Jasmine in fashion

I suppose, this being the day when a new era in history has begun, I have to make a comment. I will always regret that the UK has left the EU, and when the opportunity arises I shall urge our return. Johnson talked of uniting the country – that is piffle, of which he speaks a lot. This country is more divided than it has ever been. The sickness of Brexit has caused many divisions: between England and the rest of the UK, between the English and people who have settled here, between those who consider themselves the majority and minorities.  I believe that Brexit will have a detrimental effect.  I say believe because I have no factual evidence to prove it so, but I make the following predictions:

1 There will be a steady decline in prosperity and employment and a rise in prices.  It won’t be sudden and so it will never be proved to be a result of leaving the EU. No government will ever blame anything on leaving the EU.

2  There will be erosion of citizen’s rights, partly because unrest will increase due to increased poverty. Certain minorities will be targeted and the changes to the law will be justified as ensuring the “freedoms” and safety of the majority.

3  Even less will be done to alleviate climate change than has been achieved up to now.

There are other things that I fear will happen in the next 5 to 10 years of Tory government but I don’t want to spoil your day.

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Earlier this week we visited London to go to the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A. I’m not a follower of fashion in either male or female mode but it was a fascinating piece of social history. I knew, of course, that Mary Quant was one of the leading figures of 60s fashion but I hadn’t realised quite how innovative she had been as designer alongside her husband as marketing guru and the third member of the trio, their financial partner. When you look at the clothes she designed, had made and sold in the period from about 1955 to 1980 you get a multi-facetted view of the period; the growing freedom of women to live their own lives (up to a point); the rebellion against the staid norms of previous eras; the growing power of the young (with money in their pockets and freedom from parents); new ways of marketing fashion (TV and film, colour supplements in newspapers, pop music and youth magazines); new materials (synthetic fibres and plastics such as pvc); mass production (designs contracted out to factories, often overseas).

Many of Quant’s designs have been recycled over and over again – the mini-skirts and dresses and jump suits, in particular. Many have become everyday classics. Some items have almost disappeared such as the coat-dress, a thick, warm garment that functions like a coat but has the fit and features of a dress. I imagine they were popular for attending functions in large, poorly heated homes, halls and churches before central heating really caught on.  She may not have been the first (I’m no fashion history expert) but she certainly saw the value of branding – her own name, names for clothing lines and trademarks such as the daisy logo which appeared on everything from jewellery to bags, and the Daisy doll which girls (and boys?) could clothe with miniature versions of Quant designs..

An interesting part of the exhibition was that it included comments from people who worked for Quant, commentators of the period, and women who purchased the goods. It was a fascinating couple of hours. The only problem was that as with all these special exhibitions, there were too many people (despite it being a “quiet” Monday lunchtime).

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P1010031 (2)The photos of me this week are ones I have taken experimenting with a new camera tripod and the timer setting on the camera.

No writers’ group this week as I was elsewhere and I have had little time for writing.  I have started a couple of short pieces and I have been planning (in my head mainly) how Jasmine 5 will progress, but I have nothing new to post. So here is something what I wrote earlier.  I wrote it some years ago inspired by reports of boats abandoned on the almost dried up Aral Sea in central Asia.

 

There was a boat . . .

There was a boat that rested, listing, on a shore that had not experienced the kiss of waves for a generation. Yuri entered through the jagged hole made to remove the diesel engine and all the metal fittings. He stretched his young legs to clamber up the lopsided wooden ladder. Sunlight made jagged stripes on his face and body as it streamed through the gaps in the wind-shrunken timbers. The boat would no longer float if the sea returned, not that that was likely to occur. Yuri reached the narrow bridge, held himself upright by hanging on to the wheel and looked out of the dirt-covered, cracked window. The barren sea-bed stretched to meet the brown sky at the distant horizon. Yuri was alone with his boat.  Alone with his thoughts and memories.

