Wednesday, 27 May 2020

If You Were Leader of the Whole World, What Would Be the First Thing You Would Do?" - Andrew Crofts

It started just before Christmas 2018 with an email from a Dutch publisher and author called Geert Kimpen, informing me that his client was looking for a ghostwriter to help him write a “thriller-like book about the return of the Messiah” and asking if I would be interested. I was.

On the 3rd of January 2019 I met Martin Van Es at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s, tucked away in a mews behind the Ritz, and listened to an outpouring of ideas about how mankind needed to adapt if we were to avoid self-destruction.

“If you were the leader of the whole world,” he asked at one point, “what would be the first thing that you would do?”

Good question.

“If Jesus was to reappear on Earth to give mankind one more chance to save themselves,” he continued, “what do you think would happen?”

Another good question. 

I was hooked. 

Martin had read my novel “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”, and wanted his story written in a similar style.

In March I travelled, along with Geert Kimpen, to the Dutch island of Terschelling, where Martin and his son own an events company and Martin has a house. For several days we sat in beach restaurants and bicycled around the island, all the time talking about the story and the characters and how mankind could be saved if we had one unifying leader rather than the divisive, nationalistic bunch that we have now. A strong friendship was formed and Martin generously suggested that I might be given equal billing as a co-author, rather than my usual, invisible, ghost status.

On June 4th 2020, despite the arrival of exactly the sort of global crisis we had been talking about and imagining, the book, entitled “Call Me Joe” is being published simultaneously in Dutch by Geert and in English by RedDoor Press and the first advanced review has appeared in Midwest Book Review:

“Readers who enjoy apocalyptic stories that focus on more than just physical and psychological survival alone will delight in the social, political, and spiritual entanglements ……. An involving, compelling read right up to the conclusion and a call for radical re-envisioning of mankind’s choices and social and political structures for the sake of the planet’s survival.”  

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Corona + Amphan -- Rituparna Roy

Photo from 'The Telegraph', Kolkata - 20 May 2020
Corona + Amphan is the worst double whammy one can think of - and we are facing that at the moment. By “we”, I mean Bangladesh and two eastern states of India – Orissa and West Bengal. Cyclone Amphan hit us on 20th May. Last year, a similar cyclone - Fani - had hit the coastal belt lining the Bay of Bengal in early May. It coincided with my daughter Srishti’s Birthday - so, the small party I’d arranged at home for her had to be cancelled. This year, a day after Amphan, with no internet, we could barely wish our niece in Hyderabad on her Birthday. While the ISD call did connect, all that could be heard from the other side were garbled voices… but at least, we could shout out a “Happy Birthday”! 

Privileged kids

Birthday celebrations are luxuries that can be done without for a year or two (though for children it can be a bitter disappointment; eagerly wait as they do for months for their BIG day). But even for them, a greater calamity is not having access to TV or the internet. While ‘connectivity’ is an inevitable part of their lives even in normal times, it has been absolutely indispensable during the lockdown – both for work and play. Home-schooling has automatically increased the screen-time for most kids: in addition to TV programs and WhatsApp/Gallery photos and videos on their parents’ mobiles, they have been attending regular online classes. A lot of the homework, too, is being necessarily done on the computer, as teachers send study material on Edmodo (often with a lot of YouTube and other links) and soft copies of worksheets to be worked on and submitted via email. While this exercise is increasing/improving the computer literacy of the kids, no doubt, they are left with very little work off-screen. Unless they practice things on their own… but that, obviously, is expecting too much from them!

In Srishti’s case, this has increased even more. With the printer at home not working, printouts can’t be taken – so she has ended up doing tasks on the machine that she would have otherwise written in long hand in her exercise copies. (That even those assignments would have had to be ultimately mediated through the parent - photos taken of the hand-written pages and then shared/forwarded in an email to the respective teacher - is a different story).  

Unfortunately, though, just as she got more attuned to doing things online, Amphan hit us. It is the worst cyclone in the Bengal delta in more than a 100 years. While it may belong to the same category of tropical cyclones as Fani, its impact on the ground has been far more severe. Its impact on families not directly affected by it, and on privileged children like Srishti (yes, that qualification is very important), has also been very different. For Amphan has come as a profound irony: after two months of being wholly reliant on the internet, of being told - “So what, you are at home? everything is still available at the click of a button”, all of a sudden, kids have been thrown back to a pre-internet era existence, to an altogether different mode of being. 

Throwback to a different era

As today’s (22 May) edition of The Telegraph succinctly put it, Amphan has done what even Covid could not – snatch away even the solace of virtual connection from many people’s lives. 

