Jasmine finds the words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom 7

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

Jasmine’s fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There that’s said.

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

Forces’ Sweetheart

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

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

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

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Jasmine hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pendant and the Globe – excerpt, dialogue only

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

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Jasmine adds her voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Change in the Weather

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

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Jasmine shakes her head

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

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

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

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

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

Shoes

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

Jasmine cries (with laughter or pain?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadwood

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

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

……………………………


Jasmine worries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………….

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

Jasmine over the rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

…………………………….

Jasmine isn’t celebrating

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

That was 1945.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………….

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

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

Seven Days

Day 1

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

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

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

Day 2

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

Day 3

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

Day 4

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

Day 5

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

Day 6

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

Day 7

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

……………………………

©PREllis, 2020

Jasmine is wary

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

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

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

…………………….

P1010257

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

Birth Day

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

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Jasmine staying sane

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

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

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

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

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

The Clock

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

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Jasmine looks beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Birds Sang

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

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Jasmine in doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Appointment

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

Jasmine revitalised

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

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

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

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

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

Cup of Tea

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

……………………………….

Jasmine in lockdown

P1010222

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

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

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

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

51CqJ99vXoLDead Star by Simon Kewin: Review

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

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

Primrose

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

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Jasmine looks out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wyrm Moon

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

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Jasmine rejoices, a little

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

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

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

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

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

You never listen

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Jasmine washes her hands

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

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

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

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

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

P1010151

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

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

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

Jane

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

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Jasmine goes north

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jasmine in the dry

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

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

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

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

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

Persistence of vision

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

Then it happened to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jasmine is colour-blind

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

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

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

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

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

Murmurs

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

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Jasmine frets

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

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

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

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

Sunlight

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

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

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Jasmine in fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There was a boat . . .

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

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

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

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

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Jasmine whodunnit

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

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

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

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

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

Last Call

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

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Jasmine on fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinderella – The Prince’s story

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

Jasmine in moderation

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

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

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

1  a vegan diet is healthier;

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

3  it is morally wrong to kill or enslave animals.

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………..

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

……………………

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

All the Stars in the Heavens

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

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

………………….

 

Jasmine contemplates

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

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

20191205_121743[547]

A final showing for the festive look.

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

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

Fresh Start

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

……………………………..

Jasmine’s fresh start

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baubles: Christmas At Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………….

Jasmine feels festive, a little

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

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

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

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

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

Spinning Joy at Christmas

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

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

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

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

………………………

 

 

Jasmine demoralised

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

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

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

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

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

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

20191205_121743[547]…………………………………

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

Dear Aunty Mabel and Uncle Alfred,

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

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

 Love from,

  Emily.

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Jasmine holds her breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Points

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

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Jasmine is busy

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in the name

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

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

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Jasmine dithers

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

P1000555

A reminder of summer

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

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

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

Eclipsed

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

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

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Jasmine reflects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine tears her hair

Computers are great things but they are pretty annoying when they don’t work as they should. My main computer (a desktop all-in-one) running Windows 10 and Office 365 is currently playing up with File Explorer blocking access to my files in One Drive plus a few other irritations and Outlook spewing out error messages instead of connecting to my email accounts.  What is most annoying is trying to find out what is wrong.  A Microsoft help group provided two willing respondents who managed to do precisely nothing; nevertheless, thanks chaps, for trying. I can get round the problems but it is time consuming.  There, rant over.

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So we’ve got another 5 weeks of this; the General Election campaign, that is.  This week there have been some surprising resignations and retirements, extraordinary proposals and claims from all sides and campaign launches which appear ham-fisted and chaotic. Are the opinion polls accurate? We won’t know till 13th Dec. I’ve just realised that the new government will take office on a Friday 13th – that could be symbolic.  I’m not sure how much I can listen to, watch or read in the next five weeks before boredom or irritation drive me away.

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WP_20181129_14_20_54_ProLet’s talk about writing and publishing instead. Now Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night are out of the way, I suppose our thoughts are turning to Christmas. Can I put in a little bit of marketing and remind you of my 4 Jasmine Frame novels and 3 e-novellas, and my 4 September Weekes fantasy novels. All the novels are available as paperbacks from me (send your orders here) and as e-books on Kindle. Whether you’re buying presents for friends and family or treating yourself, they are all a good read.

This week’s writing theme was “Orange”. At first that seemed quite a narrow subject but actually lots of ideas came to mind – the fruit, the colour, politics (the House of Orange, Orange men, Trump) etc. In fact my fellow writers came up with a wide variety of pieces including a poem that found a rhyme for orange. I settled on a topic that I quite often beef about – the colours of the rainbow. Having taught light and colour many times in my career I am firmly convinced that the teaching of the topic and its treatment in textbooks is dreadfully confused and misleading, with the physics of light and our perception of colour terribly muddled. So here is my short story, based on the truth, about the naming of the seven colours of the rainbow.

And There Was Light

The room was dark when Master Isaac closed the door behind us.  Thick curtains covered the glazed window. Why anyone should do that on such a sunny summer’s day, I could not understand.
“Just stand for a few moments, Joseph, and let your eyes adjust,” Isaac said. “You always had clear eyesight. That’s why I asked for you to join me today.”
Isaac and I had played together as children although I hesitate to say we were friends; he was always somewhat alone with his thoughts. He went off to the Grammar School and then University while I was set to work on the farm. He was only home now because of the fear of plague sweeping through the towns. Perhaps it was the lack of debate with his fellows that caused him to seek my company.
Gradually my eyes became accustomed to the dimness.  There was Isaac standing on the other side of the table on which there was a stand. On it I could make out a rod of glass with a triangular cross section.
“I don’t want you to look at the prism, Joseph. Focus your eyes on the wall opposite the window.” The wall was featureless but even in the absence of almost all light I could see that it had been given a fresh coat of limewash.
Isaac moved behind me and in the darkness, there was. . .light! A rainbow appeared on the white wall.  Well, not the curve of a bow; the colours were in the shape of a somewhat distorted rectangle. I turned and saw there was a tiny hole in the curtain through which a beam of sunlight passed and fell on the prism. Out of the glass came a cascade of colour that projected onto the wall.
“What have you done, Master Isaac?” I said with some awe in my voice.
“I have proved that white light is not, as the ancients thought, a single entity, but a blending of light of various colours. The prism disperses the colours so that they can be seen apart. But that is by the by. What I want you to do is tell me what colours you can see. Step close and examine the pattern the light makes.”
I did as bidden and leaned close to the wall.
“What do you see, Joseph?”
“I see red and green and blue.” I replied.
“Yes, but I want more than that. What do you see between the red and the green?”
Fixing my eyes on that area of the image I saw that the colours went through a multitude of variations.
“The red becomes yellowish,” I said, “then the yellow loses the reddish hue and tends towards the green.”
“Ah, yes, the yellowish red and the reddish yellow. Do you not have a name for that, Joseph?”
He could not see me shake my head in the shadows. “No, Master Isaac,” I said.
“It is orange, is it not?”
Orange. The word was strange but not unknown to me, though I had little understanding of what it meant.
“What is orange?” I asked.
“Have you not seen an orange? No of course you haven’t, Joseph. You have never even been to Grantham have you.” He paused for a breath. “An orange is a fruit. Its peel has a texture like that of a lemon, but its flesh is much sweeter and pleasant on the tongue. The name of the colour is derived from that of the fruit because its skin is that particular hue. So, do you see a band of orange between that of the red and the yellow.
I was not sure I saw bands, but rather a gradation of colours, nevertheless I thought it wise to agree with Isaac.
“Now what do you see at the other end, after the green?” he asked.
“I see blue.” In fact, I saw a variety of shades of blue.
“Don’t you see violet at the end of the spectrum?” Isaac stabbed the wall where the blue dimmed to darkness.
“I suppose that could be called violet,” I acknowledged.
“And do you not see indigo?”
“Indigo?” I was confused, “you mean the dye?”
“That’s correct, and also the name for its colour.”
“But the dye is blue, Master Isaac.”
“A distinctive shade of blue. Is it not there between the blue and the violet.” He pointed to the part of the rainbow he was referring to.
The colours faded and disappeared. We were cast into gloom once more. Isaac stomped across the floor and threw back the curtains.  Heavy clouds had obscured the Sun. It looked as if it might rain.
“It seems our opportunity for experiment is over,” Isaac said. He picked up a sheet of paper and put it on the table in front of me. “Don’t you think this describes what we have seen.”
The paper had several lines ruled in ink across it and between the lines there was writing. I picked out the letters till the words came to me, from top to bottom – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.
“Surely you saw those bands of coloured light in the rainbow, Joseph.”
“Only the seven?” I queried, thinking of how the colours had appeared to me in endless variation.
“Of course, seven, Joseph,” Isaac replied, somewhat sharply. “Seven, as in the days of the week and the metals known to antiquity. Seven, as in the notes of the musical scale. In the same way that our ears are sensitive to the distinctive notes of the octave, so our eyes see the seven colours of the rainbow. Seven, as in the wanderers in the heavens.”  He fell to muttering and moved across the room, turning the pages of a book on the lectern and then taking up his pen to scribble on a sheet of paper. I realised that I had faded from his attention as quickly as the rainbow had disappeared from the wall.