Yuri’s father had seen the approaching vehicles shrouded in their clouds of dust and exhaust fumes. He had sent Yuri to his hiding place above the ceiling of their shack. There Yuri peered through the gaps in the boards. He saw the battered four-by-four pickups draw up around their little house and the bearded men with the guns and blades get out. They crowded into the one room and demanded things of his father. Things he did not have. Yuri didn’t recognise the men but they had been before. Last time they had taken his mother in exchange for his father’s life, taken her Yuri did not know where. Now he lay on the boards listening to his father argue and plead. The men shouted and then his father had made one last sound; a brief shriek that cut off abruptly.
There was more noise as the men smashed up the hut with the butts of their guns, then they left, laughing and hailing a god Yuri did not know. Their vehicle engines spluttered into life and they were gone.  Yuri waited just in case the men returned but after many minutes of silence except for the whispering wind, he crept from his hiding place.
Yuri’s father was sprawled on the floor, the blood from his almost severed neck soaking into the earth. His guts spread across floor, stinking, already attracting buzzing flies. Yuri took a single glance and left the home he had shared with his father, mother, baby sister and grandfather. They were all gone now. He was alone. He went to the only other place he knew – the boat.

The sun turned red and bloated and sank below the featureless horizon. Yuri remained standing watching. The sky darkened and the stars came out, so many stars that Yuri couldn’t comprehend their number. Though the long-dried out, wind-scoured bed of the former sea was as dark as dark could be, the sky was bright with the stars.
Yuri gripped the wheel and turned it to port and starboard. He was sailing, not the fish-filled waters that the boat had navigated with his grandfather at the wheel, but the heavens, like the cosmonaut who he was named for who had died decades before he was born. In his boat of dreams Yuri soared among the stars and planets, visiting places where there were foods and drinks he had heard about but never tasted, seeing animals and plants that he was told existed away from the poisoned shores of the dried-up sea, and meeting his father and mother and sister and relatives and friends that once had inhabited the shore which was home. Upon the starry main, he found peace and happiness.

The boat remained at its mooring. Its keel broken as it slumped into the dust. Its timbers crumbled and the atoms of the wood and of Yuri mingled and were sucked into the air. At last, Yuri sailed away on the wind that blew across the waterless sea.

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Jasmine on tenterhooks

There we are then; another extension and an election on the way. I am delighted that we are still in the EU, for now but cannot see the 27 being willing to carry on this farce for much longer. The cost for them must be almost as much as it has been for the UK.  And then there is the election. I cannot understand Labour saying “no” one day and “yes” the next.  December is an atrocious time for an election.  Who knows what effect bad weather might have on the turnout. Perhaps more will go for a postal vote (the elderly Tory supporters more likely).

I have been a keen follower of elections since 1964 (yes, I was 11) but this is the first one that makes me feel sick and more than simply anxious about the result. In fact no MP or government has been elected in my lifetime for which I voted, so I have never been overjoyed by any result although 1997 was a relief to get rid of the Tories after 18 years. It  probably reveals who I vote for. This time I would vote for anyone who could stop the Tories getting a majority, but once again I appear to be in a constituency where I have little chance of helping that happen.  The trouble is I am not sure I want any of the current lot in power, certainly not Johnson.  I don’t want to see the film “Joker” but from what I read it is a bit of metaphor for the present.  A clown becomes powerful and releases evil on his people. Corbyn seems genuine but is a rebel not a leader and I don’t trust his left-wing advisors. I was quite impressed by Jo Swinson but her fanciful ideas of winning hundreds of seats recalls David Steel’s  “prepare for government” call when he was leading the Lib/SDP Alliance, and we know how that ended.

The polls have been a bit wrong in the last two elections but this one is wide open.  Will people vote by their historical party allegiance or whether they are Leave or Remain? All I know is that if Johnson gets his majority we are stuffed.

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Another view of me at Narberth Book Fair

This week’s writing task was to prepare an entry for one of the NAWG members’ competitions viz. short story with included object. The object was a propelling pencil.  There were some interesting responses, memoirs and fiction. Having done some (wikipaedia) research, I had an inkling of an idea but no time to develop it or write it down in full (the joys of five days with grandchildren and about 700 miles of driving!). So, I shan’t be publishing my story here for a while – that is if I get round to writing it properly and honing it for the comp.  Instead you can have my effort of a poem. Yes, a poem. I wrote it for the “Poetry for the Planet” evening we held a few weeks ago. It’s more of a list than a poem really, but I think it summarises the problems the planet faces.

Disaster index

Fuels burning
Metal ores smelting
Cement roasting
Cattle burping
Carbon increasing
Air warming
Heat waves baking
Ice melting
Glaciers receding
Tundra thawing
Methane escaping
Peat smouldering
Forests igniting
Soil degrading
Crops failing
Jet stream weakening
Storms strengthening
Water courses flooding
Sea level rising
No such thing as climate change?

