Jasmine watches

Have you watched the first episode of the new BBC series ,Years and Years.  It is by Russel T Davies and follows a family of diverse characters over the next fifteen years. It started from the present as experienced by us and cleverly included news from the very day of broadcast – the death of Doris Day. This gave it a feeling of immediacy and reality. It quickly moved to five years in the future when things are happening (no spoilers).  The blurb suggests it is building on today’s rise of right-wing activism, the growing influence of populist politicians and international relations (Trump’s America, China, Brexit etc.). It is a worrying vision – and that’s only the first episode. A few caveats:

1  It’s only the first episode

2  It’s entertainment, so it will be dramatic (contain gay sex – it’s Russell T. Davies after all) and will be an exaggerated version of reality.

3  Futurists invariably get the future wrong – we don’t wear silver suits (not all of us anyway), or drive aircars or live in mile high apartment blocks, and we haven’t had a nuclear holocaust, yet.

Nevertheless it has picked up on a some very disturbing aspects of today. John Crace, the Guardian’s political sketch writer, attended a meeting of Farage’s Brexit party this week and came away terrified of what it portended. According to opinion polls some 30% of the voting population are intending to vote for the Brexit party in the EU elections next week. This in itself is frightening and mind-boggling. The party is Farage’s fiefdom. All candidates have sworn allegiance to him (he won’t let them off a short leash to spout ultra-right-wing vote-losing nonsense like his former pals in UKIP). Apparently you can’t join the Party to have a say in its policies because (a) it is not set up like that, and (b) it doesn’t have any policies. As before with UKIP and Leave, Farage gives no details of what Brexit means and has no plans for what to do when the UK is freed from the “tyranny of Brussels”. He is a rich, career politician who has never held any political position in the UK yet millions apparently follow his every word.  I do not understand it.

Meanwhile, the Tories are bickering amongst themselves about who will take over from May and effectively ignoring the EU elections while Labour is fighting on general election policies and ignoring Brexit in its non-campaign. OK, the EU result has no effect on the British parliament and it will still be down to MPs to come to some kind of agreement before the next Brexit deadline of October, but allowing Farage a free rein is to allow him and his hidden cronies to build up momentum towards the next meaningful election. Of course the right wing media (i.e. most of it) ignores attempts to highlight Farage’s lies and obfuscations, but Remainers are in disarray. The Lib Dems are forcibly trying to present themselves as the only Remain party when it is patently obvious that many people still do not trust them after the debacle of the coalition and the 2015 election. The Green Party have lots of support but cannot decided what is the most important topic – Brexit or climate disaster. It is the latter in the long term but unless we stop the former we will be fighting for our own survival not the Earth’s.

With the countries of the world falling one by one to authoritarian populists who are only interested in maintaining and displaying their own power, the future looks bleak.  As bleak as Years and Years? We’ll see.

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WP_20190514_12_33_09_ProI read this week that this year there will be a Tran Pride festival in London as well as the usual Pride.  This follows the furore last year when some lesbian groups tried to get trans-people excluded from the parade. It was a shocking and ugly episode of intolerance.

I have sometimes wondered why the T is in LGBT. As trans people are constantly saying – trans is about gender identity, not sex and sexuality. Of course, like everyone else, transpeople are sexual beings, but all permutations are possible and indeed, likely.  The T is there because trans people, like gay people, have in the past (and the present) been excluded and persecuted; they grouped together for self-protection, but there have always been far more LGB people than T. Nevertheless, I was reminded that the Stonewall “riot” that kicked off gay and trans rights activism had trans-women at the fore. It is curious that Stonewall, the organisation, only recently took a strong interest in trans affairs. While there are differences in the needs of trans and LGB people, and I don’t see anything wrong in holding trans-only events to promote trans issues, it would be a pity if LGB & T comradeship broke down because of the views of a small group of lesbian women. In today’s world (see above) we need more cooperation and understanding not less.

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Since last week’s workshop and success I have had no time to write any new fiction so here again is something “what I wrote earlier”. It was written to my writing group’s topic of “seed” and is fictionalised history. I think it’s a fascinating story which I don’t think I have published here before.