The very fact that I quoted TT is because the newspaper is now my only link to the world. I read the paper after I don’t know how long a time. Had almost forgotten how it felt like to hold it in my hands – opening out both arms to stretch the paper to its full length, and bending over a bit to read the text towards the top. Not just that; I also cut out a striking photograph ( the one above) from the front page of yesterday’s edition (storm clouds gathering against the backdrop of the Hoogly bridge) and a feature I really liked in today's edition (where a well-known academic pleaded for a “zero year” as a more practicable and fair solution to the academic crisis we are facing in India at the moment). 

One naturally led to the other; or rather, was a natural corollary to the other – reading the hard-copy and cutting out the favorite bits, that is. In no time, I morphed back to my student self – when I would routinely cut pictures (rather randomly – of advertisements, writers, film stars, cricketers, heritage sites, you name it) and articles (op-eds from TT, and prior to that, innumerable features/interviews from ‘The Miscellany’, the beloved Sunday supplement of The Statesman).

This sudden, pre-internet era existence (admittedly, temporary), thus came in with a whiff of nostalgia for me, however irritated I might be at the inconvenience caused to my routine – can’t take classes or even record lectures, send emails, read online resources, catch up with news, call up loved ones, watch videos, not to speak of google-ing n-times a day for all manner of reasons. 

The Betrayal

For my daughter (who just finished Grade II), however, and hundreds of thousands of kids like her (both older and younger), this sudden new mode of being is nothing short of a betrayal. For they are now being forced to realize that everything that has been promised to them can vanish altogether without warning. 

Kids obviously have individual preferences: for Srishti, the TV is more important than the internet, any day. Hence, it’s not so much the virtual connectivity with others that she’s missing these two days as much as bemoaning the fact that her chief source of entertainment - and frankly, of joyful sustenance - has been snatched away from her. 

She did everything I reminded her that could still be done – read, draw, exercise, play (ludo), watch her favourite cats from our balcony. But even after all that, she asked me so many times: “Mamma, shall I see if the TV is working?” It’s no use telling her it won’t; she needs the testimony of her own fingers, repeatedly – the remote button pressed, but the slim black rectangular frame on the wall yielding forth no visual or sound.

It’s difficult to convey the sense of desolation that TV-less days can bring to kids like Srishti – who have no siblings at home or playmates where they live (the latter is out of the reckoning, anyway, during lockdown), and have working parents who can only give them “quality time” (‘working from home’, unfortunately, doesn’t change that much). Of course, in normal times, there are nannies – but they come and go, and can seldom, if ever, creatively engage with the child. Some also live with grandparents – once again, not all grandparents are the doting caregivers that they are stereotypically made out to be. 

Peppa Pig, Dora, Masha and the Bear, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol – they are just not programs with 20-minute slots, for Srishti. They are her daily companions, allowing her entry into their fun-filled/adventurous/fantastic/magical lives (with a lot of outdoors, of course), and filling her imagination with stories which she recreates at bedtime or in English composition.

At school, she may study the explorations of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, create PowerPoint presentations on Rainforests, or try to figure out whether one-third is greater or smaller than five-sixth, or practice the difference between homonyms and homophones, not to mention learn poems by Tagore. It doesn’t matter. Her academic progress has nothing to do with her entertainment. They just don’t align. Her imaginary companions are simply her daily escape from a reality that is getting increasingly difficult to bear. Even for adults.     

Counting one’s blessings 

9.30 pm. I’ve just started writing this piece. She comes and sits on my lap. I leave the typing and hold her tight. That always helps – both of us! With her head still buried in my left shoulder, she says: “Today also there was no phone, no TV… can I at least do my ballet class tomorrow?” I don’t say anything about our snapped internet connection in reply. I just remind her of Wednesday evening – with the storm raging outside and we sitting huddled together for a few hours without electricity. We faced that for only a few hours. There are many who are still facing it – having to manage without electricity, without water. We are much better off than they, I tell her. She has never experienced water scarcity in her eight-year-old life, so I’m not sure whether she can fathom what it means. But the electricity part, she understands. The fan and the fridge are indispensable in summer - she knows that. And she could still do a PPT homework today on the laptop... she realizes that none of these would be possible without electricity. 

Then I tell her of the lakhs (many times hundred thousand, I emphasize) whose homes have been washed away – their roofs blown off, all their belongings destroyed. Strangely enough, on the evening of the storm, panic-stricken, she’d asked me precisely about them: “Mamma, what if our roof breaks?”, she’s asked first. I assured her it won’t. There are two more roofs above us, all tight and secure, she needn’t worry. She then asked, “What will happen to the poor?” I must confess I didn’t expect that question from her. She has very little idea of the kind of poor people who lose everything in a storm. Our domestic helps are not poor – they are just people who belong to a low income group, or else are facing reduced circumstances. But they all live in homes/rooms that can’t be blown away – though they may be shabby and small. Even the slum-dwellers that Srishti passes by every day on her way to school have ‘pucca’ rooms now. Srishti has watched the rage of the storm through glass windows on Wednesday, heard the howling wind despite everything being shut, seen our building being flooded that first night, photos of uprooted trees in the newspaper… but the devastation in our coastal areas… that is beyond the power of her imagination. Or, so I thought.