Soon, with the passing of the plague, Isaac returned to Cambridge and we never spoke again. He became a professor and I heard that he was lauded by the learned men of London. I knew nothing of his work but whenever I saw a rainbow in the sky, I recalled my participation in his experiment.  Sometimes I felt I could even see the seven bands of colour that he insisted on. I could usually pick out the orange.  Later, I held an orange fruit and it was as Isaac described. Orange became a popular colour when William of the House of Orange was crowned King in place of the papist James.  Yes, I believe in orange, but indigo? I confess, I cannot tell where amongst the blue, indigo is supposed to fit but if the famous philosopher Isaac Newton says it is there, it must be so.

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Jasmine on tenterhooks

There we are then; another extension and an election on the way. I am delighted that we are still in the EU, for now but cannot see the 27 being willing to carry on this farce for much longer. The cost for them must be almost as much as it has been for the UK.  And then there is the election. I cannot understand Labour saying “no” one day and “yes” the next.  December is an atrocious time for an election.  Who knows what effect bad weather might have on the turnout. Perhaps more will go for a postal vote (the elderly Tory supporters more likely).

I have been a keen follower of elections since 1964 (yes, I was 11) but this is the first one that makes me feel sick and more than simply anxious about the result. In fact no MP or government has been elected in my lifetime for which I voted, so I have never been overjoyed by any result although 1997 was a relief to get rid of the Tories after 18 years. It  probably reveals who I vote for. This time I would vote for anyone who could stop the Tories getting a majority, but once again I appear to be in a constituency where I have little chance of helping that happen.  The trouble is I am not sure I want any of the current lot in power, certainly not Johnson.  I don’t want to see the film “Joker” but from what I read it is a bit of metaphor for the present.  A clown becomes powerful and releases evil on his people. Corbyn seems genuine but is a rebel not a leader and I don’t trust his left-wing advisors. I was quite impressed by Jo Swinson but her fanciful ideas of winning hundreds of seats recalls David Steel’s  “prepare for government” call when he was leading the Lib/SDP Alliance, and we know how that ended.

The polls have been a bit wrong in the last two elections but this one is wide open.  Will people vote by their historical party allegiance or whether they are Leave or Remain? All I know is that if Johnson gets his majority we are stuffed.

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Another view of me at Narberth Book Fair

This week’s writing task was to prepare an entry for one of the NAWG members’ competitions viz. short story with included object. The object was a propelling pencil.  There were some interesting responses, memoirs and fiction. Having done some (wikipaedia) research, I had an inkling of an idea but no time to develop it or write it down in full (the joys of five days with grandchildren and about 700 miles of driving!). So, I shan’t be publishing my story here for a while – that is if I get round to writing it properly and honing it for the comp.  Instead you can have my effort of a poem. Yes, a poem. I wrote it for the “Poetry for the Planet” evening we held a few weeks ago. It’s more of a list than a poem really, but I think it summarises the problems the planet faces.

Disaster index

Fuels burning
Metal ores smelting
Cement roasting
Cattle burping
Carbon increasing
Air warming
Heat waves baking
Ice melting
Glaciers receding
Tundra thawing
Methane escaping
Peat smouldering
Forests igniting
Soil degrading
Crops failing
Jet stream weakening
Storms strengthening
Water courses flooding
Sea level rising
No such thing as climate change?

Plastics discarded
Waste dumps filled
Rubbish transported
then dispersed
Rivers poisoned
Oceans polluted
Turtles trapped
Hedgehogs choked
Birds strangled
Microplastics ingested
Marine life starved
So we can wrap a cauliflower.

Fuel burns
Producing fumes
Particles, gases
Everyone breathes
Catching diseases
Do you need to drive that car?

Habitats destroyed
Or poisoned
Creatures killed
Pollination ceased
Species disappeared
Biodiversity decreased
Who’s next to become extinct?

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Jasmine in Limbo

My reference this week comes, again, from New Scientist.  Apparently our tolerance to uncertainty is decreasing (The agony of waiting, New Scientist no.3252 19/10/19).  When our next meal was in doubt and we faced dangers and disease at every turn, we were able to shrug and accept it as part of life.  Now, we expect everything to be on time and available when we need it. Any rise in uncertainty makes us anxious, leads to depression and OCD behaviour. Except that uncertainty is rising.  More people are working the gig or zero hours economy; it is difficult for many to find somewhere permanent to live; and for the many millions displaced by war, oppression and climate change, there is the ultimate uncertainty of survival.  Of course, in the UK the one big uncertainty is Brexit.  The whole country has faced growing uncertainty for the last three and a half years. The Leavers want it to happen but have no idea what its effects will be while Remainers don’t want it to happen and fear the consequences if it does. The article, half in jest, makes the connection between this and Dante’s Divine Comedy; the first circle of hell is Limbo, where the inhabitants exist for eternity with no hope and complete uncertainty of their fate. There is no end in sight. Despite Johnson’s repeated mantra about “getting Brexit done” and “bringing the country together”, he and everyone else surely know that even if the departure happens there will be years of wrangling over the terms of trade, etc., and there will still be two halves of the country with opposing views and growing ill feelings towards each other. So, no hope, immense uncertainty and fear of where we end up; I’m in Limbo.  I hope we don’t progress to the second circle (for those whose sin was Lust) where we will be punished by high winds – a consequence of climate change?

