Under a spell

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Everyone knows Magic Spells, as usually described can’t happen in real, physical life.

Creating something out of thin air contravenes the intuitively obvious law of conservation of matter, while spiriting an object from a to b takes energy, which has to come from somewhere and then travel via some known, measurable means (sound waves, laser beams, the No 7 bus…)

Light, darkness, fertility, and all the other things magicians may want to invoke don’t just turn up on demand without a physical cause.

But ‘spells’ of a sort are nevertheless out there, and I think it pays to be able to notice them, particularly at times like the present.

Nobody actually refers to them as ‘spells’, though – that would be giving the game away.

Take a large body of people going about their everyday lives. Most of us – even those like me who like to think themselves immune to that sort of thing – have something in life that we want – or at the very least would like more of. If it isn’t the obvious one of money then it might be security, love, prestige…

And these wants make us susceptible to ‘spells’.

If they didn’t, then I defy anybody to explain why firms expend so much money and expertise on advertising things such as (to take one obvious example) dark reddish-brown fizzy drinks of whose existence we are all perfectly well aware already thank you.

Adverts, and the sort of spells that concern us here, don’t work by directly moving the physical world but instead cause us to believe something – whether it’s the classic ‘The Forest is Malevolent (and threatening that safety that you want)’, ‘There’s a conspiracy, founded in Continental Europe, to keep your wages low (and depriving you of more of that money you deserve)’ or ‘This Government is Benevolent (and has, with Herculean effort, dispelled a Plague)’.

All this has the effect of altering our behaviour. It harnesses energy in the form of enthusiasm – energy, in other words, that wasn’t previously visible.

Thus there are people who are now convinced that the present U.K. government have handled the pandemic well, and that here it is effectively all but over. This conviction stands, in spite of verifiable evidence to the contrary.

At the time of writing, the U.K. has suffered 43,000 deaths, with more added every day. Even Sweden, with their bold experiment of eschewing lockdown, have now suffered fewer deaths – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.

Added to our death toll, and less often spoken of, is the large number of people who have not, and perhaps may never, recover from C19.

Their number is not at present made public, and may not yet have even been collated. All I know from my own experience is that the total is not yet so vast that we all know one personally. So, even if the number were eventually to come out, those ‘under the spell’ of belief in our Government’s good management of the pandemic may dismiss the news because the idea of ‘surviving but never fully recovering from Covid-19’ doesn’t fit with our ‘background knowledge’ – our mental model – of colds and ’flu, two infections with which we have been led to compare it.

However this number, like the death toll, could eventually be verified – through health records, for example. Also verifiable in numbers are: the initial shortages of P.P.E. for people working in close proximity to the afflicted; the cost of attempts to devise the wrong sort of set-up for tracking the spread of the disease, and the ongoing non-existence of any Government-established means to do so. Though I do recommend one devised by the Research community.

So much for stark numbers. What have we actually been led to believe?

Most people think of a disease as some kind of ‘enemy’ which one must ‘fight’. This can be harmful on a personal level: if I ‘lose my battle’ with some affliction, doesn’t that make it sound as if I lacked the Character to put up a proper fight? But on a national level it can be useful: we are called upon to do things, even make sacrifices, beyond the everyday. We are kept informed of the progress made, using charts or figures, so as to keep up morale. True leadership is also, in a way, a ‘spell’ cast over followers.

Now think of the two dates which the U.K. Government chose for the easing of restrictions: 8th May (V.E. Day, and a Bank Holiday weekend), and 4th July (‘Independence Day’ – not here, but who in the U.K. doesn’t make the association?)

What are we being convinced of, without the words being said? What mental models are we inadvertently pulling out of the bottom drawer of our minds?

And so, as we pour out of our houses and flats, to the beaches and beauty spots – as the Government with its messages to our unconscious evidently intended us to do – they can step back in feigned shock and declaim “No! We didn’t mean that!”

But they did.