Seed

My master hurried down the stairs towards me, his linen shirt but roughly tucked into his breeches. He carried a small wooden spoon carefully in two hands.
“Ah, Johan,” he said, gasping for breath, “Open the door to my study.”
I did his bidding and held the door while he passed me. I was about to close the door behind him but he called out again.
“No, boy, join me. I have an observation to make which may be of interest to you.”  I stepped inside the wood-panelled room, brightly lit by the sun which shone through the many small panes of the large glazed window. I closed the door behind me and stood beside my master’s table.
He dipped a small silver spatula into the glutinous liquid on the spoon that he had so carefully carried down the stairs. Then he picked up one of this instruments that lay on the desk and peering closely at it transferred the tiniest globule of the fluid to the tip of the pin. I was unable to see if he was successful but he let out a held-in breath.
“Yes,” he muttered, “that should be satisfactory.”
He turned to face the window and held the instrument to his left eye. He stood like a statue for many heartbeats. Having witnessed this procedure many times and indeed having carried it out myself I knew he was observing something of interest.
Eventually he moaned. “Magnificent.” He moved the instrument away from his face and blinked a few times.
I was filled with curiosity. “What have you seen Master Leeuvenhoek? What is the fluid that you have examined?”
He looked at me as if debating whether to answer then he made up his mind.
“I have lain with my wife,” he said in a soft, calm voice.
I consider myself to be of some intelligence but it took me a few moments to understand what he meant. When I did, I felt a blush rise from my neck and fill my cheeks.
I spoke but could not fully enunciate the words, “The fluid is . . .”
“My seminal ejaculation. Yes, Johan,” he answered as if it was the most normal subject of conversation. “That which may cause a woman to be with child.”
“What did you see, Master?” I asked my eagerness for knowledge surpassing my embarrassment.
He held out the instrument to me. “See for yourself.”
I took the small bronze item from him. It was no bigger than my finger and consisted of a flat plate in which there was a tiny hole. Behind the plate was a system of rods and screws which moved the pin on which the drop of fluid resided. I too turned to face the sunlight and held the microscope to my eye.  The metal plate almost touched the surface of my eyeball. Within the hole was a tiny glass sphere barely bigger than a mustard seed. The bright beam of sunlight passed through the drop of semen, through the glass bead and into my eye.
I entered a mysterious world where what is normally too small to be seen by the human eye is miraculously enlarged. Previously Master Leeuwenhoek’s instruments had revealed my hairs become as thick as tree trunks and mites grown the size of elephants. He had also shown me the strange animalcules of many different forms present in water drawn from various sources.  Now I saw strange new creatures. In some respect, they resembled tadpoles. They had bulbous heads and long thin tails. Most of the creatures were motionless but some lashed their tails from side to side and thereby propelled themselves through the seminal fluid.
I moved the instrument away from my eye and breathed.
“Is this what you saw?”  Master Leeuwenhoek said.
I looked down at his desk. While I had been observing he had been sketching on a sheet of letter paper. I saw an image which closely resembled the creatures I had seen through the glass.
“Yes, that is a true likeness,” I said, ‘What are these creatures that inhabit your effusion?”
“I believe they are the seeds of mankind,” Master Leeuwenhoek said. “During coitus they are deposited within the vagina. Their propulsive efforts carry them into the womb where they take root and are nurtured to become a foetus and later a child.”
“But in that tiny drop I saw many such creatures,” I said, “Are all required to render the female pregnant.”
Leeuwenhoek looked grave. “I fear not Johan. I think just one of these animalcules is necessary for procreation. I fancy that in the heads of some I could make out the form of a human child. Of the multitude released at the moment of orgasm only the strongest, the most deserving of God’s bountiful care will result in the development of a child. That is why God insists that men should reserve their ejaculate for the procreation of children and should not waste it in pleasures of the flesh.”
I felt my cheeks blush again and could find no reply. My master’s vision was keener than my own despite his extra years. It was not unusual for him to have a clearer sight into the miniscule world than me.
Master Leeuwenhoek placed another sheet of paper in front of him and took up his pen. “I think I must write another letter to Mr Oldenburg, in London. I am sure he will be keen to disseminate our observations to the fellows of the Royal Society.”

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Anton von Leeuwenhoek’s report on the discovery of spermatozoa was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London during 1677. Unlike most of his letters which were translated from Dutch into English, this letter was translated into Latin because of its controversial topic.

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Jasmine cheers

I’m not going to comment on politics this week. The same nonsense continues but there are pleasanter things to report on.

I watched the final episode of the first series of Pose this week. What was special about the show? One, it was feel-good, with the good characters coming out okay. Second it featured trans people, well okay, trans-women. They weren’t the victims, the vulnerable, the cardboard cutouts; they had personalities, story arcs and were strong despite the problems they faced.  If you haven’t discovered the show it is on BBC2 and is set in 1980s New York where the gay/trans community held regular balls to show off and celebrate themselves. Yes, they were at the edge of society, feeding off scraps, and suffering from the AIDS epidemic as well as discrimination. Yet through cooperation they survived and grew in stature. The trans actors may have been inexperienced but the characters they played were rich and varied.

This week I attended a workshop organised by my local writers’ group (well, Jane did all the organising). It was a wonderful day with 15 of us eager to learn. The tutor, Debi Alper lead the session and deserves congratulation. She took us through voice, point of view (PoV) and psychic distance, none of which I am going to explain here – there are websites and blogs that do. Debi got us writing, putting into practice what she had taught us. There was plenty to think about.  There was also a competition. Debi had read and commented on all ten of the entries from attendees. During the workshop, the ten pieces were read out and Debi gave her critique. She had chosen three as her finalists and p1000039invited the group to vote on one as the winner. It was me!  To say I was shocked and flattered is an understatement. My piece The Missing Essence was published here on 27th April. While I had given the theme (Earth Wind Fire) some thought, the writing was quite hurried and when I sent it off I felt it was a bit under-edited and perhaps corny and unsubtle in its approach. Was it even a story, I wondered. Anyway, Debi was very complimentary and the group loved it. So there it is; I have a prize (a flash notebook and booklet on writing).  It was a lovely day, helped even more by the manner in which the group (including guests from elsewhere) accept me as myself.

