But is it Evil?



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.


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


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


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:


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


Book Review – ‘The Guilt of Innocents’

The Guilt of Innocents (Owen Archer, #9)The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love to read these adventures set in York as it was back in the day – and as large chunks of it stil are! This one full of lively characters, many by now a little older and wiser than in the first one I read.

What particularly appeals to me are the Author’s Notes after the tale – the searches in our city’s archives where she got the information and inspiration; the way a tale comes together in an author’s mind.

Why not 5 stars this time? Only that I found some of the prose a little more pedestrian than in the 1st tale. Sentences like “Owen was concerned about…” when it could have been put in a more interesting way.

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You can call me daft – the sequel


At the end of 2018, I had a go guessing what 2019 might bring.

Here in the UK I got it right – after a fashion. Brexit did, indeed, neither happen nor not-happen in 2019. And likely for the reason I proposed: no-one could come up with a way forward – in or out – that would satisfy a large enough collective of people (and establishments – for example the Commons, the Judiciary, the CBI and the like).

Construction of Hinckley C nuclear power station had just begun when I wrote at the turn of last year. I’d been hoping the inevitable delays and cost overruns, along with the plummeting in costs of other sources of power such as offshore wind, would cause a strong soul to call a halt. But no: I got it wrong.

How about ‘the collapse of a massive conglomerate few people have heard of’? I got that wrong in a way – who the heck didn’t know who Thomas Cook was? Or Mothercare, for that matter?

We come now to the Student Loan book. Nul Points here for me: nothing happened.

Likewise, thankfully, no country joined Greece and the like in financial purgatory.

Across the Pond, meanwhile, the President remains in office in spite of everything – as indeed I had said he would.  I didn’t think he’d bomb or invade any country in 2019, even though the mean time between such events appears to be only a few years. And I was right: he managed to restrain himself… until the first week of this year.

As for Australia. I am so, so sorry. I had no idea how dreadful it would be.




Very short book review – ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A broad sweep through the prehistory and history of humankind with a fascinating thesis about ‘what makes us different’ – even from the other human species like the Neanderthals (I shan’t spoil it for you). Never a dull moment among our ancestors’ twists and turns.

Why did I not give 5 stars? Only because some of the final chapters’ speculation about the future seemed, to me, a little dated and let the rest of the ‘story’ down. But perhaps that’s just me.

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A little Christmas tale: All Bar You


I hadn’t meant to go.

But the rest of Engineering talked me into it. “Come on, it’ll be a scream.”

So I put on my jolliest clothes, and I went.

Engineering weren’t there.

I glanced round the room – didn’t recognise a soul. It looked like only the higher-ups: short, pasty middle-aged men; and their P.A.s, all younger, smarter made-up than me.

Work’s Christmas do.

Executive ballroom, Montague Hotel; near the city walls. Lavish deep red-and-gold garlands, huge tree; myriad tiny lights. At least the venue had class.

I headed for the mulled wine. Thus armed, I mingled – find an interesting conversation.

A group discussing local fee-paying schools: Tadcaster Grammar, St. Peters; Bootham. Another arguing the finer points of some tax-avoiding scam. House prices.  I rolled my eyes.

I noticed mistletoe.

Fat chance, guys.

He stood out, directly beneath it. Golden-blond hair, ponytail: tall, slim, straight; severe.

And he turned and looked right at me.

I made my way towards him. Set down my warm wineglass and gazed up at him.

Crystal splinters of eyes: golden lashes.


I didn’t know what to do with my hands as he embraced me. Sparks shot across my palms. I closed my eyes.

Deep: dark.


I gaze up at him again.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?”

“I know all in this room: all bar you.”

He’s kissed everyone? The blokes too?

He shakes his head.

“Oh…sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“I am Fear: the sum total of all these people’s fears. Fear of ageing, cuckolding; ridicule. Status anxiety. Fear of poverty, death: of time itself. So intense, here in this room, that I am able to materialise in human form.”

I’m lost for words.

“What if I told you this was your last day?”

Strange thing to ask at an office party. But different, at least.

I concoct some witty answer-

But those eyes: he’s serious!

That’s not fair!

“I’m only twenty-five! My friends! My work! My parents! I’d leave my brother an only child!”

“Are you not afraid for yourself?”

“No! I’d be dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Then I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t-”

But he’s gone.

A short tale for Guy Fawkes’ Night


Oh-oh. That’s five-year-old-speak for, ‘I’ve got one of those questions.

“Yes darling?”

I tuck her in.

“What’s Torcher?”

I balk. What the heck have they been teaching her at that school?

“It’s what they did to Guy Fawkes. We learned about him today. He couldn’t write his name afterwards: after the torcher.”

Why can’t she ask the standard stuff like ‘where do babies come from?’, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or even ‘why are there rich people?’

I gather my wits.

“Well, er, it’s… for example when they shine bright lights in your eyes when you want to go to sleep, or… erm… hurt you if they want you to tell them something… something they want to know.”

“Like, who helped you with the gunpowder?”


“Guy Fawkes didn’t tell them.”

Dear God please don’t let her ask me what ‘hung drawn and quartered’ means…

“He must have been very brave.” Hmm: that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Is that why we have fireworks? Because we want to remember how brave he was?”

Er… “No… no, that’s not it.”

Something whizzes overhead. The drawn curtains flash white, a split second before a deep boom echoes, outside and in.


“Did your teacher tell you how Guy Fawkes was found? In the cellar?”

“Yes! One of the Lords was… a friend, of the gang who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And he wrote him a letter saying, don’t go. Pretend to be ill. He didn’t say why. But the man thought… anyway he told someone. Like a policeman. And that’s how they found Guy Fawkes.”

“So they found him out without having to ask anyone anything.”

“Yes…” She frowns, puzzled, then brightens: “Without having to do any torcher!”


I’d never thought of it before that question.

So now, whatever other people may be celebrating tonight – the saving of hundreds of lives; the confounding of Treason; the preservation of the Mother of all Parliaments to live to fight another day – when I bite into that lump of pitch-black parkin and gaze at the fireworks that light the sky, I lift my glass of blood-red punch to the tale that shows by example:

Torture doesn’t work.