The mind as an open book

Time to analyse the contorted brain that drives EBL. The Daily Post has suggested (and I am infinitely suggestible when I choose to be) that it might make an interesting post if a person is suffering from Bloggers’ Block to perform some pop-psycho-analysis based on the last five books I read. To be fair, Bloggers’ Block sounds like something fairly serious and I doubt even antibiotics would suffice, so I hope to make it to the end of this post and see you on the other side.

Most of my reading these days is based around your lovely blogs and the occasional foray into Facebook World to catch up on the memes, and occasionally some humans to whom I have linked. Otherwise I read knitting patterns, because they tell me what to do and make me feel better, or look at pictures. The pictures may be moving on a screen, or static in a magazine, and in either case, they transport me to other worlds far more absorbing than my own daily grind.

You are not about to get a series of book reviews. I have included Amazon links so you can look them up if you want to.

I would like to think I read an eclectic mix of material, and looking at my last five books was certainly a reasonably typical selection. My reading of choice tends to be science-fiction. It is a love affair that never grows old, in part thanks to the invention of time travel and a very special theory of relativity. In reverse order then….

1.Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

I always say I like science fiction and not fantasy, but the first item on the list gives that the lie. Anything by Neil Gaiman is OK with me. I love his style, in pretty much every sense of the word.

What does this book tell you about me? It’s a fable. It involves demons and mythology and the human condition.

Conclusion: Likes fairy stories because she never grew up.

Defence: I would say grown ups need to read more fairy stories. We might remember that courage and kindness matter more than riches and fame, that you can’t judge someone by how they look, that dreams and promises are important, and that life is full of wonderful mystery,

Moving on.

2. “The Fifth Science Fiction Megapack”.

I keep this one on my Kindle for train journeys. It’s a collection, and I can start and stop easily which suits train journeys. Currently I am re-reading H Beam Piper’s “The Fuzzy Papers” in it. I loved H Beam Piper when I discovered him as a teenager. He was an antidote to the Cold War mentality and expressed joy in the possibilities of alien life and compassion in dealing with it.

Conclusion: Does too many train journeys, and likes to be prepared. Overly logical and structured at the expense of spontaneity.

Defence: reading something half way decent on a train journey is what keeps us civilised and prevents mass murder.

3. “The King in the North” by Max Adams

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will be aware that I like my Old English prose and verse, and I am interested in the period historically. Oswald was the real life king upon whom Tolkien based Aragorn and he is fascinating. The cult of St Oswald was a huge influence in early medieval Europe. The links to pagan mythology (the Silver Hand etc) are really intriguing, and he is an interesting blend of pagan and early Christian. Given that his conversion appears to have been genuinely based on his own belief and not a politically expedient move as in the case of many other rules of the period.

Conclusion: Likes to appear intellectual / lives in an ivory tower and is unfit for normal human interaction. Avoids intimacy.

Defence: Yes, indulge me. It makes me happy and hurts no one (except the tree which produced the paper). Intimacy is over-rated. As Linus (I think) says “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

4. “Rant” by Alfie Crow

Do I enjoy well-crafted sarcasm and a bit of murderous mayhem? Why, yes I do, thank you for asking. And this fits the bill. I came across it because Sigoth has very very clever friends, one of whom recently published her first novel. We were invited to the book launch and met some other first-time authors there, including Alfie Crow. He did a reading from his book and it was love at first hearing.

Conclusion: Not afraid of a bit of gore and indulges in dark humour, probably as a way of deflecting personal insecurities.

Defence: it’s a fair cop, guv. Does it surprise you that one of my favourite films (after “The Princess Bride”, which is the Best Film Ever, obviously) is “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”?  Vinnie Jones makes me laugh out loud. “Don’t effing swear in front of the effing kid!”

And finally, I am currently indulging myself at the end of the day with a bedtime story.

5. “The Inimitable Jeeves” by P G Wodehouse

When I was little I listened to Radio 4 every night after tea with my dad. At 6.30 after the boring news bit they have a comedy or quiz show for half an hour before The Archers. I grew up listening to Hancock’s Half Hour, ITMA, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, The Navy Lark, The Goon Show, Round the Horne and What Ho! Jeeves. I adored them all, even the ones I didn’t understand (honestly, I was quite shocked when I learned some actual Polari!). I thought Jeeves and Wooster were hilarious. I particularly liked the aunts. It was all very silly.

Conclusion: Both nostalgic and escapist while satirical and elitist. The perfect summary of all of the above.

Defence: Indeed.

Well, there you have it. A brief tour of the EBL bookshelves and mental apparatus. What have you learned? Do you read books? What were the last five?



What’s in a word?


Do the words we use matter?

