No comment.

Something happened this week that makes blogging seem totally trivial. Bad news from a friend. I won’t share it, there’s enough bad news in the world without me foisting my small part of it on you.

But I’m feeling rather strange. Uncomfortable, even.

Despite a sadness that’s settled into my heart, my blog – this site – has been lurking just past the corner of my eye. Floating in the ether, saying, ‘feed me’. And feed it I must.

Or must I?

Why?

And why today, of all days?

The answer’s hard for me to fathom.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading about the effects of social media, online sharing and mobile phone usage on attention spans and behaviour. Stuff everyone seems to be particularly antsy about at the moment. Including me.

I even read a whole book: ‘The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection.’ (Author, Michael Harris.)

Blogging is (ostensibly) about connecting – and over the last two years eight months, the process of blogging and following others has made me reassess what it means to know someone. To relate to other human beings.

Does it matter that it’s intangible? After all, when I was young we had penfriends – it just took longer to send and receive the messages.

But I do feel, somehow, it’s different. And it’s been perplexing me.

I’ve been asking myself, why do bloggers blog – and why do readers read?

Do ‘real’ relationships develop (I think they do, see my post about Tess Ross) – and what are they, those relationships?

Are they mostly between bloggers and non-blogging readers – like newspapers and commuters, say? Or are they mostly between member of the  ‘community’ of bloggers, souls reaching out, in some individual way, to others?

I suspect that many readers – whether bloggers themselves or not – read out of simple curiosity, learning about new places, people, cultures and so on. I do.

Some have an especially serious reason for following a blog about a shared illness, or other challenge they are facing.

And then there are the ones who know the blogger in real life.

I don’t know if I’m a rarity, but I feel a tad uncomfortable following people I know in the flesh. And some people I know in ‘real’ life are the ‘followers’ who puzzle me the most.

The ones who follow, but don’t ‘follow’.

Who read but never ‘comment’.

Who don’t ever click the ‘like’ button.

People who tell me, ‘I do read your blogs, you know. I enjoy seeing what you’re up to, even if I don’t comment.’

Are they just inquisitive, plain and simple, but afraid of that great, identity-stealing, bogey-person in the ether?

Afraid of committing to a view in the full glare of – me? Other readers?

Afraid of the thought police?

The latter I’d understand. I’ve been visiting some ‘interesting’ websites lately by way of research – in fact, maybe you’d better stop reading right now if you’re paranoid.
(Thought police, if you’re reading, I’m only trying to write fiction.)

A young academic of my acquaintance has an interesting take on this type of behaviour, this anonymous blog ogling. [Bloggling?]

So much is free online, he posits, that some people feel no need to square the circle.
The content’s there for them to enjoy or not, they feel no need to pay in any way. And that dispensation from making any kind of ‘payment’ includes any acknowledgement they have read it, liked it or – just for the sake of argument – disagreed with it.

I’m glad they do read it, don’t misunderstand me – it’s reassuring that friends I don’t see very often (you know who you are) keep up with my antics – and phobias – and rants – this way. Don’t stop!

But that absence of payment is also interesting if you come at it from my perspective.

I was a journalist of sorts, on and off. Paid for writing things that people then read, in order to be better informed, or (I can’t really lump telecommunications in with snooping round glamorous houses) just amused.

Over the last couple of months there have been several occasions when I’ve written one of my thought or rant pieces only to find a ‘real’ writer saying much the same thing in a national newspaper a week or two later.

I mentioned one such to the new Brit in the house, gratified that my argument had been published by a real hack in a national newspaper.

‘See,’ I chirped, ‘that’s just what I was saying last week. So I am doing something useful.’ (Even I can see the flaw in that statement.)

Anyway, the point is, we’ve had many discussions about the usefulness or otherwise of my blogging. Other than some things being better out than in, as far as my psyche’s concerned, I mean, which is patently useful.

‘But,’ he says, ‘you don’t get paid for it.’

I restrain my innate instinct for the confessional, which wants me to say, ‘No – and on top of that, I pay for my site so that it has a proper address and doesn’t have ads. So, in effect, I’m paying people to read what I write.’

Is it worth it? Is it useful? Why do I do it?

No comment.

A recent frost, for no particular reason

A recent frost, for no particular reason

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

No roses. But, ‘I’m ok and everything is going smoothly’

I just looked in the mirror.  A mistake.

I’ve not been up long – given it’s lunchtime. I slept really late. Later than at any time in the last 35 years or so, I reckon. And now I look as if I didn’t sleep a wink.

But, even at half past nine, this sloth was reluctant to face the day.

I grudgingly switched on the kettle, then padded down the hall to my study and fired-up the desktop.

The kettle boiled. I made tea. Took a biscuit from the tin, for dunking – well, why not?

Picked up the two newspapers I didn’t hear delivered before eight. Realised, too late, I should have cancelled one.

Sitting in bed – come on, it is the weekend – I began to read ‘my’ paper, but felt a kind of nagging worry, squatting behind my eyes like an evil sprite.

Then I remembered.

I sprang – sort of – out of bed and hurried back to the desktop.

You see, the reason I slept so late was – I was awake late. Not because I was partying, nor reading a gripping novel, nor watching an enthralling film – but because it’s been three days without an email from Archaeo-Man.

He’s off doing a pilot study.

It began well. He arrived to find his bedsit had a working shower, electricity and wi-fi.

Two days, two nights, several emails – and even a blog post* – later, I settled into communication complacency.

Oh, great nations of Africa! Let me never be complacent.

He’s in Ghana.