The very next morning, we heard of one such unfortunate home that was no more. A neighbour’s driver told us about his aged parents in Namkhana, in the Sunderbans, being forced to take shelter in a local school, after their mud hut got wiped out by the cyclone. He was determined to take special permission from the police and travel to his village to stand by his parents…. but he couldn’t get that permission.

Srishti knows him well. I tell her his story as an example of what she had feared (on Wednesday) coming true. I tell her, again, that countless others are now without homes– like his parents. She goes to sleep with that thought.

I don’t tell her the worst aspect of the double whammy of Corona + Amphan for these homeless people, though: in trying to seek shelter, they would face the palpable threat of Corona, as they would be overcrowded under whichever temporary shelter they hid. 

Monday, 25 May 2020

Wilding by Isabella Tree -- reviewed by Susan Price

The Purple Emperor: wingspan 8cms
'High up, skimming a tree's silhouette and framed against the sky, the emperors look black -- like a rainforest butterly. At a glimpse they can be mistaken for birds... The males attack anything that comes near them, defending their territory and the pick of the females. An unwary chaffinch is chased away. Blue tits shriek in alarm -- a comeuppance for them since, from October through to April... they are the butterfly's main predator. Emperors have even been known to attack sticks and bricks thrown up into the air. From time to time a couple , or even three, male emperors lock horns, tussling in flight -- 'having a bundle', as Neil puts it...'
 From 'Wilding' by Isabella Tree.

 'Wilding' by Isabella Tree.
Thanks to our destruction of the environment, not only by our roads and shopping malls but also by modern farming practices, this large, blue-tit bothering butterfly, the purple emperor, has become very rare. Thanks to the courage and initiative of Isabella Tree and her husband, the purple emperor is now more numerous on their estate of Knepp, in Sussex, than anywhere else in Britain. By allowing Nature to take the lead in wilding their land they, unwittingly, created the best possible breeding environment for 'His Purple Majesty.'

In the same way -- by being brave enough to 'sit on their hands'  and allow Nature to come back on its own terms -- they have created a haven for nightingales. And Tree has a whole chapter on turtle doves, which begins:

More exciting even than the  nightingales has been the arrival, from the very brink of extinction, of turtle doves. There are estimated to be fewer than 5000 pairs left in the whole of Britain and only 200 pairs in Sussex. Knepp may be the only place in Britain where numbers have increased in recent years...

Something they learned is that what we think of as 'natural behaviour' in animals is often only a sad and sorry shadow of  nature. 

We uproot and plough-up and spray and destroy and so force birds, insects and animals to struggle for survival in the tiny areas we have no use for or deign to leave for them -- and we then think this desperate, marginal survival is 'natural' and write it up in our text books.

If Tree and her husband, Charles Burrell, had consulted these text-books on how to create a habitat for nightingales, they would have planted 'close canopy woodland', since nightingales are described as 'a woodland species.'  And they would have failed -- as modern attempts to enourage the breeding of nightingales in other places have failed.

Tree wrote a biography of the Victorian naturalist John Gould, (who worked with Darwin) and so she knew that Gould had described nightingales, which were far more common in his day, as 'generally' nesting on 'the side of a bank and occasionally in a shrub or bush.'  That's a far cry from 'woodland.' When the Burrells allowed their hedges to burgeon and their land to grow up with scrub (to the anger of many of their neighbours), the nightingales voted with their wings and moved in. It turns out that they don't really like woods at all. They much prefer more open, scrubby land with occasional thickets.

The same short-sightedness is found with turtle doves, which are described as 'farmland birds' who feed on grain. Yet all over Britain they are failing to breed on farmland, whereas at Knepp, where grain is no longer grown but where there are many wild flowers (such as the vetch which John Gould described them feeding on), they are flourishing. Could it be, Tree wonders, that the doves only feed on arable grain in desperation, as they are no longer able to find enough quantity of the wild seeds and shoots they would prefer?

Frans Vera
It's a fascinating book, which describes how the Burrels broke their hearts trying to make modern, conventional farming pay on their 'Sussex clay', which was unsuitable soil for arable farming and only began to be so farmed at the outbreak of WWII, as part of the drive to produce more food. Farming had continued after the war, with plentiful (and expensive) use of artificial fertiliser and insecticides alongside heavy machinery which compacted the soil and pulverised the vital soil organisms, from fungi and bacteria to earth-worms. A horrifying fact is that, it seems, earthworms are rare on intensively farmed land. Earthworms -- as Darwin knew a hundred years ago -- are vital for fertile soil. What an indictment of 'conventional farming' which has only been 'conventional' since the 1940s when all those firms producing explosives turned to producing artificial fertiliser instead.

