
“How did he manage, you know what I mean love, shut up in the bedroom?”
“How do you think, Mum? He used the potty that Rowan has just stopped needing and we swapped it for his meal tray. For a couple of days, then I let him use the bathroom.”
“Well, he’s passed the worst, Poppet.”
“I hope. I feel guilty that I might have given it to him. I had that sniffle before he got it. What if that was the virus? They say you can be infectious without feeling ill at all.”
“You couldn’t help it.”
“Couldn’t I, Dad. Perhaps if we’d kept things cleaner. Actually, that’s another thing. Tom seems to have a gone OCD. Constantly cleaning stuff. He even uses a wipe on the remote if one of us touches it. He’ll probably go into full chem warfare mode when we get home and push the three of us into the shower with our macs still on.”
“How are the children managing, love?”
“You mean apart from getting stir crazy, Mum. In fact, home-schooling has had its good moments. Cherry decided she would be Rowan’s teacher and she does like they do at school and packs everything away when they finish.”
“A Little Miss Tidy, eh, Poppet.”
“I don’t think Cherry would go with Little Miss, Dad. It’s a bit gender specific. Boys have to tidy up too, you know.”
“Hmph, yes of course. Oh, damn, it’s coming on to rain again. Where’s global warming when you need it.”
“Right here, Dad. Didn’t you notice the hottest, sunniest spring on record?”
“Yes, well, I could do with a little bit of Mediterranean weather right now.”
“Just because you can’t have your trip to Spain, Dad. Weather’s not climate, you know. Anyway, I don’t think any of us will be getting holidays this year.”
“Oh love, the lockdown may not last much longer. Perhaps you and Tom and the children can get away to the seaside.”
“And how will we afford it, Mum? Tom’s been furloughed from the cinema but even if he’s fit to go back to work there may not be a job for him. I don’t suppose I’ll get my few hours a week at the café back either.”
“Well, you’re always welcome to stay with us, Poppet.”
“If Tom will leave the flat. He’s scared of the second wave.”
“Why’s that love. He’s immune now, isn’t he?”
“That’s what I thought. But he heard this podcast which said there’s no proof that having COVID makes you immune, and even if it does it may not last more than six months. He doesn’t want to go through it all over again.”
“Oh, love, that would be dreadful. What is happening to us?”
“I don’t know Mum. It’s not just the weather that’s changed.”

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Jasmine shakes her head

PM urges global unity to beat virus” is one of this week’s ironic headlines. This from a PM who has done more than most to create disunity over this and other issues. If there had been global unity six months ago with countries following WHO guidelines along with the pandemic strategy agreed years before, we would not be looking at the disaster we have now – not just the number of deaths but the economic disruption of billions of people’s lives. Instead the PM lazed about for a couple of months ignoring what was happening in countries as close as Italy and France, until it was too late to do anything other than keep everyone who wasn’t a keyworker in their homes. And yet I hear people say “Oh, no one else could have done anything different.” Oh, yes they could. But you can’t change the past. What can we do in the future? There are some excellent suggestions about rebuilding the economy around green pledges but all I see is the government fumbling and stumbling towards its Brexit deadline – for what?

This week there was almost too much news – most of it depressing. A racist President stoking unrest aiming to get the white majority on his side; horrifying pictures of the 8 minutes in which a man was murdered in public by police (I don’t think such a thing would happen in the UK – I have more faith in the training of UK police officers); Parliament reduced to a queue and a laughing stock – another nail in the coffin of UK democracy; and the beginning of the end of semi-independent Hong Kong.

Oh, and I was right last week. In the news this week, warnings of low reservoirs and possible drought measures. Apparently everyone stuck at home is using more water than usual – all that hand washing.

Let’s move on from the news. I’ve had a good writing week. First of all a big thank you to the readers of my draft Jasmine Frame novel, currently called Impersonator – a murder case and trans characters. I am delighted that the response has been encouraging. Now I can get on with the next version incorporating the points raised. I have been following that procedure with the fantasy novel, The Pendant and The Globe that I completed before Christmas – it’s now just about finished – again. Can I get it published?

This week’s topic for writers’ group was “shoes”. I had germs of ideas about rocket boots, footprints on the Moon and so on, but the picture that stuck in my mind is the one at the start of the piece below.

Shoes

There were dozens of pairs of slippers and sandals of traditional style and manufacture, a scattering of worn trainers, their logos symbols of the modern world, and a few smart leather brogues, imported at great expense by those with the cash to show off. They were lined up on the steps at the entrance awaiting the return of their owners. They would remain unclaimed. The air was filled with dust and smoke with the stench of burned flesh.
Trucks arrived disgorging soldiers in a motley variety of uniforms, their heavy boots thudding on the dry, hard earth. They struggled to form a cordon around the mosque but already there were hundreds of people, many barefoot, crawling over the heap of rubble. Wailing alarms announced the arrival of white vans with red markings. Medical orderlies with plastic bags over their light plimsolls dived from them and ran into the smouldering ruin. Ignoring the bodies and bits of bodies they searched for the living to assist and the dying to comfort. The soldiers remained outside, wary, expecting a second explosion; one strike was often followed by another.
Gwen Parry tightened the laces of her steel toe-capped safety shoes, pulled up the zip of her flak jacket and placed her helmet with its large PRESS sticker on her head. Ignoring the last dregs of her thick, sweet coffee she picked up her camera and joined the crowd moving towards the site of the atrocity.
Gwen elbowed her way between the crying people and evaded the soldiers trying to hold them back. She stood before what used to be the grand entrance to the mosque. Despite the sirens, the shouted orders and the wail of the crowd behind her, the scene before her was quiet. The rescuers were silent, pausing frequently from moving the lumps of concrete to listen for the faint cries of the trapped. Few came.
She took a few wide-angle shots to record the general scene of destruction, but Gwen did not venture into the carnage. Her audience would not want to see blood, shit and gore. Then she noticed the shoes. By some fluke of physics, they had been untouched by the force of the explosion which caused the building to collapse. They still rested in their neat rows. The uniform patina of grey dust made them appear like some modern work of art, a monument to the dead. She moved along the rows videoing in close-up, picking out the various styles, the state of wear, the sizes that reflected the age and wealth of their male owners. She wondered if there was a similar image to symbolise the female victims.
There was a pair of trainers, gold canvas just visible through the dust. Gwen knew those shoes. They belonged to a youth, a talented basketball player. She’d interviewed him once in a café when he had told her of his dream of escaping to the US to play professionally amongst his heroes. How many other owners of these shoes had she met during her weeks based in the town? The old men who played interminable rounds of their traditional gambling games at the street-side cafes; the wealthy owner of the block of flats in which she was billeted; the teenage boys kicking a deflated ball down the dusty streets. No young men, of course, they were all in the militia, no doubt vowing vengeance for this and previous attacks.
Gwen glanced down at the ground and saw her own footwear was as grey and dust covered as the men’s shoes. The dust of the dead.

Jasmine cries (with laughter or pain?)

After another week of (not unpleasant) lockdown with the coronavirus still the main item of news, the most unavoidable talking point is of course Cummings. I was even driven to write a piece on Facebook. I will be frank. I am biased. I don’t like Conservatives, I don’t like Johnson and I don’t like Cummings. I think Cummings’ influence on the government, and to some extent the voters, of this country in the last few years is malign and deeply worrying. However the revelations of the last week have been eye-opening.

I had thought of Cummings as an evil genius (I’ve watched too many James Bond and crappy SF films) controlling his minions in No.10. However the story of his race to Durham and side-trip to Barnard Castle as well as having the hint of farce reveal him to be a sad and pitiful creature. His arrogance, pig-headedness and manipulativeness at every level are signs that he is insecure, angry and not very bright. It is indeed sad that with his wife ill, he could turn to no-one in London for help and felt forced to make the midnight dash up the A1. The account of his eye test is beyond ridiculous. I don’t care whether the Durham Police think he’s broken the law or not, he has in multiple ways gone against the word and the spirit of the lockdown rules. He moved someone with COVID symptoms from their place of self-isolation. He did not separate himself and his child from his wife within their home. He made unnecessary journeys, at least twice and he left his home himself when he should have been in quarantine. I do not recall any part of Johnson’s letter to every household saying that government advisors need not follow the rules of lockdown. Stay home was the first and principal injunction.

Johnson said it was instinct for a father to protect his family. Perhaps it is, but instinct is not always the correct response to a threat. In this case Cummings put his family at risk but enclosing them in a car for over 4 hours, he risked taking the virus to a remote part of the north-east, and he endangered life by driving while possibly unfit. The science of the lockdown rules was intended to provide an alternative to instinct that would reduce the peak of infection and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed – it was proved correct.

As well as Cummings’ attempts at justification making him a laughing stock and marking him out as a selfish manipulator it also appears that he re-edited an old blog to make it seem that he predicted the pandemic. Two points. First many scientists have been predicting such a thing while SARS, MERS, swine flue, bird flu etc have given us warnings, so Cummings was not prescient. Secondly, if he had thought a pandemic was on the way then in his position he could have done something to prepare for it. Instead the government which advised even ignored its own simulation exercise. That makes him culpable for the disaster of the 50,000+ deaths – if he hadn’t fraudulently fiddled with his blog.

So we are left with a picture of a frightened, stupid man who somehow has a hold over a scared, stupid prime-minister surrounded by dim fools for ministers. Cummings may be dangerous, following the script of past dictators with the aid of modern technology. The question is can he remain the wizard behind the curtain of Johnson’s flannel while being the butt of many comedians’ jokes?

The weather has been gorgeous, again, this week although I am waiting for the drought notices to appear (would that be a record – from flood to drought in 3 months?). We’ve had some lovely walks as the photo shows, but the writing goes on. Jasmine Frame 5 is out with readers and I look forward to receiving their comments. Meanwhile I have returned to my earlier fantasy novel, revising, editing and dealing with comments made by the readers.

The writers’ group theme for this week was “deadwood” which just happened to be the title of a story I wrote nine years ago, inspired by a dead tree on the Croft estate near Leominster. It is a little longer than usual. Here it is.

Deadwood

It was summer when I first saw the tree. It stood alone in the field with the surrounding woodland a couple of hundred metres away. It was dead of course, its bark stripped away and the wood bleached white by sun and frost. Yet it stood firm and had withstood spring gales and autumn storms; its roots had obviously not yet been rotted away. It retained a power in its size and symmetry from its thick trunk and broad boughs to its bifurcated branches. Leafless, the tiny twigs formed a fuzzy corona, an indeterminate boundary.
Mid-winter had arrived when I returned. I had to call in the gift shop at the nearby stately home. As I walked from the car-park I glanced at the tree. The low Sun shone over my shoulder but to the north the clouds were dark and forbidding. The tree glowed in the feeble winter light. I took out my camera – I carried it always for such eventualities – and began snapping. I crossed the field to stand before the tree. No grass or other plants grew beneath it; the earth was dry and powdery. For some reason it did not seem simply dead, but waiting, for what I did not know. The light disappeared as the Sun was obscured by cloud and the tree became a dark shadow of itself. Drops of rain began to fall on my head and I retreated.
Later that evening I decided to download the photos from my camera. I was amazed and intrigued. In each picture the tree was surrounded by a halo of white light. Was it some atmospheric phenomenon? Perhaps the sunlight from behind me had produced an effect like a rainbow in the moist air surrounding the it. But why had I not seen the glow when I was standing there? How did the halo appear in each photo regardless of how far I was standing? I was gripped by a need to confront the tree, to explore further.
Despite it being late, I pulled on my boots, grabbed a coat and scarf and stepped outside. The weather had changed. The cloud had been swept away leaving the sky clear and the temperature was plummeting. As I travelled along the country lanes the road sparkled in my headlights revealing the frost that was already forming. Puddles left by the earlier rain were freezing over. I made sure that I drove carefully and didn’t skid on any ice patches.
The car park was deserted of course but I locked the car when I got out and carefully picked my way in the darkness towards the field where the tree stood. There I stopped and gasped. The whole tree was bathed in white phosphorescence. I looked into the sky. There was no moon to cast such a glow but the clear sky was filled with stars. With no nearby cities to wash away the starlight with light pollution the night sky was as it should be. But surely starlight could not be causing the tree to appear so radiant.
I picked my steps carefully over the rabbit-burrowed field until I stood before it. If anything, the glow seemed brighter closer up and came from every bough and branch. I stepped under the canopy and found myself encircled by light. I approached the trunk and placed a hand tentatively against it. It was cold, colder than the freezing night air, so cold that I could feel the heat flowing from my hand into the wood. I wanted to withdraw my hand but found that I no longer had the will to do so. I took a step closer and pressed my other hand to the bark. Without lifting my hands from the smooth but freezing surface I slid them around the trunk until I was hugging it to me. Even through my coat I could feel the heat being drawn from my body and yet I did not shiver.
It was not my intention to do so but my head was drawn to the trunk until my lips touched the wood. It was like kissing frozen metal. The moisture on my lips froze binding me to the surface. I was immobile.
Now I sensed the tree was not still. Although there was no wind, there was a trembling in the branches around me. The vibration came from within the trunk not from the air around it. It was like a fluid flowing swiftly along a pipe, little eddies and vortices transmitting the turbulence as a rumble. The trembling grew in intensity, became the crashing of waves against a cliff. It felt as if the trunk itself would be blown apart by the force of the fluid it contained but still I was held by my hands and lips. Then it seemed that the rushing was within me that I had become part of the tree. From the tips of my toes to the top of my head I was shaken and buffeted.
And then? Well I’m not sure what happened. I was flung away from the trunk with a great force. When I hit the ground I was stunned and may even have been knocked unconscious. When I came to my senses I found that I was lying on the grass outside the circle of overhanging branches. The glow had gone from its branches and now they looked dark against the night sky. Nevertheless, I could see that the trunk had been rent in two. A massive crack split it from where the trunk divided into the boughs down to the ground. I was worried that the tree might fall on me so I retreated. I looked back over my shoulder a few times but there was just a silhouette of the ruin. I drove home shivering, feeling colder than I had every done before. It took all night for my body, wrapped in my duvet, to recover its inner warmth.
Next morning it was raining again, the sky overcast and grey. I drove back out to see the tree. A small group of people were gathered in the field, a short distance from it. Some were talking to each other while others pointed to it. It was as I had left it with a great cleft in the trunk. The two halves leaned away from each other as if some giant had heaved them apart. I joined the group and listened to the conversation.
“How did it happen then?”
“No idea.”
“Looks as if lightning struck it.”
“But there wasn’t any lightning last night. It was clear until this cloud came over this morning.”
“A mystery.”
I didn’t join in and tell them what I had seen and felt because I wasn’t sure what had happened. I left them going over the same pointless arguments.

During the next few months I paid a few visits to the tree. It remained the same although it seemed to have lost its power and looked rather forlorn. One warm day in May I ventured right up to it. I climbed over the fence that had been erected to prevent people doing exactly what I was doing. The owners were scared that the two halves could fall at any time and injure someone foolish enough to be standing underneath.
I crept warily up to the trunk. The wood seemed grey now rather than white. Gingerly I placed my head within the great crack and looked down. The trunk was hollow and the hole seemed to go down well below ground level. It was dark but as my eyes adjusted I thought I could see something. I waited and at last my view became clear. Growing up through the very centre of the old trunk was a sapling. New life was replacing the old, the rending of the dead tree allowing the new growth its freedom. What part had I played in this?

……………………………


Jasmine worries

There was evidence this week that the recovery from the coronavirus could be more painful for many people than the disease itself. That may seem callous and I am indeed annoyed that so many have died, particularly in care homes where the staff have struggled valiantly to help their elderly charges. I also feel for the many thousands who have suffered badly from the virus (including A.B. de P. Johnson PM) and will probably have a very long period of recovery ahead of them. Nevertheless, the news of redundancies in the aerospace industry, lockdown problems for the tourist industry and the warnings of a very deep recession (even a depression – what’s the difference?) means that many people will be out of work and struggling to pay bills for a long time to come. The rise in unemployment will mean increased costs for the government while there will also be a reduction in tax takings. Who’d be Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Difficult times indeed, and while I go along with green political ideas that the current economy is sick and a desire for endless growth is a dangerous fantasy, the fact remains that most people rely on the current capitalist system for their livelihoods. A planned move to the green ideal with a period of adjustment would be wonderful, but I don’t think it can be done in six months. Nevertheless, when the government talks of incentives for getting people back to work I wish they would look to green projects like, increasing renewable energy supply and infrastructure, improved local public transport (not high speed trains of limited use), pedestrianisation and cycleways, improved housing standards (better insulation, heat pumps for heating), and move away from a fossil fuel based civilisation.

Enough of the politics. This week has been noteworthy because I have finished the first draft of the 5th Jasmine Frame novel, provisionally titled Impersonator (I’m still thinking about a better title). I’m doing the revisions now but then it will need to be read by a few people to get comments – it is readable? Is it a good read? Where are there errors, holes, inconsistencies, etc.? If any readers of this blog would like to take part, please let me have you email address I I’ll get in touch.

Of course having finished one novel, even with the re-drafting and editing to do, my thoughts turn to the next project. I should go back to the last fantasy novel, The Pendant and The Globe to see what improvements are necessary there. Also there is the fantasy novel featuring September Weekes, that I began about two years ago and put aside to write Pendant. That lacks a climax and ending – some thinking required. Or there are the numerous ideas I have had which need work done to see if they can make a novel. Fun!

Meanwhile, writing group continues with its Zoom meetings. Last week’s topic was Stockholm Syndrome, inspired by our experiences of being shut up in lockdown. The question is – who is/are the hostage-takers? My effort is below. I kept it short because I was busy with Jasmine, so it is a bit more tell than show. I do have to point out that it is a work of fiction. In no way does it express my feelings towards my lockdown partner.

The Inverse Stockholm
We’d been good for each other, Diane and I. Married forty-two years, two kids grown up and moved abroad, a nice flat, so when the lockdown started, I had no worries. So we spend more time at home together, great: more time for Diane to do her sewing and more time for me to, well, do something.
“Hey, Tom, have you seen this?’
“What, dear?” I said with my eyes on my tablet. It’s awkward stopping mid-game.
“It says men are more likely to suffer from COVID19 and because you’re over seventy and you have that high pressure, you’re vulnerable. You’re going to have to shield yourself.”
“What does that mean?”
“You can’t go out. I’ll have to do what shopping needs to be done.”
“I can’t go out! What about the daily exercise we’re allowed?”
“Oh, that’s not for people who are shielding.”
“You mean I can’t go out at all.”
“Sorry, love. You can’t, but don’t worry, I’ll look after you.”
I grinned at her, “You’re going to hold me hostage are you, darling.”
“Well, I can’t have you going out and catching that nasty virus.”

The paramedics arrived in full PPE. I kept my distance from them as I showed them into the bedroom where Diane lay on the bed.
The taller of the two spoke, his voice muffled by the mask. “I’m sorry for your loss, but can you tell us what her symptoms were.”
“Oh, she’d had a cough for a few days and trouble breathing.”
“Sounds like the virus. You should have called sooner. We might have been able to get her on a ventilator.”
“I would have” I said, trying to sound upset, “but we’d been self-isolating in separate bedrooms. I’m vulnerable, see. I didn’t notice when she got worse last night.”
The paramedic nodded. “Ah, yes, it happens. Lots of cases like this in the last weeks. We’ll have to take tests to confirm the cause of death.”
“Do you have to? She was coughing something rotten yesterday.”

The cops turned up yesterday, with masks over their faces. In some ways I was pleased to see them; someone else to talk to, and I was running out of twiglets.
The young detective said. “Mr Tom Sveridge? You are under arrest for the murder of Mrs Diane Sveridge.”
“Why?” I said, meaning, how did you find out.
“Mrs Sveridge’s body tested negative for coronavirus and a duck feather was found lodged in her windpipe. We conclude that you smothered your wife.”
He recited the caution, but I wasn’t listening. I’d hoped to get away with it and escape. But, now, well at least my solitary incarceration is over and I’m free of that monster who imprisoned me, pestering me with question after question: what did I want to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner; what television channel did I want to watch; which film should we watch; which game should we play or shall we get on with the jigsaw. I hate jigsaws. It went on and on and I had no respite. I had to kill her; she had imprisoned me for too long.

………………………….

PS WordPress has changed its Editor and I am having huge problems trying to do what I usually do with this page. Grrrr!

