Saturday, 21 September 2019

The Blind Girls and the Unicorn - a parable for our modern age by Katherine Roberts

You've probably come across the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which is thought to have originated in India although there are several different versions. Basically, a group of blind men come across an elephant, of which they have no previous knowledge, and each one encounters a different part of the creature. The blind man who feels a sharp tusk forms a completely different view of an elephant from the man who feels one of its legs, and since none of them can agree what it looks like they eventually come to blows.

After my last month's post about Wi-Fi, I was going to blind you with more figures about 5G and the radiation levels in my town, but since my creativity has happily returned after disabling my home Wi-Fi and staying out of high-intensity signal areas as much as possible, here's a bang-up-to-date 5G version of the elephant parable, which I'm calling 'The Blind Girls and the Unicorn'. (No sexism intended - just balancing out the men of the original.)

The first girl, who feels the sharp point of the unicorn's horn, screams and says, "Help! It's a monster with a long twisty spear come to kill us all... RUN FOR THE HILLS!"

The second girl, who feels one of the unicorn's legs, says: "Don't be silly, it's not a monster. It's got hooves and legs just like my trusty little pony, which I carry in my pocket. They feel slimmer and a bit warmer, though, so it'll probably be faster.... I WANT ONE!"

The third girl, who touches the unicorn's soft, curly tail, says, "I agree it's not a monster. I don't know if it's much like a pony, but it feels soft and fluffy like my comfort blanket, which gives me sweet dreams and makes me feel more secure in this crazy world. I'm taking it to bed with me..."

The fourth girl, who feels the unicorn's large, all-seeing eye says, "Wait a minute - this creature can SEE. It'll be watching us wherever we are, and making sure we behave ourselves. It tells me it's just keeping an eye on the bad guys so we've nothing to fear if we're good, but I'm not always good..."

The fifth girl, who can feel the unicorn's rainbow magic even before she touches it, says, "It feels very powerful to me, and its magic is making me a bit dizzy. Better not touch it at all... stay a safe distance away in case it zaps you."

The sixth girl feels the hatch in the unicorn's belly (it's a Trojan unicorn) and says: "You're all wrong, you know. This 5G unicorn is not a monster, or an upgraded pony, or a comfort blanket, or a magic creature that might zap you in your bed... it's a DOOR! We'd best check what's inside to make sure it's safe before we drag it into our town."

"And how are we supposed to do that?" scoffed the second girl (who can't wait to get her hands on a fast little unicorn to replace her slow old pony, and is getting rather impatient with all this arguing). "We're blind, and the door is locked. We can't just peer through the keyhole, can we?"

"I don't want to know what's inside," says the third girl (who is getting rather anxious about all these different parts of the unicorn). "I don't understand all that technical stuff inside, anyway, and I'm sure the unicorn is smarter than me. Besides, I asked the people who gave me my old comfort blanket, and they said there's nothing to worry my little head over, it's perfectly safe, and very soon now I'll get a free upgrade."

"Free? Really?" says the fourth girl, the one that was worried about the unicorn's all-seeing eye. "Maybe I'll get one after all... I can always put it to sleep when I want some privacy..."

But, of course, nobody can switch off a 5G unicorn, because it's too powerful and a whole lot smarter than everyone in the world, smarter even than those who are not blind, because it thinks faster than we can. Running for the hills with the first girl is not going to help because the unicorn breeders are already there breeding yet more unicorns, and soon it will be impossible to stay a safe distance away because unicorns are greedy creatures and need lots of smart stuff to feed on, which you'll want to purchase for them and keep in your home, because who can refuse a unicorn with powerful rainbow magic, a fluffy tail that gives us sweet dreams, and a large all-seeing eye? Its cute little foals will soon be in your road, too, and though they be small (and possibly disguised as a burglar alarm), each one is just as powerful as a 5G unicorn and capable of sending their rainbow magic through the walls and windows of your home.

If you've managed to read this far, you're probably not one of the blind girls from my story. So what exactly is a 5G unicorn to you?