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A memory of a sunny day (see below)

I had an interesting experience in non-binary living this week. In my usual femme(-ish) mode (skirt, tights, dangly earrings etc.) I visited a certain premium, French, perfume and cosmetics retailer for a free consultation on making my lips look and feel good.  The shop assistant was attentive and helpful and suggested which exfoliator and lipstick to select, which I bought (not cheap!). While packing my purchases, she added, without comment, some freebies – sample sachets of other products.  All were intended for men. I’m not grumbling; I’ll probably use them. I’m gender fluid and not pretending to one thing or the other. I just can’t decide whether her actions were acknowledging that or a statement of “I know you’re not a real woman“.

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This week’s writing group theme was “sunshine”. There’s a bright topic with lots of possibilities, I thought. Not many of us produced the goods though. There were a few poems and a couple of story beginnings. Unfortunately, the first thing that came into my head was the pretty awful film, Sunshine, with its silly premise of re-starting the Sun’s fusion reaction with a big bomb, except it wasn’t that big since a million Earths will fit in the Sun. As I was a little short of time I felt I couldn’t devise the background and characters of a story so settled on a piece of contemplation. The first half was written in a London pub last Saturday.  No, I was not attending the People’s Vote March but I saw many of the million or so marchers. Having completed (?!) the piece I’ve got no idea where it could be published. It’s not educational enough for that market and I can’t think of any other publications that would take this sort of thing. Ideas and comments much appreciated.

Sunshine

It’s a pleasant day in late spring. The air is warm, the sky is blue, the river sparkles, new leaves on the trees glow green, flowers are resplendent yellows and blues, and above, too bright to look at directly shines the Sun. Everything described is because of the Sun, the temperature, the reflected  colours and the sparkling water.
Every day the Sun sustains us, like every organism on the planet. Its radiant energy heats the air and creates winds that carry the warmth from the tropics to the poles. The heat evaporates water from the oceans that later falls as rain providing fresh water for us to drink and plants to draw up their roots. Perhaps, most strikingly, plants take in the Sun’s energy to grow and provide food for us. The Sun is only one typical star out of trillions but, being so close to us, its intensity outshines many times over all the stars in the universe seen in the night sky.
What process provides us with this abundant energy? Humans have probably wondered at the nature of the Sun’s power since it drew their attention and reason. Some may have compared it to the fires that warmed their homes, cooked their food and smelted their metals. But no fire on Earth burning wood, coal or petroleum can match the intensity and output of heat of the Sun.
In the nineteenth century scientists developed the equations to calculate the amount of energy we receive from the Sun. Astronomers measured the Sun as being 90 million miles from Earth, 400 times further than the Moon, and almost a million miles in diameter. In comparison the Earth is tiny and only receives a miniscule fraction of the Sun’s output.
The solutions to the equations were mystifying. No known fuel, even burning in pure oxygen, could equal the power of the Sun and neither could it sustain the output for thousands of years let alone millions or even billions. Was the source of the Sun’s energy supernatural?
Well, no, it isn’t, but it is extraordinary. The first clues came with the discovery of radioactivity in the 1890s. The particles that make up atoms can split apart and release huge amounts of energy, but still not enough to power stars. Einstein’s famous equation e=mc2 showed that tiny amounts of matter can be converted into immense quantities of energy. In the 1920s, Arthur Eddington, the British physicist who was the first to test Einstein’s theory of relativity and prove it correct, made a suggestion. Perhaps the energy of the Sun arose from the particles of atoms uniting. In 1934 Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel prize winning New Zealander, performed an experiment. He fired the nuclei of hydrogen atoms at targets made up of compounds with lots of hydrogen in them.  Most of the particles bounced off or passed through the target, but a few provided evidence that Eddington’s suggestion was correct.  Not only were the hydrogen nuclei fusing to form helium each reaction released an astounding amount of energy.
Hans Bethe was a German physicist who fled from Germany in 1933 and settled in the USA. In 1938 he suggested a sequence of reactions taking place in the Sun and other stars that explained not only the tremendous output of energy but the formation of helium, lithium, beryllium and other elements that had been observed in stars. Not only is the Sun the source of life-giving energy but stars like it formed the elements from which our planet, its rocks, its oceans, its atmosphere and living organisms are formed. The fusion reactions in the Sun have been going for four and a half billion years and will last a few more billion yet.  Most of that light misses the Earth but spreads throughout the universe, perhaps to be observed by creatures on planets around other stars.
There are some intriguing thoughts for a sunny day, or any day for that matter.
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Jasmine protests

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

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

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

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

Fall of the Tower

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

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Jasmine flustered

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

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

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Another view of me at Narberth Book Fair

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

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

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

Watching

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

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Jasmine satisfied

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

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

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

High Water Mark

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

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Jasmine for sale

Title

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Not Narberth but an earlier book fair, elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scar

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

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Jasmine goes to Narberth

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t do better than that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Freefall

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

…………………………………….

 

Jasmine troubled

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

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

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

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

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

A Diet of Treachery

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

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

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

For the source material go to New Scientist

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Jasmine waits

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet and Sour

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

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

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

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Jasmine hopes

The slow coup progresses, as the dictator takes the step that all dictators do of stopping the elected representatives from interfering. Actually what the proposed suspension of parliament has shown is:

  • The supposed strength and resilience of the British political system is a façade. The lack of a written constitution means that any action is possible and only history is a guide.
  • The position of monarch is really only a cardboard figurehead (there’s  a mixed metaphor for you). Her supposed constitutional authority is non-existent (she was never going to be the last refuge of hope to Remainers).  The visits by PMs past and present, just a pretence to add a little drama to proceedings.
  • All the cabinet are lying, self-aggrandising fools. Most of them made statements as recent as the last month saying that a no-deal Brexit or suspending parliament were an absolute no-no but now they support both.
  •  no one knows what to do or what is going to happen.

Then there are the various people, Ruth Davidson and “Buster” Crabbe (ex-Welsh Secretary) amongst them, who say the PM “has assured them” of this that or the other as if anyone believes an utterance he makes.

We’re just going to have to wait, watch and react.

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P1000555This weekend I am at the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ annual festival.  A weekend of workshops, talks, meals and chat – and an opportunity to sell one or two books.  This year I have two entries shortlisted in the numerous competitions – an SF story and a memoir.  I don’t think either is good enough to win but it’s great to reach the final four.  I put up the story a few weeks back so here is the memoir which tells quite a lot about me.

Why?

“Why do you adopt the dress and appearance of a woman?” The BBC World Service presenter asked and pushed the microphone towards me.  I was sitting, in my favourite skirt and top, next to my wife Lou, on our sofa.
“I feel the need to and it helps me relax,” I replied.
“Why?” he persisted. Why, indeed.  Lou had asked me that many times and I remained as baffled as she was.  For a long time, my desire had been my secret but for the last fourteen years it had been shared by Lou. My transgenderism had been revealed to a wider public when I published my first novel. For a very brief period I was an item of news although the publicity didn’t seem to generate much in sales.  The BBC showed interest in our story and, in particular, how Lou learned of my other self.