Jasmine over the rainbow

I hope all you English folks are enjoying your freedom to drive wherever you like for as long as you like so long as you don’t cross into Wales or Scotland. Perhaps you are also contemplating going or not going to work or inviting unknown people to view your house while not being allowed to meet up with all your family.  Wales is taking a more cautious approach to easing lockdown  but I do wish the Welsh government would recognise that a tennis court is probably as safe as anywhere and certainly more so than the local supermarket.

The UK Tory government has been spooked by the cost of it all – £300 billion and rising – and seeing all their dividends and income from property disappearing. So go back to work and don’t worry about the crush on the Tube or the traffic jams because of all the private cars workers are forced into using.  The few weeks of clear air will soon be a myth.

The cost of the coronavirus is frightening ( 5 to 10 million per death?) and will, no doubt, affect many more people than the virus itself. New normal? Who knows? Collapse of (western) civilisation – on the cards!

One feature of the lockdown has been the appearance of all the rainbows. They are a worldwide sign of appreciation for the health service and key workers. But why a rainbow? I think it is simply because it is pretty (I won’t dwell on the fact that most of them are drawn and coloured incorrectly and not at all like the real appearance of rainbows). The symbology of the rainbow is confused. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition it represents God’s promise to Noah never to flood the world again to destroy human and animal-kind. That seems a bit of strange thing to display during a pandemic that is killing people day after day. In other societies it represents a bridge between the land of the gods and the Earth, and often is a symbol of war and retribution. Then of course there is the Irish story that it points to that unobtainable pot of gold.

So, I don’t feel that the rainbow really represents gratitude to key workers – but it is pretty.

There is another point.  Since 1978 the rainbow (the pattern of colours at least) has been the symbol of the LGBT+ community. The number of colours has varied (now usually 6 with indigo ditched) but are taken to represent solidarity and peace between all peoples. The rainbow flag is flown during Pride marches and celebrations and on days of remembrance and worn as a symbol of solidarity and recognition.

No one has exclusive rights to the rainbow (I trust no corporation has tried to register it as their own property) but I do hope that in future there is no conflict between its use by the LGBT+ community and those wanting to publicise their support for health and key workers.

…………………..

P1010222

My writing has progressed this week. I can see the end of the Jasmine Frame novel – at least the first draft. Our weekly writers’ club Zoom meeting suffered a hiatus due to Zoom deciding that passwords are now necessary and we didn’t have one. Nevertheless a few of us met and pieces had been shared on the topic “things we don’t want to do”.  There were some interesting examples from knitting a particular cardigan to diving in the ocean. My own very short piece concerned household chores.  I wish to make it clear that this is a work of fiction and does not represent my own feelings or (lack of) contribution to the daily tasks. It helps if it is read aloud in the appropriate varying tones of voice.

 

I’ll do it. . .sometime

“OK, I’ll do it. Don’t worry. Leave it with me. It’s no bother.  Not today, but I’ll definitely do it tomorrow or the day after.”
“Don’t fret. It’s on my to-do list.  I’ll get it done. I promise.”
“Yes, I know I said I’d do it today, but I’m busy.  I’ll definitely do it tomorrow.”
“Oh, I haven’t got time now. It’ll keep. I’m sure I can fit it in tomorrow.”
“Look, stop pestering. I know I said I’d do it yesterday. I’ll get round to it when I can. The world won’t come to an end if it doesn’t get done this minute.”
“No, I’m not wasting time. There’s this very important article I have to read. Well, alright, I don’t have to, but I want to.  I’ll do it later, OK?”
“Yes, well I got stuck into the programme on the TV and the time just flew by. I can’t do it now, can I. It’ll have to be tomorrow.”
“Well, you watch cat videos too. I am not procrastinating. I just don’t feel like doing it just yet.”
“Oh, alright, if you’re going to get all grumpy about it, I’ll do it now. Yes, I do know where the vacuum cleaner is kept.”

…………………………….

Jasmine isn’t celebrating

When victory over the enemy was declared, people left their homes and met on the streets and in the squares.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, cheering and laughing and dancing and hugging one another because they were freed from fear.

That was 1945.

I remember my mother recounting that experience. She was amongst the crowds in central Cardiff and decades later she could relive the emotions. I have often wondered why British people came together so happily in May 1945 when the war in the east was still progressing in deadly fashion and no-one knew that two atom bombs would end it in three months. The fear of enemy air raids or V2 attacks must have eased some weeks before the Nazi surrender.  Rationing was still in force as it would be for years to come. So why the putpouring of joy? Presumably, it was the thought that those serving in the forces in Europe would no longer be under threat of instant death or injury. Still, the gratitude did not extend to the government of Winston Churchill. He was dumped out of office a few weeks later and replaced by the Labour administration that introduced the National Health Service and the modern welfare state.

This week we have been urged to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day.  The government would like to us to feel the same emotions and adopt the same determination of that time to rebuild the world. Fantasy. We cannot relive that outpouring of relief and just a few moments examination of the history of the last 75 years might cause us to wonder whether we would wish follow the same path again – Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Middle East and terrorism, Northern Ireland, too many booms and busts to count, continued poverty and depravity, pollution, climate change. There have been positives but I feel they are outweighed by the negative.

We should not celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day with wild parties but instead remember the dead and the injured and the displaced and recall why the war was fought. Look again at the way dictators, not just Hitler, came to power, subverted democratic governments, destroyed independent judiciary, took over the media, and built popular support by playing on fears of outsiders (Jews, gays, refugees, immigrants, et al) and made promises that turned to dust. Their techniques still work today, perhaps are more applicable today, with our increased ease of communication and surveillance.  If we do not wake up to the signs, there will be no Great Britain standing alone against the evil or a United States to join in the crusade to oust the malignant cancer of hate.

Despite all the military metaphors, the coronavirus crisis is not going to result in a victory similar to that celebrated on VE Day. For a start there is not going to be one day when we can say, it’s all over and everyone can get their lives back.  Not even an effective vaccine against Covid-19 will completely remove fear.  Some countries learned from the SARS and MERS epidemics and were prepared for COVID19.  If we learn anything from this pandemic, we should know that another could be on its way. Commentators talk of the “new normal”.  Our lives in the future will certainly not be as they were but “normal” implies stability and contentment and I don’t think that holds at all.

Some people hope that a crisis of this magnitude will result in a new compassionate world, with greater respect for key workers, higher pay for nurses and care staff, and acceptance and gratitude towards the many immigrants and second generation ethnic minority people who continued to work in key jobs while suffering a higher risk of disease.  I think that particular hope is wishful thinking.

Looking back at the start of the pandemic we see a lazy government unwilling to take responsibility or show concern for the population, dilly-dallying before making decisions. Looking ahead we see extended periods of at least partial lockdown, the threat of second and third waves of infection and an economic depression resulting from the measures taken to confront the pandemic.  I take little reassurance from either hindsight or foresight. Nevertheless we live on day by day.

150420(3)To find peace and happiness one must live for the day, and, yes, in each day I find pleasure. We have food and can prepare tasty and nutritious meals accompanied by a glass of wine or a g&t. We take ourselves for a daily walk. We have a choice of beautiful routes in almost any direction from our home. So, we can exercise, enjoy the views and the wildflowers and have pleasant chats with each other. Traffic is much reduced (though has increased since the early days of the lockdown), so there is less noise and birdsong can be heard throughout the day. In the fine weather we can sit on our balcony and talk to our neighbours below, or even meet them, at 2m distance, on our communal lawn. We can Zoom or Whatsapp our family or friends and there is email and Facebook and Twitter for keeping in touch. There are fewer demands on my time so I can sit and write for longer and achieve the satisfaction of making real progress in my novels (plural because I rarely have a single project on the go).

But instead of satisfaction I think about people in tower blocks who cannot experience the countryside like us; the people suffering from the virus who, fighting for breath, cannot exercise or have pleasant chats, and those who have seen their jobs disappear perhaps never to return, who worry about the where the next meal will come from.

At the moment some of us can actually enjoy the lockdown, but it is like an extended Christmas holiday. The real world will intervene soon; the problems building as a result of the lockdown and the measures taken to shore up the NHS, are going to require solutions, and they won’t involve watching more boxsets.

………………………………….

The above is an extended version of a piece I wrote for writers’ group which was supposed to be “looking on the bright side of the coronavirus”. I found it impossible to write anything that did not strike me as complacent,  hypocritical or facetious which is why I wrote what I did.  One or two of my colleagues got round it imaginatively (Gill’s COVID19 suffering criminal was brilliant) others recounted their own pleasures of the lockdown.

On a brighter note, my other monthly group had set the topic “Genesis” for our recent meeting. I wrote the piece below some time ago but it fitted. If you know your Bible you will understand my attempts at jokes. I was told, not completely in jest, that it was heretical.  Actually, I don’t see how it can be – I just followed the Word.

Seven Days

Day 1

As I have decided to make a start on “The Project” I’m going to keep a diary.  You never know, someone may want to look back on it once everything is done. 

There just wasn’t time before  but  now I’ve made a start I’ll make sure there is time.  I want everything to go with a real big bang and expand quickly.
Once I had the energy I got down to the real matter.  It was sort of making something from nothing and all pretty shapeless at first but soon I was seeing things in a new light. 

I’m pretty pleased by the start I’ve made but glad that’s the first day out of the way.

Day 2

Really got down to work today.  Had to make a lot of space for things and get everything in the right place, you know how it is.  It took a bit of doing but by the end of the day it felt the upper bit was really quite heavenly.

Day 3

Day 3 and now it is the time to plant the seeds for growth.  But you can’t have the trees unless you have a good solid base for them to put their roots down.  So that was what I did.  By the evening things were really bearing fruit.

Day 4

I really shone light on things today. There were some real stars coming out but my two big successes, my Sun and my Moon, well  they’re really going to brighten things up night and day from now on.

Day 5

Things livened up a lot today and I had a whale of a time.  I’d felt all at sea but I really caught my big fish today.  The air was a flutter with all the goings on.  Everything’s got wings so we’re really flying now.

Day 6

Today was the climax I suppose of everything I planned for.  I know it sounds as though I know everything but I was really pleased how it all turned out.  Things evolved as I expected and the final product really has the image I’m looking for. I’ve provided all the feedstock needed and I’m sure that we will see massive growth in all areas.  Things are really looking good.

Day 7

It’s been a busy week and I think I deserve a rest so I’m putting my feet up today and will just gaze at my handiwork.  I’ll have to give some thought to what comes next, though; some adjustments may be needed.

……………………………

©PREllis, 2020

Jasmine is wary

The longer one remains semi-isolated in lockdown and the more news one sees on TV or the internet, the more one becomes uncertain of what is really happening. It is not helped when one of the people who should be setting out the truth of the matter is constantly supporting one conspiracy theory or other or making totally bizarre and dnagerous claims. You know who I am referring to. Our government is little better, “following the science” to justify their own haphazard response to the crisis while re-writing history to put themselves in a good light. The trouble is that the BBC is doing what it has been doing for a number of years (cf, climate change, Brexit, Tory govt. in general) and not testing the truth of what spokespersons are saying but merely repeating the nonsense ad nauseum. With day passing after day and the lockdown weeks stretching out it is getting quite difficult to remember what was happening back in January, February and early March. Those days when a strange new disease in China was the news. It was two and a half months when alarm bells should have been jangling in Whitehall and perhaps were, but few if any preparations were made for the likelihood of the epidemic becoming a pandemic and reaching us. Even when the death rate began to soar in Italy, the response here was slow.

There is still a lot unknown about the coronavirus: how to cure the disease it causes; how much immunity do survivors have; how much protection will a vaccine give; how well the virus survives in the environment in different climates. Nevertheless the experts know a lot about how pandemics are likely to pan out (no pun intended). It is lucky that the death rate of Covid19 is a lot less than SARS and MERS and Ebola, at 1-3% of those infected or about .1% of the population (if proper precautions are taken), but to economists and billionaire leaders, those a small numbers. Why not get back to “normal” and let everyone get on with their lives? No, it won’t work. While people are restless and fatigued by isolation there is still fear. Opening up the economy while maintaining the 2 metre rule will only favour certain business and certainly not the shops and cafes and pub and restaurants that most of us frequent. High streets and shopping malls are not going to return to their previous state soon, if ever. Life has changed but to what new state, I don’t know.

That’s rather a meandering train of thought but perhaps contains some nuggets to think about.

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P1010257

In many ways, lockdown has given me the impetus to get on writing by reducing the alternatives that help procrastination. The novel is coming along; earlier this week I got the insight of how to take it to a conclusion, and I’m getting there. Meanwhile the weekly Zoom meetings of the writing club give incentive for shorter pieces and now we’ve started writing in our Zoom meetings, the little grey cells are being fired up. For last week the topic was “birthdays”. My colleagues produced a variety of pieces looking at the significance of particular birthdays or a lifetime of them. As usual, very varied and well written. I took an SF route with my piece, Birth Day, below. Actually most of what I mention has already been discussed scientifically if not actually carried out. Some of my writer friends thought it was funny in places (it was intended to be) others thought it scary. Since we have enough people on this planet I think what I suggest is unnecessary. What do you think?

Birth Day

Watching the fertilisation on holo was amazing; almost as if we’d been there. When my sperm, the specially chosen female one of course, touched your mother’s egg and the nuclei joined – well, I was in tears. Then we had a bit of a wait, while you divided a few times. One cell was taken for gene analysis. No major problems of course, just a minor gene correction to prevent you getting my mild hay fever. The Genome Reveal Party was a great blast with our families and friends drinking a toast to you and suggesting names, not all of which were suitable.
By then we’d made our choice of which womb to buy. The Apple I-Womb was wonderful but awfully expensive. We didn’t even look at the Easy-Womb having seen the one-star rating on Trustguide, so we settled on the Volks Womb. The VW is German so it should have been good, and it was. We took it in turns to carry it every day strapped to our abdomen. The midwife said that was the way to ensure good bonding between foetus and parents. It certainly helped me to believe that I had a child on its way.
We were really excited after ten weeks when it was time to start your neuro-education programme, silently beaming brainwaves into your tiny head. Your responses showed your neural network growing quickly and soon you were getting aural and visual feeds to increase your sensory development. We could even converse with you by direct brainwave modulation. Feeling your first words was wonderful.
The midwife suggested music that would stimulate you but not over-excite you. You waved your tiny arms to Mozart and kicked your feet in time to Pink Floyd. You even jigged to the ExEx though I don’t think much of their latest stream. All that dancing has helped you develop sound muscles and strong bones as well as build your mind.
As you grew and developed you giggled at the stories we read you; played games which you won often; told us what you think of us as your parents and demonstrated your aptitude for mathematics and algorithm manipulation as forecast by your genome. You’re going to have a great career in front of you and have a wonderful life.
Now the time has come. The womb is set in the birthing dock. The pseudo placenta will withdraw, the amniotic fluid drain away, and the womb will open. You will suck air into your lungs for the first time, step into our arms and out into the world. To our dear daughter, Afrodyetee, Happy Birth Day.

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Jasmine staying sane

150420(4)How is the lockdown affecting your health? Assuming you are not one of the unlucky people who has suffered a bad bout of Covid19, how do you think you are coping with the isolation? To be honest I don’t feel that it has had a massive effect on my routine.  I still spend a good proportion of time in front of this screen trying to put words together in interesting ways. I am upset at losing my two or three tennis sessions each week, mainly because they were my fitness regime and I miss meeting up with a few people for a coffee or a beer/wine and chat. Our days are pretty full with my writing, a few other computer-based tasks, the occasional zoom, our daily walk or short exercise session, shopping trips on a couple of days, reading and TV. One wonders how we used to fit all the other activities in, rather like, having retired, one wonders how we found the time to work.

I do wonder about some of the people who post on Facebook or Twitter about mindless activities they do to avoid boredom and those who joke about resorting to alcohol at ever earlier hours of the day. I fear that they are on a slippery slope in their mental health. I suppose I’ve always been pretty happy working alone (why did I become a teacher?) or just being with Lou or one or two friends. I’ve never really been happy in large groups of people, especially if they are predominantly male. Perhaps I’ve always been mad.

The question is what happens next. The virus is not going away and the UK’s government unwillingness to be honest with the population is becoming more an more irksome. Yes, the lockdown cannot end tomorrow even though we are passed the peak number of daily deaths and infections. A second and subsequent spike is all to likely. On the other hand, no economy, capitalist or otherwise, can cope with a large proportion of the working population doing nothing. A gradual return to work is imperative for most people with some caveats. However continued social distancing will knock out a huge number of businesses – cafes, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theatres, sports events, festivals, hotels, holiday centres, etc. There is talk of enforcing continued isolation for the vulnerable. Does that really mean the over 70s? Can we cope with some form of isolation for the rest of the year?

The future is even more uncertain than it was three months ago when we were worrying about the effects of Brexit (there’s still that) and a right wing government (and that!). That’s enough to worry you insane. I think I’ll stay in my cosy little private box.

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A very effective Zoom writers’ group meeting this week even though unfortunately a few members were unable to join us. We did it in two parts with a half hour gap for writing in the middle. The topic for the week had been “Object” i.e. write something about any thing. I struggled to think of any single object that was special to me or inspired a story. I must claim mitigation in that I’ve been working on the Jasmine Frame novel. I ended up with a very quick piece about an object I have inherited.  It could have been the base for a time-travel or time-slip story but that didn’t happen, so here is The Clock.

The Clock

The clock sits on a shelf in my study (also known as the spare bedroom). Its loud tick marks the passing of the days and the months and the years, except I don’t hear it anymore. I have to put my ear close to the face to check that it is still ticking. My brain filters the sound out at normal distances. Why does it do that? Well it’s probably because I’ve been listening to it since I was born. The chime though, that’s different. Despite it being a small and simple, relatively cheap clockwork clock, it has a very loud chime. The hourly and half-hourly dongs interrupt conversations or drown out vital moments of TV programmes.
The clock belonged to my parents, a wedding present, I think, that they received in March 1951. It is one of many thousands of its type produced in the post-war years before quartz movements and batteries and radio signals changed clocks forever. It stood on the sideboard or the shelf in the alcove beside the fireplace throughout their married life. When my mother was widowed, she took it to her new one-bedroomed, warden monitored flat, where it continued to tick and chime away until she died in 2008.
My brother and I had the task of clearing the flat. Most of my mother’s and father’s possessions went to the charity shops and the tip. A few items I decided to keep because they held memories of childhood and my parents’ life together. The clock was one of those. I took it to our home, placed it on a shelf, and wound it up. The hands did not move. I took it to an ancient local clock repairer. He cleaned it and soon had it ticking and chiming again.
The clock ticked happily for another ten years. We were about to make our latest, final maybe, move. I made a silly mistake. Although I wrapped the clock in bubble wrap and tape, I put it in a packing case with other items for the removers to carry up to our second floor flat. The shaking it got did it no good. When unwrapped, the clock, apparently undamaged, refused to start ticking again.
Now we had a choice. The clock had had a good life. It was 67 years old. It wasn’t valuable. It would probably have been sensible to dispose of it, but nostalgia is an affliction that runs in my family. I didn’t want to let the clock go despite its annoyingly cacophonous chime.  I took it to a local jeweller which advertised clock and watch repairs. I entrusted it to them. They took it apart, cleaned each piece and put it back together with some new brass gears and handed it back to me with a bill for £150.
The clock is ticking. Strangely the chimes aren’t as loud. Probably a small adjustment would be needed to restore the volume but I’m happy. The clock is banished from the living room but seems happy on my bookshelf. It keeps reasonable time (it gains about a minute a day because I dare not try to correct it) and I wind it up once a week. When I give it a glance, it provides a sense of continuity with my life and that of my mother and father.
I hope the clock carries on ticking for a bit longer yet, even though I can’t hear it.

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Jasmine looks beyond

The coronavirus fills the news broadcasts and newspapers. It is at the front of everybody’s thoughts. That is not surprising as it is the cause of the radical change in lifestyle wrought by the lockdown and the fear of what might happen if one catches it. The ramifications of the pandemic are immense and will last for many years. Nevertheless, I feel we need to look beyond the immediate situation, with its focus on death rates, the  heroic work of the NHS, care-home staff, etc., and lockdown tales.

First there is the matter of PPE. Supplying it has obviously been a subject of dispute if not an actual scandal. My thoughts turn to disposing of it. It is basically single-use plastic and the waste will consist of millions of items which may or not be contaminated by the virus. It is bagged up for disposal and presumably will be incinerated. That is going to be a massive task.