1. Big bad monster?
5G environmental and health concerns

2. My trusty little pony plus one? (4G +1)

3. Comfort blanket?

4. All-seeing eye?

5. Rainbow magic?

6. Cassandra's locked door?
Trojan Horse

If only they had looked inside...

In the words of a local graffiti artist under the railway bridge: "OPEN UR EYES" (while you still have them), and let's at least check there is no threat hiding inside before we welcome this fabulous 5G creature into our very homes.

If you haven't time to follow all the links, the UK's current safety advice for non-ionizing (wireless and microwave) radiation is based on the ICNIRP's outdated 1998 guidelines that apparently were set after testing a single device on a plastic head the size of an average man's. These guidelines claim that 5G is safe because it will not cook you (or not cook the average male's head) within six minutes of exposure. Most European countries now accept that wireless radiation also has non-thermal biological effects on humans, animals, insects and plants, and have set appropriate safety levels much lower than the old ICNIRP levels. Based on thousands of independent studies, some scientists and medical professionals think these should be set even lower... for proposed precautionary levels, see

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. And if you still think unicorns are all harmless rainbow magic and fluffy, soft-horned foals suitable for tucking into your child's bed, you might like her unicorn story SPELLFALL available in both paperback and ebook.

Find more of Katherine's books at

Friday, 20 September 2019

Bits and pieces from the ragbag by Sandra Horn

Considerably to my surprise, I’ve just reached my ¾ century. How did I get here, I ask myself, and so fast? What about all that stuff that happened in between my arrival in Melksham towards the end of WW2 and now? Looking back at the in-between is like coming across a patchwork of bits and pieces, with holes in. A ragbag. Here are some verses from the early bits of it:

I am learning to knit on my Great-gran’s knee
In the cushions of her lap.
Needles click, wool spools,
‘In, round, through, jump him off!’ she croons.
With a twitch of her hand, a twitch of her knee,
The stitch and I take flight.
The stitch drops into the knitted wool,
I fall into her downy warmth.

And then:
 Hop-picking time; we all turned out
Bar those that were ailing and the working men.
Smallest of all, I had a special bin;
I picked the papery flowers into Great-grandad’s hat.
Long years had shaped it to his head; it was brimful of him,
Seasoned by weather, time and garden bonfires.
I filled it full, placing them one by one
With solemn care, counting them in.
I was his helpmeet, sunshine, and his little maid.
‘Careful now!’ he warned the Talleyman -
‘Some special hops in there!  Don’t let ‘em squash.’
The hops were bushel-measured, tipped into pokes, taken to the oast,
‘For to be dried,’ he said, ‘and make the beer taste good.
‘Course, those’ll make a very special brew.’

Now, in his memory, I raise my glass,
Drink deeply, taste the summer-toasted, slow-dried hops,
Savour a full, sweet after-tang of kindliness and pipe baccy,
strawberries, dahlias, and wood-smoked trilby hat.

 Great-gran, Great-grandad

And after that came:

the switchback way across the Weald.
Up over the Beacon, down Washingstool Hill,
past hop-gardens, sheep-fields and woods,
to traffic and houses and school.
I travelled from colourful home-knitted jumpers
to bought-from-the-shop in plain navy-blue;
from evenings of telly or rackety street games,
from star-gazing, idling, to homework alone.
From hops-blackened hands to French and Deportment,
Music and Botany, games played by rules,
lessons to temper my rough Sussex burr.
From safe and familiar to worlds yet unknown;
enticing, exciting.  How far would it take me,
the Southdowns school bus?

And then:

We were in London LONDON!
You were in the centre,
I was way out west,
but LONDON nonetheless!
Trying our wings...
cooking new things
from our mothers’ staples -
(apple crumble, shepherds pie)
to daring LONDON food.
It was your turn.
‘What ‘s this?’ I asked
this pale green oval something on a dish.
‘Avocado pear,’ you said with pride.
(Oh, London, LONDON!)
Wary, I took a little piece,
not expecting to enjoy -
but cool smooth buttery
melting, delicious, filled my mouth,
like nothing I had ever known
Exotic. Strange.