We were there for a week, two years ago, around this time. I loved what (little) I saw. Which is what enabled my imagination to run not quite riot, but certainly peaceful protest, with possibilities for the silence.

No wi-fi was the obvious reason. But others lurked.

A car crash (the traffic’s horrendous – and there was a casual, emailed remark about driving on the wrong side of the road).

Arrest (it’s happened before).

Sudden illness … and so on.

This morning there was a two-line email.

‘I’m ok and everything is going smoothly.’

Mains power’s been off three days. No wi-fi.  But he’s fine. And, in line two, remembered it was St Valentine’s Day. Which is more than I did.

We used to buy each other pink roses when we lived in London. Delicate, just-after-dawn pink, not peachy.

These days, if things are getting me down, a box might arrive, sent by first class post from the Scilly Isles. In it, 50 fragrant winter narcissi, or scented summer pinks – gillyflowers, to use my favourite of their names. Their perfume’s just plain blissful.

But I digress.

I had to laugh at myself, once today’s email had arrived.

Worrying? After three days? Ha!

In 1993 we took a trip to Zambia. Archaeo-Man found a site worth excavating. Went back  later (without me). For three months. Camping.

No phone, no email.

Airmail letters, written as if under a microscope to maximise use of the limited space, would arrive after two – even three – weeks. Delicately crumpled, the blue paper would be dappled with charcoal smudges. Looking like it’d been trodden on, or carried in a soft sack for a long, dusty distance. Which it probably had.

The stamps told stories. The dust told a story. The creases told a story. And the letters told several.

After a while, Archaeo-Man learned there were two telephone numbers in nearby Mumbwa (shudder, one place in Zambia I really don’t like). He found he could use the one that worked, in the Post Office, to receive calls. Sent me the number, asked me to ring each Saturday morning, nine o’clock their time, eight o’clock mine.

Sometimes it worked. A hurried conversation would ensue, subject to irritating echoes and time delays. The satellite had a bossy recorded voice to tell us when it didn’t want to connect us – but terminated our calls in an arbitrary, silent way, as if to say, that’s enough, I’m bored.

Sometimes the Post Master would have a really good Friday night and I’d sit there, at eight o’clock, ringing, ringing, ringing … to no reply. The Post Office was shut till the hangover abated.

I’d be left with a long, long Saturday – and a long, long wait till the next one.

In Mumbwa, Archaeo-Man would head back to his ramshackle camp, termite-ravaged sacks of soil samples and regular visits from Harry the policeman. And the jackal.

I’m not sure the erratic availability of that phone helped. But once the possibility was there, we couldn’t ignore it.

And now?

I’m lucky. Being by a landline all day I’m not addicted to a mobile. I see polite people suffering withdrawal jitters when they put away their phones for half an hour. There, but for the grace of working at home, go I.

One day we may have permanent connections implanted in our brains. And then who will daydream? Or become bored and find something interesting to do, or read, or think about?

Whose brains will be free to create, invent, imagine?

The expectation of communication is its own problem. We can, ergo, we expect. And do.

But I still remember that cranky satellite. And I imagine what would happen to the world if a solar flare put out our phones and emails and …

You can have too much imagination.

Some Amaryllis I grew this winter - just to cheer up the post this St Valentine's Day

Some Amaryllis I grew this winter – just to cheer up the post this St Valentine’s Day


*If you’d like to find out more about what Archaeo-Man’s up to here’s his blog site: http://www.stoneageghana.wordpress.com

Posted in Ghana, Thinking, or ranting, or both, Travelling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Mad? Lucky? Or just plain stupid, with a death-wish?

A memory surfaces, now and then, which makes my brain freeze.

It’s the late 1990s. We’re staying with a farmer outside Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. He’s very hospitable, bought us new, blue mats to step onto when we get out of bed. But they’re lethal, slipping out from under our feet, so we avoid them, keep to the cold, polished concrete floor.

At night the corner of the tin roof above our room flaps in the wind and bangs, keeping me awake. But I don’t mind. Because that’s my escape route.

I’d be awake even without the clanging roof. Because we’re locked in at night. Not locked in like you are at night – you know, front door locked, back door locked, downstairs windows shut.

For one thing there’s only downstairs, no upstairs.

For another thing we don’t need to shut the windows – wouldn’t if it weren’t for the mosquitoes – because there are thick iron bars on them all.

At night our host pulls shut and locks a heavy metal door, like a huge safe door, blocking the corridor and confining us all in two rooms leading off it. He, his wife, son and daughter have one bedroom, we the other.

There’s no way out.

No chance of climbing out of the barred window.

So my escape route – in the event that fire breaks out and we can’t open the door – is the flapping roof. You think fire’s unlikely? Well, given the erratic electricity, given the candles – it’s possible. And not just because of an accident. A burning rag, a home-made petrol bomb … I know, I have too much imagination.

But it’s one of the sad things about urban Zambia – though it’s probably less of a problem than in some other African countries I’ve visited – that crime is a fact of daily life. Burglary, in particular.

A poacher's home made firearm

A poacher’s home made firearm

Criminals are often desperate. Home-made firearms are not uncommon, nor are axes and knives.

Anyone who has anything in the big city – like a home with a television – builds a fence, a wall, a gate. Tops them with broken glass, or razor wire. Hires a night watchman. Keeps dogs.

But these things can be circumvented – and sometimes the tool is a human being. A trusted servant, for example, who, for some reason, turns on the employer.

We’re well outside the city, but there have been attacks in the area around us. A terrible murder on a nearby farm. The victims were close to our host. Could not have been closer. One was a parent. And it was Christmas.