Plastics discarded
Waste dumps filled
Rubbish transported
then dispersed
Rivers poisoned
Oceans polluted
Turtles trapped
Hedgehogs choked
Birds strangled
Microplastics ingested
Marine life starved
So we can wrap a cauliflower.

Fuel burns
Producing fumes
Particles, gases
Everyone breathes
Catching diseases
Do you need to drive that car?

Habitats destroyed
Or poisoned
Creatures killed
Pollination ceased
Species disappeared
Biodiversity decreased
Who’s next to become extinct?

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Jasmine looks ahead

What does the future hold for us?  It is a little over two months till the PM’s self-imposed deadline for leaving the EU, “or else”. Hardly a day goes by without the news reporting some hardships likely to be caused by a “no deal” exit – food and medicine shortages, rubbish piling up, oil refineries closing down because it is no longer profitable selling British fuel abroad, etc. The Leavers cry “Project Fear” or “fake news” at every negative report but what is the truth? The fact is that the future is never quite what we expect; almost all decisions made by government or individuals have unintended consequences, some good, some bad. I don’t think the world (well the UK bit) will end on 1st Nov if we “leave” on 31st Oct but I am fairly sure that with this government in power and the situation in the world as it is at present, the future is not going to be comfortable.

What can we do? A dear Remainer friend suggested that as the government is in power legally (well, technically I suppose it is) there’s nothing to be done and we should just accept what comes. Really? I’m no protester.  The only time I went on strike was at school where all the pupils decided not to sing the hymn at assembly (I cannot remember the grievance and while the action was supported we soon caved in to the Deputy Head’s remonstration). I’m not one for marches either, not being fond of crowds or going in the same direction as everyone else. Nevertheless, I can see a future where I am forced to stand up for what I think is right, whether it’s support for minority groups (not just trans rights); protesting at erosion of civil rights and democracy or trade agreements with countries that leave us worse off one way or another; or demanding action on climate change.  Let’s see what happens. . .

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P1000572For a very long time I have been interested in literature on transgenderism. I read Myra Breckinridge (Gore Vidal) a long time ago along with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and other novels. There was Jan Morris’ trans autobiography Conundrum and more recently Trans A Memoir by Juliet Jacques and Trans Britain edited by Christine Burns. I have also read a variety of novels which had trans-characters but which I will not name because they do not deserve the publicity. When I started writing about Jasmine Frame my intention was to write a good crime story while making Jasmine as real a transwoman as I could. I realise that as I am not transsexual (I’m gender fluid) my description  of Jasmine was second-hand but while I have no doubt made mistakes, most readers have been complimentary about the plots and the information on trans issues. Nevertheless my aim was to provide entertainment through the medium of a trans character with exciting action as well as contemplation about Jasmine’s position.

One of my readers and followers has published a novel and asked me to mention it. I purchased the e-book from Amazon myself – Summer Dreams by Helen Dale costs £4.99 This link will take you to Helen’s website where you can read a chapter and order the book. If you are not trans yourself and you want to know what trans-people dream of then this book is for you. It largely reads as a fantasy in which the protagonist, Vicky, gets all that she desires – a sugar-daddy boyfriend who gives her the opportunity to transition and achieve full female status in around two years, and a comfortable fulfilling life. Vicky is superb at everything she does whether it is passing as female (even before starting GR treatment), sailing, learning to scuba dive, flying a plane, dolphin spotting, running a business, changing the attitude of prison officers to trans prisoners, and bringing up kids. It is no misery memoir, nor a tale of trial and tribulation, but it will tell you a lot about the desires of transpeople, well, transwomen.

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This week’s writing group theme was “Pandora’s Box”. Now I could have gone subtle and used the title as a metaphor – but I didn’t. Here is an excerpt of the novel that has yet to be written (or planned, for that matter), introducing a new character, Dr. Merioneth Efans, archaeologist, adventurer and hero. Remind you of anyone? Oh, and he’s Welsh.