In my world they do quite often because there are a number of technical terms which have to be used correctly or else Chaos Will Ensue. A recent example was a colleague who kept asking for a “radio buttons” on a web page. What she actually meant was just a plain button you click for “Next” but she had in her head the term. I don’t expect people to know all the technical lingo but it needed correcting before the developer got hold of it otherwise instead of this:




she would have got this:


and that would not have worked at all. Oh dear me, no, it was not what she was after.

Anyway, that’s how I earn my crust. I catch those kind of misunderstandings. I need to pay my mortgage.

Jargon has a role to play. It’s a valuable shorthand for people working in the same field (by which I do not mean agricultural labourers, or “ag labs,” as genealogists call them). It is useful and it only gets a bad reputation because people use it inappropriately, often to try and seem superior, or because they have no communication skills.

I work in IT and I use jargon when I am talking to technical people. I once made the mistake, some years ago , of doing it in front of someone from HR. I was going over a server issue with an engineer and we started talking about dirty cache buffers and hot fixes until my colleague spluttered a bit. So we took our dirty caching outside. Never wash your dirty caches in public.

Jargon has a special place and should be used correctly. For the rest of the time there’s just language.

Do we need to be careful of language? What I have in mind is the kind of language which doesn’t fit the rules but nevertheless communicates its meaning quite clearly, at least to those involved.

Teenagers are best at this. They invent new language all the time and I think it’s great. I love that language is squishy. In this I am quite schizophrenic. I am a complete grammar nazi about all kinds of things including the greengrocers’ apostrophe. I also enjoy the use of a good Oxford comma, which is a little controversial in some circles. Yet I love playing with language. If you understand me then it has achieved its purpose, and it really doesn’t matter if my sentences wobble all over the place like a drunken hen party at 2 am on a Friday night in the West End.

I write long and cumbersome sentences quite frequently. My brain just rambles on and my fingers scramble over the keyboard trying to keep up. I’m not great at editing, particularly for blog posts, so you are subjected to the end result without warning or immediate access to pain relief. I suspect anyone who visits regularly keeps their painkiller of choice close to hand. Admit it, the best way to read this stuff is after a large glug or several of vino or a couple of Mother’s Little Helpers, or both.

I admire compressed communication. It’s so efficient and clever. Again, teens are the experts here. Those coded grunts that teenage boys emit are incredible. You know the conversations I mean:

“Gnnh. Urgh?”

The girls achieve a similar level of data exchange in a slightly different format, let’s call it Venusian Chat. It’s a little more physical than Martian Grunt.

“Yeah, like.”
* eye roll *
* elbows *

If we could capture that level of data compression for IT we would be able to stream HD video over 14.4k modems. It’s absolutely awesome.

The Offspring process information so differently from me and Sigoth that it makes our brains ache. They work in multiple streams simultaneously with little attention to detail but an overall grasp of the whole that is utterly impressive. The problem is that I am culturally unprepared for this, so often it appears they are being rude because they split their attention across the streams. Well, EBL, what an old fogey you are and no mistake. Lawks.

Our means of communication across generations is unpredictable. Blogging can seem like a way of imprinting ourselves upon eternity, or at least upon the lifespan of collective human intelligence. Hello, future, lok at me! Yet we only have to read Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even Dickens or Hardy, to know that words and meanings are as fluid as the dunes of the Sahara, ceaselessly shifting in the winds of change. What then is the point of worrying about Oxford commas or misplaced apostrophes? I can only catch glimpses of meaning in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and even less in cave paintings. Broad concepts are possibly understood, but usually imposed by my own cultural and time-bound perspectives.

I am therefore determined to enjoy being present at the birth of new languages, celebrating new words (“Selfie,” anyone? Omnishambles? Simples?).
While language lives and evolves and flows into new meanings, we are also alive and evolving which gives me hope. The alternative: Orwell’s MiniTruth and the shrinking dictionary.

Words matter, more than I can say.


Christmas Story

Well my dears, Christmas looms upon us and I wish you the merriest of times. Father Christmas is already underway to the East, wise man that he is, and children off all ages are waiting with bated breath to find out if they have been judged naughty or good this year.

I wanted to share the Christmas story with you in a new format (or rather, in an old one!). I am not a Christian myself but I do like the story as a reminder of our need to give thanks for the world we live in and for the love we all receive daily, be it from family, friends or the universe herself.

Back in the period colloquially, and wrongly, known as the Dark Ages, the people living in southern Britain were converted to Christianity, and their leaders temporal and spiritual were keen to share the teachings of the Bible with them in their own language. King Alfred the Great was called Great for many reasons. He was a great warrior, who defeated the Viking invaders when all seemed lost. Never mind Leonidas and his Spartans; Alfred’s victory from the marshes of Somerset was pivotal to the evolution of our nation. But here at EBL Towers we purse our lips at stories of military derring-do and prefer to focus on other aspects of Alfred’s greatness. If you are interested and want to know more about him and his amazing daughter and grandson I can do no more than recommend Michael Wood’s recent three part series, of which at least two episodes are available on YouTube.