That result has lifted me. I had got a little despondent about my writing but that little bit of encouragement that suggests that I’m doing some things right, has helped to cheer me and spur me to getting on with the various projects I have on the go.

Here’s another short piece that I wrote a few years ago for a former writing group. I don’t think I’ve posted it before.  Actually it illustrates something that Debi was telling us about. It’s in 1st person so that is the PoV, but halfway through it changes. Now, according to Debi, head-hopping is a dangerous and difficult thing to do. She suggests some kind of link that helps the reader slide rather than leap between heads. Except that I haven’t done that. So does it work?

The Cavern

“Are you ready Ruth?”
I nodded my head then realised that in the dimly lit tunnel my gesture wouldn’t be seen. I called out and felt the line become taut. I shuffled towards the sinkhole grateful that they had allowed me to keep my lycra bodysuit; the gritty rock would have lacerated my skin. My legs dangled down the narrow shaft then I allowed the harness to take my weight.  I gripped the nylon rope above my head to make myself as thin as possible. Then I was encased as if in a stone coffin, my helmet scraping against rock.  I had to wriggle to ensure that I descended.  That was why I was stripped of the tools that usually filled my pockets and dangled from my belt.
I’d volunteered for this job but being the smallest member of the team and the only one who could pass through the hole, there wasn’t much choice really. Nevertheless, I was excited as everyone else to see what this chimney lead to.  We knew there was a cavern below and we hoped that, like the others, it would contain wonders; and what wonders we had already found – bones preserved from scavengers, complete skeletons of beings that were barely human.  Our predecessors or our competitors? Who knew?

My feet swung free and then with a final scrape of rock on my skin I was hanging in space. The grass rope creaked above my head. I shouted to my companions and they continued to lower me into the dark chamber. My toes touched ground and my knees buckled until I took my own weight.  I was relieved to release the binding around my chest so I could breathe easily again. I worried that I was standing on one of the mothers and shouted up for a light.
Minutes passed before a flaming torch appeared above me and cast a glow around the whole chamber. I saw that my worries were unfounded. The bodies were arranged in a partial circle around where I stood amongst rock dust. In the flickering light they seemed to move as if alive. I bent over each in turn to look more closely. Some still had skin drawn tightly against their skulls while others carried no flesh at all. I felt honoured to be in the presence of the mothers.
I called out again and received an answering grunt from beyond the shaft. I waited patiently in the company of the mothers until a trickle of falling dust and scraping sounds signalled that I was being joined by another. I took my mother into my arms, released her from the rope and carried her to a space in the ring of her ancestors.  I laid her gently beside them, her arms stiff against her thin body. Then I knelt, my hands on her forehead and groin, and asked her for her love and guidance as I became mother to all her children. Her authority and responsibility became mine.

Based on article in New Scientist magazine about the discovery of proto-human remains in South Africa cave systems by Lee Berger and his team.  The Ultimate Origin Story New Scientist p.36 30/09/17 no.3145

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Jasmine rejoices

Returned to the UK to find the country in the grip of election fever. Well, not really, but there has been some excitement about the local elections in England (not London) and the EU elections (which Con & Lab don’t want to fight) in three weeks time. Living in Wales we weren’t involved in the council elections but I am delighted with the results – Cons clobbered and Lab labouring. Lib Dems are big winners but the Greens having the greatest proportional increase deserves more notice. So, both Remain parties doing well. Yet May insists that the results are a protest at  parliament’s deadlock over Brexit and that the people want her to get on with it and take the UK out of the EU. Okay, I admit that there are many parts of England that do still want to Leave but I don’t think that is the standout message of these particular elections. They certainly show a country divided as never before (well, before 2016).

p1000039

What has Ian McEwan got against SF? Well, quite a lot actually. His latest novel, Machines like Me, has standard SF tropes of artificial intelligence, humanoid robots exploring their humanity, alternative history, yet he denies it is SF. In a New Scientist interview he admits to not connecting with space opera (i.e. “crossing the galaxy at five times the speed of light and wearing anti-gravity boots”.) but seems to think this is the total extent of SF. Has he never read any Ballard, Gibson, Brunner to name but three who didn’t write space opera but occupied the genre contentedly? Perhaps he thinks he is too famous and “literary” to grub around in the cesspit of SF&F. Will  Machines get more sales as a literary novel than an SF novel? I don’t know but I think it is cheap and mean to slag off a genre which one is quite obviously writing in. I’ve read a few of McEwen’s earlier novels and find them somewhat pretentious. He obviously does a huge amount of research and wants you to know it.  I still think he made a mistake in Enduring Love by having the runaway balloon one filled with helium rather than the more common, hot air.