Then there is the exit strategy. The UK government doesn’t want to talk about anything beyond the next 3 weeks, possibly because it doesn’t have any plans for after that.  There is talk of the lockdown perhaps being eased in June but with measures continuing for some time, maybe even until the population can be vaccinated.  That will be a year or longer, so there are going to be restrictions on our movements for a long time. That will suit some members of government very nicely.  Just think, all gatherings, perhaps of more than 10, banned. Say goodbye to any protests along the lines of the anti-Iraq War, anti-Brexit marches or Extinction Rebellion blockades, or Schools’ Strike for the Climate. Indeed any protest activity can be banned under the current regulations. The government will want to get the economy roiling soon. Look out for measures to ease environmental controls, employment rules and so on to reduce costs. And no-one will be able to protest.

I have heard and seen lots of people say we cannot return to the old normal, thinking that a utopian future maybe around the coronavirus corner. I doubt it. There will be right-wing thinkers in government, billionaires recouping their losses, and bigots planning to use the situation to their advantage. The mild, moderate, tolerant majority must be on their guard.

Lots of comparisons are made between the fight against Covid-19 and the WW2 “blitz spirit.”.  I think I see closer comparisons between the UK response to the pandemic and WW1, or at least one popular conception of it. We have a bunch of inept ministers in Westminster out of touch with what is happening in the trenches (i.e. hospitals and care homes) ineffectually burning through huge sums of money while failing to equip the frontline cannon fodder (i.e. medical staff and covid-19 sufferers) with what they need to end the crisis. All they can come up with is a pretty medal.  I do have to admit that the current casualty numbers only equate to a hour’s worth of one of the Great War’s offensives, but I think there are parallels.

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150420(3)Days have taken on an almost timeless quality – meals, exercise, TV watching, reading, and writing. Yes,  I have the time for writing that was lacking previously (my own fault). This week’s theme for the writing club’s Zoom get together was “the birds sang.” Many have noted that nature seems to be taking advantage of the absence of traffic and public activity. We can hear the birds sing again and cute animals are venturing closer to our homes. Mind you so are the less cute ones such as rats. I thought that my fellow writers would take a sentimental view of nature, and they did, with some powerful pieces of writing. My view is rather less optimistic.

 

The Birds Sang

“I remember when blackbirds sang for their mate and the sparrows twittered in the bushes, and. . .’
“What’s a sparrow grandad?”
I peered down at the naked child sitting in the dust at my feet. In the dim light of the shelter my old eyes could just make out his thin grubby face gazing up at me.
“A sparrow? Well, it was a small bird and. . .”
“What’s a bird?”
I stared at the child. Had it been so long? I recalled when the skies were filled with many types of bird, now all gone.
“Birds were animals with wings that could fly through the. . .”
“Animals? Like rats?” The child whined.
“Well, rats are animals, but they have fur while birds had. . .”
“Urgh! Rats that fly would snatch food from your hands and gnaw your face.”
“Er, well, child. Not all birds were like that.”
The child got up, rubbing tears from his eyes. “I don’t like your story, Grandad.” He ran off into the dark.
I leaned back. My rickety metal and plastic chair complained. Once I saw a seagull steal a chip from a girl’s hand and crows were known to peck out the eyes of sick lambs, but that wasn’t what birds did in my memories. I thought of mumurations of starlings and skeins of geese flying across a blue sky.
I became aware of a woman standing over me. She was a young woman though that was difficult to tell from the dirt that filled the creases in her face.
“What are you doing, old man, scaring my child?”
“Scaring? I don’t know.’
“He’s frightened enough by the rats that pester us, now you’re threatening him with flying rats that can attack us from above.”
“No, no,” I cried, “That wasn’t it. I was telling him about birds?”
“Birds? What do you want to go telling him about birds for? Didn’t the Last Plague come from birds.”
“Yes, yes, the virus did transfer to humans from pigeons, but . . .”
“Pigeons, yes, I remember now,” she waved her arms as if shooing flocks of the creatures away from her. “They were everywhere, nasty things, strutting around the streets, flapping around your head. They’re the ones that killed everyone.”
I tried to calm her. “Yes, my dear. But it was the virus that ended the world as it used to be. It wasn’t the pigeons’ fault. It was our fault.”
“What do you mean `our fault`? I was five when the Last Plague started.  What did I know of viruses and pandemics? I spent the rest of my childhood locked up in our house eating whatever scraps my parents could find until the electricity cut off and the water stopped running and my parents died and . . .” She sobbed and crumpled to the floor at my feet.
She was right. Mine not hers was the last generation to have everything – enough food, enough power, freedom to travel, little fear of disease. That was the root of the problem; we gave little thought to what nature could do to us. But all we had is gone.  What good is it thinking of the old life now. I’ll just recall the birds that sang.

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Jasmine in doubt

P1010226What a wonderful week of spring weather.  Lovely for sitting on our balcony, although in the direct sun it got too hot to stay there for long. Lovely for a walk along the river bank (only saw about 6 other walkers). Lovely for standing in the queue waiting to be let into the supermarket (Actually I didn’t do that, but Lou did). I wonder what the lockdown would have been like if we were having the weather we had in February.

Nevertheless, whatever the weather, thoughts turn to the crisis which has engulfed us and the rest of the world: the people falling ill, the dying; the health and care staff; and I’ll repeat what I said last week, all the others who enable people like us to continue to live comfortable if constrained lives – the council workers, the utilities, shop workers (including the independents struggling on), the post office, phone and internet providers and businesses, broadcasters, and all the volunteers.  How many have I forgotten?

The main annoyance? Finding out what is really happening.  The nonsense served up by the government daily briefings is painful but no-one seems prepared to take them to task over it. What was all that about Johnson? Either he was ill enough to take up a valuable ICU bed and hence incapable of work like everyone else in the same position, or he wasn’t. I don’t wish him dead but I will not hail him as some sort of superhero who fights off the virus and saves us all. Ugh!

The lockdown goes on, and will for many more weeks.  In Wuhan it lasted 76 days and according to their data was not as bad in terms of deaths as is our situation. Nevertheless, I do not understand why government ministers refuse to consider the “exit strategy”. Every campaign needs an exit strategy, a means of reversing or changing direction. Once the pandemic has subsided some kind of life will continue, but what will it be like? Most of the countries affected will be broke for a start. Only a minority of companies, such as supermarkets and internet based businesses will be in a position to bounce back quickly.  The recession after 2008 will be seen to be a minor blip compared to what we will be up against. Some people like to make comparisons between Covid19 and the World War. Well, 1942-45 saw the formulation of policies which radically changed education, founded the welfare state and created the NHS.  Where are our plans for 2021 and beyond?  Oh, and I don’t believe the optimistic wishful thinking of  “we’ll all be nicer people, caring for our children, elderly and neighbours, and the environment, and baking our own cakes.”

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Painted Ladies front cover jpegSome new readers of this blog may wonder why each post has a title starting with “Jasmine. . .”. Jasmine is not my alter ego. Although I am non-binary/gender-fluid, I am one person though I do use two names (why I continue with that is another question). Jasmine is the lead character, a transitioning trans-woman, in my series of detective novels and short stories. She is the reason I started this blog, about now, back in 2013. The idea was to promote Painted Ladies and the subsequent publications. I still want to do that but it  has morphed into a weekly rant and opportunity to share my writings.

We had another Zoom writers’ group meeting this week.  Not as many participants because a few were unable to sign on.  The theme was “Strangers in the Night.” Of course thoughts turned to the Sinatra song but it was amazing, as always, how many interpretations there were. Mine was a very quick knock-off featuring a character I’ve used in a few stories.  Kappa is a British Secret Agent. A bit Bond, a bit English (Rowan Atkinson’s character) who finds himself on missions where he’s not always fully aware of the part he’s playing. This is just a little snippet really of a non-existent story.

Dark Appointment

The Sun had sunk below the horizon and dusk turned to night. Agent Kappa had waited motionless in his hideaway for hours.  He peered into the gloom of the clearing between the trees, looking through his thermal viewer. There was no movement, but the contact was supposed to be here now. Kappa thumbed a text into his secure phone.
<No sighting of subject. How long do I have to wait?>
The reply came immediately. <Punctuality is vital.>
Kappa was wary.  He did not know the new contact; didn’t trust them. They were just a stranger he’d been told to meet. He was taking every precaution possible. He did another thermal sweep, raising his head just enough.  What was that? A tiny spot of warmth. He scanned back looking for it again.  There, on the far side of the clearing. Not big enough for a person.
The phone beeped in his ear. He glanced at the screen. <Have you made contact?>
<No>
<Carry out a physical survey of the meeting zone.>
Kappa didn’t like it but followed orders. He slowly rose from his shallow trench, keeping his viewer on the bright spot opposite. He was surprised to see it growing too.
He stood up, and the thermal image resolved into a trunk and two legs.
“Well, I’ll be. . ..” Kappa walked warily towards the person, drawing his pistol and torch from their holsters. He switched on the light and was dazzled by a bright beam in his eyes.
“What the heck!” He cried.
“Kappa. Is that you?” It was a female voice.
“Zeta?” That was the code name of the stranger he was expecting.
“Yes.”  The beam dropped from his face and he was able to see the dark form of the woman standing ten metres from him.  She held the torch and a gun in her hands.
“You were supposed to meet me, er, ten minutes ago,” Kappa said.
“No, you were supposed to meet me.”
“I was here early,” Kappa said getting annoyed.
“So was I.”
“Do you mean we’ve both been here for the last hour or more, in hiding, waiting for the other?”
“Looks like it.”
They approached each other, examining each other’s features, noting their poise, the fingers on the triggers, muscles tensed ready to respond to any threat. They wouldn’t be strangers next time they met, day or night.

Jasmine revitalised

I took my tennis racquet down to our car park the other afternoon and hit a ball against a wall for a while. It didn’t replace a game but gave me a different sort of exercise to going for our daily walk. That was one highlight of our second week of lockdown.  Another was our special dinner and bottle of fizz to celebrate our 32nd anniversary, and another was watching  the National Theatre’s broadcast on YouTube of One Man, Two Governors.  Lou saw it when it was shown in theatres last year but I had missed it. It is brilliant slapstick and farce with all the cast playing their part but James Corden is superb in his timing, adlibbing and physicality.  How they did it for performance after performance I don’t know, but that’s the wonder of live theatre.

So we’ve survived two weeks of this new reality. With the death rate increasing still, it’s going to last a lot longer. What of our previous existence will survive? Newspapers, local and national are worried about their continued existence. Small food producers are having difficulty getting their products to the shops, as well as farmers facing problems with harvests.  The problems continue to mount. I referred last week to all the people we in lockdown rely on as well as the doctors, nurses and carers, to keep us supplied and services running. Yet, more and more workers are being laid off or having to self-isolate. The systems that keep our lives ticking over are under tremendous strain.

Who’s doing well out of the pandemic.  Well, any business that is solely located on the internet. Zoom, the video conferencing app is in great demand, and I imagine Disney+ has garnered a lot of subscribers. Others are the bosses who are relying on  the government to pay 80% of their wage bill while raking off huge sums in dividends for themselves. Will there be a reckoning afterwards? (If there is an afterwards.)

Some say that the popularity of the government and Johnson in particular has increased. I cannot understand why. It is obvious that the government was slow to realise the danger of the coronavirus and failed to make any preparations. Now they are floundering around, throwing money around that didn’t exist before, while still failing to organise adequate testing or equipment. Meanwhile they have given themselves huge powers to control the population. I doubt that Labour would have done any better but its the Tories who must carry the blame for the failures.

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P1010224 (2)At least I’ve got back to writing at length. Jasmine Frame has been revitalised in my head and I am progressing with the fifth novel. Perhaps imagining life in 2015 is taking my mind off the present. However, for this week’s task for the writing group, which was “A Cup of Tea“, I did take the present situation as inspiration.  The result is below. The group held another Zoom meeting which went well.  A few people read their pieces and we discussed them, in between sharing tales about our experiences.

Cup of Tea

The phone pinged.  Kev put his can down and stretched across the sofa to dig it out from under a cushion. He swiped the green mark and shouted at the device.
“Hi Mick, What’s up?’
“Whatsapp. No, I’m not on that, I’m just giving you a call, mate.”
“What do you say? Can’t hear a word. Wait. I’ll pause the telly.’ Kev fumbled with the remote and managed to silence the TV that dominated the small room.
“That’s better Kev. What were you watching? It didn’t sound like the usual morning show”
“Nah Mick. Got meself Disney Add. I’m watching one of them superhero films, Avengers of the Galaxy or sumfin.”
“Not my cup of tea, Kev. I’ve just had an exercise video on.”
“Yer not doin exercise are you, Mick?”
“Nah, not me mate. Just watching the girl demonstrating the moves. She’s pretty er, supple.”
“My missus wouldn’t have me ogling some bird on the box.”
“Isn’t she at work, Kev?”
“Got laid off. All the offices where she cleans shut up shop. They’re all working from home.”
“What she doing with her time off?”
“Working from home. She’s decided the house needs a spring-clean.”
“That’s awkward for you mate.  You’ll have to move your butt from that sofa.”
“Yeah, well, she’s out at the mo’. Went off to Tesco. Been gone for hours.”
“You could have gone with her, Kev.”
“No point. They’re only letting one person per house in at a time and they ain’t even got their caf open while you wait. Anyway, she’s not letting me go shopping again.”
“Why’s that Kev.”
“It was about a month ago. She sent me to get some bog roll. How was I to know she meant one pack of eighteen.”
“What did you think she meant, Kev?”
“Eighteen packs. I had a heck of job getting them in the Fiesta. Mind you, she’s changed her tune now. Every time she’s been since the bog roll shelves have been empty.”
“Clairvoyant of you, Kev.”
“Clare who? You know Mick I’m fed up wiv this lockdown.”
“Why’s that, mate. You only go out to go down the pub.”
“That’s it. Why did they go and shut down our boozer? Tell me that Mick.”
“Er, haven’t they closed them all, Kev?”
“Yeah, but Stan would never ‘ave any of that Corona stuff in his bar.”
“That’s true, mate.”
“I wouldn’t drink Chinese piss. Just good old British beer for me, Fosters or Stella. Oh, I can hear the missus now. Ta-ra Mick.”
A cry came from the kitchen.
“Kev! You still watching that effing TV? How about a cup of tea?”
“Yeah, luv. That’ll be great. I’m dying for a cuppa.”

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Jasmine in lockdown

P1010222

Taking our daily exercise, lucky to have beautiful countryside nearby and some lovely weather.

The calendar is blank and the most excitement we’ve had this week was the communal clap for the NHS and care workers on Thursday evening. Everyone working in the NHS and as a carer deserves all our support; they are endangering their lives, as we can see from the number of medical workers who have died of the virus in other countries. While clapping I was thinking too of the many people who are enabling us to spend our time in lockdown in relative comfort. There’s all the shop workers, not just the supermarkets; our local greengrocer and butcher are doing a tremendous job of keeping us stocked. Then there is everyone in the supply train right back to the farmers, here and overseas (what happens if overseas trade falters?). Then there are the people keeping the water, electricity, gas and telephone systems going, the postal and delivery workers, broadcasting employees, public transport, police, fire & rescue, civil service and the armed services called in to provide support..  The list goes on and on. While a lot of us are in isolation many more are still in work, keeping things ticking over even while manufacturing and other industries have halted. How long can it go on before cracks appear?

A few people are putting around that we should have a collection for the NHS like Children in Need or Comic Relief or Sports Aid. There are two reasons why not. First the NHS is the responsibility of the government which we vote for and to which we pay our taxes. If we want the NHS properly funded we need to vote for the appropriate people to govern. Secondly, even if you combined all the proceeds of the charitythons, the total would still be a tiny proportion of the cost of running the NHS and care services. I don’t think people realise the proportion of the UK’s expenditure that goes on health, social care and welfare. The sums of money are immense.

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On the 18th March a writing friend published a novel, the first of a trilogy. I had an advance copy so I could write a review to put on Amazon. That is what I did but for some reason Amazon decided that my review did not meet their guidelines. I am publishing my review below so you can work out how it goes against Amazon rules – I can’t. Simon Kewin is a well-known author of SF and fantasy and I hold him in great respect.  I wish him lots of sales for Dead Star and its sequels.

51CqJ99vXoLDead Star by Simon Kewin: Review

Do you want a story that stretches over multiple volumes? Dead Star is for you as it is the first of a trilogy. Do you want galaxy spanning starships, a variety of interesting planets, space battles, miraculous tech? Dead Star is for you.
A young, impressionable girl is rescued by an older, wise man who provides her with remarkable abilities with which to oppose her enemies, a galaxy-wide, theocratic, vicious empire. The plot may sound familiar but the action is original.  Is this a galaxy far, far away or our own?  That’s one question we learn the answer to but there are plenty of others to lead us on through the episodic events. The pace is fast, the settings well-developed, intriguing, and described in detail, though not tediously.
I felt sympathy for Selene, the young heroine, though she lacked the humour required to encourage empathy.  She has plenty to be miserable about but, thanks to her enhancements, rarely seems pressured and is somewhat remorseless in her pursuit of her goal, even during the pause for some love interest. The episodic adventures seemed to take off with little lead up and the plot meandered somewhat but was always interesting. The tale is told almost exclusively from Selene’s viewpoint although early on there is a scene from the point of view of her enemy which is never followed up (in this first volume at any rate). The ”Empire” is presented as an implacable foe, with huge power and a surveillance regime that makes rebellion apparently all but impossible.  Yet the rebels, very few in number and beaten, nevertheless have just sufficient tech resources to infiltrate and irritate the leaders and the ingenuity, or is it luck or a cunning plan, to escape every time. Well, of course that is how it has to be in these adventures.
I enjoyed Dead Star and look forward to joining Selene in her adventures in the sequels.

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Writing group is now meeting by video link.  We had our first go on Thursday and it worked pretty well once we’d learnt the etiquette of video conferencing and got rid of the extraneous noises off caused by spouses, pets and radios. Some of us posted our stories earlier so we had a chance to read them before commenting. The subject was Primrose.  Quite accidentally mine turned into a virus story with added fairies. The internet gave me some myths uniting primroses with the little folk though whether they are shared widely I don’t know.

Primrose

I picked a primrose today. I know I shouldn’t have done but there was such a wonderful display of yellow on the bank at the edge of the village. It took me back to the days as children when we picked huge bunches to take home to mother on Mothering Sunday, to decorate the house at Easter, and to put in our hair when we pretended to be fairies. Such tales we told of the little folk, jolly if mischievous, and their enchanted, flower-festooned land.
As I admired the flowers, I noticed the Cranston family approaching. It was an unusual sight to see them all together.  He’s usually away in the city while she’s doing her good works and the two children are normally at school. The parents took the hands of the young boy and girl and passed quickly on the opposite side of the lane.
I returned to the cottage, cupping the single bloom in my hand. I put it with a drop of water in a medicine glass and set it on the dining table. The doorbell rang. In the porch was a cardboard box, my weekly shopping order. The delivery boy was at the gate, mobile phone raised to photograph me with the box. He gave a quick wave and ran off to his van. I carried the box into the kitchen and could see at once that quite a few items were missing from my order. The shortages are getting worse and who knows when I might get another delivery slot.
I put all the packets, jars and tins in their respective cupboards. A tickle in my throat produced a cough and I felt a tightness in my chest. Time to put the kettle on. While the tea brewed, I stood in the living room. It was dusk but the little primrose still gleamed yellow. It looked as lonely as I felt. Why had I plucked it from its fellows? Soon it would droop and fade while the flowers in the bank would live on and provide a display for every walker for many a day. It was a forlorn specimen certain to wilt and die in hours. I coughed again, breathing becoming a struggle.
There was a tale we used to tell as children, a myth of magic. I picked up the primrose and popped it in my mouth.  I closed my teeth on the stem and tugged it away with my finger and thumb. I chewed. The taste was not bitter. There was instead a little sweetness and a subtle and indescribable flavour suffused my mouth and nose.
The room brightens. I turn, wondering what could be the source of the light.  The windows are dark, but in front of them is an archway decked with hundreds of primroses glowing with a primrose light. Through the arch I glimpse a sunny, grassy lane, green-leaved trees and clumps of primroses and other wildflowers. A figure emerges. His gender is imprecise, but I shall say he. He is shorter and slighter than me; his pale skin has a translucency.  He is clothed completely in primrose petals and even his short curly hair is the colour of the flower.
“Come,” he says in a soft, welcoming voice.
“Where?” I ask.
“Away.”
“With you?”
“Yes, with me and my faerie companions. Your time here is at an end.” I see others like him through the arch beckoning me to join them.
He stretches out a hand. I take it in mine and with a gentle tug he pulls me through the arch into eternal spring.