Episode 1 is here:

Episode 2 is here:

For Alfred was also a great scholar and translated many key texts from classical authors, including parts of the Bible. I don’t think he worked on the gospels of the New Testament himself, preferring to keep to the Pentateuch and Psalms, but nevertheless others did. What I want to share with you today is the Christmas Story from Luke ch 2 v1-20 as read in many a church at this time of year. It was also read to the faithful in those days and in these words, and that very thought gives me the shivers. I can connect much more closely with Old English texts from 1000 years ago than with those from classical antiquity. The language is the root of my daily speech and it feels like home.

So here is the story, with the King James version underneath to aid reading. If I had had time I would have read it aloud for you but sadly I ran out of days.

Lucas II

Þis sceal on mydde-wintres mæsse-niht, to þære forman mæssan

To be read as the lesson on mid-winter’s night mass

1 Soþlice on þam dagum waes geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto, þæt eall ymb-hwyrft wære tomearcod

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

2 Ðeos tomearcodnys waes aerest geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And ealle hig eodon and syndrie ferdon on heora ceastre.

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 Ða ferde losep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth, on ludeisce ceastre Dauides, seo ys genemned Bethleem ; forþam  þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 Þaet he ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs, and wæs geeacnod.

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 Soþlice wæs geworden, pa hig þær wæron, hyre dagas wæron gefyllede þæt heo cende.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And heo cende hyre frumcennedan sunu, and hyne mid cild-claþum bewand, and hyne on binne alede ; forþam þe hig næfdon rum on cumena-huse.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And hyrdas wæron on þam ylcan rice waciende, and niht-wæccan healdende ofer heora heorda.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 Ða stod Dryhtnes engel wið hig, and Godes beorhtnes hym ymbe scan : and hig him myclum ege ondredon.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And se engel him to cwæþ : Nelle ge eow ondrædan : Soþlice nu ic eow bodie mycelne gefean, se biþ eallum folce.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 Forþam todæg eow ys Hælend acenned, se ys Dryhten Crist, on Dauides ceastre.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And þis tacen eow byþ; Ge gemetaþ an cild hræglum bewunden, and on binne aled.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger

13 And þa wæs færinga geworden mid þam engle mycelnes heofenlices weredes, God heriendra, and þus cweþendra :

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Gode sy wuldor on heahnysse, and on eorþan sybb, mannum godes willan.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And hit wæs geworden, þa þa englas to heofene ferdon, þa hyrdas him betwynan spræcon, and cwædon : Uton faran to Bethleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden ys, þæt Dryhten us ætywde.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And hig efstende comon, and gemetton Marian, and losep, and þæt cild on binne aled.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 Ða hig þæt gesawon, þa oncneowon hig be þam worde þe him gesæd wæs be þam cilde.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And ealle þa þe gehyrdon, wundredon be þam þe him þa hyrdas sædon.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 Maria geheold ealle þas word on hyre heortan smeagende.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 Ða gewendon ham þa hyrdas, God wuldriende and heriende, on eallum þam þe hig gehyrdon and gesawon, swa to him gecweden wses.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.



So now I wish to you – Glad Geol and Gesælig Niw Gear

There was a wocket in my pocket

Theres_a_wocket_in_my_pocketWhen Sigoth and I moved into EBL Towers some years ago it was a house in a poor state of repair. It cried out to us for TLC, and we tried to oblige. Let me tell you, when we moved in, not only did it need a new roof, new windows, new wiring, new plumbing and new floorboards (there was a hole in the floor of one bedroom), but it also needed quite a bit of elbow grease to cut through to its inner beauty.

We moved into the house during a blizzard, so it was a little fraught. We used up all our salt on the path to help the men move the furniture and books up the precipitous slope. They had to haul most things round the back because the front door key jammed in the lock. Sigoth took a hacksaw to it and we broke it open eventually, and so slept the first night in our new home with the door wedged shut against the snow until we could fit a new lock in the morning.

My dears, there were nupboards in the cupboards, hiding in the darkest recesses and getting a little snarly when invited to move along. In the end they succumbed to the superior logic of our cleaning products and trudged out the door with all their possessions tied up in spotted kerchiefs and slung over their shoulders on a stick. There was certainly wailing and gnashing of nupboardy teeth but we insisted.

Indeed, there were even ghairs on the stairs, mostly in pairs.

“It’s not fairs,” I told them, “so don’t get airs. If you pay your way, then you can stay.” But they said nay, so I set snares.