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I didn’t get the opportunity to write anything new this week for various reasons. Here, instead, is a very old story that I wrote for a bit of fun.  I don’t think I’ve posted it before. I obviously wrote it when the martian meteorite discovered in Antartica, was found to contain entities that might have been nano-sized bacteria. That was before the landings on Mars of Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Mars seems a rather boring environment for life.

Little Men are green because the grass is greener on the other side

“Eat up your rock flakes, Grrnflyn, like a good Martian.” Grrnflyn’s red eye stalks looked into the bowl sadly. E dipped the red tip of a single red tentacle reluctantly into the bowl of red crumbs. A few pieces stuck to the slimy skin. E opened er stomach orifice and wiped the crumbs onto the crimson tongues.
“But it’s so boring, it’s the same every day, and tastes yuk.”
Tddmlwc waved four of er arms angrily.  “You ungrateful Martian you.  Rock bits have been good enough for us for millennia.  There’s nano-bacteria for nourishment and iron for health. No-one has ever bothered about what it tastes like. If you don’t want it, someone else will. Get off to school and see how quickly you get hungry.” E shooed Grrnflyn out of the small cave that was home.

 Grrnflyn oozed miserably along the dimly lit, red, rocky corridors barely able to lift a tentacle of greeting to er friends. The trouble was e was already hungry, but that didn’t stop er wanting something more exciting to eat. Grrnflyn arrived at the school cavern and slumped into a work hole. Teacher made a gurgling noise which the class had come to recognise as meaning that e was satisfied all the pupils had arrived.
“Good morning class,” A chorus of mumbles and groans emerged from each of the work holes, “Today we are going to start the study of astronomy.”
“What’s that?”  someone asked from the other side of the cave.
“It’s the study of what’s beyond the surface of our planet.”
“But there isn’t anything,” Grrnflyn recognised his friend, Mggbrrl’s, voice. “The surface is cold and dry and there isn’t even enough air for us to breathe.”  Grrnflyn added with a murmur, “That’s why we’re stuck down here in these dark boring caverns.”
“Ah,” said Teacher, waving two or three tentacles excitedly, “I am referring to the planets and stars out in space and in particular, our nearest neighbour which we call Mud.”
“Why is it called that?” another voice asked.
“Because unlike our planet, it has liquid water on its surface so when it is mixed with the bits of rock, it makes mud. Here are some pictures.” Teacher held up sheets of red skin using all ten tentacles. Grrnflyn gasped and gurgled in amazement and er stomach aperture opened uncontrollably. The pictures showed a spherical object with markings in unfamiliar colours that e could not name but were definitely not red.
“The green is areas of land where many different plants grow,” Teacher explained,           “I’m afraid our pigments can’t give a true impression of the colours. The blue is liquid water.  Astronomers have observed many different creatures on the surface.”
Grrnflyn listened in amazement as Teacher described the inhabitants of Mud, their surroundings and their way of life.  Finally, e plucked up courage to ask a question.
“Do you think the people on Mud eat rock crumbs?”
Teacher extended an eye stalk towards him/her. “Of course not, you silly pupil, they have all these different varieties of plants and animals to eat.”
I expect they all taste different, Grrnflyn thought. I wish I lived on Mud.

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Jasmine worries

Perhaps being out of the UK provides some  kind of perspective. My news of “home” ha come from Facebook, Twitter, MSN and The Guardian website. Perhaps they’re not the most balanced but with the BBC giving the impression of being a Farage and Leave zone these days none of it is good news. The local elections in England seem to have been forgotten while the EU elections, which the Tories of course think are pointless, gather all the headlines. The virulence of the anti-EU/migrant/anyone-not-white-English feeling from right-wing quarters is unprecedented – and they feel able to express it in public. Talk of a Remain Alliance is rejected (I don’t think electoral alliances are necessary in a proportional representation election) but the Remain parties do need to compare notes and get their campaigns working.

I note that the SNP is renewing calls for independence and there is even a growing independence movement in Wales despite Leave winning a small majority in Wales in 2016. I grew in Wales but lived in England for 47 years. I’ve always felt Cymraeg and I am increasingly annoyed by English attitudes. I would support increasing independence from England but how about joining up with our Celtic cousins (Scotland, Ireland, even Cornwall if they want to join) to form a true British alliance that is part of Europe.

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Amongst the increasing right-wing bitterness, there are more anti-gay and anti-trans feelings being expressed, around the world.  Any form of persecution is wrong but sometimes the trans message gets confused. Do trans people want gender equality i.e. the end of stereotyping? If everyone was equal how would you tell male from female (other then by a physical examination). In a truly non-gendered world, form of dress would not signify biological sex, nor would behaviour. Would trans-people be happy in such a world? I don’t know and cannot speak for others. As someone who feels non-binary and who is happy mixing up male and female styles of dress and appearance, I am just asking for acceptance.

