Apr 19th

When person becomes plot. And when person becomes person.

By John Taylor

This is a book recommendation. It isn't really a review, because it's about the relationship between the character and the story. The book is The State of Grace, a YA novel by Rachael Lucas. It's already gaining some great reviews, but the reason I'm so excited about it is more complicated.

Thirteen years ago, when I began to write seriously, the voices that came to me first were voices of people with a variety of learning disabilities, because those were the voices I knew and cared about, after a lifetime of work and friendship with them. From the beginning, people kept comparing my work with Mark Haddon's 'Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,' probably the only famous book they knew using that kind of voice. As it happens, none of my characters had Asperger's or Autism, and my books were not remotely like (or as well written as) Curious incident, but they did have unusual voices and speech rhythms.

I avoided reading Curious Incident for a long time, because I wanted to be me, not him! But when I did give in and read it, I was confused. Yes, it is a brilliant piece of fiction, but it made me uneasy.

It took me a while to find the source of my unease, but at last, I realised that it was about tone. 'Curious Incident' isn't just in an autistic voice: the plot revolves around Christopher's autism, and how different it is from the way the (presumedly not-autistic) reader thinks. My touchstone has always been that I would want my characters to be happy with the way their condition is portrayed, because their condition is simply something they live with: primarily, they are PEOPLE, not their condition, and it is as individuals that I portray them.

And at last, I have found an author who treats Autism in the same way. Rachael Lucas's book THE STATE OF GRACE is Young Adult fiction FOR autistic people as well as for everyone else. Her primary motivation was to write a book her daughter would enjoy. And it is wonderful, touching and also an education, for both young adults and the not-so-young. It is written from the inside, and will change the way you understand autism, not because it is about Autism, but because it is about a girl called Grace.

This link here will tell you more about how she came to write the book, and about autism in girls.

Apr 19th

Abbots Ripton: I never thought...

By RichardB

I hadn't originally intended to write this one at all. It has elements of high drama, but it is a fairly involved story and it also has to contain some technical detail to make sense. But I've decided (as much for my own satisfaction as anything else) to collect my railway stories together in one historical sequence, and this accident is so important in the history of railway safety in Britain that it simply had to be included. You have been warned.



The Great Northern Railway, whose main line out of King's Cross formed the southern part of what is now known as the East Coast Main Line, traditionally had a reputation for high speed. Though the speeds concerned might seem modest by today's standards, in the 1870s it was running the fastest expresses in the world.


And it was still relying entirely on handbrakes in the engine tender and the guard's vans to stop them. In 1875 it decided to adopt the simple vacuum brake for its passenger trains, but such a large-scale re-equipment takes time to implement and as 1876 began it was still building express locomotives with no brakes on the engine.


Even so, the GNR was quite a progressive railway by the standards of the day. If the braking on its trains was still wretchedly inadequate, it was at least committed to doing something about it, and it had already abandoned time interval in favour of the much safer block (or space interval) working. It had an excellent safety record until the evening of 21 January 1876, when extreme weather conditions mercilessly exposed weaknesses in its systems. The story is a classic example of Murphy's Law in action, of things going wrong in ways that nobody foresaw.


At 6.05pm a southbound coal train joins the main line at Peterborough, in the worst snowstorm anyone in the area can remember. It's bitterly cold, a gale-force wind is blowing, and snowflakes 'the size of a two-shilling piece' (as one witness will say at the enquiry) are coming down thick and fast, building up and quickly freezing solid on anything they fall on – including points, signals and signal wires. One of the reasons the train is running eighteen minutes late is that the points were frozen in the coal yard it set out from.


That late running is a cause for concern, for coming up behind the slow moving coal train is the train officially called the Special Scotch Express. (Known informally among railwaymen as the Scotchman, in years to come it will be famous as the Flying Scotsman, although that name will not become official until 1923.) The coal train will have to be shunted into a siding at Holme, two stations down the line from Peterborough, if it is not to delay the express. Accordingly, John Osborne, the signalman at Holme, sets his signals to danger, but when the coal train arrives at 6.21 it doesn't stop. It runs straight past his signals and through the station without even slowing down.


There are no more sidings until the next station, Abbots Ripton, which is just over six miles further south. There are two signal-boxes in between, Conington and Woodwalton, but they are there only to divide the line into manageable two mile block sections, and all the signalmen there can do is to pass the train on to the next signal-box. By the time the coal train reaches Abbots Ripton the express will be hard on its heels. It must be stopped there and shunted clear of the main line.