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Jasmine looks out

A couple of weeks ago I joked about waiting for the zombies to arrive. It’s not a joke anymore. No zombies (I think) but we’re living in a dystopia; one where social contact is frowned on or forbidden in many places; one where supplies are perceived as running short; one where commerce and public services are halting; one where human rights are threatened.

It doesn’t seem so bad at the moment perhaps. Most of us are fit and well (and will remain so). We have plenty to eat and there are things to do at home – spring cleaning anyone? But what is happening to society around us and what will happen if the restrictions get worse and last as long as expected (3 months plus)? Small businesses will not be able to continue and large businesses such as car factories are already closing down.

At one of the PM’s press conferences a journalist asked if we were headed for a recession. It was a daft question.  There was no possible answer other than yes given the slow down in the economy caused by all the businesses shutting.  Of course, the PM was unable to give a straight answer. He hasn’t been able to do anything other than mumble cliché’s and platitudes while creating more confusion about the government’s response, or lack of it, to the crisis.

The government has published a bill to be passed by Parliament “on the nod” on Monday. The bill is big and gives the government all sorts of powers. I haven’t seen it, read it or know in detail what it allows, but it worries me. Some restriction of rights is necessary if the health service is not to be overcome, but for 2 years? These kinds of powers must have a short lifetime otherwise we will become pawns in an authoritarian state as bad as any in the dystopian literature. Unlike when 1984 was written, we now have the technology to monitor and control everyone. Indeed it is being tried in China.

So while we are fighting over toilet rolls, think about the future we are giving ourselves.

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P1010029I thought that with nearly all my engagements cancelled I would have plenty of time for getting on with my novel. There is only one problem. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on a story set a few years ago when life seemed normal (although I am ot sure what normal means). The days before Brexit; before Trump and other right wing populist nationalists and Johnson was nothing but than a former oafish Mayor of London; the days before heavy rains caused flooding at one time or another in every part of the country; the days before Covid-19. I think I’m going to have to start something as other-worldish as I can think of to set my mind free of the present.

Of course there was no writing group this week but we had a sort of a virtual meeting in which a few of us posted pieces based on the theme set last week of “worm moon” (apparently that’s the name of the first March full Moon, when the spring warmth makes the earthworms rise). My take is called Wyrm Moon and calls to mind a number of  stories with similar creaturses, such as Tremors, The Legacy of Herot (Niven), even the sandworms of Dune (Herbert). Perhaps there is something original in my tale, of which this is just an incomplete, first draft, snippet.

Wyrm Moon

“Stand away from the window, child, and opaque it. Now!” Mother hissed.
I took one last glance through the vari-glass.  Bigmoon was high in the sky, larger than it ever looked at other times in the year and glowing bright yellow. I reached out and touched the window. My view disappeared and the window became just another part of the dull cream wall. I turned and faced Mother. Her face was red, and she spoke again in an angry whisper
“Don’t ever let me see you looking out of a window again. Not when the Wyrm Moon is in the sky.”
“I wanted to see Bigmoon when it’s biggest,” I said, though I knew what her answer would be.
“You stupid child. You know that is dangerous.  Dangerous for all of us. You can look at Bigmoon at other times, when it’s not the Wyrm Moon. Now come and sit down quietly with the rest of us and eat.”
The evening meal filled my belly but that was about it. At this time of year, we lived on leftovers that had been stored for days, because no one dared to visit the glasshouses when the Wyrm Moon was in the sky.
As I scraped the final scraps onto my spoon the ground trembled beneath the floor of the hab.  Mother and my aunt froze, their faces white and alert. My sisters shivered beside me. For some reason I just felt excited.
The Wyrms were moving.
“Shh. Not a sound,” Mother whispered, “Don’t move a muscle.”
We all sat at the table as if turned to stone. The floor continued to shake and there was a rustling like skin against stone, except this was the leathery skin of monsters dragging themselves through their burrows in the rock deep beneath us.
The sound and the shaking faded away. Around the table there were intakes of breath; breath that had been held for minutes.
“That was close,” Aunt Sal said.
Mother cut her off before she said any more. “Shh, not in front of the children. Go to your room children. Lie on your beds and do not make a sound.”
We left the table and crossed the living zone to our room. My three younger sisters climbed onto their beds and lay still. I stopped by the door and sat down on the floor. I wanted to listen to what was said. I could just hear the soft, voiceless conversation.
“They are closer this year,” Aunt Sal said. “If they sense us then we will be gone like the other settlements.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Mother said. “We both know the consequences of being discovered by the Wyrms. We must ensure they do not hear us or sense our movements. The children too, but I do not want them scared.”
I didn’t know what Aunt Sal meant by other settlements but knew the tales of the Wyrms that lived deep beneath us. Fifty metres long and five wide, with jaws that crushed rock as if it was cheese. They only came to the surface when Bigmoon was brightest. Mother and Aunt Sal may have been scared but I wanted to see a Wyrm. They were obviously close now.
While Mother and Aunt Sal talked quietly, heads almost touching I crept from our room towards the door of the hab. The door opened silently and then I was outside.
I moved slowly and as quietly as possible across the dusty yard using a walk cum shuffle cum hop to cover the distance passed the glasshouses and other habs. I reached the boundary marker of our settlement. I didn’t intend going further.  There were other fierce animals out in the wilds apart from Wyrms. I just wanted to get a glimpse of one of the creatures.
The ground moved under my feet. It lifted, tossing me as if I was bouncing on one of our beds. I fell onto my back as the ground opened in front of me and the head of a Wyrm rose into the sky.

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Jasmine rejoices, a little

First the good news. The Chancellor removed VAT from e-books and e-magazines in the budget.  This is a very welcome change and means that maybe, I’ll get a few pence more from the sale of each of my books – fingers-crossed.

There’s not much else that is uplifting to comment on. the rest of the budget was a sort of Tory re-boot, like Abrams version of Star Trek.  Basically forget everything you saw before; this is the new reality. So we are now to forget 10 years of austerity where borrowing was apparently the worst thing a nation could do. Now its borrow, borrow borrow to spend, spend, spend.  Except is it? From what I saw of the budget (to be honest I have not studied it closely at all) nothing was given away to help people pay their bills or live their lives. There were just vague promises of huge sums of money for infrastructure, some time in the future. I think the borrowing will be to cover the costs of Brexit and Covid-19, while the promised expenditure will never happen because the money is simply not there.

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The epidemic is following its predicted path.  I cannot quite decide if the measures, effectively shutting down whole nations and probably sending a lot of small businesses into bankruptcy, is the right thing to do. I still need convincing that the effects of the virus, particularly the number of deaths, is much worse than the expected deaths from annual flu outbreaks. Of course, we haven’t any immunity to covid-19 while some have some immunity to the current flu strain(s), but if the virus is being spread widely does that make much difference? I still think what I said last week, that sensible hygiene precautions and not going out of one’s way to get close to people, while still carrying on living one’s life, is the best bet.

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And so to rugby. Yes, a bit of sport. Well, not really. Just a comment about groping.  England player, Joe Marler was recorded on video grabbing Welsh captain, Alun Wyn Jones’ genitals. According to at least one commentator, it’s all part of the game.  That’s a new interpretation of keeping balls in play. The video clearly shows the action and Marler’s big smile.  He obviously got some satisfaction from it. Wyn Jones objected. Marler has been suspended for 10 weeks. Rightly so. All sports are competitive. Rugby is more violent than most, but abuse, physical or verbal, should have no part in a game.  Some say that ball groping is what lads do.  Really? Is that what we want young people to learn – that it’s just a bit of fun to grab at a boy’s or a girl’s crotch, even if they don’t want it.

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20200109_205015 (2)Finally, some writing.  This week’s prompt was “you never listen”. I didn’t receive any inspiration for a story, but instead an idea for a poem popped into my head. Now, I don’t do poetry; have no talent for it (that’s if I have a talent for anything) but I have written a couple in the past. This is another eco-poem. There’s no attempt to rhyme or scan and I could probably choose more appropriate words if I gave it more thought. So, given all those excuses here is “You Never Listen“.  To read it, click on the link below.

You never listen

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Jasmine washes her hands

When can we expect the zombies to come lurching down the streets of our home towns? That seems to be what people are expecting by the reaction to the Coronavirus news with supermarket shortages being reported. Perhaps people have seen too many movies where events devastate the world very rapidly. It was the same with what was said about Brexit: the economic sky would fall in the moment the votes in the referendum were counted. Actually of course, Brexit is more likely to lead to a steady decline over a few years with the government providing all sorts of excuses other then admit to the true explanations.   Of course in the films there is often a superhero to rescue us.  Not many of those around.

But back to the impending doom of the Covid-19 plague. Yes, it is serious: it’s a new and unfamiliar infection. Early on in the epidemic it was uncertain how serious the illness was, how many would catch it or how many would die, and there was no vaccine. Now, while the vaccine will take some months to develop, we have a better idea. For most people it is probably less severe than flu, but that means we don’t really know how many people have had it since not everyone will be aware or will report having it. It does seem to kill more of the elderly, unwell and exhausted than flu but that could be an anomaly in the numbers. The point is it is not bubonic plague, or ebola or one of the other deadly infections which we have so far succeeded in keeping a lid on.

It looks to me like the cure could be worse than the disease.  The financial markets are already spooked; travel is decreasing (actually that could be a good thing for the climate) but businesses that depend on tourists and people going out to meet up for work or pleasure will be hard hit. Forced closures of schools, offices, factories, cinemas, stadia, etc. will cause a further economic hit which businesses are unprepared for.  How many might lay off employees? If not managed with care (and how many of our politicians are careful?) a disaster could indeed be caused by our reaction to the disease.

Many countries, UK included, have extreme draconian powers up their sleeves in the event of a serious disease outbreak. I don’t go along with conspiracy theories, the world is more a cock-up than anything else, but some leaders could see a chance to impose authoritarian laws with the excuse that they are fighting the virus. Elections could be postponed, gatherings of people banned, criticism of the government outlawed, travel constrained, borders closed.

So, my suggestion is don’t overact. Maintain normal healthy hygiene – wash hands frequently and carefully, use a tissue when you sneeze or cough, dispose of tissues carefully, stay at home if you feel ill. Carry on with life and support local businesses. I may fall into the age bracket which is apparently under the greatest threat but I am not going to stop doing the things I want to do.

P1010151

Another photo of me in a snowsuit – with a cute pair of huskies.

45320358I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Stephen Appleby’s new graphic novel, Dragman, a humorous tale of a gender-fluid superhero. Part of the appeal is that Appleby and me may be soulmates in that he is also gender-fluid and content with his name and his family life.

Back to writers’ group this week. Our esteemed leader was absent hence the title for this week’s task was “Where’s Jane.”  I know I shouldn’t make excuses but I had little time for my effort, so the piece, which I’ve titled simply, Jane, is a bit rushed and requires more work to make it coherent, but here it is.

Jane

I was alerted from scanning our stock by the ding of the doorbell. It was old-fashioned perhaps but effective at letting me know when a customer was entering the shop. A young man approached me followed by an older woman. His mother, I presumed.
Both customers looked around the empty display area appearing bemused.
“Can I help you?” I asked in my most ingratiating voice.
“Um, yes,” the boy said, “We’re looking for Jane, a Jane. I thought you had them here.”
“We do,” I replied, “but we don’t put them on show. They look a bit silly if they’re just standing around. What type of Jane were you considering?”
“Er, I’m not sure,” he turned to appeal to the woman. She shrugged.
“Well, what would be your reason for purchasing a Jane?” I asked. “We have all sorts. The Darling is excellent if you are needing childcare.  There’s the Russell if you are looking for a companion. She usually appeals to the older gentleman. . .” I was interrupted in my recitation by the woman.
“I want one that will do as it’s told and carry out all the chores around the house,”
“Ah, I see. Perhaps you would like our standard model, the Jane Doe. It will do everything you ask of it and you’ll barely notice it around the house.”
I clicked a button. A moment later the door behind me opened and a Jane Doe emerged. It was a white plastic cylinder rolling along on a wheeled undercarriage that could cope with stairs. An assortment of appendages attached to the upper half of its body enabled it to carry out a wide variety of tasks.
“Oh, I don’t want one of those old things,” the woman moaned. “I want one that looks like a person and acts like a person.”
“Well, I was listing the various humanoid model Janes that we have in stock, but they are rather more specialised than the Jane Doe here.”
“But they can do all the jobs can’t they. It’s not much point me getting one of your expensive models if she won’t do all the work and give me a bit of a rest.”
“Of course,” I replied, “All our Janes can multi-task and perform whatever function you select. Would you like to see one?”
“Of course, we would, wouldn’t we Darcy.”
The boy showed me a thin smile.
I selected another button. “Well, Darcy, I think this Jane will suit you.”
The door opened again and the Jane swept into the shop, flashing her eyelids at the young man and nodding respectfully to the woman.
“Does it speak?” the woman said.
“Of course,” I replied. “Speak to the customers, Jane.”
The Jane Austen lifted her head and spoke in sweet voice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged. . .”
“She’s reciting something. I know that line,” Darcy said.
“She does that. It’s included in her personality,” I replied. “Although it’s listed as the Austen model, it’s personality is modelled on one of the characters.”
I noticed that Darcy’s eyes were wide open in wonder. “She’s perfect,” he said. “We’ll take her, won’t we Mother. You’ve got over your feelings about humanoid robots being allowed in homes.”
Mother drew herself up straight. “I have my pride Darcy, but if you want this one we’ll take her.” She pressed her credit digit against my payment slot.

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Jasmine goes north

For the first time in my life (other than in school) I have been on a package tour. Now I know that when you are on such a trip, you are the package.  And so we joined the long, long queue at check in; we were packaged onto the plane and delivered to the coach; we were distributed to various activities and we were deposited in our storage rooms. Actually though, it was great. The waits were not too long or unbearable; the tour company and the hotel looked after us admirably and we had a fantastic time on the activities.

Where were we? Well, here is where I have to make a confession. I think we have blown whatever carbon credits we have built up. We flew to northern Finland, 350 km above the Arctic Circle. The main reason was to try and observe the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. This has been top of Lou’s bucket list.  Actually it’s more of an egg cup list as there isn’t anything else on it for now. Getting as far north as possible seemed to be the best way of achieving our objective and this 4-night tour provided it. However it wasn’t just the flying that has scuppered our environmental credibility. There were the coaches and the minibuses that ferried us on excursions. The  hotel complex on a hillside beside the river that is the border between Finland and Sweden was kept comfortably warm with ample supplies of hot water and hot food. It’s heating system ran on diesel. Being late February and a month from the equinox, the Sun was above the horizon for 10-11 hours a day.  Nevertheless, the temperature never went above -6C and went as low as -22C. Maintaining a comfortable environment for the 100 or so guests and all the staff required a considerable expenditure of fuel, and output of carbon dioxide.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the experience was worth it. Seeing and experiencing the tundra in winter was awe inspiring. There was a uniform 2 foot covering of snow everywhere but this wasn’t the wet snow we get in the UK. This was a dry, powdery material that was not wet at all and not slippery either.  It could not be squeezed into a snowball. While roads had been cleared, there was still a covering of snow but vehicles had no difficulty and walking on it did not risk a slide and fall either. The surroundings were magical; lots and lots of pine trees, no more that 10m tall (no really big or ancient ones) in an endless white landscape. Even around the hotel and along the roads, the snow retained its brilliant whiteness, never becoming grubby like it does within a day or so back home.

A6Yes, we did see the lights. Not the spectacular curtains and waves you see in films, but patches of light in the night sky, slowly growing, moving, diminishing.  And the stars!  All that plus: walking through the snow in snowshoes; visiting a reindeer sanctuary and going for a sleigh ride; driving a husky team; riding snowmobiles (at midnight across a frozen lake); tobogganing; walking across a broad frozen river; and, in the middle of the night, sitting at the top of the hill drinking gloggy (?, a hot drink of forest fruits) watching the stars and the lights. That was an experience that we will remember for a long time.

I hope that our brief stay in northern Finland helps the livelihoods of the Sami people.  Unfortunately there was no real opportunity to meet and talk with the local people or to learn a great deal about their way of life, past and present. I’m not even sure how much the hotel complex contributes to the local economy.  Surprisingly nearly all the staff including the manager, catering staff, guides and instructors and reps were British. Staying at a hotel in  the UK you find that the employees come from Europe or elsewhere.  Here it was the reverse. But they were the happiest and most helpful bunch of, mainly young, people I’ve come across and it was they that made the holiday stress free and enjoyable.

Returning on a wonderful clear day, we flew over the tundra for over an hour. It showed little change. It is one of the few environments unchanged by humans. At least I think so.  Perhaps thousands of years of reindeer herding has brought about change.  But there were few signs of human activity although there were roads – straight lines across the undulating terrain. Yes, there are opencast mines (I caught sight of one) and presumably lumberjacking, but the overall impression was of an unspoilt landscape. Unspoilt that is until the warming caused by all that carbon dioxide we released on our trip melts the tundra, releases the methane trapped beneath, allows the ground to dry out and the forest to burn. I accept responsibility – do you?

It wasn’t constant physical activity. There was plenty of time for relaxation but I’m sorry to say I didn’t get much writing done. So, no story this week. But the inspiration. . .

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Jasmine in the dry

Well, that’s been a couple of weeks hasn’t it. Talk about rain. . . Thankfully we have not been flooded – unlikely in a second floor flat – but I feel for the thousands who have been washed out of their homes. We had a front row seat though. During Storm Ciara we went for walk counting sheep (it’ll take too long to explain), then during and after Storm Dennis we watched our two local rivers, the Wye and the Monnow, rise and rise. The River Wye broke all records, as it did along its length, peaking at 7.2m above its normal level. That was enough to almost submerge the road bridge, to almost top the floodgates under the A40 and to overwhelm the flood defences in the water pumping station. When you consider that the river had spread out to cover all the available floodplain, that depth of water is staggering.  A freak weather event? Well yes, but freaks are becoming common. Just about everywhere in the UK has experienced a flood emergency in the last ten years or so and they will keep coming. Some people still talk of dredging waterways – that will have no effect whatsoever. Other want flood defences – all they do is move the flood somewhere else. The only solutions are to tackle the causes. First of all the big one – climate change.  We have to keep the global temperature down so that the air cannot carry more water and the wind won’t become stronger. Secondly we have to look at the sources of the rivers and make sure that the upland forests and bogs are looked after so that the water is trapped and released slowly.

All this will require a government that recognises the problem and is prepared to manage the solutions. In the past ministers and the PM have visited the affected urban areas (OK, they haven’t done any good but at least they registered concern).  This time, not a peep. It’s not as if the areas affected were all opposition constituencies.  Herefordshire, Shropshire and Monmouth are staunchly Conservative.  Nevertheless, no comments from government, and no plan.

The government was more interested in getting out its new immigrant policy and explaining how employers were going to fill those low paid but vital jobs such as caring for the sick and elderly, picking crops, and serving in cafes, bars and shops. It will be down to the 8 million “economically inactive”. Apparently that includes the retired, and disabled. The last time I checked my bank balance I found that I was still paying tax and buying stuff so I don’t think “economically inactive” is quite accurate. Watch. First it will be unemployment benefit, then sickness and disability and other benefits and then the pensions that will be withdrawn unless the recipient does some “voluntary” work, regardless of whether they are fit to do so.

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20191130_123703[548]You may wonder why I title these weekly blogs “Jasmine this or that.” It’s a reminder that I started blogging to promote my Jasmine Frame detective novels and stories. Thos of you who have bene following me for a while will know that I used to include an episode of a Jasmine Frame story each week. After a few years and four novels and 17 not so short stories it became a but difficult. Now I am writing the fifth novel (yes, it is growing and developing into a bouncing embryo) but I’ve got off the treadmill of the weekly episode. However the four novels are available as e-books and paperbacks and the other 3 novellas/collection are published as e-books.  Go to here to find out more.

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No new story this week as I was otherwise engage for writers’ club. Here intead is a short story I wrote some time ago and don’t think I have put out before.

Persistence of vision

I fell in love with the cinema when I was a little kid watching flickering silent movies on our fourteen inch black and white TV.  As soon as I was old enough I was off to the local fleapit every Saturday for the double bill of westerns and sci-fi.  With my first pay packet I bought a second-hand super 8 camera and projector and made my own shorts.  It made me understand how movies work. My efforts were no match for the mega-bucks, special-effects, super-hero films that I enjoyed seeing at the multi-screen – Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-men, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Ironman.  I especially liked the heroes who had started out as ordinary guys before some freak accident gave them their special powers.