When the Burrells finally decided to give up the struggle, they looked round for some other way to use their land and happily came under the influence of  Frans Vera, who emphasises the importance of large grazing animals for the creation of the bio-diversity needed to encourage plants, insects and larger species to return and thrive. The different species tend to graze on different plants, at different heights, creating a range of mini eco-spheres for a variety of plants, small mammals, insects and microbes. The dung of the large grazing mammals fertilises the earth, restoring it, while their scraping, digging and rootling aerates the soil and turns over seeds, creating more opportunities for diverse life. An underlying idea is to recreate, as far as possible, the environment that existed when Europe was 'wild'. Then the landscape was created and managed by herds of many different, large grazing animals: wild cattle, wild horses, several species of deer, wild goats and sheep and wild boar. (In Holland, they allow animals to die if there isn't enough land to support them, as they would have done in the Ice Age, and they allow the carcases to rot where they fall, creating opportunities for scavengers. The Burrells didn't think the British public would support this much Nature at Knepp.)

When hedges aren't cut back and scrub isn't cleared, thorny plants thrive, protecting more tender plants from the grazers: 'thorny thickets are the forest's cradle.'  Remember that 'forest' doesn't mean a dense, trackless mass of 'closed canopy' trees (that's a wood.) 'Forest' describes a much more open and changing landscape with a mixture of trees, open grass and thickets, through which grazing animals move. It was originally the term for the Norman hunting grounds, hence 'The New Forest.' In such a landscape, filled with every kind of large grazing animal, dense trackless wood never takes hold. Nature, left to itself, both creates opportunities for life and controls the environment that supports it.

Following Vera's ideas, the Burrells released Exmoor ponies onto their land, because they are an ancient breed, closely related to the horses painted on the walls of caves. They also released an old breed of long-horn cattle, to join the deer who already lived in the park. These animals are left to look after themselves. They graze and browse on trees, are fed no grain and seldom need any attention from a vet.

Cave painting
Exmoor ponies, wikimedia

Over time, Tamworth pigs were added, another ancient breed. The pigs surprised everyone by diving into the lake to find mussels -- another example of animals, left to their own devices, behaving in ways unknown to text-books.

English longhorn cow, wikepedia
Tamworth Pig, wikepedia

Red deer were added to the mix of grazing animals that would naturally be found in any wild British landscape. Do you have the typical image of a red deer in mind? The one where the stag stands on a treeless, bleak Scottish mountainside? -- At Knepp, as soon as the red deer were released, they plunged into the nearest lake and, after many years, still prefer to spend much time haunch deep in water, grazing on water plants -- behaviour rarely seen 'in the wild'.

The Knepp estate now sells wild range meat that is about as organic as you get. Their animals are not injected with hormones to make them grow, nor with anti-biotics to keep them disease-free -- it's not needed because they don't live in unnaturally crowded fields and sheds. They are not fed on grain to fatten them -- they feed, as their ancestors did, on the grass, herbs, flowers and leaves around them.

Tree writes of research by the Economic and Social Research Council which shows that pasture-fed meat is higher in vitamins and 'good fats' and the fatty acid known as CLA which is anti-carcinogenic, strengthens the immune system and is anti-inflammatory. After all, this 'pasture-fed' meat is what fed the northern hemisphere for centuries before farming became industrialised. Winters in the past were often far colder than they are now with little available in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.

In a fascinating chapter, Tree writes of 'rewilding the soil.'

The vast increase in number and varieties of insects at Knepp, leading to an increase in insectivores and then to an increase in insectivore-vores, was due, in large part, to an improvement in the soil.

It's ironic that modern farming decreases soil fertility. It becomes, as Tree puts it, 'a sterile medium in which plants struggle to grow without artificial fertilisers.' The depleted soil becomes a dust: water and nutrients run through it and it is easily washed away by rain. In 2014 Farmer's Weekly stated that soil depletion was so bad that the UK has only one hundred harvests left.

But at Knepp, they stopped the use of heavy machinery; they stopped ploughing up the earth and cutting its inhabitants to bits. They stopped using expensive artificial fertiliser.

Instead, they let plant material rot where it fell. Their grazing animals liberally dunged the soil as they wandered about, leading to the return of dung-beetles. Dormant, ancient fungi sensed things were turning in their favour and regrew. Earthworms thrived, tunnelling through the earth, dragging vegetation after them. This rejuvenation happened with astonishing speed: thirty years.

Tree quotes Gwilym Wren, a former senior adviser for Natural England. Since degraded land can be restored to health so cheaply and in such a short time, simply by rewilding it, Wren suggested that this be done with a shifting patchwork of land, all over Britain. Several areas of land could be rewilded for anything from twenty to fifty years. During that time, the wildlife would recover in numbers, whether by wildlife you mean microbes in the soil, wild flowers, rare birds and insects or badgers and pine martens.