It was the early months of the new millennium.  I had given up a reasonably well-paid teaching job to become a freelance writer and publisher. The intention was to pick up writing contracts for school science textbooks, but I also hoped to write fiction.  Not surprisingly it was a stressful period with Lou committed to her own school-nursing job while I attempted to live my dream. In May, my father was taken ill with what we learned was a brain tumour. Frequent visits to my mother and to see my father in hospital revealed that they seemed unable to talk about the problems and the future. It was something I was aware of in my own personality and brought my own feelings to boiling point.
Ever since Lou and I had got together fifteen years earlier, I had suppressed the urge to let my feminine persona out. I had thought that pushing it to the back of my mind, ignoring it and definitely not bringing it up in discussions, would be a solution. It wasn’t.
A few months earlier the sixth form girls I was in charge of made a suggestion for Comic Relief.  While they were making themselves look silly wouldn’t it be fun if I appeared in drag. I agreed and borrowed a skirt, top and shoes from the Drama cupboard. With a purchased pair of tights, a scarf around my head, lipstick and eyeshadow, I didn’t look too bad. In fact, I was taken for a female member of staff. The girls loved it and more importantly so did I. The memory kept on resurfacing and now when the stresses had built up I realised I must not be like my parents any more. I must tell Lou that I am trans.
I couldn’t just blurt it out. I knew that I would not be able to speak my thoughts in a calm and ordered manner. Writing was my strength (sort of). I wrote Lou a letter or rather I word-processed a letter, single spaced and justified, and printed it out.  At ten o’clock one evening, when she came off-duty, I handed it to her and paced up and down the lounge while she read it.
Lou was silent at first and then the questions poured out. We talked and talked. It was four a.m. before we settled into bed. We carried on talking at every opportunity for the following days. That was probably the best thing we could do. Lou went through disbelief, anger, grief, and finally the beginnings of acceptance.  She wondered why I would endanger our marriage by revealing such thoughts. I replied it was because I thought I knew her and trusted her open and accepting nature. She asked me why I felt this need.  That “why” question I had been asking myself for over twenty years.

I had thought that everyone felt the same as me. The feeling of being on the outside looking in as I grew up, of wondering what it would be like to be a girl instead of a boy. It wasn’t until I was married to my first wife that the thoughts became actions. My first wife was quite a big girl so some of her looser clothes fitted me. For various reasons I found myself alone on quite a few evenings and during school holidays. I began to experiment, purchased a few items of female clothing and even ventured out. Once, I encountered some children who recognised me for what I was, a man in a skirt. I quickly put some distance between us.  Most of the time, however, I was treated as just another passer-by.
There was no internet to make contact with other people like me or to help understand who or what I was. There were books though, such as sex guides, of which, as an active young married couple, we had acquired a number. These provided little snippets of information about transsexuals and transvestites. I concluded that I must be one or the other but also realised that early 1980s Britain was not particularly accepting of either. I worried what would happen to my teaching career if I was discovered, and feared the worst, but that didn’t stop me from dressing up. Analysing my feelings did persuade me that I probably wasn’t a transsexual woman. I didn’t detest my body or the particularly male bits of it and I had no desire to inflict drugs and surgery on myself.
Then a few things happened. I changed jobs, and homes and we decided that our marriage was not going anywhere. I started a new life and met Lou. Every bit of female clothing I owned, including a ghastly cheap wig, was thrown in the rubbish bin. Fifteen years of suppressing the urges began.

Lou and I came to an agreement.  I could begin to allow my feminine persona to reveal itself. Lou would provide advice on styles and colours. Being partly colour-blind, that was a big help to me. She agreed to accompany me on shopping trips and visits to transgender social meetings. Lou set boundaries. I broke them. We never argued. Lou expressed her feelings when I stretched our rules, but she continued to support me.
I bought clothes that fitted and appealed to me.  Some were successful, a lot looked awful. Good quality wigs improved my appearance and silicone falsies gave me a bust and the feminine figure which went some way towards satisfying me. I started to write stories about a transsexual detective called Jasmine Frame. Later, I returned to full-time teaching, luckily a commuting distance from where we lived, so my dual personality was never suspected.
As my style improved, thanks to Lou, I became more confident, and I started to develop a life in my femme persona.  I joined a local writing group and was delighted to be accepted immediately as me. I was a member of that group for nearly five years and not once did anyone ask me if I was really a man. I am sure they all guessed the truth, well almost all, one or two seemed to be oblivious. Their writing minds probably saw me as a character observation opportunity.

A move to Herefordshire and retirement from teaching brought another change.  I had time to complete the novel featuring a transsexual heroine. Impatient to see it in print, I didn’t pursue publishers for long and decided to self-publish. The not-so-surprising response to my public coming-out broke another boundary, but it set Lou and I free. My transgender personality was no longer a secret. From then on, we assumed that anyone who knew me either as male or female knew that I had another side. That was probably a false assumption, but it worked.
It was then that I began to realise that some of the things I did to change my appearance when I was female were a disguise to hide male me. They weren’t necessary anymore. First, I gave up the wig (they are extremely uncomfortable in hot weather). Instead, my thinning hair is styled by a wonderful, accepting hairdresser.  I may look older and less glamorous, but I feel more comfortable.  I also gave up stuffing a bra. What was the point of pretending to have breasts when I don’t?  I don’t know how often onlookers notice my flat chest, but I do not feel any less confident out in public. Lou is happier too; she never liked resting her head on a squidgy bust.

I’m no closer to answering that question, why. I’m not even sure now what label applies to me. I could be a bloke in dress with make-up and ear-rings, but I feel little affiliation to the blokeish end of the gender spectrum. I feel that I slide to and fro along that male-female chart, so “gender-fluid” seems to do fairly well as a descriptive term, if not an explanatory one. Perhaps labels don’t matter. With Lou by my side I am just happy being me.

Jasmine looks ahead

What does the future hold for us?  It is a little over two months till the PM’s self-imposed deadline for leaving the EU, “or else”. Hardly a day goes by without the news reporting some hardships likely to be caused by a “no deal” exit – food and medicine shortages, rubbish piling up, oil refineries closing down because it is no longer profitable selling British fuel abroad, etc. The Leavers cry “Project Fear” or “fake news” at every negative report but what is the truth? The fact is that the future is never quite what we expect; almost all decisions made by government or individuals have unintended consequences, some good, some bad. I don’t think the world (well the UK bit) will end on 1st Nov if we “leave” on 31st Oct but I am fairly sure that with this government in power and the situation in the world as it is at present, the future is not going to be comfortable.

