Jasmine flustered

P1000483It’s Friday evening and I haven’t written my blog! Actually I haven’t had time to think all week having had the family inc grandsons to stay (lovely but full on. . .) Also I have paid a visit to a local writing group of which I am not a member to talk about writing, publishing and gender identity.  A lovely morning and I sold a couple of books (yippee!). Then I was out today again, talking about gender identity.

So I haven’t paid much attention to the news and I am not going to comment on it other than to conclude, in John Crace’s words – we’re fxxxxd.

And that’s it really. What I can do is give you a taste of the new novel I’m working on – The Pendant and the Globe, inspired by a session at my weekly writing group.  Here is the opening chapter as it currently stands (first draft):

The Pendant and the Globe

1

She stepped over the corpse. The guardian was lying face down in the shallow stream. She glanced back into the dark tunnel. There was no pursuit. There were no guardians left to pursue her.  She ducked under the low lintel of the cave entrance and stepped onto the narrow ledge. The water tumbled over the edge falling to the pool a hundred feet below. The dark tops of trees obscured the valley floor but the sound of the water hitting the rocks below came to her. She raised her head, looking straight at Selene, the crescent moon. Its light illuminated the cavemouth, sparkling in the water and reflecting off the broad sword she held in her left hand. The long blade was streaked with blood, but it no longer shone with its own light. She rested the sword against the wall of the cave, its tip submerged, and looked at her left hand.  A long silver chain dangled between her wrist. She looped the chain over her head.  The necklace held her long black hair against her neck.
Slowly she opened the fingers of her left hand revealing the object for which she had despatched the guardians. There was a ring of iridium the width of her palm. Within it was the shape of a tree formed from a single length of platinum wire. The wire wound on itself to form a trunk, seven short roots and seven boughs that intersected with the circle. Threaded on each of the boughs were chips of precious stones – ruby, orange diamond, topaz, emerald, sapphire, azurite and amethyst. She had known what she sought but this was her first sight of the jewels in their setting. She smiled and let the pendant drop to her naked breasts. The metal ring was cold but the gems felt warm against her skin.
Taking up her sword she began to descend the steps cut into the cliff face. Irregular and uneven, they appeared natural indentations in the rock. The route to the cave was a secret to her no longer. The path passed behind the waterfall. She paused and extended her bare arms into the falling water, washing off the blood that was encrusted on them. Then she continued down to the pool.
She made a soft hum, like the beating wings of a bee. In moments she heard footfall between the trees. Her steed approached and stopped in front of her. She caressed the velvet of his antlers then stowed her sword in the scabbard strapped to his flank.  Grasping the thick fur on his neck she leapt onto the deer’s back and pressed her heels to his side. They turned and ran between the trees, twisting and turning and climbing away from the stream.
Soon they emerged above the treeline onto the open mountainside. She clung to the deer’s neck as he leapt from tussock to outcrop, barely touching the ground. Across the ridge and over the moorland they travelled. The air whipping over her naked skin chilling her but she did not care. She laughed into the wind. She had the Pendant.

“Do you have to leave?” the young man said
“My task is finished. I am done with this place,” the Traveller replied.
The young man tried again. “Can we not show our gratitude by holding a feast in your honour?”
The Traveller made a sound behind his white beard. It may have been a chuckle at the thought that they felt they owed him something or it may have been a snort of disdain that they considered that they could repay him for his efforts. “I have no need of feasts,” he said.
The young man sighed. “Where will you go?”
“Wherever I am needed.’
“We need you.’
Now the Traveller did indeed snort. ‘No, you do not. You have responsibilities, duties to each other and to your land. You do not need my presence in order to carry them out.”
The young man was crestfallen. It seemed he knew what the Traveller meant but would have been reassured to have the old man’s support.
“Well, we wish you well, Traveller, and hope to welcome you here again.”
“Do not wish for my return. It can only mean that troubles face you. Only you and your people can ensure that they do arise. Now I will take my leave of you.”
He turned his back on the young man and the throng of people that stood silently behind him. He walked through the gates of the city, out on to the arid plain and towards the Sun sinking towards the horizon.
From a deep pocket in the long, dark coat that he wore despite the heat, he drew out the Globe. He held it by the stand attached to the southern pole and, as he walked, he ran his finger over the outline of the continents incised into the dark metal.
Where next was indeed the question. There was always some place or people where his knowledge and skills were required; some threat that required his involvement. He had not walked far when his fingers encountered a hot spot on the Globe. It shone as brightly as the Sun in the tropics. He held the Globe up to examine it more closely and to check the location. It was as he feared. He knew it well, half a world away, and there was only one reason why he was being alerted.
He stopped and took a pair of dividers from his other capacious pocket. He spread the points to touch the Globe at his present location and the centre of the glowing spot. He put one foot forward. For a moment he had one foot in the afternoon and the other in the night. He completed the pace. The plain was gone and he was standing by a waterfall in moonlight.