Fortunately communications between signalmen have come a long way from the primitive telegraph whose woefully limited repertoire of messages caused such tragic misunderstandings at Clayton Tunnel. Every signal-box on the line is fitted with block instruments, which have indicators showing the state of the line, and communicate with each other, signal-box to signal-box, in a comprehensive set of bell codes that covers all the normal routines of train working. There is also what is known as a speaking telegraph (though it actually uses Morse Code), but this is fitted only in signal-boxes at stations and not in simple block posts like Conington and Woodwalton. Osborne uses the Morse telegraph to warn Signalman Charles Johnson at Abbots Ripton that the coal train has run past all his signals.


But not through any neglect on the part of its crew. On the engine of the coal train Driver Joseph Bray and his fireman Edward Faulkner have been keeping a sharp lookout in the appalling conditions. Despite the poor visibility they have spotted every signal since Peterborough, and at every one they have seen a white light, still the accepted indication for 'all clear.' They know that the express can't be far behind them and they are expecting to be shunted at Abbots Ripton, so they slow right down and stop at the signal box at 6.41. Driver Bray shouts across to the bobby, as enginemen always refer to signalmen, and Signalman Johnson tells him to shunt back into the siding. And all this time the Abbots Ripton distant signal, too, is showing a white light.


Why? Why have Bray and Faulkner seen nothing but clear indications, when the signalmen at Holme and Abbots Ripton have set their signals to danger? Murphy's Law, courtesy of a blizzard, has caught up with the signalling of the Great Northern Railway.


With time interval working, the natural and obvious thing to do is to set your signal to danger when a train passes, wait for the set number of minutes to pass, and then put it back to clear. With the new block working it hasn't occurred to anybody to do things differently. A signalman still sets his signals to danger when a train passes, and as soon as his block instrument rings to tell him that the train has passed the next signal along the line ('Train out of section,' this code is called), he sets his signals back to clear, where they will stay until the next train passes. This means that any signal spends most of its time showing clear, and if the mechanism jams or freezes it is much more likely to do so in the clear position.


Worse, the mechanism itself is vulnerable. The tradition, dating back to the time when signals were flags held by men standing at the lineside, is a downward indication for clear. So the semaphore arm, which is kept at horizontal for danger by a counterweight, is pulled downwards to show clear, against the action of the counterweight, by a wire running from the signalman's lever. But there is no positive way of pulling the arm back up. When the signalman sets his lever to danger, all that happens is that the wire slackens, to allow the counterweight to do the job. The signalman has no means of forcing the signal into the danger position if the mechanism sticks.


Tonight the mechanisms are jamming up with ice. The weight of the snow frozen on the semaphore arms isn't helping. The arms are staying down when the signal-box levers are released, and so the red glass lenses that move with the arms and are supposed to go in front of the lanterns to give the night danger indication aren't moving either.


And the signalmen don't know it. Nobody has thought of the idea of providing  repeater indicators in the signal-boxes. In normal visibility the signalmen can see all the signals under their control from their windows, but tonight visibility is far from normal. They have no way of knowing that, out there in the darkness and the falling snow, there are signals that are not corresponding to the position of their levers.


Disaster is looming closer by the minute, but there is a second line of defence. The rules say that in conditions of poor visibility track workers (in a throwback to the primeval days of railways when plain wheels ran on flanged plates, they are always known as platelayers) must be called out, to check the signals and lay detonators on the line in advance of signals at danger, where they will explode under the wheels of a locomotive to give the crew an audible warning. It is also the signalmen's duty in such conditions to lay detonators, and to supplement their signals with hand lamps.


But no one at Holme seems to have realised how serious the situation is. Although Stationmaster George Gregory was told straight away by Signalman Osborne about the coal train running through the signals and he has had a quarter of an hour since then to do something about it, he hasn't called out the platelayers, and he makes no attempt to alert the crew of the express when it passes through Holme.


On the express, Driver Enoch Catley is not letting the foul weather slow him down. He is trying to keep to time, and he is driving at the train's normal cruising speed of between 40 and 45mph. Like Driver Bray, he has seen nothing but white lights all the way from Peterborough. He sees more white lights at Holme and at Conington, the next signal-box along the line.