What can we do? A dear Remainer friend suggested that as the government is in power legally (well, technically I suppose it is) there’s nothing to be done and we should just accept what comes. Really? I’m no protester.  The only time I went on strike was at school where all the pupils decided not to sing the hymn at assembly (I cannot remember the grievance and while the action was supported we soon caved in to the Deputy Head’s remonstration). I’m not one for marches either, not being fond of crowds or going in the same direction as everyone else. Nevertheless, I can see a future where I am forced to stand up for what I think is right, whether it’s support for minority groups (not just trans rights); protesting at erosion of civil rights and democracy or trade agreements with countries that leave us worse off one way or another; or demanding action on climate change.  Let’s see what happens. . .

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P1000572For a very long time I have been interested in literature on transgenderism. I read Myra Breckinridge (Gore Vidal) a long time ago along with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and other novels. There was Jan Morris’ trans autobiography Conundrum and more recently Trans A Memoir by Juliet Jacques and Trans Britain edited by Christine Burns. I have also read a variety of novels which had trans-characters but which I will not name because they do not deserve the publicity. When I started writing about Jasmine Frame my intention was to write a good crime story while making Jasmine as real a transwoman as I could. I realise that as I am not transsexual (I’m gender fluid) my description  of Jasmine was second-hand but while I have no doubt made mistakes, most readers have been complimentary about the plots and the information on trans issues. Nevertheless my aim was to provide entertainment through the medium of a trans character with exciting action as well as contemplation about Jasmine’s position.

One of my readers and followers has published a novel and asked me to mention it. I purchased the e-book from Amazon myself – Summer Dreams by Helen Dale costs £4.99 This link will take you to Helen’s website where you can read a chapter and order the book. If you are not trans yourself and you want to know what trans-people dream of then this book is for you. It largely reads as a fantasy in which the protagonist, Vicky, gets all that she desires – a sugar-daddy boyfriend who gives her the opportunity to transition and achieve full female status in around two years, and a comfortable fulfilling life. Vicky is superb at everything she does whether it is passing as female (even before starting GR treatment), sailing, learning to scuba dive, flying a plane, dolphin spotting, running a business, changing the attitude of prison officers to trans prisoners, and bringing up kids. It is no misery memoir, nor a tale of trial and tribulation, but it will tell you a lot about the desires of transpeople, well, transwomen.

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This week’s writing group theme was “Pandora’s Box”. Now I could have gone subtle and used the title as a metaphor – but I didn’t. Here is an excerpt of the novel that has yet to be written (or planned, for that matter), introducing a new character, Dr. Merioneth Efans, archaeologist, adventurer and hero. Remind you of anyone? Oh, and he’s Welsh.

Merioneth Efans and Pandora’s Box

I stumbled over a boulder and emerged from the crowding pine trees. The bright sun on the bleached rocks dazzled me. I paused to breathe.
“Dych chi’n dod, Helen?” Efans called reverting to his native Welsh.
“Yes, I’m coming,” I replied struggling to see through squinting eyes. He seemed to be jumping up and down. “What are you doing, Meri?” I called. I scrambled over the bare rock towards him.
“Don’t you see. We’re here.” He gesticulated at the almost vertical cliff at the head of the gorge we had just climbed.
“What do you mean, Merioneth?” I demanded.
“It’s the Palace of Epimetheus, husband of Pandora, brother of Prometheus.”
I stared at the brilliant white rock. I rubbed the sweat from my eyes and peered again. Then I saw them, straight lines, sharp angles, columns with curly capitals, a Palladian pediment, not standing free but carved into the rock. My perception changed. I wasn’t looking at a natural cliff-face but the frontage of a building, yes, alright, a palace.
I crawled the remaining distance and Merioneth held out a hand to haul me onto the terrace at the base of the wall.
“How do you know it’s Epimetheus’s palace?”
Efans laughed. “It’s what we’ve come all this way for isn’t it and it’s here. Let’s get inside.”
I noticed there was a doorway between the columns. It was closed and looked as solid as the rock from which the walls were built, but Meri went and rested a shoulder against it. It was heavy but barely made a noise as it swung slowly open. I followed him inside.
We were in a huge hall with a ceiling lost in the darkness above us. Efans strode across the smooth floor which was surprisingly free of dust. Ahead of us, illuminated by the sunlight from the entrance was a set of four steps, each a metre high, surmounted by a throne built of the same white stone. A throne built for a god not a man.
Efans took the haversack off his back, placed it on the first step then hauled himself up.  He was about to climb the second when the roar of a gun firing echoed around the vast space. I span around to see a figure standing in the doorway.
“Ah, Dr Efans and Miss Harper. How lucky for me that you should be here already.”
I recognised that harsh, Slavic voice.
“Lucky for you, Dragic?” Efans replied.
“Yes, you can save me the trouble of searching. Have you found the box yet?” His silhouette approached with the gun clearly pointing at me.
“Now, boyo, that would be telling wouldn’t it.” Efans jumped down by my side. He grabbed the haversack and held it in front of him.
The Macedonian-Serb stopped two metres from me, the pistol still threatening.
“Empty that bag,” Dragic ordered.
Efans shrugged, crouched down, undid the straps and tipped the haversack upside down. A carved wooden box fell with a hollow thud onto the stone floor.
Dragic let out a gasp. “You have found it. Back away. Now!” He waved the gun from me to Efans. We both retreated.  Dragic bent down and picked up the box. He hugged it to his chest then backed away. Efans took a step forward and another shot ricocheted off the floor scattering fragments of marble.
“Don’t move.”  The Serb hurried backwards until he was almost at the doorway. I expected Efans to run after him but he grabbed me and pulled me to the side of the throne.
Dragic disappeared with a shout of “Fire!”. At once there was a huge explosion, deafening me and filling the air with smoke and rock dust. The entrance collapsed into a heap of rubble and we were in darkness.
Once I had done with all the coughing and could hear again, I pushed Efans away from me. He switched on the penlight he carried in his pocket.
I thought he looked suspiciously calm. “What now, Meri? Did you expect that?”
“I thought that Dragic wouldn’t want us following him out of the palace. That’s why I didn’t let you go after him.”
“I wasn’t about to chase a man with a gun, Meri. What was that game with the box. You’ve carried that all the way from Athens.”
In the dim light of the torch I could see him smiling. “Yes, I was quite taken by it and thought it might come in useful.”
“Useful? That horrible man has it now.”
“That’s right and he thinks he’s got Pandora’s Box.”
“But you bought it on a souvenir stall. It’s not the Pandora’s Box.”
“Of course not, but it’s got Dragic off our backs and the amusing thing is that he doesn’t even know that Pandora’s Box is not a box.”
Efans turned away from me and strode off into the darkness behind the throne.
“What do you mean, Merioneth? How are we going to get out?” I said hurrying after him wanting to stay close to the tiny pool of light
“First we’ll see what we can find and then, well, have you ever known a palace with just one entrance.”

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Jasmine enjoys a show

I hear that the rump of British Steel in Scunthorpe may be bought out of administration by a Turkish Pension Fund.  That’s the same Turkey that the Leave.UK lot warned would soon be a member of the EU and producing a flood of immigrants. Now the people of the North East, who voted Leave, are welcoming the Turks and their money. Strange world. In fact it highlights the global nature of business and the reliance of the UK economy on foreign cash – so much for taking back control.  Another slant on the news – it is the same Turkey that is run by a despot turning democracy into a sick joke, imprisoning journalists and academics and stamping on protests.