This week’s piece of writing is on the theme Earth, Wind, Fire. That is, three of the classical elements if Wind is taken as an alternative name for Air. It is of course the name of a rock group which I have t admit to never having listened too. My idea for what it’s worth was to blend the two and try to express the personalities of the band members through metaphors of their elemental natures. Not sure if it works but here it is.

 

The Missing Essence

Pete Earth slung the bass guitar low on his hips, planted his feet a metre apart on the stone floor and strummed a deep chord. Pitched too low to be heard by the ears, it thrummed through the ground. Feeling the vibrations through his bones, Ty Wind picked up his strat and plucked out the notes of a melody that hung in the air like streamers of mist. Spiky ginger-haired, Serena Fire, raised her head and let out a cry that soared like a rocket fizzing to the roof.

The mix of bass rhythm, languid tune and searing treble grew in pace and volume but something was amiss. The timing of Wind’s finger-play jarred with Earth’s chords and Fire’s smouldering lyrics sputtered off key. The track crashed to a conclusion in a chaotic cacophony. Wind felt it like an icy blast from the Arctic, while a tectonic plate scraping passed another expressed Earth’s discomfort.

Serena turned on her colleagues, cheeks burning.

“Flaming hell, guys. We crashed and burned there. What’s up?”

Despite the energy of his playing, Pete’s mud-brown hair lay flat on his head. He growled, “We’re a rock band. We need a drummer.” He nodded to the empty set of drums at the centre of the studio.”

Serena flared. “Well, I want to be a star. What are you doing about it Ty?”

The lead guitarist waved his waved his arms, his fair hair mussed as if by a fierce gale. “I put out a message over the aether,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” Serena gave him a glare that could have scorched the bark off a tree. “And what came of that?”

Wind replied breezily, “Actually, I got a reply.” He frowned, “I thought she said she would be here by now.”

There was a creak as the heavy door of the studio opened. A figure seeped through the gap. She was tall with blue, tight-fitting jeans and a sailor top. She had hair as black as the deepest ocean that shone with a blue iridescence in the studio lights. Her skin was as white as a frothing waterfall.

“Hi,” she said with a voice smooth as the surface of a pond, “I’m Flo, Flo Water. I think you advertised for a drummer.”

Wind wafted over the floor to greet her.

“That’s right. I’m Ty, short for Typhoon.”

“That’s what he tells everyone,” Earth grunted. “It’s Tyson really. Welcome, Flo.”

“You say you’re a drummer,” Serena fired at her, “Let’s see you drum.”

Flo shrugged and drifted to the set of drums. The others watched as she seemed to fill the space amongst the kit stretching arms and legs to test her reach. She picked up the sticks and started to tap the snare drum. To the insistent beat like drips falling from a tap she added a swish on the cymbal like rain falling on a tin roof. She increased the tempo until with a torrent of limbs she unleashed the sound of a tsunami crashing against a cliff. The roar was enough to stir Earth into tapping a foot. Flo settled into a rhythm of waves breaking on a beach as Pete added rumbling chords that throbbed through the floor. Ty launched a riff resembling a tornado that whirled around the studio and Serena let out a scorching chorus that singed the roof.

The studio filled with sound that shook the walls, each of the musicians contributing their energy. Earth erupted with glowing lava, Fire flickered with flame, Wind grew as hot as a Saharan dust devil and drops of sweat flew off Water’s flailing limbs like spray from breakers As the song reached a crescendo of harmony, all four stopped abruptly on a beat, leaving the reverberations fading away. Serena fell to the floor like a guttering cinder; Flo slumped over the drums like a spent fountain and Ty sagged like a sail without wind. Pete was still.

“Well, I think that says enough,” Pete muttered, “we’ve got all the elements of a band.”

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Jasmine catches her breath

A delightful break from the Brexit farce this week although the campaigning for the Euro elections is underway. Why, oh why, does the media make such a fuss about UKIP and Farage’s new bunch, including the BBC giving the leaders of both blanket coverage? The Tories try to say that campaigning is a real bore because they don’t expect the election take place, knowing that when it does they are going to get side-lined. Meanwhile Labour tries to make out that it is the opposition to the Brexit parties while negotiating with the government to see that Brexit actually happens. Little coverage is given to the parties that actually see the EU parliament as relevant and useful – The Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru.  No one knows for certain but it’s quite likely that a majority now are in favour of remaining in the EU but they hardly get a word in on TV or in the papers.Who says our media is balanced?

Headlines also hailed another rise in the number of people in work, and the apparent rise in wages (running just ahead of inflation).  But not quite in the same bulletin was the data showing the rise in the number of people, particularly children, in poverty. So we have low unemployment but rising levels of poverty stricken families.  How can that happen? Well, how about examining the jobs that are being taken – zero hours, gig economy, part-time, low wage jobs. The higher-paying jobs, for example in car-building, are  disappearing (in the next couple of years, at least) thanks to you know what.  Yes, we want high rates of employment but with very much lower hours being worked (or paid for) the overall picture is not good.