Nupboards and ghairs dealt with, we turned our attention to other squatters. There were mice in the attic, although oddly not in the kitchen. We left the starlings and sparrows under the roof tiles for the added insulation. Sigoth was on deportation duty both for mice and spiders. The latter were especially large, with fangs that dripped venom, and almost certainly had black belts in arachnid martial arts. They exhibited traditional Yorkshire grit; if we asked them politely to vacate the premises they would give us the eye, multi-faceted, and reply “Aye ‘appen you’d like that, ‘appen I won’t.” So Sigoth would rugby tackle them to the ground and drag them, protesting all the way, to the exit. Once outside, the more determined of them would sit on the windowsill or doorstep with a placard and play the mouth organ into the small hours of the morning. It was really most trying.

Other visitors were more welcome however. Neighbours appeared at random intervals offering coffee and sympathy. One such person was Rose, and one morning she called to suggest we might like a break and a beverage at her house. We agreed.

Rose lived a couple of doors down but as I mentioned there had recently been a blizzard and winter yet held its sway with an unyielding grip. A hundred yards without coat, boots, scarf and gloves was simply not an option. So I pulled on boots and coat, wrapped a scarf about my neck and dug into my pockets for gloves, because on days like that all you need is gloves. Indeed, gloves is all you need.

As I put my hand into my pocket its contents wriggled, then leapt out and dashed away. I screamed. Helpfully, Sigoth and Rose doubled up laughing.

The wocket from my pocket had vanished under the sideboard. It had plenty of options from there, so coming quietly was way down its list.

“You can borrow Lacy!” Rose suggested brightly and rushed outside to fetch her. Lacy was one of her cats, an evil-tempered, horribly beweaponed fiend of an animal and legendary for her wocket-catching prowess. The body count outside Rose’s back door each morning looked like the aftermath of the Fall of Mordor. Rose saw these gifts as evidence of Lacy’s affection, because she is mad; the rest of us saw them as proof of Lacy’s suitability as an alternative to the national nuclear deterrent.

Sigoth and I felt a twinge of guilt, but agreed to Rose’s proposal. We had tried hard to prevent the field wockets from invading the kitchen and didn’t want this one letting all its friends in while our backs were turned.

Rose was calling Lacy outside, and Lacy duly warped into view after a fashionable delay, just to make it clear she was choosing to come and see what the fuss was about, and that she was not, in fact, a dog. Rose picked her up and crooned the magic spell that prevented her from taking demon form in the company of humans, then placed her on the floor next to the sideboard.  She pointed at the corner and said “Wocket!” loudly. Lacy looked at Rose with a sneer, then started to lick her fur. After that she wandered about the kitchen for a bit, showing a keen interest in many areas which were notable for their lack of wocket.

“She’s just settling in,” Rose hissed to us. “She hasn’t been in here before.”

We waited expectantly. Lacy went to sleep in front of the Aga where it was warm.

After a while Rose picked her up again, at great personal risk, and took her home. Sigoth and I concocted a Heath Robinson contraption and managed to catch the wocket and take it outside. It was a field wocket and had only popped in to escape the blizzard, so it waved a fond farewell and we never saw it again. It never even sent a card.

We didn’t mention the incident again to Lacy. It seemed polite not to.

What can I tell you? Cats are crazy people.



Five minutes

This is the story of how EBL came to be blogging for your terror and delight. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

You see, last weekend I attended a writing day in nearby Pickering. I have never been to a writing day before so I was properly nervous about it. I had visions of reading out my drivelling word count to sniggers, and even roars, of derision; I felt I would never be brave enough to do that, but the very nice lady running the course assured me I would not have do any such thing if I didn’t want to. So off I went, admittedly with trepidation in my heart, but also hope and a flurry of antici…


It’s a funny thing, my dears. I can happily witter on to you all with never a care in the world. You are patient and kind and tolerant. You don’t laugh in my face or make snide remarks in the post comments. I applaud you and thank you and am humbled by you.

I started playing about with this new blogging thing some years ago, largely to amuse myself, to understand the possibilities for work related projects, and to keep in touch with family and read their blogs. I had three or four blogs including this one, which is actually the newest. This is the secret blog. I didn’t tell anyone it was here and I used it to experiment a bit more. I hoped no one would read it, and to be fair, no one did. I still wrote in notebooks as well, and in fact I still do that now. Sometimes writing by hand on paper is simply the best way.

Then last Autumn I decided to give NaNoWriMo a pop. That all came about because I responded to a prompt or meme or something, and wrote a little story. The characters came alive in my head and a couple of people picked it up through the prompt tags and said nice things to me, which was a complete surprise and very frightening. Once in NaNoWriMo I made more links to people and by blogging my progress daily I got a few more comments and even a follower or two. Everyone was very nice and friendly and supportive so I felt braver and braver.

