Jasmine watches

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

1  It’s only the first episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seed

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

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

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Jasmine 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 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 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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Jasmine all of a quiver

It’s been quite a week hasn’t it- politically that is.  Have MPs at last had the chance to vote with their brains and consciences? I think a lot have. Seeing off May’s plan and the No Deal option are a start, asking the EU for an extension is the next. Now all they have to do is force a referendum and we have the opportunity to put across to the people what the EU does for us and why we should remain a part of it. Some will be unhappy and may even try to cause disruption but that was going to happen whatever the outcome was.  I have fingers, and other bits of me, crossed but it is dreadfully close to the deadline and as I have said before it is criminal that things should have been allowed to reach this impasse.

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I was at a conference earlier this week at a certain university. It was reporting on and promoting a short course on “Transgender” for staff and students. The writing team seem to have done a good bit of work but we weren’t allowed a look at the course itself. None of the team were apparently trans themselves (who can tell?) but at least one had close contact with someone who had transitioned. There were talks from a couple of trans and non-binary people and from a headmaster coping with the problems of having pupils transitioning (the pupils aren’t the problem; parents of other pupils are.)  I did worry that a somewhat stereotypical picture of gender was presented. One of the speakers who had done the course, reported a session where they were asked to place themselves on a gender spectrum (1 to 12) on the basis of certain traits e.g. the length of their hair, whether they liked classic cars or football. Now this may have been an ironic take on stereotyping, but it caused me to raise my eyebrows.

The audience was largely cis-people for organisations who may adopt the course for their students or staff. There were a few trans people – at least ones I suspected of being trans. There were very few questions asked and no opinions or comments from the floor. The team were a bit self-congratulatory which seemed somewhat premature and based only on the evaluation of the pilot of the course with a small number of students and staff.  I heartily endorse the need for something like this course to help spread understanding but not being able to examine the content made it a little pointless.

WP_20181120_11_51_39_ProI am increasingly upset that the focus is almost always on trans people who wish to transition fully to the binary gender they identify with. That’s fine but we also need much more understanding about what it means to be non-binary and how it is viewed by society. As a case in point – I tried out the “facilities” at the venue. There were male toilets and female toilets and a door advertising that it was for those that required a non-gendered space. It turned out to be the room for those with disabilities. I took exception to that because a) I do not need a special loo, and b) I don’t want to be in a position of preventing someone who does need them from gaining access.  So even the most trans aware organisations need to think a bit more clearly.

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This week’s bit of writing needs some explanation. At last week’s writers’ group meeting we were introduced to something called a Writers’ Toolbox. I’m not sure whether it is simply a game or whether it is actually intended as a stimulus to writers. We didn’t know the rules exactly (rules? For writing?) so I took three sticks which I thought provided a first sentence, a last sentence and one for in between which sort of  provided a fulcrum for the plot. The story below is the result with the relevant sentences coloured. I didn’t have a lot of time so my effort rather shoehorns the sentences together. I have since learned that the last sentence, isn’t.

It’s the Turtles

My brother did this weird thing with turtles. Some people like eating them. Me? I just enjoyed watching them, and so did Herb, my little bro, at the beginning.
We have a house, well, it’s more of a shack, right on the beach. So we’re right there when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. They do it at night of course to avoid predators but we’re there watching, sometimes until dawn. Their slow, agonising crawl ashore is almost painful to watch. I often had the urge to run on to the sand and give them a lift, but we didn’t. Once they’ve decided they’re far enough from the high-water line they dig their shallow nests in the sand. Their flippers aren’t really designed for scooping sand, but they just get on with it. Then they lay their eggs, dozens to each female. They’re all females of course. The males stay way out at sea.  Weeks later we watch the little turtles scramble up to the surface and scamper, slowly, for the safety of the sea. Many are picked off by seabirds but others make it.
First it was me and Dad who were the watchers. Then Herb joined us. After Dad died it was just the two of us. A couple of years ago we were following the leatherbacks returning to the ocean when we came across one that was struggling. The old girl was barely making any progress.
“Shall we help her,” Herb asked.
“No, we mustn’t interfere,“ I replied. “Either she makes it or she doesn’t. That’s life.”
The turtle stopped. We waited and watched but there was no movement, not even a flick of a flipper
“Is she dead?” Herb asked.
I crouched down and examined her. She looked dead. I gave her a prod with a finger. No reaction.
“I think so,” I decided.
“We can’t leave her,” Herb cried, “the gulls were peck at her. She’ll be a mess.”
“That’s how it goes,” I said, shrugging.
“No. I’m going to stuff her.” Herb bent down and picked up the leatherback. I don’t know how he did it. He was a scrawny kid and the turtle was heavy. Nevertheless, he lugged the carcase back to the house. Ma didn’t complain at all when Herb came in with a turtle in his arms. Mind you she was out of it as usual. I tried saying you can’t keep a dead turtle in the freezer, but Herb was determined. He googled “stuffing dead animals” and picked up lots of stuff on taxidermy. He watched hours of YouTube seeing how it was done. Then he started. I was surprised at how good he was. Even that first leatherback looked as though she was in the prime of life when he’d done with her. Herb became obsessed with making the dead look as though they were still alive. He became pretty expert at it and started making some much-needed cash selling his dead animals – mainly marine creatures such as the turtle and fish. He was pretty organised and made sure the freezer didn’t ice up while the animals waited to be dealt with. I preferred watching the turtles in life even if it meant seeing them die.
The number of turtles was falling. I knew that as well as their natural predators there were human ones. Some poachers trapped the adult turtles in the shallow water and others would dig up their eggs. They were the same I decided. Both were driving the creatures to extinction.
Herb was as annoyed about it as I was. We agreed we had to do something. We decided to patrol the beach after the eggs had been laid. One night we came across a bunch of guys digging the eggs up. I might have had words with them, but Herb launched himself at them. One of them pulled a gun. The sound of the shot must have been heard miles out at sea. Herb fell onto the sand. The poachers scarpered. I pulled Herb back to the house, but I knew it was no good. He was as much a goner as that leatherback.
The cops came, took a few notes but didn’t do much. Herb’s body was taken away. Me and Ma were left with our grief and a freezer of dead animals frosting up. I couldn’t deal with them the way Herb defrosted the refrigerator.

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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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