The atmosphere’s tense at night. The woman of the house and her daughter, we suspect, don’t often stay here now. The little girl was there, at Christmas, when the bodies were found.

One day our farmer offers to take us to see some rock art, newly discovered by a schoolgirl.

Rock art from Kasama Northern Zambia

Rock art from Kasama Northern Zambia

Not what we went to see, but this is typical geometric rock art at Mutinondo Wilderness, near Mpika, Northern Zambia

Not what we went to see, but this is typical geometric rock art at Mutinondo Wilderness, near Mpika, Northern Zambia

It’s a long drive so we stay overnight at his nephew’s house.

Our bedroom walls are covered with the flattest spiders I’ve ever seen, like starfish. I pretend they’re wallpaper. They don’t seem to move a lot.

We pick up our teenaged guide and park by a reservoir used by middle class Zambians and ex-pats for water sports. Have a soft drink at the anglers’ club house, use the loo. Then start the climb into the hills, seeking a small rock shelter.

It’s warm, becoming warmer by the minute. Winter in Zambia’s tolerably hot by day and here, on the high plateau, cold at night.

The slopes are dotted with boulders and rocks and stones. Leaves rusty from age and desiccation. Blackened twigs and – everywhere – the dust, the orange dust.

I’m not a great climber. And our guide’s a sporty teenage girl. It’s hard to keep up.

It becomes clear I’d have to do some serious climbing to reach the rock shelter, so I opt to stay behind. Wait to hear if it’s worth it.

I stand on a boulder. It’s dark, grey and pretty large. Basking, inanimate, in the sun.

I can hear the others – it’s not far, just an awkward climb – chattering.

About one of my steps away from me is a hole in the basking rock.

I don’t want to, but I can’t stop myself. I look into that hole.

The black mamba’s a sinister-looking snake. If you wanted a model for the serpent in the Garden of Eden I’d look no further. Not black, that would be too obvious, but grey. A sleek, grey, lethal shadow.

I can see its eyes, its coffin-shaped head.

And do I run? No. I do nothing. I stand, on a rock, in the sun, staring at a black mamba.

When I first came to Zambia I read a book about snakes. I thought confronting my fears, learning about them, would help. It didn’t.

The black mamba’s bite can kill in fifteen minutes. It will attack if you’re between it and its goal – its hole in a rock, for example. It rears up and lunges. Bites. Kills.

I suppose my reasoning is that it’s already home, in its hole. It won’t attack.

So I keep on standing. And staring.

The others return. Archaeo-man pulls me away and we run downhill, fast as we can.

In the 4×4 on our way back, we’re driving past a small village when I see a strange figure with bright red hair. No one else sees it. I describe what I thought was a woman. It was a shaman.

And I remember thinking as we drove on, through a patch of burning grassland, with scorching flames crackling and roaring either side of us, that I’d be glad to get back to the farm.

You don’t always know when you’ve got it good, do you?


[Please note: this was some time ago – Zambia is now more prosperous and I trust and hope it has resulted in less of the type of crime that was around then. Don’t let this (or my crime fiction set there) put you off if you plan to visit, it’s a wonderful place!]

Posted in Travelling, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Patriotic thoughts, while on a level crossing

The train’s clattering out of the station with a bit of a wheeze. She may run on electricity – but she whines a lot.

I’ve just been told, by a new British citizen, that this is the oldest electric railway in the country. I don’t know if it’s true, but in deference to his newly British status I’ll trust him.

The level crossing gates lift with that, ‘Ohhhh-kaaay, here we go’ noise and, with a handful of other around-at-midday people, I toddle across the tracks.

I feel as if I’m in a painting, brought to life. A scene from the late 1950s or maybe the ‘60s. Surrounded by shoppers out walking, trussed up in winter coats and wearing gloves and hats. There’s even a basket or two.

It’s odd, this harmonious blending of time and place. Is it because I’ve just been to a ceremony in a bit of old – but definitely not twee – England? Is it because for once I’m conscious of my luck, my pleasure, in being here?

Probably.

There are more glamorous places than Bootle, a community ripped to pieces in World War II, but it has a cracking Town Hall. And that’s the location my in-house American, now also British, has chosen for his ceremony.

Bootle Town Hall was built in the 1860s, when English towns were first allowed to be ‘incorporated,’ to become corporations and raise money by collecting local rates or borrowing. It’s quite a fine building, imposing, solid – sure of itself. The industrial north is studded with such edifices, monuments in stone to their civic pride and industrial prowess.

She shows her age, inside, the old place. Each decade has left its mark, except perhaps the last. But she’s a character. The wrinkles tell of joy and sorrow and pain and pleasure – politics and community. Botox she does not need. She’s a survivor and she shows it.

For Bootle and neighbouring Liverpool their livelihood was the sea, the docks a vital lifeline for the nation. And, therefore, prime German targets when the war came.

But, that the Town Hall survived the bombing of World War II is not just down to luck or character. Its proud, ‘look-at-me’ sandstone walls had to be obscured by painting them with pitch, because German aircraft were using it as a landmark for their bombing raids.

And what raids.

P1010455A clock hangs on the wall, forever stopped at 11.34, the hour the bomb hit the infants’ school in May 1941.

Three-quarters of Bootle’s housing was bombed in one week. The war saw 1886 civilians dead and injured, more deaths, proportionately, than any other township in the UK.

All because Bootle’s docks were critical to winning World War II, in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Worn, tattered flags now hang below the ceiling in the council chamber, presented by ships’ captains docked in Bootle between U-Boat stalking missions.