That is as it should be, for these two sections are clear. But at Woodwalton, the next signal-box and the last before Abbots Ripton, Signalman Charles Rose has not received 'Train out of section' for the coal train, because it hasn't finished shunting. His signal levers are set to danger, but although the windows of his signal-box are blocking up with snow he hasn't woken up to the severity of the conditions. He hasn't laid down detonators, and he isn't ready with a red lantern when the express steams straight past his box at 6.40. For his signals, too, are frozen in the clear position.


There is now nothing between the Special Scotch Express and the shunting coal train but the signals at Abbots Ripton. And they are also frozen, and showing white lights.


At Abbots Ripton Signalman Johnson believes the Scotchman will have come to a stand by now at Woodwalton, and he is shouting at Driver Bray to hurry up with the shunting. The words are hardly out of his mouth when, at 6.44, the express ploughs at full tilt into the coal train, five or six wagons behind the engine. Led on by the succession of white lights, Driver Catley has been so taken by surprise he hasn't even had time to shut off steam.


At first everybody is shaken and stunned by the suddenness of the catastrophe, and the chaos that has resulted. The engine of the express has been deflected to the right and has come to rest lying on its side on the far side of the tracks. Its tender, and the first two or three coaches, have ended up across the northbound line. Both lines are completely blocked, and a northbound express for Leeds is due in a few minutes.


The first thing Charles Johnson does is to throw all his signal levers to danger. This is exactly what he should do, and it isn't his fault that his actions have no effect on the frozen signals. He then tries to send a Morse Code message to Huntingdon, the next station to the south, to report the accident, ask for assistance and get the Leeds train stopped, but he gets no reply. He tries again, and again, with the same result. When he finally does get a reply it is a terse two-letter code (MQ) that means, more or less, 'Don't bother me. I'm busy.'


Although Johnson's calls begin with the emergency code SP, Signalman Maddison at Huntingdon has been ignoring them (or so he will claim at the enquiry) because they don't have certain other prefix codes they ought to have, and are therefore 'not businesslike.' And the reason he is busy now is that he is passing that Leeds express on to Stukeley, the signal-box between Huntingdon and Abbots Ripton.


In his shock and confusion, concentrating in rising panic on trying to get his message through, Johnson has forgotten one vital thing he should have done as soon as he'd put his levers to danger. He hasn't been helped by the presence in his box of some passengers from the express, who are clamouring to have telegraph messages sent to their friends – as if Johnson didn't have better things to do.


Stukeley, like Conington and Woodwalton, is just a wayside box with no Morse telegraph, but there is a standard block telegraph bell code for just this sort of emergency: five rings of the bell mean 'Obstruction: danger.' At 6.52, eight minutes after the collision, Johnson finally remembers to send those five rings to Stukeley. He is just moments too late. At the exact moment Signalman Trowell at Stukeley receives the 'Obstruction: danger' bell code the express is already passing his box on its way to Abbots Ripton.


At Abbots Ripton Albert Usher, a relief stationmaster who has been travelling on the Scotch Express as a passenger, has taken charge. He sends a foreman platelayer to lay detonators on the northbound line, and runs to the engine of the coal train. The shock of the collision has broken the coupling to its train, but the engine is undamaged and still on the rails. He tells Driver Bray that they must go to Huntingdon for assistance at once. William Hunt, the coal train's guard, comes with them, bringing his red hand lamp.


Driver Bray has already sent his fireman, Edward Faulkner, to lay more detonators on the northbound line. They are near the northbound distant signal when they meet Faulkner coming back, and stop to pick him up. They have just started off again when out of the storm comes the Leeds express, moving fast and showing no sign of slowing for the distant signal. They can see the flashes of the detonators exploding under its wheels, but add their own warnings, Driver Bray leaning on his whistle and Guard Hunt waving his red lantern. Bray sees the driver shut off steam, but will he be able to stop in time?


Like Enoch Catley on the Scotch Express, Driver William Wilson on the Leeds express hasn't slowed down for the weather and is driving at about 45mph; like Catley (and Bray), he has seen nothing but white lights at the signals. He sees another at the Abbots Ripton distant signal, but just after he passes it he hears detonators going off under his engine. He shuts off steam and whistles to his guards to put their brakes on, and Fireman James Falkinder screws down the tender handbrake. They are still doing this when Joe Bray's engine comes in sight, with its whistle blowing and Guard Hunt's red light waving. Realising that something must be seriously amiss, Wilson reverses his engine and puts steam on again in an attempt to stop more quickly.