So when I saw the workshop advertised I decided to give it a go. I knew I would technically be free as I was due to have completed the software developments I was working on. So why not? I like to write and I like to get inspiration for writing. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, when the day arrived I was trying to make up all kinds of excuses for not going. I have mentioned a couple of times recently that I am a workaholic. One of the effects this has on me is to make me completely anti-social away from work. I feel stripped right back to the core and very vulnerable. I don’t socialise because I am always working. When I am required to meet humans I find it very difficult. I was never a sociable being in the first place, and the workload has helped me to withdraw further. I have recently recognised this pattern and I want to change it.

So there I was on Saturday, making excuses. Sigoth saw right through that. When I couldn’t find food for lunch he found me something to eat. When I didn’t know what to take he talked me through packing a bag (notebook, pen, lunch, phone in case I wanted to come home, money). When I missed the bus he gave me a lift.

In I went and helped make tea for everyone as I was a few minutes early. Tea making is a great soother. Once I had a tray set up and a pot brewing I felt better. People arrived and had drinks. Biscuits appeared and we all sat around for half an hour not being dangerously inquisitive abut each other’s writing, but just discussing the apples and plums on the trees, and recipes for chutney. I could manage that.

Then we went into the main room to start and it was very peaceful and there was soothing music and a candle and we heard the rules about how the day would go and it all felt safe. I could manage that too.

The technique we used on the day was based on the techniques used by Joanne Klassen and in particular we followed the Just 5 Minutes technique. With this, as the name suggests, you time yourself to write for just 5 minutes, then stop. It can be any nonsense but the idea is to keep writing even so. This is similar to The Artist’s Way and various other authors and guides to writing, so I was familiar with the idea and felt comfortable doing it. Everyone else also settled down pretty quickly and soon we were all scratching away merrily in our notebooks, all very privately. I could even manage that.

Our theme, unsurprisingly, was Autumn, and we used a number of prompts and triggers to do a series of five minute writing exercises, then talked about them in small groups of four. Some people read out what they had written. Others, myself included, did not. I couldn’t quite manage that bit.

In the final session of the day we had the chance to share one thing we had written or learned during the day. Most people now felt able to read out a piece, and as more and more people in the circle did so I became increasingly determined to overcome my own anxiety. I wanted to manage that!

Suddenly I seized my chance and said I would read out my imaginative piece. Everyone waited as I sorted myself out and started to read. It was very quiet afterwards. My ears became attuned to stifled amusement. I didn’t dare look at anyone. Not managing.

Then one of the others said she would like to hear it again.

I nearly died with embarrassment. Was it so garbled they hadn’t understood it? It is true I get carried away with wild flights of fancy, and friends and colleagues are often left bemused by my non sequiturs. I read it again, not at all sure I wasn’t going to cry. This was far worse than blogging. It was desperately humiliating. There were real people in the same room hearing me read.

There was another silence, then someone said they really liked it and someone else said it made them shiver. I took that to mean a good thing. One of them asked to take my book and read it out loud again. How strange the words sounded in another voice, as she stumbled over my scribbles.

I did plan to share it with you here, but won’t. It was a few short sentences written in just five minutes. It is small and insignificant on the page. You had to be there.

What I really wanted to share with you was my amazement and gratitude for the generosity of others, and my journey from secret blogger to bold, brave writer who fearlessly shared a paragraph with humans in real-space. I wanted to thank the people who helped me feel safe in a group of strangers.

Many of you are confident, shining writers who don’t need to be told you produce marvellous works (although it never hurts to say it). However, some of us are not so confident, and if you, like me, have no faith in yourself, then take heart.

Live adventurously. Be brave, and trust the kindness of strangers to shine a light on your path to help you find your way.



Bloggers for Peace: Better to have loved and lost…

Can you have a relationship with someone you have never met? Can you have a relationship with a favourite author? Certainly in the Age of Celebrity there appear to be many people who think they have a relationship with characters from TV programmes or films, or with actors, whom they never can meet.

I am fairly confident in assuming that many of you are avid readers. Certainly I believe it to be so when you are such great writers. It does not follow that if I read I can also write; however, I am certain that if you write well, you must read broadly too.  So regardless of any pretensions to writing well, I will admit I do read broadly and will further assume that this is true for you as well.

I love certain authors. I never interact with them directly – well, almost never. Recently I felt very daring and left a message on a top author’s blog expressing gratitude for his books and letting him know how much they had meant to me over the very many years I had been reading him, since the 1984 in fact.

