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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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 is anxious

Are you getting anxious? I am. At the time of writing there are just 3 weeks until the UK is supposed to leave the EU. Now I know the sky isn’t going to fall in on 29th or 30th March, even if there is “no deal”, but the agony of not knowing what is going to happen is becoming distracting. Part of the problem is knowing that almost everyone involved in the process, at least on the UK side, is thoroughly incompetent. I know it has been said that negotiations take place to the final minutes, and later. That was certainly the case over things like the Maastricht Treaty. But having completed the task either on or after the deadline, it was never intended that the measures agreed came into force immediately. There were months of preparations before things actually happened.  In the case of Maastricht many EU countries held referenda to ratify the treaty (I think it was that time that Ireland held two  before they got the right result). It is ludicrous that the biggest the decision the country has made in over forty years, which affects 65 million people (as well as the other 300 million in the EU itself) and with unknown effects on the economy and rights of the people, is being handled in such a manner. Those responsible must surely be held to account in the future. If there is one.

Since I spent three years as a town councillor I have lost what little respect I had for those who go into politics whether as county councillors or MPs. Some, yes, are idealistic, a very few are competent, but most are only expert at getting elected. In fact that is the only thing that motivates them. All else is just a means to getting re-elected. This definitely applies to most of the MPs in parliament – on both sides of the house.

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We can’t be glamourous all the time. There’s work to be done.

I’ve felt a bit impatient with my writing this week (perhaps the anxiety referred to above is interfering with the writing process). The fantasy novel I am writing is drifting a little and I am wondering when to make start on the next Jasmine Frame novel or short story – do I need to keep the trans content of this blog topped up?  This week’s task for my writers’ group left me dissatisfied. The topic was “ancestors”. That could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, of course. I had an idea, which got me started. Then, for various reasons, I couldn’t see a way to develop it in a short piece of writing (I’m not starting yet another novel). Anyway, the result, such as it is, is below. The title, Parallel Lives, represents what I intended it to be rather than how it turned out. In fact I’ve had a few compliments about it but I am not happy.

Parallel Lives

It hardly seems possible that fifty years have passed since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, followed a few minutes later by my mother, the first woman on the Moon. Who can forget those grainy pictures of the Lunar Module and the astronauts planting the flag of the Federation of Nations. Everyone knows that my mother returned to the Moon eight years later commanding the fleet of spacecraft that set up the permanent settlement that has become Luna City. My mother’s mission followed my father’s discovery that moonrock contained a mineral that formed a super-efficient photovoltaic glass. That single breakthrough transformed the energy industries on Earth and made the Moon colony and space travel an economic and worthwhile proposition.
We also must not forget that it is eighty years since the Berlin Declaration of Peace and Trust, that established the Federation. The money previously spent on the military was channelled into scientific, technological and social advances including the exploration of space. It was also in 1939 that the theme from my paternal grandmother’s stupendous third symphony was chosen as the Federation anthem.
The formation of the Federation of Nations does, of course, go back to the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919. That followed five years after the ceasefire of 1914 negotiated by my maternal great-grandfather, then British Foreign Secretary. The quick end to the European War that began in August of that year is said to have saved millions of lives in what many historians think could have turned into a long drawn out conflict.

That’s all nonsense; pure fiction. We are obviously not living in a peaceful world where solar power provides our energy needs, where the resources of the planet and its satellite are utilised sustainably. Neither are my parents and ancestors famed for being astronauts, scientists, composers or diplomats. A brief mention in the local newspaper from time to time is the extent of their fame. Like the vast majority of the population of this planet my forebears’ lives have not troubled historians. That does not mean that their lives were not extraordinary. My grandparents lived through two World Wars; my parents married and set up home during the period of austerity following the Second World War and lived through a period of rapid change. I have probably had the best of all worlds – peace at home, reasonable prosperity, a free and available health service, and a generally liberal and accepting community.
While there may be no fame in my family, in recent times at least, we are all related to some common ancestor countless generations back. We can therefore claim kinship with anyone we like. Who is the hero or heroine that you wish you were closely related to? 