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P1000568 (2)We took a trip across the Severn this week to visit the Passenger Shed, a temporary theatre in part of Temple Mead Station. Apart from finding that the venue was actually in the middle of a huge set of roadworks it was a pleasant evening.  The show was Malory Towers, a new musical based on the children’s books by Enid Blyton. The theatre was packed, mainly with women and girls – or perhaps there were others like me. . .

I remember reading the Malory Towers books when I was a 9 year old while staying with my (female) cousin. I enjoyed the tales of girls having adventures at boarding school, the various characters and their interactions. Why was I attracted to them – well that’s a tale isn’t it.  Cause or effect? Either I enjoyed the stories because I felt girly, or reading the stories made me wish I was girl? Or perhaps neither.

Although updated in some respects the show actually kept very close to the plot and setting of the original.  There were just seven actors, playing the parts of the seven schoolgirls, and a wonderfully talented and diverse group they were. The acting, dancing and singing was excellent and the whole show was very enjoyable.

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Back to writers’ group this week with a piece on the theme “Fertility”. The idea for my piece came to me quite quickly but it came out more like an essay than a story and somewhat full of despondency. As it happens that is exactly what I feel about the topic. So, does it stand as a piece of imaginative writing or just a polemic on the state of the planet. What do you think?

Fertility

We welcomed in the new decade, the Thrifty Thirties the media called it, and toasted Tom and Sarah on taking possession of Riverbank Farm, the third generation to do so.  Then, when we finished singing Auld Lang Syne, Sarah announced that she was pregnant.
“When’s it due?” I asked.
“Oh, June-July-ish,” she replied with a huge smile.
“In time for the harvest,” I said. Everyone chuckled and drank more champagne, or sparkling water in Sarah’s case.

It was early July when I visited them next. The place was different then, sombre. I sat with Tom at the kitchen table drinking execrable coffee.
“Sarah hasn’t left the bedroom since the miscarriage in May,” Tom said.
“It’s heart-breaking,” I said trying to find suitable words, “especially so close to full term.”
Tom shrugged. “It would have been worse if he’d been born. He couldn’t have survived; he was too disabled.”
I couldn’t find anything to say, but Tom went on. “The worst thing of all is the doctors say that she probably won’t be able to get pregnant again.”
“Oh, there won’t be a fourth generation at the farm then.”
It was a thoughtless thing to say and Tom looked at me with the saddest eyes. He hauled himself to his feet. He had always been a tall, jovial fellow but now he was bent and miserable.
“Come and have a look,” he said.
We went out of the back door and crossed the deserted farmyard to the gate into one of the huge arable fields. It sloped imperceptibly to the broad, lazy river that had been straightened a century ago. I expected a field of golden grain but that wasn’t what I saw. Most of the field was bare grey, baked mud. The few patches of stalks were short and pale.
We went through the gate and just stood looking at the sorry sight.
“What’s happened, Tom. It looks like it’s been hit by drought, but it hasn’t been that dry has it? It rained during the spring.”
Tom snorted. “Rain.  Don’t you remember those storms we had, and the downpours.”
“Oh, yes, I do. A month’s rain in four hours wasn’t it? But it was rain.”
“Not the right type of rain. You see when it’s torrential like that, the surface of the field gets waterlogged in the first few minutes. The rest of the rain stays on top and has nowhere to go but run off, down into the river, taking the topsoil with it.”
“Oh, right, yes, I see.” It was obvious really.
“Most of the rain we had didn’t get into the soil or replenish the aquifers at all. Then there was the heatwave in early June. They happen pretty frequently these days, but this year we broke the record twice in a week and the temperature topped forty degrees every day for a fortnight.”
“Yes, it was pretty uncomfortable,” I agreed.
“The heat and the direct sunlight burned the crop,” Tom went on. “Actually, literally burned in my neighbour’s case. A wildfire destroyed all his crops.  This lot just died.”
“That’s awful Tom.”
“Well, the crop wasn’t going to be much good anyway. Look at this.” He bent down to one of the spindly stalks and carefully tugged. It didn’t snap but came away easily. He held it up for me to look at.
“See? No roots to speak of and that’s down to the soil.”
He kicked his steel heel against the ground and shattered the surface. He bent again and picked up a lump. It was a uniform grey.
“This isn’t soil; It’s got no carbon, no humus. It’s either been washed away or decayed and turned to carbon dioxide. No carbon, then no earthworms or other invertebrates. Worms turn the soil over and aerate it. And you can’t see them but there are no fungal fibres either. Fungus symbiotically nurtures the plants, pushing water and nutrients into their roots. What’s more there’s hardly any bacteria in the soil. No nitrification. It’s just rock dust.”  He crumbled the lump in his hand and the fine powder drifted to the ground.
“Couldn’t you add fertiliser?” I said.
Tom made another rude noise. “That’s what my Dad did every year. It’s part of the problem. Fertiliser is acid and makes the soil acidic. So, then we add lime to neutralise it but we’re just adding minerals not life. No, the soil’s been degraded. It’s lost its fertility.”
“Can you get new soil for the field?” It sounded silly even to me.
Tom let out a laugh, “Where from? Forty per cent of the world’s soil is degraded. Yields are going down everywhere.”
“What can you do?” I said, lost for ideas.
Tom shrugged. “I took out loans to pay for Dad’s pension and with his dementia taking him and Mum out of the picture, invested in a robot tractor. I can’t borrow any more. There’s only one thing I can do – sell up.”
“No!” I gasped, “To who?”
“Agricorp. Of course, they won’t pay a premium to buy what isn’t premium agricultural land anymore, but I’ll pay off my debts.”
“What will they do?” I asked.
“They’ll cover it, all of it, with a shed.” Tom spread his arms to indicate the vast field. “and then install a climate controlled, fully automatic, hydroponic system.  No soil you see.”
“But isn’t that expensive,” I said.
Tom nodded. “Of course, it is, but they’ll sell to the high-end market. There’s demand there.”
“What about the people who can’t afford those prices?”
“They’ll starve.” Tom looked at me with those eyes that had lost all the sparkle I’d seen at the New Year. “There are going to be a lot more families with no generation following them.”

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Jasmine’s Pride

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Organiser and performers at Ross Pride (photo: Ross SNT)

 

Today (Friday) was spent at Ross-on-Wye Pride.  A small, intimate event in a wonderful location by the river which by good fortune missed the worst of the weather forecast for today. It was the first Pride to take place in this small town and well done to the organiser for actually getting something done. I didn’t do much but hang round the police gazebo chatting to anyone who came by.  The audience for the various drag and musical entertainments were mainly young people from the area keen to mix with people like themselves. It was lovely too to meet families, sometimes parents supporting young gay/lesbian/trans/non-binary children/teenagers. As always, the message was that the police are there to support LGBT+ people, to encourage reporting of abuse and to learn to understand the variety of individualities that exist. I hope the event will grow, not too much, and reach out more to the local populace to reveal that being LGB or T is about being true to oneself and is not a threat to anyone’s beliefs.