It's not enough. Although they were over half-a-mile from the crash when they started to brake, although there are three brake vans in the train and all three guards have put their brakes on, the Leeds express is still doing at least 15mph when it runs into the wrecked tender and carriages of the Scotch Express.


At least the next southbound train is stopped in time. Signalman Rose at Woodwalton finally stirs himself and shows it a red light from his box, and Charles Day, the guard of the Scotchman, walks back along the line with detonators and a red lamp, although he is suffering from injuries from the accident. The train pulls up safely short of Abbots Ripton.


Thirteen people were killed and over fifty injured. Most of the casualties are thought to have happened in the second collision.


Once again doubts were cast on the safety of this newfangled block working, if such an accident could occur where it was in operation. The inquest on the victims found that the block system had 'proved ineffective in a case of emergency,' but the chairman of the enquiry, Captain H W Tyler (all railway accident enquiries at this time, and for many years after, were chaired by officers from the Royal Engineers), dismissed that verdict with caustic remarks about people who didn't know what they were talking about ('...such a conclusion, natural enough on a superficial view to those who are not thoroughly versed in the subject, really results from a confusion of ideas.'). The principle of block working was perfectly sound, he said: the problems were with the equipment and the way it was being used.


Certain people were to blame too: Tyler specifically castigated Stationmaster Gregory at Holme, and Signalman Rose at Woodwalton, for their lethargy in reacting to the situation, and especially Signalman Maddison at Huntingdon ('more deserving of censure than any other servant of the Company'), for his obstructive attitude to the distress calls coming through from Abbots Ripton, which resulted in the Leeds train going forward to disaster when it could have been stopped right there at Huntingdon.


The fact that a train crew trying to make an emergency stop could only reduce the speed of their train by about 30mph in half-a-mile highlighted, not for the first nor the last time, the urgent need for better brakes on trains.


But the principal blame for the disaster remained with the signalling. Obviously there was a need for better signals that could be relied upon to work in all weathers, and which would fail safe in all eventualities, but Tyler's recommendations went further than that. He proposed a fundamental change in the way signals were used. Instead of being normally kept at clear and set to danger only after a train had just passed, they should be kept normally at danger and set to clear only when a train was due. This was universally adopted, and in places where semaphore signals are still used it remains the practice to this day.


As for the signals themselves, people got busy with improvements and redesigns. The most radical was the design adopted (perhaps not surprisingly) by the Great Northern itself: the somersault signal, in which the semaphore arm was pivoted in the middle instead of at the end, and in such a way that it returned to the horizontal position under its own weight and no counterweight was needed. It worked fine and gave a distinctive and very clear indication, but it was more complicated and more expensive than a conventional signal and very few other British railways ever used it.


It wasn't until many years later that it occurred to anyone that there was a much simpler way of dispensing with a counterweight. All you had to do was raise the arm to give the clear indication instead of dropping it. This is called an upper quadrant signal, and by nationalisation the Great Western, different as usual, was the only British railway still persisting with the older type of lower quadrant signals. On some remote outposts of its former network examples can still be seen.


Not long after the Abbots Ripton accident green began to replace white as the colour for 'all clear.' White was a negative indication: any other light might possibly be mistaken for a white signal light (though this was much less likely in the nineteenth century, when there were far fewer lights around at night), and if the red danger glass  broke or fell off a white light would show. Green was a positive indication, and was unlikely to be mistaken for anything else. It is, again, not surprising that the GNR was one of the pioneers.


One interesting, even disturbing, aspect of the enquiry was that, though men on the ground – platelayers and train crewmen – almost unanimously testified that the signals had been known to give trouble before in snowy weather, the GNR's higher management claimed to have had no knowledge of any problems. Captain Tyler didn't follow up the discrepancy, and at this distance in time it's impossible to know for certain whether it was because the authoritarian culture of the times made men reluctant to rock the boat, or because the managers were covering their backs. But the mere fact of Tyler not making an issue of it may be significant.


As a footnote, it's thought-provoking to look at what passed for a cab on a nineteenth century Great Northern locomotive (GNR No 1 at the NRM is a good example, and is actually a sister engine to the one that was pulling the Leeds train) and imagine what it would be like to drive through a blizzard at 40-plus mph. You have to conclude that Victorian enginemen must have been a hardy lot.