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Jasmine at the Museum

An evening in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff made a pleasant change to watching the continuing chaos on the news. The Museum event was part of the Cardiff Science Festival and I was helping the RSC (that’s the Royal Society of Chemistry) interesting children and their parents in chemistry.  We had a variety of activities for them to join in, mostly set at about Year 7 level (or younger) although one required the children to offer an explanation for how glowsticks work. Tthey weren’t expected to understand the more advanced aspects of chemiluminescence, but getting  them to describe what they saw other than saying “the light switched on” was difficult.  The Museum was packed with well over a thousand participants and they all seemed interested in our activities and the others that were going on.  I do have to say though that I was disappointed in children’s knowledge and understanding of acids, alkalis and indicators, even the older ones.

Another part of the evening was using my half hour off explaining chemistry to view the Leonardo drawings that the Museum has temporarily on loan, celebrating  the 500 year anniversary of his death. The drawings on show were largely anatomical but with some other sketches of plans for statues, and a map. It was marvellous to get up really close to these originals and examine Leonardo’s intricate and accurate diagrams. As well as his skill in drawing the depth of his analysis of his observations was quite breath-taking.

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WP_20190221_12_01_42_ProI have just had a statement from Amazon for the first month’s e-book sales of Molly’s Boudoir.  By Jasmine’s standards they weren’t bad but of course they haven’t continued at the same level because I have yet to discover how to spread word about the book (and the other Jasmine Frame titles) as widely as is necessary. I’m still in need of bright ideas or a publisher willing  to take them on and promote them. As I showed last week, the reviews are good. I still don’t believe that they belong in the tiny niche of transgender fiction. Jasmine is trans and so is the victim but the plot is crime.

And so to this week’s story. This one kills to two birds with one stone – not literally.  It fulfils both the criteria for my weekly writers’ group i.e. include the phrase “and that is why. . .” and that of my monthly group’s title “Window of Opportunity.” This time I adopted the style of an allegory. I’m told it works quite well.