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Jasmine confused

Do you ever have that feeling that you are the only sane person and everyone around you is mad? I think that’s supposed to be one of the signs that you’re mad yourself, except that in today’s world it feels normal. On the other hand I know that close family, friends and perhaps over half the UK agree with me. It is the rest who are bonkers. Unfortunately they include the tiny number that are Conservative MPs and party members who are going to decide our future.

There is one thing that unites the contenders for the party leadership and position of PM (7 at the time of writing). Actually it’s two things – they are all in favour of one form of Brexit or other and they are all flawed. By that I mean they have serious character defects. Without exception they have an over-inflated opinion of their own intelligence and expertise, they all lack humanity i.e. the ability to put other people before themselves, and they think that the UK has some clout left. Many of them are seriously contemplating leaving the EU without a deal. Seriously. Do they have no concept of what negotiation involves. Trust, first and foremost. If the  UK crashes out of the EU who else is ever going to believe that the UK will stand by its obligations and responsibilities. The UK will just be fodder for the predators out there = and pretending that the UK is still a “big hitter” is to be severely stuck in the past.

It is even worse that the front runner, the idiot that is the darling of the aged Tory party in the shires is the most flawed of the lot, a serial womaniser, a Walter Mitty who has no concept of what is the truth, and an incompetent. Some people have said that by referring to him as Boris is to make his character familiar, and cuddly. No it doesn’t. To call him Johnson is to confuse him with the many other honest people with that name. The only Borises I can recall are the drunken “hero” of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the typecast actor who played Frankenstein’s monster. To refer to someone in public office by their first name is to belittle them. Soldiers in WW2 sang rude songs about Adolf; the Emperor of France was always Napoleon, not M.Bonaparte; and Stalin was Uncle Joe. Of course a nickname reduces them further. The Guardian’s John Crace named Theresa May, “maybot” and from then on she was seen as a malfunctioning machine bound for failure and obsolescence. Stewart Lee, in the Observer, has tagged Boris Johnson with all the words he has applied to minority groups – Boris Piccaninny Bumboy Letterbox Johnson – a marvellous takedown.  I think those words should be inserted every time his name comes up as a reminder of the type of person he really is.

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WP_20190514_12_33_27_Pro (2)The Pope has decided that gender is up to God. It is not a choice. Perhaps he is right because no one would choose the abuse and hate that arises when someone announces that their gender, or lack of one, does not match their biological sex. Surely the identity one feels must come from a higher source. It certainly is not a trivial selection. So, I hope to see the RC church, its believers and governments that follow its doctrines doing their best to accept and assist trans and non gendered people. My expectations are low.

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I haven’t done any writing this week. I have been on holiday on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales (not Whales), or rather Gogledd Cymru. It is a marvellous area of conical volcanic hills, flats lucious farmland and coastal cliffs and bays. It is also predominantly Cymraeg speaking and confident in that fact. I’ve had a wonderful time. So, it’s back to the archive. Here is a piece I wrote in 2014 commemorating the start of WW1.  It seems appropriate following the marking of D-day and the questions about our relationship with Europe.

Fallen Apples

‘It’s not my fault,’ Bert said, picking up the basket and starting to re-fill it with the apples that had spilled onto the grass. I knelt beside him and began to help him.
‘What’s the matter, Bert?’ I asked.
‘Me mind keeps wandering,’ he said.
‘Where to?’
‘Belgium.’
I knew what he meant. The war across the channel was on my mind too. The reports weren’t good. The Germans had advanced through Belgium and into France with our boys and the French being beaten back. It had all happened so quickly since war was declared a month ago.  Bert’s older brother Sid had joined the army a couple of years ago and he was over there with the British Expeditionary Force. Like Bert I wondered how Sid was doing. What must it be like fighting in battle?
We both kept our thoughts to ourselves as we got on with the job of filling baskets with apples and loading them onto the cart. After a couple more hours we’d done all we could for one day so we walked the horse and cart back from the orchard to the farm and unloaded it into the cider barn.  It was still light when Bert and I trudged home. There were some new posters on the boards outside the general stores in town
‘Look at that,’ Bert said, ‘the boys ‘ave done it.’  The sheet that Bert pointed at reported that the Germans had been halted at the River Marne.
‘They’ve only stopped them,’ I pointed out, ‘the war’s not over.’  I pointed to the poster on the other board. Enlist now – your country needs you it said in bold colourful letters with a picture of Lord Kitchener pointing his finger directly at me.
‘What do you think Bert? Should we join up?’
‘They said the war would be over by Christmas,’ he replied.
‘Yeah, but they’re going to need more of lads if they’re going to push the Huns right out of France and Belgium.’
‘Perhaps you and me could ‘elp  and give Sid an ‘and.’ Bert said, ‘but what about the apples. Who’ll bring them all in?’
‘There’s other people,’ I said, ‘Your Pa wouldn’t mind a bit more work and there’s my sis. She’d love to earn a few coppers.’
‘Yeah, well I wouldn’t want to see them apples left rotting on the ground.’
‘They won’t. Let’s join up tomorrow.’
‘Aye.’

