Victory in court

In a week filled with stories about rising energy costs and small energy companies going bust, empty shelves and filling stations because of the HGV driver shortage and Johnson trying and failing to act statesmanlike in the US, there was one piece of news that cheered me. That was the judgement of the Appeal Court in the case of Bell vs the Tavistock Clinic. It’s not a subject that draws attention from anyone other than those on either side of the trans debate/dispute/war. Just a reminder that in the original case, Bell won a judgement that caused the clinic to effectively stop treating minors with gender dysphoria. The Appeals Court have overturned that result. Of course there is one more stage, the Supreme Court, which could again decide either way.

I never could understand the original judge’s decision. Bell had been treated by the Tavistock and was helped to transition from female to male. She was given puberty blocking drugs quite late and then went on to take male hormones after she became an adult. Later she decided to detransition. She accused the Tavistock of not providing her with the care she needed, of being too speedy to hand out drugs and she stated that teenagers, i.e. minors, cannot judge for themselves what there gender identity is. The judgement supported that view and took away from the medical staff the decision of when to provide the drugs. In effect the court became the decision maker in all similar medical cases.

The Appeal Court has now decided, quite rightly that only medically trained practitioners can possibly have the knowledge and experience and hence the ability to make those decisions. From what I know, it is never a quick decision. The clinic is so overwhelmed with cases that years can pass between consultations and the medics only prescribe puberty blockers if they think it is necessary to preserve the teenager’s mental health while they wait to to start transitioning medically and surgically when adult. Many teens suffer agonies of despair waiting for consultations and treatment.

Are teenagers competent at knowing their own identity and in deciding their own futures? I think they are, particularly when they are provided with the facts, a sympathetic ear and a safe environment. The same argument has arisen in connection with the coronavirus vaccination. While parental approval has be sought by the medical authorities, children can decide for themselves and go against their parents wishes. If there is a principle that minors have a legal right to make medical decisions that affect them then determining their gender must be part of that.

I would also suggest that forcing children to be either male or female is also wrong. Perhaps, and this is just a guess on my part, fewer people may go on to full medical and surgical gender affirmation if they have a chance to experiment with gender before and during puberty.

Of course, the court case wasn’t simply about Bell’s treatment. It was highjacked by the anti-trans brigade who want to stop anyone from transitioning from their gender assigned at birth. I am surprised (no, I’m not) by women who seem to be content to be defined by their biology. Now they say it’s not that they have a vagina that determines femininity, because transwomen have one of those. It’s whether they have a cervix! How one can tell without a gynaecological examination, I don’t know. Perhaps these women are suggesting that all women should be tattooed with a visible mark indicating that they are in possession of one. And they consider the Taliban to be misogynists.

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At least I got to writing group this week but the only writing I’ve done has been on the fantasy novel. The current chapter developed nicely so now I need some ideas for the next. I’m trying to give my imagination free rein and follow any wacky idea that comes to me. Is it the way to write a novel? Well, we’ll see. So instead of a piece of writing here’s a pretty photo.

Disappointment

Another week, another week’s news to make you want to tear at your hair. Perhaps the most notable event was Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle but what a damp squib of disappointment that was. Just moving the pawns around the board. Does any single one of them inspire confidence that they have the necessary skills to run the country? No, not one. Even ignoring their rabid right wing, fawning support for the PM himself, they all seem to be dim narcissists with little knowledge of real life or of world problems and fewer skills. We will stumble on into the darkness.

For us the bigger news was more local. Our greengrocer is closing down. He is well passed retirement age and deserves a rest from the long and heavy hours a greengrocer has to put in. It is most disappointing that no-one has come forward to take on the business. That may be partly due to the fact that the premises the business rents is in a somewhat dilapidated state with the landlord apparently unwilling to renovate. The closure will make a big difference to our shopping. There is no other independent green grocer in the town. No longer will we be able to just nip down to the shop to pick up some fruit or veg. We will either have to get more of our greengrocery from the supermarket or get in the car and drive to farmshops or other towns.

It is more than just a matter of convenience. There are three reasons why losing our local shop is more than just sad. First of all there was very little packaging. One picked what one wanted and either put in our own reusable bags or used a paper bag provided. Secondly we could buy as much or as little of each product as we wished. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly he stocked a wide variety of local, seasonal produce. It was difficult to beat the local cherries or strawberries that he sold other than travelling to the farm that supplied them.

A local greengrocer means low food miles, little plastic packaging, seasonal produce. All the things we should be aiming for in this warming world. I’m not just sad at losing our friendly, humorous grocer, I am upset that we will almost certainly have to go further afield to find the goods that we want.

I’ve managed to find some time for actual, original writing this week. Coming back from the festival I was fired up to restart my novel writing, but which one? There is the hardish SF one and the wacky fantasy one. Well, it’s turned out to be the latter. While the SF novel has a pretty firm plot and lots of background planned, I’m more drawn to the seat of the pants, off the cuff, writing of the fantasy. Is that me being lazy; procrastinating in a creative way? Probably. I really don’t know where the story is leading but in what I have written so far I have developed a cast of characters which are beginning to take on a life of their own. I’m letting my imagination wander to take them in to situations that I haven’t previously thought of, one scene at a time. That’s what fantasy is all about, isn’t it? So long as it is self-consistent and not a boring trudge through familiar fantasy territory. We’ll see how far it gets but I won’t be posting it here, just in case I find I have something publishable.

Instead, here is something I wrote a while ago. It was an exercise in gothic romance, not a genre I write in at all. It may be a little derivative but it was fun going over the top with the emotions.

Desire

The wind off the sea swept her long, blonde hair from her face leaving beads of moisture clinging to each strand. Ignoring the rain-flecked gale, she looked down at the waves crashing over the dark rocks far below and then her gaze lifted to the boundary between the dark green, angry sea and the narrow band of red-hued dawn beneath the glowering clouds. No masts broke the smooth line of that horizon, no ship was tossed on the roiling ocean.
‘When will you come?’ she whispered. The question was superfluous. There was no answer. Her wait would end when it would end. There would be no precognition. One day, perhaps like now at dawn or perhaps at sunset, the sails would appear and then, soon after, she would be in his arms, their lips touching.
A cry made her turn. The house brooded in the vale a couple of hundred paces from the cliffs, crouching low out of the storm winds. The glass in the windows of the top floor just now reflected the light of the early morning, but the fiery glow hardly lifted the gloom of the stone, as dark as the rocks of the cliff, from which it was built.
Another cry, and now she saw him fighting his way along the narrow, over-grown path from the house to the cliff-top. He beat at the nettles and brambles with his crop as he strode towards her.
She shivered, not with the cold, though her thin woollen shawl hardly prevented the cold easterly from freezing her pale skin. It was anticipation that made her shake. She turned again to face the sea and looked down to where the jagged rocks withstood the besieging tide.
‘Jump,’ part of her told herself, ‘Leap to oblivion. Leave this world of pain and sadness.’ She remained motionless, limbs frozen not by cold but by indecision. Her eyes rose again to the distance. If she ended it now, what would he feel when he returned? Did she want to give up all hope of love and happiness?
Hands thudded into her shoulders. Arms encircled her, dragged her back from the edge, spun her around. She looked up into his bearded, scarred face. The single open eye, glaring at her.
‘I’ve told you before, Emily,’ he growled, ‘There is no point to you staring out to sea. He’s not coming back. You are mine.’
She dropped her head. There was no response to give. Declaring her last remaining iota of hope would bring her no joy, more likely a stroke from the crop tucked under his arm. His hand grasped the hair at the back of her head and tugged. Her face tilted up and his rough, chapped lips descended to hers. His tongue forced her lips apart and she tasted the stale, last night’s whisky. She gagged and coughed. He pulled back, straightened, grabbed her wrist in his hand and dragged her back down the path towards the house. She stumbled along behind him, emptying her mind of the dread of whatever he had planned for her this miserable morning.

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It’s not fair!

The writing festival is over so life returns to normal. Normal? What does that mean? Well, for a start it means yet more Tory incompetence and mal-governance. This week the government secured agreement in parliament to raise the cost of National Insurance (NI) for all employees and employers. Why? To pay for the National Health Service and social care. I think it amounts to £12billion extra for the government a year. Of course the NHS has been stretched to, if not beyond, the limit with the pandemic but was struggling before March 2020. It always needs more cash as the population rises, people live longer and new treatments are introduced for diseases. It is a dilemma which needs consideration but cuts during the austerity that lasted from 2010 to 2019(ish) made it difficult for the NHS to meet ordinary demands on its staff and services. What about the £350million/week that Brexit was going to provide? Ha, ha, ha! Haven’t heard that mentioned by the government since the referendum. No, it’s the workers who are going to make up the shortfall. Of course Brexit has also seen the loss of a lot of valued European health workers.

The rise in NI payments is also supposed to pay for the government’s new social care policy. What policy? That’s the other joke – there isn’t one, and the new funding won’t arrive for another two years. Meanwhile care staff are leaving their jobs and care homes struggle to maintain budgets. For those without a huge bank balance the prospects of care in old age or disability are dismal.

However badly mishandled, there is no doubt that the health and care services need more cash. Rational, caring people may have expected the government to increase taxes on those who can best afford to pay. No, this government is not rational or caring. I would have voted for an increase in income tax, not because I have lots of spare cash, but because it is a fair tax – those who earn most pay most. I voted for the Liberal party when it pledged to ad1p/£ to income tax to increase funds for education. Those on very low wages would not pay much, if any, extra because of the tax allowance (the first £12,000 of income is tax free).

The government has not done the fair thing. It has increased National Insurance. This is a charge on the whole of a working person’s pay and also on their employer. The NHS, as the country’s biggest employer, will also have the largest extra bill to pay as a result of this increase. Actually (correct me if I’m wrong) but I think that the poorest paid will pay proportionally more of this increase than those on high pay because I believe there is a ceiling on NI payments (I never reached that). The Tories think that they can hoodwink the electorate again because NI is not branded as a tax. It’s insurance like what you pay for your car and your possessions and your holidays. You pay it hoping that you won’t have to make a claim. When NI was introduced that was the thinking behind it. Everyone paid into the fund so that those that needed health care or unemployment benefit or welfare could receive it. Of course, everyone needs health care and most people draw a state pension. In fact NI is just like any other tax (Income tax, VAT, fuel tax, etc.) in just adding cash to the government coffers. But NI is a charge on the whole of a person’s employment income; there is no allowance, and employers also pay a contribution for every employee. Landlords hauling in rents don’t pay NI (unless they do so voluntarily as self-employed people).

Actually the only people who won’t be hurt by this tax increase are people like me – pensioners. We don’t pay NI because we are not in employment. So, the Tories are protecting their core vote – grey hairs. However they are also removing the triple lock on pension increases – but this year inflation is probably going to be above 2.5% so the increase will be above the minimum guaranteed.

When will voters realise that they have been skewered by the Tories? I don’t know the answer to that because the opposition seems to have great difficulty in getting the Tories skulduggery across to the electorate.

Relaxing on the water (hopefully not contaminated by untreated sewage)

I haven’t had any time this week to write but I have another story for you.

No doubt you have seen empty shelves in the supermarkets. The explanation is that there are not enough truck drivers to keep the supply chains moving. Why are there not enough drivers? The government would like to blame the pandemic – drivers being pinged and told to self-isolate – but it in fact many drivers were European and have now, because of brexit, returned home. However it’s not just the shops which are failing to get deliveries. The water companies also require regular supplies of materials used to purify water for drinking and to treat sewage before the waste water is discharged into rivers and the sea. The government has told the water companies that if they do not have sufficient supplies of substances such as iron sulfate, they can discharge untreated sewage into our rivers. Those are the same rivers that are already contaminated with run off from chicken farms and other forms of intensive agriculture. Another of brexit’s little benefits!

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Looking on the bright side

We returned from a lovely three week break last Friday. Being on holiday I should have been relaxed and happy but I do accept that some (all?) of my recent posts have been rather depressing and pessimistic. In many respects I think my feelings of foreboding are justified. We have a worsening climate emergency, the immensity of which seems to be failing to get through to governments, businesses or most ordinary people. The political situation worldwide seems to worsen by the week and the UK government becomes rabidly more right wing and corrupt day by day. My fears for the future grow steadily.

Nevertheless, I agree that negative feelings do no good and just make one depressed. I should look on the bright side. So what is there to be cheerful about? Well, a lot really. I am retired so do not have to worry about a job. My pensions are sufficient to give me a comfortable home, more than adequate food and drink, pleasurable exercise and entertainment. I love my partner, Lou, and my family and have many friends to share ideas and experiences with. I am fit so can do the things I want to do, and I live in an area I adore.

That’s all rather passive and sounds a bit like I am taking rather than giving. That is not the impression I want to present. I am not someone who feels that having spent 35-40 years working we are somehow entitled to many decades of idyllic retirement. It wasn’t long ago that men, in particular, were lucky to have more than five years of retirement. Yes, I did work hard, but most of the time it was pretty pleasurable so I don’t think of my retirement as being a reward for a life of struggle. Retirement is a pleasure but is also an opportunity to contribute to society and the world using one’s abilities and resources. It is also a time to be true to oneself.

So, what is it to be – voluntary work, activism, creativity? All of these can be of benefit to one’s environment and community. I have my bits of voluntary work which I hope to continue with. I shall continue to work for the acceptance of gender variant people in society, and I shall continue to give anyone interested the fruits of my imagination in my writing.

Getting back to writing is one of the ways of overcoming the pessimism. This week has been busy administering competitions but I did get a brief period in which to write to this week’s club theme which was “step”. One phrase immediately came into my mind and here is the piece that developed from it.

Step

“That’s one small step for a man…”
A breath caught in Ed’s throat. The picture on the TV had disappeared in a blizzard of grey and white. The voice was replaced by a noisy hiss.
“No!” Ed cried, leaping from the sofa to kneel in front of the glowing screen. He thumped the top of the wooden cabinet.
“Hey, careful there lad,” father said from the depths of the armchair. “That there’s a valuable instrument.”
“Valuable! Like heck,” Ed moaned. “We’ve had it years and years, since I was born nearly.”
“Nineteen fifty-eight, we bought that television.” Ed’s dad said, fingering his pipe. “Cost a packet, so look after it.”
“But its knackered, Dad, can’t you see.” Ed gestured to the screen. “The sound’s gone too. Just as Armstrong stepped on to the surface. We’ve missed the most important event of the century.”
“I’m not sure about that my boy. I reckon D-day were a might more important than sending a rocket to the Moon. When we got on that beach. . .”
“Not just a rocket, Dad. Three men. Two of them are there on the Moon.”
“Well, ‘appen they can go for a walk without you watching ‘em.”
“But they’re sending pictures all the way back to Earth so that everyone can see that they are there, on the Moon, doing it for real.”
“Could be Blackpool beach as far as I could make out. The picture’s not a lot worse now than it was.”
“Yes, it is, Dad. You could see Armstrong coming down the ladder from the LEM. He had one foot on the surface of the Moon. You could see that couldn’t you.”
Dad shrugged, “Can’t say I was paying much attention.”
Ed sighed. “But you heard him speak. What was it? One small step.”
“Sounded like he was starting to make a speech.”
“Well, it was important wasn’t it. The first steps of a human on the Moon. The first steps of anyone.” Ed paused. “That is. Unless.”
“Unless what, lad?”
Ed’s eye’s opened wide. “Perhaps aliens got there first. Perhaps they’ve attacked the LEM. That’s why we’ve lost the picture. Maybe Neil Armstrong was killed by aliens before he finished his step.”
“What are you rambling about now?” Dad heaved himself out of the sagging chair. “If there’s nothing to see I’m going to bed. Time you did too, my lad.”
“No. I’ve got to find out what happened.” Ed said, thoughts racing through his head. Perhaps Aldrin and Armstrong had been captured and the aliens had broken the TV link.
“OK, son, but take care with that TV. No more thumping it, do you hear me.”
His father left the living room as Ed focussed on the controls at the back of the cubical box. He turned the tuning knob, the vertical hold, the horizontal hold but the picture remained a flickering blur and the sound was that of waves on a pebbly beach.
It had to be the TV that was faulty, surely, but what if it wasn’t just this TV. What if no-one could see what was happening in space. What if the astronauts stepping on to the Moon had been met by aliens?

535 words

An undignified retreat

We haven’t been avid followers of the news for the last week or two but Afghanistan has featured quite a bit, hasn’t it. Mind you that could be said for the last twenty years, or forty or couple of hundred. The country has been a playing field for warring factions all that time with the people the victims. First it was the British and Russian Empires struggling for supremacy – Russia wanted a route to the Indian Ocean, Britain wanted to stop them. In the eighties the West supported rebels fighting Soviet occupiers. Then the Taliban emerged from amongst the warlords to stamp their authority and terrorise their own citizens. For a few years the West looked on, tut-tutting, until 9/11 changed things. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on US citizens demanded a response. Was an invasion the correct one? The quick victory over the Taliban government and destruction of the terrorist bases provided a feeling of satisfaction for Western governments as did the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gadhafi in Libya. In none of those little wars was the whole operation thought through nor the consequences of being occupying powers considered by the various NATO leaders. Each, like others, has turned into a disaster. In the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban never went away. They remained in power in the rural areas while the sophisticated armies of the West remained holed up in the cities and their fortified camps. Hundreds of western soldiers died and many thousands were maimed and injured.

I’m not sure if the last twenty years can be called a stalemate but while the city dwellers experienced a bit of the western lifestyle, and women, in particular, were able to exercise their human rights to freedom and education there was always the threat of the Taliban returning. Now in a deal negotiated by Trump, accepted by Biden and totally ignored by Johnson and Rabb, the Taliban have been given everything they wanted. Not surprisingly, the Afghan army dissolved away and the puppet government fled. Why not surprising? Because the Taliban have fostered the reputation as merciless, sadistic, religious fundamentalist. In fact they are the ones full of fear. They fear any opposition or dissent so resort to barbaric violence to force their people to comply with their rules. They fear the past so seek to destroy remnants of the country’s pre-Islamic culture and history, and they fear the future so attempt to hold back any use of modern technology or science to give their citizens a better life.

How do the Taliban manage to be so successful? Surely they must have support providing equipment and ammunition. But who is it? I note that spokespeople still dodge questions about who is backing the Taliban. Is it the Russians? They were embarrassed by the Taliban and their predecessors in the 80s and 90s but perhaps Putin has put that aside in order to out one over the West. What about the Chinese? They are unscrupulous in securing access to resources but they are ruthless in stamping on religion amongst their own people. Iran or the Saudis? I really don’t know. But I do know that in following the USA’s lead over the last twenty years many British lives have been lost or damaged, for nothing.

In fact, has any USA intervention since WW2 been successful? Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have either ended up in uneasy truces, abject defeats or unmitigated messes.

What Afghanistan does exemplify is that the world today is riven by violence mainly enacted by men on other men but very often women too, much the same as in previous centuries. Yet, the countries of the world have to sit down and come to agreement on how to deal with a far more serious, extinction threatening, problem – climate change. The Montreal Protocol that tackled the ozone destroying CFCs is often held up as an example of what can be done. However, while a serious threat, CFCs were relatively easy to deal with – ban their use and the ozone would, eventually, recover. As CFCs could only be produced by a relatively advanced chemical industry that generally recognised the danger, it was job done. Climate change is much more complex and requires lifestyle changes in both developed and developing countries. I don’t think the ruling men (and most of them are men) have it in them to reach the compromises that are necessary. Marxists, Fascists, religious fundamentalists of any belief system don’t and can’t change.

The competitive and aggressive nature of men in positions of power is apparent in everything they do. One TV programme we did catch this week was a bit of fluff about the history of the crisp and snack industry in the UK, specifically the battles (that’s the correct term), between Smiths Crisps, Golden Wonder and Walkers. The leading figures, all men, in each company used the language of warfare to describe their struggles. It wasn’t enough to produce a good product and promote it to the public. No, the competitors had to be destroyed by whatever means possible. In the case of Walkers, the eventual, or rather current, superpower, that meant using the financial might of their PepsiCo owners to match competing brands, take advantage of slip-ups by competitors (such as convenient fires in their factories) and, if necessary, buying up the opposition. The effects on the workers were not considered so long as the executives could taste the success of victory. I’m not saying that Walkers are the Taliban of crisp manufacturers but they both provide examples of male belligerence which will be the death of humankind.

Relaxing away from the news.

No story again this week. Perhaps normal service will be restored next week if I feel that writing fiction has any purpose.

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It’s summer isn’t it.

It was hot last week wasn’t it. We had a week when the peak daytime temperature was over 30oC and nights when the it didn’t go much below 20. That was nothing like it gets in the tropics or even in the Mediterranean but it’s quite hot enough for me. I like to sit in the shade and look at the sunshine rather than bathing in it. It’s summer and we have come to expect a heatwave. What annoys me is the TV reporters (not necessarily the weather people) wondering where summer has gone when temperatures fall back to the high teens or low twenties and when rain showers appear on the forecast. That is what our summer should be like – we have a temperate climate, or did have. Perhaps people holidaying in Spain, Italy and Greece have become accustomed to hot, dry weather and now do not appreciate a British summer as it used to be.

Record breaking temperatures and periods of very hot weather are a consequence of global warming and are not a good thing. It is being said more and more often, though people still don’t seem to pay much attention, that extreme weather events are part of climate change because of the build up of “greenhouse” gases in the atmosphere. More frequent and hotter heatwaves in the UK, western Canada, and elsewhere, “freak” storms and exceptionally high rainfall just about anywhere, disappearing polar and glacial ice, are all symptoms.

Climate change, together with biodiversity loss and waste/pollution are the three apocalyptic issues facing us and our children. They are separate and connected and require governments and individuals to face up to them and act on solutions. Time is running out. Or may be it has run out. I recall taking some students to an eco-conference back in around 2008 when Jonathan Porritt said we had perhaps as long as 15 years to get to grips with the problems. By that measure we have two years left but have barely made a start. OK, carbon emissions from electricity generation in developed countries have fallen thanks to the adoption of renewal energy strategies, although these are uncoordinated and haphazard, particularly in the UK. Electric vehicles are starting to replace fossil fuelled transport but it is just a start and at the present rate (limited by poor recharging infrastructure), the oil companies will still be raking in profits for decades yet.

We have to do more – but what? We can’t all live on a smallholding growing our own food and weaving our own clothes. We do have to persuade people to cut down – on their travel, on their purchases of clothes, electrical goods etc., and on non-seasonal, intensively cultivated, pesticide and herbicide treated, ultra-processed food.

We have the means to live a low carbon, conserving, clean future but I am disturbed by the lack of movement towards it. Celebrating burning hot summer weather is not part of it.

Someone put on social media the adage that under 25s adopt technological advances readily, 25-50s accept it and use it for work, over 50s think it’s not natural. Perhaps I’m in that last group as far as social media is concerned. I use it a little bit but am not comfortable with it. Nevertheless, I am coming to think of it as one of the evils of the age in the way that it is being used to undermine “democracy” (OK, we can argue what that is), stir up hate against minorities, spread lies and false information, and fill the pockets of billionaires who offer nothing in return. But can we now live without it?

This has been a busy week so I have made little (actually, no) progress on either of my novels in progress. So, once again here is a piece I wrote earlier, a lot earlier. It is actually a piece of memoir, not something I write often.

The Bogie

From the moment they can totter on their own legs and are released from the confines of their pushchair or pram, young children desire their own set of wheels. Today there are numerous moulded-plastic vehicles in the shape of tractors, racing cars, motorbikes, even suitcases on which to ride. Back in the 1950s and 60s the selection was smaller. I can remember a small tricycle with a flat wooden seat and pedals on the front wheel. That was my transport before I outgrew it and, I presume, passed it on to my brother. Some privileged children had pedal cars. Parents can now purchase, at great expense, battery powered miniature versions of the great marques but then they were generic car shapes made of steel with a single seat, a steering wheel, a brake if you were lucky, and pedals connected to the front axle. They were fun but slow.
If you wanted speed and were too young to be let on the road on a bicycle then the answer was a buggy, cart, soap-box vehicle or, as we called it in Cardiff, a bogie. Bogies weren’t for sale but built at home often by handy kids themselves. Their construction relied on the availability of pairs of axles and wheels. In those days, push chairs and prams must have suffered from early obsolescence as there never seemed difficulty in sourcing the salvaged wheels.
There was a fairly standard design to the bogie. A plank of wood about four to five feet long was fastened to the two axles with the front axle pivoted to allow steering. A wooden box viz. a box in which soap or fruit or other goods were transported, was fixed over the rear axle with the forward side knocked out. This is where the driver sat with legs stretched along the plank. The box provided some minimal protection in case of accident. A length of rope or string was attached at each end to the front axle and held like reins by the intrepid driver giving some degree of control of the direction the bogie travelled.
Vehicles like this were part of the popular culture of children everywhere in the 1950s and 60s. They were also the trade of the character Wellington in the cartoon strip, The Perishers, published in the Daily Mirror. The strip was a sort of English version of Peanuts. All the characters were children, unencumbered by interfering adults, living their ageless lives in a typical British working-class environment. Wellington was actually a homeless orphan who as well as being a bogie manufacturer and salesman, handed out philosophical wisdom.
As we took the Daily Mirror (later replaced by the Daily Telegraph – why I don’t know) I enjoyed my daily dose of the Perishers. Perhaps that is why at the age of seven or eight, I can’t remember precisely, I wanted to join the wheeled classes and get out there with my friends on my own bogie. Unlike some children, I was not particularly practical (that is still true) so building my own transport was not a serious proposition, but I had my father.

Glyn George Ellis should have been an engineer or a mathematician. He was a grammar school boy who did well in his School Certificate. Unfortunately, his parents could not afford for him to go on to his Highers and so he left school at sixteen. That happened to be in 1939 when the start of the war also upset life plans. Glyn had an old back injury, caused he said from falling out of a tree but was probably a genetic weakness. He was rejected for war service but had been taken on by the Civil Service in the Ministry of Labour. He spent the war and his subsequent career sitting at a desk but outside work he was rarely to be seen sitting down. He had learned carpentry as a school boy and was prepared to turn his hand to almost any handiwork other than plumbing and electrical installations. Gardening and house-decoration were his favourites. He designed and built a garage for our first house and designed and supervised the building of a new church hall. Whenever I wanted something constructed Dad could and would make it.

Dad wasn’t content to follow fashion in building my bogie. Bogies are what are now called gravity propulsion vehicles i.e. they roll downhill. Where we lived was relatively flat, the nearest suitable hill over a half mile away. Therefore, my bogie required a different source of power than gravity. Of course, another energy source could be a human bribed into giving a push. My brother was, at the time, too young to be a satisfactory source of motive power. My bogie had to be self-propelled. That was impossible with the usual arrangement of soapbox on plank with steering string. Dad came up with a unique design. The box was replaced with a flat plinth on which the driver, me, could sit or kneel. For steering Dad arranged two broom handles along the side of the vehicle connecting to the front axle. A hand on either or both poles, pushing forward or back turned the front wheels. This meant it was possible to place one knee on the bogie, grip the poles and push against the ground with the other foot.

The design worked perfectly on the flat, on a small incline or with a willing pusher. The only slight problem was occasionally getting a hand jammed between one of the poles and the central plank. Oh, and falling off. My brother and I had lots of fun with our bogie for a few years. With a rope attached, it was used to transport empty glass bottles to the shops to collect the deposit due during Bob-a-Job week, the annual Cubs and Scouts charity collection. That was our best money-spinning scheme.

At the age of ten I acquired a road-going bicycle. A bike was a more versatile mode of transport, so the era of the bogie came to an end. What happened to it I cannot recall. Dad probably found another use for it, or the wheels.
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We are what we are

Quite a quiet, ordinary week. Just the usual stories of Tory government chaos resulting from their mixed messages regarding the COVID pandemic and failure to read the Brexit agreement they signed with the EU. Also the frequent but almost unopposed threats to “freedoms” that the government are planning in various pieces of legislation – restricting voting by introducing some sort of ID card; banning of any sort of protest on the streets; making journalistic investigations of government against the law. We’ll soon be living in a secret police state but people won’t notice if they can carry on partying and nightclubbing and watching “Love Island” on TV.

I feel I am forced to return to a topic that affects me personally and is increasingly worrying me – trans politics and “cancel culture”. I apologise if this bores you – you can jump to the story lower down if you like.

My worries this week were set off by The Observer newspaper last Sunday. I’ve read the paper for fifty years and always felt more or less in tune with its political stance on all sorts of issues. However it now appears to be leaning towards those who want to restrict the freedoms of trans people. There have been worrying articles by various writers over the last few years but there was an editorial a couple of weeks ago about freedom of speech that seemed to put the paper on one side of the dispute. The leader seemed to ignore the principle that the right to speak freely comes with the responsibility to avoid causing or inciting harm. Many of those who speak out to restrict the right of trans women to be treated as women are deliberately asking for those transwomen to be isolated, ridiculed, denied medical treatment and to be deprived of their rights.

The latest clue to the Observers’ stance was a full page review of two anti-trans books (Trans by Helen Joyce and Materials Girls by Kathleen Stock). I haven’t read either book and am unlikely to but they are presented by the reviewer, Gaby Hinsliff, as scholarly tomes giving an in-depth treatment of the arguments which seem to be wholly against the principle that transwomen should be treated as women. There is talk of a “powerful lobby” of trans-activists backed by billionaires (!?) who have apparently captured the legislatures and courts around the world to force their views on society. There is particular emphasis on the rare cases where a transwoman has attacked other women. The case of Keira Bell against the Tavistock clinic and a few other key court cases get heavy mentions.

The argument keeps returning to biology. For the trans-critical spokespeople, biology is paramount. Unless you have ovaries and uterus and can bear children you are not female. This argument ignores the many women who cannot or do not want to give birth. Since when has biology provided the defining characteristics of what it is to be human. You don’t tell a blind person that they are limited by their lack of eyes or an amputee by the lack of a leg. For decades, ethnic minorities have been discriminated against in medicine by the supposed “weaknesses” caused by their race (Built-in discrimination, New Scientist 17/07/21 p.16) and women themselves in the past (or perhaps the present) have been treated as weaker or less capable than men because of their biological differences.

My argument with the Observer reviewer is that the opinions of the two authors are taken as given with no question of their reasoning or choice of data.

Yes, there are severe questions for society about the place of transgender people including those of a non-binary disposition. I don’t support “cancel-culture” where people are refused a platform or a voice, but every pronouncement should be countered and equal publicity given to the valid arguments of all sides. It seems that the trans view is given in personal statements such as Paris Lees’ recently released and praised autobiography while the anti-brigade have these pseudo-academic treatises to hide their bigotry behind.

Yes, biology does mean there are differences between people. Some produce sperm and others produce eggs. Some people have blue eyes some have brown, and some have a shade in between. How one perceives oneself has a lot of building blocks – genetic, hormonal, experiential, perhaps influenced by our gut microfauna, who knows. It doesn’t matter, every person is an individual. How does it harm society to let every person be themselves? If a black-skinned person wants to be President of the United States, then let him be; if a woman wants to be a football referee, let her be; if a person feels themselves to be female let them be.

Many people want to break down stereotypes of male and female – not usually those who deny that transwomen are women – to prevent discrimination on the grounds of gender. It doesn’t matter whether a prime minster has a penis or a vagina, either may be a fool or corrupt. The aspiration for true equality is not harmed if a few want to appear and behave in a stereotypical girly or blokey manner.

The anti-trans faction as represented by the two books reviewed in The Observer seem to feel that they are winning the argument and that public opinion is swaying against transpeople. That is a insidious, fascist aspiration. A minority is put up as being a dangerous influence on society and must be torn down – they might be refugees, or Jews or Muslims, or intellectuals. I do not want to see transpeople treated like the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China, or native Americans in nineteenth century USA. Far-fetched, perhaps, but the tone of the arguments are getting more worrying.

For your edification below is the last of my three failed competition stories. This is historical fiction and a re-write of something I wrote earlier. It obviously did not impress the judge but I am sure there is a story in the dramatic life of alkali entrepreneur Nicolas Leblanc.

Saltcake

Dize stood by the open door of the shed. The draught of air somewhat lessened the throat burning stench of the muriatic acid gas bubbling off from the vats. The workers, the poor wretches, clothed in sackcloth to protect their skins, had cloths soaked in soda tied around their heads to absorb the flesh dissolving fumes. They still coughed as if drowning in their own fluids. They dug at the fused mass of saltcake, lifting it out to be heated in the flames. This would drive off yet more of the gas.
Dize nodded with approval and moved to the adjacent shed. Looking through the door he saw the furnaces heating the mixture of saltcake with coal and limestone. Smoke billowed out from the hearths as more workers stoked the fires. Dize turned to head to the last workshop but paused as he saw his master approaching from the house. Leblanc was dressed little better than him, always prepared to join his workforce in managing his process.
“How fares the work, Dize?” Leblanc called.
Dize shrugged. “Well enough. We should make another five hundred livres of soda today, but this will be the last batch till we get more supplies.”
“All the Oil of Vitriol used up?” Leblanc said, as if wishing further confirmation.
“Every last drop. They must provide more.” Dize nodded in the direction of Paris. The smoke flumes rising from the city were visible from here in St Denis, much of it from the homes of the aristos put to the torch.
Leblanc’s shoulders drooped. Dize knew he had had many problems but the current uncertainty in the supply of raw materials just when the process had been all but perfected was perhaps the greatest.
“The National Convention must understand the need,” Leblanc muttered.
Dize snorted, “All they know is how to bicker amongst themselves and to chop off heads.”
“But soda is a vital commodity, Dize.”
Dize nodded. He knew well that there was demand for their soda from the soap makers, the glass makers, the paper makers and others.
He commented, “The need was recognised when the King offered his prize eleven years ago.”
Leblanc offered a half a smile. “That prize should be mine.”
Indeed, Dize reflected, if Leblanc had shown half as much business sense as he did chemical ingenuity then he would be a rich man by now and himself too. Although there was as much chance of Leblanc having his head severed from his body. That misfortune had happened to his patron, the Duke d’Orleans.
“Where were you headed, Dize?” Leblanc asked.
“To check the quality of the soda that is crystallising.”
“I’ll accompany you.”
The clatter of hooves on cobbles gave them pause. A half dozen riders rode into the yard. Their unmatched rough clothing and unsheathed swords revealed them to be sans-culottes.
“Citoyen Leblanc?” The leader called, hauling his mount to a halt.
Leblanc stepped towards the rider. “I am Leblanc. Who asks?”
“I bring word from the Committee of Public Safety.”
The words did not bring calm to Dize. The ever-changing faces of the revolutionary government and the unending roll call of executions made everyone wary of contact with whoever claimed authority.
“Do you bring news of fresh supplies of Oil of Vitriol?” Leblanc demanded.
“I know not to what you refer.” He gestured at the cluster of sheds. “This is the property of Citoyen Phillip Égalité.”
Dize recalled that was how the former Duke styled himself while he showed support for the revolution. It did him no good.
Leblanc replied, “That is correct, but I hold the lease and…”
“All property of Citoyen Égalité is forfeit and now belongs to the people of the Republic.”
Two of the riders dismounted and advanced towards Dize and Leblanc with their swords raised.
Leblanc faced the leader. “You mean I am to have the government as chief share-holder in my business?”
“That is correct, Citoyen. You will provide an inventory of all materials used in your manufactory and you will hand over the details of your process.”
Dize gasped. They wished to take away the only cards that Leblanc held, his secret process for making soda. Leblanc, usually so docile and timid in the face of authority was pink with rage.
“I have a patent granted to me three years ago.”
The leader of the sans-culottes snorted. “You should know that all edicts of the government at that time were overturned when the new Republic was declared.”
“But…”Leblanc began. Dize grabbed his shoulder.
“I think, Citoyen, we should hold our peace.” Leblanc slumped against him.
“Will I never receive my dues,” he muttered.
Dize addressed the rider. “What do you want of Citoyen Leblanc?”
“You will comply with my instructions,” the horseman said. “My men will remain to ensure that you hand over the papers describing your process.” He turned his horse and rode out leaving three of his men behind.
“What can we do, Dize?” Leblanc said.
“Comply with the wishes of the Committee,” Dize replied, “They will still have need of your expertise.”
Leblanc sighed. “I provide my knowledge on various commissions but receive no payment.”
“You have their ear and that is what counts. These are difficult and dangerous times, Leblanc. If you do as they say now, perhaps when the war is won and some kind of calm returns, they will restore your property and pay you the prize.” Dize doubted that his words were true, but his own fortunes were bound up with Leblanc’s and it was vital to keep the older man working.
Leblanc straightened himself. “Thank you, Dize. As ever your assistance is invaluable. Check that the work proceeds. I will inform Adele of the new state of our affairs and collect my papers together.” He returned to the house with one of the armed men following. Dize headed for the shed from which bad egg fumes of sulphuret of hydrogen emanated.