Then it happened to me.

It’s not surprising, given my interest, that I work in pictures; not making films, but selling photographic equipment.  I specialise in the cine side of the business.  There have been lots of changes over the years, from film to video tape and now digital.  I miss the mechanical film cameras and projectors.   The film is fed by the sprockets through a gate.  Each frame stops in the gate for about one forty-eighth of a second and a rotating shutter blocks out the movement of the film.  Twenty four frames pass through the gate every second but all we see is a constant scene with movement.  You could see how the system works; you can’t do that with the modern electronics.

Well, I was trying to sell a new digital camera to a customer.  We had stepped outside the shop so I could demonstrate the features.  I was looking through the viewfinder – it all happened in a blur.  A car suddenly veered off the road, mounted the pavement and came straight for me.  Someone shoved me out of the way and I must have knocked my head when I fell because that’s all I remember.

When I woke up I felt fine, well, a bit of a headache I suppose.  I didn’t know where I was and when they said I was in hospital I wondered why because I wasn’t really injured.  They said they wanted to keep me under observation for a day or two because I’d had a bump on the head.  It was a complete bore.  I felt fit as a fiddle and there was nothing to do except read – the TV in my room was on the blink.  All I could do was look out the window and watch the trees sway and the birds fly.  I suppose that was when I first noticed something strange.

Everything seemed particularly clear.  When a pigeon flew by my window, its wings flapping, I could make out every detail of the grey and white feathers in its wings.  Usually you wouldn’t expect to see that much detail because of persistence of vision.  That’s where your brain can’t interpret the images fast enough so they sort of overlap and become blurred.  I didn’t really think about it then.  I just shrugged it off as boredom making me more observant.

When the doctors ran out of tests they let me go.  I couldn’t get out of the hospital quickly enough.   Once I got home I put the TV on.  There was something wrong with it.  The picture flickered and it seemed that I could see the LCDs lighting up one after another like a Mexican wave of light.  I couldn’t stand it for more than a few minutes so I turned it off and sat around thinking what to do.  Not surprisingly a trip to the cinema was my first idea.   I like the old Picture House where the show old movies on  real film projector.

I got to the cinema just in time for the feature to start.  I sat in my seat and looked at the screen.  Things looked strange.  The film company logos went by and the film started but it was all wrong.  It was like watching one of those early silent films.  The pictures flickered.  I could see the dark blanks between each frame.  Instead of “moving” pictures it was like watching a succession of slides in a slide show. My neighbours seemed quite happy, eyes fixed on the screen, pupils wide, unblinking.  I leaned closed to the guy on my right and asked him if the picture looked alright to him.  He told me to shut up.  The film went on.  No-one complained or got up and left; just me.

I wandered along the road looking around– the rotating wheels of vehicles weren’t a blur and I could see the spokes of bicycle wheels as they turned.  I realised that something strange was happening to me. My route took me to the hospital so I went right up to the ward I had been on and demanded to see a doctor.  Eventually a junior doctor came to see me and I explained what was happening.  He didn’t know much about cinema or vision so I had to explain it to him.

Somehow I was seeing not just the stills but the black bits in between.  It shouldn’t happen.  The brain takes about a twenty-fifth of a second to build an image from the signals sent from the retina in the eye and interprets the succession of images as motion.  I finally made the doctor understand what I was seeing.  He peered into my eyes but there was nothing to see there of course.  He arranged for me to have an MRI scan on my brain.

Nothing showed up until they arranged for me to watch a film while I was in the scanner.  That was difficult as there’s no room for a projector and screen inside the machine but they managed it all with mirrors.  They discovered that my brain was interpreting images much faster than normal.  Somehow that bump on my head had re-programmed by brain and shortened the image interpretation process.  That may seem like an improvement but it means that I can’t sit through films or watch TV anymore; the flickering gives me a headache and anyway they just don’t make sense to me anymore

Instead I go out into the country and watch the wildlife.  I watch the swallows and house martins darting around in the sky; I see squirrels running up trees and rabbits scampering across a field; I can follow grasshoppers when they leap off a leaf and dragonflies flitting over a pond.  My squash playing has improved now I can watch the ball bouncing around the court and I can see a cricket ball bowled by a fast bowler better than any batsman. If I had the opportunity I could see a bullet all the way from the gun to the target just like Neo in the Matrix.  I can do something that no one else can.  I’ve got my super-power.  There’s just one reason why I’m not a super-hero – I haven’t caught any super-criminals. Yet.

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Jasmine is colour-blind

We went to the cinema this week.  The Personal History of David Copperfield was delightful and had several laugh aloud moments. It is an energetic if abridged version of Dickens’, semi-autobiographical, novel. It is the cast that make it enjoyable and perhaps different. The director Armando Iannucci deliberately chose the cast by their acting ability and characters not by the colour of their skin. Since I doubt that Dickens dwelt on skin colour in the book (I haven’t read it) one could easily say, so what. Yet some people feel that the film doesn’t give a traditional i.e. white, picture of life in Victorian south-east England. I think the cast were wonderful. Dev Patel is a charming Copperfield, Hugh Lawrie is a bonkers Mr Dick, Peter Capaldi a twinkly-eyed Micawber.  Rosalind Eleazar, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong are superb as Betsey Trotwood, Agnes, Mr Wickfield respectively and I could go on. Who is whichever colour is irrelevant.

20200109_205015 (2)Coincidentally, this week I have read articles and book reviews on the subject of race. Scientifically, the concept of race does not exist. Compare the genomes of a group of dark-skinned people with those of a group of pale-skins and there is no sign of race.  In one the genes for skin pigmentation are active, but the variation in genomes within the groups is much more marked than differences between them. We are all descended from the first small group of homo sapiens that migrated from their original home somewhere in Africa. Our whole history shows the importance of migration in mixing up the genome and we contain genes from people who have lived in all parts of the Earth.

There may be a lot of people migrating at the moment but then there are a lot of people on Earth at the moment. Great waves of migration took place in previous centuries.  Native Americans and Native Australians could not stem the flood of migrants from Europe and were overwhelmed. Apart from economic migration, war and invasion has played an important role in mixing the genes.  Sex has always been used as a weapon; invaders (men) have impregnated the women they have subjugated either forcibly or by offering hope of survival. I wonder how many babies were born during WW2 to the women who had sex with American GIs  as they passed through first the UK, then France, Italy and Germany?

I think I read that in the last ten years Greece has lost a significant fraction of its population to emigration elsewhere in Europe and overseas. The number of migrants banged up in camps on various Greek islands is considerably smaller. Surely, if Greece, and other countries with a shortage of labour, took in the migrants they could make up the shortfall. Migrants will take the jobs few want, such as harvesting crops, sorting rubbish and emptying bedpans. Soon the able and determined will take jobs requiring skills and aptitude, paying more taxes and adding to the economic worth of the nation. Within one or two generations they will be Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mayor of London, leaders of business and innovators in science and technology – and we all benefit.

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The writers’ group task for this week was “Four hours between flights”. There were some excellent accounts of airport waits while others stretched the topic to other delays on railways and in A&E.  I came at the topic from a slightly different direction, quite literal really. I also experimented with a piece that is totally dialogue. See what you think of Murmurs.

Murmurs

“Och aye, Stevie my laddie. Got a perch for a wee one there?’
“Oh, hi, Stuart. Course we have. Settle yourself here. We haven’t seen you for a while. Where you been?”
“A long-haul, but I’m back to join the ol’ clan again now. What you been doing with thyself, lad?”
“Just short hops.  There’s easy pickings round here this time of year.”
“Aye, ‘tis summer, a braw time of year. Look now, nearly midnight and still barely dark.”
“And the sun will be up by four. Stafford will have us out on exercises at first light.”
“Auld Stafford still putting you through it is he, Stevie lad?”
“You bet Stuart. He had us up this evening trying out some new moves he’s thought up. It’s hard work. Nearly had us in a mass pile-up he did.”
“’Scuse me a moment there Stevie. I see Stephanie preening herself. Hello my bonnie lass,”
“Stuart! You’re back then. About blooming time.”
“Dinnae be crabbit, lass. How’re the bairns.”
“Flown the roost, at last. Joined the pecking order and looking after them ownselves, no thanks to you.”
“Ah well, perhaps you’re ready to snuggle up in the oak tree again. Oops, I dinnae see you there Stanley.”
“Wha’s tha’ you twittering, Stuart. You trying it on with my Steph.”
“We go back a long way do Steph an’ me. You’re still having a fancy for a flutter with her then?”
“I am too, so you stick your beak somewhere else.”
“You’re aff yer heid, Stanley. I dinnae ken, Stevie. What’s up with him.”
“I think it’s empty-nest syndrome, Stu. Stanley’s worried Steph might take off on her own now the kids have gone.”
“I’ll be canny then and keep out of Stanley’s way till Steph’s made up her own mind. Oh, yon Stafford’s coming home to roost. You’d better haud your wheesht Stevie lad.”
“Evening ladies and gents. Move along the wire there. Make room, Steven, there’s a good chap.”
“Here, Stafford, you can come between me and Stuart.”
“Ah, Stuart, back with us I see. Well, it will be good to have your experience in the team for our morning manoeuvres. It’ll be an early start mind. What’s that you said Steven, my boy?”
“I was explaining to Stuart that this time of year we only get four hours between flights.”
“Better to hae’ a bit of shut eye then. Don’t you agree Stafford.”
“Yes, though, I always say it’s best to sleep with one eye open to watch out for emergencies. Be prepared.”

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Jasmine frets

A couple of issues to comment on this week. First of all, I know I am not the first to note the parallels between the Democratic Party in the USA and the Labour Party in the UK. Both seem to think that the world is what it was ten, 20 , 30 years ago when they could spend months on internal wrangles while choosing a leader.  They seemed to have missed that their countries have been taken over by a bigoted, right wing cabal lead by lazy, lying, unscrupulous oafs who somehow command support from a significant proportion of the population and the self-seeking, sycophants of the governing party. There is no time for jostling for position. All opposition parties should be working together to reveal the creeping dictatorships for what they are and argue against every outrageous statement of the rulers.

The second topic for a gripe is a couple of weeks old now. One may feel that a bunch of C of E bishops stating that sexual intercourse should only take place between married heterosexual couples was an irrelevance. After all, less than 10% of UK people attend church regularly. Nevertheless the C of E still has power as the established church and the ruling clique use lip-service adherence to Christian morals as a cloak to justify their policies.  The archbishops of Canterbury and York say the announcement was mistimed but have not rejected the statement. So what do they expect? That people will stop having sex outside marriage, that gay sex will cease? Probably not. Do they expect people who disobey the rule to be punished? Why make the rule if there is no consequence for breaking it? Perhaps they expect sinners to suffer eternal damnation but I don’t think many believe that anymore. Unfortunately religions have the habit of trying to enforce what they say is God’s will here on Earth, and their followers gleefully act out their bigotry on the those that offend. The bishops’ announcement gives their endorsement to attacks on gay people.  They should be held to account as homophobes.

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P1010029I was invited to fill in a survey for one of the professional organisations I am a member of.  I was pleased that they offered me the possibility to use Mx as a title, and to provide my own definition of my gender. However it also asked about my sexual relationships (I don’t know what that had to with my professional standing) but their acceptance of non-binary genders didn’t stretch as far as sex. The only options were hetero or homo-sexual relationships. Now I am not sure precisely where I stand and I am not experimenting at the moment being perfectly happy in my 32nd year of marriage, but some extra possibilities would be have been appreciated.

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Back to Writers’ Group this week with the topic “I told you I was ill,” which, of course, is Spike Milligan’s epitaph. I thought some of my colleagues would write excellent poems and stories on that theme and I was not wrong. I tried to look at it from another point of view. Actually, it is quite relevant with the tales about the young man who pushed a toddler off the Tate Modern roof. I’m not particularly happy with my execution (not a pun) of the story and it is perhaps a bit complex for a short piece. The title is important.

Sunlight

“’I told you I was ill’, that’s all the deceased said, PC Bale?” The coroner’s eyes fixed on her, unblinking, “and then you shot him.”
She stood erect, hands by her side, head up, but making eye contact. “Yes, Sir.” People had called her a hero, but doubt troubled her. Had she really needed to pull that trigger?

It had been a quiet morning. Jane Bale and her partner PC Kyle Smith were sitting in the armed response car when the call came through. Kyle was an expert at getting through the town traffic quickly so just two minutes had elapsed when they pulled up at the plaza outside the new university building. They grabbed their heavier weapons from the boot and ran across the pedestrian zone which had heavy artworks placed to stop vehicles. People fled from the library and lecture rooms and the public areas. Anyone could wander in, buy a coffee or a meal and relax in the lounge areas.
Kyle was listening to his earpiece. “They’re on the right in a café.”  They moved together, slower now, with their machine guns unlocked, armed and pointing ahead at chest height. There were no walls dividing the ground floor but ahead was obviously a coffee shop with small tables, chairs and sofas. There were also bodies. A quick glance revealed at least ten people had fallen, though how many were dead Jane couldn’t tell. In the centre of the area, silhouetted by daylight from the tall, wide windows was the suspect. He was a pale, short-haired youth, slim, medium height, dressed in jeans and a hoody. He held a machete-like weapon in his right hand. There was blood pooled on the floor, splashed across the easy chairs, dripping from the tables. Jane had never seen so much blood. Her heart pumped but she told herself to remain calm and do her job.
Jane and Kyle advanced at an angle to put some distance between them if the young man chose to attack. Kyle shouted the warning, “Armed police, drop your weapon.”
The boy, he was little more than that, moved towards them, his blade raised, arm outstretched. Jane lifted her sub-machine gun to her face and aimed, her finger barely touching the trigger. Kyle recited the warning again, but the boy came on.  There was a body on the floor in his path. Staring along the barrel, Jane saw the prone body move a limb. Would the assailant react? She wasn’t sure. He had already killed, that was certain. Did he want more victims? Did he feel guilt or pleasure? She had never been required to use her training to kill and wondered what it felt like. Her finger tightened.
The boy approached, ten metres away now, his weapon pointing towards her.
“I told you I was ill,” he cried and stepped closer.
Her finger pressed on the trigger.
A shaft of sunlight shone between the blade and the boy’s hand, widening. The round fired, the blast hammering her ears. The weapon clattered on the floor and the boy fell on top of it
Jane lowered her gun. She stared at the boy’s body. A whisper came from her lips. “There was light.”

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Jasmine in fashion

I suppose, this being the day when a new era in history has begun, I have to make a comment. I will always regret that the UK has left the EU, and when the opportunity arises I shall urge our return. Johnson talked of uniting the country – that is piffle, of which he speaks a lot. This country is more divided than it has ever been. The sickness of Brexit has caused many divisions: between England and the rest of the UK, between the English and people who have settled here, between those who consider themselves the majority and minorities.  I believe that Brexit will have a detrimental effect.  I say believe because I have no factual evidence to prove it so, but I make the following predictions:

1 There will be a steady decline in prosperity and employment and a rise in prices.  It won’t be sudden and so it will never be proved to be a result of leaving the EU. No government will ever blame anything on leaving the EU.

2  There will be erosion of citizen’s rights, partly because unrest will increase due to increased poverty. Certain minorities will be targeted and the changes to the law will be justified as ensuring the “freedoms” and safety of the majority.

3  Even less will be done to alleviate climate change than has been achieved up to now.

There are other things that I fear will happen in the next 5 to 10 years of Tory government but I don’t want to spoil your day.

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Earlier this week we visited London to go to the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A. I’m not a follower of fashion in either male or female mode but it was a fascinating piece of social history. I knew, of course, that Mary Quant was one of the leading figures of 60s fashion but I hadn’t realised quite how innovative she had been as designer alongside her husband as marketing guru and the third member of the trio, their financial partner. When you look at the clothes she designed, had made and sold in the period from about 1955 to 1980 you get a multi-facetted view of the period; the growing freedom of women to live their own lives (up to a point); the rebellion against the staid norms of previous eras; the growing power of the young (with money in their pockets and freedom from parents); new ways of marketing fashion (TV and film, colour supplements in newspapers, pop music and youth magazines); new materials (synthetic fibres and plastics such as pvc); mass production (designs contracted out to factories, often overseas).

Many of Quant’s designs have been recycled over and over again – the mini-skirts and dresses and jump suits, in particular. Many have become everyday classics. Some items have almost disappeared such as the coat-dress, a thick, warm garment that functions like a coat but has the fit and features of a dress. I imagine they were popular for attending functions in large, poorly heated homes, halls and churches before central heating really caught on.  She may not have been the first (I’m no fashion history expert) but she certainly saw the value of branding – her own name, names for clothing lines and trademarks such as the daisy logo which appeared on everything from jewellery to bags, and the Daisy doll which girls (and boys?) could clothe with miniature versions of Quant designs..

An interesting part of the exhibition was that it included comments from people who worked for Quant, commentators of the period, and women who purchased the goods. It was a fascinating couple of hours. The only problem was that as with all these special exhibitions, there were too many people (despite it being a “quiet” Monday lunchtime).

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P1010031 (2)The photos of me this week are ones I have taken experimenting with a new camera tripod and the timer setting on the camera.

No writers’ group this week as I was elsewhere and I have had little time for writing.  I have started a couple of short pieces and I have been planning (in my head mainly) how Jasmine 5 will progress, but I have nothing new to post. So here is something what I wrote earlier.  I wrote it some years ago inspired by reports of boats abandoned on the almost dried up Aral Sea in central Asia.

 

There was a boat . . .

There was a boat that rested, listing, on a shore that had not experienced the kiss of waves for a generation. Yuri entered through the jagged hole made to remove the diesel engine and all the metal fittings. He stretched his young legs to clamber up the lopsided wooden ladder. Sunlight made jagged stripes on his face and body as it streamed through the gaps in the wind-shrunken timbers. The boat would no longer float if the sea returned, not that that was likely to occur. Yuri reached the narrow bridge, held himself upright by hanging on to the wheel and looked out of the dirt-covered, cracked window. The barren sea-bed stretched to meet the brown sky at the distant horizon. Yuri was alone with his boat.  Alone with his thoughts and memories.

Yuri’s father had seen the approaching vehicles shrouded in their clouds of dust and exhaust fumes. He had sent Yuri to his hiding place above the ceiling of their shack. There Yuri peered through the gaps in the boards. He saw the battered four-by-four pickups draw up around their little house and the bearded men with the guns and blades get out. They crowded into the one room and demanded things of his father. Things he did not have. Yuri didn’t recognise the men but they had been before. Last time they had taken his mother in exchange for his father’s life, taken her Yuri did not know where. Now he lay on the boards listening to his father argue and plead. The men shouted and then his father had made one last sound; a brief shriek that cut off abruptly.
There was more noise as the men smashed up the hut with the butts of their guns, then they left, laughing and hailing a god Yuri did not know. Their vehicle engines spluttered into life and they were gone.  Yuri waited just in case the men returned but after many minutes of silence except for the whispering wind, he crept from his hiding place.
Yuri’s father was sprawled on the floor, the blood from his almost severed neck soaking into the earth. His guts spread across floor, stinking, already attracting buzzing flies. Yuri took a single glance and left the home he had shared with his father, mother, baby sister and grandfather. They were all gone now. He was alone. He went to the only other place he knew – the boat.

The sun turned red and bloated and sank below the featureless horizon. Yuri remained standing watching. The sky darkened and the stars came out, so many stars that Yuri couldn’t comprehend their number. Though the long-dried out, wind-scoured bed of the former sea was as dark as dark could be, the sky was bright with the stars.
Yuri gripped the wheel and turned it to port and starboard. He was sailing, not the fish-filled waters that the boat had navigated with his grandfather at the wheel, but the heavens, like the cosmonaut who he was named for who had died decades before he was born. In his boat of dreams Yuri soared among the stars and planets, visiting places where there were foods and drinks he had heard about but never tasted, seeing animals and plants that he was told existed away from the poisoned shores of the dried-up sea, and meeting his father and mother and sister and relatives and friends that once had inhabited the shore which was home. Upon the starry main, he found peace and happiness.

The boat remained at its mooring. Its keel broken as it slumped into the dust. Its timbers crumbled and the atoms of the wood and of Yuri mingled and were sucked into the air. At last, Yuri sailed away on the wind that blew across the waterless sea.