There wasn’t much left of the village we’d come to defend. Every building was damaged by the bombardment’s from both sides as the Germans had first taken it then been forced out. Bodies in German and British uniforms and of ordinary men and women lay amongst the muddy pools.  We were the reinforcements sent by General Haig to make sure that the line was held.
‘What’s this ‘ere place called?’ Bert asked as we marched up the rubble strewn street.
‘Givenchy,’ I replied.
‘Some place to spend Christmas.’
‘There’s a few more days yet.’
‘I don’t reckon this war is going to be over by then, do you,’ Bert said wistfully.
‘I think someone got it wrong, Bert.’
At the edge of the village we entered the trenches and were ordered to get out our shovels ready to do some digging of our own.
‘Keep your ‘eads down,’ the Sergeant ordered, ‘or the German snipers’ll have you.’ As he spoke there was the scream of a shell over our heads followed by a deafening thud as it exploded in the remains of a house a hundred yards behind us.  As we filed through the muddy corridors we met the defenders we were relieving.  Every one of them looked exhausted and over halfway to death, covered in muck and blood.
A few hours later. I knew how they felt. I too was covered in mud from shovelling and there was plenty of blood too from the bodies of the soldiers we carried out of the shell-damaged trenches.
‘They say these ‘ere trenches go all the way to the sea,’ Bert said as we carried one mangled corpse.
‘And to Switzerland, that way,’ I said nodding in the opposite direction.
‘Is this what war has become? Blokes rotting in holes in the ground while taking pot-shots at each other.’
Voices shouted, whistles blew. ‘Fix bayonets’ came the call. Bert and I dropped our burden and swiftly slotted our bayonets to the rifles that we’d been carrying over our backs. Our weeks of training had taught us that at least, even if we were barely prepared for the realities of war. Guns fired, and I heard the bullets buzzing over our heads.  More shells screamed over, exploding one after the other until the roar was continuous.
‘What’s happening?’ Bert shouted.
‘Counter attack,’ someone replied from nearby. We held our rifles at the ready staring up at the rim of the trench. Our own howitzers opened up and the chatter of the machine guns added to the din.
‘I wish I was back in the orchard,’ Bert bawled at me.  A wave of mud thrown up by a near-miss swamped us.
‘I’m sorry Bert,’ I spluttered, wiping the muck from my mouth with the wet sleeve of my uniform, ‘It’s my fault that you enlisted.’
‘Tha’s right, lad,’ He gave me his toothy grin, ‘Think of them shiny sweet apples lying in the grass while we moulder here.”
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Jasmine looking backwards and forwards

This week was the commemoration  of D-Day, 75 years ago. I am sure that for many youngsters it is as much ancient history as the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Agincourt. Perhaps not. Memories (or rather imagined scenes) of WW2 are kept alive by  films, TV programmes, and books. They maintain attitudes that may have existed during and immediately after the war i.e. anti-German feelings and overblown pride at what plucky Britain achieved. Those ideas maybe fed the Brexit fever and given some (many) people the impression that the UK can stand (and prosper) on its own. The truth is that was never possible. The UK survived the war only because of assistance from the USA and by calling on the dominions of the Empire. The USA is calling in its favours now and the dominions have got their own issues to deal with.

Is the commemoration, therefore, a diversion or a digression? No, I don’t think so, so long as the full story is presented. It’s not just about what happened on that “longest day” but the events that finally lead to the end of the war nearly a year later (more than a year if the war against Japan is considered). Many more servicemen were involved than the 130,000 involved on D day itself and from many parts of the world. The war was not won by the UK alone. Survivors of the war often said nothing about their involvement until they reached great old age so the truth about the horrors and tribulations have perhaps been forgotten.  The issues the war was fought over – freedom from tyranny and invasion – need to be remembered and considered in today’s political climate.

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The Brexit party has no policies but its vision for the UK can be gauged from the words of its leaders. Ann Widdicombe hopes scientists will find a “cure” for being gay. Whether science identifies a genetic explanation for, and hence the possibility of altering,  sexual orientation, autism, ginger hair or whatever is irrelevant. What is important is whether the right to be what one perceives oneself to be is honoured.  As soon as a minority group is identified as needing a cure or treatment imposed on them they can be removed from society and eliminated. That is what these so-called-Christian populists want.