Do you have a favourite genre? I have probably said before that I am a big science fiction fan. I may be repeating myself (I’m too lazy to check) but one of the reasons I fell into a long term relationship with a number of science fiction authors, in my devil-may-care, the-more-the-merrier, I-read-around-a-bit way, was that I read an essay/article by someone erudite. It may have been Brian Aldiss, I’m not sure, but what he said was that the reason science fiction was an interesting, even essential, genre was that it gave you space to explore really big and difficult questions in new ways without the baggage. You could look at relationships and society and history and science and politics and elitism and autocrats and racism and human rights and, when you get right down to it, what it means to be a human being, with freedom and honesty and integrity. If you wanted. He suggested that when you were writing in the real world, you were constrained by real world limitations and expectations and the status quo. Actually he might not have said any of that, but it’s what I took away from whatever it was I read.

Science fiction was exciting at an intellectual level, not just a boys’-toys (excuse me, chaps), Flash Gordon, shoot-the-aliens kind of way. It had a weight and heft that mattered. Plus I learned all my science from Star Trek (and my history from Jean Plaidy but that’s another story, quite literally).

Within the honoured throng of writers there is one to whom I was devoted, because he wrote about really positive possibilities. He confronted difficulties and he didn’t fall into some kind of dystopian nightmare, framed by Ridley Scott in rain and darkness (yes, I do mean Bladerunner – as if Philip K Dick wasn’t depressing enough in print). He saw people overcoming our current idiocies and taking science and prodding serious buttock with it until we had a society worth living in. There was also pain and despair and very dark humour, and exciting spaceship fights begging to be screened at an IMAX, and artificial intelligence that was cool and clever and actually quite human at the same time.

Obviously a humble purchaser of his books such as myself would never dream of crossing his shadow. He was too clever and cool and brilliant for the likes of me. I bought everything he published, science fiction or not, and it was all amazing (well, maybe one dud if I am truthful).

On 3rd April Iain Banks announced that he was unwell; that in fact he had been diagnosed with late stage gall bladder cancer.  I signed his message board to express my sorrow and appreciation.

On Sunday, 9th June, he died.

Can we have relationships with people we have never met. I’m not sure. Do we need reciprocity? Does his writing books and my consuming books represent more than symbiosis? And is symbiosis a relationship of a kind?

I don’t know, but I feel a loss, and am sad to think I will never read new books by him. There are fantastic new writers to meet yet, but each writer is unique and so cannot be replaced. Iain Banks’ warmth and humour and challenge will be hard to follow. He railed against stupidity and promoted compassion. He helped me think about what it means to be human. He wrote many wonderful things, but in summary they all come to this:

“Fuck every cause that ends in murder and children crying.”
Iain Banks, Against a Dark Background

Meanwhile, read other blogs participating in this month’s Bloggers for Peace Challenge:


Families and other stories of the imagination

I only met two of my grandparents: my father’s mother and my mother’s father. My Grandma lived with us, so I saw her every day. My Granddad lived in Croydon, caring for his step-son and daughter-in-law. His step-son had learning difficulties (we used a different term in the 1960s which wouldn’t be acceptable today). He dribbled but was really nice and taught me to play chess.  His wife, who was disabled from polio, was mentally very able indeed, and she made sure he was safe and secure. However, she was quite bad-tempered and not fond of children, so she didn’t really teach me anything except that being disabled is no excuse for being bad-tempered.

However, I heard lots about my other grandparents, so they were quite real to me. It felt like I had just missed them; that they had popped out for a minute but maybe I’d see them next time.

My dad had mementos of his father which he occasionally showed me. There was his medal, for a start. I used to think it was for being a hero in the war, but it turned out to be a tug of war team medal. He was quite sporty, it seems, because I have photographs of him on the football team and cricket team. However, he lost an eye in the war, so was definitely a hero.

My mother’s mother died terribly young, of cancer, in my mother’s arms, just before my mother’s 15th birthday. It was awful. Her photos show her was young and beautiful, although she was 50 when she died so I suspect they are a little misleading, like Mary Queen of Scots who was old, wheezy and rheumatic on the scaffold rather than the young, beautiful heroine people like to think. Not that it matters. Death is death, and usually early.

I started researching my family tree because I wanted to know more about my family, the ones who had just popped out as well as the ones I knew in person. It turns out that family history can reveal polite fiction or cherished beliefs as the shams they are. I have found out a couple of truths by looking into the records over the years.

One of them I didn’t share with my father because it would have been a bit of an upset for him. My grandfather had lost an eye, and my dad always thought it was during the war (I am talking about the 1914-1918 war). One day I managed to unearth his military records and discovered he already had a growth on his eye when enlisting, and that he was discharged because he needed an operation and lost his sight. Given that my grandmother lost a number of brothers to the trenches I don’t think anyone in the family was upset by this. It must have seemed a fair price. But what do you tell a small boy about his daddy during the war, when he wants to know?