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Jasmine whodunnit

I saw that it was the annual Davos hoolie earlier this week (why do I always think of Davros, inventor of the Daleks) with world leaders, business moguls, environmentalists etc. I wonder what good it does.  The only issues seemed to be whether Trump could avoid falling on the ice (he could) and whether Sajid Javid could defend the UKs independent right to impose taxes on tech firms (he couldn’t).  It’s supposed to be all about economics and the environmental groups are there to draw attention to the fact that eternal growth is an impossibility in a finite world. Yet all we hear is whether the country is growing or heading for recession, totally divorced from the state of the planet.

I wonder about this growth thing. How related is it to inflation? The starting salary when I began my teaching career 44 years ago was under £2,000.  Now it is around £25,000 (static throughout most of the twenty teens), a factor of 12 – 15 times. That is about the same as the rise in the price of a gallon of petrol (50p to £6.00). House prices have risen faster while food prices haven’t.  By what factor has the UK’s economy grown? Answers on a postcard please.

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Layout 1This week I went to hear Mark McCrum talk about his third crime novel. After a career in travel writing and as a sought after ghost writer he has settled on writing cosy whodunnits. His talk was a how-to guide including a history of crime stories (I didn’t realise there was one in the 1001 Arabian Nights stories) and the rules that various writers have imposed on themselves and others. Mark described how his stories fit the genre. I quipped that I’d broken all the rules in my Jasmine stories (4 novels and 15+ short stories/novellas) but actually I don’t think I have. Painted Ladies is more thriller than whodunnit but Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder, and Molly’s Boudoir  have suspects, clues and a puzzle that Jasmine has to solve.  That is particularly true of Brides which is an almost traditional country house murder with a trapped set of suspects. Perhaps I have given more attention to Jasmine and her journey of transition than other crime writers might with their detectives, but not a lot.  So, if you want a gripping murder story, get a Jasmine Frame novel.

Oh, I bought Mark’s first crime novel, The Festival Murders, now with a new publisher having been self-published originally (yes, a successful self-publisher).  Mark’s settings for his three novels are taken from his own experiences – a literary festival, a cruise, and a writing retreat.

Back to writers’ group this week with the theme, “23rd January”, the day of the meeting. I had thoughts of a time-travel adventure featuring events that had taken place on that day in history.  But I didn’t have time (I’m trying to get on with Jasmine 5) so I did this short piece, Last Call, instead. Can you guess what/who it is?  The explanation is at the end.

Last Call

Hello. Is anyone there? I know I’m pretty weak but can you hear me? It’s 23rd January 2003.  There, now you know I still have my faculties. I haven’t been in touch for a while because I’m feeling tired. I haven’t got the energy I used to have.
Not like when it all began. It was March 1972.  You said farewell as I launched on my journey.  I left your orbit and set out for places no-one had been to before. At first, we chatted a lot as I set my course.  You worried that I may be in danger, but I came through unscathed. After that excitement we prepared for my main encounter.
That came in November 1973. You were delighted with the first photograph I sent. My instruments provided lots of exciting data which I passed on to you. For a few days I was famous. Everyone wanted news of my progress. People waited eagerly for each picture that I sent. I revealed things no-one had ever seen. Then it was all over and I changed direction. I was heading into the void with nothing ahead of me. I didn’t mind; I am alone but not lonely. After all, this is what I trained for.
Things got quieter. We still chatted from time to time and I gave you my observations of what I saw and felt, but my main task was completed. I still look back at you but now I cannot see you small as you are and so close to the Sun. The Sun itself is no more than a bright star though I still feel its wind rushing by.
The flashes of plutonium atoms disintegrating that have accompanied my journey are becoming infrequent now. It is time for me to sleep. But my journey isn’t over; it has barely begun. I will travel onwards forever, into the night. Perhaps sometime, I will meet other people.  I have a message for them if I do, but I know it is unlikely. I shall probably drift alone till the end of time.
While others followed, I was the first and showed the way. Perhaps more will take the same path.
Goodbye.
Pioneer 10 sent its last message on 23rd January 2003, almost 31 years after its launch for a mission planned to last just 21 months. After its encounter with Jupiter in November 1973, it continued, heading away from the Sun but it did not travel to any other planets. Calculations show that like Pioneer 11 and the Voyager craft that followed it, left the Solar System in the last year or so. The Voyager probes however carried a more powerful energy source and have kept in contact for longer.

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Jasmine on fire

Hardly a day goes by without some news report relating to climate change: bush fires in Australia; floods here and elsewhere; temperatures beating records; aircraft companies on the verge of going bust.  What’s that? What’s the story of Flybe got to do with climate change?

Well, of course, flying is one of the important contributors to the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. A short hop by plane is equivalent to driving many times the distance by car   Currently almost nothing is being done to reduce the carbon foot print of flying – low taxes, little chance of using renewable energy on an appreciable scale, cheap holidays abroad. The shoring up of Flybe’s finances by reducing taxes on intra-UK flights goes against the government’s claim to be green. But the government says we need more UK flights to increase “connectivity”, which apparently, was one of the Tory government’s pledges in the general election. Not many people benefit from the UK flights however, certainly not the ordinary working people who voted Tory.  Unfortunately you cannot claim to be combating climate change and support frequent flyers.

There is an answer to increasing connectivity and reducing flying emissions – better railways. Not the expensive, fast and hence wasteful, HS2, but a modern, efficient rail system serving the whole country.

I’m not sure whether even a better rail network should be the priority unless it is part of a determined effort to get people out of their cars as well the out of the planes. Cutting use of fossil fuels must be priority 1.

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20200109_205015 (2)Young people get it – non-binary genders and transgender, that is.  This week I’ve talked to a number of young people – that’s mainly people in their 20s for oldies like me. I have generally been impressed by their knowledge of the issues facing non-binary and trans people and have few problems with the concept of being neither male nor female or expressing one’s identity. Nurture is having an effect. Not that is nurture by their parents and elders but by their contemporaries and their contacts on social media and the internet. Older people, while expressing acceptance, often still miss the point and still want to put you in a male box or a female box. Anyway, it makes me optimistic that as the older generation pass away, new generations will not see gender as an issue, whether its sexism in the workplace, transphobia or male and female lavs.

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Because I was elsewhere for our weekly writers’ group meet I didn’t attempt this week’s task. Who went “tut, tut,”? But I have made a start on the new Jasmine Frame novel. It may not be the best writing method but I have put fingers to keys and written the first couple of thousand words while still researching the background of one of the characters and planning the interwoven plots – at least I hope they will be interwoven. I find that it is as I write that issues become apparent and the characters themselves, well Jasmine principally, take the story forward.  I know some famous authors say they do not plan but allow the story to develop.  I’m not sure whether I believe them but it is a fun strategy.

In the meantime, here is something I wrote earlier. As it is still, just about, panto season, Cinderella – the Prince’s Story is appropriate.  Lots of writers re-write fairystories and I don’t think this one is especially original, but it’s a bit of fun.  Being nine years old it is also slightly dated – how many of the references have had a fall from grace?

Cinderella – The Prince’s story

It was my party; it should have been me making the headlines; me, the most charming, attractive and talented prince in the kingdom.  It was all arranged.   The ball would be held in the largest and grandest of my palaces and all the top celebs were invited.  The TV cameras and photographers would be there to see me dance with Beyonce and perhaps have a kiss and cuddle with Cheryl.
Of course, being the “People’s Prince” I had to invite a lot of common people to fill the ballroom.  It was a bit like an episode of Dr Who actually, all these fearful clones wearing the same cheap copies of Lacroix and Stella gowns bought from those high street shops.  But I waved and smiled and they all cheered and blew me kisses.  Two of the ugliest women I had ever seen somehow got through the barrier.  They tried to hug me and give me kisses but my minders got rid of them.
Everything was in full swing with the band playing, when there was a huge cheer and the whole crowd stopped watching me.  One of my men told me that one of the A list celebrities must have arrived because a huge pink open top limousine had driven up the drive with motorcycle outriders.  I couldn’t think who it could be.  The paps deserted me and ran to the entrance just as she stepped through the doors.
I must admit my eyes nearly jumped out of my head.  The dress she wore was indescribable and no designer I knew could have produced it.  It covered where it should but revealed her tremendous beauty.  From a distance it just grabbed your attention with its shimmering colours and shapes, but when she got up close, the dress just focussed mine and everyone else’s eyes on her face.  Her black hair shone and her eyes twinkled with joy. I stared at her for many moments but then my gaze travelled down to her feet and that’s when I saw her shoes.  They seemed to have been carved from two massive Schwarovski diamonds, the soles stacked and the heels high as high could be.
I looked again into her large blue eyes and we talked.  I was so taken by her conversation that I almost ignored the cameras going off all around us.  Then we danced, and talked some more and danced again.  There seemed to be a magic aura about her that drew me to her.  There was no moment when we were alone but I soon felt as though I had known her all my life although at no time did she mention her name or reveal who she was.  After dancing a slow number she came into my arms and we kissed tenderly and chastely on the lips.
And then something happened.  I think I heard the old big clock on the tower start to chime, midnight I suppose.  She pushed away from me, said something like “Oh, f***,” and ran off leaving me standing there.  The people around us parted to let her through, but soon she was lost in the crowd.  It all got confused then.  Most people didn’t see her leave although a few said they saw a girl running out of the palace looking dishevelled and wearing a tatty dress.  Others said they saw a girl getting into a minicab, but no-one seemed to see the girl in the designer dress.  There was one clue though – one of her fantastic glass shoes was found on the steps of the palace.  One of my men brought it to me.  I held it in my hands while the journalists pressed around me asking questions
“Who was she?”
“What did I think of her?”
“Was I going to marry her?”
“How would I find her?”
That was the question that troubled me.  I wanted to see her again because quite simply she would get me the media’s attention.  I made a few phone calls.  Max Clifford was eager to represent her.  He was sure that the fashion mags would pay millions for photos of that dress.  Simon Cowell suggested a TV series to search for the person who matched the shoe,  ‘Britain’s got feet` or ‘The Shoe Factor`, I think were some suggestions.
I got on to a friend who had appeared in CSI a couple of times.  I was sure he would have a bright idea and I was right.  Get the shoe tested for DNA, he said, then do a search of the database.  Sure enough, we soon had the name of a family matching the DNA fingerprint. They were the Hardups.  I was told they lived somewhere out in the country.
We set off in my Bentley with Sky and ITN and Hello and OK! following behind.  It took hours before we drew up at this crumbling mansion.  There was only one servant, some twerp who said his name was Buttons or something equally stupid.  He showed us into the drawing room where old man Hardup sat on a threadbare sofa.  He jumped up when he saw us and all the cameras.  My man explained why we had come and took the shoe out of the stainless steel box he kept it in.  Hardup called out and in seconds two of the gaudiest, ugliest, women came in.  I recognised them as the pair who had stalked me at the ball.  They were his daughters, Hardup said. They insisted on trying the shoe on although I knew it couldn’t possibly be one of them that was my unknown princess.  Of course their feet were too hideously large to fit. It turned out they weren’t even Hardup’s own offspring, just his step-daughters.  They went into fits of sobbing.
“Is there anyone else?” I asked, feeling somewhat impatient.
“Well I do have my own daughter,” Hardup said.
“Well where is she?” I asked.
“But it could not be her,” Hardup went on, “she wasn’t at your ball.”  The two grotesque sisters agreed vehemently.
One of my men leaned close to me and reminded me that the DNA match was definitely with the Hardup family.
“Nevertheless, summon your daughter,” I commanded in my most regal voice.   Quite a few minutes passed while the girl was fetched, apparently from the dark recesses of the old house.  She entered the room a timid little thing dressed in old scruffy jeans and a grubby t-shirt.  She looked nothing like the vision of beauty I had danced with a few days before.
My man handed her the shoe and she slipped it on as easily as if it was made of the softest leather.  The journos went wild.  Cameras flashed, everyone started speaking.  Someone dragged the girl to her feet – or foot, it was difficult for her to stand on just the one shoe.  The reporters urged me forward and I felt that I had to oblige.  I stood next to the girl who was looking dazzled and scared.  While flashlights went off in my face I wondered what on earth I was doing.  What should I do or say next? Did I want to spend the rest of my life or at least a portion of it while we sorted out the divorce, with this girl?

Jasmine in moderation

We’re well into the new year and things are turning out rather like last year’s premonitions, or nightmares as they’re sometimes called. Nevertheless, I am going to keep to my resolution (there’s a first) and not comment on politics (yet).  There are other things to talk about.

It’s January and I expect some of you are experiencing a Dry January or trying out Veganuary. Me? Nope. I don’t go for time trials; I don’t do NaNoWriMo (writing a novel in November) or Movember (growing a moustache) either. I prefer to do thinbgs in moderation. That’s not that I don’t support some of the aims of these ordeals. I’m sure it would do me and others good to cut down on the alcohol, but I think control is a better option that complete abstention followed, probably, by a binge or at least a return to normal (?) levels of consumption.

The vegan thing is more complicated. I do agree that globally we need to cut down on eating meat and animal products. Intensive farming of cattle, pigs and chickens certainly harms the planet in numerous ways. My question is this: is it necessary to do without animal products completely?  There are a number of suggested reasons why the answer may be yes.

1  a vegan diet is healthier;

2  farming animals exacerbates global warming, causes pollution, etc.

3  it is morally wrong to kill or enslave animals.

Let’s look at each one. I agree that a diet heavy in animal fat is probably not healthy (although the Inuit who survived largely on seal meat seemed to do alright), but humans evolved because, and as a result of, eating cooked meat. The fact that a vegan diet requires a variety of supplements (amino acids, vitamins) suggests that an omnivorous form of eating is simpler and more natural.

Secondly, I agree that intensive farming of animals should be phased out but the deforestation that takes place to provide land for palm oil, soya, almond, etc is not a lot better for the environment. Feeding 8-10 billion people is always going to take all the available farmland we can find and not leave much for “re-wilding”. There will always be land unsuitable for crops which can provide pasture for sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. Chickens and other poultry can scratch around amongst. So, there is economic justification for continuing to have some meat and dairy in diets.

Finally, the ethics of meat eating. I consider the human race to be part of the ecology of the Earth, not particularly special or exalted despite our developed brains. We evolved as predators like wolves and eagles and killer whales. We are part of the food chain and I see no moral reason why we should not continue to consume animal products while showing respect and care for the animals we predate on.

I will continue to enjoy cheese and eggs and sausages although I do admit that I will have to reduce the amount I eat in order to follow the principles I have outlined.  Vegans can do what they like but they can keep their “ethical philosophy” to themselves and cut down on the evangelism.

A final question – where do all those supplements come from?

…………………………..

20200109_205021(2)I had my hair done this week. My hairdo is one of those things I fret (that means a minor worry) about because of being gender fluid. Through my working life I didn’t bother about my hair much.  I had a wet cut every six weeks or so but hardly considered a “style”. It was longer when I was young but was always fine and never particularly manageable. As a tranny I wore a variety of wigs, finally settling on one that seemed to suit me. Then I decided to ditch the wig and be myself. Wigs are uncomfortable, particularly in warm weather but do provide excellent disguise.  Revealing the real me meant I wanted a style that expressed my femininity, but a receding hair-line and ever thinning hair has made that difficult. For the last three years or so I have had a bob but now I’ve gone for the pixie cut. Comments welcome.

……………………

A year ago we had “Stars” as the theme for the writers’ club weekly meeting and now we have had it again. I attempted a different style of piece this time, not really a story, not really an episode in a story. Perhaps it’s a scene.  Anyway, here is All the Stars in the Heavens.

All the Stars in the Heavens

The stars are glowing above me, each with its five, six or seven points, so close I feel I can almost reach out and touch them. That’s what they look like, but I know, because I read it in a book with Mummy, that stars are huge balls of gas giving out light and heat from immense fusion reactions. They are light years apart. But here I am floating, weightless, adrift in space surrounded by them.  There’s no Sun nearby or planets and the patterns of the stars are not the ones I saw in the pictures.  It doesn’t matter. I can pick out my own constellations and give them names. There’s the cup with a handle of a ring of stars and the cat with a long curving tail. That rectangle of stars looks like a robot and over there, that’s a tree.
Space isn’t silent but I’m used to the sounds now: the hiss of the air line; the slurp of the pump; the beep-beep of the instrument panel. The cable connects me to the spaceship so I can stay and watch the stars for as long as I wish.
They are starting to fade.  Already some have disappeared. I feel sleepy. I am. . .

The change of tone from the monitor woke her. Instead of the regular pips there was a continuous squeal. It was dark, still night-time. She leapt from the chair.  The screens were showing straight lines not regular, reassuring waves. The door swung open. Nurses and a doctor rushed in. They clustered around the bed, peering at the instruments. She stood by the side looking at the little body under the covers.  There was so little left of him now, he was almost weightless. The mask covered his face, tubes and wires linking him to the machines. But his eyes were still open, staring unblinking at the ceiling.
He so loved the stars. He had learned all the regular constellations, Orion, The Great Bear, Cassiopeia, and others she couldn’t recall. The real stars in the sky couldn’t be seen from his hospital bed so they’d put some phosphorescent stickers on the ceiling. Then they added more and more until the walls and ceiling were covered. By day, almost invisible, they absorbed energy from the artificial lighting and from the sunlight streaming through the window. Then at night when the lights were turned off, the blinds closed and the room empty but for him and her, they gave out their pale glow. They seemed to delight him, and he watched them until, before they dimmed, he fell asleep.
Now his eyes were open but unseeing. The machines continued their whine.  The medical staff fussed but she knew it was in vain. He had gone, left the sickly body that could not be repaired. Maybe, now, free from the restrictions of life he really was floating amongst the stars.

………………….

 

Jasmine contemplates

A few days into the new year, how’s it going for you? I am trying not to think too much about the severe problems that face us in the next year and beyond but I am being positive and determined about the future of myself and those I am close to. The thing is, when one gets to a certain age, looking ahead also involves thinking about mortality. Thankfully I haven’t had to attend many funerals in recent years, just older relatives who had reached a good age, but death is inevitable. We all know that, but find it difficult if not impossible to think that it applies to us. Someone said yesterday that we think of ourselves as immortal, and that is true too. How do we acknowledge a truth (we all die) and yet deny it (it won’t happen to us)?  That perhaps is one of the wonders of being living, sentient  beings.  We can hold two conflicting ideas in our heads and not crash like a computer trying to divide one by zero.  It’s no wonder that humans came up with quantum theory and Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat

I know that some people accept the thought that life is finite and short compared to recorded history and the existence of the universe.  They get on with it and don’t let the idea of impending death worry them. I am not one of those people. I don’t believe in life after death so the thought of coming to a halt, a sleep from which one doesn’t awaken, rather shocking. Nevertheless, I see that dwelling on one’s certain demise is not healthy. So I try to make every day a rewarding one. That includes relishing a lie in bed, sitting on the sofa reading newspaper, magazine or book, or enjoying a pint in a pub as well as working hard on the next novel or story, taking part in one of the number of activities I’m signed up for, or passing the time with my loved one(s).  And the calendar is full, for, however long we may or may not have, we all make plans.

20191205_121743[547]

A final showing for the festive look.

January 1st occurs at an arbitrary point on the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, on its spiralling voyage through the universe, yet we see it as a fresh start, a new beginning, a time to look at ourselves anew, and make resolutions. I didn’t make any new ones but I did update my to-do list. I hope that my recently completed novel, The Pendant and The Globe, will be deemed publishable and will find a willing publisher (I’m not self-publishing). I want to write the next Jasmine Frame novel, the fifth, provisionally titled Impersonator. There is another novel, stalled for the last year, currently called Malevolence, which I’d like to see if I can move forward.  And then there are the articles and short stories – so many ideas and good intentions. One resolution should have been to give more time to writing but I know I wouldn’t be able to keep to it.