And now, taking a great leap over all the significant events of the 50-odd years since:

The ferry chugs unhurried through the bay.
To our left, the shingle bank;
To the right, a row of tethered boats,
Skugga, Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen,
Tug at their moorings in the salty wind.

Kite surfer skims the shallow sea,
Comes alongside, keeps pace with us,
Then makes a half-turn, lifts –
And flies. Over the ferry,
Over Sea Eagle, Skugga, Sylphe and Seren Wen.

Oh, I am past my threescore years and ten,
Slack-fleshed, stiff-jointed,
Needing to feel my feet flat on the ground;
But now I’m up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.

The ferry chugs below.
Skugga and Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen
Clatter and tug and fret;
Sea-bound. Earth-bound, while I surf the sky.

This is weird. This blog was going to be about the books on my bookshelf, and in particular those written by ‘Writers’ – our small group of people who met about 30 years ago, wanting to write, wanting to learn. I had intended to write about our output, but the autobiographical verses suddenly intervened so insistently, I don’t know why – the child being the mother of the woman, or something like that? I expect it’s me age, Guv, but I’ll leave them as they are now and save the books for another time.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Fully Listed by Jan Edwards

A writing friend was bemoaning the fact that, being a fairly prolific writer of short fiction, she often loses track of the markets where she has submitted work, and the fact that many of those short fiction markets fail to notify unsuccessful writers does not help – and I feel her pain.
With editor’s hats on at Alchemy Press we make a point of always notifying both successful and unsuccessful writers when we have made our selection as a matter of common courtesy; which can be quite a task when those submissions have numbered anything up to four hundred per anthology.
However, I can see how larger markets who have thousands of stories sent in would draw a line at individual emails and many have a line in their guidelines giving a time limit after which writers can assume they have been unsuccessful.  Elsewhere technology has reached a point where most of those use automated replies. That may seem impersonal when you have slogged over a story and sent it out with high hopes, only to have it limp home anything up to a year later, but it is not really any different to a standard rejection email/letter, and at least you know where you stand.
So how do we combat the lack of replies from the markets and/or poor memory of the writer?
I keep an Excel spread sheet that lists story/market/date sent and reply expected but a simple Word Table will do just as well.  I realise that sounds desperately nerdy, but believe me it is done purely in self defence! I am one of the most disorganised people imaginable, with the memory of a gnat. If I don’t write it down forgetting it within days is common. When these markets can take anything between three and twelve months to reply it’s a given! And where I am concerned its not just lost story submissions that need tracking.
In writing the Bunch Courtney Investigations a series my lack of memory has proved to be a real problem when it comes to details of my characters.  I don’t just mean a character sketch of lead roles and the villains they are chasing, though I do write down the usual information on each: age, appearance, basic background. Recurring supporting roles are also reasonably easy to keep track off with a few bullet points. I’ve found that it’s the minor walk-ons who slip past me the easiest of all. This is something that has not been an issue with stand-alone novels, but with a series it suddenly became a real issue.
My memory for names is bad enough when faced with people out there in the real world; those people I ‘should’ know, and have a total recall of their face and where I know them from, but whose names remain stubbornly lodged in some dark recess of my junk-yard brain and refuse to be brought to mind. Meaning that I stand there chatting away, hoping the name will come to me – or by some miracle be mentioned in passing and hope to hell that I’m not called on to introduce them to someone else!

To some extent many of those walk-ons of mine don’t require names, but I was half way through book two when I realised that I had failed to make a note of the local Vicar.  In 1940, in a small village, people would know that name and my imaginary village of Wyncombe would be no different. We never meet the Reverend Day, yet he is mentioned several times. 
More recently the name that I needed to find was an old friend of Granny’s from whom local gossip is often gleaned. ‘Connie Frain’ gets mentions in two of the three Bunch Courtney books, and, as with Rev. Day, we never meet her in person; only gain her pearls of wisdom at second-hand. Hats off to those uber-bijou cameos who only merit half a sentence but who deliver the most vital of clues.  
I have an ancient writing programme similar to early versions of Scrivener. I don't use it to write but it does have a world-building function where these things can be recorded, and it’s been a life-saver on many occasions. Its one drawback is that it doesn’t list them alphabetically, so (and yes I am this sad…) I have recently also put those names into a Word table. This required a rapid reread of all the Bunch Courtney Investigations – including the upcoming third volume Listed Dead –  to make sure I had them all.  I was gob-smacked to find over 900 entries over three novels! That doubtless earns me place as a card-carrying anorak of the highest order - but it keeps me out of mischief.
All of which brings me back to databases and spreadsheets in general. Keeping track of details is essential whether that is short fiction submissions, bit-players in a series of books or the bloggers and reviewers I will begin to harass quite soon to read the new books before its release, if I didn’t write it all down I just know I would forget.
You can read more about Jan and her Bunch Courtney books on her blog HERE