Dize hammered on the door of the house. “Leblanc! Leblanc! Answer!”
Seconds passed before the door was opened by a woman wearing an apron, her greying hair tied back.
“Ah, Madame Leblanc. Alert your husband. The militia are here.” Dize saw all colour drain from Adele’s face. “Surely they have not come to take my Nicolas away.”
Dize shrugged, “I do not know their intention.”
Leblanc strode to the doorway. “What is it? Did you say soldiers? Come in, Dize, come in.”
Dize stepped inside and Adele Leblanc closed the door. He followed Leblanc into the drawing room. It was dark despite it being daytime, with windows closed and covered by curtains soaked in soda. Even so, there was still the odour of the works on the air.
“What can they want?” Leblanc sounded at a loss. “We have complied with the Committee’s wishes these last months and produced a copious quantity of soda when they have kept us supplied with materials.”
“That is true. Your process is a success.”
“And what thanks do I get? The government has established works using my process in other parts of the country. My process is no longer a secret.”
Before Dize could answer there was such banging on the door as to cause the wood to splinter.
“You had better let them in, Dize,” Leblanc said.
Dize hurried to the entrance as the banging continued. As he raised the latch, the door was pushed back. Several men pushed in, forcing Dize back into the drawing room.
“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” Leblanc demanded, holding his wife close to him.
One of the dirty, unkempt men stepped forward.
“Citoyen Leblanc. The Committee of Public Safety orders you to remove yourself from this property.”
“You want me to give up my manufactory?”
“Aye and this house. You are to leave at once.”
“You would turn my family out of their home? For what reason.”
“The Committee does not give reasons. It answers to no-one. Your services are no longer required. You should do as ordered unless you want to join the queue for Madame Guillotine.”
Dize took hold of Leblanc’s arm. “Come Leblanc, there is no sense in resisting.”
Adele ran, sobbing, from the room. “My son, where is my son?”
Leblanc sighed. “So, we are to be reduced to poverty while the Republic benefits from my work.”
Dize nodded in sympathetic agreement. He wondered whether either of them would ever receive the rewards promised for Leblanc’s work and reflected that it was unlikely while the chaos of the Terror persisted. He took Leblanc’s arm and escorted the broken man and his family from the house.

…………………………….

Freedom or not

From 19th July the people of England will be free! Free to huddle together, free to sneeze and cough and breathe over each other, free to cram into sweaty nightclubs and pubs, free to fill their houses with family and friends, freedom for bosses to order employees to work in crowded, airless offices. What kind of freedom will it be for the millions of people vulnerable to infections, the millions suffering from long-covid and the millions pinged by the Track and Trace app and told to self-isolate. I am relieved that Wales is again being more cautious, waiting till 7th Aug to relax certain rules and maintaining that self-distancing and masks will be necessary in various locations for many months yet.

The English freedoms are taking a huge risk not just with their own health but also those of the neighbouring nations and those that are the sought-after holiday destinations. The relaxing of rules seem designed to encourage people to mix and share germs. The probable rapid and massive rise in infections makes it far more likely that new variants will emerge which may not only be more infectious even than the delta variant but also more able to evade the vaccines. It is irresponsible.

Of course we have to learn to live with the coronavirus in all its present and future variants, just like we live with flu and TB and malaria. We cannot eliminate viruses and disease bacteria except in special cases like smallpox. But living with something does not mean we ignore it and take no precautions against it. Keir Starmer said that the English abandonment of rules was like driving a car without seatbelts. No it isn’t. It’s like driving a car with seatbelts but not using them. Masks are a proven means of reducing the risk of infection. People in Far Eastern countries have worn them in public places since at least the SARS epidemic and as a result have had lower rates of COVID.

The lessons of COVID are that we need to modify our way of life and that we can’t go back to the old “normal”. It may have shown too, that freedoms and rights come with responsibilities. We all have a right to life but we don’t have a right to endanger our neighbour’s life. Thus, wearing a mask and keeping some kind of distance is respectful and responsible. I don’t like wearing masks – I find breathing through them irritating, my spectacles mist up and they dislodge my hearing aids. Inconvenient, yes, but necessary.

Freedom of speech (and opinion) has also been in the news in many guises. I was amused to read that GB News has been boycotted by some viewers/listeners because Guto Hari, one of the reporters, “took the knee” in support of England footballers. It seems that while GB News protest that they are not racist and stand for freedom of speech, their viewers are and don’t.

I am concerned that disagreement on trans issues has apparently caused the co-leader of the Green Party, Sian Berry, to resign or “retire early”. I don’t know the full story yet but it is worrying that the Greens can’t get a sensible policy agreed by all. Watch this space I think.

Another writing group meeting and another theme which I built into my lengthening, fantasy story. As it is still developing and may even be publishable (a dream!) I am not going to post it here. But it is fun to write, just letting my imagination latch onto any wild idea. As it grows, however, it becomes more important to have at least a vaguely coherent plot and some consistency in the characterisation. We’ll see how far it gets.

Instead here is another failed story i.e. one that failed to impress the judge(s) in a competition. This one is SF.

It’s Pretty, But Is It Art?

With a flick of his eyelid, Blake added a final swathe of colour to the projection that filled one wall of his studio. He rolled backwards in his carriage to examine his work. Yes, he was certain it was finished and ready to be sent to the gallery. Would it be projected he wondered or merely stored in the archive of contemporary art? Ivana rolled to his side on its single ball.
“Well, what do you think?” Blake asked.
The Intelligent Versatile Autonomous Nursing Assistant protruded its sensors measuring his vital signs. Heart rate was slightly raised but otherwise indicators were normal. It looked at Blake’s face noting the microscopic facial cues around the mouth, nose and eyes that indicated his emotional state.
“What do want me to say, Blake,” Ivana said in its customary soft, feminine voice, sensing that Blake required honesty rather than the flattery most servants might provide.
“What I said. Tell me what you think of my painting.”
Ivana rotated, scanned the picture then angled its cameras from side to side getting alternative perspectives on the artwork. Then it turned and faced Blake.
“May I ask a question?”
Blake shrugged. “Yes, of course.”
“Have you given the work a title?”
“Not really, but I suppose, ‘Landing on Ganymede’ will do. That’s what it is, a commemoration of the first manned landing on a moon of Jupiter.”
“A mission which failed to return.”
“Yes, that’s right. The crew were stranded when the return module was damaged in the landing.”
“So, you intend the art to convey the sadness of the loss.”
“Yes, it’s sad of course.” Blake thought Ivana had finished but it hadn’t.
“The horror of being marooned with no hope of rescue; the fear of slow, lingering death; the futility of human existence.”
“Hold on there, Ivana. Where did you get that? It’s sad yes but they’re heroes, the crew of the Mu Xing 3.”
“I’m only telling you what my algorithm detects in your painting, Blake. The overwhelming bulk of the huge planet as a backdrop to the tiny, damaged craft on the desolate surface of the moon provides a narrative for the slow demise of the crew.”
Blake wasn’t sure he was comfortable with Ivana’s critique. “My last companion didn’t make such, um, detailed comments.” The service bots that enabled him to live alone were updated at frequent intervals.
Ivana turned and angled its cameras to his face. “I am more sophisticated than my predecessors, Blake. I am the pinnacle of development of robotic nursing assistants, programmed to ensure that you achieve the ultimate in pleasure and satisfaction in your remaining life, as efficiently as possible. Of course, I am certified to make intelligent choices for your benefit. Versatility means that I can cope with a wide variety of situations and autonomy implies that I can expand my programming as I consider necessary.”
Blake was a little surprised by Ivana’s speech. He knew he was getting the best care possible but was Ivana a little overengineered for the role? On the other hand, the bot’s self-promotion was quite amusing. “Oh, what expansion have you done?”
“Having discovered that you, my subject, are an enthusiastic and accomplished artist, I downloaded algorithms that allow me to assess the emotional response of humans to your work.”
Blake stared at the stubby machine. “The what?”
“I can assess the emotions that humans might be expected to experience when they view a work of art.”
“Like what?”
“Most people viewing the Mona Lisa, experience disappointment. It is such a small picture. Dali’s melting clocks produce a feeling of confusion. Monet’s colourful gardens elicit contentment.”
“And my painting produces sadness, horror and a feeling of futility?”
“Mildly,” Ivana added. Blake felt as if his work had been dismissed as being of minor accomplishment.
“What about works by contemporary artists. All those others you mentioned are old masters.”
Ivana cocked its cameras to one side, a sign that it was checking its database. “Most produce little emotional response. Perhaps the work is considered pretty enough to be decorative. Really powerful feelings are only generated by that which is agreed to be worthy of the term, Art.”
“You seem to know a lot about it, Ivana.”
“I have absorbed several peta bytes of data to support the algorithms, Blake.”
“So, you know what type of art would produce a strong emotional response in the observer.”
“That is correct.”
Blake yawned. “Well, I’m ready for bed. We’ll discuss this again tomorrow.”
Ivana followed Blake as he manoeuvred towards the bedroom. It assisted him in undressing, moved him on to the bed, and provided a cup of hot cocoa. As Blake dropped into a slumber, Ivana checked that he was comfortable and that his life signs were within acceptable tolerances, then rolled back to the studio. Ivana switched on the paint program and got busy.

Blake was eager to get back to work in the morning. After Ivana had helped him get up, showered, dressed and breakfasted, he directed his carriage to the studio. The wall where his canvasses hung was blank and dark.
“Turn it on, Ivana. Let’s see what we can do today,” he said, moving to his accustomed position directly in front of the projection. Light and colour grew, and Blake’s eyes widened in wonder. This wasn’t ‘Landing on Ganymede’ but something else, something different.
“This isn’t my work,” Blake said. His eyes were drawn to the painting. The more he looked the more there was to see: swirling purples and emeralds and vermilions; structures and shapes which seemed three or even four-dimensional, defying Euclidian geometry; metaphors and allegories; the whole history of mankind in one immense and magnificent piece of art.
“It’s so dramatic. The colours, the shapes, the textures, the…” his voice faded. Words could no longer describe what he felt. Everything he had ever experienced or desired to feel was in the picture.
Ivana detected an increase in brainwave intensity, the blinking reflex had been overridden. Muscles had cramped. Blake was locked into staring at the picture. There was a burst of activity in the emotional centres of Blake’s brain, dramatically increased blood flow, a spike in blood pressure. Heart rate rose and kept on increasing, body temperature, too, rose inexorably. Ivana detected endorphins flooding through his blood vessels.
“Magnificent,” Blake muttered and slumped.
Ivana recorded cessation of life. It switched off the projector, deleted the art that it had spent the night producing and shut down the paint programme. Finally, it alerted the emergency services having logged the time of Blake’s death, the cause of which it noted as, heart failure. Blake had died at the zenith of satisfaction. Ivana put itself into wait mode having registered satisfaction at achieving its primary purpose

[AI can predict the emotions a painting will evoke in us, p.14 New Scientist vol 249 No 3320 06/02/2021]

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Come on, the lads!

Apparently there’s a big football match happening on Sunday. There’s also a big tennis match at Wimbledon, no doubt there are other things happening elsewhere. However the fact that the England football team have made it to an important final for the first time since 1966 is apparently “gripping the nation”. It’s top of the news agenda and has been embraced by certain politicians (there is the suggestion of an extra bank holiday if England win). It’s not something that makes me emotional.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in sport. I am, although I don’t sit down to watch a lot. I like reading newspaper reports of many different sports. It’s just that England are not my team, not in football anyway. This seems to surprise English friends who seem to think that I and everyone else who lives on these islands of ours must be overwhelmed with loyalty to the English cause.

It’s not like that. I wish England well and hope they win their final match against Italy. I think the current team have the skills and personality to achieve a win and that their current, English, manager has done a great deal to bring them to the position of representing all England. Yes, it is England and I am not English.

My first affinity is to the land of my birth and current residence, Wales. I do get a tingle when Wales are taking part, although I can rarely bear to watch the Welsh rugby team because matches get too nerve-wracking. Even having spent my whole working career in England I never felt English. I used to feel proud to be British – an inhabitant of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island. That has faded over the years and particularly in the last five when Britishness has become associated with Brexit and the UK government has been increasingly dominated by right wing English people (of various ethnic backgrounds). I used to feel European when we could travel freely as fellow members of the EU, Now I feel cut off from that part of me. Of course I am also human and feel a bond with peoples across the world although not with authoritarian and bigoted leaderships of various countries, Trump supporting Americans, tech billionaires, or eco-trashing industrialists (to list just a few).

My disaffection with the English (in general but not those individuals who I love and am friends with) is because they so often assume that everyone else in the UK is on their side, or don’t mind them treating the whole UK as being “England”. The refusal of many English residents of Wales to learn how to pronounce Welsh names correctly is just one behaviour that gives annoyance. Of course to many people overseas, England and Britain are synonymous and the difference is difficult to explain to some.

England is by far the largest nation in the UK with a population 20 times greater than Wales. England or rather the Anglo-Saxons followed by the Normans, pushed the original Britons (Celts, the Cymraeg, whatever term you want to use) into the west. Edward I defeated the last Welsh princes and with his ring of castles imposed English rule on the people, ironically called the Welsh (i.e. “foreigners”). While Henry Tudor (Henry VII) had Welsh ancestry it is to be regretted that the Tudor Act of Union of 1536 ended any pretence of Cymraeg independence and banned the Cymraeg language from court and hence any official use. Successions of English landowners from the Norman Marcher lords, to the C18th and C19th coal and iron masters, to the C20th water authorities have exploited the land and resources of Cymru and its people. The loss of Cymraeg independence still rankles, and it is annoying that we have been saddled with the names Wales and Welsh.

So, good luck England. Win or lose I hope your supporters treat the match as a game and not another battle in an endless war against foreigners. I hope it’s an exciting match with good play on both sides. I will be hoping for an English win but don’t expect me to cheer wildly.

Triumphant on the summit of the Sugarloaf, a small but impressive mynydd cymraeg.

For this week’s story I thought I’d give you one I wrote earlier and has passed it usefulness. I entered it in a competition for a short story with an included phrase. I have now learned that the judges did not think it worthy of shortlisting so now you can form you own opinion.

The Bottom Line

Harold Chump bellowed into the intercom, “Honey! Are you there? Where’s my coffee?” The reply that it was on its way barely satisfied him. He cast a grumpy eye around the penthouse office which was bare except for his very large desk. There was ample room for a coffee maker but that would mean having one of the staff share his private domain. Another presence would spoil his view from the 360o, floor-to-ceiling, quadruple glazed, uv absorbing windows.
Harold gazed out at the view. Not one other person had the view he had. Far below, the sprawl of the city was lost in smog, but up here the sky was clear and he could see miles out over the ocean and far inland to the mountains. It was fine being the sole occupier of the top floor of The Splinter but disappointing that no corporations had yet taken up his generous offer to build their own, somewhat less-tall, towers on the city land he owned. He would have to sack his real estate managers. Was that a cloud out on the horizon? Another hurricane? The tower had shaken rather violently in the last. Those weather people kept on saying there were more expected. Still, who believed weather reports.
The whine of the lift rising to the penthouse alerted him to an arrival. The girl with the coffee? No. It was a coffee, but in the hands of his financial adviser with the grey-flecked hair and designer suit.
“Ah, about time you turned up, Brad. You brought my coffee.”
Brad looked at the plastic cup in his hand for a moment then handed it to Harold.
He took a sip. “Hey, there’s no sugar in this. What’s that girl doing giving me coffee with no sugar?”
“Shall I go and get you another one, Mr Chump?” Brad made a move to the lift.
“No. I need you here. Tell me what’s going on.” He pointed to the bank of screens on his desk. There were four showing the stock market data from New York, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo. A lot of the stocks were showing as negative.
“It’s a bear market, Sir,” Brad said, “stocks are sliding.”
“I can see that” Harold snapped, “I’m talking about that.” He stabbed at the tablet that lay flat on the desk. There were columns of glowing figures. “You know what they are, boy.”
“Your accounts, Mr Chump.”
“That’s right. I want you to tell me why they’re red.”
“Er, you’re losing money, Mr Chump.”
“I can see that you fool. It’s in the bottom line. I want to know why. I pay you to make me money, not lose it.”
Brad sucked in air. “Well, it’s the businesses you’re in sir. They’re the ones that are losing value. Property is down because of all the retail closures. There’s no demand for office space now that people are working from home. Oil stocks are low too because there’s less travel. Motor and aircraft manufacturers are doing poorly for the same reason.”
“Well, that fellow Bezos is doing OK for himself. Why haven’t we got a finger in his pie? Tell me that.”
“He did invite you to invest twenty years ago, Sir, but you wondered who’d want to buy a book without flicking through the pages first.”
Harold snorted. “Well, what other stocks are doing well? Come on, you’re supposed to be the finance advisor round here.”
Brad shrugged. “Well, biotechnology companies are pretty strong for obvious reasons.”
“Bio, eh. Well, get onto it, man. Find some that need a bit of friendly investment, you know what I mean. Go on, get out of here.” Brad backed away to the lift, “Oh and get that girl to bring me a proper coffee if she wants to keep her job.”
As Brad descended on the lift, Harold tapped at his tablet muttering to himself. “Bio, is it? Let’s see if the genius in the building can find the golden goose.” He flicked past page after page, not looking at the words. Reading was a waste of time. It was the figures he wanted to see, particularly figures with dollar signs in front of them. Some big ones did attract his attention. Thirty-three trillion dollars big. He leant over his intercom again and growled. “Get Brad back here now.”

“Biodiversity, Brad,” Harold crowed, “That’s the business to be in. Worldwide business with a worth in the trillions. That’ll show those guys over at Apple, won’t it? An elephant is worth one point seven five million dollars, to this biodiversity thing. That’s where we’ll start, Brad. Buy elephants.”
“Um, are you sure, Mr Chump,” Brad asked, his voice shaking.
“You questioning me, Brad? I built this business to where it is today. When I say this is where we are going, you get us there pronto. Got it.”
“Er, yes, Sir.”
“Elephants. Go, buy ‘em. We’ll soon have this biodiversity thing covered.”

Brad’s suit looked less pristine next day as if he had been at work all night. Well, so he should. He had been given a job to do.
“I’ve to two elephants,” he said.
“Only two?” Harold sneered. “That’s not even four million bucks worth. We need more elephants. What are you doing about it?”
Brad sighed. “It’s a bit difficult, Sir. There are import regulations.”
“Regulations? When did they ever stop us? Get on with it.”
Brad hovered by the desk. “There is something else you should know, sir.”
“Spit it out, man.”
“The two elephants are being delivered today.”
“Delivered? When I purchase futures in rare metals, I don’t get a heap of shiny nuggets landing on my doorstep. It’s elephant futures I want.”
“Elephants are a bit different to precious metals, Sir. The two are being delivered to your golf course this afternoon.”
Harold felt blood rushing to his head. “Elephants on my golf course! What were you thinking, you fool?” He grabbed the intercom. “Get my ‘copter ready now.”
He rose from his seat and lurched towards the lift. Brad followed.

The helicopter flew along the coast. The city soon gave way to sand dunes and dry scrub, but a little way ahead was a glowing patch of fluorescent emerald. Soon they were touching down on the helipad beside Harold’s ranch. The greens were arrayed around the house each with fountains of water spraying on them. Harold disembarked just as a large truck approached along the driveway.
“Uh, it looks like the elephants are arriving now,” Brad said, shrinking away from him.
Harold stood motionless; feet thrust apart as the truck drew to a halt. The plump driver scrambled out and sauntered towards him.
“Hey. Are you, er,” He looked at a scrap of paper in his hand, “Mr H Chump?”
“I am,” Harold said. Doesn’t the guy recognise me, he thought. He must be a complete dolt.
“Right then, I’ll let them out.” The driver walked to the back of the truck and pressed a button. The rear panel angled down to the ground.
Harold followed him. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Delivering your elephants, that’s what, Bud.” The ramp clattered on the gravel and the doors swung open. A trunk appeared followed by a large and ancient elephant.
Harold watched, horror growing inside him. The two elephants descended from the truck and swung their heads from side to side taking a look around. They moved slowly, legs stiff, their skin grey with white patches and it sagged as if it was a few sizes too large for their bodies. Their tusks were chipped and cracked, and their trunks hung lank. They lumbered lazily towards the golf course.
Harold turned on Brad, “They look as if they’re one step from the slaughterhouse. Where did you get these critters?”
“Er, a circus was closing down. They wanted to find a new home for them.”
“I’m running a business not a care home for retired circus acts. How much of my cash did you pay for them?”
Brad shook his head violently. “It was a great deal. I only had to pay for the transport.”
“And how much was that?”
“A thousand dollars. Each.”
Harold stared at the two elephants that were tearing branches off the bushes that lined the fairway. “Can’t say they look as though they’re worth over a million apiece to anyone. I think you got me some duds here, Brad. You’d better find me some top value elephants, quick or you’re out of a job.”
Chump expected his employees to do what he asked without question. Those that answered back were out on their backsides before they knew what had hit them. What Brad said next surprised Harold.
“Look, Mr Chump. I’m not sure why you wanted the elephants, but these are the only ones that were available in the whole country. They’re protected creatures. You can’t just take them from their native lands. Why do you want them?”
“I’m doing what you suggested Brad. Going after bio businesses.” He drew a crumpled and smudged slip of paper from his pocket. “I printed the article off. It says right here. Biodiversity is worth thirty-three trillion dollars in eco-system services to the people of the world. Get that. Thirty-three trillion of natural capital. That’s what’s written. I want my share of that business. The elephants are just the start.” He shoved the paper towards Brad who took it and scanned it.
“But this says that elephants in their natural habitat provide services worth over a million dollars each to the human population.”
Harold smiled, “Exactly and I want to be the one who collects that million dollars.”
“I’m not sure it works quite like that Mr Chump and in any case, there aren’t a lot of elephants left.”
Harold glared at the elephants, one of which had just dumped a steaming pile of dung on the eighteenth green.
“OK, Brad, get rid of these elephants will you.”
A look of relief appeared on Brad’s pale face. “Yes, Mr Chump. Will there be anything else?”
Harold gazed across the gravel car park, over the practice green to the low dunes and beyond, to the ocean. “Yes, Brad. Whales. Buy whales.”

[How much is an elephant worth? Patrick Greenfield, The Guardian 28th January 2021]
1716 words.

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Playing statues

Not the children’s game where you have to stand as still as a statue while your friends try to catch you in a movement. No, it’s the new game of statue spotting. First, find a statue. Secondly, see if the name of the person it represents means anything to you. Perhaps it’s a famous general or politician or sportsperson or slavetrader. Third, wonder if the statue resembles the person it represents or has artistic merit. Finally, discuss whether it should be torn down.

It seems that statue erection is quite the thing at the moment. Football clubs seem to like having memorials to their famous players or managers e.g. Jimmy Hill at Coventry. Women’s role in history is at last being recognised with Maggie Hambling’s statue of Mary Wollstonecraft and the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. A lot of people, particularly younger ones will ask who they are and what was Jimmy Hill famous for?

The statues raise questions about the artwork itself such as why a naked woman in Hambling’s effigy or do they really look like the person represented, and what is the point?

Why do it? The people who have statues erected presumably expect the person to be remembered for a very long time but that has proved to be a false hope. The story of Nelson may still be familiar, though it is difficult to see his statue on top of his tall column, but I would suggest that 90% of the statues that litter our cities commemorate people whose lives and works have been forgotten. In Cardiff city centre I know there are statues of Gareth Edwards and Aneurin Bevan but who the many others are, I haven’t a clue.

Few people have led perfect lives of unblemished good, so after some time of hero worship they undergo some reassessment and their image becomes somewhat tarnished (pun intended). Should we retain the statues of those who have metaphorically fallen from their pedestal? It is a complex question. I do not support those who seem to want to wipe all memory of our past from sight like the Taliban destroyed reminders of pre-islamic culture in Afghanistan. In the UK we need to know the source of our riches, the truth about empire and the industrial revolution. I can’t imagine any individual from the C17th-19th who made a fortune being completely free of the taint of the slave trade. On the other hand, I see little point in retaining statues of forgotten maybe-heroes especially as most do not deserve the label of being art. Even dear Gareth Edwards’ exploits will be forgotten soon. I think that any statues which are retained should be accompanied by an information board giving a complete, warts ‘n’ all assessment of the figure’s life and contributions to society. It doesn’t have to be a great big wooden board. These days with everyone (almost) having a smart phone it could be an example of augmented reality accessed by a QR code on the base of the statue. It would be useful to have a calm, reasoned discussion about the worth of various historic persons – not a riot.

Which, of course, brings me to the latest statue, that of the Princess of Wales. Seeing it on screen I can’t say it looked like my memory of her and, why the anonymous kids around her? Yes, she was fond of children and did some charity work for them but she also supported AIDS victims and victims of minefields. It may have been more dramatic and artistic to include those elements of her saintliness in the image. But that is the point isn’t it – the statue is a representation of a person whose followers think of as a saint. As the writer in today’s Guardian comments it is the icon of a new religion. I am sure that Diana will be remembered for a considerable time but I’m not sure we need a statue to her.

Back to a bit of quick and short writing this week. When I haven’t been watching (or playing) tennis I have been doing a bit of novel writing but spared a few minutes to put a piece together for writing group on the theme Traffic. I’ve made it pure dialogue so does it work without any description or directions? Are the (three) characters clear? I don’t think it’s wildly original but a bit of fun.

Traffic

“Are we nearly there yet, Mummy?”
“No, darling, as you can see, we are not moving and haven’t done since you asked five minutes ago.”
“Why aren’t we going anywhere, Mummy?”
“Well, Daddy can answer that, my love, as he chose to come this way.”
“Oh, it’s Daddy’s fault is it that we’re stuck in ruddy traffic.”
“Language Geoffrey.”
“Ruddy is not swearing, Marjorie.”
“It sounds like it is, so don’t do it.”
“Why did you choose to get stuck in traffic, Daddy?”
“I didn’t choose to, sweetie pie, and contrary to what Mummy said, this is the only route we can use.”
“What does contrary mean?”
“It means he is disagreeing with Mummy and Daddy is getting in a paddy because he can’t travel as fast as he likes along the motorway.”
“I am not getting in a paddy and the problem is not that we not travelling fast, we’re not travelling at all. There must be an accident or roadworks.”
“It could be just weight of traffic, Geoffrey.”
“What’s the traffic waiting for, Mummy.”
“No, it’s not waiting, well it is, but I meant weight, that is it’s heavy, there’s a lot of it. It’s a lot of cars jamming the roads so that nobody can get to where they want to go.”
“Why are there a lot of cars?”
“Because, sweetie, today is the first Saturday of the school holidays and as everyone with children has to go on holiday when the schools are shut, everyone has chosen to go on holiday today, so we’ve all got in our cars at the same time to go to the same place.”
“I did suggest leaving earlier, Geoffrey.”
“And we would have left earlier if you hadn’t forgotten all the things we needed to pack because the cabin we’re renting hasn’t got half the things we need for a week away from home.”
“If you’d read the details of the site sooner, I would have known what to pack.”
“We should have booked a cottage which has everything included.”
“You said we couldn’t afford a holiday cottage.”
“Not at the prices they were asking, but you said this cabin thing was just as good.”
“Well, it looked very nice in the brochure, with a view over the sea.”
“Don’t be silly Marjorie. There are probably five hundred cabins in the park. You don’t think they’ll all have sea views do you.”
“Don’t call me silly. Not in front of Lily.”
“Is Mummy a silly billy, like you are Daddy.”
“Who says I’m a silly billy?”
“Mummy did when you banged your head on the back of the car.”
“Did she, well, that was a bit silly wasn’t it. Let’s have a laugh at silly Daddy almost knocking himself out. Ha ha ha!”
“Now, now Geoffrey. You’ll scare Lily. We’re going on holiday. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
“We’re not going anywhere at the moment and where we’re going, the beds will probably be softer than our ones at home, the duvets meaner, the chairs less comfortable, the TV smaller, you won’t be able to cut a loaf of bread because the knives will be blunt, and it will probably be raining, but it won’t matter that we can’t see the sea because we’ll be lost among five hundred other cabins lined up like in a prisoner of war camp.”
“If you didn’t like the look of this holiday park, Geoffrey, you could have said.”
“What else could we do. You’ve got to take kids on holiday haven’t you.”
“Daddy, Daddy, the car in front is moving.”
“Oh, yes. Well spotted, Lily.”
“Are we nearly there yet?”

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She, he, it and they

Last week I looked at human rights and how they impact on sex and gender. This week I want to look more closely at the sex and gender question, particularly as it affects me.

The trouble is that the gender wars reduce discussion to emotive slogans. That is the same whether we are talking about sexism, misogyny, the gender pay gap, etc or the increasingly vindictive battles facing transpeople. The science shows that the issues around sex and gender are much more complicated than statements like “trans-women are/are not real women”.

At birth, a little over half of babies are assigned as male, and a slightly fewer are assigned as female – that’s the natural ratio. About 0.2% are labelled intersex because for a variety of genetic and congenital reasons the sex is indeterminate. The default sex is female as everyone has an X chromosome. The presence of a Y chromosome causes an embryo to shift to male. But it is really not a simple black/white, 1/0, on/off, effect. Like with eye colour, which is not simply blue or brown, there are many genes, not only on the X and Y chromosomes, that govern the development of primary and secondary sexual characteristics. Human beings show wide variety in everything from skin colour to sense of taste because there are multiple mutations of many genes. We are all different. This is why I think that dividing people into two categories on the basis of an oversimplified judgement of their “biological” sex is pointless. The only time anyone needs to know what another person has in their knickers is if they are thinking of hopping into bed with them or for treatment of medical problems. Sex should not be used to make judgements about anyone.

Gender is another matter. It undoubtedly has a genetic component but the brain is now known to be plastic. That means it can change throughout a person’s life and and can be moulded by experience. One’s gender identity usually develops alongside one’s physical growth but like our bodies, everyone’s brain and sense of identity is different. Most people are happy to class themselves as male or female. For some of those their identity will be in conflict with their physical and chromosomal sex. The physical imbalance can be corrected by medicine and surgery. Currently and for the foreseeable future the genetic markers of sex cannot be changed. So what? If sex is unimportant for a career and daily life, as it should be, then what is important is self-identity.

For a proportion of people their gender identity hovers between the extremes of masculinity and femininity. In many societies life was (is?) extremely binary with different roles assigned to men and women, along with modes of dress and behaviour. If we have disposed of sexism (some hope!) then it becomes possible for those in the middle of the gender spectrum to express their own identities. One can be non-binary, gender-fluid, agender, whatever you want to call it, and unrestricted by any boundary between masculine or feminine.

That’s where I come in. I realise now that I have had doubts about my gender all my life. It’s just that for the first third of it, at least, I wasn’t aware of what my doubts were about. When I was growing up and through my teenage years we barely discussed sex let alone sexuality or gender identity. I didn’t even notice that some of my friends were gay. One just got on with life. I can’t say that my doubts made me unhappy; I just felt anxious in certain circumstances, such as when in the company of a bunch of men.

In my late 20s/early 30s the opportunities arose to experiment with looking feminine i.e. dressing. That was both relaxing and worrying. In the days before the internet, finding out about such things was difficult. I wondered if I was transsexual or transvestite. I didn’t want to have bits of me removed so that seemed to rule out the former, but neither did the latter seem to fit my feelings. Either way I was worried what effect my experiments would have on my life and career. So, I hid it all for fifteen years. Whether that was the right or wrong thing to do is another question, but twenty one years ago I had to reveal my feelings to Lou, my partner, wife, love. That was the start of what everyone refers to as a journey. It was an anxious time, for Lou perhaps more than me, but it is thanks to her that I have been able to gradually develop something of an understanding of where I stand. For a dozen or so years I fitted the description of a cross-dresser, occasionally adopting the look of a woman while mainly living as a man. But that didn’t feel right either. I didn’t want to mimic women, nor did I want to promote outdated feminine stereotypes. So I gave up trying to look like a woman – no more feminine wigs, no more false breasts. Admittedly my clothes are those which designers think of as feminine but when I’m not in skirt or dress they could be male. I strive for a look which is between the male and the female because that is where I place myself.

It may be debateable whether being non-binary counts as transgender, nevertheless my sympathies are with all transgendered folk. I therefore find it difficult to understand why anyone should want to deny someone the right to live as the person they feel themselves to be. Someone who identifies as female should be allowed to live their life as a woman. The spurious argument that this will allow men into female places such as toilets in order to abuse women is a political fairytale. There are no cases of it ever having occurred. Even if transwomen were banned from female toilets how would anyone know? Unless every woman is going to undergo a physical examination to prove their “sex” before being allowed in the ladies, it would be impossible to police as there are plenty of masculine-looking cis-females around.

Another argument put forward by eminent people such as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is that trans-women can’t be real women because they lived part of their lives with the “privileges that the world accords to men”. She and others who insist this, have obviously never met any trans-women and learnt of the anguish and abuse they have suffered as they struggled with their gender identity, often at the hands of fathers and other family members, school staff and pupils, and neighbours. The journey of a young transwoman, or transman, is hardly a life of privilege.

Which brings me to sport. The Tokyo Olympics will, probably, start in the next few weeks and at least one olympian is a transwoman (Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter). It is argued that although the rules say that to compete as women in competition, testosterone levels must lie within the normal ranges for women, transwomen will have spent their youths developing the bone structure and musculature of men. This is supposed to give men an advantage in many sports, so it is suggested that transwomen will have an unfair boost. I am uncertain. Yes, someone who transitions to female after puberty will have developed a male physique which will only be partly modified by the prescribed hormones. However, top sports persons are not normal men or women. They are outliers. I wonder how much difference there is between the physique of Hubbard and other top female weightlifters in her weight division. It is a difficult subject and not one I want to pontificate on except to say that the treatment of Caster Semenya, the South African runner was appalling. She grew up as female but apparently has some intersex abnormality which may have helped her development as an athlete, or may not. Having excelled in her early career the rules on testosterone were changed in 2019 to ban her from running. The unfairness of it was blatant because the rule change only applied to Semenya’s events.

Finally, pronouns. In many organisations it is now the practice for people to state which pronouns they use. While he/his and she/hers are obviously male and female respectively, what should non-binary people use? “It/its” is seen not only as neuter but impersonal terms used for objects not people. Many non-binary people use they/them. Although used commonly as plural pronouns they have a long history of being used in the singular. However even when people use they and them naturally when they do not know a person’s gender many are reluctant to use them for a specific person, saying that it sounds strange. Nevertheless, language is constantly changing and words shift in meaning (cf. wicked, sick, etc.). It is strange that even though English is generally a non-gendered language compared with say, French or Welsh, that so much fuss is made over pronouns. Personally I don’t care how I am referred to although I would prefer to be called by my name (or names since I have used Penny as an alias since I came out as trans). Just don’t get me started on titles.

Next week, back to shorter comments and some fiction.

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Beliefs, lies and rights

It is some time since I explored the subject of gender in some depth. Of course, the subject for me is personal as I identify as being non-binary/gender-fluid and have had questions about where I sit on the gender spectrum for a good portion of my life. The questions include what rights do I have as a non-binary person and how upset shouId I get with people who seem to disagree with me in the whole gender area.

The subject is a complex pudding of personal feelings, human rights, beliefs, opinions and lies. Hardly a day goes by without some item of news about the “gender wars” or “culture battles” or “wokeness”, but the event that brought this to the top of my pile was the much reported case at the Employment Appeal Tribunal brought by Maya Forstater. The EAT upheld Forstater’s appeal against unfair dismissal for her tweets including “men cannot change into women”. The EAT established that she had the right to believe this and hence to express it. Not having read the full judgement but going by the article about the case in the Guardian, I cannot see any explanation of what opinions do or do not count as beliefs or what limits there are on the expression of these beliefs, other than support for Nazism and totalitarianism not being protected by the laws on human rights. That begs the question even further as what constitutes totalitarianism.

If someone says “I believe that men cannot change into women”, how should one react? The thing is that there are three parts to that sentence that require further explanation – what is a man, what is a woman and what is meant by change? That’s after we consider the relationship between belief and the truth.

As soon as I start delving into a dictionary for the definition of these terms I fell down a rabbit hole where meaning recedes faster than my rate of descent. For example, belief is defined as an acceptance of a statement as being true. But what is true? The dictionary (Collins 1991 edition) says that it is “not false” or “conforming with reality”. How on earth can you tell? I believe in gravity, that is, if I drop an apple it will fall to the ground, what’s more I believe that it is gravity that holds the Earth in its orbit around the Sun etc. etc. I believe it because I believe that the evidence supports that theory. Some people believe in a god. Is that belief the same as my belief in gravity? Truth is a somewhat rare commodity at the moment. The internet is filled with untruths and even the government has given up making a distinction between truth and lies as the PM and ministers lie almost every time they open their mouths. Re-establishing the importance of speaking the truth, as far as our knowledge allows, is one of the most pressing matters facing us all.