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WP_20190418_15_41_08_ProThis week’s task for my writers’ group was “Maintaining the illusion.”  My fellow writers explored the conjuror and “keeping up appearances” angles. It’s not surprising, given my background, that I looked at the topic from another angle.  Maybe knowing the writer makes the following a bit obvious.  What do you think?

Making an impression.

She arrived, as she usually did, when hotel guests and passers-by were beginning to fill the bar. Almost every head in the place, male and female, turned to watch her as she sauntered in, mink jacket slung over her shoulder. Her floor length silver silk gown clinging to her hour-glass figure and her platinum blonde hair flowing down her back. I pushed the dry martini in its inverse-cone glass across the bar as she slid onto her customary stool, hanging the fur over the back of the seat. She didn’t say a word, not good evening or thanks or anything, but gave me a broad smile. That was enough. I would have killed for my mouth to touch those deep red lips.
She lifted the glass and took a delicate sip, then put it down and stirred the cherry on its stick in the golden liquid. While I polished glasses, I gazed at her as I did most evenings when I wasn’t busy serving. Her age was difficult to estimate as her face was smooth and wrinkle-free but heavily, though immaculately, made up.  Her hands, holding the glass, were also free of age marks. Her nails were shaped to dramatic points and gleamed like silver mirrors. The gown covered her arms to her wrists but had a deep V in the neck line that exposed a hint of breast and framed the huge diamond pendant that hung from her neck. It was matched by dangling diamond earrings.
There were few other guests that matched her style though many that shared her apparent wealth. She, however, was one of my regulars, at her place at the bar most of the evenings that I was on. She could have been one of those rare super-wealthy widows who make a hotel such as this their home, avoiding the worries of day to day household management. She wasn’t one of them however; that fur revealed that she had arrived from elsewhere.
The empty glass was put down on the bar and pushed a few inches in my direction. I moved to collect it but as I did so a middle-aged man stepped to her side.
“May I purchase a refill?” he said in the kind of accent I hear a lot but would probably be thought of as a satirical joke by a majority of the population who can’t or wouldn’t pay our prices. She didn’t speak but gave him the benefit of one of her smiles. I removed the empty glass and quickly provided her with a fresh one. Her new benefactor asked for a whisky and began talking, largely about himself. She gave the impression of listening intently, smiling and nodding at appropriate places but never saying a word. I soon had to re-fill his glass while she sipped more sparingly.
As I passed them while serving other customers, I couldn’t help but notice his eyes lingering on her cleavage and glancing down to the smooth curve of her buttocks resting on the stool.  On one pass I heard him mention his room. Her head made the smallest of nods and he held her elbow as she slipped off the stool on to her high heels, scooping the jacket over her shoulder. They linked and promenaded out of the bar.
I wondered how long it would be before she returned; later this evening or tomorrow? He probably wouldn’t discover that the diamonds were paste, or that that dress wasn’t a couturier’s exclusive design or that she lived in a drab bedsit at the cheap end of the city centre instead of a plush suite. That’s if he cared at all. She was good, very good, at satisfying her customers but sometimes her extra attributes surprised and disappointed them. That heavy make-up occasionally had to cover more than just a five o’clock shadow.

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Jasmine at the fest

Well, we have six months. That’s what the EU’s 27 have granted our demented PM. Six months to radically and dramatically pull back from the worst decision a nation has made for itself. But will it? I can see things dragging on for months yet with no-one making a decisive break with the foolishness. And all the time our relationship with the EU will worsen, more businesses will pull out of the UK, more businesses here will find it difficult to do business in the EU. Leavers and Remainers still distrusting (understatement) each other.

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WP_20190221_12_01_42_ProI had a lovely afternoon at the Abergavenny Writing Fest. I was on a panel with three other wonderful writers discussing whether “everyone has a novel in them.” For the record I think the answer is no. However for those that think they do it is just a matter of getting down to it and the dream is attainable. Whether it is publishable and marketable is another matter, but who am to judge that with my ten novels not troubling the bestseller lists. The discussion was interesting and lively and we each got a chance to promote ourselves. I even sold a book. Attendance was good – the room was full. Okay, not a vast tent like you get at Hay, but people paid real money to hear us and I think were more than satisfied. Organisation was good and the Kings Arm Hotel was an excellent venue.

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This week’s short story offering is a curate’s egg I think. The theme was “ologies”, derived from Maureen Lipman’s ad for BT decades ago. Probably their most memorable bit of advertising. For some reason the scene of this story came into my head. The story itself is pretty meaningless but it hung together and I just had to get it down. See  what you think.