In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.
 AMAZON (PAPER)   US  / UK/  /  AU INDIE BOUND / BOOK DEPOSITORY  / WORDERY /  Waterstones  /  Foyles Barnes & Noble  / Digital sources: Kindle  US / UK / AU/   Apple/  Nook  / Kobo  
Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery Digital sources:

Winter Downs  Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU 

Winter Downs is available on all similar platforms. Listed Dead (mock-up cover on right) will be available in early 2020.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

My Obsession with Big Cats, continued, by Elizabeth Kay

The fourth leopard

 I am going to be totally self-indulgent with this, as I had a number of comments about the last post, and I’ve recently been a winner in the Exodus travel writing blog competition. I had my first piece of travel writing published in a local newspaper when I was nineteen. I’d been on a Land Rover trip to Morocco, an unusual destination in 1968, and we’d camped in a wadi – just the way my geography teacher had told me you shouldn’t – and after innocently watching a spectacular lightning display in the Atlas mountains and not putting two and two together it flooded in the middle of the night. I didn’t speak up when the campsite was first suggested; when you’re nineteen you always assume your elders know better. We were all okay, but only just, and I’ve carried on camping in dodgy places
ever since. It’s addictive.

            So. Wild camping in Botswana. Wow. It was one of the most exciting holidays I’ve ever had, and it was a 70th birthday present from husband Bob. He couldn’t think what to get me, and the only thing that I wanted more than anything was a leopard sighting in the wild. We saw such amazing things, and had some scary experiences. 

Adorable cheetah brothers
            The first part of the holiday was a visit to the Okavango Delta, where we were taken to our campsite in mokoros – canoes poled by local people, much like punts on the Cam. They carry two passengers, and a small amount of luggage, so our main bags were left at the previous campsite. It’s relaxing and dreamy and lovely. Until a hippo charges the canoe behind you, and tips all three passengers out, bites the canoe and sinks it. The event was unprecedented, and the guides were as shocked as the three women who ended up in the water, hiding in the reeds in case the hippo came back. The guide reckoned it was a young one, teenage I suppose, which had been feeding on the bank and was completely hidden in the vegetation. It found itself separated from the others, and panicked. No one was hurt, although very shocked, and two cameras and one phone were ruined. The boat was retrieved by the brave locals. The incident was no one’s fault, and very unlucky. I have a little smile every time I think of the insurance company dealing with the claim.

We saw four leopards all told, countless lions, two cheetahs behaving very affectionately towards one another and a serval. We spotted a half-grown leopard cub on some rocks, and then, a little later, the mother came through the bushes with her kill - an African wildcat. Our guide had never seen this particular prey before. I do realise some people may find the photo upsetting, as wildcats do look very similar to those at home. We also saw one in a tree, so that was just about every photo call we wanted!