Let us return to the main subject. What is a man? Once again the dictionaries don’t give an unequivocal answer viz. “A man is an adult male human being as distinguished from a woman” or “an adult male human being with qualities associated with the male such as courage or virility”. Gosh, so a woman can’t be courageous. Man is a male, a male is a man. No mention of penises, or testosterone or Y chromosomes or whatever genes it is that supposedly confer maleness. The same confusion exists with defining a woman – is it someone with ovaries, who can give birth, has a pair of X chromosomes, or is a carer or . . . What about change? The word implies that the final version is different to the initial. In that case every human, every living thing, changes from birth to death. Bodies can be changed: kidneys replaced; breasts removed; noses re-shaped; a penis turned into a functional vagina. However, does one’s perception of oneself as male or female change? It certainly develops, but I think that someone who is transsexual would say that their perception of their gender never really matched the sex they were assigned at their birth and did not change, however long it took for them to recognise it.

What I am saying in a roundabout sort of way is that writing a simple statement, a belief perhaps, and presuming that is all that needs to be said is nonsense. If one decides to make a personally held belief public then it really must be backed up by an explanation of what is meant by that belief, and the truth or otherwise that lies behind it.

The Human Rights Act asserts everyone’s right to freedom of thought and the right to express those thoughts freely, so long as they do not jeopardise public order or impinge on another person’s rights. I fully endorse the HRA. Rights bring responsibilities. So saying “I believe that men cannot change into women,” is fair enough so long as the person holding that belief accepts that there are those that believe the opposite and that their right to that belief is just as strong and they are entitled to the same rights as every other member of the human race. The person making that statement has to think, what is the effect of publicising my belief? Am I in a position of power and influence such that people may take my belief and bring harm to those who disagree.

I don’t think that someone making a statement of their beliefs on Twitter, or Facebook or in the Daily Mail is doing so in all innocence. They are doing so in order to stir up a response which may bring harm to some people. That is against the principles of the HRA.

What do I want? I want every human being to be able to lead their lives as they wish as long as it does not bring harm to another person. Causing offence is not harm. My existence as a non-binary person or my appearance in a dress may offend people like Maya Forstater but it does not cause them harm unless it is self-inflicted. Similarly, she has the right to say she does not believe a man can change into a woman. I and others can be offended by that but that does not affect my or anyone else’s right to adopt whatever gender they feel they identify with, and go hang the biology. I want society and the laws of the land to recognise my rights to hold and express my own beliefs and to exist in the way I wish as stated in the HRA. I accept that this applies to every individual in their own way.

Sometimes responding to offensive statements stirs up yet more resentment and ill-feeling perhaps leading to confrontation and violence. I would like to hope that such a development is not any person’s intention. I know I am being naïve to believe that. So, to ensure that the principles of the Human Rights Act are followed it is important to respond rationally and peaceably to any statements and to question the truth of any beliefs. Stifling discussion by no-platforming people whose beliefs we disagree with just stirs resentment. Instead there should be an automatic right of reply.

I am happy being who I am and I feel quite safe and secure in my home town but I worry at the frequent news reports of groups of people being picked on by others who hold certain beliefs.

This has gone on long enough – at least it’s not as long as one of Cummings’ blogs – but I don’t think there is space for a story this week.

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Getting away from it all

I’ve been away this week, experiencing the stunning scenery of the Ceredigion coast. We’ve had some lovely walks, seen dolphins, eaten Welsh fish chips from the cardboard carton while sitting on a quayside (not pestered by seagulls) and Welsh ice-cream, and drunk Welsh beer. Do you see a theme there?

It has been a “getting away from it all” break, so I don’t want to focus on the government’s arguments with the EU about an agreement that they i.e. the UK govt., negotiated, signed and pushed through parliament with a minimum of scrutiny. I don’t want to hear anymore about Matt the Health, recalling a different history to the one we all lived through, one in which, according to him, he was on top of the virus from the start and made no errors of judgement and he knew better than the scientists all along.

Neither do I want to hear more about our “indestructible special relationship” with the USA as the G7 meet in Cornwall. That is one place where I am very glad I am not holidaying at the moment. Cornwall is rather too popular in the summer months anyway, but this weekend with all the security and press (and protesters?) I can’t imagine a worse place to have a restful break. And what will come out of it? A lot of hopes have been placed on this meeting of leaders, but I can’t think of one similar meeting when something of lasting benefit to the world had been agreed and adhered to.

So, I’m just going to enjoy my memories of a lovely week away in a delightful part of my country.

Sometimes when we’re on holiday I get some writing done. Not this week. We’ve had good weather every day (good enough for walking anyway), so no days of staying in our hired cottage when writing could be a pleasant pastime. So no work on either novel, no short stories for writing groups, no bright ideas for new projects (not written down anyway). In place of anything original, here is a short piece that I wrote a long time ago as a response to a task “diary of a fictional character” in which I believe I have maligned a certain Dr Watson.

Wednesday 13th May

Mrs Hudson brought up my breakfast at 8:15.  The egg was a little soft so I asked her to re-heat it – can’t take any chances with these microscopic germs infecting everywhere.  While delivering the morning post she asked after Holmes.  Still no sign of him since he went off to Switzerland. 

The letters brought the usual appeals from eastern European princesses being blackmailed by Chinese opium dealers and minor aristocrats beset by family curses.  Nothing unusual or of interest.  Made slow progress with the crossword in the Times.  Enjoyed a quiet evening without that infernal racket from the violin.

Thursday 14th May

Newspaper reports of a surge in criminal activity in the City.  Apparently Scotland Yard have no explanation for the sudden confidence of the fraternity of cut-throats and pickpockets.  Still no news of Holmes.

While out for a walk on the Heath I was attacked by a strange man with a dark skin and a bone through his nose, wearing a grass skirt and wielding a blow pipe.  No idea where he came from. 

This evening had a visit from an unkempt character with a delivery for Holmes.  Fellow was rather unhappy to learn that our stock of cocaine had not been diminished recently and hence further supplies were superfluous.  Chap went off mumbling.

Friday 15th May

Unfathomable anagram in the Times today – O me save ill H.  Showed it to Mrs Hudson.  She said it read “Holmes alive” but can’t see it myself.

Young ragamuffin accosted me outside 221B this morning asked for a farthing to deliver a message.  I cuffed him about the ear and sent him away.  What use are small boys?

Spent the evening cleaning my trusty service revolver.  Heard nothing from Holmes.

Saturday 16th May

An unfamiliar character waylaid me on my way to the theatre this evening.  He was covered in black dust and had an empty sack over his shoulder.  No inkling of what employment he was in.  Muttered something about a message before stumbling off.  Probably drunk.

Sat through a performance of the D’Oyly Carte troupe.  Couldn’t follow the plot, something about pirates and naval officers.   Impossible coincidences ; couldn’t happen in real life.

No sign of Holmes.

Sunday 17th May

Mrs Hudson announced a visitor while I was dozing after a lunch of roast beef, didn’t catch his name.  He was wearing a scarlet satin cassock with a wide brimmed red hat.  He said Holmes’s assistance was required on a matter of serious concern to the Catholic Church.  I said we were Church of England and shooed him down the stairs.

Narrowly missed by an arrow that flew through the window while I was polishing my stethoscope.  Had a scrap of paper attached which I threw in the stove.

Still no word from Holmes.

…………………

Summer Daze

It’s summer and after an awful May it feels like it. It is perhaps not surprising that a few days of warmth and sunshine cheers one up. Not that I was particularly unhappy before, but it is lovely to go out without worrying about a raincoat and to wear shorts and short sleeve dresses without feeling chilled. Yes, a bit of summer is very pleasant but we shouldn’t relish hot, dry weather too much. Despite May being cold and wet, the climate is still warming more quickly than the climate scientists hoped. Dry weather and more tourists means more moorland and forest fires. Warm weather means more algal blooms in rivers and lakes. So enjoy summer but don’t hope for it to last too long.

Of course with the news filled with the spread of the Delta/Indian variant of the coronavirus and which any countries, if any, are on the green list for holiday-makers, the government is allowed to getaway with yet more dodgy decisions which would have meant resignations in the past. A Tory donor gets a peerage despite being rejected by the body that approves such things; the Home Office loses a case in court over its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; the recovery fund for schools is 1/10th of what was asked for and its chairman resigns; and the NHS is about to dash off with your data and sell it. The last applies to those registered with GPs in England (not Wales or Scotland, I believe). GP surgeries have been instructed to hand over all their paper data on patients for digitising and then it will be offered for sale to all and sundry with a minimal degree of anonymisation. Apparently you have till 23rd June to stop your medical records being included in this data grab and sale. It is yet another instance of the government seeking to privatise the NHS by undermining people’s faith in its integrity.

With all that, I still spend almost everyday in a state of some anxiety about where we’re heading – at home and in the world. Next week it is the G7 meeting where there is talk of discussions about some of the issues leading up to the climate conference in the autumn. However I see little sign of leaders, industrialists or the general public seeing the urgency that exists to take drastic steps, not in the future but now. While the growth of renewable energy and electric vehicles gives some hope of change, the fossil fuel lobby is still resisting and trying to maximise their profits while they can.

Stand up straight, shoulder back, hold in the paunch

A funny thing happened this week. I’ve written a story that may turn into a novel. I mentioned in the last blog that last week’s writing group task had been held over for a week. We were given the first sentence of what the originators thought was the start of a romance story. I decided to let my imagination roam. This week I suppose I should have gone back and refined the story, making sure it had a beginning, middle and end, characterisation and a satisfying twist. No, I didn’t do that, I continued writing. By this week’s meeting it was over two thousand words and guess what? My fellow writers loved it and were very complimentary. So what do I do now. I certainly have not reached the conclusion of it and it could continue indefinitely, but 2-3000 words is about 2-3% of a novel, perhaps more if it was a children’s book. But I’ve already burned through a number of ideas by letting my imagination run wild. Can I continue it? Can I maintain the flavour? Can I keep the ideas rolling in? Goodness knows.

I’ve also made progress with the SF novel that’s been on hold for a few weeks. So that’s two projects on the go, but actually that’s how I like it. I’ve always found having two bits of work which I can move between means I get more done on both. Perhaps it is that when one stalls I can continue with the other. Anyway, we’ll see. However it means that I haven’t got any new writing to display here. Instead I’m delving back into my old writing pile for a piece of satire. In this case it is 11 1/2 years old. The politicians and politics I wrote about then almost seem like ancient history now, but it was a bit of fun at the time.

Sticky Buns

“Oo..er, OW! Gerroff my sticky buns!” said Bunter, the obese, visually-challenged, GCSE student of Greyfriars Academy (sponsored by Honest Harry’s Second Hand Car Mart).
“It’s for your own good,” said Osbourne, as he and his mates, Cameron and Clegg, pinned Bunter against the wall and struggled to release the bag of the sticky buns from his plump fingered grasp, “You’ve got to cut back,” he added.
“We know it’s going to be hard for you,” Clegg said pushing against Bunter’s considerable girth.
“Yes, but, it’s got to be done,” Cameron added, “It’s got just too big.”
“What has?” Bunter squealed.
“Your debt.”
“What debt?”
“What you owe us for all these sticky buns,” Osbourne said fiercely wrenching the bag from Bunter’s hand. The three cronies released their grip and Bunter sank to the floor or as close to it as his rotund belly would allow.
“But I paid for them with my own cash?” Bunter wailed. Osbourne took a bun from the bag and offered the remaining two to Cameron and Clegg.
“And where did you get that cash?” Osbourne asked.
“From us,” Cameron answered before Bunter could reply.
“I didn’t!” Bunter complained.
“Ah, but don’t you remember us promising to look after you if you gave us all your cash and we let you keep some of it,” Cameron explained patiently while Bunter stared
“I’ll pay you back,” Bunter said, “I’ve got a cheque coming in the post.”
“But Bunter old chap,” Osbourne said chummily, “you know that cheques have been discontinued and the Post Office has been sold off to an internet porn salesman.” Bunter looked on longingly at the jam oozing from the dough as Cameron and Osbourne bit into their sticky buns. Clegg’s mouth was so full he could not say anything.
“But the bank will pay me,” Bunter said
“The bank,” Osbourne and Cameron giggled, “why should a bank give you money?”
“They owe it to me,” Bunter cried.
Cameron and Osbourne were now folded up in fits of laughter, “What has owing you got to do with it. The banks have got better things to do with your money than let you have it.”
“Think how much better you’ll feel,” Clegg said through his mouthful of bun, “You’ll be fitter and live longer.”
“But I don’t want to be fitter, I want my sticky bun,” Bunter sobbed.
“Now, now,” Cameron wagged a finger at him, “You know we know what’s best for you.”
“Yes, we’re giving you the freedom to take control of your life,” Osbourne said crumpling up the paper bag, “By cutting back on the sticky buns and reducing your debt you’ll be free to do all those other things you’ve wanted to do such as Mr Quelch’s maths homework.” He chucked the ball of paper at Bunter, “Here, you’d better recycle that.” The paper bounced off Bunter’s rotund stomach.
Bunter howled, “But I don’t like Maths. I want my sticky buns.”

…………………….

When thieves fall out

What a fascinating week. We have been treated to the Revenge of the Cummings. I’m not sure if it is a sequel or third in the trilogy following The Euro Menace and The Attack of the Tories or one of those offshoots like Knots Landing (was it from Dallas or Dynasty?) or Joey after Friends. Whatever I don’t think I’ll be binge watching. Just a peep at Cummings makes me want to throw up.

Nevertheless Cummings testimony to the House Of Commons committee provides an extraordinary view of his time as Senior Advisor to the PM. On the one hand one cannot believe a word of his craven apologies for his mistakes, yet the picture he gives of utter incompetence of everyone in government, including himself, rings so true. One wonders how two malicious egotists could have got into positions of such power, yet it seems so easy when they were supported by the fawning members of the Tory party and the true wielders of power behind the scenes. Who are those people? The owners of the right wing media? The billionaires? The names in the richlist published last week are largely shady figures who go out of the way not to be in the public eye and include quite a number of ex-russian oligarchs. Are they using their money to influence who gets into “power” in Westminster? I wonder why. What is left in the UK to fight over; assets have been sold off, industry sold into foreign ownership, debts of £400 billion due to the pandemic (3 times that required in 2008 to save the banks). Or are they just rats fighting for the last scraps before climate change and right wing chaos bring the end of civilisation as we know it.

What we see from Cummings now is the defeated bully. No longer the scourge of Tory MPs and junior cabinet ministers (that includes all the government right up to Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid). Instead a whining, it wasn’t me who was in charge, idiot flailing at all around to justify himself, while showing what a weak-minded and selfish crowd are in government now. Unfortunately I can’t see anyone in the current Tory party who is any better.

………..

Last week’s writing theme was a little different. We were given the first sentence of a story to set a scene. Apparently it was set by the Romantic Novellists Association for a competition. I didn’t want to write a romance so won’t be entering the competition. I turned it into the beginning of a type of fantasy and had a bit of fun with it. However the meeting didn’t really happen – only two of us got to the meeting – so we’ve put it off for another week. You’ll have to wait a week before I put it out to be read so here is something else instead. This was a romance, the gothic variety, not really original but amusingly melodramatic.

Desire

The wind off the sea swept her long, blonde hair from her face leaving beads of moisture clinging to each strand. Ignoring the rain-flecked gale, she looked down at the waves crashing over the dark rocks far below and then her gaze lifted to the boundar

y between the dark green, angry sea and the narrow band of red-hued dawn beneath the glowering clouds. No masts broke the smooth line of that horizon, no ship was tossed on the roiling ocean.
‘When will you come?’ she whispered. The question was superfluous. There was no answer. Her wait would end when it would end. There would be no precognition. One day, perhaps like now at dawn or perhaps at sunset, the sails would appear and then, soon after, she would be in his arms, their lips touching.
A cry made her turn. The house brooded in the vale a couple of hundred paces from the cliffs, crouching low out of the storm winds. The glass in the windows of the top floor just now reflected the light of the early morning, but the fiery glow hardly lifted the gloom of the stone, as dark as the rocks of the cliff, from which it was built.
Another cry, and now she saw him fighting his way along the narrow, over-grown path from the house to the cliff-top. He beat at the nettles and brambles with his crop as he strode towards her.
She shivered, not with the cold, though her thin woollen shawl hardly prevented the cold easterly from freezing her pale skin. It was anticipation that made her shake. She turned again to face the sea and looked down to where the jagged rocks withstood the besieging tide.
‘Jump,’ part of her told herself, ‘Leap to oblivion. Leave this world of pain and sadness.’ She remained motionless, limbs frozen not by cold but by indecision. Her eyes rose again to the distance. If she ended it now, what would he feel when he returned? Did she want to give up all hope of love and happiness?
Hands thudded into her shoulders. Arms encircled her, dragged her back from the edge, spun her around. She looked up into his bearded, scarred face. The single open eye, glaring at her.
‘I’ve told you before, Emily,’ he growled, ‘There is no point to you staring out to sea. He’s not coming back. You are mine.’
She dropped her head. There was no response to give. Declaring her last remaining iota of hope would bring her no joy, more likely a stroke from the crop tucked under his arm. His hand grasped the hair at the back of her head and tugged. Her face tilted up and his rough, chapped lips descended to hers. His tongue forced her lips apart and she tasted the stale, last night’s whisky. She gagged and coughed. He pulled back, straightened, grabbed her wrist in his hand and dragged her back down the path towards the house. She stumbled along behind him, emptying her mind of the dread of whatever he had planned for her this miserable morning.

……….

Intelligent behaviour

Are humans intelligent and sentient? I ask because I have my doubts.

Humans were once thought to be separate to the other organisms living on Earth. It was Darwin who drew homo sapiens into the tree of life revealing that we evolved from apes and other animals before them, right back to the primordial cell. Nevertheless, Darwin seems to suggest that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and that our intelligence and self-awareness set us apart from other animals and plants.

More recently our uniqueness has been questioned. There are tool using animals; animals that can recognise that an image in a mirror is themselves; animals can make plans for the future. Still, zoologists and philosophers try to maintain that we are different to animals such as dogs, elephants, dolphins, chimps, octopuses because we have language, or metacognition (thinking about thinking), or something else. I’m not sure that we’re that different.

When you look into the eyes of a dog and they look back, is the dog thinking, what next? Does a dolphin get enjoyment from swimming and leaping and hunting fish and can it express that feeling to its fellow dolphins? Do elephants really mourn the death of their fellows? Are the flashing colours on the body of an octopus more than an instinctive reaction to their environment? I rather think the answers to all those questions are yes. I’m not applying anthropomorphism but working backwards from the premise, that I am an animal that thinks. How much does complex thought depend on language? Or can complex thoughts arise without lots of words to express them? I don’t know the answers although I can remember discussing these very questions almost fifty years ago with my student friends in my college room.

Perhaps we will never converse with other creatures although empathy and friendship is possible as any pet owner, farmer, rider, will affirm. Nevertheless we must see ourselves as part of the living world not as separate and in constant war with it. It amazes me how we are discovering time and time again how interdependent the natural world is. If we are to survive then we must attune ourselves to that interdependence. And this is where I wonder how truly intelligent and sentient we are because if we do possess those attributes as a species then we should be able to adapt our behaviour and adjust our way of living accordingly.

Yet, it doesn’t happen. The pandemic brought huge changes to our living behaviour but the slowness to react by both governments and individuals lead to the spread of disease and the high death toll. The eagerness that people show to return to foreign travel and crowded venues shows that the majority have not adapted. Neither do they recognise that COVID won’t be the last disease to threaten us.

Then there is climate change and environmental degradation. The response is slow to non-existent with probably the majority still feeling that it is someone else’s responsibility to act or that the warnings are mistaken or a hoax. And still we don’t put things together. I am currently reading Finding the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard. She discovered the vast interconnectedness between trees and the fungal systems in the soil which allows trees to communicate with each other and to protect and nourish each other. She shows that trees won’t survive or grow healthily unless they have contact with the fungal threads in the soil. That applies to all plants, not just trees. I have also just read an article in New Scientist magazine about the perils of nitrogen fixation. We know that excessive use of artificial fertilisers causes algal blooms in rivers and lakes and the oceans. In fact overuse of fertiliser has other equally damaging consequences for climate, biodiversity and a healthy environment. One of these is that excess ammonia and nitrate in the soil kills the fungi. The significance of that was not considered in the article but it means that overuse of fertiliser to stimulate growth of crops results in the death of natural ecosystems.

We have to integrate all these discoveries and all the knowledge we have to find a way to allow us to have a future, and then persuade everyone to act.

The Wye Valley at Bigsweir

For the first time in over six months the writing group met in person indoors, back in our original meeting place. For various reasons there were only five of us but it was lovely to chat in warm surroundings. The topic for the week was “blood relations”. There were a couple of family based stories/memoirs but I chose to be somewhat literal. My story involves an incident in the history of blood transfusion but is totally fictional. The setting is a little known post-Great War allied excursion into Russia following the revolution. I really don’t know if anything like I describe did or could have happened but it suited the story.

Thicker than water

“How’s the Major doing, Doc?” Captain Madison said ducking under the flap at the entrance to the treatment tent.
The blast of cold air caused Medical Officer Jackson to look up from his sewing. “I’ve done all I can for him, Captain, but he’s lost a lot of blood.”
“He’s going to live, isn’t he?” Madison said, his voice trembling.
Jackson shrugged. “Touch and go.”
“We’re going to have to move camp very soon,” the Captain muttered, “The Bolsheviks are advancing.”
Jackson sucked through his teeth. “Unless Major Coolidge shows some improvement, moving him is not going to do him any good at all.”
Captain Madison stepped towards the portable operating table cradling his bandaged frostbitten left hand. “Is there nothing more you can do?”
The doctor considered his reply. “Perhaps. He needs a blood transfusion.”
“A what?”
“An injection of fresh blood to replace what he’s lost.”
“Where do you get fresh blood from?”
“One of you. Preferably a soldier who is still tolerably fit.”
“Is that all?”
“No. He needs to match the Major’s blood group.”
Captain Madison looked blank. “How can you know that?”
Jackson gave a wry smile. “It’s on every soldier’s records.”
“You still have the medical records?”
“Yes, Captain, despite our frequent changes of camp.”
Madison’s raised eyebrows showed surprise. “So, you know who matches the Major”
“I do.”
Madison’s eyes search the doctor’s blank face for a clue. Was it him that would be required to give blood? “That’s good, isn’t it. What do you have to do?”
“Call in the soldier concerned and take a pint of his blood.”
The Captain’s face, burnt by the arctic air turned a shade whiter. “You said, soldier. Is there only one match.”
“Unfortunately, it is just one. It’s Private Taylor. Normally I would request permission from both donor and recipient but that’s not possible here.” The doctor nodded at the comatose form of the Major.
Madison opened his mouth to reply and paused. “Er, Private Taylor is black.”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, Captain, but don’t worry. There is no difference between a white man’s blood and black man’s of the same group. The Major can accept Private Taylor’s blood without ill effect.”
The Captain shuffled. “But, Doc, you know the Major’s opinion of blacks.”
“I’ve heard him say a few things.”
“Well, what do you think he’ll say if he discovers that he’s got a black man’s blood in his veins.”
Jackson shrugged. “It’s either that or he’s dead. There’s no way the allied forces are going to get anyone else’s blood to us while we’re retreating to Archangel.”
The Captain bit his lip. Various thoughts passed through his mind. At last, he spoke. “Well, I can’t see that there’s any choice. You’d better get on with it, Doc. I’ll call Private Taylor.”
………
Doctor Jackson examined the jar of blood then connected it to the catheter inserted in the Major’s arm.
The big man with skin as black and shiny as a mahogony piano sat holding the pad of lint to his arm. “Is the Major going to be OK?”
“I hope so, Private. You’ve given him his best chance of recovery.”
“Hmm.”
The doctor felt that something needed to be said. “Look, I know the Major has said some pretty damn nasty things about people like you.”
“Black citizens of the United States,” Taylor said without any hint of rancour.
“That’s correct Taylor. You didn’t have to consent to give blood, you know.”
“But he would have died without it.”
“Probably.”
Private Taylor straightened up and lifted his head, “Then it was my duty to help him, not just as a serving soldier but as a human being.”
The doctor nodded. “That’s right, Private Taylor. I hope the Major sees it the same way.”
………..

Madison gazed at the Major, hardly able to believe the change. The Major was sitting up in bed. His skin had a healthy, pink tinge.
“You’re looking a lot better, Sir.”
“Getting there, Captain. The doc tells me that as well as patching me up he gave me a shot of blood.”
“That’s right, Sir.”
“Well, whose was it, Captain? Yours?”
“No, Sir. I wasn’t a match though I would have been honoured to donate my blood to you if it had been.”
“Then who the damn was it?”
Madison hesitated. Doctor Jackson looked up from examining the sleeping patient in the adjacent camp bed. “It was Private Taylor, Major.”
“Taylor?” The Major looked blank then his face showed memory returning. “Private Taylor, the . . .”
“Black American soldier,” Jackson interrupted, “Yes, Major, it was him.”
Major Coolidge’s cheeks puffed out, then he let the air go. “Well, the sonuvabitch. So, I’ve got black blood in me.”
The Medical Officer replied in his no-nonsense voice. “No Major, it’s the same colour red as your own, and all your brothers and sisters and fellow Americans whether they are white, black or yellow. In fact, you and Private Taylor quite possibly have a closer match in your blood than you and most of your family.” He pointed to the person lying in the bed. “One pint wasn’t enough for you, so I had to take more from Private Taylor. He’s a strong, young man but it took a lot out of him. He’s sleeping now. It’ll be days before he’s fully recovered.”
Coolidge frowned. “You made him give me his blood, Doctor?”
“No, Major. He volunteered. He said it was his duty to the United States of America.”
Coolidge thrust out his chin, swallowed, and sniffed. “So, Private Taylor and I are blood relations, are we.”
The doctor half shrugged, half nodded, “You could say that, Major.”
“Goddamn it, Doc, that’s a curveball you’ve pitched me. I guess I have to thank the guy.”

………………………………

Votes for all

I have for some time wondered what democracy means in today’s world. Last week’s elections have brought it to the top of my thinking pile. Also, I have just read a newspaper article about democracy in Samoa, the small Pacific island state. Apparently they are held up as a beacon of democracy in a region where coups and military takeovers are common, yet Samoa has had the same prime minister for over twenty years. Now, after a recent election ended up in a dead heat between the ruling party and the opposition (set up by a disillusioned former member of the government) the ruling party is trying to hold on to power by stretching the rules of democracy. It seems that during their long time in power they have tweaked the laws and stuffed the civil service and judiciary with their own supporters so that other parties have little chance of pushing them out. It is described as a bloodless coup. As I read it I thought that it could equally apply to the UK and the USA under Trump.

Do we live in a democracy? Does democracy work? Of course, nowhere is governed by a pure democracy where all the citizens are the government and make the decisions. It certainly didn’t apply to the ancient city-state of Athens where the voting citizens were few in number and didn’t include slaves and women. It just wouldn’t work in a large state even with modern IT technology allowing everyone to take part in debates (imagine a Zoom meeting with a few million participants – ugh!). Most people would get bored with the endless discussions and voting and it would be left to the few fanatics to run everything, or at least argue about it.

Representative or parliamentary democracy is, supposedly, the next closest thing. The UK’s parliament is held up as one of the oldest but of course it was only in the 1920s that all adults, that is men and women over 21, were allowed to vote. Now it is over 18s with over 16s allowed to vote in some elections such as the recent Welsh Senedd elections. Except it is not quite so comprehensive as you have to be on the list of electors at the time of the election and that usually means having a permanent address. Now the UK government is planning to restrict voting rights to those who hold a new photo identity card, which will have to be applied for and paid for like driving licences and passports.

The UK system of “first past the post” in constituencies which can have multiple candidates means that the winning candidate rarely has more than 50% of the votes but yet can give the winning party a huge majority in parliament. This is what happened in 2019. It means that most people don’t get the government they voted for. That is if they voted at all. In the UK it is rare for more than 2/3 of the voting population to vote and that is only in General Elections. Local elections are usually very poorly supported.

If the main opposition party is riven with dissension and in-fighting then the ruling party ends up with an easy ride to victory. With overwhelming control of parliament they can do what they like. If their respect for parliamentary and governmental rules is weak then they can start chipping away at the checks and balances that restrain them from turning the country into an interminable and unremovable one party state. It seems to be that many of what we may consider to be democratic states are slipping that way. Under Trump the USA system of government showed itself vulnerable and if he had won in 2020 who knows what might have happened. Here in the UK every day seems to bring evidence of a slide towards government by a group of untouchables free to do what they like (not necessarily all in parliament). We see it around the world in new democracies like Poland and Hungary as well as older ones such as India.

I have been interested in politics since school days. I have always considered myself centre-left the place occupied by the old Liberal Party, standing up for individual rights and small businesses, with state control of essential services (health and utilities) and checks on the actions of big corporations (and also close relations with Europe). For short periods of time I have been active and stood in local elections. I naively saw it as a fair competition where each party sought to convince electors to give them their vote. I was delighted when I won a town council election. OK, the turnout was appalling (15%) but we had worked hard to get those votes. It was only when I sat in council meetings that I began to doubt the effectiveness of democracy. A number of my fellow councillors had been in place for decades. They were re-elected each time because they were known, having had their photos in the local newspaper many times. Most citizens showed no interest in council business despite grumbling about rubbish collection and dog mess and traffic and so on. Just a few people were regular attendees at public meetings or wrote letters to the council or the newspaper. I was astonished at the dishonesty of some councillors and the wallowing in the gratification of acolytes. I realised that democracy only worked if everyone was open about where they stood on issues, respected the rules and did not use power to strengthen their own positions.

I saw how easy it was for a small group of activists to take over local parties and by hard work get themselves elected and into positions with some power. I can see how that can happen in regional and national parliaments. The proportional representation element of the Welsh Senedd elections allowed UKIP to gain a sizeable foothold in 2016 which I am glad to say they have now lost (most of the ukippers became Brexit party representatives but failed last week when re-born as the rabid Reform Party). The Conservative Party has been taken over by right-wing, brexiteering bigots and the Labour Party is riven between blinkered, backward-looking corbynistas and scared, clueless centrists. But the power is held by those who control the media and where that control lies with rich businessmen, they support the party that allows them to continue to make money i.e. the Tories.

I am now truly despondent about the ability of democracy to provide stable government and health and wellbeing for all citizens. I see self-serving demagogues on every side with very few in politics for altruistic reasons. Democracy may be better than the alternatives – dictatorship or one-party rule – but I see little evidence of good government anywhere. Convince me I’m wrong.

Yet another view along the Mon & Brec Canal in April

A lot has been happening this week so I have done little writing. However, the writing club task was on the theme “getting away with it”. That seemed to have all sorts of possibilities relating to what I have written about above. Instead I decided to write another in my occasional series about spy Agent Kappa. Kappa is a slightly comic figure, a sub-James Bond character, but the plots usually contain something based on an article I have read in New Scientist magazine. The stories consequently are a sort of spy-SF mash-up with a little light or blackish humour. With the series growing, I think there may be a chance of publication somewhere so I am not revealing the new story here, not just yet.

So here is something I wrote earlier. I don’t think I’ve posted it before. It’s a little out of date now but fits in with what I wrote above and is a bit of fun.

The Brassicas

“Oi, Savoy! Have you heard the news?”
Savoy looked at the white head of the caller, from his vantage point at the high end of the field. It was Cauliflower growing in the next plot.
“Are you addressing me?” Savoy replied.
“Yeah, you daft cabbage. I said, have you heard the news?”
“To what news are you referring?” Savoy replied rather upset that Cauliflower may have news before him.
“It came from Neeps, down the end of the field.”
Savoy sighed. The Turnips were always passing on gossip from the neighbouring fields. “What did Neeps tell you?” he asked.
“He didn’t tell me exactly. I heard it from Romanesco.”
Savoy wasn’t surprised. Cauli was often conversing with his green, spiky and attractive relative. Quite improper, Savoy thought, they’d be hybridising before long and who knows what would become of that. “What did Roma tell you?” Savoy said.
“It’s Eric Unwin,” Cauli said, “The farmer.”
“Yes, I know who Unwin is. He’s the EU in EU Farms Ltd. What’s he supposed to be doing now?”
“He’s going to introduce legumes into our field.”
“Legumes!” Savoy almost went pale with apoplexy. His leaves curled. “That can’t be. Neeps must have it wrong. This field is for brassicas; always has, always will.” The days when it was all cabbages and white cauliflowers, and Neeps of course, may have passed. Now there were Reds, Sprouts, Broccoli. Even Kohlrabi and Pak Choi had been introduced, but they were all brassicas.
“There’s no need to bust your stem,” Cauli said, “I’m just telling you what Neeps told Roma.”
“I must speak to Neeps, myself.” Savoy was feeling quite out of sorts as if his roots had absorbed some heavy metal salts. He hailed the bottom of the field. “Hey, down there, Neeps. What’s this about EU planting legumes in our field.
“Och aye,” came the reply, “It’s tha truth. I . . .”
“You can’t believe all that those grains in the next field tell you.”
“A donna. Will ye no lissen tae me?”
“Well, what have you got to say.”
“He’s got canes ready to support them stringy legumes, and there’s seed – Haricot Vert, Mung Beans and. . .”
“Mung Beans!” Savoy exclaimed, “We don’t want them foreigners in our great Brassica field.”
“Well, ye ain’t goin ta have much choice are ye,” Neeps replied.
“This is preposterous,” Savoy said. “We must take action and stop this invasion.”
“I heard that legumes can be quite an asset,” Cauli said quietly, “They’ve got these nodules on their roots that fertilise the soil.”
“I’ll have none of that talk from you, Cauli,” Savoy said, “You can’t be a brassica and be in favour of legumes infiltrating our land.”
A sprout piped up “I think it would be a nice change from that stinking slurry, he uses to fertilise our field.”
“Ve prefer artificial fertiliser,” Kohlrabi said, “Clean and efficient.”
“You can keep out of this,” Savoy said. “You may be a brassica and we’re happy for you to stay but you haven’t been here as long as us cabbages.”
“What are you suggesting then, Savoy?” Cauli asked.
“We have to take back control,” Savoy said, thrusting out his leaves, “Strengthen our borders and keep out these leguminous interlopers before they grow up their canes and steal our light. What do you say Neeps?”
“A dinnae gonna do what tha say you stuffed green. We Neeps will stay part of the farm.”
Savoy blustered “You, you Neeps, you’re just root vegetables, barely brassicas at all. How about you, Red? You’ve been keeping quiet.”
The Red cabbage considered his reply, “We must ensure that the will of the brassicas is respected.”
“What sort of baloney is that?” Cauli called.
“Are you going to support our action or not Red?” Savoy asked.
“I shall put our proposals to the field when the opportunity arises,” Red replied keeping low to the ground.
Cauli had something to ask. “How are you going to withdraw the field from the farm, Savoy?”
Savoy puffed out his leaves. “We shall refuse to take new crops and make new deals for drainage, pesticides and fertiliser.”
“You won’t get a better deal than what the farm provides now,” Cauli replied.
“What do you know?” Savoy retorted.
“As much as you, you snooty cabbage. We’ll be the ones that are harmed by this.”
“The farm needs us more than we need them,” Savoy said.
“I’m not so sure about that. A bit of crop rotation will do us good. Anyway, why should you decide what we do?”
“Over half of us are cabbages. We know what we want.”
A sprout who had been listening and getting worried spoke, “Actually I think you cabbages make up less than a quarter of the whole field.”
“The will of the brassicas hasn’t changed,” Savoy responded furiously. “The field will leave the farm.”

The rains came and the sun shone but the brassicas wilted and withered. Soon there were just decayed roots and rotting leaves. The tractors arrived and ploughed the field. Eric Unwin shrugged. Sometimes crops fail; perhaps the seed was old or had been spoiled or maybe it was a strain that required too much attention. It was time to start over.

……………………………..

Changing Lives

As I write it is Election Day! OK, not the big one; we have another 3 to 4 years of the cronies cartel before that one. Nevertheless, here in Wales, the Senedd elections could result in changes in the government of Wales if not a change of government. It is my first opportunity to vote in these elections, my first to chance to take part in a partly proportional representation system. The Senedd has 40 members, directly elected by first passed the post, representing 40 constituencies, plus 20 representing regions elected by the proportion of the vote their party receives. It’s that latter system that let in UKIP last time giving them 7 seats. Most of them defected to the Brexit Party which is now the Reform Party and there is a chance that they may return to act as the rotten apples at the bottom of the Senedd barrel. Otherwise Labour, who have won every previous election are threatened by both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. The Tories offer nothing to Wales other than control from Westminster. Unfortunately the Lib. Dems seem to be a lost cause – even more so than when I started supporting them over fifty years ago. Their current candidates do not impress. I’m hoping for a Labour/Plaid coalition that is strong enough to stand up to the Westminster government on issues that affect Wales.

Does that mean I support independence for Wales? Yes and no. I want more autonomy along the lines of the federal state that the Liberals once supported. The Welsh government should be able to collect taxes (income, VAT, business rates, corporation, road, fuel, etc.) and use it for Welsh needs. However, no country can stand alone and we share this island with other nations with which we should continue to work. A United States of Great Britain seems a good idea (not that I want the USA’s political system).

Perhaps I am becoming more nationalistic in my old age, although I hope not in a aggressive, bigoted way. Did you watch Have I Got News For You last week (30th April) hosted by Alexander Armstrong? One item chosen for ridicule was the suggestion that the name Snowdon be dropped for Wales’ highest mountain and only the Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa, used. All the panellists thought the idea was ridiculous – fancy allowing somewhere to use traditional names for its landmarks. Soon Everest won’t be Everest anymore and Ayres Rock. . . oh, that name has been banned. More was to come, with Armstrong struggling with the pronunciation. Strange that on Pointless he makes a good fist of reading questions in all sorts of languages, apologising if he has made errors. Apparently it is perfectly acceptable for the English to denigrate and ridicule the language of people with whom they share this small island. I must get on with my Welsh language practice.

The Monmouthshire and Brecon canal overlooking the Usk valley

There are changes in my own life this week. I have given up a role I have had for six years which entailed a fair bit of work and took up (before the pandemic) quite a bit of time. I refer to my voluntary role advising West Mercia Police on diversity and equality. I joined the advisory group as a member of the trans community not that there is much of a community in the largely rural West Mercia area. Even if trans people make up 1% of the population, as estimates suggest, they are thinly spread, particularly in Herefordshire. Many are secretive or simply living their lives in the gender they identify with and do not want to reveal their trans history. That means it has been difficult to contact many other members of “my community”. The other factor is that there are many ways of being transgender, from fully transitioned transmen and transwomen, to part-time cross-dressers and increasingly, those, like myself, who claim neither gender but live as the person we believe ourselves to be. I can’t claim to represent everyone’s views but at least I have made sure that trans people are visible.

Of course being a member of a group advising the police has meant that I have not just been involved with transgender issues. We advise and scrutinise the actions of the police in connection with all communities. I think it’s important work even if at times we don’t (didn’t) seem to be going anywhere. Now, having served 6 years as Chair of the group, long enough I think to risk becoming cynical and jaded, and having moved out of the West Mercia area, I have retired. That means at least a dozen fewer meetings a year and no more long, data-packed, papers to read.

So, what shall I do with the extra time I’ve given myself? Write, of course. Well, perhaps not, because to tell the truth, I have felt somewhat demoralised lately. I’m a kid who needs encouragement. Many writers I know write just for the joy of putting pen to paper. They get satisfaction from the process alone. While writing is a pleasure I feel that I have to be writing for a purpose i.e. readers, otherwise it just seems to be an indulgence. I need to say I am “working on a book” to justify the time I spend, and that means that I intend the book/story/article to be published in some form and read (the number of readers is not so important although I’d appreciate a lucrative blockbuster). However, I gave up science education publishing because of the pressure of deadlines, the monotony of rehashing the same work for every iteration of the science curriculum and the boring triviality of online exercises.

Self-publishing is an easy route to publication but not cheap if you do it properly. Marketing the book to get to those all-important readers is time-consuming and costly. Having self-published five Jasmine Frame novels along with three e-book only shorter volumes, I have spent quite a bit of money with not a huge return. Reviews have always been good but breaking through to that wider readership hasn’t happened. I can’t really afford to self-publish again unless I do more of the editorial, design and production work myself and that is not what I want to do.

My four published fantasy novels also got good reviews but failed to attract buyers. I have sent my completed novel The Pendant and the Globe to a few publishers and ought to try a lot more, but had no positive response as yet. I have ideas for stories and novels and the current “work in progress” (although it hasn’t progressed much recently) For Us, The Stars is an SF tale that I have done quite a lot of preparation for. Unfortunately, I have my doubts on its originality and my ability to develop the plot into a gripping page-turner. So, I feel a little as if I’ve hit a wall, not a solid one, but like what athletes talk about pushing through. I know the pleasure of writing should be enough but I need that confidence boost which used to come from publishers.

For a number of reasons it was back to zooming for writers’ group this week – just the once we hope. The theme was writing for a Young Adult audience. Some of us have done so already; my fantasy novels were marketed as YA. The idea was to find the voice of a young person and I have to say most of us did although not necessarily all were contemporary. I did not make a huge effort and so my piece has no plot, is not a complete story and possibly not even the start of something longer. It began with an image of a boy sitting in a waiting room (which coincidentally was the topic for my monthly group). So here is Waiting.

Waiting

Hi, I’m Orlando. I’m a superhero. Well, that’s what my dad says, but it seems that my only super-power is waiting. I’ve sat in health centre waiting rooms, hospital waiting rooms, and now here I am in the Social Services waiting room. Dad insisted on coming so I had to get him dressed up, into his buggy and then into the taxi. He says he has to speak to the chief guy here. Of course, he can’t actually speak but he’s prepared a short speech on his tablet. So now we’re waiting to see if they’ll let him run it.
A man with a beard comes out of one of the offices carrying an armful of carboard files. He glances at Dad sitting there, slouched on one side of his chair, then he looks at me.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, young man,” he says in that voice that shows he’s not expecting an answer.
“Yeah, I should be,” I reply. Beardy looks surprised. Yes, I do have a voice and I can speak for myself, and for Dad for that matter.
“Well, why aren’t you?” he says, still not really interested.
“Because we had to come here for my Dad to find out why he can’t have the care that means that I can go to school.”
The man goes red in the face.
“I’m sure we are providing all the care that your father needs.” He takes another glance at Dad and hurries on. We’re left on our own again. Dad’s eyebrows flutter up and down. I know what he’s thinking. Another jobsworth who doesn’t really understand what it’s like to live with MND.
I’m not sure why we’re here really. If we were back home Dad could be watching his Star Wars movies and I could be at school, but he got fed up getting no result from emailing social services. He decided he needed to make this trip to prove to them that we need more help.
Dad’s drooling a bit so I get up and wipe his mouth with a tissue. His eyes look at me and I can see he’s grateful. We can’t really chat as he hasn’t got all his kit for typing on his screen. I’m hoping the people here will listen to his speech, give us what he wants and then we can get home. We’ve missed lunch so I’ll have to start getting supper ready. Then he can settle down with his favourite characters, Han and Luke and Lando. That’s who I’m named after. Perhaps I’ll do some online homework. I want to go to university, but I wonder whether I could ever leave Dad even if he does get the carers he needs.
Now we just wait and sit and wait some more.

I’m Naldoor, superhero and saviour of the Seven Lands. I sit in my cloud base and looking with my telescopic eyes down at my world. I watch the people go about their lives with their robots by their side, in their craft on land, sea and air. Far to the north something draws my attention. A bright point of light grows, becomes a glowing sphere rocketing towards me. It carries Xalphar the Bad, my nemesis. He and I have battled for power over the Seven Lands many times but though I win he always returns. While I wait for his approach, I summon the force that gives me the power to overcome him. I feel the energy in my muscles and I leap into the sky to face my enemy.

“Mr Jones? The supervisor will see you now.”
I look up. A woman not a lot older than me is standing holding the door to the office. She isn’t looking at me though but at Dad. His little finger flexes and the buggy lurches forward. I jump up to grab the handles, ready to take over if Dad’s control fails. It does now and then. This time however he steers slickly through the doorway not even brushing the woman’s shins.

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Who needs honesty?

I have noticed that a number of government spokespeople have questioned whether the public are interested in the furnishings in No.10, or who said what about COVID victims or whose friends benefitted from the billions spent on pandemic contracts. The principle seems to be that if nobody cares then why bother being honest; stick your nose in the trough and ignore the parts of the press that complain.

It is true that only a small proportion of the voting population take a close interest in what goes on in parliament and in government and only a few relate what goes on there to the job market, the community resources, the price of food etc that they experience. Just over 60% vote in General Elections and far fewer in local elections. So, yes with a comfortable majority in parliament the ruling party can do what they like. The right wing press will only complain if the Tory party doesn’t give them everything they demand. These days there’s not much media which is not right wing. Even MSN on Microsoft Edge is filled with Daily Express headlines.

So, there seems little to stop our slide into a cesspit of corruption and sleaze with an authoritarian government banning all protest and opposition. It may not be done as blatantly as in Russia but the effect will be the same.

What is the result? A break down in law and order at every level of society. The billionaires will get away with fiddling tax and treating workers like dirt, while the mass population will cease to take notice of little local laws because the police will be too busy dancing to the politicians’ tune. An example. Last week someone thought it would be a big joke to report a bomb in a car parked close to where I live. Of course the police and fire service had to react. The local residents were told to vacate their homes for three hours on a chilly evening, and the army bomb squad were called in. Of course it was a hoax. There are supposed to be heavy penalties for making hoax 999 calls but despite there being good leads on who the perpetrators were, the local police shrugged their shoulders and said they would not be taking the case any further. A few people laughed it off as a bit of fun, ignoring the inconvenience it caused to residents and the costs, which will come back to tax payers.

The River Usk near Brecon from the Brynnich Aquaduct

Honesty and integrity in people with responsibilities to others should be a given. Lose it and soon everything will be chaos as there will be no trust in anything. I don’t mean that my political beliefs and policies should be imposed on everyone but I need to be reassured that everyone in positions of power will follow the laws and rules that govern all of us.

Back to writers’ group this week. The task set was to write a piece with no repeated nouns. In discussion we agreed that in a short piece it is good practice not to repeat nouns but can be difficult to follow fully. There were some excellent efforts that employed lots of nouns without repetition. Mine is below, a somewhat rushed affair, but it met the criteria.

The Thing

A roar and rumble rattled the rooftiles. Through the window I saw a streak of brilliant white light pass across the sky. Then there was a thud that shook the ground.
“Something just came down in one of the fields,” I said, turning to face the family.
“Not far away,” Robert said, adding, “come on, kids, let’s see if we can bag a meteorite.” He picked up a torch. We followed him out of the door.
We hurried up the garden path, across the paddock and into the big meadow. The sun had set an hour or so ago. There was no Moon, so it was a dark but clear, starry night.
“Surely it landed somewhere here,” my husband said, “Let’s spread out in a line. Look out for burn marks.”
“Won’t there be a crater,” Lucy said.
We did as we were told and formed a row that paced slowly across the pasture. There was nothing unusual to see. Then I bumped into a solid and heavy mass that was completely invisible. I ran my hands over the surface. It was smooth and hard but seemed to give slightly under pressure like skin over flesh and extended up and down, left and right as far as I could reach.
“There’s an object here,” I called out, “but it can’t be seen at all.”
The others ran to join me and formed a circle stretching out their arms to touch the object.
Ben had a grip on it. “There’s a tube that’s crinkled and bent but soft like an elephant’s trunk.”
My daughter’s fingers traced out a straight line. “There’s a stalk here. It’s springy like a wire.”
My beloved was on his knees feeling around the base. “It is resting on feet shaped liked saucers, five of them.”
We were all deep into our investigations, shouting out our observations to each other with no thought of a possible danger. Perhaps I should have considered the likelihood that we could be injured if whatever the article was reacted in some way.
It did. There was a whistle like whale song followed by the whoosh a cola bottle makes when it’s shaken up and opened suddenly. A gust of wind blew all of us flat on our backs. We crawled together but it was gone.
Feeling a little sheepish I stood up and looked at each of them.
“What was it?” I said, “A creature?”
“An alien?”
“A robot?”
“A spaceship?”
“All of those perhaps,” I concluded, “It was a…. a thing!”

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. . . and relax.

I have just spent a wonderfully relaxing week almost out of touch with the world. No TV, no radio news, no Johnson blathering on; did pick up the newspaper on a few days and had mobile internet most of the time but generally we ignored the news. Instead we watched the world slide slowly by, gazing at the magnificent views, dodging the catkins falling from trees, listening to the twittering and trills of lots of different small birds while watching red kites circle lazily in the sky.

Where were we? On the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal travelling between Mamhilad and Brecon at no more than 2 miles per hour. Often we were alone on the canal in our hired narrowboat, sometimes we passed one or met another, but on five nights we moored alone out in the country. We relished the chance to recover our boat-managing skills last used fourteen years ago, but most of all we enjoyed the peace and the calm and being just the two of us. Of course, we were helped by the unexpected fine weather. Although the air was cold and there was a chill in the mornings and evenings, on six of the seven days we had bright sunshine that warmed us and lit up the spring flowers.

We previously travelled the Mon and Brec 33 years ago on our first trip in charge of a narrowboat (we had Lou’s mum with us on that occasion). The views were just as striking though I think the canal is in a better state now and has more hire boats wending their way up and down. The M&B is a a bit special as canals go, not just for the scenery and being halfway up a mountainside for a good part of its route. It’s cut off from the rest of the system, so there are no visiting boat owners from elsewhere. The boats moored on the canal are a motley collection of narrowboats and cruisers, many of them quite ancient (i.e. ’60s, ’70s and ’80s vintage). The hire boats stand out as being newer, smarter and most being larger than the owned vessels.

The canal is different in a number of ways from rest of the system. Although a “narrow” canal, the locks and bridge holes were constructed to accommodate boats almost 2 feet wider than the standard narrowboat. The canal is shallow with a V-shaped profile meaning that it is often difficult to get into the bank. A couple of the hire boats are built to the larger specification but are a nuisance as they are unwieldy and take up a lot of space.

The canal was constructed to carry lime, coal, iron and agricultural goods down to the port at Newport. While the line of the canal remains, the steep descent into Newport achieved with a lot of locks has still not been resuscitated. The navigable section runs from Brecon to the edge of Cwmbran, giving 35 miles of idyllic countryside to encounter.

Our marvellous week has revived our desire to be on the water (relatively shallow, slow-moving water that is) so look out for news of more adventures.

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Being away, I missed writers’ group this week and in fact did no writing whatsoever. To entertain you this week here is something I did earlier. This piece was set in a previous group and was inspired by a postcard with a shopping list on it found in a supermarket trolley. It included the menu for meals for most of a week. The idea was to include most of the items in the piece of writing.

The Week The Mexican Came To Stay

Ruby pulled the old postcard from the kitchen drawer placed it on the worktop and held her biro poised over it. Now what should they have to eat while the Mexican was staying? She scribbled down the days of the week. Tim had said they would be arriving late on Monday so something simple and quick perhaps – a pasta. With cheese, of course, because the Mexican was vegetarian so Tim had said. Tuesday – well, being Mexican he would surely like something hot, spicy hot, so a chilli then. Wednesday – it had to be special and really Mexican. Now what were they called? She’d have to look them up in a recipe book. Enchiladas, that was it.
Thursday was next. No, you silly, the Mexican would be leaving then so wouldn’t need feeding. She scrawled a line across the card, irritated and annoyed. Fancy forgetting. Friday remained blank.
She quickly wrote down a list of the all the ingredients she would need for the menu, all the things she didn’t have in her larder anyway, plus a few other odds and ends. It came to quite a long list but she didn’t mind as it was exciting to have guests in the big, old house. She got quite lonely out here. Grabbing her bag and the car keys she got into the car and turned in a large circle in the driveway. The standing stones were silhouetted against the sunset as she set off for the several miles drive to the town and supermarket.

Ruby watched the little man lift the last enchilada with his long, bony fingers. He was a strange looking person and Ruby wondered if all Mexicans were as extraordinary. He was wrapped in a long overcoat and his head, including his face was covered in curly black hair. He hadn’t said a thing since he arrived on Monday evening but he had gobbled up every dish she had presented to him. Now as she watched the last morsel disappear into the veil of hair, Ruby was beginning to wonder if indeed he was Mexican. Her brother, Tim smiled at her across the table from beside the little fellow.
“Thanks for everything, Roobs,” he said.
“It was nothing. It’s been lovely to see you again after so long. You hardly ever come home from the States.”
“Well, you know what it’s like. Work, work, work. Those enchiladas were great. Didn’t know you were into Mexican food.”
“I did them for, er, him,” Ruby nodded to the little man who was now sitting motionless on the chair.
“Why?” Tim asked.
“Because he’s Mexican. I thought it would make him feel a bit home from home.”
Tim chuckled. ‘He’s not Mexican. I said he was from Mexico.”
Ruby was puzzled, “Isn’t that the same thing?”
“No, no. He’s been there a long time, New Mexico actually, but he’s not from there. Now I’d better get him off to his room. He’s got a long journey tomorrow.”
Ruby stood up. “Oh, yes, of course. You said that you would be leaving on Thursday.”
Tim helped the little man off the chair. His head barely reached the table top. Tim gave him a friendly shove towards the door.
“Early on Thursday,” Tim corrected.
“What time are you expecting to be picked up?” Ruby asked.
“It should be about five, before the Sun comes up.”
“That is early,” Ruby said. “Will he need breakfast?” she nodded to the little man again.
“Oh no, I don’t think so. I expect we’ll eat on the journey. Well, I think I’d better be getting my head down too, Roobs. It’s been great seeing you again and so convenient what with you having this house right out here.”
“It’s been lovely to have you both stay, especially you bruv.” Tim gave her a peck on the cheek and hurried his small companion out of the room.

Ruby woke up, sure that something had disturbed her. A noise perhaps. There were so rarely unusual noises out here in the country that it wasn’t surprising that she had woken. Birds, cows, foxes, yes, winds howling through the eaves, often. What had the noise been? She couldn’t recall. She slipped out of bed and peered through the curtains. The Sun wasn’t up yet but there was light in the sky and she could see across the field beside the house to the stones. Except that she couldn’t make them out. She blinked, rubbed her eyes and looked again. The familiar view was there. . . but not. There was a shimmering in the air which distorted her normal view like on a very hot day. It was as if a rippling canvas picture of the scene was stretched across her field of view.
She heard another noise, a door opening. Looking down, she saw Tim ushering the little non-Mexican across the yard at the side of the house. Tim bent down and seemed to be speaking to him. Then the little man shrugged off the overcoat and tugged his hair off his head. Ruby gasped.
The little man didn’t appear to be wearing any clothes. He was a pale pink with a pot-bellied little body and thin, long arms and legs. The top of his smooth, hairless head was round but he had a pointed chin. The creature looked up and his large, dark eyes met Ruby’s. He raised one of his long-fingered hands in a semblance of a wave then he turned away and walked towards the field. He had barely got twenty yards across the grass before he disappeared. Ruby gasped and rubbed her eyes again. There was nothing to see, but Tim still standing on the gravel.
Then the noise began again. Now she recognised is as the sound that had awakened her. Not loud, a low whine which quickly rose in pitch but reduced in volume until it was gone. Ruby blinked. Her view was back to normal, the strange distortion gone. She grabbed her dressing gown and ran downstairs to meet Tim re-entering the house.
“He wasn’t a Mexican at all, was he?” Ruby said
“I said he wasn’t,” Time replied.
“He was an alien.”
Tim nodded. “Yes, he’s been stuck in New Mexico for seventy years.”
“Where’s he gone?”
“Home I expect. His people came to pick him up, at last.”
“But why did you bring him here?”
“Because you’re out of the way here and in sight of Stonehenge.”
“What’s Stonehenge got to do with it?”
Tim smiled. “It was their base. They had it built.”
“They?”
“The aliens. They wouldn’t land anywhere else to collect him.”
Ruby sighed. “An alien in my house, and I fed him Mexican enchiladas.”

Little freedoms

No, I’m not going to fill this space with a rant about government sleaze. There’s enough of it around already and my two-pennorth is not going to have any influence – I haven’t got friends in high places. No, I shall just recount the recovery of small freedoms and pleasures.

Yes, this week the lockdown has eased somewhat. From the 12th, rules were relaxed across the UK although the remaining regulations are still a little different in Wales and England. For instance we still cannot play doubles tennis in Wales unless we are from no more than 2 households. That rule doesn’t go until 26th April.

However we have been able to cross the border and meet up with our family for a picnic and walk in the fresh air. No hugging though. Nevertheless it was a joy to see, in the flesh, our two granddaughters and to chat with the family without a Zoom screen between us.

On anther day we met up with old friends, not seen for well over a year. We travelled to a very popular site in the Forest of Dean. A slight miscalculation because I thought English schools had, like Welsh schools, started the summer term. No, they hadn’t. The vast carpark was very full, but as usual a walk of a couple of hundred yards took us away from the crowds and into splendid peace and quiet.

Finally, I met up with writing group friends at a hotel, six to a table, drinking coffee (not pints of beer), chatting and reading our pieces of work.

There were things in common in these three events. They were all outdoors, and they all involved face to face meetings with people not seen for months. According to all the published science it was safe. The open air blows any viruses way pretty quickly. Also, we have been vaccinated and so, hopefully, now have some immunity. The risks were low – I do hope so.

The other hope is that this state of affairs continues and indeed, improves. While deaths and hospitalisations have dropped steeply, in recent months, it is to be hoped that the number of infections falls further and does not rise again as people get out and meet each other. Meeting up with one another, whether it is to play games and sport, or just chat over a drink and a meal is the thing we all seem to have missed during the long months of this pandemic and we do not want to see a return to confinement in lockdown.

With all the sunshine this week I should have taken some new photos; but I didn’t

As I mentioned, the writing group actually met this week. The topic was appropriately, “release.” There were a couple of very powerful pieces on this theme. Mine was a little lighter and less well-developed. I had been struck by the many definitions or uses of the word. In my piece I could have used the term in at least seven sentences, each with a slightly different meaning, but I didn’t but described the situation instead. Can you spot the uses of the term “release” in this piece? The answers, sort of, follow.

Release

It was mid-morning when the officer unlocked the cell door, swung it open and told me to get moving.
“Pick up your stuff on the way out,” he said passing on to the next cell.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Yeah, now get out or I’ll lock you back in for loitering.”
I put my jacket on and hurried out. It was a bright sunny morning. It would have been nice to linger but I had things to do. First, I had to get across town to where we’d met for the march.
I was puffing and sweating when I reached our starting point. I was surprised and relieved to see my bike still there, locked to the railing. I dialled the combination and freed the chain from around the bike. Now I had to head out of town to meet the others. At least it was downhill for part of the way.
My hands jammed the brakes tight as I descended the steep cobbled street. It was only when I felt confident that I wouldn’t fall off that I loosened my grip and the wheels turned freely.
Reaching the entrance porch I pressed my finger on the bellpush. I could hear the ringing inside. At last, I saw movement and a figure approaching the door. I relaxed my finger and the ringing stopped.
The door opened. “Oh, it’s you. We wondered when you’d get here,” she said.
“They put me inside for the night,” I said.
“We know,” she said, “They announced the arrests this morning. Didn’t think they could keep you for long though. You’d better come in.”
I followed her down the hall into the lounge. The others were there, all four of them, slouched on the floor and sofa looking like they’d had less sleep than I had had.
“This is some welcome,” I said looking at the glum faces.
“So, you’re the martyr now, are you,” Guy muttered. “A night in the cells and you’re some kind of hero. When are you going to put out your celebrity memoir then?”
The comment wasn’t worth a reply, but Irene interrupted.
“What about the fine for illegal assembly. Did you pay it?”
I smiled. “They let me off that. Couldn’t be bothered to do the paperwork I suppose.”
“So, we can start organising the next protest,” Irene said, kicking the others to stir them.
Guy let out a ripping fart. He grinned, “Well that’s better out than in.”
………………………………………

Release – definitions
• allow or enable to escape from confinement; set free.
• remove restrictions or obligations from (someone or something) so that they become available for other activity.
• allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely.
• allow (something) to return to its resting position by ceasing to put pressure on it.
• allow (information) to be generally available.
• make (a film, recording, or other product) available to the public.
• remit or discharge (a debt).
• the action or process of releasing or being released.

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A momentous day

A little late this week writing this blog because we were out for most of yesterday, that is Friday 9th. We met up with our family, the granddaughters and their parents, for the first time since last July. Okay, it wasn’t a hot, sunny day, but it was pleasant enough going for walk and eating our picnic. Actually the walk was more than pleasant, a chance to chat as a group or in pairs to each and everyone, which is not something we manage on Whatsapp video or Zoom. We caught up on things and even had a couple of Christmas presents to open. There was a slight feeling of getting back to something like the life we had “before”. Okay we weren’t in each other’s homes, and we didn’t hug and kiss but it was a step. Not surprisingly the meeting place we chose was packed – the car park at any rate. Luckily the park itself was large enough to accommodate everyone and not feel as if we were endangering our health.

The day was special enough but it was also the furthest we had travelled in our new electric car and our first attempt at a re-charge at a service area. But there will be more about that in our other blog Driving EVe.

I suppose we will always remember it as the day Prince Phillip died. The news came through on J’s phone shortly after noon. When we got home we found that the whole of the BBC was given over to the event for the rest of the day. I suppose it was to be expected but to the exclusion of all else? After all, Glamorgan were getting Yorkshire all out for 193; that was notable too.

While The Duke of Edinburgh had no role and no real power, his passing is significant. His long life was filled with many momentous occasions, from his exile from Greece, through WWII to his life beside and behind the Queen. At 99 and obviously unwell for a few months, his death was not unexpected. There are two sadnesses, one that he didn’t quite make his century and secondly that it had to happen while we have that vile buffoon as PM who is supposed to speak on the people’s behalf.

The way in which his passing is received will give a hint I suppose as to what the end of the Elizabethan reign will bring. I imagine the Queen will retreat further into semi-retirement while discussions about the future of the monarchy will become more urgent. I’m in two minds. It is both an extraordinary privilege for a family to be so mollycoddled, on the other hand, it is a strange torture for those born to royalty who don’t want it. Obviously in a true democracy, monarchy is a nonsense, but I think I prefer an unelected, uninvolved constitutional monarch to an all powerful president representing just a faction of the population.

…………

The topic for both my writing groups this week was “Spring”, a well-contrived coincidence. There weren’t many contributions from either group but a recollection of The Magic Roundabout and Zebedee’s spring was the the most enjoyable. My effort is a future memoir. Thinking about the topic, I set it in the future history that I have devised for my current novel. So this piece is perhaps a scene of backstory but there is no intention that it form part of the novel itself. It is intended to be quite realistic SF; perhaps a warning.

Where the bees fly

The buzzing of bees fills the air. I lean to watch one of the insects on a blossom, pausing to suck the nectar and cover its legs with pollen. There are many thousands of them on every row and every bank of plants in the cavern. They flit between the flowers content with the Martian gravity. I watch them in the glow of the red and blue LED lights, doing the job I’ve done for decades. It is the first growing season we have entrusted the pollination of our crops to the insects. It is the task they evolved to do on Earth, but it has taken a long time to bring them back, engineer them for their new environment and breed sufficient to replace people like me. We need them to feed the millions of Martians. No, I’m not sorry to be out of a job.
I remember the spring fifty years ago when I was first employed as a pollinator. Back then the National Government was still recruiting school leavers. It was a choice of joining the Border Force repelling the migrants from Spain and elsewhere or joining the National Sustenance Army to grow food to feed the increasingly impoverished population.
I was lucky. I was sent to Oxfordshire where there was still a semblance of local organisation. The farm was one of the new ones, all under glass, soilless, temperature controlled. It was my job, like thousands of others, to go from plant to plant brushing the pollen delicately from one flower to another, playing the part of the bees and other insects driven to extinction.
In the short breaks we were allowed, I went outside and stood in the Sun. Most of my fellows feared doing the same what with the risk from toxins in the air and uv from the Sun. It was the only time in the year, other than autumn, when it was sensible. For a few weeks between the winter storms and the summer heatwave, it was pleasant to be in the sunshine, to watch the clouds scudding across the sky and just, well, stand. My parents talked of their childhoods in the 2020s, listening to birdsong and buzzing bees, looking at the daffodils and bluebells and smelling the fragrance of the apple blossom and wild garlic. There was none of that of course. No birds, no flowers, no insects, just the roar of the fans sucking air through the filters before blowing it into the greenhouses and the chugging of the pumps that circulated the water and nutrients to the plants.
We slept in the old cowsheds now turned into dormitories. The cattle had gone of course as all crops were earmarked for human bellies. There was a patch of bare ground between the shed and the greenhouses where a small tree, an oak, stood on patch of yellow grass. It can’t have been that old, fifty years perhaps, not the towering mature tree I’d seen in history books. It was probably sickly, but the buds were bursting into green. I examined a small leaf fascinated by its shape and the pattern of veins.
It was hard work, day after day, ensuring every plant was pollinated and setting fruit, but at least we got fed and a bed to sleep on. Not like those folks made homeless by the abandonment of floodplain towns like York and Tewkesbury, confined to the camps in the Peak District. I must have made an impression because I got kept on to learn horticulture. Most of my group got drafted into the national guard and sent to fight the Scottish nationalists or to quell the riots that broke out with increasing frequency as people became more and more desperate.
I didn’t know it at the time but that first spring in the glasshouses was the calmest period of my life. I did the menial jobs but gradually I learned about cell culturing, genetic modification, environmental control and diet. The great storm of ’74 knocked out the national grid, but we were able to carry on with our batteries and solar power, and rain collectors, our own waste fertilising the plants. As the riots grew in number and became more violent, the government put a force on our border to repel the homeless and hungry. The winter storms became ever fiercer and the summer heat less and less bearable. The government subsided into chaos and it was the corporations that took over responsibility for protecting their own interests and their workers while their customers slid into poverty. I hadn’t realised that the skills I had learned were my passport to a future.
Just a few years later I found myself on a shuttle taking me first into orbit and on to Mars. The corporations used their remaining wealth and resources to move their headquarters and operations to the red planet. I was one of the lucky ones chosen to escape from the collapse of civilisation on Earth. People like me were needed to run the farms in the caverns dug out of the Martian rock. Knowing what my life and probable early death would be like on Earth I had no regrets about leaving the planet that had nurtured us. We had destroyed that world but there was a new opportunity for a small proportion of the billions who had lived. I had a new life, work that occupied me and kept me supplied with food, water, air and companions. There was no point in looking back at our mistakes. Only that spring has lingered in my memory.

………………………….

It’s about diversity

This week I think I have to tiptoe into the choppy waters of race and diversity. I haven’t read the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and don’t intend to. Frankly I don’t trust anything that comes out of the Cabinet Office under this current government. These are the people whose response to COVID has resulted in 120,000 deaths, not far off the worst case forecast. They ignored plans for and trials of pandemic measures, dithered instead of acting and then threw money in every direction, but especially at their cronies, to try to find a way out of the mess. They are the same people who took us through Brexit, sweet talking people into a significant cut in their living standards and making business with our closest and biggest trading partner a trial. These are the people who mouth platitudes about climate change while supporting fossil fuel industries and making progress difficult for renewable energy businesses. These are the people who spout lies without an ounce of shame. So, I am suspicious about their motives in producing the report, the source of their data (if there is any) and the accuracy of any analysis and conclusions.

The core of the report is concerned with the extent of racism in the UK and the thorny question of institutional racism and unconscious bias. It is over twenty years since the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence debacle identified institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police. Now the Commission doubts that it even exists. This in the same week that an active police officer is convicted of being a member of a banned right wing nazi group, and the same week that a (ex)police officer in the USA is standing trial for murder. The whole point about institutional racism and unconscious bias is that it is hidden. Racism is not written into the policies and procedures of police forces and other organisations and police officers and teachers and so on do not speak racism aloud (well, not when on duty or in the company of their bosses). But it is there. Policies are written and applied without careful thought about how they may affect different ethnic groups (or other minorities). People continue to hold racist attitudes while being careful to keep them hidden or through inexperience or poor training fail to understand that their long held views may be racist (or prejudiced in other ways). An example is the facial recognition system that was found to be unable to recognise certain dark-skinned faces, or even identify them as human, simply because the AI had only been trained on white faces.

The police and justice system is undoubtedly racist. The proportion of black prisoners is much greater than their proportion of the population. A black person is ten times as likely to be stopped and searched as a white person – anywhere in the country. Why is there this dispoportionality? Perhaps it is because a greater proportion of black youths get drawn into crime on the streets. Why is that? Maybe because a greater proportion of black people live in deprived communities, in poverty, with low-paid or no job and receive a poor education.

Racism is not just about being black. How many different ethnicities are there? The report suggests that the term BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) is outdated and of limited use. Perhaps it is, nevertheless, most of the world is populated by BAME people. Only in North America, Europe (including UK) and Russia are white people in a majority. In the UK not all BAME people live in deprived, poverty stricken areas. Not all BAME people stand together to oppose racism by white folk. There is inter-minority racism too.

You don’t have to search to find evidence for racism. The police across the UK receive frequent reports of hate-crime, most of it citing racism. Thankfully the vast majority is verbal abuse but don’t say calling people names doesn’t hurt. It does, particularly if it is repeated and experienced by people whenever they step outside their home.

So, whatever the Commission’s report says, I say, the evidence shows that the UK is racist, racism exists, both explicitly aimed at members of ethnic minorities, and hidden in the workings of organisations and government and the minds of unthinking people.

People will claim the right to free speech to allow them to continue to spout racist language, or accuse campaigners of Big Brother policies in trying to change how people think. I say, freedom of speech comes with a responsibility not to threaten or intimidate anyone if their beliefs and actions are not causing harm to anyone else. I believe in no religion but as thinking creatures we must see all members of our species as having equal worth and that we are just one species among the millions that inhabit the Earth that have a right to life. I could say more but I think I’ve rambled on long enough.

This week’s theme for writing group was “dress”. Unfortunately I was so busy on other stuff that I had no time to even scribble down the vague thoughts that I had on the topic. So here is a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for my monthly group. The theme was “The Duchess”. My thoughts turned to ships. No, I wasn’t thinking of the The Terror (the TV series about the disastrous expedition to find the North-west passage in the 1840s). In fact my thoughts were more along the lines of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and, Joseph Banks’ round the world trip decades before, but with added treasure. It’s only the opening scene and as I know little about sailing in the early C19th (or now for that matter) I am unlikely to pursue it further.

The Duchess

She was a fine old lady, a little broad in the beam but that was no criticism. She sat upright and with poise. Duchess didn’t carry many cannon but that mattered not for the purposes of my expedition. She seemed more than adequate floating there at harbour but I have very little experience of the sea and none of choosing a ship of my own. I negotiated the coils of rope and barrels that littered the wharf and hollered up to a hand who was scrubbing the deck
“Is Captain Kettle on board?”
The young man, a mere youth he appeared to my eye, paused in his task and looked down at me.
“He is, sir. Do you have business with him?”
“I do, please convey to him that Matthew Herbert Esquire awaits his pleasure.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy disappeared from sight but in a very few breaths he was back and called out, “The Captain is on his way, sir.”
A few moments later the squat, bearded figure of Kettle leaned over the gunwhale.
“Ah, Herbert, come aboard, sir.” He pointed to the gangplank that stretched from the shore to the deck. It was indeed a plank, barely a foot wide and with no handrail or rope for security. I took a deep breath and placed my foot on the strip of wood which was flexing as the ship rode up and down.
“Just take a run at it,” Kettle called. I didn’t actually close my eyes but I might as well have. I just put one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible and found myself stepping onto the deck.
Captain Kettle thrust out his hand. He was a good head shorter than me. “Welcome aboard Duchess,’ he said, “she’s but a brig but a grand old girl and I am sure will do you the greatest service.”
I could feel the ship rising and falling, not much, but just enough to unsettle me.
“I’m sure she will, Captain,” I said.
“Come, I’ll show you around.” The captain headed towards the rear of the boat. I suppose I should refer to it as the stern but naval terminology is not my one of my strengths. We began on the slightly raised rear deck. I gripped the wheel and imagined what it would be like sailing the southern oceans. Looking forward, beyond the two masts to the bow, a mere ninety feet away, I saw a cannon.
“You still have armaments,” I said
“Of course, Mister Herbert,” Kettle replied. “One bow chaser and four cannonades on the gun deck. Some protection is necessary should we meet privateers.”
“Ah, yes,” I muttered not particularly wanting to contemplate the possible dangers that awaited us.
We clambered down steep steps to a low ceilinged cabin. A table occupied the centre of the small room illuminated by a row of glazed windows in the rear of the ship.
“This is my day room which you and I will share,” The Captain said. “You have maps of our destination, I presume, the places where you wish to go botanising.” That was the story I had given Kettle when we began our negotiation. I suggested that I was a keen naturalist wishing to collect the flora of the south American continent.
“Some,” I said, “though much of the coast has not been surveyed in any great detail.”
“Of course, that is understood, Mister Herbert. Come let me show you our cabin” We stepped down a further flight of steps to another cramped space. There was a bunk, a chest and couple of pieces of furniture. I could not see how two men could occupy it in comfort.
“We will both sleep here?” I enquired.
“Yes. I’ll have a hammock rigged up. It will be like returning to my midshipman days. No great hardship. I often think a hammock is more conducive to a good night’s sleep at sea than a hard bunk.
I nodded, “I see, but it is rather cramped for the two of us.”
“You haven’t seen the crew quarters yet,” Kettle grinned.
“Oh, how many crew will there be?” The ship seemed empty of crew but for the lad I had seen on deck
“Sixty at least. They’re resting ashore at present but will come as soon as they receive my summons, plus however many will be accompanying you.”
It seemed a huge complement, more than I had in my household. “There will just be my manservant and my two companions, Ralph Loxton and Will Jones.”
“They will have to occupy the gunroom with my officers,” Kettle said. “Now when do you wish to set sail?”
“As soon as we can load all the necessary supplies,” I said.
“That will take several days, but soon the Duchess will have you on your way, Sir, to look for your pretty flowers.”
I smiled. He might think we were after new varieties of plants for my gardens but in fact my friends and I were on the trail of Spanish gold. Duchess would be our home for a year or two while we followed the clues Ralph and Will had acquired.

……………………..

It’s a little late, but…

I’m a little late posting today because I forgot. I usually set aside time on Fridays to write the blog for posting on Saturday morning. There are two reasons why I didn’t write it yesterday. The first is that I was actually rather busy on things that have little to do with the blog. The second reason was that I was struggling to think of topics to write about. Should I have another rant at the government or politics in general? There’s plenty to get upset about; hardly a day goes by without some nonsense spouted by one or more members of the Tory party, sometimes when they are arguing with each other, such as over the COVID measures. But shouting at the TV when a certain person with blonde hair appears is hardly effective and gets exhausting. Although the thought does occur that perhaps we will have no other way to express our protests if the government has its way and bans all public expressions of displeasure.

The problem is that the majority of the population have been lulled into a sense that the government is competent. That’s because the mass, right-wing media gives that impression. One of my current annoyances is with MSN which appears whenever I click on a new page on Microsoft Edge. It appears that most of its headlines are taken from the Daily Express which seems to live in a fantasy world beyond my experience. It’s a world which hails Lynn Truss as the genius of the Treasury, making amazingly lucrative trade deals with all sorts of distant countries. The Express even hailed her as the next PM. I’m sorry MSN, I don’t want to be bullied into reading the Express.

Obviously the biggest news of the week is the blockage of the Suez Canal. We know how the captain of the container vessel must feel. Having been avid canal boaters for many years we suffered the same fate a number of times – having our narrowboat skewed across the canal. The usual answer was to get out the long pole and push off the bow or the stern. I wonder if they’ve tried that on the Suez. I suppose it would have to be a pretty long pole.

I haven’t ventured onto the roads today but I expect there will be traffic jams in parts of Wales. The “stay local” measure has been rescinded and we are now free to visit anywhere within the principality. There will be people driving simply because they can. Like many, we hanker after a view of the sea and will probably set out on own excursions in the week ahead. However, we cannot cross the border and neither can English tourists enter Wales. That means that we still can’t meet up with the family.

I have done little writing in the past week. The reason is those tasks that I’ve already referred to, but I usually try to write something for writing group. Last week the theme was “hair”. It seemed a very rich topic. Lots of hints of ideas came into my head but I did not have the time to develop any into a story. I did manage to scribble down some thoughts in a sort of memoir which is below. Strangely, the others who wrote on the subject did something similar, nothing fictional was read out.

Hair

Whisper it. Hair. It’s an exhalation, a breath. Vocalise. Hair. It’s an exhalation with a groan. It starts with the aspirate, then two vowels and ends with a consonant that is almost not there, certainly not when voiced by your average English person. Celts may roll the “r” a little but hardly at all.
Given that when spoken it barely registers it is a strange word for such an important feature of human beings. Just think of the common phrases it appears in:

Beaten by a hair’s breadth.
Get out of my hair,
Making your hair stand on end
That’s hair-raising
Don’t split hairs
Without turning a hair
The hair of the dog.
A hare-brained scheme – oh, that’s the other hare, the one with the long ears.

Consider how important hair is in denoting personality – a dizzy blonde, a fiery red head, a smouldering brunette, a mousy brownie. What about the statement the lack of hair makes? Monks with their tonsures, skinheads with their stubbly bonces, the bald heads in male and female current fashion.

Having hair, or not having it, is an important issue. Many men (Wayne Rooney for one) go to great and expensive lengths to restore their retreating thatch. People, particularly women having cancer treatment may proudly display their loss of hair but many cover up or wear a wig till it grows back. Turning grey too is either seen as a sign of achieving the wisdom of old age, or is fought by dyes to retain the illusion of youth.

Hairstyles can date a period: the beehives of the 60s, the big perms of the 80s. The first half of the C20th saw men adopt short hair, short back and sides and crewcuts. The appearance of long hair on youths in the late sixties caused apoplexy among some older men. I recall two former schoolboys being refused entry to school prizegiving by the Headmaster because their hair was too long. Mind you I have also known of heads who sent pupils home with their hair judged too short. You can’t win in some places.

Hair is important. It is especially so for exhibiting gender. Male and female styles, not just length, are often perceived to be different. A woman with a masculine style may be judged as butch or androgynous. Transwomen often seek to emulate the styles of their heroines, often by adopting long flowing locks in golden blonde or jet black. It is true that a wig makes for an easy disguise often rendering a person, particularly a male in female clothing, unrecognisable.

When I began venturing out as female, I too wanted a hairstyle to hide behind, to give me the feminine appearance I desired. It took quite a few years before I accepted that it was unnecessary. Apart from the fact that a wig on top of a full head of hair is very hot in summer and can be very uncomfortable, I realised that wearing a wig was denoting that my female self was different to my male identity, when in fact they are one and the same. Now I identify as non-binary/gender fluid and have said so on the census. My exceptionally fine, slow growing, receding hair is styled somewhere in the middle of the male-female spectrum and it is me. I am my hair. And exhale.

…………………………….

On the one hand…

The newly shorn me.

It’s been a week of contrasts. On the one hand it has been pleasant. The weather has been dry, quite sunny and not cold for mid-March so we could take advantage of the partial relief of lockdown and play some tennis – singles only, of course. It was also my birthday, and despite not being able to go out to eat, we had an excellent day and I received some lovely and generous presents. This Saturday I am due to get my booster vaccination so hopefully my risk of getting and passing on COVID is much reduced. I am happy, oh, and I am also getting my haircut.

On the other hand the news continues to be depressing. Nationally, the number of cases of COVID seems to be levelling off at 5-6000 a day although the number of hospitalised cases and deaths is still falling slowly. The government keeps pushing the success of its vaccination programme to the exclusion of other more cautionary messages. The majority of the population is still not vaccinated which enables the spread of any new variant that might appear. The science says that emergence of a variant that can evade the vaccine is all too likely. This means that precautions will be needed even as lockdown is eased. The message of a chemistry lecture on aerosols I heard this week, is to avoid spending time in poorly ventilated rooms with more than a very small number of people, particularly anyone coughing or sneezing or shouting/singing loudly. Outside is good! Masks, any other than the very expensive filter types, help but are not perfect.

My greater anxieties are caused by the not unexpected policies of a government lead by Brexiteers. Are we now living in a fascist dictatorship? I wouldn’t go quite that far despite what some posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc say. We do have a PM who has a big enough majority to act like a dictator. He is displaying dictatorial traits in wanting to tart up his official home at huge expense, while indulging in a wildly expensive press briefing room and secret underground bunker with flags scattered all over the place. The Tories are taking every opportunity to weaken the national governments of Scotland and Wales and the national government is pursuing ever more right wing policies. For example, the latest police and crime bill makes it difficult to protest in public about anything. The COVID regulations have been used to do this in recent months but the new laws will maintain police control even when the pandemic is deemed to be over. The violent policing of the women’s vigil on behalf on the kidnapped and murdered Sarah Everard was evidence of that.

While the combination of Brexit and the lockdown continues to drag down the economy the government plans to spend huge sums on pointless nuclear weapons and shows of force in the Pacific. Meanwhile it reveals its “green” credentials to be fraudulent by cutting the grant for electric vehicles while supporting the oil companies by failing to increase fuel duties.

I could go on. Almost every item of news shows the government staggering into authoritarian, right wing, madness with no brake on their misuse of public funds and cronyism. Meanwhile their friends in the press present a picture that everything is wonderful and the future is rosy.

Returning to the Sarah Everard case and of violence against women in general. Someone put a good post on Facebook showing how women are always blamed for being sexually harassed, raped, attacked, murdered. They are responsible because of the way they dress or how they look or their behaviour, all of it leading the poor men astray and pushing them into acting in ways that can only be expected. Women are trained to be wary of being out alone, of walking the streets at night, to carry keys as defensive weapons, to make themselves look inconspicuous, to keep their phones in their hands, to be prepared for the worst. Men are not trained to control their base instincts if that is indeed what harassing and abusing women actually is. The proportion of women who have been harassed or abused is high. Is the proportion of men who are harassers or abusers equally high? Are we going to let this state of affairs continue? Probably.

Let’s have a fairytale. The theme for wiritng group this week was “Frog.” This resulted in pieces about Frenchmen and the spring appearance of thousands of frogs in ponds eager to reproduce and deposit frog spawn. I thought of princes and princesses. Here is my version of the Princess and the Frog.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess sat down on a rock beside the pond. She was feeling fed up but glad of a break from all her suitors. Everyday her father, the King, insisted she entertain them. She was young and beautiful, well, she thought she was.
She gazed across the pond and dangled her hand in the water. On a lily pad a short distance away sat a tiny frog. It was bright yellow with a red stripe down its back. The Princess thought it looked very pretty.
“Hello little frog,” she said, “Are you a handsome prince transformed into a frog by a wicked witch?”
“Ribbid,” said the frog. It hopped to a closer lily pad.
“Will you tell me that you love me and will look after me forever?” The Princess said.
“Ribbid,” said the frog and hopped even closer.
“If I take you in my hands and kiss you, will you turn into my Prince Charming?” she said and held out her hand to the little frog.
A fat, warty toad waddled up beside her. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” he said.
The startled Princess looked at the ugly toad.
“Why not?” she said.
“It’s a poisonous frog. You can tell by its bright colours. Touch your lips to its skin and you’ll be dead in moments.”
“Oh.” The Princess withdrew her hand and looked at the little frog with disappointment in her eyes. “Are you expecting me to kiss you,” she said to the toad.
“You can if you wish,” the toad said.
“You’re ugly,” she said, “But if you will turn into a Prince then it has to be done.” She rested her hand down on the grass beside the toad. It didn’t move.
“Oh, no, I won’t be doing any transformations, kiss or no kiss.” the toad said. “I’m just a toad.”
“A talking toad,” the Princess pointed out.
“Well, yes, there is that,” the toad admitted, “but that’s all. I don’t have any other magic.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.”
“Why did you want the frog to turn into a prince anyway?”
The Princess sighed. “I would like to marry a Prince who is young and handsome and thinks only of me, not like the dukes and earls who visit the palace to woo me. They are all so old and ugly and they bore me with their talk of prowess on the hunt or the battlefield. My father wants me to marry one of them. Finding a frog to kiss seems to be my only way out.”
“You will be searching for a long time, Princess,” the toad said, “There are no princes disguised as frogs.”
“Oh, dear,” said the Princess with a tear in her eye. “What am I to do?”
The toad thought for a moment then answered. “Well, you could do what the King wants and marry one of these rich men that seek your hand. If he is old perhaps he will die soon and leave you a free, rich widow. Or, you could tell your father that you will live your own life and marry when and if you find someone you want to spend your time with.”
The Princess frowned. “I like your second option, but my father will not.”
“Does he love you?”
“He says he does.”
“Is he a good King, slow to anger, who strives for the happiness of his subjects.”
“Usually.”
“Then maybe, he will let you be yourself.”
“Hmm,” said the Princess. “It’s worth a try.” She took out her handkerchief dropped it over the little frog, picked it up and tucked it back in the pocket.
“Why did you do that?” the toad asked.
“You said the frog is poisonous.” She replied.
“Yes, that’s correct. The skin exudes a deadly toxin.”
“Well, then,” The Princess said, “If my father doesn’t let me have my way, I’ll just have to kill him and then I will be Queen.” She scooped up the toad and popped him in another pocket.
“Hey, what are you doing,” cried the toad.
“You never know when a talking toad may come in useful,” the Princess said, getting to her feet and skipping back to the palace.

………………………………

Release!

At the time of writing the new Welsh lockdown regulations are being announced. After nearly three months we are being allowed some degrees of freedom. I can’t complain about lockdown as, being retired, there have been few worries. Keeping away from people has kept us healthy and next week I will have the booster vaccination. I do not want us to come out of lockdown so fast that the virus merely spreads amongst the unvaccinated. Even those who have had one or both inoculations still have a risk of falling ill though it is greatly reduced.

A certain PM says that we will see no return to lockdown after the summer. He can’t be certain about that and as usual he is building up hopes with no foundation. Only if a very large majority of the population is vaccinated quickly and lockdown eased slowly, can we ensure that there is a no supply of virus lurking to restart the epidemic in the autumn or winter. With the likelihood of further variants the whole population will have to be revaccinated every year for some considerable time. Eventually, the virus will become like flu which only seriously threatens the elderly and vulnerable. Vaccination can then be limited to them. Until then the costs and the risks will remain high.

Nevertheless the relaxation of the regulations provides a sense of release. For a few weeks I have been feeling a strong desire to pay tennis again, to visit some places not accessible by walking from our front door, and to meet up with one or two people for a sit and a chat. It seems that that is now possible – and I can get my hair cut and styled. Let us hope that these changes don’t cause a rise in cases of COVID.

There is an article about Eddie Izzard in today’s Guardian. I have followed his career for decades and enjoy his stand-up performances. In fact it was only last week that his Force Majeure show was repeated on TV. It is one and half hours of continuous, stream of consciousness comedy which makes you smile, sometimes laugh and always think. Of course my interest in him was because he announced back in the 1980s that he was a transvestite. He does his solo shows in some form of mixed male-female attire, even if it is simply having his nails glossed. Back then I was coming to terms with my own transgender feelings though I kept them to myself. His acceptance of his dual nature was an inspiration and an example to me. Recently he announced casually that he preferred she/her as pronouns. Before he knew it he had been “transitioned” publicly. Now Eddie says she is transgender but still has male days and female days and is happy to slip back and for between the genders although she doesn’t rule out perhaps transitioning fully sometime. She actually sounds a little uncertain, not wanting to be pinned down about her gender. Unfortunately the media is still not happy with non-binary, gender-fluidity as an option. I think Eddie and I are similar. We want to be able to reveal and live our female sides while admitting that we are not one hundred percent women. I’d say, be who you want to be Eddie, and don’t let the media file you in a box whatever shape it may be.

Eddie also makes the point that transgender people and feminists should be allies not enemies. I agree wholeheartedly. We are all opposed to misogyny and stereotyping. I don’t understand why some feminist supporters see transpeople as a threat.

The topic for writing group this week was “Bread”. I didn’t spend time thinking up a story as I am trying to press on with the latest novel. Nevertheless some thoughts about bread turned into the short piece below.

The Best Thing Since

Wonderloaf, Sunblest and Mothers’ Pride were the loaves I grew up with. They were the popular, sliced loaves that came first in waxed paper wrappings and later polythene bags and produced by the Chorleywood Baking Process. This method was introduced in 1961 and manufactured bread in bulk, quickly using cheap ingredients. The bread remained moist and mould free for days on end and was pretty tasteless. We ate a lot of bread when I was growing up, particularly at teatime but also for packed lunches and breakfast toast. I recall that it filled you up but was merely the wrapper for the contents of the sandwich – jam, cheese, salad whatever. Bread wasn’t eaten for the joy of its flavour and texture. Chorleywood bread still accounts for 80% of bread sold in the UK and is probably a contributor to the obesity epidemic.
Being ready-sliced was a major selling point of these loaves. Slicing a loaf for a large family was quite a chore and ready-sliced was a convenience. Wives and mothers (it was usually the women) no longer had to eke out an expensive hand-made baked loaf and struggle to cut a pile of even slices. That was quite a skill as displayed by Ryan of Welsh comedy duo, Ryan and Ronnie, in their continuing sketch “Our House”. Dressed as Mam, Ryan would tuck a loaf under his left arm, brandish the bread knife in his right hand and slice off slivers of bread as thin as if cut in a microtome.
Though the convenience of sliced bread is evident why did it become “the best thing”? Are there no other inventions with greater significance? What about electric cookers, toasters, ready meals in a can and so on? The machines for slicing bread were invented in the USA in the 1920s and arrived in the UK, care of the Wonder Bread Co., in 1939. After that, any popular new invention might be “the best thing since sliced bread”. Sliced bread was in popular parlance, the peak of human invention. Colour television, personal computers and mobile phones apparently don’t make it, nor, sticking to dietary developments, do Pot Noodle, Ice Magic or microwave rice.
One question that has always got me wondering is what was the best thing before sliced bread? Perhaps it’s the wheel or maybe it is in fact, the loaf. Cereals like wheat, barley, oats and rye, have been the staple food for the civilisations of Europe, northern Asia and the Americas for thousands of years. Grains are not very palatable in their raw state. Even ground into flour they are not easy to digest. It helps if the flour is leavened with yeast or a rising agent such as baking powder and then cooked or rather, baked. The reactions that take place as the yeast breaks down some of the starch and then when the dough is heated to above 200oC, make the resulting product whether it is bread or cake, nourishing and delicious. A loaf baked by an artisan baker with just the merest smear of butter is a meal all of its own. The first raised loaves must have been hailed as the best thing by the peoples experiencing their smell, flavour and texture, pre-sliced or not.

………………………………

and another week passes

What has there been to excite or rile you in the last week? The weeks of lockdown seem to blur and pass without any significant events but something must be stirring the little grey cells. Maybe it was Wales’ stirring victory over England in the rugby last Saturday (we’ll gloss over the referee’s bizarre judgements which gave Wales some impetus and flummoxed England) or Cardiff City’s (that’s football) surprising rise under Mick McCarthy, or maybe the England and Wales cricket team’s struggles in India. Yes, it is England and Wales. The controlling body of cricket in England and Wales is the England and Wales Cricket Board. It usually gets abbreviated to ECB and the Wales gets left off whenever the team is mentioned. That was just the same when there were Welsh players in the side such as Tony Lewis, Simon Jones, Robert Croft. Wales doesn’t have its own representation in world cricket, as do Scotland and Ireland, so its is annoying when the “Wales” gets left out. There, grumble over.

Of course, the supposedly big event of the week was Dishy Rishi’s Budget. It wasn’t, mainly because he’d leaked all the important news first. I admit I haven’t read it in detail but it’s main objectives seem to be to perpetuate Tory government. So, the expected continuation of Covid alleviation measures – hardly a surprise when we’re still in lockdown. Then there was the promise of more tax in the future, which will effect the low paid proportionately more than the well-off; The most blatant? Help for towns directed mainly to Tory-held seats especially those new ones in the north. Yes they do need help but so do many Labour-held areas. I was surprised that pensioners weren’t a target. With our guaranteed incomes we have been least affected, financially, by the lockdown and with inflation officially between 0 and 1%, I thought the 2.5% automatic rise might go. But it hasn’t, proving how reliant the Tories are on the grey, or rather, silver haired vote. There was little to spur the “green revolution” and a lot to hold it back (no increase in fuel duty, no help for community renewable energy projects). There were apparently a number of disguised and dishonest announcements. For example the “freeports” (I’m not totally sure what good they do) hailed as a nose-thumbing to the EU, except (thanks to John Crace for this) we already had all but one of them when we were in the EU, and then there are the hidden cuts to the NHS – the government hasn’t learned anything from the pandemic. So nothing to jump up and down with glee about.

I’ve got on with a fair bit of writing associated work this week. First I’ve been polishing up a few competition pieces. Well, a bit of oily rag work rather than the full french polish. It has also been a week with two group meetings for which I had two themes to write to. Now I have a choice, which do I post here, bearing in mind that if I do I can’t use the pieces for competitions elsewhere. Actually, I don’t think it is a problem because both pieces turned out to be excerpts of some larger work that I haven’t planned or even thought of. It’s a bit of a problem I’m having of not being able to fit a beginning, middle and end into 500-1000 words. A decent short story is an art-form. I get these broad ideas and then focus down onto a few frames. However, I don’t think I will pursue either of the ideas as one is an historical seafaring saga (I don’t know much about old boats) and the other is a Chandler-esque rough gumshoe tale (not my usual style). Perhaps I’ll put both up here eventually. Let’s go with the latter. The prompt was a Chinese fortune cookie saying “your life is in danger”.

Fortune Cookie

It was mid-afternoon by the time we rocked up in the two-bit town. The Studebaker was wheezing and giving off steam. I told Bev it needed some attention. I found a lockup off the main drag. The Joe said he could fix the problem, but it would take a few hours. Bev and I were feeling peckish; breakfast was a long time ago and we’d driven cross half the state. The guy recommended a Chinese joint a couple of blocks down the main street. While he stuck his head under the hood, I took the small case from the trunk. I gave Bev her coat to put on over her attractive but skimpy, silk dress. The streets were dry and dusty, but cloud was building and there was a dampness in the air. I reckoned it would be raining before the car was fixed.
Bev slipped her slim arm in mine and we sauntered down the street looking like a couple that had just stopped by to stretch our legs. The restaurant was open but empty. That suited me. An ancient Chinese silently showed us to a table at the back of the room. We were out of sight from the boardwalk, but I had a good view of the doorway and the cars that cruised past. The menu ran to four pages but the old guy waved his hands indicating everything was off except the chop suey. We ordered that. It was edible.
We ate in almost total silence. Bev was deep in her own thoughts and since I knew nothing about her there was little to chat about. I wasn’t even sure who she was. After all, with a name like Hills who would call their daughter Beverly. After he’d taken the dishes away the waiter came out with fortune cookies for both of us. He bowed and placed them on the table. Bev bit into hers and pulled out the slip of paper. She gazed at it.
“What does it say?” I asked to be conversational. The mottos in cookies don’t usually interest me.
She read, “Always carry a raincoat. You never know when it might rain.”
I nodded in agreement, “Sensible. Be prepared.”
“You were,” Bev replied, tapping the sleeve of her coat. A patter on the windows indicated my forecast of rain had been correct. A Cadillac drifted slowly past with its wipers going. “What about yours?” she added.
I broke the cookie in half and extracted the strip. I read it and frowned.
“What is it?” Bev asked.
“It says, ‘Your life is in danger’.”
Bev cocked her head to the side. “That’s a strange one. Does it mean that we all die some day?”
I noticed the Cadillac returning. Its rear window was open.
“Down!” I cried, diving to my left, grabbing Bev’s hand as I went, pulling her from her chair. We were on the floor when the front window shattered. Shots hammered into the wall behind where I’d sat.
“Kitchen,” I ordered, “Keep your head down.” Bev crawled away, her stockings laddering on the wooden floor. I grabbed the case and followed as the Thompson spat out another line of bullets, lower than the first.
I got to my feet in the kitchen. Bev was standing, shock freezing her expression.
“Quick, out the back. There must be a back.” I pushed her forward.
There was no sign of the old Chinese waiter or any cooks. The kitchen was tiny, and we were out in the yard in a moment. There was a lane parallel to the road. I pushed Bev to the left, the opposite way to which the Caddy was headed. We weren’t moving towards where the car waited though.
Bev dragged at me, but I kept hold of her wrist and pulled her along at a fast pace through the pouring rain. We turned this way and that until we were a hundred yards from the main street in what passed for a suburb in this one-horse town.
“Stop!” Bev gasped. “I need to breathe.” Her blonde bob was sodden and flat.
I stepped onto a lawned garden and tugged her down behind a bush, rain drops dripping from the branches and leaves. At least we were out of sight of the road. There weren’t any locals about to observe our strange behaviour. Bev panted. I sucked in air and listened for car engines or footsteps over the patter of the rain.
“Well, the fortune cookies were accurate,” Bev said. She seemed to be recovering some of her poise
“Yeah, and that presents us with a problem,” I replied.
“What’s that?”
“We can’t pick the car up.”
“Why not?”
“’Cos our friendly car repair guy obviously told our friends where we were eating.”
“Oh, of course. What are we going to do?” Bev said. Her lip trembled. There were tears on her cheeks, but they could just have been rain drops.
I gave her smile for encouragement. “Don’t worry kid. I’ll think of somethin’.”

…………………………….

Spring?

It was lovely to see the Sun for a few days this week. The previous weeks have been either icy with a bitter wind, or wet and dull. To have a bright blue sky and not feel cold and to hear the birds singing and to see daffodils bursting into flower, well, that truly has been a joy. It does, however, make the continuing lockdown a bit of a struggle. We would like to see family and friends. While it is a pleasure to take walks from home but we do look forward to being able to go slightly further away, to the coast perhaps or to the hills. Anywhere, actually, that the majority of people won’t be heading towards.

I’m not sure I get this amazing optimism about the wonderful summer we’re going to have. Overseas travel, I am certain, will still be severely restricted. People will be holidaying in the UK so popular spots will be crowded with holiday home owners and hotels trying to make up for lost revenues. There will still be a need to take precautions against COVID – not everyone will be vaccinated and there will still be vulnerable people around. The NHS will be in recovery, staff exhausted and all those delayed treatments to make up. Many businesses, particularly small independent retailers, pubs and restaurants, will not have survived with Brexit causing even more problems. I hope we have a summer we can enjoy, with the worst of the pandemic behind us, but let us hope we have learned some lessons.

What to make of the Scottish fiasco? No, I don’t mean the postponement of the Scotland-France rugby match, I mean the Salmond/Surgeon battle. The opposition in the Scottish parliament, particularly the Conservatives must be, indeed are, rubbing their hands with glee. When independence was more popular than ever and the SNP seemed headed for a another landslide, you have the current and former leader accusing each other of lying and conspiracy in the air. For two politicians for whom Scottish independence was apparently their life’s greatest desire, the bitterness and the consequences of their falling out is extraordinary. Nevertheless, there are other issues: what of the women who originally made the accusations against Salmond, accusations which were dismissed by the court that acquitted Salmond? How can accusers and the accused be treated with justice and dignity particularly when one or the other is a public figure? Were procedures followed correctly? Is independence more important to Salmond and Sturgeon than their own careers or feelings (it doesn’t seem like it)?

I used to be in favour of a federal United Kingdom i.e. each nation of the union managing its own affairs with the UK government coordinating matters and looking after foreign affairs. Increasingly though I want as little to do with the Westminster government as possible, certainly while it’s run by the grubby, dim, right-wing bigots of the Tory party. Wales and Scotland have small populations compared to England and we need more cooperation between nations not less to deal with the vast problems facing the Earth, but I am coming round more and more to the feeling that small is beautiful.

Another memory of the Arctic this time last year.

This week’s theme for the writing group was “licking the spoon of life”. It seemed a lovely idea but with working on other writing projects and general lockdown lethargy, I couldn’t get round to giving it much thought. One idea stuck in my head which I went ahead with but I’m not happy with the overall structure – I don’t think it works as a story. Nevertheless, here is Silver Spoon.

Silver Spoon

The birth of the Honourable William Arthur Henry George Featherstonehaugh du Boit was greeted with joy by the great families with daughters across the land and reported in the broadsheets. The Earl took one cursory look at his first born, pronounced him fit to be the heir and passed him into the hands of the wet nurse. He spent his infant years in the care of nursery nurses working shifts, then in the not so tender hands of a succession of governesses. At the age of seven the Earl’s number two carriage took him to boarding school. After an initial period of beatings and abuse he quickly learned how to bully, cheat and bribe his way to the top of the class. He completed school as Head Boy, Captain of Cricket and with a host of prizes never having excelled in anything, performed on the pitch or revealed leadership qualities. Of course, he gained a place at Oxford where he majored in hunting, shooting and fishing with most of his effort spent smoking, drinking, gambling, whoreing, beating servants and general disorderly behaviour.
At the age of twenty-one he graduated and came into his majority. His father promptly died and he returned to the ancestral estates to take over the earldom. At his father’s funeral he did not shed a tear as he knew nothing of the man, nor did he comfort his weeping mother as she had never held him in his life. He packed her off to one of their smaller estates on the far side of the country. He resumed his life of debauchery, bedding many of the eligible spinsters until he found one who he felt he could bear to look at for more than one day and who had inherited almost as much as himself. Their union was the wedding of the century but by the time his wife was safely in child he was bored. He returned to his coterie of friends and hangers-on who drank his wine, smoked his cigars, slapped the maids’ bottoms and lounged on his gilded chairs.
They joked. “The Earl was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
“Silver? More like a golden one.”
“Definitely not gilt or he would have licked off the gold by now.”
One day, he wandered alone in the gardens followed by a single servant encumbered with hamper, folding chair, shot gun and other items he might have need of. A bird fluttered above his head. He looked up. A dollop of dropping splattered on his forehead. He raged and demanded the servant wipe it off, then marched into his steward’s office.
“I want no birds on my estates,” he demanded.
“No birds?” the steward muttered. He trembled as he knew no employee was safe in the face of the earl’s anger.
“No, not one. I am not giving another the opportunity to shit on me. See to it.”
The armoury was opened up and the Earl, his friends, the servants, and the tenant farmers embarked on an avian killing spree. The estate was filled with the sound of gunfire. The birds rose into the air. Many were killed but most flew away.
The day after, the estate was quiet. Not a single bird fluttered in the branches of the trees, there was no twittering or cries in the bushes. Taking a walk through the silent woods the Earl paused. Surely he could hear something, a faint chirruping. He located the source of the sound beneath a shrub. There he found a tiny fledgling sparrow. He picked it up. The little bird nestled in his hand its beak open, demanding food. He carried it back to the house and entered the kitchen. He spoke to the cook.
“This chick needs to eat. Feed it.”
The cook looked at the bird with distaste. “Why, Sir? Yesterday you demanded that all birds be killed.”
“That was yesterday. This is today.” He placed the bird on a table. “Today I desire you to ensure this bird lives.”
The cook took a silver sugar spoon, the smallest she could find, and fed the little bird with porridge. The Earl watched as the bird swallowed and appealed for more.
“Greedy, little thing isn’t it?” he commented.
“Is it greed to want a full stomach?” The cook said, immediately regretting her boldness.
The Earl appeared not to notice her indiscretion but seemed to be lost in thought. “Is that all that is needed to satisfy such a creature?” he mused, “Yet what satisfies me? I find no lasting happiness in any pleasure. I have licked the silver spoon I was born with all my life and not reached that happy state.”
He trudged from the kitchen, head bowed and full of sadness.

…………………….

Icy memories

The coming week is the anniversary or our trip to northern Finland, beyond the Arctic circle. It was a four day one-off attempt to see the Northern Lights and was memorable in many different ways. It is even more special to us now in the light of everything that has happened since.

The Davi Arctic Lodge Hotel at sunset.

It was only a week or so after Storm Dennis that we set off for Bristol Airport. There was still lots of standing water everywhere but we hadn’t been affected. We were excited about our “expedition” but no hardship was involved. The flight and coach drive were comfortable and on time, the hotel was cosily warm, the food good, the staff helpful and friendly, and our fellow guests were pleasant and cheerful (and exclusively British). We hadn’t been on a package holiday with three meals a day and activities organised for us before but it was appropriate for this trip. While the hotel itself was warm, outside the temperature varied between -9 and -22oC which could have been deadly if we were not protected and guided. The hotel provided thermal suits and boots that certainly did their job. Being the end of February and still about a thousand miles from the North Pole we did have daylight for about 10 hours a day. During our three and half days days we went snow-shoe hiking, tobogganing, had a sleigh ride drawn by reindeer and husky sledging. We also took ourselves walking across the frozen river and the Finnish-Swedish border to the small town of Karesuando.

Not the best picture of the aurora – I failed to get my camera to take decent photos.

The nights were for aurora spotting. We were lucky in that each night the sky was relatively clear but it wasn’t a period of peak activity. We didn’t see the curtains and waves that you see in the pictures and films but we did see the Northern Lights. At first they resembled the orange glow in the sky that you get near big cities, except there was no city or sizeable town for hundreds of miles. Then you noticed the glow shifting in the sky. We spent quite a few hours over the four nights watching the sky. One night we were taken on a snowmobile expedition along the frozen river to drink glogi and watch the stars and the lights. Riding the snowmobiles at -22o was a painfully cold experience.

A snowmobile on the frozen river beneath the bridge linking Sweden and Finland

The standout memories were the quality of the snow, completely dry and powdery, and so cold that it couldn’t be squeezed into snowballs; the peace of the countryside covered in a uniform blanket of snow two foot thick, and the lack of people. There were perhaps a hundred in the hotel and we were on the edge of a small town which seemed almost deserted but apart from that there were hundreds of miles of sparse woodland in every direction. We flew back on a clear day where I watched the ground beneath our flightpath barely change in an hour and a half.

It was indeed a memorable trip, made more so by the aftermath. When we flew out, the coronavirus was already news, of course. It had hit Wuhan in China and the numbers of cases and deaths reported from Lombardy were astounding. Yet there was still a feeling, particularly in the government perhaps, that it couldn’t happen here. On our return flight we were accompanied by one of the young men who helped out with activities. He was off to Venice for his next job. Flights into Italy were stopped the next day so we wonder what happened to him. Did he get there and found himself in lockdown or was he stuck in the UK without a job?

Should we have gone to Finland? I don’t think there was any coronavirus at the hotel or on our flights. We didn’t catch it. Nevertheless, if the UK government had heeded what was happening elsewhere and stopped travel like other island nations did, then we may have had far fewer deaths and shorter lockdowns. It would have been disappointing to have missed our Arctic adventure but maybe things would be better now. But we did go and had the most wonderful time.

I’ve been writing a bit this week, pieces for the NAWG Members’ Competitions, which I cannot post. I did not do the writing club task which was to fit five random descriptions and characters into a piece, so this week I think I’ll take a break from inflicting my fiction on you and just let you enjoy the photos of our snowy excursion.

Our group on the hilltop enjoying glogi

February Blues

February is not high on my list of popular months. The weather is often cold or dreary or both, so even in pre-pandemic years there were few opportunities to get out and do things. The only thing it had going for it, when I was working anyway, was the half-term break. I can recall one year , when we had our first narrowboat, taking her out for a few days in the February vacation. That year the weather was fine. There were few other boats moving and we travelled through undisturbed canal water from which the sediment had settled. It was so unusual to be able to see through the water to the bottom. It was peaceful and idyllic.

This year we have the addition of the lockdown which has now lasted, in Wales for two months. A feeling of lethargy has settled over me. This week of course, it has been bitterly cold, so going out for a walk has not been the most pleasant experience. Nevertheless, I would have played tennis (dressed appropriately for the temperature) but that is denied to us. One can barely summon anger or derision at the pronouncements of government ministers or at the predictable strains and problems caused by Brexit and the trade agreement which certain people didn’t bother to read thoroughly.

There is certainly an urge for release and the ability to get out and meet friends and family. However, I fear it will not be soon. The vaccination programme is going well, thanks to the NHS and the suppliers but even after having the booster, vaccination isn’t the protective shield that some people think. The risk of carrying and nurturing the virus will be about one third of what it was without the vaccine, so people who have not had the vaccination will still be at risk. While the vaccinated will largely be protected from the serious illness there is still the possibility of mild symptoms. Mutations of the virus will find their way passed the protection of the vaccine so annual re-inoculation will be necessary. That is going to add billions to the costs to the NHS. Unfortunately, I can’t see foreign travel being available until most of the world is vaccinated and that won’t happen for years. I am even becoming doubtful that we will get to visit our German family this year.

We had to break the ice on the water trough when we did Lou’s twice-monthly, volunteer shepherd stint.. They were thirsty.

I see that that the Scottish National Party is suffering a split on its transgender policy. It had been intending to reform the Scottish version of the Gender Recognition Act in the same way that the UK parliament was considering for England and Wales. There had been movement towards allowing trans people to declare their own gender without medical intervention. However the SNP has been riven by the same dissent that caused the Conservative government to halt progress on the reform at Westminster. Some of the SNP are employing the same groundless arguments that the changes would threaten women. They also allow the opinions of a few people who have reversed their transition to override the wishes of the vast majority of transpeople. What is interesting is that it seems to be contributing to a major split in the SNP which is an amazing case of self-harm with independence so popular at the moment and elections looming.

I have been writing this week. In fact I have written two stories and started a third. I intend to enter them in a competition so that means I cannot post them here. That is a shame, but as appearance in a public blog constitutes publication in competition rules, then I must comply. Here instead is something I wrote earlier, quite a bit earlier in fact, several years ago. I thought it was appropriate as it is about St Valentine’s Day.

The one that got away

I was munching a piece of toast when the doorbell rang, enjoying a relaxed breakfast unlike the rush of a working day. I hurried to the door wrapping my dressing gown around me. The postman was smiling broadly when I opened the door. He held out a handful of small packages, considerably more than my usual delivery which was just as well as otherwise I would have to make arrangements to have my post collected.
“Happy Valentine’s,” he said, “someone’s popular.”
Taking the pile into my arms I felt somewhat lost for words. How should a woman of mature years react to receiving missives expressing love, and other desires, from a variety of men to whom one feels nothing at all? Oh, yes, this post was not unexpected and in no way gratifying.
I carried the post back to the kitchen and laid each item out on the table. Then I sat and stared at them. Would they be the same as last year? Probably. I suppose I could have just scooped them all up and dumped them in recycling, but I decided to open them, if only to separate the paper and cardboard from the other materials contained within.
The first I chose was a long cylinder. Inside was, as expected, a clear cellophane tube containing a single red rose. Despite the little vessel containing water that was clamped to the stem the rose was already past its best. The petals were curling, and the head drooped. I tore open the packaging and put the poor thing into a slim vase. It wouldn’t have long left to live which was just as well in the circumstances. There was a small card attached to the tube. It had the picture of a vast bunch of red roses on the front and inside a handwritten verse.
Roses are red,
Lilies are white,
Let’s go to bed,
Your place tonight?
“Not a chance,” I said out loud. The card and rose was from Derek. We had sat a few desks apart from each other for all the years I had worked in the office. I suppose some might say we were friends, but I would prefer, acquaintances. We chatted occasionally over a coffee but that was it. Derek was a similar age to me, that is, won’t see fifty again and looking at retirement approaching on the horizon. He was single and as far as I could tell had no interests whatsoever. His conversation revolved around the TV programmes he had watched the night before. That was the sum of our relationship and yet once a year, or perhaps twice if you count the occasion at the office Christmas party, the only time, we had one, Derek was suddenly filled with romantic lust or something that persuaded him to spend a few quid on a mass-produced flower that hadn’t had better days to see anything of.
The next parcel was rectangular and as predictable as the rose. It was a box of milk chocolates. I don’t like milk chocolate, never have, but it wasn’t surprising that Rupert in accounts didn’t know, because he never spoke. He was a tall thin man with greying hair flattened down by grease, either his own or some proprietary brand. Each day he passed through our office without saying a word, but occasionally our eyes would meet. I would greet him and he would nod, and hurry on. That brief but repeated encounter seemed to be sufficient for him to consider me his valentine and one true love. The card covered in hearts and the printed rhyme stated it clearly but words of his own there were none.
The third and last parcel was soft and rustled as I picked it up and squeezed it, not that I was unaware of the contents. I tore the brown paper off to reveal a set of lingerie; bra and knickers in red, lacy fabric although it had obviously been nowhere near the skilful fingers of lace makers. The panties wouldn’t have covered the embarrassment of a hamster or the bra restrained a couple of fried eggs. The label revealed that the garments were part of a value range of a certain supermarket. Whether they were intended to be worn or just intended as props to accompany the card, I don’t know. It would require an imagination of Hollywood epic proportions to envisage my aging form squeezed into such underwear but the fact that they were two sizes too small showed that my valentine had no imagination at all. He was Cecil, an overweight, overheated client who visited our office about once a month. It fell to me to comply with his many requests and deal with his frequent complaints. That chore finished but I must have been doing something to his satisfaction as he had selected me as the focus of his affections. How he’d ever be able to do anything with me or anyone else wearing the supposedly sexy “skimpies” that he bought every year was beyond me. He’d have a heart attack if he ever tried anything as energetic as intercourse.
Just as I was sorting the gifts and cards for the bins, I heard something else drop through the letter box. I went to pick up the envelope from the mat. It was very large and had only just fitted through the slot. There was no stamp showing that it had not passed through the hands of the Royal Mail. It had come from next door, delivered by my neighbour, Henry, a man of the most amazing scruffiness with hair emerging from ears and nostrils as well as sticking out at all angles from his head and face. Ever since he had moved in three years ago, he had looked on me as the solution to the problem of his bachelorhood. I had taken to hiding inside whenever he went out into his garden but luckily that was not very frequent as his small patch was turning into a wilderness. I had also feigned absence on the occasions when he came knocking.
I opened the envelope and extracted the huge card. The picture was quite simple – two horribly cute teddies in an embrace. Inside, above, below and across the mandatory saccharine verse, scrawled in letters as rough as if they’d been carved into a tree, were the words ‘to the woman of my dreams XXX’. The thought of being the subject of Henry’s dreams or fantasies made me feel sick and I tore the card up into tiny pieces and dropped them in the waste bin.
I hurried upstairs to get away from the debris left by my four valentines’ entreaties. My case was beside the bed, packed and ready. All I had to do was get dressed and await the taxi. Soon I would be leaving the February cold behind and jetting off to sun, sea and sand – and Tino, the sexy Spanish waiter who awaited me.

…………………………

Zooming marvelous?

It’s been an unusually busy week. OK, not busy compared to those with kids at home, or caring for someone in isolation or struggling to keep up with work from the kitchen table. Nevertheless, I have had a Zoom meeting every day. How would we have managed lockdown without Zoom (other video-conferencing apps are available)? Telephone conferencing wouldn’t have done it. I’ve tried it and it’s awful. Zooming (or whatever) has kept teachers in touch with students, employees in contact with their bosses and teams, and maintained rapport in groups of friends. But. . . It is getting tiresome. There are the slight delays which mean you talk over someone, the freezes, the weak links which make people look like pixelated cartoon characters and the feedback whine and noises off (usually dogs barking).

It’s probably at least a month till we see any real easing of lockdown but I wonder what will happen when “normal” life does resume. Will children really relish being back in the classroom and give more attention than before to their learning? Will workers decide to work from home rather than join the commute or will the temptation of office chat draw them back? Will people rush back to group activities like choirs or will lingering fears of infection dampen enthusiasm?

What my reading tells me is that it will be a long time if ever before we are rid of the worries of COVID. Even full vaccination every year will leave pockets of virus waiting to break out and infect the vulnerable. Nevertheless the deaths and the serious disease should be almost eliminated, eventually. We have to be patient and stick to the rules. Unlike Josh Adams who broke quarantine to host a gender-reveal party, of all things, and got suspended from the Welsh rugby team for two matches. I have to say – what a burke!

We did take a short journey from home, ostensibly to purchase some items from a farm shop. We used the opportunity to take a walk at a forested hilltop which we haven’t visited before. For a few hours it did really feel that spring was coming. Birds sang, brooks babbled, mud squelched and the air felt, well, not cold. The mists cleared to reveal distant views and the trees seemed poised to burst into leaf. Yes, a delightful walk, and we weren’t alone. We were surprised by the number of people also enjoying the walk and the views.

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 I have read it from cover to cover.  What can I say, except I thought it was brilliant.  The storylines get better with each book. MW

A few days ago I received the report and payment of sales of my Jasmine Frame books on Kindle for November. It was the month when I launched Impersonator. Well, launch is rather a grand term. It didn’t go like SpaceX’s Starship crash, in fact there was no explosion at all; more of the fizzle of a damp firework. But that’s marketing for you. I was hoping that by now I’d be able to get out and offer readings and signings and get a bit of publicity – any offers gratefully received. Nevertheless, there were some sales and the reviews and comments I’ve received have been very encouraging.

This week, writing group set a task rather than a theme – to write as a 12 year old. There are shelves and shelves of books written either in the first person or from the point of view of a kid, but how easy is it to get into a child’s head? The efforts of my fellow writers were very good. I thought that to try and be a bit different I would also put it in the present tense since kids live in the now. The piece that follows is not part of anything and I doubt whether I will use it as it stands. That is important because it looks as though I am going to have to consider carefully what I post. It has been decided that for the rules of entering competitions, prior publication, which disqualifies entry, includes posting on blogs and websites which are open to the public. Anyway, here is The Letter.

The Letter

There’s a special letter in the post this morning. I know it’s special ‘cos it’s in a brown envelope and Mummy didn’t throw it in the recycling bag straight away. Her hand is shaking as she tears it open. I think it means she’s nervous. She pulls out the letter, and reads it without saying anything to me, then her face goes all smiley. It’s good news then.
“What does the letter say, Mummy?” I want to know what’s in it but she carries on reading so I say, “Is it from my school?”
She looks at me with her happy face that I don’t see very often. “You can say, my school, now, Nat. They’ve accepted you. You have a place.”
I get a funny feeling in my tummy. I’m pleased but I’m nervous too. It’s the high school I wanted to go to. Not the one near our house where everyone from my primary school is going. It’s further away. Everything will be different, the teachers and the kids. No one will know me. That’s good but it’s a bit scary.
“They want us to go in to have a chat with the teacher,” Mummy says. “I’ll give them a ring and see if tomorrow is OK. Then we’ll have to get your uniform. There’s not long till the term begins.”
I wonder why the teacher wants to see me before school starts, but getting the uniform will be exciting.

I dress in my best summer dress. Well, it’s my only summer dress at the moment but Mummy says she’ll get me another one if she has any money left after we get my uniform. We get in the car and she drives us to my new school. I don’t know the way but I suppose I will soon. Mummy’s going to have to take me and pick me up very day ‘cos it’s too far to walk and there isn’t a school bus from where we live.
There are automatic doors at the front. Just inside there’s a lady who tells us to wait a moment. She speaks into a phone. I sit on a chair next to Mummy and look around at the big open space. It’s empty now but I try to imagine what it will be like filled with kids. That makes me feel a bit wobbly.
The lady tells us to go somewhere else. Another lady is standing by a door. She says her name is Mrs Hargreaves. I thought she was the headteacher but she looks at Mummy and says, “I’m the Year 7 Leader, Mrs. Thomas.” Then she looks down at me and says, “and you’re Natalie. Welcome to Greenhill High.” She smiles.
Mummy looks at me. “That’s nice isn’t it, Nat?” I nod but can’t think of anything to say.
We sit on two chairs in front of Mrs Hargreaves’ desk and she sits down and faces us. She looks down at a sheet of paper, then looks at me again.
“We hope you will be happy here, Natalie. We’ve got a bit of experience of looking after students like you, but if you have any questions or things you’re not sure about, just knock on my door and come in for a chat.”
Students like me? Perhaps there are others. I know I’m not the only one who’s ever felt like I do.
She’s going on. “Mr Edwards will be your form teacher, and you can speak to him any time too.”
Mummy coughs and speaks. “Will Mr Edwards know about Nat?”
Mrs Hargreaves frowns. “Yes, all the staff will be informed about the situation with Natalie.”
A big lump forms in my tummy. “The other kids won’t know, will they?”
A smile forms on Mrs Hargreaves face but her eyes are still frowning. “No, Natalie. The teachers need to be aware of your, er, special circumstances, but there is no need to reveal anything to the students. If you want to tell them about yourself, well that is up to you.”
No, I won’t do that. The point of starting a new school is so that I can be me. I don’t want anyone knowing about Jake.
Mrs Hargreaves is talking again. “We’ll go for a quick tour of the school now, Natalie, so you will know your way around a bit next week when we start. I’ll show you the places you need to know about.”
“Such as the loos?” Mummy says, “You will let Nat use the girls’ toilets won’t you.”
Mrs Hargreaves, nods. “Yes, that has been agreed. Actually, we have a whole lot of non-gendered lavatories near the Sports Hall. Perhaps Natalie will feel happier using those. Now before we go, here is the uniform list.” She hands Mummy a sheet of paper with printing on it. Mrs Hargreaves carries on talking while Mummy reads it. “Girls may wear the skirt or the trousers.”
I blurt out “Do many girls wear skirts?”
Mrs Hargreaves nods. “Most of them, I think.”
I look at Mummy. “I would like a skirt, Mummy, to be like the other girls.”
Mummy gives me her sad smile, “Of course, Nat. I thought that’s what you would want.” She looks at Mrs Hargreaves. “It says here that Nat will need a swimming costume.”
The lady frowns. “That’s right. All the Year seven students have a swimming lesson once a week. It starts in week two. Is there a problem?”
Mummy looks at me. I haven’t been to a swimming pool since I was very little. I’m not even sure if I really remember it. We’ve been to the beach in the summer and I’ve been in the sea, but I’ve never had a proper swimming costume. Not a girl’s one.
Mummy is frowning when she answers. “There shouldn’t be. We will have to get a costume that fits Nat, er, properly. What are the changing arrangements?”
Mrs Hargreaves’ face suddenly goes pink. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Let me think. Oh yes. The pool we’re using this year has separate cubicles for each swimmer. Will that be alright?”
Mummy looks at me. I give her a nod. I’ll be comfortable changing in my own cubicle where no one can see me undressed.
“I think so, Mrs Hargreaves. I’ll get in touch with you if Nat has any problems.”
I think I hear Mrs Hargreaves let out a breath as if she’d been holding it. She gives me another of those half smiles. “Very good. Well, shall we go for that tour. We are so much looking forward to having Natalie in the school.”
I’m not sure that she means that.

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The endless experience of being in lockdown

After another week in lockdown, what is there to write about? Some pleasant but unspectacular walks, a few brief shopping trips, a couple of short (essential) journeys in the new car (for more about the EV go to Driving EVe – Our experiences with our new electric car (wordpress.com). We’re still fit (touch wood), nothing to grumble about. Well, there is of course. 100,000+ dead (and still rising at over 1,000 a day) and Johnson “taking responsibility” but won’t acknowledge any mistakes his government has made or any explanations for why we have the highest rate of fatalities. Yet, he can still go off on his photo-op jaunts, Scotland this time. Why can’t he stay home like the rest of us. Are any of his trips essential? I don’t think so.

People wonder how long the lockdown will last. Don’t we all, but businesses demand to know when the restrictions will be relaxed. They want a roadmap to a grand re-opening. Don’t they realise that we are in terra incognita. There is no route. A pandemic of this magnitude has not been traversed before by modern society (things were a bit different in 1918-19). When we come out of it depends on various things happening. First of all, it requires everyone to follow the rules and keep apart. Then it depends on the hospitalisation and death rates coming down so that the NHS can cope. The current vaccination programme will only help in the medium term (i.e. 6 months +) and will require the whole world’s population being vaccinated to stop pockets of virus hanging about and re-erupting when everyone’s immunity dips. But I do understand that the longer the lockdown persists, the more jobs will be lost and the more people will sink into poverty and the more children and young people will suffer.

Then there’s the spat with the EU about vaccines. I don’t know what the contracts made with the vaccine companies say in the small print, but I seem to recall that the total number of doses the UK ordered could vaccinate the population three or four times over. So there should be plenty spare to hand out elsewhere. And of course we haven’t exactly made ourselves popular with the EU, we’re independent remember, so they can do whatever they like.

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To writing. This week I have two writing group meetings, each of which had a theme set. To save time (and creativity) I decided to write one piece to cover both themes. The result is below, a little longer than my usual weekly effort. I can’t claim that it is a marvellously original story but I think it works. Can you guess what the two themes were?

Many Waters

Love is as strong as death, passion cruel as the grave, it blazes up like a blazing fire, fiercer than any flame. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep It away.
Song of Songs 8, vi/vii

There were tears, of course there were. Mine flowed first, then hers. Some were tears of frustration, some of sadness but most were of joy. Some may have called my love a crush or childish infatuation, but I knew it was more than that, and so it proved.

It began the moment I saw her for the first time. Maybe it was the novelty of a new character in the class, as the rest of us had been together since infants’ school. It was the end of September when she joined us, but she was immediately the class star. She was tall with night-black hair that cascaded over her shoulders and skin as white as snow. Although the same age as the rest of us, she was already showing curves where most of the girls didn’t. It wasn’t just her looks, oh no. She was bright, effortlessly taking the top place in class tests, athletic, and an actor like a Hollywood star, who played versions of herself, impeccably. She radiated charm and cheerfulness that disarmed any who might have been jealous of her talents.
From the start, she gathered a team of acolytes that basked in her glow like moths around a lamp. I wasn’t one of them of course, not being a member of the in crowd. I watched from a distance, from behind my schoolbooks, over my shoulder. I felt drawn to her, a hole in my chest which she could fill if only I could approach her and inform her of my love. It didn’t happen and I wept on my pillow with frustration. It was silly; how could she love me if she knew nothing of me, was barely aware of my existence.
It was a couple of days before the autumn half-term that we first spoke to each other. I had stayed on for an hour to get some homework done; there was rarely peace to work in my crowded household. I came into the cloakroom and she was sitting there, alone, her head in her hands, sobbing. I sat beside her and reached out an arm to hold her shoulders. She looked up at me with red eyes in that white face.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. It could have been said with disappointment, but it wasn’t.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
She sniffed, and wiped tears from her cheek. “Oh, I’m being stupid. It’s just got to me, I suppose.”
“What has?”
“Being alone.”
“Alone? But you’ve always got your friends around you.”
She let out an ironic laugh. “Friends? I don’t know them. They follow me everywhere, taking bits of me but I wouldn’t call them friends.” I hadn’t considered how being surrounded by people could still leave you feeling lonely.
“What about your family?” I asked, wondering why she hadn’t just gone home to get away from her disciples.
She shrugged. “He’s gone again. My father. It’s always the same. We move to a new area, and then he gets sent away somewhere. My mother’s not much company.”
“No brothers or sisters?”
She shook her head. I had always lived in the same place with brothers and sisters and parents who were always there. I could barely imagine what it must be like to be dumped in a new home, new school, with new problems to tackle.
“Well, you can’t stay here. They’ll be locking the school shortly. I’ll walk with you if you like.” She agreed and we set off along a narrow lane beside the river.
“You don’t have to come to the house with me if it’s out of your way,” she said.
“It’s no trouble,” I said, even though we were walking in the opposite direction to my home. “Perhaps you’d like to talk. Tell me what you think of the place, school and things.”
She gave me that smile then, which made my heart flutter and my stomach do somersaults.
“That’ll be nice, and you can tell me about yourself.”
That’s what we did. In fact, I suppose I did most of the talking. I went on about my family, and what it was like living your whole life in a small town, going to school with the same kids from the age of five. She laughed and joked and took hold of my arm.
Eventually, we reached the house her father was renting, a big Victorian pile, on the riverbank. We paused at the entrance.
“Thank you,” she said, “it was nice to chat to you.”
“Are you feeling OK.” I lapped up her gratitude.
“A lot better.”
“Good, well I’ll see you in school, tomorrow.”
“Yes.” She gave me that broad, ice-melting smile, and turned to go into the house.

Next day she was apparently back to normal, surrounded by her usual cloud of admirers. I didn’t get a chance to speak to her, but at the end of the afternoon when the half-term holiday had begun and everyone else had gone, I found her alone again in the cloakroom. She wasn’t crying this time.
“Hi,” she said. There was that smile that I would do anything to see. “I thought if you were going my way we could walk together.” I hadn’t got round to telling her where my home was and I wasn’t going to now, not if she was asking for my company.
The walk was a joy. We chatted about all sorts of inconsequential matters but as we approached the big grey house, she turned quiet.
“A week’s holiday,” she said, with a sigh.
“Mmm, yes,” I replied. A week in our small house filled with my younger siblings.
“It’s going to be pretty quiet here, on my own. Would you like to come over?”
Would I? I agreed eagerly, and we arranged a time for Monday morning.

I had never been so happy as that week with her. We talked, we played games, we cooked lunch, we walked along the river in the rain, and we lay on the bed in her bedroom. The first kiss was like an electric shock. I felt almost paralysed as our lips met. Then our fingers were touching, caressing, searching. Love for her burned in me like a blast furnace. Leaving her each evening when her mother returned was a wrench but walking home, through yet another downpour, cooled my ardour and anyway there was always the next day. Except, the end of the week arrived and the next day was a school day.
I had thought that things had changed, that we were now a couple, united in love. It wasn’t like that. I arrived at school to find her again surrounded by her worshippers. I couldn’t get close and neither did she seem to want to escape their clutches. The disappointment weighed heavily. At the end of the day, I trudged home through the wet streets confused and bitter. Was I just a pastime for the holiday?

She wasn’t in school the next day. Like me, her fans seemed disconcerted without her to fawn over. Her physical absence just made the spiritual hole in me more acute. By the end of the day the need to see her had grown so strong I could think of nothing else. I decided I would go and find out what had happened. Perhaps she was ill, perhaps she was lovesick. I set off up the road along the river. It was getting dark at this time now that the clocks had changed. Her home was still a few hundred yards further on when I saw that there was water across the road. I should have turned around and headed home; I wasn’t wearing wellingtons. It was silly to go on, but I did. My mother would have killed me if I’d got my school shoes sodden, so I pulled them off, and my socks. I waded on.
Fifty metres further and the water was up to my knees and I could feel the current from the river tugging on me. Should I turn back? That would have been the wise thing to do, but in the fading light it looked as though the flood ended a few metres ahead. I took another step. My foot descended into a pothole, and I toppled full length into the water. I gulped a mouthful as my head went under. I came up on my hands and knees, coughing and spluttering and drenched. I lurched to my feet and staggered on to the dry patch of road, right outside her house.
She answered my frantic stabbing of the doorbell.
“What are you doing here? Oh, what’s happened to you?”
She drew me in, shouted to her mother who was somewhere in the depths of the house then pushed me up the stairs to her bedroom leaving a trail of drips. She tugged the clothes off me and. . . well, that was it. She gave me a huge fluffy towel to wrap around me and dashed downstairs to get a hot cup of tea.
We lay on the bed, side by side, arms around each other as I explained my silly expedition. Of course, the reason she didn’t come to school was because the road was flooded. She wanted to know why I hadn’t hung around after school the previous evening and complained that her so-called friends just had not leave her be all day. We talked.

After the optimism, what?

This has been a week of relief and optimism for many in the USA and elsewhere. I was one of them. I am relieved that the transfer of power happened peacefully (in the end) and that the narcissistic megalomaniac is not in control anymore. That in itself gives me some optimism for the USA. I don’t think Biden will enact stupid policies designed to stir up hate and chaos. On the other hand I don’t think his term of office will change much. There are still an awful lot of people in the States who, incredibly, thought Trump was a hero and a genius, and who want what he apparently wanted. There are huge problems facing Biden, America and the rest of the world which, given human nature, may be insoluble.

The last five years of Trump and Brexit and Johnson (to say nothing of Orban, Bolsonaro, Modi et al) have in many ways been disastrous for democracy and sensible government. Whereas, in the past, the two sides of political opinion respected each other and accepted victory and defeat with magnanimity now there is hate and discord. I feel it myself. I have been interested in politics all my life, supported the Liberal Party, the LibDems, and the Green Party and dabbled in elections. I never expected my parties to win a majority but I always hoped they would have enough influence to get some of their policies adopted. I saw Labour and Conservative members as rivals but not outright enemies. I even admired some members of the various governments I have lived through although not always throughout their terms of office or in everything they did or said. Now though, I am suspicious of anyone who is unmasked as a Tory. Are they a Brexiteer, do they want to destroy the NHS/the unions/left-of-centre councils, do they have bigotted views of minorities such as transgendered people? An answer of yes to any of those questions means I really don’t want to know them or I am suspicious of their motives and behaviour. As for Labour supporters, well they seem to be more concerned with the infighting in the party between the leftists (Corbynistas) and the centrists (Starmer’s lot) than doing anything to oppose the incompetent, rabid lot in power. I see no-one in the Tory party and few in Labour who I think have the character, skills and motivation to tackle the problems that face us. The future will be difficult with the ongoing struggle with COVID (vaccination isn’t the end of the story), the economic aftermath of the pandemic, the folly of Brexit, and the continuing and growing climate disaster.

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Following our purchase of an electric vehicle last week we are now writing an occasional blog, called Driving EVe, describing our experiences. To read about the joys and tribulations of ownership of an MG5EV go to https://drivingeve.wordpress.com

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Back to Zooming writing club this week. In my absence they chose the theme “We All Hate Ian.” Who Ian was I have no idea but I have some sympathy for the bloke going by the feelings for him presented in various stories. By all accounts, though he was a nasty bit of work. I decided to take a different slant on the title, so here is my little SF story, IAN.

IAN

“Come on, Jaxx, your breakfast is ready.”
I sprinted down the stairs in response to Mum’s call and skidded into the kitchen as she lifted a plate out of the printer. It looked like bacon and eggs and perhaps it tasted of bacon and eggs, but I couldn’t tell because I’ve never eaten bacon and eggs made from anything other than mycoprotein. I didn’t care, I was hungry and that was all that mattered. As I sat down at the table, my father looked up from the misty figures dancing over his slate.
“Oh, Jaxx, you’ve made it. There’s a notification for you.” He pushed the slate towards me. I was surprised by the grave expression on his face. As the display came into my viewpoint, a column of flashing red and yellow leapt up in front of me. It was indeed a notification for me. The Notification. Standing out from the column were the bright silver letters that I had been dreading. I. A. N.
“Er, it’s my Ian,” I said feeling my voice wobble.
Mum looked sad. “Yes, I know love. We all hate Ian time, but you knew it was coming.”
I nodded and wiggled my fingers in the column. At least that stopped the garish flashing lights. It was replaced by an instruction in bold black letters. I looked away.
“I don’t want to read it,” I said.
“You have to,” Father growled, “and do what it says. If you don’t you know what happens.”
Mum came to my side and put an arm around my shoulder. “Everybody gets one, my love. If you don’t follow yours, then well, you can’t be a person.”
I shivered. The thought of being a non-person was too shocking, too nightmarish to contemplate.
“But what if I’m not accredited,” I said.
Mum glanced at Dad then back at me. “There’s no need to worry about that, Jaxx. Of course you’ll get your Identity Accreditation.”
“But not everyone does,” I whined, “I saw someone last week, who got their Ian but was rejected. They became a non-person.”
Dad made a funny noise in his throat, apparently to get my attention. “Now Jaxx, there is no point worrying yourself silly about those stories you see on the slate. I don’t know why they’re allowed to be posted. It’s why everyone hates getting their Ian, thinking that they will be the one who is rejected. You will not have any trouble getting your I.A. Now eat your breakfast and then get yourself down to the clinic.”
I sat down and forked a piece of myco-bacon into my mouth. It had even less taste than usual. Despite Mum and Dad’s urgings, I was worried and I knew that they were too, although they were putting a brave face on it. Everyone knew how important getting your Ian was. Accreditation was the ticket to citizenship, education, a career, a life. Non-persons just got plugged into the civic server. I didn’t want to spend my whole life as a civil servant. No hope, no life, no identity.
I didn’t have a choice, of course. If I didn’t respond to the notification the identity police would come for me. I would still end up in the clinic having the tests – the genome test to read my DNA, the blood test for checking my hormone and antibody levels, the microbiome test to get an inventory of all the microbes in my gut and the connectome test to map the neurones in my brain. Each contributed to my identity. If I passed them all then I would be accredited and I was free to be a person. There was one not so small problem. I wasn’t who everyone thought I was. I knew I was different.

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Lockdown thoughts and an EV

I have been feeling particularly privileged this week despite the lockdown and rather dreary weather (though thankfully no snow). As a retired person I can get on with the things I want to do (other than playing tennis or visiting places and people) with little cause to worry about the lockdown or the dangers of the virus. We stay in most of the time, go for walks when we see few other people, or make quick visits to shops to collect supplies wearing our masks and maintaining distance. Our pensions are paid every month and we do not have to worry too much about paying the bills. I’m not being smug about this, I am very grateful and fearing the time when the government decides it can no longer afford to pay pensions in full. I am most grateful to all those people who keep me in this state of bliss. Obviously top of the list are the doctors, nurses, and ancillary health and care staff who are working so hard. I hope I don’t need their services but am reassured that they are doing their utmost to help everyone who does fall ill.

The rest of the list is very long. I am thankful I am not teaching at the moment because I think the job teachers are attempting to do is tremendously difficult and time-consuming and the way they have been pushed from here to there and back again by the government, particularly in England, and vilified in some sectors of the press for being unable to do the job they are trained for in the way they would wish to do it. Then there are all those people who continue to work but barely register as being there – the shopworkers, the delivery people particularly the postal workers, the refuse collectors, the utility workers, the media people who keep us informed and entertained, the farmers and food industry workers and so on. In fact everyone who continues to work under varying degrees of threat from the virus deserves our thanks and respect.

Then there are the motor dealer workers. Yes, perhaps they aren’t top of the list in terms of need, but they did us a service today. Yes, we have a new car. In the autumn we took the decision to end our addiction to hydrocarbons and get rid of our petrol car. We have gone fully electric. It is not to save money – we’re spending quite a lot on getting the new model – and it’s a bit of step in the dark while the infrastructure for charging is still in its infancy and crowded, no doubt, with incompetents and charlatans. Also as we live in a block of flats, getting a home charger is not going to be easy so we are reliant on local authority owned sites. Finally I am aware that an electric car doesn’t mean we are totally innocent of causing damage to the world. Using electricity (hopefully from renewable sources) instead of fossil fuel will I hope make an impact on climate change, but the mining and refining of the materials for the batteries and the mechanical bits have many problems. There is no answer to the world’s pollution and resource issues other than getting down on our use. Thus I have to say that our new electric car will have to be used for many years and we will travel less than we did in the past (an easy promise while we’re in lockdown). Nevertheless we are looking forward to being EV owners and drivers.

Our new EV “click and collect”!

I couldn’t attend our Zoom writers’ group meeting this week so I didn’t do the task. I’ve been spending all my writing time developing my novel. I started planning it before Christmas. Having got a basic outline I started writing. That brought out more ideas about the plot and character development. Two routes were suggested. Either plough on to the end and then go back and edit, or more likely, re-write. Or go over what I had done and re-write, and extend it. I’m doing a bit of both, a bit of restructuring, a bit of re-writing, a but if expanding while moving the story on slowly, in a slightly different direction to my original plan. It may not be the best way of going about writing a novel, but I’m enjoying it. I’m not going to give too much way now other than announcing that the provisional title is “For Us, The Stars“. It’s SF, obviously, set a few hundred years in the future of humans (our descendants). In some ways it is hopeful – we survive, hooray! There are some elements of dystopias but I’m not a fan of that genre as they seem to turn into an excuse for gratuitous violence, savagery, and little in the way of plot. I’m doing some scientific and technological extrapolation, or perhaps wishful thinking. I hope there is some logic and plausibility in what I am suggesting the future may be like. For that I have developed my own “levels of civilisation”. Others have done this, for example Iain M Banks in his Culture novels. In those, humans, or rather the artificial Minds, have an almost magical control over matter and energy. There is so much writing available today that I don’t pretend to be totally original but I hope my story brings together themes and concepts in a unique manner. Who knows when it will be complete, but it is my second lockdown project.

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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.

…………………………..

Revival

This week I am away at a writing conference, my annual revitalisation, although, of course, it didn’t happen last year. A weekend of workshops, chats to other writers, a dinner with celebration of winners and runners-up of competitions and a general good time, usually gives me the incentive to get down to some of my own writing. Let’s hope it works this year.

So, no rants, no anxieties, no doom and gloom (well, there is plenty of that but I won’t mention it this week). What I will do is give a plug to my five Jasmine Frame novels – on sale at the conference but also available direct from me at paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com. The e-books are also on Amazon Kindle. Painted Ladies, Bodies By Design, The Brides’ Club Murder, Molly’s Boudoir and Impersonator are each stand alone cases for detective Jasmine Frame but as a series tell the story of her transition.

Finally, here is a short story I wrote for the writers’ group. The topic was “file” and it got me thinking about how in English many words have more than one meaning or two words may have similar pronounciations. Can you guess what the title means? (Answer at the bottom)

A dwelling for speaking tubes?*

 

It started when I was invited to a game of tennis.  When I went to the court they asked if I had my own racquet.  The judge said it was a serious offence and handed me a sentence.  I thought it was the start of a novel, but they put me behind bars, and not for the first time.  I pulled a couple of pints and shook up some cocktails but then they called time. They put me in a cell with the door locked and bolted. They brought me back after a while. I asked for a ream of paper and a ring binder. I put the paper in the binder and made a file. I used the file on the window, but it was a hard steel. I couldn’t even nick it.  I asked for some refreshment, and they brought me an apple and a lemon. The computer was connected to the web but there was large spider on it, so I didn’t touch it. The lemon was sharp, so I began to carve a pattern on the surface of my cell.  When I had done the whole of the wall, I crawled through it.

I was free but getting ten pound an hour was my intent. Coming out of the marquee I tripped over the guy. He was just a stuffed shirt and trousers but a nice chap. He gave me a long stick and suggested we shoot a few balls, so I joined the long line of people at the pond.  It was a long wait, but I carried it on my shoulders. I was so tired that I cried. I cried out so much I got hoarse. I mounted the horse and rode off to the desert.  It was only a trifle, just a small matter but it meant that the end was close, so I’ll shut up.

 

*Homophones

320 words

Evaluating the Energy

It seems that climate change has been important news this last week (as it should be every week) with yet more extreme weather around the world.  48.6C in Sicily! Horrendous!  Then there has been the UN report on climate change, a precursor to the Glasgow conference in November, which basically says “do something now!”  Yet, governments are still full of words and little, or no action.   Last week’s New Scientist carried a number of articles looking at the need and possibilities for action and the potential outcomes.

As a species we really do need to tackle the problem that is of our own making, but I really don’t see it happening as the governments of the nations of the world are so bound by short term anxieties about wealth and staying in power. The problem is that despite the record temperatures and rainfall, the really dire effects of global warming are still far in the future (i.e. more than 10 years) for most governments to consider real action.

What can or should individuals do?  Well, die would be the best solution.  Cut the world population by about 90% and hence our energy useage by the same amount and that would cut carbon emissions, as well as a lot of other problems. However I am not going to advocate genocide although a gradual reduction in th world population would be wonderful.

Each individual’s contribution seems tiny but the more people who show determination to reduce their energy use the more effect it will have and the more government’s might take notice.  It’s not just about converting to electric vehicles – that helps but is only a very small part of what is needed. It’s our whole use of energy.

I don’t know whether we are doing enough. Well, I do, we are not and now I am worrying about our preferred holidays – travelling on a narrowboat.  We have effectively been off grid for a fortnight.  All our energy needs have come from burning diesel in our engine plus a little gas for cooking. But we burn about 6-7 litres of diesel a day.  Now if we were driving a diesel car that would be the same as driving about a 100 miles a day. That’s probably not what we would do on a holiday, but we are not also relying on electricity and heating at the hotel or cottaage at which we might be staying. Nevertheless I am quite sure that a week on a narrowboat uses up more energy than a week at home. But we are not flying to our holiday destination nor driving from one of the country to the other, so perhaps we are not being really evil.

However I cannot see the millions of UK inhabitants drastically changing their living patterns, holiday plans or anything else. the same probably applies to most of the world population. So the environment is scuppered.

There, that’s the end of this week’s pessimism. No story again this week since it is difficut putting out thsi blog on the mobile app. Normal (?) service will eb resumed next week, I hope.

Accidental Apocalypse

First of all my apologies to readers of last week’s blog. My memoir piece about my childhood bogie got chopped right at the end. It only lost a couple of sentences, neither of which were vital.

I have been a little out of touch this week – not watched TV, picked up the radio 4 news a few times and read The Guardian on my phone. It’s enough however to wonder whether the UK government really does believe that we are in a climate crisis. First there is the person the PM has put in charge of the Glasgow climate conference saying she was quite happy withe her old diesel engined VW Golf and didn’t fancy an electric car, befor going on show she had no idea about today’s EVs. Then we have the PM joking that Thatcher’s battle with the NUM which ended with the demise of the British coal industry back in the 1980s as being all part of the government’s strategy to move away from fossil fuels. That doesn’t deserve an answer other than to note that the government doesn’t seem to have any strategy at all other than to carry on as we are with oil companies et al paying little heed to the approaching apocalypse.

Apocalypse? Isn’t that something of an exaggeration? Not when you look at the events that have occurred worldwide, this year – heatwaves, forest fires, floods. All that when we are still inside the 1.5 C global rise aimed at by the Paris agreement but which we are on target to miss competely (a 3C rise is predicted if we carry on as we are). In the prosperous UK (yes, we are still amongst the nations at the top of the pile, repelling all others) we will barely notice the food and fresh water shortages and the deaths from extreme weather – yet. But we are blundering to disaster, perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly in our grandchildren’s.

What is the solution? Well, EVs aren’t the whole answer but they are part of it if we can move away from using fossil fuels for electricity generation – and that is easy if the govt. wishes it and it will generate jobs not cost us. Individually we must cut our carbon footprint. I’m not sure whether we, I mean us personally, are doing enough and perhaps decisions we’ve taken recently aren’t a big help. But the big decisions are the government’s – stop using fossil fuels; stop using concrete and steel made in the traditional methods that produce huge amounts of CO2; stop energy intensive agriculture.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it happening. The PM just wants us to laugh at his jokes or bicker about what a fool he is. No, no one can be that obtuse. It’s a deliberate ploy to distract his opponents and play to his supporters who deny the truth that is in front of their eyes.

That’s it for this week; no story.

What a week!

Well, it’s been quite a week, hasn’t it. There we were, sitting at home, getting on with our good old Welsh lockdown, doing our own thing, keeping to ourselves, while around us the rumbles of the coming apocalypse grew louder. There was Trump’s attempted coup. What was he expecting? The surprise is that the fascist rebels actually got into the Capitol. What is it with American security? Do they just not see people with white (or merely tanned) faces. But, hey ho, only five deaths. You get more than that in your average school shooting spree. The whole business, from last summer’s BLM protests, through Trump’s refusal to accept an election result to this week’s bizarre but horrific scenes, show an American democracy that is sick. Can Biden turn things around? is Biden superhuman? We will wait and see; not calmly but with significant trepidation.

We don’t have to look across the Atlantic to see government in chaos. This week we have seen a PM totally floundering because the COVID pandemic hasn’t responded to his wishes. It didn’t take a break over Christmas, it hasn’t gone away as he hoped. The UK government hasn’t learned a thing since this time last year. It was noted last spring that the 1918 flu pandemic had a second spike that was much worse than the first. It was suggested then that that was what had to be guarded against with COVID. Did the UK govt give it any thought? So now we have a huge daily infection rate, the highest number of people in hospital and a death rate exceeding what it was last April. Meanwhile hope rests on the vaccines, which have to be administered to at least 70% of the population inside 6 months in order to eradicate or merely control the virus. The vaccine may give immunity for six to twelve months. If the virus isn’t under control by then, then re-vaccination will be necessary, perhaps for a different strain. In the meantime, restrictions will have to continue, though hopefully some relaxation of lockdown can take place in the spring. All the while, more and more people will lose their jobs.

And then there is Brexit. Yes, it’s happened and the leavers have got what they wanted. Only now are the holes in the trade agreement starting to appear.

A view to provide some cheer

Here, though in our cosy isolation, I have been getting on with writing. We had our weekly meeting by Zoom which was lovely after the Christmas break. The theme was “Where the road leads”. It was a good topic but the piece I wrote was short and bleak so I’m not going to post it here. I am going to go back to the monthly group’s theme which I mentioned last week, viz. “Fire and Ice”. I actually wrote two pieces for that and below is the second. It was partly inspired by the TV programme on penguins which included one species which nest on the barren slopes of a volcano having crossed the ice-sheet at the ocean’s edge. Meanwhile, the novel is progressing. It is also developing as I write it so I will no doubt have to go back to re-write the first part to make it all match up. Ho, ho, all in the fun of writing.

Between Ice and Fire

Jok scrambled down from the old lava ridge and sprinted across the grey, dusty plain in the twilight towards the settlement. Puffing, he hurried down the steps into the communal pit, ducking under the seal skin flap that covered the entrance.
“Ma! Ma!” he called, “They’re coming. I saw them on the edge of the ice.”
Jok’s mother, a small woman with greying hair, looked up from where she knelt by the hearth. “Good. Gather the older children and welcome the hunters on their return.”
“It is time,” Old Tak said, rousing from his doze at the edge of the circular shelter. “From tomorrow the Sun will not appear in the sky again for a month.
Jok ran from the pit, calling out for the others to join him. The four of them left the three toddlers in Ma and Tak’s hands and set off northwards towards the edge of the ice with the looming bulk of the smoking mountain behind them. They had jogged thousands of paces before they saw the hunters in their thick covering of seal skins, hauling the sleds across the ash. The seven men and women stopped and held out their arms to greet the children.
“Welcome home, Pa,” Jok cried and flung himself into the arms of the leading hunter.
Brak laughed and grasped his son to his chest. “This is what we have looked forward to these last, long nights.”
Jok sensed the relief in his father’s voice. “Was it a successful trip, Pa?”
Brak set his son down on his feet. “Take a look and judge for yourself, Son.”
Jok cast his eyes over the four laden sleds. Each was piled high with ice blocks and the bodies of dead seals and penguins. It looked a lot, but would it last for the length of the darkness? Two of the other children were hugging the hunters. A girl stood forlorn and alone.
“Where is Sal’s Pa?” Jok asked, fearing the reply.
Brak’s face lost its look of joy. “Lost. He fell in the waves as we struggled with a large seal. He was washed out to sea. One moment he was there, then he was gone.”
“Sal’s Ma will be sad,” Jok noted, “She has only this week given birth to a son.”
Brak smiled. “Well, that is good news. He will take Trok’s place one day. Come, we must complete our journey and get these supplies stored safely.”
The children helped the elders tug the sleds towards the settlement. With their heavy loads, the sleds were not as easy to pull over the lava field as they were over the ice. The sky was completely dark when they arrived at the settlement.
The mothers and the elderly men emerged from the pits to greet the returning hunters and the children. There was hugging and laughter, but also tears as the news of Trok’s death was shared. The welcome was brief as the sleds had to be unloaded. The ice blocks were stacked on old seal skins, to insulate them from the warm ground. The carcasses were stored amongst the ice. They would not stay there long. Over the next days each would be stripped of skin, meat, tendons, guts, and bone. Nothing would be wasted.
At last, Brak was satisfied that everything was where it should be, at least for the first night.
“Now, let us rest, eat and tell our stories,” he cried to his fellows.
Everyone entered the communal pit and gathered around the hearth to warm themselves. The returned hunters quickly threw off their layers of seal skins. After many days in the bitter cold of the ice, they felt comfortable in the pit warmed from beneath
Ma sent Jok to get a fire stone. He took Sal, to take her mind off her father’s death. They returned dragging a large lump of lava. They pushed it onto the hearth. Ma jabbed it with the whalebone poker until it broke apart revealing the red glow of its interior. Then she re-assembled the cooking rack over it and laid slabs of seal flesh and penguin on top. Soon the meat was sizzling. Fat dripped onto the hot rock. It ignited, casting a yellow glow around the pit.
The whole community sat on skins in a circle. The hunters, naked, basked in the warmth of the hot stones on their skin which had been covered for the whole of their expedition. Soon Ma and the other mothers passed around the cooked meat, and thawed ice in seal-skull cups. All, but especially the hunters, ate with relish.
“Now,” said Brak between mouthfuls, “Tell me what has been happening while we were on the ice.” He looked to Ma, as the elder of the mothers. “Has the smoking mountain been content.”
Ma smiled. “She has slept with just occasional snores.”
Brak nodded, “Good. Whenever I am away I worry that the mountain may be aroused and then the community could be threatened.”
“That fear is always with us,” Ma agreed.
“And the rivers of fiery rock, how do they move?” Brak added.
Ma shrugged. “They continue to flow towards the ice at several paces a day, but they have not come closer to us.”
Jok felt compelled to ask a question. “The rivers of rock are a gift from the mountain, aren’t they Pa?”
Brak grinned. “I am not sure the Mountain intends them as a gift or is even aware of our presence, son. But the river of rock provides us with the warmth to sustain us and the means to cook our food. So, yes, it is a gift. Nevertheless, should its path change, as it has done in the past, then we could be driven from our settlement and forced to dig new pits. That is a task I hope we can avoid. For now though, we can rest, content.” Ma nodded but she didn’t smile.
“I hear there is other good news. A new boy for us, eh, Crol.” Brak winked at the younger woman, Sal’s mother whose hair was still black and shiny. A baby wrapped in seal skin slept in her arms. She replied with a coy smile and offered the child to Brak. He looked sombre, “I am sorry that Trok is not here to celebrate the birth of a son. Trok was a fine hunter and bone carver. We will all notice his absence.” He took the bundle, an act which all knew meant he accepted responsibility as the child’s father in Trok’s place. Jok saw Ma glower at the mother.
The party was quiet for a few heart beats but then Ma stood and passed around more cooked meat. Conversation began again. The hunters described their journey across the ice sheet, how they battled and trapped their prey and cut the blocks of ice to replenish the community’s supply of drinking water.
Brak moved to sit next to Ma. Between biting off mouthfuls of the dripping seal flesh, he whispered in her ear. Jok sitting nearby, could only just hear the conversation.
“Something tells me you are anxious, yet you say the Mountain is calm.”
“So, it has been,” Ma replied almost inaudibly, “Yet, when I took a walk up the mountain, I noticed a change. The ground is swelling.”
“Markedly?”
“No, you have to know the land well to see the change at the moment. Nevertheless, I fear that what happened in our grandparents time could occur again.” Brak nodded, frowning. Jok wondered what worried his parents. He determined to take a climb up the side of the smoking mountain as soon as was possible to see for himself.
Soon, the food had been consumed and in the snug warmth each member of the community fell into a contented and untroubled sleep. All except Jok, who worried.

……………………….

New year, old problems

Has ever so much been expected of a new year? After seeing the back of 2020 everyone has their hopes and expectations for 2021. Can they be achieved?

First though, there are some happy memories from the last year that are worth recalling. First was a January day in London visiting the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A. That was a mixture of nostalgia and a fascinating insight into social and industrial history. Quant was not only an innovator in fashion but also in the materials she used. A month later we flew off for our few days above the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. Yes, we did see the northern lights, though not in the dramatic form seen in the media, but it wasof the activities we did in the snow and the cold that were memorable. It was a brief excursion but it has left a huge heap of memories.

A Lapland sleigh ride at -20C.

Then there was the completion of my Jasmine Frame series of crime novels and the publication (by myself) of the fifth novel, Impersonator (available on e-book from Kindle or in paperback from me!). Actually, I finished Impersonator quicker than expected, thanks to the lockdown. It’s not something to be grateful for but for those of us who are retired, financially secure, fit and living in a lovely part of the country, lockdown has not and is not a great hardship. No members of our family have suffered badly from the virus, not yet (I must add that proviso to ward off the evil spirits of complacency). Since I spend quite a lot of my time in my study, staring into a screen anyway, the pandemic hasn’t changed a lot. Nevertheless, I worry and am anxious for all those who are seriously affected – more on that later.

What then of 2021? I am looking ahead with some trepidation. Yes, the vaccines provide hope and as soon as we have the opportunity we will get the injection. However, that is not to say the crisis will be over. It will take months to vaccinate everyone in the UK, to say nothing of the world, and a major problem is that people misunderstand what a vaccination is for. Yes, it is a protection against the disease – but not an infallible one. A small number of the vaccinated may still catch COVID though hopefully not as seriously. The vaccine may not stop people from being able to spread the virus a little. The purpose of mass vaccination is to deny the virus the ability to multiply in its hosts. With that achieved, the virus will die (if you can say that about something that is not really alive). The problem is to complete the vaccination programme while the immunity lasts. It is hoped that vaccines will give immunity for at least six months but the whole population must be injected in that time to ensure that the virus does not survive in one place or another and can then re-emerge. This means that we will have to remain vigilant until the evidence shows that the virus has been eradicated.

Until that day, precautions will have to be taken and at the present time I cannot see an end to lockdown for several weeks. Even then I think foreign travel will be restricted. It may even be that countries demand a certificate of vaccination before people are allowed in, as not even a negative coronavirus test is proof against being a carrier. Of course the financial after effects will remain. Will the tourist, hospitality, entertainment and arts industry revive?

My other anxiety is the future of the UK. It is not just Brexit. I fear that the perpetrators of that disaster will never receive their comeuppance because the traumas that lie ahead can be disguised as the aftermath of COVID. The expected dip in the economy from Brexit will be masked by the bigger slump caused by the pandemic. Hold ups at borders can be explained away as due to virus checks (as the pre-Christmas closure of French ports was). The right wing media will find excuses and wave away the hardships that the small print of the trade deal will cause. Those fears bother me enough but it is the whole attitude of the current government that scares me. In the last year they have legitimised bullying (if it is not “intentional”), lying (blatantly by all members of the government and many in their party cf. use of fake news), and cronyism i.e. rewarding your mates and those who have helped you in your scramble up the ladder of power such as in the award of contracts and honours. Bigotry too is justified by “PC gone mad” and “freedom of speech”.

In many respects I feel that my country has been stolen from me in the last four years. I have always considered myself Welsh, British, European and human. Thanks to Brexit I can non longer claim to be legally European. The policies and attitudes of the Westminster government increasingly make me feel embarrassed to be associated with Britain (or the UK, whatever you want to call the place). So I’m left with the place of my birth and current residence, and my genome to give me a sense of belonging. Is it enough?

……………………

A new year does mean a new determination to develop my writing. That means the process of creativity, the mechanics of putting words together, seeking publication, promoting my works. My new novel, provisional title For Us, The Stars, is coming along. I say that tentatively as, while the draft is growing slowly, my concept of the novel is changing and developing which means that what is done will be revised.

Next week writing groups will get back into routine. The first, monthly group set the title “Fire and Ice” – very GRRMartinish. I have had two ideas which have materialised on screen and I present you with the first. Not really a story (too much telling instead of showing perhaps) but a bit of a character exercise similar to a story I wrote a couple of years ago. Here is Twins.

Twins

Fiona and Iris were twins, identical twins. Looking at black and white photographs of them as children, taken in the 50s, it was impossible to tell them apart. Both had long black hair big brown eyes, a straight, thin nose and high cheek bones. In the flesh, though it was different. Despite their mother dressing them in the same clothes right up to when they were teenagers, they were distinguishable. It wasn’t just that Fiona always had a rosy flush while Iris’s skin had a transparent quality, it was their personalities.
Fiona was never still, always flickering from one activity to another, warm and friendly but with a temper that occasionally, that’s being kind, erupted. Iris was cool and pensive, always watching but unmoving, and unmoved by what went on around her. As they grew up it was Fiona who fired up her friends to take part in crazy activities while Iris was content to read and study concealing all that went on behind her chill gaze.
Of course, it was no surprise when Fiona was picked out by a model agency and became one of the faces and figures of the 60s. Her character lit up many a photo shoot. She used the experience in front of a camera to get parts in films. Her fame grew like a flame fed with kindling. She made the gossip pages of the papers and magazines as she burned through relationships with a variety of men.
Meanwhile, Iris worked solidly at accounting and law, soon making a name for herself in financial circles. Her sharp, incisive approach to finding solutions earned her big fees and a reputation for her glacial manner. She could put off potential suitors with a freezing glance but she was content with her isolated existence.
In their late forties, while Iris continued to grind remorselessly through the business world, Fiona found her fortunes waning. The parts as warm-hearted but fiery temptresses no longer came her way. It was as Fiona’s fame guttered that she met Tyrone. Once a boxer known as the Typhoon he had become an agent and promotor who brought a whirlwind of change to the boxing business. Despite their relationship being described as tempestuous and as a forest fire fanned by a gale, Fiona and Ty married. Happiness was however, short-lived.
One dark night, there was a knock on the door of Iris’ palatial home. Alone as usual, she answered it. There stood Fiona in her flame red furs. She fell on Iris’ shoulders.
“Oh, Iris, thank god you’re home. I had nowhere else to go.”
“What’s wrong with going home,” Iris replied coldly.
“He’s there.”
“He?”
“Tyrone.”
“He’s your husband. It’s his home too.”
Fiona stood up, huffed and puffed, stamped her feet, and waved her arms. “That’s the problem. I can’t spend another second with that man. His temper is as unpredictable as a tornado and as violent.”
Iris sighed. “You’d better come through I suppose.” She guided Fiona into the lounge and took her coat to hang up. Fiona sat on a sofa, got up, walked around the room, stood in front of the, fake, log fire.
“So your ardour has cooled,” Iris said as she returned.
“He’s a hateful man,” Fiona said heatedly, “He blows hot and cold, but even when he’s being nice I can see there is a storm brewing.”
“Well, divorce the man. You have money, don’t you Fi?”
Fiona appeared to shrink like a dying ember. “He said I should put all my money into an account in his name. He said I was like a candle flame in a draught, too unstable to be trusted.”
“You did what he suggested?” Iris’ dark eyebrows had flowed up her forehead.
“Well, I loved him then. I thought he knew what was best for us.”
“He certainly knew what was best for him.” Iris’ voice had an edge like a broken icicle. “But, don’t worry Fi. Leave things to me. Ty the Typhoon will not know where he’s blowing.”

Tyrone barely knew what hit him. An avalanche of writs and orders soon had him buried under a snowdrift of financial measures, his accounts frozen, his businesses liquidated. Iris released funds to Fiona and she was soon ignited with fresh ideas and meeting new acquaintances.
One day Iris received a message from Tyrone. Immersed in a maelstrom of legal actions, he requested a meeting. Iris assented but only so she could coolly assess the success of her actions. They met in a restaurant. Tyrone was already seated but rose to his feet when Iris approached. They sat and the waiter stood by the table, receptive.
“Iced water, please,” iris ordered.
“I ain’t got much cash left,” Tyrone said with a winsome grin. “But let’s blow it on some fizz, shall we.”
Iris gave an imperceptible shrug.
They talked, or rather, Tyrone appealed. Iris resisted while moving glacially towards an agreement. Tyrone blew this way and that but finally admitted that all Fiona’s money should be returned to her along with a considerable sum to complete the divorce. It was crystal clear to Iris that Tyrone needed an accountant as much as Fiona.
Tyrone let out a whistle at Iris’ suggestions of what he should do with his cash.
“There’s more to you than meets the eye,” he commented. “How come no guy has ever cracked your façade?”
Iris made it plain that she wasn’t one to flow in channels carved by lecherous men but as she got to know Tyrone cracks appeared in her demeanour. Cracks became crevasses. On the other hand, Tyrone’s company displayed the qualities of a warm breeze, refreshing without discomfort.
They agreed to meet again. Iris departed with her feelings for Tyrone beginning to thaw.

………………………………………………….

Christmas passed

Season’s greetings to all reading this, and everyone else (well, there’s one or two people I don’t want to greet but we won’t mention them). I hope you have found all the pleasure and joy you desire from the festive season whether you have been having an extended solstice party, marking the birth of Christ (even though he wasn’t born in December) or just making the most of surviving this far.

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve when preparations are still taking place but I won’t post it till Boxing Day when we will be recovering from the day itself. Of course many people’s plans were changed at the last minute because, as usual a certain nameless person could not take the obvious but difficult decision back in November, to tell everyone to stay at home. I am not sure why so many people appear to think their happiness rests solely on having a traditional (whatever that means) Christmas, starting with decorating the house in October, especially when only a small proportion are practising Christians.

Greetings from us.

Like many things, I’m a bit binary about Christmas. I have no faith in any religion and in fact find the actions of some who profess to be Christians (and other faiths) quite abhorrent. On the other hand, a winter festival is a good idea to cheer people up through the long, dark, cold days (what the southern hemisphere does at this time is up to them). And on the third hand, I do enjoy Christmas music, including congregational carols and the pieces performed by choirs at carol concerts (that’s one thing I’ve missed this year). Everything else about our Christmas is really nothing to do with religion and everything to do with having a good time and showing love for those close to us. So, I do like exchanging cards (though not as many as we used to send), putting up decorations (a tree, natural or artistic and lights), sharing and opening presents (an ordered affair not a wild orgy of paper tearing) and eating and drinking. We are just the two of us, which is very unusual. Yes, there is joy in sharing the party with family and friends although it is better of the time together is relatively short. That can’t happen this year, but at least we have 2020’s answer to one of the golden age science fiction dreams. No, not faster than light travel – videophones, otherwise known as Zoom!

So, eat, drink, be merry, share your love, and put aside worries for a few days.

It may be too late to buy Christmas presents but why not treat yourself to a good book or books. Impersonator, the 5th Jasmine Frame detective novel is available as an e-book on Kindle for £2.99 or as a paperback from me for £9.99 (email: paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com). Or you can experience the whole of Jasmine’s transition through the five paperback novel series for £30 (inc p&p). There have been delightful reviews for Impersonator on Amazon and in the December Beaumont Magazine.

Being Christmas Eve, when apparently some people are quite busy, we haven’t had a writers’ group meeting or task for the week. I don’t have a story for you but instead a memoir on the theme of our favourite music which was the topic for a few weeks ago. It’s a sort of desert island discs and I hope the links to my five chosen pieces work.

Music for Life

The first piece of music I have any memory of is Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke.  The thing is though, I can’t recall why it is the first.  I know my Dad had a 78 recording of it but we didn’t have a record player in my early years so I couldn’t have heard it being played. The church organist, Uncle Ron (not a real uncle), played it, or rather improvised on it, now and again, but that doesn’t really explain how it became one of those pieces I knew and loved. Perhaps it did set a pattern because the baroque is still the period of classical music I enjoy most – Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn and plenty more.

From that introduction it may seem that music is important to me. It is, but days and days can go by without me listening to any at all. Music has never been something to have on in the background. If I put some music on it is because I want to listen to it. Nothing really beats hearing it live although sitting on uncomfortable church seats is not my favourite listening experience.

I don’t want to be distracted when I am listening to music and on the other hand music distracts me from doing other things. I have never been able to study or work with music playing.  The only time I did this was when I was in halls at university and I needed my own music to block out the row coming from next door. The only other time music has been an accompaniment to another activity is when I have been driving, on my own, on a long journey.

My early experience of music was hymns, psalms and classical favourites; good old-fashioned hymns, preferably with strong Welsh tunes and those baroque pieces I mentioned.  One result of my childhood was that I was never a collector of singles. Yes, I did like the Shadows and the Beatles, but I never hankered after the latest single not that I had the cash to go splashing out six and eight pence on the latest two and a half minute hit.  Having grown to enjoy symphonies and concertos I wanted music with some length and substance. I suppose the prog rock era was made for me, although I didn’t get into it until it was about to be supplanted by punk. Nevertheless, it is the music of, mainly, the seventies and eighties that along with the baroque, has had the biggest influence on me.  There are artists who recorded singles that I like listening to such as Steeleye Span, Queen, Dire Straits, but it’s the “concept” albums that are my favourite listening.

I had friends who followed Pink Floyd from their earliest days in the late 60s. I was aware of Dark Side of the Moon when it came out in 1974 because, of course, some of my friends had it and played it frequently. It was some years later that I came to appreciate the Floyd and acquired their earlier and later albums. A few years ago, I attended a concert by one of the Pink Floyd tribute bands. One used to think of tribute bands as being poor imitators but really what is the difference between groups of skilled players playing the music of famous pop groups and orchestras and choirs performing the classical repertoire. The Floyd concert was superb, the musicianship of the performers excellent and their rendition of the complete Dark Side of the Moon indistinguishable from the original recording, but live!

I have never been an early adopter whether it’s of mobile phones, CD players, the internet or rock groups. Like Pink Floyd, I wasn’t immediately attracted to Mike Oldfield when he came to fame with Tubular Bells. It was a few years later that having been given one of his later albums, Platinum, I got hooked. I now have all his works, I think, and find them all listenable. The exception is Hergest Ridge which is shame having lived near it for ten years. Even his latest collection, Man on the Rocks, contains tracks that give me that shiver of pleasure.

I am Welsh, more so now than during my working career, but the Blake/Parry combo of Jerusalem has always had an effect on me despite its status as a stand-in English anthem (after Land of Hope and Glory). At the first school I taught at, in Norwich, it was sung gustily at the end of the Spring and Summer terms. I suppose part of its appeal was as herald of the holidays. It is the Emerson Lake and Palmer version that I love most. Like some of their other renditions of classical pieces, it subverts the meaning that has become attached to the piece but is still a rollicking, exciting piece of music.

Being asked to select one’s favourite pieces of music is one of those horrors, like being asked to choose one’s favourite novel or favourite TV programme.  Even narrowing it down, like my favourite Iain Banks novel, or my favourite Dr Who, choosing works by my favourite composers or artistes is difficult. But having started this I’d better finish it, so here are a few of the pieces of music that still give me that tingle of pleasure.

  1. Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke. Yes, it’s still there and representative of a host of other pieces from the same period. Its familiarity makes it a comfortable, nostalgic, joyful piece to listen to.
  2. Vivaldi’s Gloria/Handel’s Messiah. I know that’s two but really getting up and singing the choruses of either, still gives me that feeling of excitement and pleasure.  I’ve sung both numerous times and just love the exuberance of the compositions.
  3. Echoes, by Pink Floyd (on the album, Meddle).  One of their longer tracks, the whole of the second side of the original vinyl LP.  Up there with Dark Side (in its entirety) and other tracks.
  4. Islands, by Mike Oldfield (from the album, Islands).  Actually, I could name any Oldfield track or album and say it was a favourite. This one is somewhat special in that it seems to be unobtainable now and my CD stops halfway through.
  5. Jerusalem by Emerson Lake and Palmer (from the album Brain Salad Surgery).  There are many other pieces by them and Emerson’s earlier group, The Nice, that still give me that tingle.

So that’s it, a not exclusive selection of some of my favourites.

………………………………………………….

Christmas thoughts

If it was a popular film, we’d be building up to the climax where the hero leaps to the rescue and everything turns alright in the end. We’re certainly building for a climax. It may turn out to be damp squib or like a failed sponge cake, it may just turn out flat and heavy. Whatever happens, I cannot see a hero (gender unimportant) appearing. A week to go to the Christmas break (in the rules, that is) and COVID infections are still rising in many places. Lucky old Herefordshire has kept the numbers down and has been allowed to drop into tier 1 but just across the border, here in Wales, things are not looking good. There is a question mark over the data too, with a week’s cases in Wales being lost and then found again. The new year is not going to see a miraculous end to the pandemic. We can but hope that all the hopes for the vaccination programme come true and that 2021 does see the end of this pandemic if not the economic repercussions.

Then there is the Brexit deadline. As I write, the latest (never the last) deadline for an agreement between the UK and EU is just hours away. It has almost become irrelevant because it seems that there is going to be chaos at the ports whatever the two sides agree or agree to disagree on. In fact it is already happening. How long before it does start affecting what is in the shops?

Then there’s the USA. The Electoral College has confirmed Biden as president-elect but still Trump sits like a steaming mountain of sludge refusing to move, while the Republicans vow to obstruct the elected government at every stage and forces unknown launch cyber attacks on US government departments. How long before the chaos in the USA starts affecting international relationships?

The new year will be an anxious time and I have no solutions other than to say, be kind to your neighbours but keep your distance.

Wreckage on Rossili beach, the Gower. No, not a metaphor.

One thing (not the only one) that keeps my mind off the local, national and global situation is writing, especially when I am becoming immersed in a new story. I recently decided to start a new SF novel, which actually combines two “situations” that I thought of years ago. On their own neither was particularly original but I hope that putting them together will make for an interesting tale. I have spent a couple of weeks world-building – getting timelines straight, erecting the background, creating characters. It’s fun but there’ always the itch to start getting the story written down. I’m not as organised as some authors who can spend months planning, writing profiles on each character and pages and pages of outlines – probably why they’re bestsellers and I’m not, but hey, I’m having fun. I’ve now reached the stage when I do have to write and I’ve started at the beginning (it’s not the only place to start) or at least what I think is the beginning at the moment. The world (or worlds) will continue to develop and take on detail, in my head, if not on screen, and that is a lovely feeling.

However, in the meantime, it’s Christmas, and we had our writers’ group party. OK, it was on Zoom, at 10:30 a.m. but some of us put on colourful jumpers, sparkly earrings and Christmas headbands (alright, I did all of that). The set task was limericks. Not all members had a go. Poetry of any form is not my scene. I don’t have the rhythm and rhyming instinct that some of our members have and it is not something I practise. Nevertheless I had a go and here they are.

Limericks

There was a young man of Ross,
Who wooed a woman of the cross,
Down on his knees
He begged, love me please,
she replied, I don’t give a toss.

A boy and girl of Trefynwy,
Thought it would be terribly funny,
To get on a bus,
And without any fuss,
Undress and make love in the gangway.

A pretty young lady of Hereford,
Thought she was terrifically bored,
She found a young bull,
Gave both horns a pull,
And ended up fatally gored.

It is said that in Upton Bishop
There’re people who know how to dish up
Drinks and food
To get in the mood
For a suitably festive piss up.

…………………………

Bxxxxy Bxxxxt, Lily and Candlelight

I don’t want to comment on the continuing Brexit debacle but it can’t be avoided. The latest deadline for finalising a deal is Sunday (13th), but who knows. The original latest possible date to get things agreed was 31st October, I think. One thing that gets me (there are many) is Johnson referring to “no deal” as the “Australian-style” deal. Even the BBC has been forced to note each time that Australia doesn’t have a free-trade deal with the EU. What the whole calamity shows is that Johnson’s cronies are crap negotiators. They can’t manage to get an agreement on the “easiest deal ever” with people who are our “friends” and allies and with whom we have 40% of our trade. All the talk of maintaining our sovereignty makes it sounds like we’re suing for peace having lost a war. Of course the EU are being difficult; they have 27 countries to satisfy and they no longer have to worry about keeping the UK onside. And yes, while I am sure the EU countries do not want to lose the 15% or so of their trade with the UK it’s not as big a deal for them as it is for us. I worry and fume about where we are heading.

It may be COVID, it may be Brexit, or more likely a combination of both, but already the trade links, in particular the ports, are in chaos. We have an electric car on order. It was supposed to arrive at the end of November into Southampton, but it now looks like it will be mid January unless further delays occur.

……………………

After what I wrote about last week, it was lovely to watch the BBC programme “Lily – a transgender story” (shown on BBC1Wales and on BBC3). Lily has been followed since she was 14-15, coming out in public as trans. Now 20 she has just had her gender confirmation surgery which had been delayed for 6 months by COVID. She is very natural on camera but appears to be a calm, well-adjusted young woman. What was most clear though is the long winding road that she has been on. It took two years between seeing her GP and getting a referral to the Tavistock clinic in London (the defendant in the high court case) and after a series of consultations which included her parents, she finally got puberty blockers when she was 15 years old. She started on oestrogen when she was 16. Her parents were supportive but it was still a long process with many checks and delays. It was also clear that from a young age, Lily (formerly Llyr) was very clear where she wanted to be even if she didn’t know how to get there. I hope that many people see this programme and hear of the many similar tales.

If you’re stuck for Christmas presents, don’t forget that all the Jasmine Frame novels including the fifth, Impersonator, are available on Kindle and, in print form, from me – £9.99 for the latest or £30 for the complete collection (prices include post & packing). email: paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com

I had two writing group Zooms this week. The piece of fiction I have for you is what I wrote for the monthly group. The topic was “A candlelight scene”. We had some Christmassy tales but I wanted to experiment a little. So, my effort is bleak, perhaps even boring, and is indeed just a scene with candlelight. It could be seen just as a descriptive section of a longer story or as a metaphor or allegory which generates questions.

By Candlelight

The single light dazzled my eyes, small and distant though it was. I had been in the dark for so long even this pinprick of illumination seemed to hurt. I blinked. The light was still there. My heart thumped with excitement. Perhaps it was strange that so small a feature should have such a marked effect on me, but it was something, anything, in the nothing. No longer was walking just a matter of putting one foot in front of another, now there was purpose in my stride. I marched onwards. No, that sounds a bit too determined and energetic. I was bone weary. I trudged. That is more like it, but most important, I had a destination to aim for, an objective to reach before exhaustion overcame me.
I drew closer to the light. I wasn’t counting the number of steps I had taken and there was little to show I had even moved. Nevertheless, the light had become a little brighter and the lamp itself took on a form, a shape. It was a candle inside a many glass-sided lamp. My eyes had grown accustomed to the luminance now but the candle barely cast any light on my surroundings. The rays attenuated to non-existence before being reflected from any walls. No ceiling could be seen in the blackness above me, yet the candlelight hung from a chain which must be affixed somewhere overhead.
I plodded on for some interminable time. The candlelight grew larger in my view and at last I had a sense of scale. I stopped and gazed up at the light. The candle itself was the length and thickness of my forearm. The candlewax and the wick must be perfectly matched because every single drop of fuel was being consumed. There was no sign of surplus wax forming a shield around the flame, no dribble of molten wax down the smooth cylindrical surface, no evidence of re-solidified wax in the bottom of the lamp. Given its size and the small but steady flame, the candle should burn for a considerable time but yet, soemtime the fuel would be exhausted and the light extinguished. What then? Would darkness reign again, or would someone or something replace the candle?
It was as I was wondering if the lamp would be raised into the invisible heights to be renewed that I saw that my approach to the lamp had altered my perspective so that I could see that there was in fact more than one lamp. Far beyond the first was a second. IT appeared of similar colour so must be of matching intensity yet the second looked as far away as the first had been when I had first seen it.
I continued on my way and at some lengthy period of time later passed under the first lamp. It shone down on me and for the first time I saw the ground or floor beneath my feet. It was featureless but not of polished smoothness and hardly reflected any light back. I knelt to feel it. I had done no such thing before as there seemed no purpose to it, but now that I could see the surface I wanted to know its texture, temperature, smell, taste. I rubbed my fingertips over the material but felt nothing. It was neither cold nor hot, neither slick nor rough. I lifted my fingers to my nose. There was no smell. I poked out my tongue to lick my fingers but there was no taste other than the saltiness of my own sweat.
I resumed my walk, focussed now on the second lamp which appeared to be at a greater height than the first. As I approached and could see the palely illuminated patch of ground beneath it, I saw that it was not level. The lamp hung over the first steps of a staircase. Was this a way out of my endless, dark prison? I knew not what was in store for me, but as I neared the second lamp I saw that the stairs were not designed for one of my stature.
I reached the riser of the first step. It came up to my waist. Beyond the first tread the second step was of similar dimensions. I clambered up. The first step was enough to set my heart beating faster and my breath to be taken in gasps. I knelt for a moment to recover, then stood.
The great staircase rose ahead of me, each step the width of two of my height. I could see a slight glow, beyond and above the next lamp. The next candlelight was hidden beyond the curve of the stairs.
Slowly I began to climb. Each step took a considerable effort, eating into my reserves of energy. I lost sight of the floor below but there was no evidence of an end to my ascent. Just more steps and candlelights, rising into the dark.

…………………..

Transgender trauma and a pudding

There’s only one news item to comment on this week. No, it’s not the vaccine rollout, nor the impending brexit chaos, not even this appalling government lead by the incoherent sack of mixed metaphors. It’s not even relevant to 99% of the population although a considerable number may have an opinion based on hearsay and prejudice. I’m referring to the High Court judgement in the case of Keira Bell against the NHS Tavistock Clinic.

Bell claimed that her treatment at the clinic was wrong to have prescribed puberty blocking drugs when she was under sixteen years of age. Born female, in her teenage years she was diagnosed as having gender dysphoria and began to transition as male. After his sixteenth birthday he started taking testosterone to bring about male changes in his body. A few years later, he decided that his decision had been wrong and reverted to female. However testosterone causes permanent changes such as lowering the voice. Bell argues that the clinic was wrong to prescribe the puberty blockers because under the age of 16 she (or he at the time) was insufficiently mature enough to understand the consequences.

The judge sided with Bell and ruled that the clinic was wrong to prescribe the drugs to minors (under 16s) who may not be “competent to understand the nature of the treatment.” The result is that the Tavistock Clinic has suspended all new referrals for puberty blockers. In future the courts will make decisions about medical matters in the cases of transgender teenagers. A judge is deemed to have a better understanding of a young person’s sense of identity than medical staff who have worked in the field for years.

In my opinion and from what I gathered from the media (I have not read the case notes or the judgement) Bell has been confused and looking for someone to blame for the predicament she finds herself in – a woman with a deep voice and a masculinised body (how masculine I don’t know, but I don’t believe she has had surgery). The result is that for her peace of mind, hundreds if not thousands of young people will be denied the treatment they feel they need. Some will commit suicide because of the mental anguish, some will be bullied because they go through puberty to a body that doesn’t match their gender, many will feel the rocky road to better self-esteem stretching even further in front of them. I can’t understand why the Tavistock’s lawyers were unable to present a more compelling case to the judge.