The Three Savants

From the clifftop I saw a sweep of sand, a heap of pebbles at the high-water line and rocks at the base of the headlands.  Lazy waves rolled ashore, and the Sun was already well above the horizon. Three small shacks were spaced out across the beach and I wondered who might be inhabiting them. I took the path down.
The first hut stood on the sand and was constructed from branches and logs with a roof of reeds cut from the marsh beside the stream that meandered into the bay. There were no windows but a doorway that was open. I peered inside. A figure was kneeling on a mat laid on the damp sand.
“Hello,” I said.
The thin, grey-haired figure clothed in a rough gown opened one eye and examined me.
“Come in, my friend,” he said, rising to his feet. His head almost brushed the underside of his roof. “How may I help you?” he added.
I ducked inside the low entrance and discovered that there was little room for two people in the hut which was unfurnished but for the occupant’s mat. Nevertheless, he bade me to sit, and I copied his example of sitting cross-legged.
“I was just passing and wondered what you are doing here,” I said.
“Seeking enlightenment,” he answered, “What do you seek on your journey.”
“Oh, happiness, I suppose.” I tossed back.
“Ah, happiness,” he said sagely, nodding.
“Do you know the secret of achieving happiness?” I asked, somewhat cheekily.
He smiled. “Love God,” was all he said.
“Which one?” I queried.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Theology shows us that there are many interpretations of the one God.”
“So you’re a theologist,” I said, “I have no experience of God, how can I love him, her, it, whatever?”
“You obey his commands and worship him. You will learn to love him,” the theologist said rocking on his buttocks.
“Obey, you say. How do I know what God wants me to do?”
“A priest, or rabbi or imam, will tell you.”
“Ah, I see,” I said realising, “I have to do what people tell me.”
He shrugged. “That’s religion.”
I looked around the dark, damp hut. “Are you happy?” I asked.
He looked sad. “I am until the sea comes and fills my hut, or the wind blows and it falls down.”
I laughed, “That’s because you’ve built your home on sand which gets covered by the tide.” I got to my feet. “If that is how your theology has guided you then it’s not for me.”
I left him sitting there and hurried along the beach to the second hut. This was constructed on the pebbles beside the stream. It was built out of bits of surfboard, painted planks for doors, and plastic bottles. Its roof was shopping bags piled on to top of each other. I carefully opened the door made of clear plastic.  There was a couch inside on which lay a figure wearing what appeared to be just a towel around his waist. He too was thin and grey-haired.
“Come in, come in,” he said, rising from his bed and beckoning me to sit or lie on it.           After a considerable walk and an uncomfortable squat in the theologist’s hut I leapt at the chance of a comfortable seat. Except that it wasn’t, comfortable that is. The covering was torn and bits of stuffing had fallen out leaving it bumpy. Also, it stood on a floor of pebbles so it wasn’t level. I struggled to avoid rolling off it.
“Well, what brings you here?” he said, crouching down beside me.
“I suppose it is the search for happiness,” I said, thinking of my previous conversation.
“Ah,” he sighed, “Happiness is all in the mind.”
Well, a comfortable bed, good food, and a warm Sun, would help, I thought, but I had to agree that what we feel has a lot to do with how we think.
“But how does one achieve happiness,” I asked.
“Psychology gives us many clues to how the mind can lull us into a feeling of contentment,” he said.
“Ah, I see. You’re a psychologist,” I said, “Can you suggest one way that works?”
He frowned, “Ah. That would be taking the wrong step. First we must explore the reasons why you do not feel happy and your history of unhappiness.”
“But I’m not unhappy,” I said, “not really. I was just wondering if you had a way of making anyone happy.”
“Generalising from a small data set is unreliable. I would need to thoroughly investigate your thought processes to even begin to suggest a course of therapy.”
“You would devote your life to analysing me and I may not end up happy.”
He shrugged. “That’s psychology.”
“What about you? Are you happy?” I said.
“There is an inverse correlation between my happiness and the rain,” he said.
“Oh, why’s that.”
“When the rain falls, the stream floods and my hut is washed away.”
“Well, why did you build it on the unstable pebbles so close to the stream? Can’t your psychology give you a better idea.” I leapt from the couch and strode out of the hut on to the beach.
There was one more hut to visit, at the end of the beach on an outcrop of rock. It appeared to be built from concrete and was dome shaped. Something was sticking out of the roof and as I approached, I realised that it was the barrel of a telescope.
I opened the metal door and peered into the dark interior. Most of the space was taken up by the telescope’s mounting. I could just make out a dark figure perched on a chair behind it.
“Hello,” I said, “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for the Sun to set and the stars to appear,” he muttered. As the Sun was not yet at its zenith it seemed that he had some hours to wait. “What do you want?” he added.
Feeling a little flippant following my two conversations, I said, “I’m looking for the secret of happiness.”
“Hmph. What is happiness?” he groaned.
“Contentment, pleasure, satisfaction, a feeling of ease, completion,” I could have gone on, but he was looking at me glumly.
“I get none of those,” he said.
“But doesn’t looking at the stars give you pleasure.”
He snorted. “Pleasure! All I get is pain. The pain of knowing I cannot find the answers.     The more I stare into the blackness the less I understand where the universe came from. That’s the reward of cosmology.”
“I see. You’re a cosmologist. Can’t you find answers to your questions?”
“Answers I find by the bucket-load, but I also find more questions. On it goes.”
“Well, I suppose you’re safe here. You’re built on rock above the tides and away from the stream.”
He shook his head sadly. “But the oceans are rising and the cliffs eroding. The Sun will expand and roast the Earth. And still I will not have the answers to all the questions.”
I backed out of the door, scrambling over the rocks, dipping my foot in pools until I reached the path leading up onto the headland. I was glad to leave that picturesque bay. I felt I would find more happiness by myself rather than be controlled, analysed or mystified, by those three hermits with their ologies.