We also saw a mother lion head off to hunt - she was obviously feeding cubs, as she was heavy with milk. Then a male lion started sniffing the air very thoroughly, and  eventually went over to a bush where a very small cub had been left. We were all terrified he would kill it, but he was the father. Quite a young lion, and it must have been his first babysitting session as the cub was only three weeks old. It wanted to cross the road, and he kept trying to gently nose it back to the bush. It wasn't having it, though, and ended up in the middle of the track yowling for mum. Two other male lions were in attendance as well, but they didn't attack it either and our guide thinks they were all brothers, there to protect the cub. 
The incident that was the most amusing was at a waterhole. Botswana is going through a drought year, and water is in short supply. Two elephants had taken charge of this one, and a group of five lions decided to have a drink. The elephants didn't agree, and kept chasing them off. The lions called for reinforcements, until there were ten of them, so the elephants did the same and a third one turned up. They took it in turned to chase individual lions, but the funniest part was when they squirted them with water. I wish the picture were sharper, but I was lucky to get it at all.
Our guide was terrific. He knew how the animals behaved, and could predict what they would do next and get us in the best position for a photograph. Because we were wild camping we had to stay in our tents at night. I took my camera trap with me, so I could see that we had honey badgers and hyenas round the tents during the night. We could hear lions roaring nearby, and elephants trumpeting. The pictures aren't very good, because it was in night mode, but enough to see what was outside!
For those of you who are considering travel writing, remember it’s not just ticking off animals – it’s their behaviour that grabs the attention. And the same is true of the people you meet – it’s the ways in which they different from us that are important. Happy travels!

Friday, 13 September 2019

An almost empty nest? by Alex Marchant

I’m sitting here today contemplating the desolation of an empty nest.

That may be something of an exaggeration, if I’m being honest. For my elder sister, it perhaps isn’t: she’s been a parent for thirty years, and this summer saw the last of her three children leaving home (to move 500 miles away), along with both his wedding and that of his sister, only six weeks apart. Months of frenetic preparations, book-ended by major family celebrations (and with the arrival of a new grandchild to the third sibling in the midst of everything), and then she and her husband find themselves alone in the anti-climactic aftermath, in the now-too-big family home, waiting for the next time the loved-up newlyweds deign to think of calling in…

In my case, it will only be a part-time empty nest, a transitional stage that hopefully will prepare me gradually for what is to come later – that time when it’s just me, my partner and the dog (and maybe still the elderly cat) in the house. Every ten weeks or so, our younger daughter – off to university for the first time next week – will be back for three or four weeks at least to remind us just what it’s like to live alongside a teenager. 

Our elder daughter has one more year of university left, so we began the fledging process a little while ago. Those frantic final weeks of an A-level summer – full of last-minute buying sprees and training in financial management, cooking, laundry, etc. (yes, I know we should have done it sooner…) – followed by the drop-off at her shared student house, declined into a normal September return-to-school for the youngest and return-to-work-routine for me. I still rose at 6.30 am to shoo the remaining offspring out the door to catch the school bus, and broke off work at 3.30 to hear all about her day. The only noticeable difference was a tidy ‘spare’ room (I spent the first free weekend blitzing No. 1 daughter’s room in a cathartic process that led to her commenting it was like a hotel room on her first return home) and a reduction in the number of available afternoon dog-walkers.

This time will be different, though. The major structure of my day – and my weekends – will disappear. Already I’ve abandoned the 6.30 start (as a night owl, it was always purgatory to me, especially returning to it after the school holidays), and I’m finding my morning ‘routine’ now stretches later and later. Even the dog has learned to be patient – if my ‘big boots’ and his lead go on before 9, he’s in luck. I need to be careful, though – if I’m not, given my poor grasp of time management, it’ll soon be lunchtime before I’m ready to go into the big, wide world (or up on to the big, wide moors, anyway…)

The potential to drift, then, is perhaps my main worry when a primary reason for much of what I do is no longer here (no one to ferry around in the parental taxi, or hassle to empty the dishwasher or walk the dog, or whinge at about – well, about almost anything teenager-y). The prospect of two daughters returning to the nest every few weeks (either both at once for the vacation, or separately for an odd weekend) means my life won’t suddenly seem bereft of meaning – which, I gather, is what some parents feel when ambushed by empty-nest syndrome.

But, yes, this is only the part-time empty-nest stage. The phase when children take their time to grow into young adults, trying out their wings while knowing they can return to the nest at any time and find their place there (largely) unchanged. When the first major stage of parenting has been successfully achieved, and you can take satisfaction in knowing you’ve guided them this far, and they’re ready to launch themselves into their next stage. A launch for them, but a gradual letting-go for … well, for me at least, if not others in the same situation.
Will it be the same when the nest empties for good?

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is due out 1 November.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at: