Back to the Plot…

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Here’s one of the last of our Globe Artichokes. The patch – about 4 square metres – produces a couple of dozen of these beauties every year. We eat them French style: saw off the bottom, cut off the top, sharp spikes of each leaf (I use sturdy scissors for this), and steam for 40 minutes or so. Then each leaf can be peeled off and the inner side has a nutty-tasting soft bit that you can pull off with your teeth! Having eaten all those, and peeled off a sort of hairy top-knot inside, you get to the heart. Mmm…

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The Radishes are also ready now: here are our first few. We may have left these in the ground too long: they certainly have ‘character’!

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Runner beans are taking over – they’re even outgrowing the bindweed! (You might be able to see it there – in the lower right-hand corner by the poppy-head.)

The plot can look a bit bedraggled now the first flush of green has had a few weeks of summer weather thrown at it, but to us that just means it’s ‘wildlife-friendly’!

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Wildlife, though, are the reason we have to spread nets over the purple spouting broccoli. If we didn’t, the greedy wood-pigeons would have the lot.

Finally, here is part of last week’s harvest:

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The path not taken

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“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…

 

How to spot a comet

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Anyone who’s even vaguely acquainted with goings-on in the night sky knows that at the moment Comet NEOWISE – brightest comet since the last Bright Comet – is visible (just) with the naked eye, in the North-West in the evening twilight, and the North-East before dawn.

I’ve been around for long enough to have been promised Kohoutek  (1974), Halley  (1986), and McNaught (2007) none of which exactly came good with the promise of actually, you know, shining in the night sky, in a Hemisphere near me. Or on the one occasion when they did (Hale-Bopp, 1997), I was living in rain-soaked, brightly-illuminated Glasgow city centre without the means to get to a rural dark sky devoid of clouds.

But this time it looked as if I was in with a chance of spotting an actual comet.

Viewed from as far North as our house, NEOWISE is circumpolar. That is, it sits day and night in the Northern skies going round and round the Pole Star and never setting. The only things that stop you seeing it are daylight (between about 3:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m.), clouds (depressingly common here, though not as much so as in Glasgow), and other sources of light (street-lighting and the like).

NEOWISE also had the good grace to stay around for long enough to give the Average Brit a chance of at least one clear evening in which to try and find it.

We picked our clear evening, on Thursday.

We set off to the local playing field, which offers reasonable darkness (for urban surroundings like ours) and a view to down within about 5 degrees of the Northern horizon. The instructions I’d read said the comet should be visible from (and I quote) ‘just after sunset’.

Of course all we saw in the hour after sunset was twilight, and no actual astronomical objects at all – not even the brightest of the stars.

But our house boasts a North-facing attic Velux window, high enough up that our front garden trees block the nearest streetlight and the view extends down to the horizontal. We stationed ourselves there, complete with cushions to lean on, at about 10 p.m., and waited.

It wasn’t until after half past that my daughter spotted the first star. It was so faint that it could easily be mistaken for an illusion. The only way either of us could make sure it wasn’t one was by not-staring at it in such a way that it didn’t appear to move. Strangely, looking just to one side of it made it appear more distinct – something to do with how the various receptors (rods and cones) are arranged on the retina of the human eye.

Here’s my problem – the one which means that, though I have a degree in ‘Physics with Astronomy’, I am no astronomer. NEOWISE is best viewed – or at least found – using binoculars. I can’t use binoculars. I have no stereoscopic vision, and I use glasses with very different prescriptions for the 2 eyes. And before you ask, using a typical telescope with glasses is pretty hit-and-miss too. My chances of spotting anything in the night sky, binoculars or no, are minimal. I am also, though, astronomically stubborn. And so is my daughter (who has perfect eyesight).

So we stayed, gazing philosophically out at the sky and at our streetscape, the occasional post-lockdown reveller, and the low bar of cloud between the North and North-West horizon, watching stars appear one by one, until after midnight. We talked, sporadically (the best conversations are always sporadic), about all sorts: The research she’s doing, music (complete with lyrics), the smell of the evening air…

At half past midnight we decided that the low bar of cloud was going nowhere, the comet was most likely hiding behind it, and we’d call it a night. The weather forecast gave clouds by dawn, so it wouldn’t be worth our while getting up in 3 hours’ time to try and catch NEOWISE as it rose beyond the horizon fug again.

However, the sky is clear tonight…

(Picture not mine, of course. It’s from the i newspaper)

The plot thickens

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It’s that time of year when the garden and the Allotment are dressed in their best.

The Chard is taking over the world:

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The cherry tree went completely bananas:

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We’ve even had our first walnut (For a 5 year old tree at our latitude, that’s quite something!)

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Currnts and gooseberries – this year’s and last – will combine in a new departure for the homw-brew:

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And finally a follow-up to the mystery seeds in 17th May’s post – a Neural Miner has begun to show:

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Redemption on ice

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A man and a woman have been pulled over at the roadside by their local police.

To complicate matters further – at least for the man and woman in question – they are black.

The burly copper asks, ever so seriously, if they are aware of some obscure motoring infringement they might have made. It’s a belting hot Continental Summer mid-day and you can practically feel them sweating.

You might have seen the video.

Just when you think something awful’s going to happen, the second policeman produces two ice-creams – one each for the driver and passenger – and says it’s against Highway regulations to be driving without ice-cream.

The woman literally screams with laughter and as she and her passenger accept the proffered ice-creams the conversation becomes a little more natural – but only just – between more laughs. At which point I’m left thinking:

  1. Isn’t that a Happy Ending!
  2. But…

Now then. I’m not fully au fait with the past record of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s finest. Are they generally known as a friendly, approachable bunch, or do they have some ‘issues’ in their past (or worse, their present)?

And if the latter, or if – heaven help us – someone like Chicago’s force should try a stunt like this, what are we to make of it?

Meanwhile, I write my fiction. And in among the characters I’ve created is someone whose past deeds are dreadful but who has – quite literally – had a change of mind (this is sci-fi, after all). His ‘new’ character craves forgiveness from a past victim – or at the very least wants the said victim to trust him enough that they can carry out a scheme which both would want done, together.

How is one to write the new, ‘reformed’, character believably? Or in fact any ‘reformed’ character under more normal circumstances?

Because a writer of a tale involving ‘redemption’ has to deal with this dilemma: if the character changes too little, are they forgivable? And if they change too much, are they ‘credible’?

I think this little vignette shows a way.

Let’s imagine two police officers who have genuinely abused their power in the past take it upon themselves to imitate our two Nova Scotians’ cunning stunt.

Although their intentions may be laudable, and they are doing no-one any direct harm this time round, they are nevertheless putting themselves in a position of massive power over their ‘victims’. And in that way, although they look – and believe themselves – reformed characters, they still want to exercise power. In that one crucial dimension, even though they’ve gone from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, deep down they haven’t changed.

 

 

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.

View all my reviews

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

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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.