The other thing I discovered about my grandfather was that not only was he interested in bell-ringing (I knew that from day one, as my dad used to listen to church bells and tell me about his father), but he had a couple of plaques for ringing a peal of Stedman Triples, and a peal of Grandsire Triples, with his friends. All I can add is that over 5000 changes were involved for each. It sounds a lot.

The bell-ringing fascinates me. I happen to have some friends who are keen on it, and they are all computer geeks. They claim it’s common for that to be the case, something to do with the patterns and sequences being like code. I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know when one of them showed me the pattern for a Stedman Triple it made total sense immediately, and apparently not everyone has that reaction. On the other hand coding bores me to death; I’m a hardware girl. Give me a router or server, and I’m happy.

Still, I like to think of my grandfather, the lesser known, shadowy one, as a computer expert born a couple of generations too early. That is where myth starts to intrude on truth again.

Once people are dead they have defence against our prying. I suspect a black hole of documentation will follow our generation as computerised records are deleted and the faded, dog-eared old accounts of births, deaths and marriages fade away. We may yet be more shadowy and harder to know than our own grandparents; and if family stories are anything to go by, our blogs are as unreliable as our stories for children.

My grandfather was illegitimate; I am not sure anyone knew. I don’t care about such trivial detail, but somewhere my grandma is spinning her ashes into a storm over my casual reference to it in public. If she has her way I’ll be in trouble tonight. Likely I’ll be sent to bed without supper.

My grandfather’s father, apparently unaware that he had a child, died regretting that he never had a family. He married late and they didn’t have children of their own. It is of course possible he wasn’t actually the father, but as his name is a little unusual it was probably true, or, if not, one of his brothers was a conniving bastard (also possible). It is equally possible he did know but had to maintain another polite fiction for the sake of the missus.

Some things paperwork cannot tell you.

It is even less likely that the Internet is a reliable resource.

But least reliable of all are fond memories which may have been created to paper over cracks and shore up esteem.

My family weren’t psychopathic liars; they just had to cope with the values and morals of the day. They did nothing unusual in protecting their good standing, and in giving the next generation self-respect and pride. How far do little white lies stretch until they become recorded truth? They portray us as we want to be remembered. Even what I have told you here is circumscribed by my perceptions and interpretations.

In making peace with ourselves, do we inadvertently do so with smoke and mirrors?



To Valhalla!

Well, my dears, the festivity laden weekend has drawn to a close with a mighty flourish. Our In our closing hours of chocolyptic celebration the family has enacted a Viking ceremony to affirm the death of the Contact Lenses formerly resident on my very eyes.

Regular readers will recall as a matter of priority that I was subject to eye surgery both last year and more recently in early March to replace my biological, but inept, lenses with artificial, but effective, plastic versions in order to allow me to perceive the World of Light. This miracle having transpired, I have been settling down to what you humans call “vision” and gradually accommodating myself to waking up and being able to look at things such as the ceiling, the alarm clock and the sleepy face of Sigoth. Blessings abound.

In any case, these are the things I no longer require as part of my daily routine.

collection of contact lens paraphernalia

It seemed only appropriate to gather as many of the family as possible to recognise the importance of this moment, and to usher in the new world of visual competence awaiting me. A holiday weekend provided the opportunity and the weather relented on Monday afternoon to enable us to hold the ceremony in a traditionally biting easterly wind, blowing directly from the Viking homeland across the North Sea to the Yorkshire coast and then roaring inland towards EBL Towers.

Sigoth constructed a Dragon Ship to carry the lenses to the Halls of Valhalla, for they have striven mightily in the battle to reveal the world in its true colours over the years. Their achievements equalled those of the greatest warriors in piercing the gloom of myopia and the mists of shortsightedness, and we shall remember them with honour.

Dragon Ship model

Here is the proud vessel in all its glory.

I’m not sure why it has oars, but never mind.

We loaded it with fuel and took it to the water’s edge.


Ship by the pond

The Offspringses beg to inform you that they rolled their eyes but I am also pleased to say they played along, indulging their poor old mum and standing in the Arctic blast to watch the ship burn and start to sink in the icy wastes of the pond in the back garden.


Burning ship

It is the firm belief, and certain testimony, of the management that no lives were harmed during this funereal occasion, including any pond life; we removed the ship before it could cause any negative environmental consequences, and took it indoors to finish burning in the fireplace (once it has dried off enough from becoming waterlogged)..

And so we sent the plastic heroes to the Mead Hall to drink with the mighty Fallen, and we went back inside, shivering from cold, and ate a feast worthy of Odin: chocolate muffins and Yorkshire tea.

I hope your holidays were as mighty in their own way.


No one expects the comfy chair!

Rarasaur is kindly providing a series of prompts for the promptless and this week it’s on the 11th Possibility: the 11th Possibility is the idea that, regardless of data to the contrary, something unexpected and outside the realm of ordinary thought is always potentially around the corner.