Apr 18th

The gua-gua ride

By John Alty

Another snippet from my endless wip, this time fast forward to 1992 and my wife and I are sailing a 32 foot boat from the USA east coast to the Caribbean in leisurely hops. We were anchored in the small port of Luperon on the north coast of Dominican Republic. Choice of provisions was sparse in Luperon so we decided to take the gua-gua to the much larger Puerto Plata in search of more interesting items, perhaps with sell-by dates still in the future: 

Early morning, pleasantly cool, the sun still only a splash of lilac on the eastern horizon as we make our way to the bus stop where the gua-gua for Puerto Plata is boarded. We sit on the back seat of the Mitsubishi mini-van watching in growing wonder as a steady flow of passengers file down the bus and take their seats. Carol and I scrunch closer together as we’re joined by four others on the rear bench. As each subsequent row is filled short planks are deployed to span the passageway so extra passengers can be seated and before long the capacity of the bus as contemplated by its manufacturer is impressively exceeded. In fact, fourteen passengers and a driver are aboard the eight-seater as the journey begins.

On the outskirts of Luperon we stop to pick up a policeman and his wife, a youth with a broken arm, a woman towing a small child, and a cock-fight enthusiast with his prize bantam held aloft, presumably to avoid injury.

With a mind-boggling twenty-one souls (not counting the chicken) squashed within, the gua-gua bounced on its way over hill and dale, weaving an erratic course around pot-holes and ruts, toward Puerto Plata. Julio Inglasias at 50 watts per channel tried vainly to drown out the happy chattering of this compressed humanity.


Apr 18th

Malaphors - bring out your dead ends

By Barb

Unintentional blended idioms and phrases.


Such as:

  • You can take one man's trash to another man's treasure but you can't make it drink.
  • We'll burn that bridge when we get to it.
  • It's not rocket surgery.
  • Not the sharpest egg in the attic.
  • Until the cows freeze over.
  • You've opened this can of worms, now lie in it.


So, what takes the cream of your cake?

Apr 18th

Cross dressing (Victoriana)

By mike

 A very popular production of ‘Twelfth Night’ by the National Theatre had been the live screening at my local cinema last week.  The production  received some publicity because the sex of Malvolio has been changed from a man to a woman.  Malvolio is  thus interpreted by a female actor.

      It is just a coincidence but, yesterday,I had been typing out a letter I had downloaded from the internet a few years ago. The letter is addressed to the editor of the ‘Sunday Times‘  -  Sunday 31, 1847.  It outlines the reason why a prominent journalist had resigned from the management committee of the Whittington Club.  (I have previously researched the Whittington Club)

    The Whittington Club had originated in 1846 under the presidentship of Douglas Jerrold.  The club was formed  for working men and the emerging middle-class.  Unusually for the period, women were allowed to join and could also be nominated to the membership committee.  Among the women on this committee were  Matilda Hays, Eliza Meteyard, Mary Howitt and,evidence suggests Eliza Cook.   These women were all writers.  They were also active in the struggle for women’s rights.

    The journalist had voted against women being on the committee.  His rational being  that their presence might discourage men from joining, but the trigger for his resignation had been a proposal that the ‘misses Cushman’ should be nominated for the committee.  

      ‘Misses Cushman’ must be referring to Charlotte Cushman and her sister Susan. Charlotte was one of the best known actresses of the period. Among her successes was acting Romeo while her sister acted Juliet.  The sisters were of American descent - from the foundling fathers too!

    Charlotte was a lesbian and had a relationship with Matilda Hays who was on the management committee of the Wellington Club.  A wiki states their relationship began in 1848 but they must have known each other earlier for Cushman to be nominated.  Matilda was a cross dresser and her model seems to have been Georges Sand, rather than Mary Wollenscraft!

   But Eliza Cook was also a lesbian.  From  1845 to 1849 she was closely linked with the American actress Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876), to whom she wrote passionate poetic tributes (‘To Charlotte Cushman’). (DNB)

     Eliza Cook is remembered as being the ‘Patience Strong’ of the Victorian Era but she was a South London,  working class political  activist and her periodical ‘Eliza Cook’s Journal’ outsold Charles Dickens’s ‘Household Words‘    Samuel Smiles, Eliza Meteyard (silverpen) and Matilda Hays and Percy B.St John (the journalist who resigned) were among the contributors to her periodical.