At the end of the allotted time, the wild area could be quickly returned to agriculture with a newly revitalised, fertile soil -- while another, neighbouring patchwork of land entered into a rewilding phase, providing a new home for the wild life to escape to.

When you think about it, this is very like the ancient 'two-field' system which we're all taught about in school. Ancient farming villages had two fields. The first was planted with a crop (usually grain, such as wheat, oats or barley), while the other was left fallow. Grazing animals were turned into the fallow field, to dung it, and to scrape, dig and rootle about in the earth. The next year, the fields were swopped over. This meant that one field was always rewilding and recovering, ready to provide a crop the next year. An elaboration of this was the three-field system: one field to grow grain, one field to grow beans (which fix nitrogen in the soil) and one field left fallow.

Since ancient farmers weren't scientists, I can only assume they learned this the hard way: by starving when they got it wrong. They learned how to manage better by close observation and remembering what they observed, which I suppose does make them scientists. I've never been a huge fan of the idea that 'ancient wisdom' is better than modern science. Often ancient wisdom is just superstitious pants. But, y'know, occasionally the ancients were more pragmatic, long-sighted and wise than we are. There is no wisdom in paying great sums to turn the land you need to grow your food into 'a sterile medium' requiring yet more vast and expensive amounts of factory-produced imitations of the nutrition that should naturally be in the soil. It's good for the explosives manufacturers turned fertiliser magnates but for no one else.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could return the whole of Britain to the two-field system with, say, Herefordshire lying fallow while Gloucestershire is farmed, and Lincolnshire rewilding while Leicestershire is cultivated. And then, after thirty years, SWOP!

This is a fascinating, exciting book. If you're interested in ecology, in preventing flash-floods, in ancient trees, in rare breeds and a hell of a lot more, you'll love it.

If you haven't been able to get out to see a bluebell wood, you can find photos of bluebells on the Clent hills here.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Words, words, words ... and feelings. Jo Carroll

Words matter - as writers we know that more than most. And clarity of definitions matter as well - as the recent hoo-ha over the definition of 'alert' (here in the UK) shows only too well. I can't be the only writer who can spend half an hour thumbing through a thesaurus looking for a 'right word'.

Feelings matter too. As writers, we know there are times when we need to put words into a character's mouth while, at the same time, making it clear that they are thinking and feeling the opposite. On the page, we can use asides, parentheses, detours in the narrative to show that feelings might not mirror the words. When it's words we listen to, things can get complicated.

For instance - most mornings, I wake to the dulcet tones of Michal Husain and Nick Robinson on Radio 4's Today Programme (I need burbling, not music, in the morning). At the height of the pandemic their voices were appropriately subdued, full of grief for the dying and awe for the hopeless heroism of our health and care workers.

But things have changed. The lockdown is being eased. They need to sell us optimism, to forget how frightened they needed us to be (frightened people are more compliant), and get out there. The tunnel is short, they tell us, and the light at the end of it is tomorrow. Go back to work; prepare to open shops (but not cafes); send your children to school.

In my half-asleep state, I absorb the feeling before I listen to the words. But, once I can concentrate, there's an incongruity between the uplifting tones of Nick Robinson's voice and the words he is saying. Of course, the tone says, children are looking forward to going back to school - it is the right of every child, especially disadvantaged children (he reminds us, piously) to go to school. Parents will be relieved, he insists, to have their little treasures off their hands so they can go back to work.

Beneath his persistent bonhomie lurks a different message. For instance, all those children longing for normality - but this cannot be normality at they know it.

One of my daughters is a teacher - and so I have an inkling about how one school is tackling the possibility of children going back to school. Children will be taught in groups of 15, with one teacher staying with these children all day, every day, for a week. There will be no relief teachers who can pop in to give them a break (so no nipping off for a wee or grabbing a coffee). Each child will have his or her own working space, his or her own pencil, eraser, colours, pencil sharpeners, books etc. They will stay in their own space except during organised, carefully timed toilet trips - the loos cleaned before and after each visit (surely they know what happens when you tell a class of small children they can't go to the toilet for half an hour). They will have individual playground spaces. Nothing can be shared - so, for little children, no lego, no sand, no playing together in the home corner, no shared books, no counting blocks, no golden time (when children can leave their seats and choose something to play with), no taking shared measuring sticks into the playground, no games of tag, no giggling together in the corner ....

Some children will thrive in a quieter classroom. But, for many, their homes have to be truly grim (and I know some are) for this to be a better experience.

I know we need to reopen schools when the time is right (I'm not going to get into the testing and tracking challenge here); I know parents need to be working; I know we need moments of optimism to get us through this. We also need consistency in the message.

When we've grown accustomed to our politicians dissembling, it's all the more important that our journalists are clear. Nick Robinson's determined cheerfulness makes no sense when his actual words are unpicked. How many, like me, wake drowsily and listen to his optimism and take no notice of the words - and are more than happy to kiss their children at the school gates with no idea of the reality of their classroom days, nor the demands places on teachers.

