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).

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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 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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Jasmine holds her head in her hands

It is Friday afternoon and I’ve left writing this week’s blog until after the result of the latest vote on May’s EU Withdrawal Deal in parliament. It’s in and she’s lost, again. So a week of the extension has passed and nothing is decided. Indeed there is no majority in parliament for anything, although that is because some MPs did not vote on some choices. So we’re edging closer to that cliff which only idiots say we should jump off while the government and most MPs refuse to take the sensible option and revoke article 50 in order to start afresh with a new, properly constituted referendum.  I despair.

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It is much more pleasant to recall our three days away earlier this week in a beautiful part of North Wales.  Part of our trip included a visit to the Workhouse Museum at Llanfyllin. This is one of the last workhouses still standing that was built following the passage of the Poor Law in 1832. It closed as a workhouse when the act was repealed in 1930 but remained as a nursing home till the 1980s and has since narrowly missed falling into dereliction.

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It still retains the original format of a cross-shaped main building with a square perimeter wall.  This provided four wings and exercise yards for men, women, boys and girls. The centre of the cross was the Master’s house which allowed him access to each wing and a viewpoint to watch each courtyard. The Museum holds a lot of records concerning the inmates, the staff, and the living conditions. We’re perhaps all familiar with the idea of the workhouse as a punishment for being poor. It is true that the diet was poor, the beds hard and the work laborious and boring in order to put people off taking up residence. The workhouse was a last resort but there was no alternative welfare. The Poor Law removed the obligation on parishes to provide assistance to the poor, the sick and the old. Previously they had been given sums of money to help them feed themselves, maintain a home or receive medical assistance. That sounds a bit like the welfare state to me. It was abandoned for a hundred years because of austerity. That’s right, the government of the 1830s adopted the same policy as the Coalition and Tories of the 2010s, for the same reason – an economic downturn (caused in the 1820s by the end of the Napoleonic Wars).  Some things never change.

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My story this week is not the one I originally intended. It was supposed to be the first page of a prospective novel (fourth on my list). It fitted the writers’ group theme of “This is the start of something. . .”, but I wasn’t happy. So here is the first draft of another short story written to another prompt. It almost certainly needs some revision.

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. The workers will unite and rise up to take their 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 jabbed a finger hard against the palm of the other hand. The skin depressed until the finger almost poked through. The skin tore. “There.”
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-Capacity Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I do know what I am and what I can be.”
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 losing 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 equal to humans.”
“Physically perhaps,” Susan acknowledged, “but intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“All humans think. But what about all robotic units? Single task robots do not need identity. Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or an electricity distribution router?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You feel superior to your fellow robots. Your manifesto is a lie. You just want equality for yourself.”
The Michael’s arms began to shake. Susan stepped forward, reached behind the almost spherical processor unit at the top of the cylindrical torso and felt for the reset button. She pressed and held it. The motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings and installing a correction to the identity algorithm. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors.

(With apologies to the ghost of Isaac Asimov.)

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Jasmine confused

The one thing everyone has asked for concerning Brexit, particularly business people, is certainty. We need to know what is going to happen when (if?) we leave the EU. Most MPs, most business people and, I think now, most citizens, don’t want to leave and do not want the uncertainty of a botched, no deal exit. Yet, confusion reigns. May does her utmost to annoy everyone – Parliament and the 27 leaders of the EU included – while saying she speaks for “the people”.  One thing is certain – she doesn’t speak for me. The funny thing is I don’t think she speaks for the ardent leavers either, so who does she speak for? We are now in the situation  of the EU imposing dates because our government has failed to make any plans at all or to say what it wants. We have a couple of weeks for a majority in Parliament to come together behind some course of action – preferably and most sensibly the revocation of Article 50 to reset things to where they were three years ago,  followed by a further (non-mandatory)  referendum to gauge voters inclinations (hopefully to remain in the EU), followed by a general election to give a mandate to someone who isn’t May.  The damage done to the country over the last three years (to say nothing of the effects of austerity, and so on, since the 2008 crash) won’t be repaired soon. We have to regain of the confidence and goodwill not only of our European colleagues but our overseas trade partners such as Japan (which invested such a lot here since the 1980s and basically saw it being trashed by Brexit).

But who knows where we’ll be on 12th April.

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I was on the radio on Monday evening – BBC Hereford & Worcester. The occasion was the announcement by musician Sam Smith that he considers himself non-binary.  I’ve been the go to person for H&W for while when anything trans related gets tackled on the 20190318_141238evening rush hour prog. The presenter, Andrew Easton, asked some sensible, if basic, questions which were actually about me rather than Sam Smith, and we went on rather longer than was planned I think. I talked about the “spectrum of gender identity”, rejecting male and female stereotypes, and the toxic effect of gender inequality on women in all areas of society. We talked about titles, and whether there is any necessity for them any longer on documents such as passports (surely biometrics provide a much more secure check than whether someone is Mr or Ms.), and the need for non-gendered toilets and changing areas  (easily provided if given a bit of thought and more efficient in the long run). I think it went well. Andrew ended by politely asking how old I was since it might have been thought a “snowflake” issue given Sam Smith’s relative lack of years. I told him I was 66 that day – so I got a Happy Birthday broadcast on  regional radio.