If, due to people having to return to work in indoor workplaces with their recirculated air, a second wave of disease comes, who will get the blame? The few individuals who take profit from those offices, shops and factories, or the very visible crowds in the open air where the virus quickly disperses and, as research has shown, is far less likely to be caught?

If you think the latter, are you sure you’re not under a spell?

 

Book Review – ‘The Haunting of Thores-Cross’

The Haunting of Thores-Cross: A Yorkshire Ghost StoryThe Haunting of Thores-Cross: A Yorkshire Ghost Story by Karen Perkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 2012 Emma and Dave, a comfortably-off couple, move to a remote former farm up on the North York Moors, near a reservoir under which lies a drowned village. Emma – a writer – believes she will gain inspiration from living near her childhood home. The pair seem a little trite at first, until Emma gets more than she bargained for and finds herself compelled, by a combination of visions and fugue states, to write the story of Jennet, a previous inhabitant of a neighbouring farm – a farm which was once part of the destroyed village.

The narrative alternates between eighteenth century Jennet and 21st century Emma, with tension mounting as both women find themselves pulled ever deeper into events beyond their control.

Other reviewers have commented upon the characters’ apparent lack of freewill or ‘growth’ for not extricating themselves from their troubles; but in a way that is the whole point. Like Hardy’s Tess, whose plight this story brought to mind, we are not always masters of the situation in which we find ourselves, whether it be our family history, our need for justice/revenge, social mores or in this case a spell woven into the very landscape which, like the landscape in Wuthering Heights, becomes a character in the tale with its own motives and backstory.

The historical parts of the novel are well-researched and have an authentic ring, and the way the narrative alternates between the two strands of action makes for page-turning suspense.

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Confidence trick

The inert, black-shrouded body lies in the middle of the road. The two uniformed men each take a shoulder, drag it out of the way of traffic, and let it slump unceremoniously on the curb. They josh with their mates – “This one don’t weigh much!” – before returning to resume their work – moving more bodies.

Behind them the abandoned body sits up, gets to its feet, and rushes back to re-take its place with five hundred and ninety-nine others in the middle of Whitehall. The protest – against a nuclear waste reprocessing plant – continues in that vein for the rest of the day.

The white-haired woman at the front of the crowd by the Compound’s gate waves her county’s flag on a long bamboo pole, shouting as the leader of her party – a legitimate political party with representatives in her country’s Parliament, no less – is dragged past her through mud. She hears an intercom from the policeman behind her, giving instructions to move everybody, no matter what. Her flag is snatched from her hands and thrown in a ditch. She digs in her heals – I’m not moving anywhere without my white rose! – and only relents when a sheepish policeman retrieves the flag from the ditch and hands it her.

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Tea-time, and there’s a loud knock at the door. She answers it, to two policemen. They are holding her husband’s jacket – it has been retrieved from the local Gym. He left it there, complete with a large penknife in the pocket. He’s delighted to be re-united with both, but the knife isn’t quite street-legal. He gets a solemn warning, but nothing more.

There are unwritten rules underpinning all these encounters – rules that don’t even have to be mentioned in a country’s laws (and in England’s case simply aren’t – we have no written constitution). Rules I stand upon whether I’m being picked-up and moved bodily about, having my stuff manhandled, or having my husband temporarily mistaken for a criminal. Rules, now I come to think about it, that exist not out there in the land, but in my head. Rules in which I have confidence.

  1. I am physically safe – no-one will injure me or worse
  2. even if it takes some time – sometimes years – if I haven’t broken the law my name will be cleared, and if I have done so I am not due to suffer anything I’m incapable of bearing.

Now I have to imagine going through life without the protection of these unwritten rules – without that confidence – the confidence that anyone in law enforcement would always give me the benefit of the doubt. How would I feel about protesting against something – pollution, for example – that was doing the country genuine harm, when I know that to do so might put me in real danger? Would I still get out there and do what’s necessary?

Would you?

And in ordinary life, what if you got mistaken for a criminal? What if, heaven forbid, you were the victim of a crime but daren’t report it for fear of being, in your turn, criminalised and placed in danger? What if you witnessed a crime? What incentive would you have to report what you saw if to do so put you in the firing line?

What if, in other words, the nearest ‘mental model’ you had of your country’s law-enforcement was not the mostly-benign one I’ve encountered through the years – a force of inertia which, though it often gets in the way of progress, does at least prevent chaos – but one that more resembled an occupying army?

And then one of them, on camera, literally smiles as he is killing somebody.

So you set out to protest against this. Peacefully.

And then what happens?

 

Testing Times II – the Result

CovidFromBBC

Imagine an abandoned Army camp stretching over several acres of land. But with a surreal twist: this one happens to be in the expansive car-park between your favourite garden centre (also deserted) and one of those out-of-town places where you leave the car and get on a shuttle-bus into town.

Well – that’s what it looked like as we drove up. I say ‘we’ because I can’t drive: Marvellous Other 1/2 had to do the honours. Which begs the question: how do you get a Covid-19 test if neither you, nor anyone in your household, has access to both a valid driving licence and an actual car? “Home testing kits!” they all cry. We’ll come to that in a minute.

It was 10 o’clock on a breezy Sunday morning. I’d booked in early(!) to avoid the heaving crowds of anxious nurses and care-workers I’d expected, having seen countless news items about how hard it was to access these vital tests.

But as I said, the place was empty: we were literally the only punters! I guess running a car on a nurse or care-worker’s sparse wages isn’t a goer.

A second surprise came when the ‘download’ on my phone (one of those QR codes that looks like a smashed-up chessboard) actually worked. A white-shrouded volunteer scanned it through the car window and, satisfied that I wasn’t some kind of impostor, waved us on.

Other figures held up placards to direct us through a string-and-cone maze, between several small white military-looking gazebos (you’ve seen them on the news, right?). One chap mimed heart palpitations when we looked like not stopping in time. A shout through the window: Could I self-administer the test, or did I need someone to do it for me?

Now as I said, I’ve seen those things on the news. If you think you can push an elongated cotton-bud 8 inches up your own nose – or worse, 8 inches down your throat – without gagging then you are, I’m afraid, seriously mistaken. You’re likely, I fear, to bail after the first inch or so, not reach the places where the virus lurks, and come back with a false Negative.

So I chickened out and asked for help.

Even then it took the poor lass four goes on the throat part before I stopped choking for long enough.

People have apparently been waiting over a week for results from these tests, but I got mine on the Tuesday, and it came as a bitter disappointment:

Negative.

So now, until reliable Antibody tests are available to the general public (those tests, like everything else Covid-19-related here in the U.K., are being ‘ramped up’ even as our Government insists everything’s under control), I must go about my life not knowing whether I might catch, in the next six months or so, an illness that may very well kill me.

Testing Times

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This post is unashamedly current, and I apologise.

About a month ago a friend posted me a link to Zoe, a research project investigating the symptoms of Covid-19. They were looking for volunteers make up a Big Data collection to help us all understand our new uninvited guest.

At the time, Government advice was basically ‘If you’ve got a sudden onset dry cough, and/or a high temperature, then you have got IT, and you must take yourself away from human company for seven days. Or possibly fourteen.’

I had just recovered from an evil little bout of sinus agony, accompanied by proper nausea (unusual for me) and the first high temperature I’d had in about forty years. For three days, all I could do was eat (very slowly), sleep, and sit up in bed to post to friends on Facebook.

As the Facebook friends comiserated about life in Lockdown it became apparent that there were fellow-sufferers out there, with a raft of weird symptoms like mine. Which meant that unless we were unlucky enough to have not one but two viruses floating around so late in the year (March had turned to April by then), we might all of us be fending-off the actual Rona.

And here’s the odd thing: all of us with the weird symptoms, but without the ‘dry cough’ and proper fever, were female.

This brought to mind a study, from several years back, about why so many women were dying of heart attacks. That is: more men than women have heart attacks, but once you’re a heart attack victim then being female meant you were far more likely to die. The study found that the ‘classic heart attack symptoms’ that everybody knows by rote (pain in chest shooting down left arm…) are often absent in women. We might just have a pain in the neck, or a headache and nausea, or blurred vision, and then fall over, with no-one any the wiser till after the autopsy.

Perhaps Covid-19 was the same.

I scrolled back to my friend’s post about Zoe, and signed up.

Zoe sends a message every day asking for a log of symptoms.

What’s the point, you may think, now my illness is over?

But Covid-19 is a virus, and like other viral diseases such as Glandular Fever (the cause of my high tempersture all those years ago) it hangs about. I found myself identifying with Paul Garner with his ‘Advent Calendar‘  of symptoms – an unwelcome new surprise for every day.

I got hangovers without drinking anything. I developed an irrational urge for siestas.

On V.E. Day weekend my heart kept jumping beats.

I sent it all to Zoe.

A week later – two days before they become publicly available – I was invited to a test.

I had to wait for the results – and so, I’m afraid, must you.

 

But is it Evil?

Hedge Bindweed - Calystegia sepium

For reasons known only to the Great God WIP (Work in Progress, which at the moment is a novel with a botanical theme) I took it upon myself to write a scene from the point of view of a Bindweed.

For this I had to find out more about the Nature of the Beast than the little I already know: that, given half a chance, the thing would outgrow and strangle practically everything on our vegetable allotment (with the noble exception of the Rhubarb, who apparently makes its own weed-killer, and the Globe Artichoke, who is basically just a giant thistle with gourmet pretentions).

Plants communicate with each other, including across species. Not by whispering when we’re not listening (though to be fair this has never been proven), but by chemical messages below the soil, and occasionally above it. I have personally experienced this. Picture the scene: one spring morning I noticed a couple of cheeky dandelion flowers on our lawn. With nothing better to do, I dug the plants up. In doing so I noticed more that hadn’t flowered. And more, and more, until I’d dug up every dandelion I could see. I remember their fragrance – quite strong but not unpleasant.

The following day the several who’d escaped this intended wipe-out were all in brazen flower. I’m still convinced that they knew, somehow, that they were in danger and were doing their level best to make sure someone among them got to make seeds.

Another one from my own experience: watching the bamboo on our allotment bend away from a bonfire we’d lit next to it. You could actually see it move.

And there’s a lab in Australia who have managed to show that plants can find water just from the sound it makes.

So why not write from a plant’s point of view? In checking certain things for research (for example, the technical term for the tubular white roots which form that infuriatingly durable network from which the Bindweed draws its apparently boundless energy) I discovered they are Rhyzomes (Rhizomes in the States) and the plant itself is a Bine.

Bine?

Why had I never heard the term before?

A Vine  – for example a Pea plant or a Grapevine – throws out little curly tendrils to clasp on to whatever it has chosen for support, whereas a Bine – the Bindweed, or indeed our Beans – wraps its whole stem about its support in a helix. The Bindweed helix always turns clockwise (as you lie on the ground looking up, that is), so here in the Northern hemisphere that means it turns against the path of the sun – widdershins, as they say.

It is, therefore, obviously Evil. Which makes it an interesting character to write about, no?

 

 

Story seeds

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The back of the Seed Drawer is a weird and wonderful place. Its inhabitants, those seeds unlucky enough to have been bought in a ‘bad year’, gather dust in the quiet time between one upheaval and another.

Perhaps their purchaser was lured out early to the garden centre by an unusually warm and sunny March, only to have had all hopes dashed by an April loaded with gales and sleet. Good intentions may, on the other hand, have been stymied by the unforeseen imposition of a house move, a new job, or some other devourer of time like the sudden need to care for an elderly relative who lives 150 miles away. Or open heart surgery.

But this year has brought something else altogether.

Here in the UK those of us lucky enough not to work one of the ‘key’ jobs formerly known as ‘unskilled’ have had to stay at home – and to do so through an unusually sunny spring. Only Wales had the good sense to keep garden centres open. Us Sais here in England had to make the best of what we’d got.

What I found, on gleaning the drawer, were not so much seeds as story prompts:

Mrs Lei (a bean, not shown here) works as a Neural Miner in the dark underbelly of some evil organisation powered entirely by disembodied captive brains – a bit like The Matrix only with added pickaxes and dirt.

Munstead Strain is obviously a closer-to-home version of The Andromeda Strain (A search for Munstead reveals it is, indeed, in the Home Counties. It was even designed by somebody called Jekyll. The plot thickens…)

Double Mixed and Fiesta Gitana Mixed bring to mind rom-coms, the first one peopled with Updike-type characters only less serious, and the second with English ex-pats in Spain.

At this point I felt the need to search for mentions of these seed names: where had the companies, or gardeners, got their inspiration from? I found only one site, in the whole world, bore any mention of ‘Neural Miner’ seed and that site, by a bizarre coincidence, was the only place I could find mention of ‘Weretors of Elgebar’.

And in a further twist, since I drafted this blog yesterday, that site appears to have vanished!

So I may never know what curlicues of the imagination could have caused someone to give a plant such a name.

Midnight, on a jagged mountain top. Clouds scud across the full moon. A cluster of fractured towers loom black against the sky. A single, cold blue eye gleams, as if alive, from one of the empty windows. Elgebar, finally aligned. Tonight, the towers have awakened and will claim what is theirs…

Mass Observation

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This Blog is entitled ‘In Surreal Time’ and experts are in agreement that there’s no time as surreal as the present. Inspired by this, some wag at HMG came up with the bright idea of encouraging everyone to ‘write their day’ in the style of the World War 2 Mass Observation project, on 12th May. I have never been a patient soul and so I shall write up just a typical working day in our house instead, drawn from a combo of last week’s days.

Our workplace – transport engineers in an office not a million miles from York Railway Station – had always had I.T. problems. That was, until about 15th March when, well in advance of HMG’s lockdown announcement, they found enough laptops, peripherals and connectors to send us all home to work. No-one – as far as I know – was lain off (although some one in 10 were furloughed last week). People who’d been working on-site were either redeployed or, with extra precautions and if qualified and willing, required to work alone.

I was literally the last to leave, carrying with me a lap-top that I.T. wanted back but couldn’t have, a screen belonging to someone else, and possibly the last HDMI cable in the building.

To my astonishment, the IT from home has (so far) worked flawlessly.

I get up at about eight, having had breakfast in bed (because basically I am spoiled rotten). I shower. The shower’s another piece of good luck: its predecessor had a slow leak (into the kitchen) and was replaced just a couple of weeks before it all kicked off. These days it would probably be illegal, barring emergency, to have a plumber work indoors.

There are two computers in the spare room: the laptop from work, and my ancient P.C. upon which (for example) I’m writing this. If I’m a little early I might post a few tweets first to catch the morning crowd before disconnecting the monitor, mouse and keyboard from my machine and hitching them up to the laptop.

We have a Teams meeting at 9 every working day. Words can’t do justice to the sheer genius of this idea: suddenly you’re not alone, there’s banter, information from high-ups, confirmation of what you need to do for the day, and of course the familiar faces of workmates (plus a chance to kneb at the places where they live).

The house turns into 2 offices for the morning: one here in the spare room, and one in Eugene’s study.

We generally make soup for lunch, and have it with bread, cheese and the like. This week it’s been sorrel soup made with leaves from the garden. My work lunchbreak is 12 till 1 and I generally stick to this. The University often end up making Eugene work through lunch hour in exchange for some daft time like 3 till 4.

I work though till some time between 5:30 and 6. I email with a summary of what I’ve done, then disconnect the computer so that I can spend the evening on my own non-work emails and twitter. Sometimes we watch the News (Channel 4 at 7 pm). Victoria Macdonald is the new Kate Adie for this disaster. This week the U.K.’s official death toll became the highest in Europe. As an island, and with the greatest lead-time, we should have had the lowest. Nearly all the health workers you see dying are Black or Islamic. My theory is stress (the extra stress caused by racism), coupled with Vitamin D uptake. An enquiry has been launched but I’m not sure who by, and no-one seems to have much confidence it’ll find the answer.

Over this weekend I’ve watched the confusion as government-sanctioned V.E. Day celebrations have collided with exhortations to stay home and keep calm. Not everyone has a front garden with enough room for a tea party. We do, but V.E. Day in this house is 9th, not 8th, and it’s not a time for tea-parties either. Eugene is up early to cycle on deserted roads in fresh sunshine to the memorial at Great Ouseburn to lay flowers (an even number, for mourning). Someone, since last year, has been good enough to fasten a vase beneath the two plaques (one in English, one in Russian).

I have been gardening. Two sacks of professional compost, bought on a belter of a sunny day after queueing for an hour in the car-park at B&Q (in a line helpfully decorated with 2-metre makers for Social Distancing), have revitalised the planters at the side garden and they are now full of seedlings (herbs salad, beans, sunflowers…). It’s remarkable how much better the professional compost holds the water than soil shovelled from the garden does. It also looks neater.

I can’t help but love the empty roads and the quiet. Yet for every car journey not made there is likely somebody’s daily wages gone, so it’s selfish of me in a way. The 80% furlough money covers far from everybody – only ‘old economy Steve’ types with a regular salary and PAYE.

I wear a paper mask if I’m going into someone else’s building, but not for general outdoors. I’d like to, but it mists up my glasses. No-one has come up with a solid work-around for this, though everyone with face furniture suffers it.

As for writing: it had already taken a bashing when I started work last June. Nowadays it’s almost impossible. I like to write set in ‘the present’ but where is that ‘present’ now? Think of all the characters in novels who travel so easily, who hug or shake hands when they meet; who are generally not in shock at what’s just happened. Do we set our tales in a generic near-past, now so out-of-time? Or in the actual present with its weirdness?

And if we write set in the future, what’s that going to look like? We don’t even know if a vaccine is physically possible. The common cold – also a Coronavirus – has no vaccine and it’s not for lack of effort on our part. We don’t know – I at least have not yet heard anyone mention it – what the psychological effects will be upon all of us when it finally sinks in that we are no longer top of the food chain.

 

 

The old days, when the news was full of Brexit

Five Escape Brexit Island (Enid Blyton for Grown Ups)Five Escape Brexit Island by Bruno Vincent

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want a spiffing adventure in which 5 plucky Brits come up against a dastardly villain? Complete with phrases like “They moved some the rubble aside as quietly as they could, and discovered…” or “‘Gosh. This is exciting,’ said Anne”?
Will they, their plight apparently hopeless, finally get the better of Evil Cousin Rupert? Or will they be stranded in the Brexit Camp forever..?
Classic old-school adventure with proper 1960s stodgy prose but a wicked topical twist.

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Floods: The long way home

Last week’s floods sabotaged my usual walk home from work – or at least, the part of it that involves a low-lying field near Millennium Bridge.

At first it almost looked as if Rowntree Park had opened a new lido:

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But that was before the height of it! On one final day I just-about got away with wading across the said field – higher than the path that runs through it – in my posh boots (they held!!) but then the waters rose higher and I had to admit defeat…

Here’s a duck who shouldn’t really be able to swim that near Skeldergate Bridge’s parapet: 87866012_10157381736383882_1410850645967110144_o.jpg

An optimistic life-belt:86970189_10157359913353882_7295310386742427648_o.jpg

Street-lights looking eerie87937523_10157398453188882_1332413225903325184_o.jpg

Skeldergate – I think that’s one of those classic shots someone always does during York floods:87483293_10157379232973882_4954797237579284480_o.jpg

And just to remind everybody that not all of the city succumbed, here are our city walls by twilight, the same evening:88083949_10157398427283882_1714587846922207232_o.jpg

After all, it is supposed to be spring!88212679_10157398452483882_5780894949553733632_o.jpg