We are writers. We understand fiction. But we need honesty from journalists.

My fiction? Have a look at The Planter's Daughter.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

If You Could Read My Mind by @EdenBaylee

In these Covid times, many of us are streaming or renting movies online. Last night, I watched If You Could Read My Mind, the Gordon Lightfoot story.

If you don’t know who Gordon Lightfoot is, here’s a brief intro.

Before Canada produced stars such as Justin Bieber and Drake, we had bonafide legends like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young. For a relatively small country (roughly 36 million), Canada has contributed some impressive talent to the music industry.

Amongst this group is Gordon Lightfoot, whom I would consider one of Canada’s greatest songwriters. He’s a homegrown talent who continues to live here today. 

Suffice it to say, he is an icon and a treasure.

If You Could Read My Mind was co-directed, co-produced, and co-written by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni.

Martha is a friend, and I’ve wanted to see this film ever since it first came out late 2019.

For one reason or another, I was unable to get to it, but then my husband rented it recently, and I had no reason not to see it. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere.

After watching it, I can say, unequivocally, that I loved it.


And I’m happy I waited until this time of isolation to watch it.

It was an emotional viewing, to see a man who in his prime was a tall, strapping, larger than life figure—robust and full-faced handsome. His appearance changes over the decades, which the film chronicles. Now, at the age of 81, he is a shrunken, thinned, smaller version of himself. He has battled alcoholism, abdomen illness, and a stroke. His eyes, however, still sparkle, and they tell the story of his incredible life.

His music defined the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s when he penned classics such as:
“Early Morning Rain”
“If You Could Read My Mind”
“Did She Mention My Name?"
“The Circle is Small”

The movie is a journey in the life of a great artist. I regret I never saw him live, and the film highlights all the things I grieve in these Covid times—going out to see a concert, sitting with strangers in a club, a gathering of friends. 

It also shows the determination, success, and resilience of one man.

Lightfoot is working on his first new album in fifteen years and would've been performing this year were it not for Covid-19.

I hope you can see this film, however, if you cannot access it in the U.K., please feel free to google the movie or a Gordon Lightfoot song.

As writers, you will appreciate the timelessness of his lyrics.

From “If You Could Read My Mind”

“ … If I could read your mind love
What a tale your thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel
The kind the drugstore sells
When you reach the part where the heartaches
Come the hero would be me
Heroes often fail
And you won't read that book again
Because the ending's just too hard to take …”

May the coming month bring positivity and optimism.

Stay well and healthy, and please let me know how you're doing.


Friday, 22 May 2020

Out of Step (as usual?) by Mari Howard (Clare Weiner)

“May you live in interesting times” – a (probably fake) old Chinese proverb, which circulated humorously among us as students, many years ago. Well, now we do. Far too interesting… people have complained about "lock down", and other people, as it began, invested in craft materials, knitting yarn, or jigsaws, because they would have so much free time. And some even decided that this would give them a chance to try writing that book which they often thought about…

Although many contemporary fiction writers have mentioned that this is a time when they are struggling to write! The shock of the new and peculiar circumstances surrounding us have left experienced speechless, as it were. Its significance has overwhelmed them, the unusual lifestyle and added insecurity has robbed them of all creative energy. What can you write, when your planned and half written story may now bare no relation to present or future, once it is hopefully published and offered to the public? What once perceptive social comment on life and humanity can be made against this backdrop?  What humour, what empathy, what insight?

Interestingly, it is not so long ago that we did indeed live with the constant threat of serious infection. I am a relatively recent a fan of Call the Midwife, and had not seen the early series. So I'm enjoying watching these now, on BBC iPlayer. Yesterday I caught up with one from the end of Series 2, in which the child of a significant character contracts polio. We saw him in what was called 'an iron lung', a machine which breathed for the patient while they could not breathe and sometimes saved their life. As a very young child at school, I along with the class was told about these, and reminded of them many times: possibly we were raising money for Great Ormond Street. The very idea of being shut in one of those contraptions terrified me! And now, what an irony, I thought, that they are showing this at this time.  All of us who were small children in the early 1960s can probably remember going to receive vaccination against polio, and as young teens the BCG against TB. Once these were in place, along with antibiotics, everyone began to live as if there was not very much threat from dire infections any more, at least in Europe and North America. But up until that time for a child to contract polio was not terribly uncommon and epidemics would sweep through, especially in areas of overcrowding.
The writer Jane Davis has documented what it was like to have polio in a comfortably-off middle class family, in her intriguing novel My Counterfeit Self. Using the sensations of the iron lung, and the following isolation of being a disabled child, rejected into the care of a governess in her attic room by her parents. Davis builds her main character, Lucy, who becomes a bohemian poet and activist, around the devastating changes and positive encouragements stemming from Lucy's disability. (Read more at

So, today we are absolutely shocked to find that an organism which we have not met before is terrorising the world, and our present medicines are not effective. Those too young to know about polio, and mumps, measles, whooping cough, also potential killers, find it very hard… Suddenly we must take extra special care, wash our hands well, and avoid crowded places. Our lives have been curtailed, we are not free to eat out, attend theatres and cinemas, use public transport, or play sport.  It has deprived people of a carefree lifestyle - that, and the consequent fear.