Window of Opportunity: An Allegory

A long time ago I met a wise old man. He may not have been very old and may not have been a man, but he spoke wisely. He asked me what I wanted from life and I replied, that I wished to be recognised for something that I had achieved.
“Oh, you want to be famous,” the wise old man said.
“Not a celebrity who’s famous for being famous,” I said. “I want to do something special.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding sagely, “You need the Window of Opportunity.”
“I suppose so,” I said, not fully understanding what he had said.
“That is a long and difficult journey.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, thinking he had been speaking figuratively.
“To where?” I asked.
“The Tower of Ambition,” he replied, “At the top of the tower you will find the Window of Opportunity.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat surprised by what he was saying. “And where is this tower.”
“It is at the heart of the Forest of Endeavour, sometimes known as the Jungle of Responsibility.”
I had not heard of such a place. It was nowhere close, that was certain.
“And how do I get there?” I asked.
“Across the Sea of Expertise at the edge of the Ocean of Learning,” he replied.  I did at least know where the ocean was.
“You think travelling all that way is worth the effort?” I said rather doubtfully.
“If you avoid the Desert of Despond and the Depression of Depression, you will find what you seek,” he answered. I was intrigued to find out what he meant and eager to achieve my goal, and that is why I embarked on my journey.
I set out in a small boat across the ocean. During much meandering, I acquired knowledge of astronomy and weather, the skills of navigation, of handling and maintaining my craft and an understanding of the variety and characteristics of marine life. At last I entered the Sea of Expertise where I was beset by calms and buffeted by fierce storms. I had to fight against the wind to at last reach shore.
There I left my boat and set off inland. The Forest covered the continent with trees of every description from tall pines to broad oaks. I followed paths, coming across peoples who welcomed me and looked after me in return for my willingness to assist them. I enquired about the location of the Tower of Ambition but, while many knew of its existence, they could only give me the vaguest of directions. I stayed for a while but then the urge to continue my journey grew strong and I moved on.
One day the trees began to thin allowing the hot Sun to shine directly on me. I hadn’t come across people for a while and was running short of supplies. As I stood by the last tree I looked out on a barren rocky plain. In the distance I could see movement and colour. It appeared to me as a place of civilisation, somewhere to restock my rations.  I set off under the open sky. Soon I was hot and sweaty, I walked on, but my destination seemed as distant as ever. My legs became heavy and my clothes irritated my skin. I felt exhausted by the endless expanse of dry rock. It was then that I remembered the wise old man’s warning. I must be in the Desert of Despond. I turned and headed back the way I had come. I almost ran in my desire to get back amongst the trees.
Not long after I returned to the forest, I came across a community. They were friendly and took me in.  In my first few days one of their number took an interest in me. We became friends, companions, lovers. I worked and soon was accepted as an essential contributor to the village’s welfare. I was happy with my partner and my employment and the friends we had but still the urge remained to find the Tower of Ambition. It became something I had to do. My partner agreed to let me continue with my quest. I promised I would return and set off again.
Once more I travelled along tracks beneath the trees.  The path rose and fell but never became difficult.  That is, until I realised that the route I was following had been descending for some distance. My way was becoming steeper.  I had to watch where I put my feet as the surface become rough and uneven. I stumbled and grabbed hold of a branch to prevent my fall. I seemed to be heading deeper and deeper into a gorge.  Cliffs closed over me shutting out the sky. I could barely see my way in the dark. The weight of the overhanging rock pressed on me.
As I attempted to negotiate an almost vertical stretch I paused. I thought about what I was doing and where I was. This must be the Depression of Depression that the wise old man had warned me of. I was not getting anywhere by continuing down into the dark, cold depths. I turned and began to climb. It was difficult and hard work but slowly I returned to the light and warmth and found where I had missed a turning. I resumed my search for the Tower of Ambition.
I came upon it quite by surprise. From dense jungle I stepped into a clearing and there was the stone tower. It had a broad conical base which curved to become a straight spear that pierced the sky. Even though I bent my head back as far as it would go, I could not see the top of the tower. There was an entrance at ground level, a narrow opening that admitted just one person at a time. There was no-one else there, so I stepped inside. The helical staircase began immediately. I started to climb. I did not count the steps, but I am sure I would have soon lost count. The staircase spiralled up and up. I lifted one foot after the other and plodded on. There were no windows but just enough light from some diffuse source to allow me to see where to put my feet.
I lost track of time but mechanically took one step after another. Hours, perhaps days, passed as I climbed. No-one descended. At last I emerged into a room the full width of the tower. There were no other exits and it was empty. There was a polished wooden floor and an arched roof above me.  Piercing the wall on all sides were sixteen large glass windows.
I stood there at the centre of the room for a few moments taking in the realisation that these must be the Windows of Opportunity. They must show me how to achieve my goal.  I turned, taking in the panoramic view from the window but all I could see was sky as blue and cloudless as it could possibly be.  I hurried to the edge of the room to peer out and down.
The tower was so tall and the atmosphere so clear that it seemed that I could see the whole world. Far below was the canopy of the forest that enclosed the base of the tower. I was disappointed. I had come all this way and all I got was a nice view. Where were the opportunities I sought? I looked at the scene more thoroughly.  The forest receded into the distance but nevertheless I could see a line of darker blue on the horizon. It was the sea. There on the coast I had left my boat and never used the knowledge and skills I learned crossing the ocean again.
Although the trees grew close, I fancied I could discern the route I had taken. I recognised the different trees, the landmarks. I moved around the room looking out of each of the sixteen panes of glass. There in the distance was the featureless plain of the Desert of Despond.  On the other side of the tower from the ocean was the deep rift of the Depression of Depression. It appeared that in my wanderings I had circled the tower at least once.
I walked around gazing out in all directions, looking near and far. The wise old man had called this the Window of Opportunity, the chance to see where I could make my mark in life. Where was it?
Then, down below and not too far away I saw a thin cloud of smoke rising. I recognised it as the site where I had settled; where my partner awaited my return. It was where I had been happy and fulfilled.  Realisation came to me. The window did indeed reveal all the world where every opportunity one could wish for existed. Only fools spent their lives following a needless search for the Window of Opportunity at the top of the Tower of Ambition. Most were content labouring in the Forest of Endeavour.
I went to the top of the stairs and hurried down. There seemed fewer steps on the descent and I quickly reached the ground. I ran into the forest. I knew the direction I needed now. I went straight to the settlement and there my partner welcomed me with a hug while the friends I had left celebrated my return. There I lived, content that I had achieved my goal.
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