     The author of the DNB article notes: ‘...A woman who prided herself on her tiny hands and feet, Cook dressed in unconventionally masculine attire and wore her hair short. J. Leach notes that Cook's dress ‘proclaimed a determination to be herself’ and relates how an 1851 story in the New York Times describes her as ‘Tilting back in her chair, planting both feet on the fender’, and ‘bluffly order[ing] a glass of beer’ (Leach, 157)

    Some Victorians seem to be well aware of cross-dressing and women playing men’s roles.  They also seem to be aware of women forming loving relationships?

 From the dates, it seems that Charlotte Cushman ditched Eliza Cook for Matilda Mays.  I wonder if these passions resounded in the Whittington Club?   But I think we shall never know!

     Am I reading too much into this sentence?  “the committee appearing confirmed in its intention of making the institution a nucleus for collecting together the advocates of female identity with man.’” 

   Could the journalist be referring  to a lesbian caucus in the Whittington Club?  The ‘female identity with man?’  Thus his objection to  Charlotte?  Was he thinking of the masculine dress?

    The letter makes much of woman being the ‘domestic goddess’  which was the prevailing Victorian viewpoint, and history books tend to a view that sexual love between women was unknown at the time -  another ‘love that dare not speak it’s name‘   But the journalist is a bit hypocritical in that he states his support for  equal rights but denies women the right of control.

      Reading between the lines, the letter reports on a showdown which the journalist lost.  Others of the committee threatened to resign if the ‘Misses Cushman’ were not elected.

Apr 17th

A shot rang out

By AlanP

In a modern day setting when you want your MC to think a gunshot is not a gunshot, how do you do it?

I think there are some clichés that stand up to be counted, although now I've decided to write this I'm struggling to call up a good one.

The bad one that has poked my attention was in a contemporary thriller/police procedural by a big name author. A gunshot rings out and the MC dismisses it with,

"Probably just a car backfiring."

Cars don't backfire these days! I am approaching my crumbly years and I can barely remember ever hearing a car backfire. But even if I could, these days it's virtually impossible for a car to backfire because they have been fitted with engine management systems for years. For any car under 30 years old the mechanism by which a car might backfire (faulty timing) has been eliminated. The chances of a 30 year old car still in running order cruising by at the moment juste is vanishingly small. So, it's crap. You can't use it without some crebilility police, anally retentive detail freak (like me) picking up on it.

So, to repeat my question from the opening: In a modern day setting when you want your MC to think a gunshot is not a gunshot, how do you do it?

Apr 15th

Andalucian Life. The start

By Hilly

  It was only a matter of time before my boyfriend and I hitched a ride to the historic city of Granada, tired but exhilarated. It was very nearly our final destination.
      Arriving late afternoon, we were in time for the shops and restaurants opening after the siesta, so at least we could eat. We brought a street map, located the bus station over a ‘tubo, the equivalent of half a pint of beer and a tapas of sardines. We walked to the station, our rucksacks weighing heavy and bought two tickets to a town named Lanjaron, as we’d been instructed to do.
    ‘My God, we’re nearly there!’ breathed Kieran as we climbed onto the bus.
    ‘My God, it’s got air conditioning!’ I responded.
     The bus was modern, clean, and fairly roomy, filling with old ladies in baggy floral print dresses clutching bags of shopping. A few tangled haired German hippies bounced on and sat a few seats back; having like us, deposited their rucksacks in the hold of the bus. Other buses drew up or left on either side of us but we continued to fill until nearly all the seats were taken.
    It was a terrifying bus ride along thin winding roads that climbed rapidly into the evening sky, bordered by seemingly bottomless drops, no barriers and a driver who was more intent with having eye to eye contact with the old ladies seated behind him than focusing on the road ahead. When he wasn’t talking he was industriously rummaging under the dashboard for tapes as people kept calling out requests.
    ‘They’re very accommodating aren’t they?’ There was a slight waver in Kieran’s voice and sweat beaded on his forehead. His eyes were rigidly on the driver, whose eyes were unfortunately still not looking ahead.
    ‘Do you want me to sit there?’ I said. He’d chosen the window seat.
    As I struggled into the seat I glanced down and saw the world lurch past below us at a horrible dizzying depth.
    ‘I wish I knew what the Spanish word for ‘vomit bag’ was,’ I mumbled, still peering fearfully out into the darkness.
    ‘That’s weird, ’cos other people seem to have them!’
     I turned to look and nearly gagged as I now noticed passengers quietly ‘chucking’ into uniform little bags.
    ‘The driver probably hands them out but we missed them.’
    ‘People must throw up on these buses all the time. Eugh, how revolting.’ I felt I needed one at that point.
     Tiny lights of villages began to twinkle on the darker swathes of mountain in the distance. The gloom got heavier.
    ‘How long have we been travelling now?’ Kieran was trying to get the crick out of his neck.
    ‘About five months,’ I said absently, still mesmerised by the view.
    ‘I meant on this bus!’
    ‘Oh. Nearly an hour.’
    ‘Can’t be too much further, can it?’
    ‘Magic words. I’ve just spotted the sign for Lanjaron.’
    ‘Thank God for that. All I hope for now is that there is a hotel that we can stay in.’
    ‘Remember we were told it shouldn’t be too full here but to be aware that it is a Spa town, whatever that entails.’
    The bus ground to a halt and seemed to be completely blocking the entire road. All traffic stopped and was bottle necking up behind but the passengers were unhurriedly piling off the bus to retrieve their belongings. We followed them, hauled our rucksacks free and stepped back from the hubbub, turning to look around us at our first Spanish town untouched by egg and chips and lager louts.
    ‘Crikey,’ I said.
    ‘Ditto,’ he said.
    The pavements, restaurants and shops were crammed with mauve rinsed, shell-suited elderly people in pristine white trainers. Jogging!

Apr 14th

Let There be Light

By Caducean Whisks

Following on from http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/magazine/read/battening-down-the-hatches_9419.html this is an update:


The Bird Flu curfew started at the beginning of December 2016 and has continued for what felt like indefinitely. At the end of March, regulations stated that I could let my birds roam outside, if I:

- made the area unattractive to wild birds

- netted off water sources

- disinfect their range.


How could I possibly dissuade garden birds from swooping past? How could I possibly sterilise my entire garden?

I couldn't. So the girls were confined to barracks for yet another month - until the end of April. That would make it five months. 

The weather turned glorious, but my girls remained under wraps. Occasional shafts of sunlight under the tarpaulin, but not much else. The soil floor - while protected from rain and snow in the winter, - has become too dry and dusty this Spring; rancid, even. It needed freshening up; changing. The girls bathe in dust endlessly, as I'm sure there is a build-up of parasites. I sweep up droppings, I water the ground, I put in grass cuttings, straw. I’ve grown seed trays of grass for them which they’ve devoured in moments. How they miss fresh, juicy grass! How bored they are. I threw in a bouncy ball, which got chased until they realised it didn't do anything else.

I worried about vitamin D.

The prolonged stress - albeit low-level - has taken its toll.

Clove - one of my Spice Girls - died suddenly on 29th March (Egg Peritonitis). RIP Sweet Clove.

Brendan is one of my elderly hens who's had arthritic feet since before she she was one.

She's nearly eight, now, and has become increasingly disabled. When we used to go out in the garden every day, I'd carry her around as the flock drifted, and try to get her to use those feet and retain muscle tone. The daily exercise sort of worked, and she sometimes kept up with the flock, and enjoyed the perambulation, stimulation and a nibble of grass or a fresh worm. But since nobody's been allowed out for months, she's all but lost the use of her legs. Now she moves a couple of yards a day, and always wants to be under something or beside something - for protection and balance.

She's seemed reasonably content with the situation. Cobweb, her elderly sister born on the same day, is devoted to her. They sleep cuddled together, they chat, they're never far apart.

Five days ago, Brendan all-but stopped eating. Was it time to let her go? With a heavy heart, yes.

Four days ago, I stopped all treatment bar Arnica cream rubbed into her joints. She didn't seem distressed, more resigned; peaceful. Should I make that one last trip to the vet with her?

The vet is a 45 minute drive away, over myriad speed-bumps. Last time I took her, I drove with her on my lap, swaddled in a towel. The horrid drive now, if it didn't kill her, would be a horrid end to her long life. I don't want her to suffer but it seems likely, either way. Is there such a thing as a ‘Good Death’? I’ve never seen one, and I’ve seen loads of deaths. 

Yesterday all she had was a grape (cut into twelve pieces). I felt the end was very close, and hoped it would be in the comfort of her own home, beside her beloved Cobweb. Let nature take its course.

I cleaned their bedroom, put down fresh, soft wood shavings, gave Brendan water laced with homeopathic painkiller, and put her to bed.