So what sense will any story make, if it is truly contemporary and does not take account of these peculiarities? The imaginary crimes would not be committed or investigated in the old way, neither would the steamy romance continue along the same lines. Dystopia may reign, but not all of us are skilled and experienced in that area of fiction.

I find myself a little out of step with this, for my creativity has not been floored by the present world crisis, and I had rather welcomed the lock down. After sorting the new system of online grocery shopping and saying what I hope is temporary goodbye to the cleaners, I have been able to take up again working on the third novel in my Mullins family saga series which has been languishing since 2016. 
What floored me and robbed me of creative thought was not the present crisis but the vote for Brexit. Of course I was not quite alone, many of us were taken aback to think that a majority, albeit a small one, wanted our country to move into a isolationist position, rejecting our nearest neighbours. We became concerned at that point for what our future held. We became activists on behalf of co-operation with Europe in scientific endeavour, in Erasmus scholarships, in free movement, and generally on being part of something bigger than our selves. But most of my author friends seemed happy to keep calm and carry on writing… 

And so for me, now, basically as the future had been already changed and

become unknown. This present time is just another irremovable obstacle to constructing expectations. Just wait and consider the present moment. Staying at home has offered the opportunity to re-enter a relatively a simple world – that of a teenager in 2007, trying to make sense of her family and discover whether she can choose her own path or must follow on in the steps of scientific parents and grandparents. A bizarre and unexpected tragic event in another family is waiting to impact on her choices. If there is problem entering her world, and living alongside a cast of fictional characters, it is only whether I am still free to also engage with the adult Alice, as she looks back from this present darkness to how that event governed her choices. Who is she: a traumatised Millennial? A sensible but exhausted doctor? A poet?  

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Three Centuries of Scary Science Fiction - @AuthorKatherine

Don't panic... I haven't heard any horrible new rumour that Lockdown is going last quite that long! But it's interesting to see how science fiction writers often get things uncannily right, sometimes hundreds of years before the actual events become part of our history. So here are three classic reads - one from each of the past three centuries - which are reflected in some way by current events. If you have your own favourites, feel free to add them to the comments below.

War of the Worlds by H G Wells (1897)

"Yet across the gulf of space intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us..."

A tale of Martian invasion that was so realistic when first broadcast over the radio it caused many people to panic, thinking aliens were indeed attacking the Earth.

These 19th century Martians land in individual pods and set about building themselves giant metal fighting machines that stride across the Earth, zapping any unfortunate human they come across. Man fights back, of course, but all looks lost until...

I won't give the ending away in case you haven't read it yet, but maybe we shouldn't be too keen to kill off our homegrown viruses?

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Most of the human race goes blind after watching a spectacular meteor shower, leaving our hero Bill Masen (a biologist recovering in hospital that night after having his eyes splashed by poison) as one of the few sighted survivors able to fight off the giant "triffids" - mobile carnivorous plants that view humans as tasty snacks, rumoured to have escaped a bio-engineering project in the 20th century Soviet Union.

Reportedly influenced by HG Wells' War of the Worlds, scenes in this book were inspired by the author's observations of a strangely deserted London after the Blitz... sound familiar to anyone?

And those meteors do not turn out to be entirely innocent, either... so who among you watched the 5G satellite display?

Wool by Hugh Howey (2011)

Originally a short story published independently via Amazon's KDP, Wool grew into a novel of the same name and now has two sequels - Shift and Dust.

Following an apocalyptic event that turned the atmosphere of the Earth toxic, humans are surviving in a buried silo, controlled by IT from the central levels, where the punishment for breaking the many rules necessary to keep order is to be dressed in a suit with limited oxygen and banished from the silo to clean the cameras that allow people inside their only view of the surface. Once outside, however, you are not allowed in again, and most people collapse and die in full view of the cameras when their suits disintegrate, discouraging further rebellion. Strangely, however, nobody refuses to clean...

This book has obvious lockdown parallels and might seem a bit claustrophobic for current times, but it's character driven and draws you into the story through the viewpoint of 21st century heroine Juliette, a mechanic from "down deep", who is chosen to be sheriff after the old sheriff - distraught after his wife goes crazy and is sent to cleaning - begs to join her in death outside. Juliette gets the job against IT's wishes, promoting her to the upper levels where she has a view of the tragic couple lying dead in each others' arms, and slowly begins to uncover the truth of the silo - only to find there are some truths it is better not to know.