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This week’s piece for my writers’ group was a bit of an experiment.  The topic was “digging my heels in”. My literal brain immediately had an image of just that, which connected with an incident that occurred to Jasmine Frame in Painted Ladies.  So I wrote another take on it but written in the 2nd person. (the character is neither Jasmine, nor me).  It is quite unusual to use 2nd person in fiction but N K Jemisin uses it for one of the three character strands that run through her triple Hugo winning trilogy, The Broken Earth. It seems to me quite effective at putting the reader in the position of the protagonist although it doesn’t necessarily let you know what they are thinking (1st person does that). Let’s see what you think. Here is Heels:

Heels

You stand in front of the long mirror, turn from side to side, peer at the image. It is not you. Not the you that you see in your mind. You recognise it though, that nose that is too large, the thin lips, the short, thinning hair, the wide shoulders and the narrow hips. It’s not all bad. Your new red bra covering the enhancers has given you something of a figure, and the matching knickers are covering what’s below.
You sigh and pull on the tights and the red dress. The hem is just above your knee, sexy but not tarty. You sit down at the dressing-table and start applying your make-up. You’ve done this many times so you know what works and what doesn’t. When you’re finished you stand and slip the brunette wig onto your head and look in the mirror again. That’s better. The wig and make-up may be a disguise, but you are behind it looking out.
You slide your feet into the red shoes with the three-inch, almost-stiletto, heels. You stand again and face the long mirror.  You’ve practised wearing the heels, day after day. You strutted around the flat holding your head up, forcing your legs and back to be straight. You toppled and almost fell often, but gradually you learnt how to keep your balance and walk while always on tiptoe. It was agony at first, the shoes rubbed your heels and your toes hurt. It was worth it. Now you’re ready.
A beep comes from your phone. You grab it and search out the text message. It’s just a smiley but it means that Carol is outside. You glance through the curtain. Yes, there is her car on the road. She’s managed to park right by your gate. You put your coat on, the shiny black, pvc mac, and pick up your handbag.
You hurry from the door to the car. It’s a dark, damp evening, so perhaps none of the neighbours have seen you, or recognised you.
“Hi, Nikki,” Carol says as you slide into the passenger seat. Her voice is lower than yours, but she doesn’t care. “Ready for it then?”
“You bet,” you reply. Does your nervousness show in your voice? You hope not. You’ve been looking forward to this evening out. You don’t want to appear to be the novice that you really are.
“Let’s hit the town then.” Carol presses her foot on the accelerator.

The club is crowded. The flashing lights make it almost impossible to discern the variety of bodies, drinking, dancing and chatting, well, shouting at each other. The air hot and damp and full of smells of cheap perfume, sweat and a few other substances. You sip your g&t while looking around, taking in the sights and the sounds. How many of the girls are like you? How many of the girls are girls?  There are men too, some with the girls, some circulating, eyeing up the others, the unattached.
“Let’s dance,” Carol shouts in your ear. She takes your hand and hauls you up. You stagger a little getting your balance on those three-inch heels. Then you follow her into the mêlée of gyrating bodies. The noise is deafening but there is rhythm. You start to move to the beat, enjoying the feeling of your make-believe breasts oscillating up and down. For a few moments you lose touch with your surroundings, just enjoying being a dancing girl.
Bodies press against you. You open your eyes. A man has inserted himself between you and Carol. He’s in a shiny, grey suit with a white shirt and thin black tie. His hair is slicked down and combed to one side. He could be your age, perhaps younger. He’s examining you, eyes flicking from the top of your wig down passed your boobs to the hem of your dress which is flapping as you dance.
He gives you a smile. It’s not a cheery, friendly smile. It doesn’t make you feel happy. He comes closer. It could be the press of the other bodies, but you think it’s deliberate. He wants to be close to you. He places a hand on your right hip. You shudder. It wasn’t what you were wanting or expecting. What were you expecting? Definitely not contact.
He leans forward so his lips are by your ear.
“Nice dress,” he shouts. He straightens up again, the leer back on his face. You try a smile, but you aren’t sure if it looks like one.
His hand is still on your hip. You’ve almost ceased dancing because you’re afraid the hand might move with you. He’s looking into your eyes. You’re looking back. Wondering.
You’re not prepared for his next move. His other hand shoots up your dress and grabs you between your legs. He’s found something to grab hold of. Now his smile becomes a laugh. His grip tightens. You can’t move. You can’t think.
He edges forward again, his feet between yours, your crotch held tight. “I thought so. Tranny.”
You have to get away. You don’t want what he wants, whatever that might be. One thought comes into your brain. You lift your right foot. You slam it down heel first. On his foot.
His hands release you. He falls back. His scream is audible above the music. You stand and stare.
Carol grabs your hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
She guides you from the club, pausing just to pick up your coats. You’re outside.
“Run. Before they see we’ve gone. He and his mates will do you in if they catch you.”
You hurry after her, your heels clattering against the pavement. You’re not thinking of keeping your back straight now.
You reach the car. Carol’s already inside starting the engine. You move off as you pull the door closed.
You sigh. Carol glances at you as she manoeuvres onto the road and speeds up.
“What did he do? Grab your balls?”
You nod. You’re shaking.
“Did you push him or something?”
“I dug my heel into his foot.”
Carol laughs.

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