Merioneth Efans and Pandora’s Box

I stumbled over a boulder and emerged from the crowding pine trees. The bright sun on the bleached rocks dazzled me. I paused to breathe.
“Dych chi’n dod, Helen?” Efans called reverting to his native Welsh.
“Yes, I’m coming,” I replied struggling to see through squinting eyes. He seemed to be jumping up and down. “What are you doing, Meri?” I called. I scrambled over the bare rock towards him.
“Don’t you see. We’re here.” He gesticulated at the almost vertical cliff at the head of the gorge we had just climbed.
“What do you mean, Merioneth?” I demanded.
“It’s the Palace of Epimetheus, husband of Pandora, brother of Prometheus.”
I stared at the brilliant white rock. I rubbed the sweat from my eyes and peered again. Then I saw them, straight lines, sharp angles, columns with curly capitals, a Palladian pediment, not standing free but carved into the rock. My perception changed. I wasn’t looking at a natural cliff-face but the frontage of a building, yes, alright, a palace.
I crawled the remaining distance and Merioneth held out a hand to haul me onto the terrace at the base of the wall.
“How do you know it’s Epimetheus’s palace?”
Efans laughed. “It’s what we’ve come all this way for isn’t it and it’s here. Let’s get inside.”
I noticed there was a doorway between the columns. It was closed and looked as solid as the rock from which the walls were built, but Meri went and rested a shoulder against it. It was heavy but barely made a noise as it swung slowly open. I followed him inside.
We were in a huge hall with a ceiling lost in the darkness above us. Efans strode across the smooth floor which was surprisingly free of dust. Ahead of us, illuminated by the sunlight from the entrance was a set of four steps, each a metre high, surmounted by a throne built of the same white stone. A throne built for a god not a man.
Efans took the haversack off his back, placed it on the first step then hauled himself up.  He was about to climb the second when the roar of a gun firing echoed around the vast space. I span around to see a figure standing in the doorway.
“Ah, Dr Efans and Miss Harper. How lucky for me that you should be here already.”
I recognised that harsh, Slavic voice.
“Lucky for you, Dragic?” Efans replied.
“Yes, you can save me the trouble of searching. Have you found the box yet?” His silhouette approached with the gun clearly pointing at me.
“Now, boyo, that would be telling wouldn’t it.” Efans jumped down by my side. He grabbed the haversack and held it in front of him.
The Macedonian-Serb stopped two metres from me, the pistol still threatening.
“Empty that bag,” Dragic ordered.
Efans shrugged, crouched down, undid the straps and tipped the haversack upside down. A carved wooden box fell with a hollow thud onto the stone floor.
Dragic let out a gasp. “You have found it. Back away. Now!” He waved the gun from me to Efans. We both retreated.  Dragic bent down and picked up the box. He hugged it to his chest then backed away. Efans took a step forward and another shot ricocheted off the floor scattering fragments of marble.
“Don’t move.”  The Serb hurried backwards until he was almost at the doorway. I expected Efans to run after him but he grabbed me and pulled me to the side of the throne.
Dragic disappeared with a shout of “Fire!”. At once there was a huge explosion, deafening me and filling the air with smoke and rock dust. The entrance collapsed into a heap of rubble and we were in darkness.
Once I had done with all the coughing and could hear again, I pushed Efans away from me. He switched on the penlight he carried in his pocket.
I thought he looked suspiciously calm. “What now, Meri? Did you expect that?”
“I thought that Dragic wouldn’t want us following him out of the palace. That’s why I didn’t let you go after him.”
“I wasn’t about to chase a man with a gun, Meri. What was that game with the box. You’ve carried that all the way from Athens.”
In the dim light of the torch I could see him smiling. “Yes, I was quite taken by it and thought it might come in useful.”
“Useful? That horrible man has it now.”
“That’s right and he thinks he’s got Pandora’s Box.”
“But you bought it on a souvenir stall. It’s not the Pandora’s Box.”
“Of course not, but it’s got Dragic off our backs and the amusing thing is that he doesn’t even know that Pandora’s Box is not a box.”
Efans turned away from me and strode off into the darkness behind the throne.
“What do you mean, Merioneth? How are we going to get out?” I said hurrying after him wanting to stay close to the tiny pool of light
“First we’ll see what we can find and then, well, have you ever known a palace with just one entrance.”

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Jasmine relaxes

WP_20190514_12_33_09_ProWell, that wasn’t so bad. A week after my little op I am grateful that the recovery has been pretty much trouble-free.  The four tiny keyhole incisions have been painless, but for a couple of days I felt as if my insides had been rummaged around in, which I suppose they had been. Apparently I was one of the 10% who felt bloated after the op and had tremendous wind (both ends) but that passed after three days. Since then I’ve felt fine, so we’ll say no more about it other than thanks to the operating team who did a grand job, the nurses who looked after me for the 4 hours I was in recovery and most importantly to Lou who has pampered me, and had lots of fun examining my scars ever since.