Anyway, the theme for the writing group this first week of January was appropriately, “new beginnings”. My thoughts returned to something not original, a new(ish) colony on a new(ish) planet orbiting a distant star. The snippet that follows, (a beginning perhaps although goodness knows if I will ever follow it up) is a brief glimpse of that idea. If it did become a novel, this whole piece would probably need re-writing.  But here it is:

Fresh Start

Fresh Start, population fifty-eight. The uniform shape and size were the only sign that the dozen, small hemispheres of foamcrete huddled in the lee of the small hill were constructions.  Their colour matched the bare volcanic rock from which they were formed.  The Road ignored them and went straight on to the beach a couple of hundred metres further. The Visitor turned off the road and stopped her quadbike by the nearest of the domes. She took a final glance at the small screen on the control panel. It now read fifty-nine inhabitants. The only other piece of information was the distance she had travelled. It was seven hundred and forty-two kilometres from New Beginning.
She swung off the saddle and brushed dust from her environment suit. The dust was the same grey as the buildings, the same grey as the Road. Looking back the way she had come it was hard to discern the route. The Road was an idea rather than a feat of engineering. Major obstacles removed, a couple of rivers bridged, guide transmitters installed, it snaked across half the island continent, linking the only two habitations on the only land mass of Second Chance, second planet orbiting the red star, Hobson’s Choice.
There was just the rustle of her boots in the dust as she walked between the domes. The hill sheltered the village from the onshore breeze. There was no sign of the other fifty-eight humans. Among the cluster of domes, she approached one and pushed the door open. Inside was a room which had circular tables constructed of the same material as the walls. She tugged the mask from her face.
“Service!” she called.
A door on the opposite side of the room opened. A man stood in the doorway. He wore a pair of orange overalls.
“Oh, it’s you. You came back.”
“Said I would.”
“S’pose you’ll be wanting a drink.”
“Yeah. Thirsty work riding a quad from Newbie.”
The man retreated and emerged a few moments later with a cup and a jug, both grey. He put the cup down on a table and poured a green liquid into it.
“There you are then. Our latest brew.”
The visitor approached the table lifted the cup and drank the contents in one gulp. She put the cup down.
“Hasn’t improved.”
The man chuckled. “Nope. Not a lot you can do with fermented algae. More?”
The Visitor nodded.  The cup was re-filled. The Visitor settled onto a stool and lifted the cup to her lips. She took a small sip.
“So, why are you back?” the man asked. “Newbie too exciting for you?”
The Visitor shook her head. “No, and it wasn’t the prospects of your company that drew me back either.”
“What then?”
“I have news.”
“News that couldn’t be beamed via the Hestia?”
“News Hobson didn’t want spread.”
The man frowned, set the jug on the table and sat on a stool next to the Visitor. “What news?”
“We’re on our own. There’s no second ship coming from Earth.”

……………………………..

Jasmine’s fresh start

20191219_170534I am writing this somewhat earlier than usual, just in case I can’t get online when I usually sit down to do it. This week we will see in the new year and the start of 2020 is a bit special.  Why? It’s just another year, but those numbers look a bit out of the ordinary don’t they and it’s the beginning of a new decade. I’m not going to get into arguments about when  the decade, century or millennium really begin; the change of digits will do for me.

Someone said recently that it hardly seems like twenty years since the start of the millennium, and they’re right.  Twenty years has passed quickly, but what a lot has happened, personally and universally. In 2020 it will be twenty years since I announced, starting with Lou, that I was trans; there have been a few changes there. The world has changed a lot – and not for the better.

We’re living in the future. Well, 2020 seemed like the fairly far future when I was getting into SF in the 1960s.  In fact we’ve gone past quite a few visions of the future in terms of date. Obviously 1984 and 2001 have flown by but we’ve also passed the date in which Back to the Future II was set and in 2019 we passed the date of Bladerunner – yes, really!  The future hasn’t turned out much like any writer imagined it from H G Wells’ visions in The Shape of Things to Come to the novels of Clarke, Dick, etc. etc.  Forecasts of the development of computers, robots, videophones, flying cars, space travel, have turned out wide of the reality even if things like smart phones probably do far more than writers ever envisaged. Thankfully, the dystopias haven’t been realised, yet, either, but we’re getting there.

Is there anything to look forward to in 2020? Hmm, well I think you have to be an extraordinary optimist to hope for world peace, acceptance of and action on climate change, liberal and open governments accepting of peoples of all races, creeds, sexualities and genders. I am just hoping that things don’t actually get worse.

I do have intentions however. I will make a start on the next, fifth, Jasmine Frame novel, and finish it. I will try to  submit more articles and stories to competitions and publications. I will try to complete the fifth September Weekes novel (that’s actually a long shot as Jasmine has the priority this year.)  Other developments in 2020 will be more of a surprise.

And so as we see out the old year, here is another festive piece. There is a story to this one which was written a few weeks ago for the writers’ group Christmas lunch.  Over  thirty years ago I wrote the first story of The Baubles. I had hopes of it being published as a picture book. Despite coming back to it from time to time, I never really pushed it.  I also had ideas for sequels and was fond of the characters – the four large balls, the four little ones, the china Santa, cotton wool Snowman and the corn-dolly Angel. Finally I have written the final story in the sequence bringing it up to date. Unless I do like Star Wars and write the episodes in non-chronological order, this is it. Enjoy The Baubles: Christmas At Last.

The Baubles: Christmas At Last

It was the box being moved that stirred them. Azura, the blue glass ball, woke with a yawn. It seemed an awfully long time since the last Christmas. She felt Rufus, the red one, giving himself a shake.
“Hi, Az,” he said, “I feel as if I’ve been asleep for decades.”
The cotton-wool Snowman sneezed. “I think I’ve got flu. It’s cold in that loft since they insulated it.”
“Oh, dear. Oh, dear,” moaned the corn-dolly Angel, “I’m dried to a crisp. I feel dreadfully fragile.”
A high-pitched tinkle of glass on glass spurred Aurus, the senior gold bauble, to speak
“Now, now, Twinkle, Glitter, Sparkle and you, Scatty. Be patient. I’m sure we’ll soon be out and decorating the tree.” The small balls settled down except for Scattered Reflections of Visible Light, known as Scatty, who was always excited.
Rufus said, “I do hope it’s a big tree, like that one where the tip rubbed against the ceiling.”
“I want a plastic one,” Angel grumbled. “with smooth, soft branches. There’s nothing worse than having a sharp twig and prickly needles stuffed up your skirt.”
“Ow, Ow, Ow,” came a cry.
“What’s up Father Christmas,” Rufus called, “Practising your ho, ho, hos?”
“No. My foot’s sore.”
Argenta the large silver bauble, whispered to Aurus. “We have been stored away for a very long time. I don’t think there has been a Christmas in the house for quite a while.”
“I think you’re right my dear,” Aurus said, “But at least they want us now.”
The lid was lifted off the box and light flooded in. All the baubles felt excited. A face with a neat beard and short hair peered down at them.
“A man,” Argenta whispered.
“He looks rather like Boy,” Aurus said. “In fact, I’m sure he is Boy.”
“He’s grown up, while we’ve been asleep,” Argenta said.

“Hey Camilla, I didn’t know Mum and Dad still had these old tree decorations. I found them clearing out the loft.”
“They look pretty tatty, Stephen. The Father Christmas has a chip on its foot and that corn dolly is crumbling to dust. That cotton-wool thing looks pretty grubby too.”
“But it’ll be fun to put them on the tree.”
“My lovely new Marie Kondo tree! They’ll look dreadful.”
“Let’s see, shall we, love.”

“There’s something wrong with this tree,” Rufus said, swinging gently on his branch. “It’s lost all its needles.”
“I don’t think it ever had any,” Azura said, “It’s not real. Look at the branches – dead straight and smooth.”
“But they’re made of wood. What do you think of the lights?”
“The colours are pretty, and all the bulbs are working.”
Snowman heard them, “But they’re cold. The old ones used to keep me nice and warm.”
“That’s because these are l.e.d.s,” Rufus said remembering something he’d seen on television.
“All this flashing and pulsing and rippling is giving me a headache,” Angel said from the top of the tree.
“The room is a little bare,” Argenta said, “no decorations and not even carpet or curtains; just bare boards and blinds. And where’s the TV. In the old house there was that huge box in the corner.”
“It’s that big black picture in the wall, I think,” said Aurus.
“Flat screen technology,” Rufus added. “Wow, we’re in the future.”
“So long as they still have Morecombe and Wise on, I’m happy,” Argenta said.

“Stephen! Have you seen the mess in here?”
“What’s the matter, love. Oh, dear. The corn dolly seems to be disintegrating. I’ll sweep it up.”
“And take those old decorations off. You do agree that they spoil the minimalist effect of my tree, don’t you?”
“Yes, love, but what should I do with them.”
“I don’t know. Put them in recycling.”
“I don’t think they take that type of glass.”
“Well, if you can’t throw them away, give them back to your mother.”
“Hmm. That’s not a bad idea. She may even remember them. I expect the nursing home will have a tree.”

The four little balls rattled as they were put back in the box with the other baubles.
“Why are they packing us up?” Rufus cried, “Christmas isn’t over yet; they haven’t opened the presents.”
“There weren’t any,” Father Christmas said.
“And the Queen hasn’t been on that fancy telly,” Argenta said.
Aurus tried to calm down all the complaints. “I am sure there is a sensible explanation and it will all become clear soon.”
The lid of the box closed over them.

It was not long before Stephen opened the box.
“Look, Mum, look what I’ve brought.”
The grey-haired lady looked in, a frown turning to a smile.
“Do you remember decorating the Christmas tree, Mum. Which one went at the top?”
A thin, spotted hand reached in and grabbed Angel. The corn-dolly crumbled into dust and shards of stalk.
“Oh, dear. Well she was thirty years old, wasn’t she Mum. I know, shall we put the others on the tree. Matron said there was plenty of room. Hold the box while I push you across.”

“Oh, what a wonderful, large tree,” Argenta said, getting her first glimpse,
“A good strong, natural pine,” Aurus said.
“But I do hope he puts us all together.” Argenta added.
Man, who used to be Boy, hung each of the baubles on a patch of the tree where Mother could see them, amongst other decorations. A grin spread across her face.
“It’s really lovely and warm here,” said Snowman, “I think we’ll be happy.”
“Be careful, Scatty, don’t swing so much,” Aurus warned, “you don’t want to go flying off your branch.” The four little balls quivered with excitement.
Father Christmas looked around the room and sniffed the air. “Listen to that carol singing. I can smell mince pies. Look at all the people and all those parcels. Present opening should be fun. Ho, ho , ho!”
Rufus was making friends with a large, multi-coloured ball encrusted with glitter who hung nearby and Azura was chatting to a plastic spaceman who dangled from an adjacent twig.
Despite the jolly surroundings, Argenta was feeling sad.
“I am sorry that Angel has gone. She was always miserable, but Christmas won’t be the same without her.”
“Now, now my dear,” Aurus said. “Perhaps she is at the top of a tree somewhere where she can be comfortable and happy. We’re all together and doing our bit. It looks like being a wonderful festive season. Merry Christmas everyone.”

………………………….

Jasmine feels festive, a little

When this appears it will be just a few days before the festive period really gets going. Whatever you might be celebrating I wish you the greetings of the season.  I would also offer the Christian salutation Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men, except I’m not sure I can wish goodwill to demagogues.  But I’m keeping off the politics this week.  That leaves religion. I noticed on Facebook that some “friends” were sharing a post saying that we must not treat the imminent holiday as anything  other than  CHRISTMAS. Well you can stuff that. Many religions have a celebration at this time of year and of course there is no particular reason why the birth of Jesus should be celebrated on 25th December. Yes, I do accept Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure and the evidence suggests his birth was late summer, early autumn. The early Christians adopted 25th September because it was already a popular festival celebrating the re-birth of the Sun after the winter solstice. The Christians were fond of recycling the dates and trappings of previous beliefs.

An article in this month’s Countryfile magazine reminded me of this. It was about the ancient yew trees, many of which are found in churchyards. The yew has religious significance but it wasn’t the case of the tree being planted near churches. In fact in many places the Yews were there first. Some are thousands of years old. They were venerated for eons before Christianity appeared, perhaps because of their longevity and maybe because as their girth increases the centre rots away to leave them hollow – great places for a secret meeting place or a pulpit.  Why were Christian churches built on the sites of pagan worship? Did newly converted congregations repurpose their former meeting places or was it that an invasive church obliterated signs of the previous faiths to show its dominance over the old gods?

20191219_170523I am an atheist and not particularly enamoured to any religion but upbringing has a lot to answer for. I still enjoy singing carols and other Christmas music, and still sing in a choral society that performs sacred works during the year and has a carol concert at Christmastime. I sing the carols in the same way that people sing folksongs of mythical tales. I like the tunes (and the harmonies) and the words tell pleasant stories. While Jesus may have had some good messages to tell, I believe that he will come back to save us no more than King Arthur and his knights will return from Avalon or Luke Skywalker will return to save the galaxy from the evil empire (perhaps he will – I haven’t seen the 9th Star Wars film yet).

So, enjoy the mid-winter break, praise whatever god or gods you worship, stay safe and let’s hope for a better world in the future.

Below is my piece of writing for the (Christmas) season. It is a Christmas story, not too twee I hope. There is a message, not overly hidden, and yes, I am aware that spiders may not wish to feast on pastry.  It’s called poetic licence.

Spinning Joy at Christmas

Priscilla waited. It had been a long time since a fly had blundered into her web and it was cold and dark in the storeroom, but she was patient. From time to time she crawled over the box and the candle stands to repair or add another thread to her net.
One chilly morning, light filled the room. Priscilla was startled and she scurried into the depths of her box.  Sounds vibrated the air.
“Good Lord, look at all these cobwebs. Doesn’t anyone come up here?”
 “Nah. It’s only the Christmas stuff stored here.  No one‘s been up those steps since last year.”
 “Well, we’d better start lugging it downstairs. Bah, I hate spiders.”
Priscilla felt tremors along her threads as her web was destroyed. She didn’t move but folded her legs around her body.  The box was lifted. Jerking and swaying worried Priscilla till the box was set down. The objects she was hiding behind were lifted out.  Priscilla hid in the narrow corner between some pieces of wood and straw.
 “There, that’s the crib done. The shepherds and the kings need a good dust.”
“The infant Jesus looks a bit grubby too. Anyway, let’s get the candles set up.”

When it was quiet again and the lights had gone out, Priscilla crept out of her hiding place. It was warmer here and she felt confident of catching some food. She began to weave her web over the objects and the wooden frame. She was busy for hours but was rewarded when a small fruit fly blundered into her sticky trap.
Daylight came and Priscilla retreated into the dark corner to eat her meal.
 “Someone’s been busy here. Look at all these spiders’ webs. Mary and Joseph are covered.”
 “If I see a spider, I’ll stamp on it. Dirty, crawly things.”
 “We’d better clean the models before the carol service tomorrow.”

Priscilla was disappointed to find her lovely web destroyed, but it didn’t trouble her. She had plenty of energy and it wouldn’t take long to spin another.  She was again busy through the night and was rewarded with another small fly.
 “Would you believe it! That spider has been at work again.  Look at that web.”
 “Oh, Daddy, I think it looks pretty with the spider’s web joining up Mary and Joseph and the baby.”
“Pretty, eh? I’m going to have to clean out the crib completely to get rid of the spider.”
“You can’t do that, Daddy. It’s the spider’s home. The baby Jesus is just borrowing it while he got born.”
“So, you like spiders do you love?”
“Yeah. Why not? They’re God’s creatures too aren’t they, like the cows and the sheep and the donkey.”
“Um, well, I suppose so.  You want the spider to be part of Christmas, do you?”
“Yes, Daddy.”
“Hmm, alright, but I don’t know what the Vicar will think, she will expect the church to be spotless for Christmas.”
“Well, we can tell her that the spider is looking after baby Jesus, can’t we Daddy.”

Priscilla kept out of sight while the church filled with people and warmth and noise and light, but afterwards she scampered around her web checking for any breakages. She had a surprise because sticking to the fine threads were tiny crumbs of pastry and sugar and juicy morsels of fruit. That night Priscilla had a feast of mince pies while sitting with the baby Jesus wrapped in her web.

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Jasmine demoralised

I must be mad. Don’t they say that a sign of madness is when you think your opinion is correct while the rest of the world that disagrees must be wrong.  Well, I can’t believe that 44% of the UK voting population think that Johnson is an honest and worthy holder of the highest public office in the land and that the Tories have the well-being of the whole nation on their minds. Hold on though, 54% (there’s the Brexit Party’s 2%) do agree with me so perhaps I’m only half mad.  I am however, 100% livid.  That 44% have delivered a whopping majority to Johnson meaning that he can do whatever he likes.  That won’t just be “getting Brexit done”, whatever that means, but further cuts to the welfare state and changes to the relationship between government, parliament and judiciary so that there is no chance of a future PM being told off by judges.  We’re in for at least five years of extreme right-wing government and, who knows, a dictatorship in all but name and possibly a permanent one-party state with opposition reduced to an ineffective rump.

The only chance of change is if Tory MPs tire of Johnson’s piffle-waffle, incompetence and dissociation from the truth. Is there a brain cell or an inch of moral fibre amongst the 360+ of them or will they be automatons voting for whatever Johnson (or Cummings) tells them to vote for? Will they be like the US Republicans, standing by while the presidency is turned into a laughing stock and the US reputation around the world trashed.

Why did the result turn out as it did? Well, we know from the referendum that half the voting population are right-wing leavers at heart. Also, the print and TV media is biased against the left, and the Tories put out so many inaccurate and misleading social media posts that kept on banging away with the untruths until many people accepted them as fact.  But the main reason that Labour lost so badly was the confusion over its position. Neither Leave nor Remain.  So Labour Leavers went Tory. Corbyn was nothing like as passionate or energetic as he was in 2017. Notwithstanding brave words, he knew he could only reach his Momentum fanatics.  I don’t know why Labour still goes on about supporting the working class. I think people see the working class as coal-dust-faced miners, builders in donkey jackets and striking British Leyland workers. All those pictures from the 1970s of masses of, predominantly male workers in dirty, sweaty jobs. Their children aspired to something different.  They may still be in low paid work with few prospects and poor pensions but they don’t see themselves as working class in the old-fashioned Corbynista view and do not have the unthinking loyalty to Labour of their parents.

As for the Lib. Dems. In a few short months Jo Swinson managed to turn off millions of potential voters with the stupid talk of leading a government and her being PM. It was so fanciful that the prospect of the Lib Dems being in an anti-Tory, anti-Brexit coalition disappeared.

For at least the next five years we need an active opposition.  One which is devoted to telling the truth about what is going on in the country; one which does speak for all;  one which has the expertise and resources to get the message across; one which has policies which will tackle the climate emergency and the problems facing the population.

That’s it.  I am not going to comment on politics for the foreseeable future.  I’m going to hide my head in bucket and try to ignore what is going on around me.  Going mad seems like a sound move.

20191205_121743[547]…………………………………

We didn’t have a theme for this week’s writing group so I spent what time was available completing the second draft of my novel, The Pendant and the Globe.  It’s not finished yet but I hope some friendly readers will tell me whether it has possibilities.  Instead, here is something I wrote earlier, a bit cheerful to lighten the gloom; a memory if summer holidays perhaps.

Dear Aunty Mabel and Uncle Alfred,

 Thank you very much for letting me and Robbie stay with you for our holidays.  Mummy and Daddy say they were very grateful for the break and they got a lot done especially in their bedroom.  I’m not quite sure what they mean because their bedroom looks just the same as it was before we went away.  They must have been finding the job really difficult because when we got home they didn’t have many clothes on and were hot and sweaty and Daddy said it was a real hard one.  I suppose getting home a day early may have been a surprise.
Thank you Uncle Alfred for driving us all the way home.  It took much less time to come home than it did to get to your house.  Robbie is sorry he was sick in the back of your lovely new car.  It might have had something to do with going around those corners very fast or it might have been the bars of chocolate you gave him.  I know you said not to eat them all at once but Robbie does like chocolate.  At least it was the same colour as the leather seats and carpet.
We had a lovely time staying in your house.  I do like that big painting of the young man you have on the wall in the lounge and I don’t think the moustache and glasses that Robbie drew on it really makes much difference.  Well not as much as the big smile he drew on the painting of the old lady in the study. We didn’t really mind when you shouted at us about it, in fact Robbie laughed  when your face turned red.
We loved playing in your hallway.  Robbie says it’s almost as long as a cricket pitch.  Yes, I know you said it wasn’t a cricket pitch but that was after Robbie hit a straight drive straight through the doorway.  It was a pity the front door was closed at the time.  I’m sure you’ll be able to replace all those pieces of coloured glass that looked so pretty.  Actually Robbie said it wasn’t really wide enough for a cricket pitch because that big vase got in the way when he swung his bat.
Robbie and I had a lot of fun playing in your garden when you pushed us outside.  Robbie really liked splashing in the muddy puddles.  I know he should have taken his shoes off when you let us back in, but you did tell us to go straight to our bedroom.
We’ve never slept in a room with a bunk bed before.  Robbie had great fun practising his parachute jumps.   I hope you manage to get the hole in the floor repaired soon.   I didn’t think it was a good idea to tie the sheets together to climb out of the window when we found the bedroom door was jammed because of the rose bush under our window.  Robbie’s got all the prickles out of his bottom now.
It was very kind of Aunty Mabel to cook all those lush meals.   Robbie only eats sausages and beans at home so it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t know what to do with spaghetti.  I hope that the stains come out of the table cloth soon, and the curtains.  And he wasn’t really being rude when he said that perhaps your oven wasn’t working properly since it only smoked the salmon instead of cooking it properly.  It was funny that that bottle of water that Jamie drank after he took a mouthful of chilli wasn’t water at all.  He’d swallowed a lot of it before we realised it was Uncle Alfred’s vodka.  I’m sure the carpet will look as good as new when it’s been shampooed.

 Well that’s all for now.  Once again thank you for a lovely holiday.  I do hope we can come and stay with you again soon.  Robbie has drawn a picture of your house.  He used those lovely crayons in the plastic cases that he found in Aunty’s handbag.  It’s a shame that they were all red because he would have drawn Uncle Alfred’s white car.  Well it was white before Robbie accidentally knocked Uncle Alfred’s blue paint over it.

 Love from,

  Emily.

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Jasmine holds her breath

By the time I put up the next post of this blog we will know our fate.  The election will be over and we will have some idea of what we’re in for in the near future.

The reaction to the upsetting terrorist attack at the Fishmongers’ Hall was predictable. Right wing commenters immediately hi-jacked the sorrow of the victim’s families to make unconsidered proposals and to blame a government that left office nine years ago, as if the more recent incumbents had not had time to make changes if they had seen the need.  It was just the reaction the terrorists want. They usually target the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Here it was actually extraordinary people who provided support and compassion to the terrorists themselves. What could be more terrible? If the terrorists can instil fear and anxiety and stir up the political class to make more off the cuff threats and promises then they feel that they are successful.

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Last weekends newspapers carried glowing reviews of the stage musical based on David Walliams’ children’s book “The Boy in the Dress”. It has already been televised. I wonder if he would have had success with a story that had the title “The Girl in the Jeans.”  All it does is perpetuate the view that boys wearing skirts or dresses are not normal. Whatever normal is.

I don’t think I’ve read the book but I did see the TV version. To me the message seemed to be that to be accepted for being different i.e. a boy in  a dress, you have to have some talent or do something extraordinary that gets everyone on your side. In Walliams’ story the boy scores the winning goal in a school football match. The other thing I didn’t like was that the obnoxious headmaster who is nasty to the boy in his dress is a closet transvestite.  He gets his comeuppance but no redemption. Being outed as a cross-dresser does not bring relief to his torment or support from the children and parents. My conclusion is that this is not a trans-supportive story, rather like Walliams’ ridiculing of transvestites in Little Britain.

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20191130_123703[548]Last week’s bookfair in Hereford was rather a waste of time (and money).  There were plenty of stalls selling jams, cakes, beers, jewellery and other crafts as well as books but very few punters.  The reason?  Well, for a start there was nothing outside the Shire Hall to say there was a market taking place, just a banner for the Samaritans who were being supported by the fair. Neither, I think was there much advance publicity to the public or leafletting in Hereford city centre. I made one sale which was about par for the course.

This week we had our Christmas lunch for the writing group and readings of our “festive” pieces.  I’ll keep my effort for Christmas week.  Here instead is the piece I wrote for my other, monthly, group.  The topic was “Is that your car?”  I subverted it somewhat and had an idea for a race of aliens which I might develop some other time. So here is “Triple points“.

Triple Points

“Is that your car?” the alien asked.
The image of the Tri-ped appeared in my helmet screen. Coloured bands, mainly red, rippled in the skin around the single eye facing me and the tentacle above it stood up straight  My translator coped reasonably well with interpreting the alien’s colour talk but it insisted on compressing acronyms. I looked across the planet’s surface to see a disc-shaped craft hovering over my grounded shuttle.
“Er, yes that is my Cinetic Autonomous Receptacle,” I said.  That’s what tripes called shuttles whether they were manned or not.
“Well, it shouldn’t be there.  You are trespassing.  No one may land on Alnilam III without permission of the TOT.”
I knew that of course and there was no chance that the Triumvir of Trilemma, the tripes’ government, would permit me, a non-tripe, to land on their treasured planet. But with little time left before Alnilam went supernova and destroyed the planet and its amazing coloured ice, I had taken the chance on getting past the tripes’ surveillance. I’d obviously failed that last bit.
“Your car will be destroyed in accordance with the TOT’s orders,” the tripe went on.
I stated running across the icefield back to the shuttle, lugging the box of ice that I had come all this way for.
“Hey, you can’t do that,” I cried. “I’m a citizen of the Galactic Union.”
“We can and we will. It is allowed by special order 396/225,” the tripe said, the colour bands getting narrower and changing colour more rapidly. The alien was getting angry.
I reached the airlock and quickly cycled myself through.
“But if you blast my craft you’ll damage the ice,” I argued.
There was a pause. Apparently the tripe hadn’t thought of that.  Alnilam III was a small cold planet. It should have been tidal locked to the bright blue star by now but it still revolved once every fifty or so hours. I had landed on the night side to avoid irradiation by the uv, gamma rays and exotic particles emitted by the star. The same irradition that had turned the ice fields that covered the surface into a peculiarly coloured and patterned form of solid water.
I was in my control seat and preparing to take off when the tripe answered.
“No damage to the surface will be tolerated. You will move your car away from the planet and then it will be destroyed in accordance with the special order.”
“In that case I’ll stay exactly where I am.” Actually, with the star likely to blow at any time, I was not that keen on hanging around for too long. It was a bit of a stand-off between us. I should have remembered that dealings with the tripes is never an either/or matter. There’s always a third option.
“In that case you will be forcibly removed and then destroyed,” the tripe said, vivid red bands flashing around the eye and the tentacle waving in an agitated fashion.
One thing that cannot be denied about the tripes is that they’re technologically advanced. The almost spherical craft moved to directly above my shuttle and initiated a tractor field. Three beams locked onto my vehicle and hauled me off the surface.
In a very short time we were clear of the planet. My sensors informed me that there was a fleet of craft approaching,  three groups of three, more tripes. The craft were huge. Either they were vast cargo luggers or warships.
The tripe reappeared on com screen. “We have no further time to deal with your misdemeanour.”
“Why not?” I queried. I wanted to know how they planned to destroy me.
“The transference of the planet is about to begin,” the tripe said and cut the link.
The nine huge craft were taking up orbit around Alnilam III.  They were neither cargo vessels nor warships, but heavy-lifters. The tripes had the audacity to move the planet away from the threat of destruction. They really did think a lot of this ball of ice.
The tractor beams gave my shuttle a violent thrust before releasing it. The navcom told me we were falling into the star at an acceleration that the shuttle engines could not match. The tripes were letting the star complete their job.
In minutes we passed onto the illuminated side of the planet and I saw why the tripes were making a fuss. There was the image I had seen on my screen but now I was getting the full picture taking up the whole surface of the planet. The three golden eyes of a tripe distributed symmetrically around its round head, surrounded by bands of colour which changed as the planet revolved in the starlight. It must have given the tripes a shock when they became star-explorers to find a planet in their own image. No wonder it became their most sacred site. Now, instead of allowing it to be vaporised in the supernova, they were moving it, somewhere.
The tripes seemed to have forgotten me once they’d left me to fall into the star, which was a bonus. There was no way I could pull the shuttle out of its plunge, but I had a plan B. I put my helmet back on, picked up the sample box and headed to the airlock. I stepped out and fired my manoeuvring rockets. I was still falling towards the star but the shuttle receded from me.  When it had dwindled to a dark spot against the brilliant and huge blue-white disc of the star, I triggered my alarm.
Just a few minutes had passed when the light of the star blanked out and I felt the inertialess field cushioning me. Moments later I was back inside the starship as it traversed the star system at  a third of the speed of light.
I thanked the staff of the pick-up bay and made my way to the commander’s cabin. I placed the sample box in front of him.
“You got the ice?” he growled.
I nodded. “And a traffic violation from the tripes.”
The Commander grinned. “That’s three points on your galactic traveller licence.”

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Jasmine is busy

20190929_1425395420359538563679915.jpgIf you are reading this shortly after it goes live, i.e. Saturday morning, I should be at a Book and Craft Fair in Hereford with my fellow writer Kim. Another opportunity to sell a few books – well, we’ll see. Anyway it’s another day out, another day away from the computer and writing the next best seller (laugh!).

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This election is still sickening me and the anticipation of life after 12th Dec if we get the result the polls predict makes it worse. I always felt I had some empathy for people’s feelings and some sympathy for other viewpoints than my own, but the one thing the referendum and the aftermath has done is shown that I just do not understand the people who continue to want to leave and think that Johnson is a worthy PM. One issue is the people that the TV news i.e. the BBC, interview to get the “peoples’ opinion”.  They are always old; young people i.e. those under 40, are sidelined.

A typical piece was on  people who have deserted their former loyalties in the last three years. It had to be people who had experience of supporting other parties but did they have to be largely pensioners? An old guy who has turned from Labour to the Tories; an even older woman who is now voting Brexit. The youngest person (in her 50s?) was a Remainer who had moved to the Lib Dems. I don’t think there was anyone who had moved from right to left, and no-one was really questioned why they had changed i.e why they were mostly leavers. Perhaps they think that people under 40 don’t change their mind.

Another sign of the lack of young people in this election, was a Labour leaflet we received.  On the front was a picture of the candidate with, presumably, her supporters – all old(ish). Are there no Labour activists under 40?

I really do hope that the young people get out and vote on 12th Dec. otherwise all the decisions are going to be made by and for the over 60s.  Though why those people think they can rely on the Tories defeats me.

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It’s been a busy week for one reason and another, but I have got on with revising the novel. It involves two characters independently hopping around the world so I have had fun (?!) making sure that that the timelines are consistent. That didn’t leave a lot of time for this week’s writers’ group task.  The discussion last week had turned to the often strange and amusing names that towns and villages have, particularly in England. There were two or three pieces that built stories out of weird, wonderful and sometimes rude, place-names.  They were clever and well-thought out but were not particularly strong as stories.  I had thoughts of using names from “The Meaning of Liff“; a collection of imaginary definitions of placenames written by Douglas Adams  such as “Shanklin – the ring of skin on a slice of salami”. Alternatively, I thought of using objects named for place-names  e.g. wellington boots, cardigans and sandwiches. But I didn’t have time, so here is the short piece I did produce.

All in the name

My home is close to a small church consecrated in the name of the mother of Christ. It’s a Victorian construction, replacing a much earlier building. The church and its small graveyard occupy a hollow. There was once a pond surrounded by a grove of hazel trees. The trees still flourish and every spring are bedecked with white flowers.
A couple of hundred paces brings you to the coast. Strong currents flow through the strait and there is a fierce whirlpool that has threatened the lives of many swimmers and sailors. Nearby, there is a small island attached to the mainland by a causeway that is uncovered at low tide. On the island there is a medieval church dedicated to an early Celtic saint. It is said that Tysilio spent some years on the island as a hermit living in a cave carved out of the red rock.
Where do I live? Well, I’ve told you. In the native tongue it is called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

Just a few afterthoughts: I know that hazel flowers aren’t usually white but that is what the translation of the name says. The name is actually a marketing gambit of the late C19th railway tourism boom. The original name of the village was Llanfairpwllgwyngerych  or LlanfairPGG for short.  The rest was added to make it the longest station name on the system and hence attract visitors.  It was successful.

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Jasmine dithers

I am sorry to say that this General Election fills me with dread rather than excitement. We have already had the party that is in government putting out fake posts on social media; that’s a government that is supposed to be fighting false messages. All the parties have made extravagant claims of what they would do “for us” if they got into power.  I don’t believe a word of it because I can’t see the country’s finances being up to it. I am just hoping that the polls appearing in the media (all of it) are even more inaccurate than they have been for the last two elections and that people are coming to sensible decisions about who to vote for. Forget that last sentence; I don’t think there is a lot of sense around at the moment.

P1000555

A reminder of summer

Last Sunday evening we sat down to watch two fantasy/SF shows, one after the other, on BBC1, which surely can’t have happened often! His Dark Materials is a fine presentation of Pullman’s tale, but War of the Worlds, oh dear. It is over a year late being shown and it’s obvious why – it is a horrible mish-mash. The good think is that it is set in the era it was written, the first version to do so, but instead of following what Wells wrote they’ve added this complex subplot of the runaway couple, the brother and the ex-wife, which took up a lot of the first episode, and there are only three. The thing about WotW is that the story unfolds around the un-named observer whose only role is to survive.  It is terrifying because of the power of the Martian machines and the vivid descriptions of horrific attacks on the human population (OK, the English). The denouement, which I am sure everyone knows, is a bit of a cop out; human civilisation survives by accident thanks to a cold virus. A faithful adaptation does not need the ghastly subplot but would get on with the action.

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A reader commented on my last post by saying I have too many distractions from my novels. She’s right. What have I done in the last week: written a short story for writer’s group (see below) and enjoyed a morning with the group; started editing/re-writing my novel; re-jigged a short story for a competition; dealt with numerous emails about this and that; sung in a concert (that took a whole day) and been to a rehearsal; done my daily Welsh lesson and attended the evening class; watched some TV and done some reading; and finally, played tennis three times (that’s my fitness programme). Yes, a lot of distractions, but I don’t know which I would stop.

And so to that writers’ group exercise.  This week the theme was “eclipsed”. I guessed that most would use in a metaphorical way and I was right. However, I was a bit doubtful about how the concept was used. An eclipse involves a bright beacon being obscured, temporarily. That wasn’t quite what happened in most of the stories. My effort was, of course, literal (my club colleagues expect it of me), so here is an SF story of sorts about an eclipse. In fact it reads more like the first chapter of a novel that I haven’t yet planned.  I was thinking of calling it  An Instance of Proportion, but Eclipsed will do.

Eclipsed

The day had arrived, the day Ben had been looking forward to for years; 12th August 2026. It was warm and sunny in Oviedo as it had been each day since their arrival in Spain. Nevertheless, Ben kept glancing at the sky. It would be so disappointing if it clouded over today of all days. After breakfast on the patio of their rented villa, Ben and his three friends loaded their gear into their rented van, excited to be setting off for the hills east of the ancient city. They weren’t the only ones on the roads, but they soon reached the hilltop with its marvellous panorama of the area. They weren’t interested in that view, however. They began preparing their equipment, telescopes and stands, tracking motors, screens, chairs, tables, refreshments.
Ben fussed over his reflector.  It wasn’t as big or as fancy as those owned by his friends and the other groups establishing their pitches nearby. He was a beginner, a newbie, filled with excitement at witnessing his first solar eclipse. He fitted the lens that would project an image of the Sun on to a simple white screen.  Others had wireless feeds from their telescopes to their slates and smart specs. Ben was going to watch the eclipse the old way.

After lunch, there was little else to do but wait.  Some latecomers arrived and struggled to find a patch of flat ground amongst the multitude of telescopes. Ben listened to the tales of his new friends. There was Derek, a veteran of the 1999 UK eclipse which he had missed because of cloud, and Lottie, an eclipse chaser, who travelled the world to experience every event. Last of all, there was Jaydan, younger than Ben and almost silent except when talking about astronomy or his impressive set of kit.
It was late afternoon and the Sun was sinking over the mountains west of Oviedo, when Derek looked at his watch and announced.
“It’ll be commencing in a couple of minutes.”
They all looked again at their kit as if they hadn’t been doing so all afternoon. Ben leaned closer to his screen on which the bright circle of the sun was projected. A tiny sliver of the orb was obscured. As he watched, minute by minute, the black disc moved over more and more of the sun’s image. Almost half of the Sun was obscured when Ben noticed something else.
“Hey, what’s that red shape,” he called out. A circular disc of dull red was passing across the black face of the Moon. It seemed to move just a little faster than the Moon’s progress across the Sun.
“Are you all seeing it, guys?” Lottie called; her head close to her screen.
“I am observing an object that has appeared between us and the Moon,” Derek replied. They all shouted their agreement as did members of the other groups nearby.
“It’s weird. It looks to be the same apparent diameter as the Moon and Sun” Jaydan said, speaking up for once.
Ben was confused. “What can it be? A satellite, or one of the Moon shuttles?”
“Certainly not,” Derek said. “Not even the ISS2 is that size yet and it’s not a perfect circle.”
“A balloon in the upper atmosphere?” someone suggested but was immediately rebuffed.
“Totality will be in five minutes,” Derek said, “and it looks as though whatever it is will be eclipsing the Moon at the same time.”
The Moon crept across the Sun, and the red disc spread to cover it too. The sky became dark and the air cooled. Birds settled in the few trees that clung to the hilltop, and silence fell.
“We’re not going to be able to see the corona,” Lottie said, “That red thing is too bright.”  She was right. The dull red  object hung in the sky, the same apparent size as the Sun itself and the Moon.
Derek looked up from his telescope. “I do believe It looks somewhat like the Moon during a lunar eclipse when it is lit by light from the Earth.”
“How can that be?” Ben asked, “the Moon is between us and the Sun.”
Lottie explained. “Yes, but the eclipse shadow only covers a tiny portion of the Earth’s surface. The rest of the day side of the Earth is still illuminated by the Sun. The reflected light is bouncing off that thing. What is it? Someone must know something.”
Jaydan was staring at his slate over the top of his smart specs.. “The Chinese are relaying transmissions from their Moon base.”
“Their viewpoint should see it against the background of the Earth,” Derek said
“Yeah, I’m getting it. They say it’s an artefact. . .”
“What do you mean,” Ben said.
“He means it’s not natural,” Lottie replied. “Go on Jaydan.”
“It’s thirty-six thousand k from Earth.”
“That’s geostationary orbit,” Derek cried, “Which means it’s over three hundred kilometres in diameter.”
“Yeah. NASA have got some parallax on it too. It’s a cylinder not a disc and it’s sixteen hundred klicks long.”
“That’s a hell of a spaceship,” Lottie said. They all looked up into the sky. Ben wondered what the appearance of the object meant.
Totality was ending and a crescent of sunlight was breaking out around the edge of the red disc that still covered the Moon.
Derek said. “It can’t actually be in orbit. It’s not moving fast enough. It must be under power in order to keep the Moon eclipsed.”

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Jasmine reflects

It’s been one of those weeks; lots happening, things to do and then the computer plays up and time is spent trying to sort it. The result is that I’m rushing to get things done that I need to devote some time to, such as doing my Welsh homework and learning the choir music (neither done to my satisfaction) as well as getting on with the writing.

Ah, yes, writing. One bit of sort of good news; I have completed the first draft of my latest novel, The Pendant and the Globe. The downside is that I think this one will require quite a bit of editing and revision. So, do I get straight on with that or put it away for a couple of weeks “to marinade”. I think circumstances will force the latter.

Then there is the second question – do I get on with the next Jasmine novel, which I would like to publish in 2021 (a year to write and revise it before it goes for copyediting etc.) or, do I return to the other fantasy novel which I left about 1/3 written but in a somewhat muddled state.

The trouble is that with other activities keeping me occupied, my writing time has been cut and a big portion of what remains is taken up with shorter material. An example is the weekly writers’ group task. I enjoy doing it but it does take time. This week we were invited to write a piece for a possible anthology with the subject “My Writing Journey”. We agreed that could be pretty boring if the same thing is said over and over again. I think I’ve taken a slightly different slant but I can’t give you a preview here.

I’m not sure I’ve been on a journey anyway, certainly not a planned one, more of an aimless trudge through the wilderness. I’ve been asked when I started writing. The answer is I can’t remember starting; I always have done. Neither can I say when I first wanted to be published, because I think I always have but for a long time, perhaps because of fear of failure, did little about it other than half-hearted attempts guarranteed to get nowhere. I am very proud of what I have produced, both my educational writing and my fiction. It’s a pity that my fiction is not earning lots of dosh but there are two possible reasons: one, my writing is not good enough; or, two, I didn’t do enough to prepare the ground for a career as an author of fiction (and that includes not acquiring all the skills).

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Finally, some comments on the state of the nation. I despair. So far the quality of the election campaign has been dire, on all sides. What is most noticeable are the lies; lies from the politicians’ mouths, lies from their spin doctors, lies from the media, lies from their supporters. Perhaps it has always been thus in elections but it seems so blatant at the moment. Children are always (or were) taught to be honest and tell the truth. If they copy their elders today then they will lie, lie and lie again. What is the outcome? No one believes a word they’re told. I don’t think it is alarmist or an exageration to say that this heralds the breakdown of society/civilisation. Perhaps we won’t have to wait for climate change to do it as we’re doing a good job of it ourselves right now.