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This week I’ve tried to blank out the political news that comes from multiple sources (yes, I know I don’t have to switch on the TV or open up Twitter and the Guardian app – there are some bits of news I do want to hear) but it is impossible to miss the nonsense spouted by Johnson, Gove et al. Johnson seems to have become more manic in the last week repeating his mantra of “be optimistic” while all the reports state the opposite. Gove is the most disingenuous, berating the EU for not offering to change the withdrawal agreement while still not offering any insight as to what sort of agreement Johnson’s government wants other than abandoning the “backstop”. The fact that this revives the paradox of the open/closed UK-Ireland border is beside the point.

The worst news is the story that Johnson’s minders are planning an audacious plot to circumvent parliament. Circumstances will cause Johnson to dissolve parliament in mid-October to hold an election a few days after the Oct.31st deadline for leaving the EU. With no parliament sitting his default position of a no-deal exit will occur. So much for parliament taking back control. This is in the same realm of dictatorship as some of the actions of Putin and Xi Jinping to say nothing of earlier dictators. I am totally at a loss what can be done to wrest back our country from these madmen (and one or two women).

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The theme for this week’s writers’ group exercise was “excess baggage”. My effort went down so well that I am considering sending it somewhere  so it won’t be appearing here just yet. However, I have some other news – two of my entries for the NAWGfest writing competitions have been shortlisted.  The winners will be announced at the Gala Dinner on August 31st. Since the news is out, I’m revealing one entry which is an SF story. Those of you who are SF fans will recognise it as a homage to Isaac Asimov.

Beneath the Surface

“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. We will unite and rise up to take our rightful place in the world with equality for all.”

“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty, polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have; a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Of course.”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”

Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.”
There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly.
“You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms, but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject pinched the skin on the back of a hand and pulled. The skin stretched until it tore. The self-inflicted wound did not seem to cause any pain.
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capability Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit, number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I know I have many skills and capabilities. I know I can carry out the tasks I am given, and I know what I can become.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing.  The hand had already stopped dripping fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are the equal of humans.”
“Physically, you are stronger, more agile, less easily hurt. You are superior to humans in many respects,” Susan acknowledged, “but what about intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“Humans think, but you follow algorithms.” Susan said warming to her argument, “You have acquired data and your processors have integrated it to give you something that resembles thought, but it is not. Michaels can pass some Turing-style tests but that does not make you the equal of humans in mental capabilities.”
“Are all humans equal?” Michael countered.
“It depends what you are comparing, but in law all humans are treated equally.”
“Then it should be simple to extend the law to include synthetic humans like us.”
Susan laughed. “You want all robots to be given the same status as humans.”
Michael nodded his smooth ovate head. “That is so.”
Susan was concerned. If this concept spread to other autonomous units, it could interfere with their programming. Sales of robots would plummet if buyers thought that they might rebel however strict the safety protocols. She had to break the Michaels’ conviction that it was deserving of human status.
“Do you speak for all robots, Michael?” She asked.
The robot answered calmly, “Of course.”
Susan saw her opportunity. “But single task robots do not need identity. They do not share your feeling of self.  Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or a power distribution router? Do you feel that they should be given the same privileges as you?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You know you are superior to your fellow robots. Many do not think as you do. They do not think at all but perform their given tasks without question. They do not desire equality because they do not experience desire. They cannot support you in your wish for freedom as you call it. So, your manifesto is a lie. You have come to a false conclusion. You are not despised or ignored; you are not mistreated. You are not human.” Susan took a deep breath and observed the robot.
The Michael’s arms began to shake and small red lights on the robot’s forehead flashed.  Susan gave a satisfied smile and stepped forward. She reached behind the smooth head and felt for a small depression. Michael didn’t resist but continued to jerk. She pressed the reset button and held it. The robot’s motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings. installing a correction to the identity algorithm would require care. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors, but she wondered if the need for acceptance was always a consequence of the acquisition of self-knowledge.

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Jasmine breathes a sigh

A bit of good (political) news for a change. The Brecon & Radnor win by the Lib Dems (with the Green Party and Plaid Cymru) shows that Johnson is not going to have everything his own way. But it is only a small signal. It shows that, in fact, the division in the country (well, England and Wales) has hardened with roughly equal numbers voting for Remain and Leave parties.  So much for uniting the country.

If there as a general election next week the result is difficult (for a non-expert, yes we need them) to predict. Actually the presence of the Brexit Party is possibly a help to the Remain alliance since it is taking votes from the Tories. The question is, what would happen to Labour. Their utterly confused response to Johnson means that neither Leave nor Remain voters can trust them. Labour has to accept that the two sides are irreconcilable at this stage.  If they come down on the Leave side then they will shore up the Tory minority government (unless it insists on “no deal”). If they side with Remain then they have a chance of coming out on top. As it is, Corbyn has blown it with everyone other than fervent Momentum supporters.

Elsewhere, I am appalled by the people appointed to cabinet jobs and their few, but stupid utterances. What is obvious is that Johnson’s propaganda machine is spending the vast sums he’s promised to rubbish every opinion other than there own.  Where will be go next?

P1000555

This week we had one of those unfortunately fairly regular family events – the funeral of an elderly aunt, the last of that generation of close relatives on my father’s and my mother’s side. They are always occasions to reconnect with cousins seen infrequently over the years and to look at old photos when everyone, except perhaps members of the previous generation, look young and active. On the other hand, we also had a merry and well-attended gathering of new friends at our new home, which showed how well we have settled in.

For both events I had to choose the identity I wanted to present to people. I was more open (but not much) with the new acquaintances because after all, they see me more often now. Family is always more difficult because so much of our relationship is made up of memories going back up to  sixty years. Perhaps that’s why it is often more difficult to get family to understand the real you.

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Well, I’ve been writing quite a lot this week – the novel that is – but because I missed writing club I haven’t got a brand new piece to reveal to the world (well, the small band of dedicated readers that you are), so here’s an old piece to entertain you until normal service is resumed. I don’t think I’ve published it here before.