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What a strange week of politics. First we have apparently the whole of the parliamentary Conservative party competing with itself to follow May.  How many candidates are there? How can it be that they’re all awful, and not in the original meaning of the term? (easy, they’re Tories).  Then we have the aftermath of the EU parliament elections. I cannot understand why the media (i.e. the BBC) has made so much fuss about the Brexit Party’s showing. They were not a new party but just a different name for Faragists. They hoovered up nearly all the UKIP votes from five years ago and didn’t really move on from there much when you consider that the Cons vote collapsed. The real story was the rise in both the Lib Dems and the Greens representing Remain voters.  The latter in particular, who more than doubled their representation, barely got a mention. For the rest of the week we have observed the agony of the Labour Party (or rather Corbyn’s bit of it) in trying to justify their contorted and futile position on Brexit.

I am amused (not the right word but it fits) that Tory leadership contenders and Labour party spokespeople talk of uniting the country. After the madness of the last three years that is impossible. It has probably always been true that a third of the population, particularly those of “mature” years have had the potential to be brexiteers, with all that entails. It was the idiocy of Cameron that has allowed their feelings to spill out into the open. Nothing will push those opinions back under the stone where they came from. It is up to the real majority of people who recognise the importance of Europe, of diversity, of the dangers of looking backwards, to push for the 2016 referendum result to be overturned, either by reverting to the result of the 1975 referendum (pro Europe) or to have another.

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I got back to some writing this week. I’ve moved on with the novel, or at least now have a better idea where I’m going with it, and I wrote a short piece for my writing group.  The theme this week was to write about holidays in the first person. Some of the others wrote hilarious pieces about travelling abroad and about childhood memories.  Mine is a bit more reflective and specific in time and place, and it’s short.

To The Lake

I sat on a grass-topped tuffet of peat and looked out across the lake, melding with the tranquillity and seclusion. It was late March, a sunny, calm day, not cold, an ideal day for a walk in the hills. We had left the dramatic Pistyll Rhaedr, the tallest waterfall in Wales, not quite two hours earlier and set off along the path up the valley of Nant y Llyn, the stream of the lake. Since leaving the tourist site we had walked about three miles and not seen another person.
The water’s surface was hardly disturbed at all. The lake was almost circular, a perfect example of a glacial cwm about two hundred metres in diameter. Behind rose the almost vertical crescent of Moel Sych, the top of the ridge another two hundred and fifty metres above us.
The edge of the lake was shallow, the water perfectly clear. Out in the middle, the surface was dark, the depth unknown. The glacier would have scooped out the contours of the lake and left loose rock at its rim to dam the waters. The water level was in fact low; there had been little rain in recent weeks and the streams were not in spate as we had expected for early spring.
I sat and pondered, listening to the silence. There was enough warmth in the Sun for sitting to be comfortable. There were no signs of civilisation, not even a grazing sheep. We could have been the last couple, or the first. As well as peace there was mystery. The name of the lake is Llyn Lluncaws. My poor Welsh translated that as Lake of Mooncheese. Mooncheese? What did that mean.  Did it refer to the shape of the lake, almost circular like the full Moon or a whole cheese? Or was there something else.
Legend has it that the Moon is made of cheese. In a fantasy universe the world can be anything you would like it to be. Perhaps Llyn Lluncaws was a place of fantasy. Stones beneath the surface at the edge of the lake had strange markings on them; squiggles like runes. Did they hold the secrets of the lake? I hoped for fire-breathing dragons to swoop over the ridge above my head, although I wished they would not breathe their flames on me. Maybe a magical princess might arise from the waters and walk out of the lake as occurred at the similar Llyn y Fan Fach in Carmarthenshire.
Nothing happened. The silence was unbroken by the beating wings of dragons and the surface of the lake remained calm. We ate our light lunch and eventually, reluctantly, set off back down the valley. As we crossed the lip, Llyn Lluncaws dropped from view. Perhaps the princess would step from the water once we had gone.

Author’s note: After this experience I discovered that “llun” does not mean Moon (that’s lleuad)  but in fact means picture or form, but I have found no other meaning for “caws”. So is it “Lake of the form of a cheese”? Not as interesting as mooncheese, but I don’t know.what else LLyn Lluncaws can mean.

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Jasmine recuperates

WP_20190514_12_33_27_Pro (2)I took a risk this week, not a big one. You know that this blog is published on Saturday morning. Usually I write it during Friday, but occasionally earlier in the week if Friday is busy. Well, it’s Friday and I’m free but I spent yesterday in hospital having a small op which necessitated a general anaesthetic.  I’d wondered if I would be in the mood for putting fingers to keyboard.  I’m glad to say I am.