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This week’s bit of writing needs some explanation. It was written, perhaps foolishly, to meet two different writing groups’ topics for the week. One was “the road not taken” and the other was “jealousy.” Having got an idea I think that the execution has ended up not really meeting either of those themes. The jealousy has become mild envy or covetousness and the road not taken, which was supposed to be a well signposted route, has become lost amongst the bushes. Also the last section got a bit rushed. Another thing is that I feel that the story may give the wrong impression of my views as it concerns WP_20190514_12_33_27_Pro (2)gender identity. It is a story about one fictional character.  May I make it clear that I feel that children and teenagers can be very certain of their gender identity and if it does not match their assigned gender then they should transition when they wish, perhaps be prescribed puberty blockers and go on to gender confirmation surgery once they have arrived at adulthood (currently age 16) if they feel it suits them. On the other hand I don’t think everyone has to choose to be male or female. Non-binary/gender fluid/gender queer is another option.

 

Sisters

My sister has beautiful long, fair hair with just a hint of curl. It feels so silky and shines in light. I wanted hair like it.  More than that I wanted her blue eyes, whipped cream skin and infectious giggle. I wanted to be my sister.
With Dad at work all the time and Mum busy around the house and so on, I was left in the care of my sister when I was little. Four years older than me, she viewed me as her plaything, her living doll. She dressed me in her cast-off princess dresses, painted my nails, put on lipstick and blusher on my cheeks. She combed my mousy brown hair and wheeled me around in the pushchair.
More and more as we grew older, I wanted to be like her, to be her. One day when she was dozing, I snipped off some of her curls. Why? Who knows? Perhaps I intended sticking them on my head or maybe I just wanted a bit of her to keep. I followed her everywhere. When she began dance lessons, so did I.

She came out of her bedroom to find me standing on the landing. I was wearing the pink satin dress, the last one I had. She’d moved on from princesses so there were no more hand-me-downs, and this was the only one that still fitted. I had brushed my hair and put ribbons in it. I’d put on bright pink lipstick that matched the dress.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I wanted to tell you something,” I replied.
“What? I haven’t got time now. I’m meeting Milly and Saffron.”
“No. Please. I just wanted to say. . .”
“Say what?”
“I want to be a girl.” I paused. That hadn’t come out as I intended. “I mean, I am a girl. I know I’m a girl.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re a boy. You’ve got a willy.” She pushed me out of her way and hurried to the stairs. She paused and looked back at me.
“Oh, god. It’s my fault. All those years of dressing you and making you up. I’ve turned you into a freaking tranny.” She fled down the stairs.  A moment later the front door slammed. I went back to my room, threw myself on the bed and cried.

It was after bedtime when I heard footsteps on the stairs. They were too light for Mum or Dad. Anyway, they’d be asleep on the sofa supposedly watching TV. My door opened and I recognised the silhouette.
“Are you awake?” she whispered. I turned over to show her I was. “What you said earlier; did you mean it?”
I pushed myself up in the bed eager to try again.
“I want you and Mum and Dad and everyone to know I’m a girl, to let me be a girl when I start high school.”
She shook her head, “I gave you these stupid ideas, didn’t I?  All that dressing up.” Her face crinkled.
“No, no. I loved all that stuff. I enjoyed the dressing up, the make-up. Do you think I’d have let you do it if I didn’t want it?”
She stood up, backed away. “You were so little back then. I wasn’t thinking. We’re older now. You do your own thing, dancing and stuff.”
I grabbed her hand and dragged her back to me.
“I started dancing because you did.”
“But you’re so much better than me. You could do it for a job.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps. I’ll be a girl dancer.”
“But you’re a boy!”
I shook my head. “I can have my willy taken away. Doctors can do that. Then I’ll be a girl like you.”
“You really think you want to go through all that. The bullies will have a field day if you turn up at school in a skirt. Then there’s the drugs and the surgery. I’ve seen it on Youtube. It’s awful.”
“It’s what I want. Will you help me get Mum and Dad sorted?”
She looked at me with large sad eyes and didn’t say anything for a while.
“OK, but don’t say anything yet. Let me think about it.”

Next day a letter arrived saying I’d won a scholarship at Performing Arts school. After that there wasn’t time to think about anything except getting prepared for going away. At school I met musicians, actors and dancers, boys as well as girls. I loved it. The year passed in a blur of hard work and fantastic experiences. Back home for the summer holiday I noticed that I was now taller than my sister. Only her bust, another cause for envy, had grown in the last couple of years. She spent more time with her boyfriend than me while waiting for her exam results.
I continued to get taller. My shoulders widened, hairs grew in various places, my voice dropped, and I discovered what a willy can do. My hair was still long and I wore makeup, not only on stage. I pulled on a dress from time to time too. I took shit from some screwed-up people, but most couldn’t give a hoot. I didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl and didn’t care. I was me. But I still wish I had my sister’s hair.

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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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