P1010481The most celebrated is the ‘General Chase’, flown for only the third time in British naval history by one Captain ‘Johnny’ Walker, hounding down German subs in the Bay of Biscay. The first occasion was by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile, the second, by Sturdee in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.

Walker died not long before the war ended. Worn out, according to the friendly, affable Lord Mayor of Sefton, with whom we’re chatting.

A charming man with a trim white beard, the Mayor has already handed over the new Brits’ certificates and gifts – silver-plated picture frames. He’s posed for photos with Chinese, Thai, New Zealand and American folks who made the grade, became British today.

It was moving, you know. Mine weren’t the only eyes that were moist.

They played God Save the Queen and for once, instead of that inner grumble, ‘why do we have such a boring national anthem?’, I felt a surge of pride, in the nation and the people who’ve paid so much in monetary and possibly – who knows? – other terms, to join us. To become British.

The Mayor’s being chivvied to attend to his next engagement, but first he stops to ask us if we recognise the symbol at the centre of his mayoral chain. I don’t. We don’t.

After ten years living in Sefton Council territory, seeing the symbol on letterheads and signs, we’re clueless.

To be fair, Sefton was only created in 1974, hacked out of old Lancashire. So no-one really loves it, is loyal to it. It has little or no real meaning.

But it has a symbol. A design based on a water mill. Sefton Council

And the French for ‘water mill’ is the origin of the local Molyneux family’s name. The Molyneux family that came over with William the Conqueror in 1066.

Now isn’t that an irony?

On the day my husband becomes a proper immigrant, a citizen, along with people of three other nationalities, we learn our local council’s visual identity is based on the name of a foreign invader. An invader who became the power in the land.

It’s a nice reminder, as the next election picks up steam, as our political parties bite the prejudice bullet and talk about immigration. We Brits are a very mongrel lot. But we’re all humans.

Many languages, many religions. Many colours, shapes and sizes.

Just one race, though, not many.

And we all originate from … Africa.


 

(This account of Walker’s wartime career left me breathless with admiration for his courage, energy and determination. http://www.captainwalker.uk/walker.html )

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A fraud journeys over water, encounters a naked man and brings home some reindeer

It’s been a bit husk-memoir-lite, lately, this blog, so I thought I’d retrieve a little episode from the 1980s from my mental archives. One I’ve been puzzling over recently, for no particular reason.

Here goes …

I’m working for an American company that publishes technical magazines. ‘European editorial office’, my card says (inaccurately), Boston being unwilling to fund anything more exact after their last experience of employing me. And, yes, the fraud, that’s me.

You see, as a journalist – I use the term loosely – I’m not too bad at researching, quite good at editing, but my knowledge of telecommunications – the main sector I cover – is what you might call basic.

Yet people keep sending me on trips to interesting places.

The only condition seems to be that I visit a factory or an exhibition or an army base (I also cover ‘defense’) or something. In return I stay in top hotels, eat fab meals and travel in little planes and chauffeur driven cars. Well, that’s on the good trips.

Knowing nothing – or not much – might be a serious handicap, you’d think, but actually it’s not. Kind colleagues often help me out. They know I work on a monthly, across the Atlantic. That my work flies out in bundles every Wednesday – and it’ll be ages before my report’s in print, if ever.

In other words, I’m no competition. And we all go out drinking together, anyway.

But.

Odd things sometimes happen. And on this trip, they do.

We stayed last night in a hotel in Stockholm, but today we’re on an overnight ferry, to Finland. To a place called Turku.

Now, you may read that word, Turku, any way you like, but for me it’s forever a sound. It comes in the sentence, ‘Welcome to the Turku Telephone Company,’ spoken in a hoarse, gruff voice. Barely more than a whisper, but deep and loud.

Each word bounces along like a rubber ball.

The man speaking has a tremendous white moustache. And a twinkle in his eye.

He explains why his voice is so gruff. It’s permanent and – I may be making this up – something to do with World War II and the shortage of medicines.

Mr Gruff tells us lots about telecommunications in Finland. Details I soon forget – like everything technical thing about this trip. Even the scoop that my friend from Electronics Weekly picks up while we’re having after-dinner drinks with a Top Boffin.

Never mind. By the time my deadline comes around her report will be out, I can read it.

Picture of Turku Castle by Markus Koljonen (Dilaudid)

Turku Castle Picture: Markus Koljonen

The roofs of Turku have a quaint charm and there’s much to see and buy in the indoormarket – but soon we’re leaving it behind, heading for a castle.

There we drink lingonberry champagne and snack on smoked reindeer canapés. And say farewell to Turku.

At the airport, later that day, I invest in a bottle of Finnish vodka and a pack of smoked reindeer to take home.

But what about the naked man, you ask?

Strictly speaking he’s already happened. A couple of nights back, in Stockholm. I kept him to last to entice you to read on.

So, to Stockholm …

I’m in a rather smart hotel, in my room, at night. A knock comes on the door.

Outside stands a naked man.

‘I’m on the press trip,’ he says, probably seeing how blank my face is (I’m trying hard to keep it that way), ‘I locked myself out of my room.’

He has a heavily accented voice, seems a bit agitated.

‘Please can you ring reception, ask someone to open my door?’

Of course I say yes. Offer him a cushion to cover his – embarrassment. He gives me his room number and I shut the door on him, leaving him out in the hall.

I can’t say anything quite like this has happened to me before.

Next morning we’re waiting for a coach and I’m chatting to Della and Bob, a couple of British journalists. A man wearing glasses taps me on the shoulder.

‘Thank you for last night,’ says the man, sotto voce.

For a moment I’m puzzled, then recognition dawns.

‘Oh, sorry, ’I say, in my normal everyday voice, ‘ I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’  Then, being a polite person, I add, ‘You’re welcome.’

He scurries off. Della and Bob look at me. I explain to a burst of semi-muffled sniggering.

I know it’s hard to believe – especially me saying that – but, honestly, it’s true.

Anyway – here we are, now, in 2015 and I’m talking about this event. To my husband.

‘You know,’ I say, ‘I’ve always wondered why he got locked out of his room. And how he knew … You don’t think …?’

Husband shakes head. Looks like he’s thinking, oh dear, oh dear.

‘Of course I do.’

Those were the days.

 

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I am not a number. Je suis humaine.

If you recognise the first part of the title as coming from ‘The Prisoner’, award yourself a silver star! But, be warned, that’s as cheerful as the mood of this post gets.

Today I was planning to write something superficial about massacres and kidnappings. Forgive me if that sounds shocking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that they don’t matter, it’s just that I’m not knowledgeable enough to delve deeply into the subject.

The idea started brewing a couple of months ago when we went to a concert. There I heard a song about a massacre.

In that massacre, I read later, eleven people – nine men, two women – were killed and four hundred wounded.

It took place in Manchester, in northern England, in 1819 and later became known as Peterloo*.

There’s a plaque commemorating the event on the wall of what was, until 1997, the ‘Free Trade Hall’. Built on St Peter’s Field, the site of the massacre, it’s now a Radisson hotel.

The plaque tells us fifteen people were killed and 600 injured, but we’ll never know the exact figures. Given the context and our distance from it, that’s hardly surprising.

Then, a week ago I saw a report of a massacre in Nigeria. It was in the Guardian newspaper. A smallish item compared with the pages devoted to the Paris killings. But at least it was there – a rarity, at that point.

‘As many as’ 2000 people were feared dead, according to Amnesty, the report said.

Yesterday, six days later, images from Amnesty were shared on Facebook and reproduced in other media showing clusters of homes burnt to the ground.

I don’t have the resources of a news organisation, nor the confidence to explore the complex underpinnings of Nigerian politics and the havoc being wreaked by Boko Haram terrorists. But there are things we know.

In Nigeria an election campaign is underway.

The authorities in Nigeria do not agree with Amnesty’s estimates of how many have died.

And on this they have form.

Step back in time a few months.

Remember the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria?

Do you remember how many there were?

The Nigerian authorities’ figures have varied wildly. It was initially claimed that 85 girls were abducted, then that 129 had been kidnapped but 100 had escaped. Finally, it was admitted that possibly 276 had been taken. Since then some plucky girls have escaped.

How could the authorities slice a hundred or more human beings – girls – off the figures, for appearances’ sake?

How did anyone have the gall to quibble about numbers when they should have been doing their damnedest to get them back?

Do you know why so many girls were at that school, overnight, at that particular time?

They were there so they could take their exams in safety. They had come from all over the area that is worst affected by Boko Haram. They wanted to make a better life for themselves through education.

Boko Haram apparently means ‘Western Education is forbidden’.

According to Africa Factcheck, it’s probable 219 young women and girls remain captives.

I suspect there’s little hope, now, they will be freed in any condition fit to carry on their former lives. To take their certificates of secondary education.

Amnesty also claims that the Nigerian authorities had at least four hours’ warning that the kidnappings were imminent. Who knows the truth? I don’t.

The girls have not been entirely forgotten.

Every now and again I go onto Twitter, jaded, to see if the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is still running. But Twitter can only raise virtual storms, it can’t change the weather. Yes, Michelle Obama famously Tweeted the slogan – but ‘our’ girls are still not back – and the world moves on.

Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, we have, for the last few days, been bombarded with news of twelve murders in and around the Charlie Hebdo offices and four at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

We’ve seen videos. Heard eye witnesses recount their experiences.

We’ve followed the trail of the terrible tragedy with countless reporters, shipped-in, post-haste, like ghouls at an unholy feast.

In Britain, we’ve watched and listened as BBC newsreaders and radio presenters popped up on the streets of Paris – introducing the BBC’s own correspondents, who were already there. ‘Me too, I want to play,’ it felt like they were saying.

But at least – conspiracy theories aside – thanks to them we know how many people were killed, how many murderers there were – and how many extra copies of Charlie Hebdo were published after the event.

We know world leaders linked arms, actors wore pencils on the red carpet.

And everyone learned to say Je suis.

Please, don’t think I am belittling this terrible tragedy.

I do understand why it has been given so much attention in the western, northern media.

It was horrific.

It’s close to home.

It concerns freedom of expression and religious tolerance.

It’s reportedly the work of terrorists. (Though here I side with the commentator who suggested that these men be called murderers – in one simple word detaching them from Muslims everywhere, whether they sympathise with the killers or – more important – whether they do not.)

We proles can’t take too much death or too many refugees – literally in the latter instance in Britain’s case. So I also understand that some big things, like Syria, will always slip from the news.

But,  ‘as many as’ 2000 people driven from their homes and killed?

Probably 219 girls held captive by Boko Haram?

In the wake of Peterloo a new newspaper was founded. A newspaper that told the truths other media – controlled by the frightened authorities and upper classes hundreds of miles away in London – would not.

That newspaper was the Manchester Guardian.

The Manchester Guardian is now just the Guardian – and has its feet firmly cemented in London.

But at least it can still muster the humanity to cover the massacre of 2000 (or so, who’s counting?) far away at a time when we also mourn the sixteen, close at hand.

RIP


 

 

*More about Peterloo:

The plaque: http://openplaques.org/plaques/768

The words of the Oldham Tinkers’ song, Peterloo, give you a simple locally expressed snapshot of what it was all about, here’s a link to their website and the lyrics and a You Tube of a performance:

http://www.oldhamtinkers.com/peterloo.html

 

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Scents and scent’s ability

A squeeze, a touch and there it is.

A white plastic shrine, four or five inches tall, no more. Two tiny doors that open outwards. Inside, the figure of a slight, wistful-looking woman in blue, hands joined in prayer, standing on a sphere that may be the world.

This long-lost treasure was brought to life by a handful of ancient lavender, wrapped in a square of sheer pink organdie – a scrap left over from making a party dress, perhaps – tied with nylon ribbon. It’s old, very old, yet still it works its magic when I come upon it in a drawer.

It was bought at a sale of work held at the first nun-run school I attended. Hence the  statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.

I was thinking about it over Christmas – a particularly fertile time for scent-awakened memories.

Cold December afternoons. Children running home from school, making slides and throwing snowballs. Counting the days, the hours.

At last the tree goes up, perfuming the air. Fairies dance on the branches – just electric lights to grown-ups, but mythical creatures to little, screwed-up eyes.

It still works, as the years sneak by, the Christmas tree. Its scent, its decorations.

And lifting the lid of a small cardboard box sets free a scent that yanks the modern world right out from under my feet.

In a trice I’m standing in a small back garden – not much more than a yard – with a bright green, cheap plastic torch, what my in-house American calls a flashlight. My first, ever. A silver, sliding switch to keep it on, a plastic push button for flashing. English torch, American flashlight.

I can sometimes re-create that magic-carpet of a scent if I close my eyes and just let it happen. It’s a bit like looking at the Pleiades, though. If you stare straight at the stars you can’t see them – and so it is with this delicate scent.

I have to skim my thoughts right past it to find it.

The scent has a colour – green, but not a bright green. A dark, dusty green. An image of ferns comes to mind, but not because of any picture.

For years the nearest thing the world could produce to match my memory was something called ‘French Fern’. An inexpensive perfume. But not cheap, as in tawdry or cloying.

A scent of fine soaps and delicate talcum powders. Of eau-de-colognes, sprinkled on cotton handkerchiefs.

Or so I imagine.

In our boxes of baubles and tinsel, there was always one that, when opened, set loose a fleeting hint of this scent.

But now it’s gone.

A whole box of boxes is gone, and with it, the memories. That’s to say, the memories are still there, but that’s all they are, not a pinprick for the senses, tearing a shining rent in the dusty fabric of time.

And this Christmas also made me think about how wrong we can be about obvious things. That what’s important to me, for example, may not be important to my nearest living blood relative.

When my father had died and my mother was temporarily – finally, as it turned out – living far from her own home, with my sister, I had the melancholy task of emptying her house. I, with my long-suffering husband.

Among the treasured possessions were the Christmas ornaments.

I wanted to keep them all.

For nearly forty years I’d watched them emerge. Helped distribute little figures and paper ornaments around the house.

P1010428A robin on a log in a box of cotton wool – he always sat near the lavatory, by tradition. An imp adorned my bedroom door – this year my study.

I’d watch my father set up the crib and arrange glass birds in the Victorian glass dome. Watch as he decorated the tree then later, did it myself, for my mother.

My favourite tree decorations – a white bear in a red aeroplane. A blue and yellow plastic tricycle. A bell-shaped glass bauble that rings.

There were many more.

A turkey wishbone.

Clowns strung on cotton threads (I didn’t like them) and my parents’ home-made ornaments from the immediate post-war years. A crystal button on wire. Paper cut outs decorated in ink. Wooden cotton reels painted yellow, red and gold.

Small glass ornaments in shapes like pine cones and Father Christmas. Brown cardboard boxes of plain glass balls. I loved them so much that it almost hurt to put them away each year.

There were two boxes of those – two sizes, many colours.

I wanted them all.

I gave the bigger and better (I thought) ones to my sister (there, I’ve lost the virtue by telling), along with the clowns she said she liked, in a box that once held a xylophone.

I gave her the wishbone – well, it came from the first turkey that she and my parents had, years before I was born.

I suspect I gave her things she didn’t want, didn’t find evocative in the way I did. I don’t know, and may well be wrong. But by then she had three grown children, her own traditions, her own decorations. Her own scents and sights and triggers for memories.

And perhaps like everything else, scent’s evocative power eventually fades if it’s never used – or used too much.

I can still remember my box, can catch the scent if I set my mind past it. But perhaps it’s time has come – and gone. Like Christmas.

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Moon over the meanygates

Dark clods of earth, like sticky remnants of Christmas pudding,* form ragged ridges over deep, ice-filled ruts. What once were puddles, ruffled by angry winds, now double as skating rinks – for voles and weasels, mice and stoats.

A wintry, Midas of a sun reaches down and touches the ice. A myriad shimmering reflections turn to gold in the last few minutes of the dying day. Then the pudding crumbs and lemony ice turn back into a field, into work for the farmer, into food for the birds and beasts.

Way up in the cold, clear sky, a sickle of moon watches the sun subsiding. Waiting for her time to shine.

And way beneath her, driving along the meanygates, through the moss-land, I wonder. Why meanygate? Why moss? Why Ralph’s Wife’s Lane?

The moss-lands. Bogs. Some are protected – Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Some undesignated, at risk of drying out because of drainage, or irreparable damage thanks to peat cutting.

I once helped save a moss. Not in a pretty rural area, but in an unloved patch of land between noisy, dirty motorways. It was threatened with development for waste disposal – but it’s safe, for now, with its special plants and animals and insects. An unlikely haven in an unlikely place.

A local inhabitant of the moss

A local inhabitant of the moss

More rural, isolated mosses – isolated not by distance but by nature – still have their own traditions, or so I’ve heard. A history of hardship. Of livings wrested from that fickle friend, the land and, round here, its ruthless partner, the sea.

Meanygates, or narrow roads so-called, criss-cross one of our local areas of moss-land.P1010413 Some would have it they were toll roads – ‘mean gates’, so-called because of the meanness of the landlords who extracted the tolls.

 

Others say the term relates to the farmers who were excused the tolls when taking produce to market. Yet others claim it’s simply a corruption of ‘main gates’ – I’m not sure anyone really knows.

P1010418And I’m not sure it matters. It’s just a quirk that adds a little more individuality to an already individual part of this small world.

P1010410

Rural world, urban rubbish … sadly

Approaching the coast we drive down Ralph’s Wife’s Lane. Who was she, why a lane? Fodder for speculation – for fiction, even. But not for me. I just drive it, wonder, then forget about it until the next time.

Edging the coast, now, the marshes are black with standing water.

Small fowl rest afloat in patches not yet turned to ice. Their bottoms must be chilled, their poor feet numb. Or, perhaps not. They’re born for this, after all. Maybe they don’t feel the morbid cold – or not the way we do.

Along the coast road we drive, then up through the village. Christmas lights twinkle down the high street. In gardens, on hedges and in front room windows.

Back home, as evening tiptoes in, the sentinel trees stand silent and still, as they have all the day long. Inside, our own tree scents the air. Sheds a few needles as the heating warms up and the curtains are drawn.

The night draws in.

An almost mystical time of year, that’s how it feels tonight. A time of hibernation for the lucky ones. Of scarcity and harshness for others.

It’s a time of year I love, when the wind stops and the rain leaves us be, for a while. I love the dark days, the long nights.  I love the frost, the skies, the moon journeying with the sun.

But, already nature’s had enough. Like those households who throw out the tree on Boxing Day, tired of a month long advent-cum-Christmas.

We choose the other way around. Just a few days into our tree, it’s still a joy each morning, afternoon and evening.

And now the lights are on and seasonal music playing. The bottle clinks as it’s taken from the fridge. A special wine with bubbles, to mark the end of a winter’s day, the start of a winter’s night.

Warm and snug. With a fish pie yet to come.

Out on the cold, dark, moss, the owl will be hunting those skating voles. The world lying dormant, hoarding its energy for spring.

Already the moon is waxing. And the new year’s wiping its feet on the doormat.

Tomorrow we’ll awake – all being well – to 2015.

So – here’s wishing you health, dear reader
and happiness and inner warmth – whatever your weather.

 


*Christmas pudding, my in-house American reminds me to tell north Americans, is not a creamy pud but a dark, rich, dried-fruit-stuffed, dense steamed heavy cake-like pud. Best served hot with brandy butter. Before long walks!

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Seagulls’ wings, the Snow Queen and a musical time machine

High wind. The seagulls riding it like rodeo stars, their wings ‘like parentheses drawn in the sky’.

I’m hearing a song in my head.

‘Listen to the oh-shun, echoes of a million seashells …’

I’m back, for an instant, in the house where I lived my first few years on earth. A terraced house, sandwiched between two sets of neighbours who were both fascinating (Canadian Uncle ‘Rainy’ aka René) and diverting (Mrs Vernon, who taught me how to embellish twigs with glitter-wax flowers).

Our house had a tiny kitchen, as they mostly did in those days – cooking being for sustenance not lifestyle. It had a breakfast room, a front (or sitting) room – and it had a middle room.

The middle room was my father’s special place. His study.

P1010299

From my father’s hand-drawn 1947 Christmas card

As a boy, my dad lived in a part of our northern industrial town called Mill Hill. He won a scholarship to the Catholic College for boys, the other side of town. Eventually, after a spell as a draughtsman, he did a history degree. Until his forties he was the history master at his old school, living in East Park Road.

Mill Hill to East Park Road. It says it all.

He never stopped educating himself and amassed a good collection of classical music, records which I still have.

The arrival of the stereo gramophone was greeted with great excitement. A shiny wooden box on black legs with brass feet. Fabric-covered speakers that could be opened out like ears for us to listen better, or even be removed so they could be set further apart.

In that middle room little-I danced to the Toy Symphony (and scratched it, to my father’s great displeasure). There I sang along to Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). There I listened, spellbound, to Nina and Frederik. For which I have my mother to thank.

The Nina and Frederik ‘EP’ – an Extended-Play, 45 revolutions-per-minute vinyl disc, for those who are too young to know the shorthand – had four songs on it, one of which we used to sing in the car on trips.

‘The sweetest girl, I ever saw, sat sipping cider through a straw-aw-aw.’

But it was ‘Listen to the Ocean’ that stayed in my head, that popped out when I watched the wind and seagulls playing their buffeting game.

I still have that record, still have a record player, but not the rosewood box on legs that I kept for many years till it ground to a beautiful halt.

I clean the disc and put it on the turntable.

Tears come easily at this time of year, don’t they?

It’s a thing of beauty, the song. Voices as clear as an Alpenhorn, yet warm and mellow. The unadulterated notes of guitar and flute. And, for me, the memories.

It takes me back to that red-brick terraced house. To the breakfast room. To the roaring fire and my new birthday chair, sitting close by. Turquoise and white woven plastic, a very modern, miniature ‘60s bucket chair, for newly six year old me.