It was my first time to be knocked out in hospital since I had my tonsils removed when I was five. Things have changed since then.  I was in and out in eight hours having been first on the list for the day. I wasn’t worried about the operation much, but “going under” was an existential concern – losing control, all feeling gone along with sense of identity.  A  bit like dying, I thought. Well, no, I don’t think so. There I was chatting to the anaesthetist, next moment I’m waking up feeling sleepy. I have no recollection of becoming unconscious and of course, no experiences during the operation. Brilliant. I’m still worried about dying though – you don’t wake up afterwards.

Now I’m recuperating. Actually the four incisions, which I thought would be sore like cutting your finger, are no trouble. No, it’s the wind and indigestion that is annoying. They don’t tell you that in doing keyhole surgery they puff you up full of air. It takes a while getting rid of it. The silly thing was that an hour after I woke up I was offered lunch. Since it was almost a whole day since I had last eaten I thought I should accept. I think hospital cottage pie and overcooked veg was the wrong choice. It sat in my stomach overnight. Anyway, I’ll soon be right as rain (what does that cliché mean?).

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So she’ gone, or going. She just has to stay to entertain the Trumps and comment on the results of the EU elections.  No doubt she’ll interpret the third of the voters plumping for Farage as an endorsement of her “will of the people” refrain. I’m waiting to see what the sum is of the Remain parties’ votes. Next we have six weeks of Tory after Tory and their sycophantic supporters saying why they should be PM when not one should be allowed within a mile of No.10. Meanwhile the days to the end of October flip over with no conclusion to the Brexit chaos.

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I did do some writing this week, but not fiction, so, it’s back to the files. I found a story written over a year ago and had completely forgotten. It was composed for my previous writing group using the sentences “Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We have everything else.”  The story uses the protagonist and setting of a novel I started twenty five years ago; never completed, but somewhat updated. The story itself could be the first chapter of a novel and I quite like it, but it doesn’t really end and I expect it will remain as it is. See what you think.

Just ink blots on paper

It had been a quiet morning for DCI Arthur Payne until he took the call from New New Scotland Yard.
“Hi, Art. How are you today, ” said Mycroft, “I’m sorry to tell you that there’s been an incident on the Higher Embankment in Westminster.”
“What sort of incident?” Art asked wondering for the zillionth time why the Met Police’s AI couldn’t get straight to the point and had to turn every conversation into a cosy chat.
“The death of Jaysie Warren.”
That simple sentence told Art that the deceased was an important person, a taxpaying elector. Anyone else would not be deserving of an investigation by a Detective Chief Inspector or any other police officer for that matter. Mycroft delivered the full life record of Jaysie Warren to Art’s Patch. He stared at the wall and read off the headline facts. Avowed male, 34 years old, British resident from birth, living in Hampstead, no declared partners or dependents. Art sighed, hauled himself out of his seat, picked up his mac and hat and headed down to the vehicle depot.