Then I came indoors, beset by gloom. The One Show was starting on TV. The first item after 7pm, was a celebration: the bird flu ban had been lifted! Early! 

Now it’s nearly Summer, migrating birds have dwindled, the virus is - touch wood - not spreading.

I watched the article showing happy chickens let out to run free, checked the Defra website, and it was true!

So at 7:20 last night, 13th April, I went to let them out. At long last. Cobweb had already gone to bed with Brendan, but the others scampered and pecked, scratched and foraged. Had a whale of a time. Lovely, lovely, LOVELY to see.

The wild foxes came for the evening, said, ‘Eh? Wassat?’ and I sent them away with a stern finger. ‘Not yet.’

If only Brendan lasted the night, she could get out there too. 

Sod’s bloody law. 

Last night I slept well for the first time in ages, and wondered what I’d find in the henhouse this morning. 

In this warmer weather I leave the pop-hole open so the girls can get up when they want to (and so can I). When I looked out, hens were already up and roaming their small range, which reassured me somewhat. if they’d slept with a dead body, someone would have screamed. Most likely Cobweb. 

I opened the big door to their house. There were Cobweb and Brendan, cuddled up in bed side-by-side, and Brendan looked perkier than she had yesterday. Hooray! 

She took a syringe of water plus painkiller dribbled in her beak, and sort-of smiled at me. 

I didn’t get her up as I normally would, but left the pair of them to it. 

Later, I’ll let them both out in the garden for welcome respite from their dark hole. It may be the last time for Brendan. Or will she pull through?

Now, mid-morning, Cobweb’s been out for a spot of breakfast, and gone back to bed for a nap. 

And I’m off out to take those tarpaulins off the roof, once and for all. 



Let there be light.

Apr 14th

Deep learning - how easy (or difficult) can it get?

By stephenterry

I'm going to use AI to write my next book. I'll input my novels and then it can calculate algorithms and create a deep learning output.

This below is a fascinating site, and the images are out of this world. Go see. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604087/the-dark-secret-at-the-heart-of-ai/

Bear in mind this is happening now. Best guess in ten years, that humans will not be the dominant species on Earth. 


Apr 11th

On Tenterhooks...

By RichardB

I'm not good at disappointment. Even though I was, and am, well aware of the odds, I got so disheartened as the flat form rejections trickled in for my last novel that, with my next project stalled, I felt like jacking it in, at least for the time being. At least one person round here has never quite forgiven me for the blog I wrote about this.


As a last throw, I bit the bullet and went in for a WW critique on my rejected MS. It might have been cleverer to have done this before submitting, but as it turned out that probably wouldn't have made much difference. The real problem, I was told, was that I'd written the wrong book. Publishers and agents see no market for ghost stories. The introduction to my report contained this:


Although the idea of the ‘haunted house’ isn’t exactly original, I admire your story and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  It should be stated right away that I rarely say this.


And this was part of the conclusion:


If this is your first shot at writing a novel, I’m genuinely impressed.  You are a talented writer and I am absolutely certain that you could turn your skill to writing in other more commercially viable genres.  Personally, I’d like to see more of your work.


This was from an editor who told me in an e-mail that her reputation for unsparing criticism was such that Harry Bingham once described her as 'a bit of a bugger.'


That report picked me up off the floor, for which I shall always be grateful. I began to reconsider my stalled WIP. Okay, so no more ghost stories, but what if I replaced paranormal creepiness with human evil? A psychological thriller, in other words. Would that work within the framework I already had? Could I write a novel I believed in and could invest myself in on that basis?


After two years and a lot of brainstorming, the answer turns out to be yes. I believe that what I now have is not just more commercially viable than my last one, but a better novel. A stronger voice, more psychological depth, more emotional oomph, more mystery, more tension.


And this time I've done it the right way round. I've sent it in to WW before submitting.


Well, what would you have done, when an editor has said such nice things and told you she'd like to see more of your work? Yes, I asked WW to allocate my MS to the same editor. And my request has been granted.


And another thing. Last time I was a bit worried that, as an author whose reputation was for gritty thrillers, she might not 'get' my ghost story. Now I find that she has switched to the same genre that I've turned to, psychological thrillers. And I've tried to heed the advice she gave me about the shortcomings of my last one while writing this one. In theory, then, she ought to love it, if I've done my job properly.


But the doubt demon is always there. And I'm not good at disappointment.


I'm on tenterhooks.


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