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Jasmine has a fool

Another week of governmental chaos. I would call it a farce but I laugh at farces (especially the old Brian Rix Whitehall Theatre farces – remember them) but this business is too serious to laugh at. It did inspire a story however (yes, another one).  See below.

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Next Thursday I will be at the Kings Arms in Abergavenny  or Y Fenni as us Welsh call it) for the Abergavenny Writing Festival  (see the programme here). Having put myself forward I was delighted to be asked to sit on a discussion panel  (2.30pm  Thurs. 11th) with three other contributors and a chair – all writers.  I was rather dismayed to see that I looked considerably older in my photo than the others – that is unless they’re using old profile photos (some authors do use the same portrait for many years. I’ve met a few who look quite a bit more haggard than their profiles – not mentioning any names).  Our topic for discussion is the old one – “Do we all have a novel in us?”  I think it’s an opportunity to talk, briefly, about our own novels.  So I will have all 8 of mine (with my name on) to hand. I think it’s natural to answer, of course we do, but that is writers speaking. In fact I think most people would be horrified if they were told they had to sit in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper and spend something like 2,000 hours churning out words to make a novel (conservative estimate not counting editing?). Unless you count lifestories, which I don’t think count as novels unless they are fictionalised, I don’t think everyone necessarily has a story to tell that it long enough for a novel. Mind you, there are enough of us that do think we can write a novel, to keep the presses and ebook sellers busy and provide all that competition for readers. Come and join in the discussion.

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The prompt for this week’s piece of writing was, not surprisingly, “April Fool”.  I was stumped at first for an original angle.  However, the present political situation, gave me an idea that, if not new, was quite appropriate. Here we go:

A Fool’s Day

It seemed like a normal morning when I got up. I sat down to my usual breakfast of toast and marmalade and opened the newspaper. There was alarm that this year’s spaghetti harvest might be late, concern that the new customs barriers on the Welsh-English border could hold up traffic, that more staff would be needed on the Isle of Wight ferries to check passports and more of the usual stuff.  There was also an article about the annual round up of wild unicorns on the Siberian steppes. Several adverts amongst the news caught my eye. There was one for Round Tuits, which interested me since I needed one; another for striped paint in a pleasant shade of red and white. I noticed that holidays on San Serif were popular this year, and there were various remarkable innovations to BMW cars. Nothing out of the ordinary for which I was grateful.
Then I put the radio on to catch the nine o’clock news. As the news reader read out the first item, I gradually had a feeling of normality sliding away from me as if I had slipped down a rabbit hole or stepped through the back of my wardrobe. I checked the date. It was March 32nd, so that wasn’t the explanation for my feeling of mental discomfort.
I was informed that a country with a long history of world trade and leadership in world affairs had decided to part company with its twenty-seven near neighbours. The fact that it did forty per cent of its trade with this group and obtained a good portion of its food from them did not seem to have been considered. This nation had decided to forfeit the benefits of free movement of goods and people, as well as the security and clout of being part of a large trading bloc. What’s more its citizens would no longer have the right to live and work in the neighbouring countries. This relatively small country would henceforth have to compete with the dominant forces in the world economy for the increasingly scarce resources necessary to feed, clothe and employ its population.
As if this news was not mind-bogglingly odd of itself, it was apparent that the decision had been forced on the government by a rebellious group of the ruling party that numbered less than a quarter of their total representation. The foolish and blinkered leader had asked the citizens to give their opinion while failing, over many years, to provide them with the information necessary to make a reasoned response. He had also failed to take the precaution of ensuring that the result of vote would be only taken as advisory, especially if it turned out to be close.
My head was spinning at this point, but then I learned that the nation had been given two years to negotiate a sensible resolution of the problem but had failed to suggest any solutions that would not cause harm.
I turned off the radio in disgust. How dare they broadcast such nonsense. Perhaps some people thought it was a joke to make such ridiculous suggestions. For me, it was total balderdash and impossible to contemplate as having any connection to reality. I decided to have a lie down with the hope that when I woke again normality would be restored.  Perhaps there will be more news about that UFO that has landed in London, again.

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