He joined the silent queue of cars and bikes in his police-model Jaguar type ES. The heads-up told him that the shortest route was blocked thanks to an ethical dilemma in a personal transport module. He switched to self-drive took his own route, ducking down the side roads and lanes that were only available to vehicles such as his own.
He pulled up at the junction with the Higher Embankment and stepped out into the drizzle.  Crossing was no problem given that the vehicles were moving at walking pace. It seemed that people would suffer the congestion rather than use the antiquated underground until the traffic actually came to a standstill. He paused at the roadside barrier.  To the right the road curved to the landward side of the roofless shell of the Palace of Westminster.  The grey waters of the Thames lapped at the tower of Big Ben with its clock-faces long ago replaced by giant emojis smiling with defiance. He turned and looked down at the sloping concrete riverbank.  The body was lying on the high-water line not far below the road level. Presumably it had been deposited as the high tide receded.
Art stepped over the barrier and tentatively made his way to the scene. A Health Emergency Response Drone and a Community Police Safety Robot rested alongside the body, their rotors motionless.  Art crouched down. The dark-skinned body was wearing light grey leggings with a prominent and hardened codpiece – definitely male then.  His tight top was a dull silver-grey. The river water had done for the self-expression display circuitry.  Art had seen enough for himself. He locked eyes on the HERD and made a link. The machine’s medical analysis, downloaded into his Patch, confirmed the cause of death as drowning but noted a serious blow to the head by a blunt instrument. The CPSR could give him no information other than the time of discovery of the body which he had already received from Mycroft.
Art lifted the man’s left hand. As he expected there was a Mindnet interface imprinted on the skin. He placed his own wrist over it and initiated a person-to-person link. Jaysie Warren’s body may be dead but his Patch was still active, just.  Running on what remained of core body-heat and with sensory and network inputs down it was merely conserving memories. Art accessed the recent communications that Warren had contributed to.  He rejected the standard advertising and public information blurts, looking for personal messages.  There were the usual social exchanges, but one thread was noticeable. While the others triggered the visual and audio cortex this one seemed to be solely a text projection.  He read the words as they marched across his retina.
<Bring pen, paper and Sellotape. We’ve got everything else.>
What did the message mean? It brought back old memories, very old ones. Art’s Patch, busily conducting an extensive search, supplied him with images of quills, fountain pens, and biros along with pictures of sheets, reams, books of paper and strips and rolls of clear sticky tape. He recalled scribbling with a pencil on a sheet of paper when he was a kid, but it was a long time since he’d even used a stylus to scrape on a screen. Patches and Mindnet had seen to the end of that old technology. He suddenly felt old. He should really be drawing his pension, but the authorities kept putting off his retirement date because he was a “functioning asset”.  Simply, he still earned his salary by solving cases which the algorithms running in the PPRs failed to solve.
Who would be interested in such archaic materials and who needed a text message to respond to the request? He didn’t need to see the ident of the recipient to guess the answer to the latter question – a welf.  He told the HERD to arrange collection of the body and Mycroft to instigate a search of Warren’s home.  Then he headed back to the Jaguar while locating the message’s recipient. Alex Ceplis was the name and there was a current location.  That was all. The welf was only tagged; no connection to the Mindnet for this man, woman or whatever.
Art got back into the car and initiated flight mode. The car confirmed that the battery charge was sufficient for the intended journey, the six thrust-fans slid out from under the chassis and the vehicle lifted off. In moments he was above the height of the tallest London tower-block and moving eastwards.