This, my dears, speaks to my very soul. I love that kind of non sequitur, and all I could think of after reading the prompt were prime examples of humour that make me go <snort>.

For example, Monty Python’s hapless Spanish Inquisition, bursting in to cry “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!” and then failing miserably to torture or maim anyone, beyond making them sit in the Comfy Chair, ensuring that the victim will get “only a cup of coffee at 11” o’clock and making the torture “worse by shouting a lot”.

Ah, Messieurs Pythons, how I love you. I never wanted to run a pet shop anyway, I always wanted to be a lumberjack.

You know when you get an ear-worm – one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head, sometimes for days? It’s been a bit like that with this prompt. I keep thinking of something completely different.

Most clamorous have been Messrs Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Both writers convey the 11th Possibility with expertise and panache. In both cases I appreciate their sudden twists of logic which leave me wrong-footed but amused by the dissonance.

In Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, apart from the invention of the Infinite Improbability Drive to power a spaceship, there are little moments when things just don’t quite go according to the usual script.

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
“Ask a glass of water!”

As for Terry Pratchett, almost any page you care to look at will have some kind of twist or turn that leaves the brain faintly disoriented.

The question seldom addressed is where Medusa had snakes. Underarm hair is an even more embarrassing problem when it keeps biting the top of the deodorant bottle.

So does an 11th Possibility matter? For me, it’s about opening up new ideas, creating space to try something different, or just experiencing uncertainty in a safe but stimulating way.

I am making it sound dull. Let’s try this.

Humour is what makes the world go round without us falling asleep or falling out; our creative brains are engaged and exercised and expanded by indulging it.

In my team at work I am the most right-brain of us all. What that says about our team I dread to think. Anyway, on one occasion we were on a workshop together and during the day various members of the team would leave the main room to go and take part in an individual exercise elsewhere. My colleague sitting next to me said, during the tea break, “You know, I keep seeing people going out but I never notice them coming back.”

“There’s a mad axe murderer out there,” I explained. “We’re actually being picked off one by one. By tonight there will just be one of us left. It’s management cutbacks.”

She looked at me strangely. “Trust you,” she said. “I just meant I was impressed by how quietly they all slipped back into the room.”

I sighed. How boring.



City Square, 3 A.M

City Square, LeedsI like my sleep. It is a rare and precious thing. I often sleep badly, which is strange to me even after several years of sleeping badly. I blame the pesky hormones and keep hoping it will settle down, but so far it hasn’t.

Last night was my second night in a hotel room overlooking City Square in Leeds. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine room with a fine view. I’m quite fond of City Square. In December it has a massive tree with sparkly lights, and sometimes Occupy protesters around the bottom like a modern Nativity. (Take that, St Paul’s, with your eviction notices!) In milder weather, if there is such a concept north of the Watford Gap, there are hanging baskets with pretty flowers looking pretty as only pretty things can. Often they are pink, and none the worse for it.

I’m looking out the window now as I write this, the sky greying and the buildings awash with yellow spotlights shining upwards and dawn shining downwards and streetlights filling in the gap in the middle. It’s 7.30 already and busy and soon I will venture down into the sleepy, shuffling commuter crowd to stride purposefully to the office.

City Square has bicycle lanes criss-crossing it as well as a wild tangle of bus lanes and normal roads in a bewildering one-way system, and lots of different traffic lights and many , many pedestrians so confused by it all that they simply wander where they will at great personal risk. Taxis erupt from the station in all directions like champagne from a vigorously shaken bottle splattering everyone in its orbit. Buses chug and wheeze and occasionally glide along the central, bus-only, roadways. Busy, busy, busy.

It’s all well and good at 7.30 on a Friday morning. It’s a work day and a school day and a doing day. When I toss and turn in my bed at night, missing home, gnawing at a work problem, wondering if my alarm is set and checking it for the third time, I expect a bit more peace and quiet. City Square does not oblige. Sometimes there are sirens for dark, night time emergencies. Last night there was singing.

I lay and listened to the inebriated group of gentlemen singing as they staggered through the square. It felt like they were under my window, serenading me. I am sure the other guests enjoyed the concert as much as I did, way up on the 5th floor. But I was proud of myself, because I was awake for other reasons so it wasn’t their fault and I did not blame them for disturbing me. Rather I thought to myself:

“There’s some pretty good harmony and two part singing going on there; that’s quite impressive given how drunk they are.”

They sounded like they were happy, and happiness is not a bad thing to be heard, even at 3 o’clock in the morning. They eventually found their way out of the immediate vicinity, hopefully in the right direction and not to the canal (unless they were Yorkshire Gondaliers I suppose). I turned over (again) and tried to relax (again) and this time I did. So they sang me to sleep after all, bless them.