It takes me back to our black and white television, flickering in the sitting room as I sit, transfixed by the Snow Queen.

Six year-olds, it seems, still like that story. No matter if the edges have been softened into ‘Frozen’ for today’s tender-hearted young.

For several years in succession the version I grew up with was shown on my birthday, a dull day in between Christmas and New Year. When everyone’s fed up with Christmas but not yet ready for new year.

When King Herod slaughtered the innocents, the little boys under the age of three. Quite a day to be born, eh?

But back to the Snow Queen of my youth. Black and white and somewhat sinister. As befits a tale of evil sprites, glass splinters and a beautiful queen of ice.

Translated from some foreign tongue, the little boy’s name sounded like Guy, but now I know it was Kay. And the little girl – not a princess, just a girl – who saved Kay, she was called Gerda.

Kay’s vision turns ugly, as his heart freezes to a block of ice. He uproots the roses the two children used to admire each summer together. And he vanishes, one wintry day, with the queen of the snow.

Gerda battles magic and ice and betrayal. Help comes from unexpected quarters, though – like the Little Robber Girl.

But in the end comes summer.

Kay and Gerda, two grown-ups, sit in their childhood chairs.

And the roses bloom again.

So there you have it, a trip back in time thanks to one fondly remembered song – and a soaring seagull on a high wind.

What magic one song can work.


And, with that, may I wish you a Happy Christmas, dear reader.

I hope there’s some magic in the air for you.

nina and frederik


 

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Considering coruscating modus operandi

No, it doesn’t make sense. Let me explain …

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a television programme about the assassination of President Kennedy. A clip of original footage from 1963 showed an interviewer, in Britain, stopping passers-by, seeking their views. Doing ‘vox pops’, as they’re called nowadays. From the Latin, ‘vox populi,’ meaning voice of the people.

Filmed in black and white, in a drab city street, the interviewees were serious-looking, well-dressed adults. Men in hats, women with shopping bags over their arms. All wearing coats to their knees. The kind of people you see in 1940s films, like ‘Brief Encounter’. Or The Third Man (my favourite old film).

But there was something very unusual about the people in these interviews, to ears  more used to contemporary vox-pops.

These were the kind of people often referred to as, ‘ordinary decent, working-class folk’.

And, what stuck out like a sore, red thumb among the black, white and grey was … the way they spoke.

Not their accents, but the words they used.

They used Big Words.

A few mornings later, over breakfast, we were listening to the radio – BBC radio – when the reporter used the word ‘coruscating’ before moving on to talk about a ‘modus operandi’.

It was unusual enough that the two of us stopped with our spoons (porridge with added raisins and cinnamon) part way to our mouths.

‘Blimey,’ I said, not being very articulate at 6.45 am.

The absent-minded professor nodded and raised his eyebrows.

We listen to ‘Today’ each morning as we drink our early-morning cuppas. Aired between 6 am and 9 am, it’s the programme the media, politicians and businesspeople can’t afford to ignore.

Financial results announcements and political press releases are timed to ensure coverage. It holds leaders to account, probes business news, reports scientific breakthroughs. It’s not unknown for the Prime Minister to be grilled in the big-hitter slot, just after eight o’clock.

All this makes it doubly – triply – disturbing that we were so shocked to hear a reporter use the word ‘coruscating.’

Words can, of course, be used to exclude us. Or to obscure what’s being said. Sometimes it’s intentional – and sometimes not. Academics are among the worst offenders.

This morning I had to look up ‘ontological’ for the umpteenth time. It’s such a nebulous word that I can never quite pin it down. I’m sure people use it just because they, themselves, don’t really know what they mean.

Or perhaps because they do know what they mean, but they think it sounds too simple.

But back to the radio.

I’m wondering how it’s happened, this ‘reduction’ of popular language.

As one who grew up to value words and meanings, to understand their usage so that other people would understand me in turn, I find it perplexing. Bamboozling. Depressing.

One of the things I love about Liverpool – widely regarded as a non-conformist kind of place, but not particularly associated with erudition despite several rather good higher education establishments – is a sign near the city centre.

Anyone driving to a match at one of the two big football grounds will see it.

The sign reads ‘football stadia’. Not stadiums, stadia.

The BBC no longer lets its presenters do the plural thing with stadium. Or forum. Or any of those ummy words. But Liverpool does it.

Latin, I do realise, is far from being a familiar language to most people. But we used to say things like memoranda,  not so very long ago, without too much trouble.

And then there’s phenomenon/phenomena, criterion/criteria – I never did Greek and I can handle that, it’s not that tough.

If you read stuff, listen to stuff, you get the hang of it.

In all the debate about dumbing down – which I usually ignore, assuming things are just different, not dumber – I never noticed quite how obvious this simplification of language had become.

Not until I saw those articulate, well-dressed, well-mannered people, back in black-and-white television-land, speaking like – there’s no other way of putting it –  well-educated people.

A recent article in the New Scientist discussed research that shows we understand and remember better if we learn to write by hand rather than by typing. That we remember more and have a more in-depth understanding of what we’re reading if we read a book as opposed to an electronic device.

Do we need to be concerned?

What use is memory if everything’s instantly look-up-able?

Why use long words, long sentences, if no one understands or remembers them?

So here we are. Shorter words. Shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs. (Yes, I’ve adapted to all that).

Shorter books (not yet), shorter attention spans. Sorry? What was that?

It makes me wonder, will we all talk binary, one day, because anything else is just too hard?

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