Over the years, it seems our monsters have got smaller and closer to home. What, I wonder, will science fiction authors be writing next century, perhaps inspired by our current coronavirus crisis?

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers, and is waiting for the end of the crisis so that she can write a bestseller like one of the books above. Meanwhile, she has has used lockdown to tread (at a socially respectable 2m distance) in Hugh Howey's footsteps, and has reissued her Pendragon Legacy series in both paperback and ebook via Amazon's KDP using cover art by her own fair hand... here are all four paperbacks, hot off the press:

Want to try before you buy?
Don't miss her special lockdown offer!

Discover more at

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Poetry and Lockdown Brain by Sandra Horn

So here we are at the beginning of month three of lockdown. Strange times. I lose track of the hours, the days. My brain has turned to mush. I’m baking too much. We’ll all be spherical if this goes on much longer. I meet with the choir, the book group and the Writers via Zoom, which is better than not at all, but oddly unsatisfying. I haven’t a single coherent thought in my head, so I will just maunder on about poetry, as usual.

I’ve taken part in Apples and Snakes write-a-poem-a-day-in-April challenge, and I’m having fun with Live Canon’s poetry treasure hunt and their online course on exploring poetic forms. It’s all to the good and stops me wandering into the kitchen and knocking up another batch of buns, cheese straws (or cheese planks, as we know them), cakes, biscuits…nothing lasts long, as you would have been able to see from the photos below - half a pear and almond cake and four cheese planks - but the server won't let me load them and I don't know how to sort it. Sorry.

The Apples and Snakes thing was fun. Every day something new to try. Some of it involved ‘found’ poems - cutting words out of magazines or whatever and constructing them into a poem, or using a black marker to delete words in a document or whatever and making a poem from the remains. I’m not usually a fan of that kind of working – it feels a bit like cheating, somehow, but I did it and discovered that I liked doing it. The deleting one was a letter from the Inland Revenue. Mutilating it was curiously satisfying, although the result was not very inspiring.  Here’s the cutting up effort, from the RSH  magazine and i newspaper

To help us
make sense of
cloudy days
the greyness and grimness,
we are determined,
whatever happens,
to replicate the experience
in a slightly different way,
search for balance
without growing weak and pale,
need support to stay upright,
be able to sleep.
Or, in the same season
we may only be left with
cloud-pruned coral

More interesting were the ‘golden shovel’ and  ‘a gram of &s’ methods of making poems:
Golden Shovel: choose a line or lines from a poem you admire and use each word as an end word in your poem while maintaining the order. I chose a line from Louis Macneice’s Western Landscape: (from the) broken bog with its veins of amber water.

Grey heron
She stalks on legs which seem to be half-broken
at the knees. Wary, she skirts the bog
lifting a long skeletal foot with
finicky care, spreading its
taloned toes where blue veins
pulse, mere vestiges of
bones uphold, poised, stilled, over amber
pools of quiet water.

Then there was ‘a gram of &s:

11 lines. Each must end in a word of at least 4 letters, all taken from letters in the title. This one was given, but optional. You can’t use plurals as one of the 4 letters in your end-words.

Going somewhere

This ruined house was once somebody’s home
We wonder, briefly, who those people were
like burglars we creep from room to room
Looking for clues about them, finding none.
The cupboards yield no stash of vintage wine
No under-floorboard gold or diamond rings
Wardrobes are empty of the clothes they wore
When they departed, they left nothing here.
Outside, there is a broken plaster gnome
Smashed flowerpots, a coil of rusty wire
An open pack of sweet peas, never sown.

It was a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. I think ‘rings’ was OK because the ‘s’ wasn’t one of the four letters.

I could go on all through April, but you’d have lost the will to live long before we got to day 30. It kept me working at the words every day, and that was what mattered.

The treasure hunt is still ongoing and is as enjoyable as ever. We’ve sampled poets from Samoa, Jamaica (in patois), Australia (the first woman Aboriginal poet), America, etc. ancient and modern – yesterday was Carol Ann Duffy, today Robert Carver.  

As for the course on ‘Exploring Poetic Forms’ it is terrific, but a real brain-stretcher! I’ve written sonnets (Shakespearian and Petrarchan), haiku and tanka and managed to keep up, but last week’s task involved getting to grips with terza rima. Eek! It was all very well for dear old Dante – with all those Tuscan words ending in ‘o’ he wouldn’t have had to scrabble round for rhymes – but in English it’s bloody hard work, let me tell you. In ‘Omeros’ Derek Walcott uses it so beautifully, throughout the whole book. The rhyme scheme is hardly noticeable. It reads like flowing prose. He uses the rhymes very loosely sometimes – he was a master of his trade and a genius. I just about staggered through the exercises given on the course and was reduced to a limp rag. And there are still villanelles and suchlike to come!  Maybe after lockdown ends my brain will empty itself of sludge. I can only hope.