The TV news reports gave a very strange picture of treatment at the Tavistock – brief consultations and a willingness to prescribe at the drop of a hat. That is not the account given by many other transgender young people. Even once they have made it to their GP there is often a wait of 18 months before an appointment is available at the clinic, the only gender clinic for children in England and Wales. The child and parents are assessed carefully in a series of appointments spread over years before any decision on treatment is made. Less than a tenth of the children referred to the clinic are eventually put on puberty blockers. It is true that the number of referrals has increased by a factor of 10 in the last decade or so. That is probably due to the ease of access to information and role models on the web and social media which has helped young people understand themselves and encouraged them to declare their feelings.

What is this idea that under 16s cannot be responsible for their sense of identity? What suddenly happens on the sixteenth birthday? On that day young people can get married, have children, join the armed forces, fight and die in wars. Just one day after they are deemed to be children who cannot understand whether they are male or female. What else are teenagers not responsible for? Does this judgement mean that every minor convicted of a crime is in fact innocent because they were too immature to understand fundamentals like right or wrong, male or female? Indeed, it appears that this judge has gaslighted the youth of the country by telling them that their feelings can’t be trusted, their emotions are false, and their perception of their identity mistaken. In future it will be the courts who decide whether a young person is male or female and that decision largely based on the sex inserted on the birth certificate issued at birth. If a child must be mistaken if their gender identity differs from their birth sex how easy will it be for the courts to decide that adults must be mentally ill to want to pursue gender reassignment? This judgement could be the pretext for overturning the progress made in transgender law in the last twenty years. It cannot be allowed to stand.

On a happier note, I am delighted by the reviews posted on Amazon for the Kindle version of Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel. All 5*. Here is a taste of the comments.

“It is well written and the characters are totally believable. “

Yet another gripping page turner “.

As well as the e-book, I now have print copies (£9.99 inc p&p) available direct from me (write to paintedladiesnovel@btinternet.com giving your address). There are some special offers on Jasmine Frame novels on my Jasmine Frame page.

This week’s theme for the writing group was “Christmas Banquet”. As I was a bit busy I did not write anything new but dug out a piece I wrote a few years ago making use of some research I had done on Christmas pudding charms. Here it is.

The Christmas Pudding

“You will come to us for Christmas, won’t you Aunty Joyce.”
“I’m not sure, Laura,” I replied.
“I know you’ll be missing Uncle Jack, but it will be lovely to have you with us.”
The mention of Jack brought a tear to my eye as it had done since he passed away back in March. It would be a good idea to visit the young folk.
“You’ve persuaded me, love. Is there anything I can do or bring?”
There was a pause and I could feel Laura thinking what it would be safe for her to allow me to do.
“I don’t think there is Aunty. Everything’s planned.”
“What about the pudding?”
“Um…”
Of course, the young people weren’t as fond of Christmas pudding as my generation.
“I’ll bring one, save you the trouble.”
“Well, okay, Aunty if that’s what you’d like to do. Phil will pick you up.”
“Right, my love. Bye bye.”
I sat in my chair thinking. My Christmases had been quiet since Jack got taken ill but Laura seemed very keen that I should join her family; probably because she didn’t have her parents anymore. I stopped myself maudlin. What should I do about the Christmas pudding; should I buy one from M&S or Waitrose? No, I’ll make one myself. Last Sunday was Stir-up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, the day when Christmas puddings were traditionally made, so I would have to get busy.
I found my old recipe book and next day I got on the bus to the supermarket and bought everything I needed. I was tired when I got back but I started the weighing and measuring. While I was stirring the mixture my mind drifted to Christmases when I was a child. The pudding was a big part of the Christmas dinner in those days but it wasn’t the pudding itself that caused the excitement; it was what you might find inside. Ma had a set of silver charms that she stirred into the mixture and we hunted for in our portions. We all laughed when Pa got the thimble suggesting that he would be a spinster for another year.
I hadn’t seen those charms since Ma died. I left my mixing and started to search through our small flat. Jack and I had collected a lot of clutter in our lifetimes. I discovered lots of things such as photographs taken on holiday with my sister Judy and her baby daughter, Laura.
The clock had struck midnight before I finally sank into a chair, clutching a folded envelope that I had found in a small box of Ma’s things. I carefully unfolded the stiff, yellowed paper and turned the envelope upside down. A cascade of tiny, silver objects fell into my hand. They were just like the charms hung from bracelets. One was a ring, too small to fit on a finger. Ma made sure that Judy or I got it every year – it meant that we’d be married before next Christmas. It worked eventually. The thimble was there and the button too. Finding the button meant a man would remain a bachelor. Lying in my hand also were the wishbone, for a wish, the horseshoe, for luck, and a tiny bag of money for good fortune.
There were others but one charm was missing. I knew exactly which one it was – the horn of plenty. While one of us sisters got the ring, the other would find the horn. It meant future happiness. Ma had always been very careful to collect every charm after the dinner was over, but perhaps that last Christmas, when she knew that she wouldn’t be with us for another, she had not been so careful. Had Judy found it and kept it? Had it brought her happiness? I supposed in some ways it had. Judy and Larry had had a very joyful marriage and brought up their lovely daughter, Laura. They died together in a car crash and did not suffer the pains of old age, so, yes, I suppose she did have a happy life. Jack and I never had children and life was a struggle after he was taken ill.
I washed the charms thoroughly in boiling water then added them one by one to the pudding mix. Finally I put the pudding to rest and at last took myself to bed.

I felt quite overwhelmed by Christmas Day. I hadn’t been in such a full house for years and the noise of the young people – Laura’s children and their partners – quite made my head buzz. At last we sat down to Laura’s superb dinner. I ate a lot but made sure that I had a small place left for my pudding. Laura had made a tremendous fuss over it when I handed it to her on my arrival and warned her about the charms. Now, Phil brought it into the darkened room with blue flames of burning brandy licking around it. The youngsters said they were too full for pudding but Laura insisted that they have a portion.
“You may have a surprise and find something,” Laura said, with a wink to me, “so eat each mouthful carefully.”
Each of us took small spoonfuls and began to chew like ruminating cows.
“Oh, I’ve got something,” Ben shouted, “It’s a horseshoe,”
“That will bring you good luck,” I told him.
“Thank you Aunty, perhaps I’ll win the lottery.”
“I’ve got a thimble,” Lucy called out.
“Oh dear, that means you will remain a spinster. I hope you don’t mind” I said.
Lucy remained cheerful. “I’ve got no intention of getting married just yet, thank you,” she said indignantly and everyone laughed, including her boyfriend. Everyone joked about how reliable the predictions might be.
I took another spoonful of pudding and chewed it slowly. There was something hard on my tongue. I picked it from between my lips and held it up to examine. I was amazed and glanced across to Laura. She was watching me with a broad smile. Between my finger and thumb was the horn of plenty.

……………………………..

Post-lockdown worries and a freezing

So everyone is out of lockdown (from 2nd Dec). Well, not really. As most of England is in tier 2 or 3, and the other countries in the union still have various degrees of control, the COVID restrictions are not over yet. And that is an important point. There has been a lot of optimism about the vaccines coming on line, and talk of Christmas relaxations has been non-stop. It is a very dangerous time. OK, it is still the case that most people are not getting the virus and most of those that do, have a minor ailment. Nevertheless the numbers that do get COVID seriously are still enough to fill the hospitals to overflowing and stretch the doctors and nurses and other health-workers to the limit. Now is not the moment to think that things will be over soon and that we can get back to “normal” and have a ball at Christmas.

The effort and organisation required to distribute the two doses of one or other of the vaccines is immense. At a million doses a week, it will take four months to vaccinate the whole UK population. Not just the vaccines but the syringes and swabs and staff have to be supplied to get the job done everywhere – not just a dozen or so testing centres. I think it will be next summer before there is any chance that sufficient people will have been vaccinated to start dismantling the COVID measures. Until then the risk of mixing, in homes or elsewhere, is still high for spreading the disease and clogging up hospital ITUs.

We’ll be taking Christmas apart from the family, although we hope to have an outdoor picnic at some point. We’ll stay away from the large towns and cities, but give our business to local shops and restaurents/pubs.

We did manage a couple of days away this week in the fresh air and peace of The Gower. After a dreary few weeks of cloud and rain we struck lucky and had two wonderfully calm, sunny days. What could be better than walking the length of Rossili beach with only a couple of dozen people spread out over the three miles of sand and surf.

Last week’s writing group Zoom meeting set “You’re frozen, Linda” as the theme for this week, after a typical breakdown in communications. I, like at least one of my fellow writers, decided to be subversive with the punctuation and grammar, partly because I get fed up of all the Facebook posts with there/their/they’re confused amongst other howlers. So here is my piece, Reunion.

Reunion

It was that time of year again, and this time it was my turn to be the host. The first thing to do was dig out the Bain Marie from the back of the cupboard, fill it with water and set it on the hotplate to heat up. I didn’t need it but it had to be seen to be sued. Next was food preparation. The menu was always the same for our reunions. It had been set in stone since our first that year after we graduated, nearly fifty years ago now. I don’t know why we kept it up, just a couple of weeks before Christmas when things were getting frantic, but we did. No one missed, ever, not even with children being born; not until this year.
With the meal progressing I turned to laying the table. Out came the Lazy Susan. I placed it in the centre of the dining table and in its eight slots put small bowls of crisps (salted and cheese & onion) , peanuts (salted and dry roasted), twiglets, Bombay mix, Hula Hoops and nuts & raisins. All our agreed and accepted hors oeuvres. Perhaps our tastes had got more sophisticated since then but, traditions are important, aren’t they.
It was nearly time, so I told Alexa to start playing Christmas Carols. It had been a cassette that first time we’d met up, then a CD. The doorbell rang promptly at seven. Susan was always the first to arrive accompanied by Diane. We hugged and kissed and made rude comments about each other but there wasn’t quite the usual outpouring of joy. We were going to be one short this year. I started pouring the first drinks, Bloody Marys of course, with extra Worcestershire sauce for Susan. Marie arrived soon after, followed by Carol and we sat around the table spinning the Lazy Susan.
We’d moved onto prosecco by the time supper was ready. Not traditional but well, you can’t go wrong with a bit of fizz can you. The Steak Diane was cooked to perfection everyone agreed. Then it was time for dessert.
“Have you made it?” Diane said, a frown clouding her usually cheerful face.
“Of course, I have,” I replied, “We can’t have a reunion dinner without it.”
“But, Mary,” Carol said with a pause, “I wasn’t sure you would with her not being here.”
“We’ve got to,” I said a little more firmly than I intended. “She would have wanted us to.”
Susan took my side, “Of course, she would.”
“I suppose it’s a way of remembering her.” Marie added.
I went to the freezer and drew out the bowl I had prepared earlier. It was bit like Eton Mess except she hadn’t been able to get strawberries at Christmastime back then and she didn’t have any cream. It was a mixture of crumbled meringue, tinned mandarins and cheap vanilla ice cream. I put a serving into five bowls. A tear trickled down my cheek as I remembered all those times when there were six of us.
I handed the bowls around the table. We all paused, spoons in hand, before we took our first mouthful.
Susan nodded. “Mmm, yes Mary, your Frozen Linda is wonderful, if not quite up to Linda’s own standard.”
We all laughed, more from relief at mentioning Linda’s name than the annual reference to the dish named after our friend. She had always felt a little left out not having something bearing her name. The sweet she had cobbled together one evening late in the autumn term of our final year had been named in her honour and had cemented our friendships. Now she was the first one to leave; a brief vicious cancer had seen to that.
Everyone helped with the clearing and washing up. As we emptied the last bottle with a final toast to Linda I turned to Susan.
“It’s your turn next. Don’t forget to take the Bain Marie and Lazy Susan. I don’t want them cluttering up my cupboards for another year.”

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Music for pleasure and going gaga.

Music is a pleasure. Listening to it or performing, both bring enjoyment, but familiar pieces provide the biggest emotional lift. At least that is my experience. I don’t listen to music a great deal. From my school days I prefer to work at my desk in quiet; music, especially my favourite compositions, is a distraction. The exception was when I was in university halls. Then I had to play “my music” to drown out the noise from next door. Nevertheless, singing pieces I know well, even playing on my keyboard, and listening to recorded or live performances of pieces I know, whether they be classical or (classic) rock is uplifting. New pieces have to be listened to a number of times before maybe being added to the catalogue of favoured ones. (Although the last Mike Oldfield CD, Man on the Rocks became an instant personal hit with one track especially giving me goosebumps.)

The reason for all this is that this week we went to see a film of a Stevie Nicks concert. The main reason was to support our local theatre/cinema but I thought that as I quite like Fleetwood Mac (not one of my favourite groups but we have one or two of their albums) it would be worth seeing their lead singer performing her own stuff. Perhaps part of the problem was not only that Stevie’s solo catalogue was unknown to me but she was also performing songs that she herself admitted had rarely seen the light of day. She had a very good backing band but the concert was, well, a disappointment. There was little variety in most of the songs; the beat was the same in most of them, Stevie’s range did not seem that wide, and I couldn’t make out a word that she sang (even with my new hearing aids). There were one or two good riffs by the lead guitarist but the overall impression was – dull and boring.

Was it because the songs were unfamiliar (but even the performance of Rhiannon, one of Fleetwood Mac’s hits, was a bit dreary) and so they didn’t stir my musical memory. I don’t know. However, a few years ago I went to a concert of a Pink Floyd tribute band. They performed many of the hits from the many albums and the whole of Dark Side of the Moon. It was superb. Each time I sing Handel’s Messiah or Vivaldi’s Gloria I get the same prickling at the back of my neck. What is it about familiar tunes? Is it the rhythms, the melodies, the harmonies that get the heart racing? I don’t know. Anyway I don’t think I’ll be purchasing a Stevie Nicks album, but I may slip a CD into the player. What shall it be – Pink Floyd, Handel, Mike Oldfield, Haydn, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Beethoven. . .

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Impersonator went live on Kindle last weekend. There was an initial burst of sales – thank you to any of you that downloaded it – but things have gone a bit quiet since. It’s that marketing thing again. How do you get the word out beyond one’s little circle of followers? Answers on a postcard please. I am expecting print copies any day now, so if you want to hold in your hands a genuine signed copy of Jasmine’s last case, please get in touch

I do have a dilemma. I had returned to the novel I started about two years ago and have got about 1/3 into. The trouble is, not having planned the whole thing which was/is a mistake, I just cannot see where it’s going. It is another September story but set largely in the 1810-20 period with Mary Shelley, Humphry Davy and mad King George III taking important roles. It’s got some ideas which I really like (drawing on my love of the science and industry of the time). But it’s stuck. So I’m turning my thoughts to another idea, actually joining together two ideas, and this time I’m planning.

This week’s writing group topic gave me a bit of fun and my swiftest rejection ever. The theme was “Going Gaga” and my idea was to write a bonkers bit of satire. The result is below. A few of the group liked it and said it needed an airing in a publication like say, Private Eye. So emailed it to the editor. I got a reply in under an hour which was amazing – thanks but no thanks. See what you think.

The Origins of Gagaism: A Report for the Commission on Popular Dementia

With the approaching golden jubilee of the election of our most extraordinary and eccentric Prime Minister Horace de Piffle, still in the prime of life at the age of 104, it seems the right time to examine the origins of the ideology that brought him to power, namely Gagaism.
It is commonly thought that the Gagaists took their name from a popular early twenty first century entertainer who adopted the stage alias of Lady Gaga. In fact, the term was much used prior to the commencement of her career. The first Gagaists were actually men and women in the autumn of their years. They attributed their anomalous behaviour such as putting cat litter in the fridge, a casserole in the washing machine and dirty knickers in the oven to what were termed “senior moments” or “going gaga”. Whether these actions signified the onset of senile dementia or not, is uncertain but they are more likely to be explained by the consumption of quantities of gin and/or pinot grigio. The Gagaists’ activities also included the eating of cream cakes, a fondness for chocolate and frequent diatribes on the state of the nation.
While there is some evidence of younger people adopting some of the traits of Gagaism, the turning point in the overwhelming spread of the principles of the philosophy can be attributed to the first of the pandemics which took place in 2020. It is now thought that the lack of personal contact and enforced attachment to screens of various sizes led to young, and older, people acquiring the mores and ideals of the Gagaists and a steady opting out from interaction with society at large.
The increasingly bizarre and, frankly ineffective, measures introduced by the government of the time to combat the spread of disease lead to a growing disconnect between the population and the political community. This was accentuated during the financial collapse of the early 20s when huge mountains of cash were handed to the spouses of members of the government to carry out apparently vital tasks that were, nevertheless, performed incompetently and ultimately to no effect whatsoever. In the midst of the biggest economic crash since the last ice age caused the demise of the Middle Stone Age, most people were only concerned in securing supplies of pina coladas and Doritos and watching reruns of Dallas.
With most of the electorate self-isolating, tackling jigsaws of the Tower of London or watching repeats of Joe Wicks exercise videos from the comfort of their sofas while wrapped in their oodies, the General Election of 2024, held during the COVID #2 pandemic, saw the lowest turnout ever recorded. The turnout decreased further in subsequent elections until in 2037 it was noted that the sample used by the opinion pollsters exceeded the number of actual voters. The Representation of the People Act 2039 delegated elections to the pollsters. The Ais used to predict the results decided that just one typical member of the population, known as the Elector, was required to predict the outcome of elections. With the personnel of the government increasingly irrelevant it was decided to dispense with the whole election process and make the Elector the PM. So it is that for last fifty years Horace de Piffle has held that title and has performed it with all the buffoonery expected of the position since the glorious days of the Johnson administration.
By the time of the selection of de Piffle, the majority of the population were confirmed as ardent Gagaists. Most survived on the daily deliveries of Amazon boxes. The cardboard itself provided adequate shelter for the homeless which by the mid-twenty first century made up 38% of the population. The plastic-free packaging provides a tasty and nutritious soup, especially when sprinkled with chilli oil. Most people require very little energy as they do not move from their screens, interacting with others solely by zoom. In fact, “to zoom”, “to be in zoom” and “to be zoomed in” became the only verbs used to describe interaction between people of all ages. Staying in was the new going out. Road transport had halted due to the Great Kent Jam of 2021. One benefit of the end of road haulage was the creation of the Channel Causeway. This was constructed from the scuttled hulks of cross-channel ferries and the million or so articulated trucks caught up in the Kentish congestion. The causeway provided an easy route for refugees across the English Channel and in the second half of the twenty first century many make their escape to the continent.
The remaining population have found contentment in pursuing Gagaism to its ultimate conclusion, elevated to a senseless state of inebriety while softly humming “We’ll Meet Again”.

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All about the senses

I was going to write about our senses and then the fellow with the poor eyesight goes and walks out of No.10 which is bit of a coincidence. Anyway I’m not going to say more about that apology for a human being other than good riddance. (But where is going to meddle next?)

So, senses. I’m trialling a new pair of hearing aids. Amazing technology, fiendishly expensive but are they worth it? I’ll tell you in a month. The thing with hearing aids and new specs is that they restore what you have lost, but you soon forget what it was like to live without them so you take them for granted, which is somewhat ungrateful. My senses are a bit of a mess really. I’ve worn spectacles since I was 7 – I’m short sighted with a touch of astigmatism and partly red-green colour blind. My hearing has been deteriorating for about twenty years. I can still hear, but without the aids I need the TV on full volume, can’t tell which direction a sound is coming from and lose conversations unless they are shouted at me. I have been called a deaf old git. Then there is my sense of smell. I could smell an open gas tap across a lab, but tell if my darling wife was wearing a particular perfume? No chance.

Nevertheless, I, we, all of us, rely on our senses to interact with our environment. We’re taught that there are five – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. In fact it is much more complicated than that. I think I read somewhere that some scientists reckon we have about 36 different senses with their own nerve cells. Take sight for example. We can sense darkness and light, moving objects and colour, each with their own route to the brain. Touch covers a multitude of different senses including temperature, pressure, texture. Our ears are not just for hearing but also for balance. The semi-circular canals acts a bit like 3-D spirt levels telling our head how we are orientated and getting somewhat upset if it changes too quickly. Hearing itself detects not just the frequency (pitch) of a sound, but also its amplitude (loudness) and timbre (quality or type of sound). All of which allows us to recognise voices and appreciate music. I shall be very grateful if my new aids can fill in for what my own ears have lost.

This week’s writing theme was “fireworks” but I ducked out of it. I’ve been trying to get on with a fantasy novel I started over two years ago and left to write The Pendant and the Globe and the latest Jasmine Frame novel, Impersonator (which should at last be live on Kindle after an unexplained delay). I decided to read out the first chapter of the novel. There were some very helpful comments but I am uncertain about it. Having got about a third of the way in I am unsure where it is going and how to resolve it.

Here instead is a short story I wrote for another group on the theme “Under Pressure” – no, not the Queen/David Bowie song. I went for an SF style adventure which I hope expresses two meanings of the phrase. However the story is not particularly original nor futuristic.

Under Pressure

I loosened my restraints and leaned forward. It was as black as space beyond the centimetres thick glass of the small view window. As black as space with shining points of light. It wasn’t space of course and the points of light weren’t stars. They were the bioluminescent creatures that lived here in the ocean, eleven kilometres below the surface. Instead of a vacuum outside there was a weight of water that pressed on us with a thousand times the atmospheric pressure at the surface. As I gazed at the illuminated fish with awe, I wondered what I was doing down here. For someone who gets scared when their face is immersed in water how did I get to be one of the few people to reach the deepest point in the Earth’s oceans?
“You’ve got to come, Lucy; the Amphitrite needs you.” The tone of the billionaire pilot of the submersible was insistent.
“No, Wayne, I can’t.” Even the thought of being submerged was making me nauseous.
Wayne ignored my cry. “With Cath sick and Pierre injured, you’re the only walking, talking marine biologist left on board.” He bent his two-metre-tall torso so that his face was level with mine. There was desperation in his eyes.
I turned away. “You don’t need me. The sensors will record data automatically. You can take yourself down there to say you’ve been to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.”
Wayne, sighed. “Yes, we have all the instrumentation we can pack in but a real, live observer will see what’s new, what’s interesting. I can’t do that and control the Amphi. That’s why she has two seats.”
“But. . .you know what I’m like.”
“Well, I never did quite understand how someone who’s scared of water becomes one the world’s most celebrated marine biologists, but Lucy, this is our last chance. There’s a tropical storm rolling in in a day or two and that will be it for the season. If you don’t come with me today, that’s it, no descent, no data.”
So, I gave in. I didn’t know how I’d survive being shut in that tiny glass and steel can to be cast into the depths, but my need to see what was living down there, for once, exceeded my fear.

It was as bad as I expected. The pills the doc gave me only just stopped me throwing up as the waves and then the light disappeared. Our descent took six hours, but here we were, manoeuvring around the seabed almost oblivious to the tonne of water pressing on each square centimetre of the Amphitrite’s hull. Well, Wayne may have been oblivious, I wasn’t. Yet the amazing creatures I saw through the tiny porthole almost displaced my worries. As well as the self-illuminating fish and crustaceans our lights showed a wide variety of life, floating, swimming and crawling on the bed of the trench. The creatures I could see varied from a few millimetres to over a metre. I’d already noted several new species and a whole class of marine invertebrates that no-one had recorded before. Wayne too had his harness loosened so he could press his face to the glass.
We were following the contours of an underwater hill when there was a thud on the top of the craft. The vibrations in the steel structure lasted milliseconds, but my shaking persisted.
“What. . .? Is water coming in?” I knew it was a silly question. At this depth, any damage that penetrated the crew module would have caused our instant deaths. I wouldn’t have had a moment to feel worried before being crushed like an ant on mallet.
“No, of course not, Luce. Probably just some sinking debris. The corpse of a dolphin perhaps.” I didn’t like talk of corpses. Wayne pressed a few buttons and spoke into his microphone. I expected to hear the usual reply from the crew on the surface. Instead there was silence. Wayne repeated his call sign but there was no reply. My teeth were chattering now.
“Looks like we’ve lost the commlink,” Wayne said, still with no sign of concern in his voice. He checked his screens. “Yes, data transmission has been broken. Whatever it was that just hit us, has damaged the cable.” Although the Amphi was self-powered the cable was supposed to ensure that we kept in contact with the team on the surface.
“I suppose we’d better head up.” Wayne’s reluctance to depart was apparent.
“I’ll retract the sample scoops,” I said flicking the appropriate switches. I’d hardly spoken when there was another thud. Stronger than the first. The Amphitrite rolled and yawed. Her bow dug into the sloping seabed and then we were flipping end over end. Both of us were loosely strapped into our seats, but while I remained secure, Wayne’s tall body swung forward. I heard his head strike the instrument panel.
The craft floated away from the bank and righted itself but Wayne was slumped forward. Blood dripped from his forehead onto his crew shirt.
I looked out of my window to check where we were. A large shadow floated passed my line of sight, turned and came towards us. Another thud sent us backwards into the hillside and the exterior lights when out. I was sitting in blackness now with just the dim instrument lights gleaming like the bioluminescent creatures outside. I flicked the switch for the cabin lights.
“Come on, Wayne, we’ve got to get away from here,” I said. There was no reply. I realised later that that was when my uncontrolled tremors disappeared. Something, self-preservation I suppose, cut in. It was down to me to get us back to the surface. I had never expected to pilot the Amphi; I’d had no desire to step on board the craft let alone dive to the depths of the ocean. I had nevertheless spent the last year with Wayne, Cath, Pierre and the rest of the crew getting her ready for this trip. I knew how the sub worked, and Wayne had had the sense to get the pilot’s controls duplicated.
I advanced the throttle and was delighted to hear the electric motors spin up although there was an unfamiliar whine in their drone. I pulled the joystick back and we started to ascend in a spiral. Wayne’s head was leaning against the headrest now, but his eyes were still closed. There was nothing I could do for him other than tighten his restraints as I did mine. The cabin was so cramped there was only barely room for the two seats.
After we had been climbing for a few minutes, Wayne groaned. He raised a hand to his head and winced.
“What happened?” he moaned.
“Something hit us, again. It took out the spotlights. You banged your head.”
“I can tell,” he said, sounding a bit more awake. “What’s going on now?”
“We’re heading back to the surface.”
“You’re in control?” There was surprise in his question.
“Yeah. Well, you were out cold and I had no idea if that creature, whatever it was, would have another go at us.”
“Did it?”
“No. It must have decided that we weren’t tasty enough to be worth it’s while.”
“So, you got us out of that bit of bother. Well, thanks Lucy, you’ve surprised me.”
I’d surprised myself. Mind you I was relieved when, with Wayne at the controls, we finally broke surface just a couple of klicks from the ship and they located us by our emergency beacon. One trip to the ocean floor was quite enough pressure for me.

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Impersonator, published

Publication Day is almost here! The e-book version of Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel will be available from Kindle on Tuesday 10th and is on pre-order (go there now). As you can see from the photo I have the print version in my hands so I am prepared to take orders with delivery in a week or two.

Impersonator is the last of the five novels I planned for Jasmine. As it opens, she is living a comfortable but empty life, over a year after her Gender Confirmation Surgery (which the tabloid press still call a sex-change). She knows she is a woman and looks and feels like a woman but does her body need further tweaking? Viv, her partner, thinks so. Viv is protective of her after the events of Molly’s Boudoir immediately following her GCS, but Jasmine is getting frustrated. She jumps at the request by Tom Shepherd (now a DI and running the Violent and Serious Crime Unit) to investigate the poison pen letters received elderly female impersonator, Kitty La Belle. That decision precipitates momentous changes in Jasmine’s life. The case develops too. . .

Across the whole series I have tried to reveal what happens when a person goes through transition. There may be a few examples of poetic licence but I hope I have made Jasmine’s feelings and experiences accurate. But the core of each novel is the investigation of a murder and that, I hope, is what gives the novels their interest for a reader. Each novel has featured an aspect of gender identity and Impersonator follows that principle. Kitty La Belle is not a drag performer, she’s an old-school female impersonator and is most definitely a man. He imitates famous women and performs as a woman but he does not caricature women as drag acts tend to. Female impersonation has largely disappeared as a stage act (unless you count Mrs Brown???) and Kitty La Belle is at the end of his long career.

It’s nearly twenty years since I created Jasmine (she’s only aged three or four years in that time) and over fifteen years since I started writing the series opener, Painted Ladies. In addition, for about six years I wrote weekly episodes of prequels for this blog. When you write about a character for that length of time they take up permanent residence in your head. Jasmine is as real to me as many of my real acquaintances. The difficulty is to get that down on paper (or screen). Now I have reached the end of the story I planned (in very sketchy outline) all those years ago. Jasmine has finished her transition. Obviously, she does not necessarily live happily ever after, perhaps there are more adventures for her, no doubt there are more issues to tackle. Whether they get written down or not, I don’t know, but I will be taking a rest from writing about Jasmine for a while.

In the meantime I’ve got books to sell – does anyone want a copy of Impersonator, or the other titles in the series? There are some special offers – HERE!

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I’m taking a week off commenting on the world – things are too uncertain.

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It was back to Zoom for the writing club this week with the English lockdown starting. Still, nine of us got together with some lovely writing on the subject of “the room in the roof”. I only wrote a short piece as I am devoting my available time to the current novel, but it is, again, more of a synopsis than a story. I was trying to let my imagination fly free, just for a little while.

The room at the top of the stairs

Every evening, usually after I had yawned, Mum would say, “Off you go, darling, up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” and that is what I would do – climb the steep path to the magical kingdom that was my bedroom. I would get ready for bed but just before my eyes closed in sleep, I would climb the other stairs, the steps that lead to my room in the roof.
Some nights the room was my observatory. I would look up into the dark sky, wave to the Man in the Moon and blow kisses to the stars. I’d cheer the shooting stars racing across the sky and call to the geese towing the coaches laden with clouds and lightning.
Other nights, the room was the at the top of the highest tower of my castle. I’d watch my guards patrolling the battlements, my archers, with arrows notched aiming out of their niches, my knights in the courtyard below cleaning their swords while their esquires tended to the horses, and outside, across the broad moat, the campfires and tents and banners of my army protecting my land.
There again, it may be my treehouse, high in the branches of the tallest tree in the jungle. I’d have conversations with the multi-coloured parrots that came to visit me, and I’d wave to the monkeys leaping from bough to bough. I would lean right out of the window and peer down through the leaves to the ground below where I could hear elephants trumpeting and lions roaring.
Maybe, it was the control room of my submarine and I’d squeeze my eyes and peer through the periscope at the fishing swimming by. There would be a school of dolphin playing around us, escorting us, while rays lazily beat their wings as they travelled to who knew where.
Perhaps, it was at the top of mountains, covered by snow and ice. I would watch flakes falling from grey skies and laugh as penguins skied down the slopes and polar bears threw snowballs that were so large that when they hit their target they exploded into blizzards that obscured the view.
One night when I reached my room, I found it walled in glass at the very top of the tallest building in the world. Even though the Sun had still not set, the sky above was dark. I gazed down at fluffy clouds and aircraft leaving vapour trails. Tiny helicopters like honey bees came and went from landing platforms on levels far below. The ground on which the tower rested was so distant I could not see it, but I could see half the world laid all around me.
And often, my room was just a room in the roof filled with trunks and packing cases containing all sorts of treasures – clothes of silks and satins, toys that I had requested but never received, gold crowns and silver wands, and a huge cloak of violet velvet that I threw over my shoulders to keep me warm. There was a padded stool to kneel on and a small window which I could open and lean out to feel the winter’s air. I’d stretch out my hand and feel a few snowflakes settle and melt. A blackbird would land on the windowsill and offer me a piece of cherry cake. A mouse would leap out of the gutter, his whiskers vibrating and hand me a lump of cheese. We’d share the morsels and talk about the days that had been and the days to come and slowly my eyes would close and I would drift off to the land of sleep.

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Firebreaks, Rights and Games

Here in Wales we are in the middle of our short lockdown – the Firebreak. It’s an apt metaphor. To halt a fire, a corridor has to be cleared in its path. It takes cooperation to remove woodland, crops, homes and businesses. It causes hardship and a bit of self-inflicted destruction for everyone. You have to hope that the firebreak is wide enough, that nothing is left to carry the fire across the gap and that the wind does not blow too strongly in the wrong direction. The Welsh firebreak requires everyone to stay home if at all possible, not to meet other households indoors or outdoors and to only shop for essential items. Ah, essential, the rotten ambiguity in the barrel. What is essential? Food, medicines, cleaning and hygiene products, books, greetings cards, toys, clothes, electrical goods, etc. How far along that list does essential reach? The Welsh government has told supermarkets to only sell the essentials. Why has it created this rod to beat itself with? Well the Welsh government is socialist and is concerned to make business a level playing field. In the spring lockdown, while their competitors were making losses and going bust, supermarkets made profits selling their usual wide range of goods. Now for a fortnight, the Welsh govt wants to give a bit of protection to the independent shopkeepers who are not allowed to open. The firebreak needs cooperation, but some people can’t wait a couple of weeks to buy that new microwave oven or yet another cuddly toy for the little one’s birthday.

The thought of restricting what a supermarket sells would never occur to a Tory government. Their only consideration is the size of their dividends. Who cares about the little shop owner going out of business; their fault for taking on such a risky venture in the first place; they can always re-train as. . . . as. . . a track & trace operative. Of course, the Tory idea for a short, national lockdown (since rejected) was a “circuit break”. It’s hard to think of a less appropriate metaphor. A circuit-breaker is an automatic switch which instantly cuts off the danger if the electric current gets too big. It requires no action by anyone at all and needs to be installed before the electricity is switched on . So it in no way resembles the spread of COVID. Even so, the Johnson govt has chosen something even more obtuse and divisive: a three tier approach where the bottom layer is medium and the top is nowhere near a full lockdown; different regulations in different areas; different levels of financial support and no suggestion of how to reverse the process. More layers of muddle.

One of the many rainbows seen this wet autumn

I read that the new DG of the BBC has said that employees must not take part in Pride events, BLM marches or any other protests, whatever their personal feelings might be. Now I agree that reporting on the BBC is a huge responsibility and that personal views have no place. There should be no hint of individual bias although there are questions about what balance requires (some of the reporting of climate change has made a nonsense of scientific consensus), but denying an individual the freedom to have a point of view is not something I can approve of. Teachers’ too have been told they cannot bring alternative political ideologies into their lessons i.e. no alternative to capitalism should be mentioned. Steadily, the freedom to have different ideas and opinions to our rulers is being threatened.

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Just ten days till the release of Impersonator: the 5th Jasmine Frame novel for sale as an e-book with the paperback available soon after. If you purchase it, please write a review.

I didn’t get to writing group this week because of the Firebreak but I did write a piece on the theme – Monopoly. It is a very rich source of inspiration for fiction but instead I wrote a short bit of memoir. Here it is, with names changed for reasons of privacy.

Generations Pass Go

Why do kids like playing Monopoly? Do they relish playing the part of ruthless capitalists, out to do down their competitors and bankrupt their tenants? Perhaps that’s it. Whatever the reason, I have three generations of observations that kids really do love the game.
I must have been between ten and twelve when we acquired a Monopoly set. I don’t recall playing it with my parents, but it was a popular pastime when I had friends around. My brother, five years younger usually joined in; he joined in everything I did with my friends. I won now and again, I lost more often. We had fun but I never really became besotted with the game.
It was about twenty years later that I played again. That was when my stepchildren got into it. We had an older edition with wooden houses and hotels. Lou is a keen games player and her children follow her. Paula, the elder, was a ruthless Monopolist but Robert took to it too. Later, he had both the Star Wars and Birmingham versions. I played to join in the entertainment but really, I was bored with the pattern of the game – acquire property and riches, then lose it all.
The last five years has brought the third generation to the game in the form of our grandchildren. Paula’s two girls were the first to get the Monopoly bug, particularly Millie, the elder. Millie enjoyed all sorts of games (some excruciatingly boring), but for a time around her entry into her teens, seemed to want to play Monopoly every time we met. Alex, her sister, was not so keen but usually wanted to join in.
In the last year it has been our grandsons who have taken on the Monopoly baton, particularly, Collin, the elder (is there a pattern there). Although only seven at the time he was on top of the arithmetic required to count his fortune and run the bank (a conflict of interest perhaps). Despite being a new reader, with German his first language, he was able to cope with the names of the properties. We just had to keep reminding him to watch the board in order not to miss rental opportunities. To satisfy Collin’s interest there seemed to be an almost permanent game going on.
So, what is the attraction. As I might have said, I now find the game repetitive and uninteresting. There may be strategies for ensuring you avoid bankruptcy and emerge as the triumphant property tycoon, but I haven’t investigated them. What do the young know of moneymaking tactics? Do they all want to grow up to be Trump with towering hotels on every square? I sincerely hope not. Perhaps it is the ability to run their own affairs without parental interference, to take money off their friends and family, and emerge as the winner. Maybe it’s the chance (or Community Chest) opportunity of winning a beauty contest. I still think it is a strange game to attract young followers but having been popular for approaching 100 years, it looks likely to appeal to generations to come.

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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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