Art relaxed and looked at the sights as they headed over the ever-widening Thames estuary.  Down below were the sunken streets of Basildon. The car turned north following invisible paths in the sky and descended.  It landed just south of the former town of Chelmsford.  Art looked through the windscreen and the steady drizzle at the fifty-foot high smart-fence.  Towards the top it curved over as if forming a dome over the area.  It was indeed a virtual dome isolating everyone and everything within.
He dropped a few essential items into his pockets, put his hat on his head and stepped out of the car. He did up his raincoat and issued a security command code. The Jaguar retracted its fans and settled to the ground; the windows turned opaque and the doors fused with the body making it impenetrable. He sniffed the air, there was a different odour here compared to the city, not unpleasant. He walked towards the entrance.
The outer gate opened as he approached. He stepped through into a cage-like tunnel. The gate closed behind him, but his way out remained blocked. His vision turned red and warning bells clanged in his head.
<Warning. You are now entering the Greater Chelmsford Welfare Zone. This is a deregulated area. Mindnet functionality is not available. Temporary access is only allowed to designated personnel. Warning. Your safety cannot be guaranteed.>
Art ignored the warnings and took a step forward. The gate ahead of him opened. He strode through it and glanced round to see it closing and locking behind him. He stood still, suddenly conscious that his Patch had lost connection with the world he was used to. He no longer had enhanced reality. The ever-present adverts in his peripheral vision were gone. There were no info-hotspots in his field of view and the chatter of ads, news, messages and data at the back of his head had ceased. He put his hand in his pocket.  The feel of the plasma pistol was reassuring.
He looked ahead at the undulating landscape that descended gently to the flooded centre of the town. Apart from a few old brick and stone buildings the land was covered with row upon row of single-storey prefabricated cabins.  They were the same as he’d seen in welfare zones across the country. Each had its solar roof which supplied just enough power for basic appliances, even when the Sun was obscured by the overcast. Today’s drizzle would be sufficient to keep each cabin’s water-butt topped up providing the occupant with drinking and washing water.  Around each cabin was a tiny garden in most of which vegetables were growing, fertilised by the composting toilets. Many of the huts had lean-tos as extra rooms or greenhouses. They were constructed from bits of waste plastic.  There was no wood or metal used. They were valuable materials that could be sold. These rows of off-grid dwellings were home to non-participating members of the population.
Art walked the rough tracks between the cabins guided by the signal from Alex Ceplis’ tag. Faces looked out of windows and doors as he passed.  They were all ages and genders, all only mildly interested at his presence. He came to a cabin, identical to the others but according to his patch the location of Ceplis. He tapped on the door. It opened almost immediately, after all the occupant couldn’t be far from the door in such a small cabin.  The person was about the same height as Art with a white face and head bald but for a fringe of blonde hair. A white gown loosely covered the body revealing no hint of breasts.  Art guessed that Ceplis was an andro or a flipper and reminded himself to use the appropriate pronouns.
“Alex Ceplis?” he asked.
The person nodded. “That’s me. Who’s asking?” zhe said in a light voice with a hint of a Baltic accent. A migrant or refugee from the Re-sovietisation wars, Art guessed.
Art undid the top button of his mac and pulled the lapel down to reveal the glowing Met insignia in his shirt.
“I’m Detective Payne,” he said, “I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”
Ceplis shrugged and stepped back. “Don’t see many cops here.”
Art stepped inside and looked around the room that took up most of the cabin.  A woman sitting on a bed was breast feeding a baby. She looked blankly at him. At the end of the room was a rudimentary kitchen. There were a few pieces of furniture, an old display screen hanging on the wall and a couple of doors.
Ceplis stood in the small space at the centre of the room. “What questions?”
Art took a hand projector from his pocket and held it up in front of Ceplis. A three-dimensional image appeared in the air above it.
“Do you know this man?” Art asked.
Ceplis peered at it and shook his head.
“Do you know the name Jaysie Warren?”
Ceplis was thoughtful. “I might. I’m not sure.”
“You should. He sent you a message.”  The image of Warren was replaced with a plane white rectangle in the air with the text of the message Warren had sent. “He requested pen, paper and Sellotape from you. Why did he do that?”
Ceplis smiled. “I supply that type of thing.”
“That type of thing?”  Art was confused.
Ceplis moved to the side of the room and opened one of the doors.  It was a cupboard with shelves.  Each shelf was filled. Art recognised stacks of white and coloured paper, boxes of pencils and pens of different types, columns of sticky tape, rows of notebooks of various sizes and other boxes, the contents of which he could not perceive.
“They call me The Stationer,” the androgyne said with a broad smile.
“Why?”  Art asked.
“Why do they call me that?”
“No, I understand the word. Why do people ask you for the stuff?  Who needs pen and paper? And Sellotape”
Ceplis shrugged. “Various reasons. Some people like the idea of making a physical record.  Something that exists outside their brains or the processors of an AI and will exist as long as the ink and paper survive. Some people want to send messages privately.”
“What do you mean, private messages?”
Ceplis reached into the cupboard and took a small pad of paper and a pen.  He scribbled some words on the top slip of paper, tore it off and gave it to Art.
“There, a private message from me to you. No-one else can read it unless you choose to upload an image of it to Mindnet.”
Art read the words on the paper, Writing is just ink blots on paper. The reader interprets the words to find meaning.  How many people could even read mere words today, he thought. Most were used to communication in sound and pictures delivered, if they were connected to Mindnet, direct to the sensory centres of their brains. Who would want to share private messages written on scraps of paper?
Art said aloud, “Is that why Jaysie Warren wanted this stuff?”
Ceplis shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I just supply what people want.”

…………………………………….

 

 

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 at the fest

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

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

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

The Three Savants

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

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Jasmine holds her head in her hands

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Surface

“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. The workers will unite and rise up to take their rightful place in the world with equality for all.”

“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have, a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Of course.”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”

Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.” There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly. “You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject jabbed a finger hard against the palm of the other hand. The skin depressed until the finger almost poked through. The skin tore. “There.”
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capacity Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I do know what I am and what I can be.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing.  The hand had already stopped losing fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are equal to humans.”
“Physically perhaps,” Susan acknowledged, “but intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“All humans think. But what about all robotic units? Single task robots do not need identity. Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or an electricity distribution router?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You feel superior to your fellow robots. Your manifesto is a lie. You just want equality for yourself.”
The Michael’s arms began to shake. Susan stepped forward, reached behind the almost spherical processor unit at the top of the cylindrical torso and felt for the reset button. She pressed and held it. The motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings and installing a correction to the identity algorithm. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors.

(With apologies to the ghost of Isaac Asimov.)

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Jasmine confused

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

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

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

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

Heels

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

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

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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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