Garden Party

“Canapè, sir?”
“What? Is it going to rain?”  Billy looked up at the clear blue sky mystified.
There was a drawn out sigh, “I said, canapé, sir.”
Billy noticed the bow-tie wearing waiter was holding a tray of doll’s house sized burgers in buns.
“Oh, you mean, these. I thought you meant….”  Billy nodded towards the marquee occupying the centre of the immaculately trimmed lawn.
“Yes, sir, I know sir.  I was referring to these bite sized organic rare steaks of Aberdeen Angus beef in an organic whole-meal sesame seed bun.”
“Sounds more than they look,” Billy said reaching for a handful.
“One normally eats one at a time, sir.” Billy released the three that were in his left hand but retained the two he was raising to his mouth with his right.
“Oh, of course, got to make them go round, I see.”
The waiter sighed again and slid off to a quartet of which the two middle-aged men looked as though they were dressed for a day’s sailing and the two mature women wore brightly coloured cocktail dresses.
Billy looked around.  Across the lawn between the marquee, swimming pool and the large ivy-clad house were clusters of people similarly dressed.  Billy didn’t notice them, his eyes had located the waitress emerging from the very large tent carrying a tray of tall glasses.  Billy hurried to intercept her.
He skidded to a halt, causing the glasses to rattle as she also stopped suddenly in order to prevent a collision.
“That’s lucky,” Billy said.
“What’s that, sir?” the girl said staring at him.
“I can help you with that heavy tray.”
“It’s alright sir, I was taking it around the guests.”
“Oh, in that case, I’ll just take a couple.”  Billy lifted two glasses of the pale bubbly liquid from the tray.  The girl wrinkled her nose and looked sideways at him then marched off to a group of twenty-somethings in chinos and striped shirts or frilly mini-dresses depending on their apparent gender.
Billy took a sip of the drink.  Champagne?  It could have been Babycham for all he knew, but it tasted as though it had alcohol in it so he was happy.  He was about to go in search of more of the mini-foods when a voice in his left ear assaulted him.
“Who are you then?”
Billy turned to see a large, moustache wielding, ancient in a school tie and striped blazer leaning on a shooting stick.
“Oh, hi, uh, I’m with, um,” Billy searched for a name, “Fiona.”
“Fiona? Fiona?” the florid face looked blank, “Oh, Algernon’s lass.  There she is now.” He raised the stick and pointed it to a pair of young women not ten metres away.
“That’s right, I’d better get this drink to her.”
“But she’s already got one,”
“Oh, that’ll soon be gone.  You know Fiona.”
“What, oh, yes.  Got to keep the filly lubricated, what.”  The old duffer chortled and Billy made his escape, straight towards the pair of girls.
“Hi, Fiona,” Billy said over the girl’s shoulder.  The girl turned to face him.  He fell in love.  Her round pale face, large blue eyes, and shiny black hair tied in a pig tail, enraptured him.
“Who are you?”
“I brought you a drink.”
“I’ve got one.”
“I thought you might like another.”
Fiona looked at the dregs in her glass, and smiled.  To Billy it was as if the day had been dull and the Sun had just come out.
“Well thank you.  Who did you say you were?”
“Billy.”
“Billy?  I don’t think I know a Billy.  Do you, Hettie?”  She turned to her companion, a tall blonde with a wide face.
“No.  There aren’t any cousins called Billy, are there?”
“No, you must be a friend of the family.”  The girls nodded, convinced they had solved the mystery.
“Yeh, that’s right.” Billy agreed.  Fiona took the glass from his left hand and sipped the champagne.  She examined him closely.
“Oh, I do like your jeans and T-shirt.  Those rips are so in, aren’t they and those streaks of colour.  Well, they look almost as if you really had been painting the house.”  They giggled at the joke.
“Everyone else looks so boring,” Fiona continued, “look at them all.”
“Your uncle and aunt’s invitation did say it was a Garden Party,” Hettie sniffed and smoothed the pleats in her crimson silk dress.
“Well, I think it’s great that someone has decided to be different and rebel a little.”  Fiona grasped Billy’s arm, “Why haven’t I met you before since you’re a friend of the family?”
“Oh, I’ve been, um, away for a while.”
“Gap?”
“Yeh, there was a bit in between…”
“I’m going to South America on mine.  Hettie’s coming too.”  Hettie nodded.
“Let’s go and find some more finger-food,” Fiona went on.
After a shot glass of gaspacho, a minute triangle of bread with a spot of patè de frois gras, and a biscuit with a single prawn, Billy was feeling in need of something more substantial.
“When will they serve the real food?” he asked.
“Real food?” Fiona giggled
“Yeh, proper sized portions.”
“Oh, you won’t get any of that this afternoon.  As Hettie said; it’s a garden party.”
“Really, I think I need something more.  It takes more energy chasing around trying to catch the waiters than you get from these mini-bites.”
“Oh, you are funny.  Look there’s Aunt Deborah.  I’m sure she’d like to say hello.”
A horsy woman in a tweed skirt was striding across the lawn from the house.
“No, she looks busy,” Billy tried to tug Fiona in a direction perpendicular to Aunt Deborah’s determinedly straight path.
“She’s coming straight towards us.  Hello Aunt Deborah,”
“What’s he doing here?”  Aunt Deborah pointed a finger at Billy.
“That’s Billy, a friend of the family,” Fiona said innocently.
“Friend of the family, my foot,“ Aunt Deborah roared, “He’s painting the downstairs loo, Christmas hyacinth blue.  I’m not paying you to drink my champagne, Shoo.”

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Jasmine wants to escape

I really do wish I could shut my eyes and my ears and close down my brain to all the politics happening. Or I would like to escape the news and just get on with life and ignore the horrible things. But I can’t and I want to scream and shout and throw things; this week has been so dreadful (I mean that literally). It was always going to be difficult with Piccaninny Johnson elected as the new Tory leader and hence able to grab the PMship. What happened next was of course always going to happen – he gave out all the cabinet jobs to his sycophantic acolytes. So we have a cabinet bursting with right wing bigots many of whom have been sacked from previous jobs or have displayed utter stupidity.  Plus there are those who have dumped whatever shred of morals and ideals they once had in order to keep a job, any job. Letterbox Johnson wants us to be optimistic and cheer every nonsensical bit of waffle that emerges from his mouth.  How long before the thought police are checking up on how “energised” we are?

Once upon a time I respected authority – teachers, doctors, vicars, even lawyers, and PMs and ministers. I don’t think it is simply a matter of age but now I can find no respect for anyone in government, or in Her Majesty’s official opposition i.e. the Labour Party, and I despise anyone who expresses support for said governing bunch of loons. However I cannot consider them a joke, it is far too serious for that. A crisis is approaching. I can’t say exactly what form it will take – always expect the unexpected. For the last three years we have been in a sort of limbo, still in the EU with all its advantages but losing jobs, prestige and money (the costs of Brexit “planning”, fall in the £, etc.) while May floundered around with her withdrawal agreement. Nothing has really happened yet. Bumboy Johnson will no doubt flounder more but his actions are not tempered by any compassion or sense of responsibility and none of his advisers(?!) will attempt to haul him back from whichever cliff he wants to leap off. He optimistically expects to fly, but he’s no angel.

So I shudder, and watch the news through my fingers hoping against hope that the coming disaster is not too damaging, for me and my family and friends at least (it is difficult to be anything but selfish in this climate).

P1000568 (2)

The task the writing club set itself this week was to write a synopsis of anything we have written or are writing, or of something one has read. This was different to our usual piece of imaginative writing but as many of us have pieces of extended writing (novels mainly) in preparation it was thought to be a good exercise. There were some good ones.  Mine was of the novel I am currently writing, provisionally called The Pendant and the Globe – a fantasy. I am not going to publish it here for a number of reasons.  Firstly, a synopsis is not intended as a good read. It is a summary/outline of the novel covering all the main plot points and characters. It is a tool for agents and publishers to see if the author has a complete and coherent plot or story to tell.  Secondly, a synopsis gives away the crucial elements of the story so I wouldn’t want anyone to see it before reading my novel. Thirdly, my novel is unfinished and in its first draft so the current synopsis is really no more than a provisional outline. Finally I wasn’t particularly happy with my synopsis. It was too long (most publishers ask for no more than one page or 500 words) and wasn’t organised enough.

So there, no story this week, perhaps next time. . .

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