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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

…………………………

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.

…………………………..

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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super-spreader, super book and a licence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Licence

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

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Getting away and brewers’ tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brewing up a tale

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

COVID fears and a silent scream

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

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

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

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

Last outing for the summer dress?

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

They do not scream that have no voice

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

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Gender fluid rights and an Indian Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Indian Summer

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

……………………………..

6 not out, and a lie

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

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

Another cloud – and a spider with its prey.

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

The Lie

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

(c) P R Ellis Sept 2020

………………..

Atmosphere and Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder most fowl

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

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

……………………………..

Exams, again, and Magic

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

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

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

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

A taste of magic

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

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

……………………………………….

Heat, exams and cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………………

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

Weather not good enough for this, this week

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

Saltcake

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

…………………………..

Jasmine fumes

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying writing club in a field

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

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

Lights

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

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

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

10.10 Bob
Amazing photos. You must be delighted.

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

18: 25 Bob
Exciting. Take care.

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

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

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

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Jasmine’s staying home

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

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

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

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

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

The Coder

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

Jasmine concerned for health

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

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

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

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

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

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

Company

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

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Jasmine’s mixed feelings

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

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

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

There’s a lot to be worried about.

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

Happy Landing?

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

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

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

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

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Jasmine for equality

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

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

In sunshine, a year ago

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

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

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

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

The Great Outdoors

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

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

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Jasmine finds the words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom 7

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

Jasmine’s fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There that’s said.

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

Forces’ Sweetheart

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

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

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

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Jasmine hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pendant and the Globe – excerpt, dialogue only

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

……………………………………………………..

Jasmine adds her voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Change in the Weather

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

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Jasmine shakes her head

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

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

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

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

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

Shoes

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

Jasmine cries (with laughter or pain?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadwood

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

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

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Jasmine worries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine over the rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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P1010222

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

 

I’ll do it. . .sometime

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

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Jasmine isn’t celebrating

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

That was 1945.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Days

Day 1

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

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

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

Day 2

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

Day 3

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

Day 4

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

Day 5

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

Day 6

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

Day 7

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

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©PREllis, 2020

Jasmine is wary

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

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

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

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P1010257

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

Birth Day

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

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