Winter is coming

So it’s that time of year again, when I get out the old tartan blanket, settle myself on the sofa, and wait for spring. The spring bulbs are planted out (apart from the hyacinths which I just remembered I stashed in a cupboard, perhaps there’s still time for them). I’ve weeded the garden until it looks almost semi-respectable.

Although autumn is probably my favourite time of year, I do love the cosiness of winter too. When it can be had without an almost total deprivation of sunshine I really love it, but alas I am too far north for that. The large amount of time spent curled up inside seems almost designed for reading and writing. And I have been writing. Not NaNoWriMo! I don’t want to end the month dribbling into my manuscript, my brain liquefied by despair and coffee. But I have written some stuff, and logged some rejections, and that will have to do.

Tomorrow I’m going out to the theatre for the first time in a long time. Hurrah for new things! And for the long, long nights, full of dreams to fire my imagination. Except for the horrific ones. You know who you are.

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Interview with the author

Q: You’ve been pretty absent for the last five months. What have you been up to?

A: Writing.

Q: Would you like to share your progress with your readers?

A: I wrote a bit of a novel and two short stories.

Q: That’s great. Hopefully we can look forward to seeing them somewhere soon.

A: Oh no, I haven’t submitted anything. I’m letting them mature on my hard drive until I feel secure about their quality.

Q: When do you expect that to happen?

A: I’m quite optimistic that it will be before the heat death of the universe.

Q: Moving on to the novel, how would you say that’s going?

A: Why are you asking so many questions?

Q: Well, that’s the point of an interview. When you agreed to speak to me–

A: Agreed? We’re twenty seven floors up, I’m duct taped to my chair, and the door is locked. You swallowed the key five minutes ago with a swig of carrot juice. And what looks like a meniscus of primordial evil is starting to creep up my shoes.

Q: Please pay no attention to Frank. He gets sad if I leave him behind. Now, about the novel. Would you say you’re on track to finish by the end of the year?

A: Unfortunately I’m somewhat behind my – please get him down, the existential dread is staining my trousers, and these are dry clean only – my target. If I really push forward, I may be able to finish by next March. But I’m also keen to submit some short stories by the end of the year, so if I can do that then I’ll be pleased.

Q: But to do that you would need to actually decide that they’re finished.

A: I also have a novelette!

Q: Is it finished?

A: No, I think it may be a novel in disguise. I’m hopeful that I can come back to it next year. Definitely this decade.

Q: So to summarise, you have made no tangible progress.

A: I suppose you could say that, but if you look at my use of figurative language I think you’ll find it much improved to a year ago. And structurally my stories have become much stronger. I do sometimes lose the voice of a story, and I’m turning my focus to that.

Q: I’m sorry, that’s just not good enough. I’m afraid I’m going to ask Frank to eat you.

A: No! The moistness of his pseudopod is on my ankle… the pearly glisten of him reflects my face back to me, horribly distorted with fear and perhaps a little longing. Please, my heart is beating like a hummingbird’s wings. I can feel my disappearance in my future like my shadow cast before me by the setting sun. Have mercy. Mercy! Won’t somebody think of the poor adjectives?

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Belated Valentine’s Day Poetry

If there was a zombie apocalypse
I would stand by your side with an axe
Splitting heads
Until we were overwhelmed by sheer numbers
And our entrails were ripped out.

If there was an asteroid
I would hold your hand
And look forward without fear
As we were engulfed
By a tsunami of sewage.

If we lived in a dystopian future
I would hide you in the attic
And lie to the police
Until they figured out what I was doing
Or Donald Trump got lynched.

But since none of those things happened
Why don’t we go to Brixton
To buy a vegan peanut butter and chocolate milkshake
And on the way
I can tell you exactly
What I would do about vampires.

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Story published!

My story Farewell, My Humpty appears in Andromeda Spaceways issue 66.  If you’ve always wondered how Humpty fell off that wall, this story rips the veil from the seedy underbelly of Wonderland to give you the answer.  It also contains a lot of jokes of various levels of poor taste.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, it has been by far the most popular story with editors of all the ones I submitted.  Sometimes the world is a very strange place.

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Good morning internet

So I’m back. It’s been a while, which ideally would have been filled with some glorious adventure that would take at least a few thousand words to describe. What my time actually been filled with is work, reading, writing, and my eyes getting slightly irritated with too much computer use. Such is life, which is exactly why I read and write fiction. No heroine worth her salt would let several months be wasted with tasks that are, at best, going to be dismissed with a few sentences of narrative summary.

On the plus side, I received a wonderful present of classic science fiction stories and novels which I am working my way through. Some I like, some I don’t, but all are interesting. I’ve also been working on my own fiction, finishing up a novelette and making considerable progress on my novel outline. I have a couple more shorts to polish and kick out into the electronic wilderness, and then I want to settle in to the first draft of my novel. And (saving the most exciting news till last) I got another short story accepted, so watch this space for when it gets published.

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It is a Scilly place

Well, obviously it’s been a long time since I posted. What have I been doing? Writing, working, life stuff, though none of these stopped me posting before. I have, however, got a substantial way into the outline of my novel, which has taken a lot of time. I hope to be done by the end of the year.

So this is going to be a long overdue account of our trip to the Scilly Isles in September. As before we took a night in Penzance before and after, and as before it was bizarrely difficult to find a restaurant which was open and would seat us. A tip of the hat to The Pirate’s Rest for consistently excellent fish and chips. The boat trip over to the islands was quite a bit rougher this time, and there was considerably less spotting sunfish from the deck and more vomiting in toilets. However, when we got off the boat things looked up considerably. We hired a couple of bikes and began the first of many pootlings down to our cottage.

The weather was good, as warm as you could expect in September and with a fair bit of sun. I had decided that since this was our summer holiday and we were at the beach, that I was going swimming in a bikini. It felt like having your body dipped in liquid nitrogen, right up until the endorphins kicked in, and then it felt the same only great. Ed, needless to say, did not participate. Still, he was thus better able to appreciate the view, and I must have cut a pretty dashing figure. I mean that literally, because I had to run as I got out in order not to freeze to death.

Exciting as all this was, the most thrilling water related moments didn’t involve me in a bikini at all. In fact, I would rate the top three most exciting moments as follows:

In third place was the wonderful afternoon we spent at Pelistry Bay. There’s an island which connects to the mainland at low tide by a sandbank, and this creates two large pools of very still water. We went paddling in them and you could see life all around you, shrimps showing off on your toes, shoals of silver mackerel, tiny juvenile pollock, and others that I couldn’t recognise. As evening drew in, a seal came to investigate the fish on offer.

Slipping effortlessly into second place was the trip to St Martins, where we snorkelled with seals, shoals of young pollock and tiny luminescent jellyfish. The seals were more curious than last time, regularly coming to have a look at us. Ed played with one which chased his fin round and round in a circle like a three hundred pound marine dog. I watched them swooping underneath me, feeling like I was a visitor to an alien world. Then one swam up to me to get a closer look and suddenly I wasn’t the observer any more. The claw on its fin scraped along the neoprene of my suit as we hung together for a moment; then it had seen enough, and flowed away.

In nail-biting first place was our kayak trip from St Mary’s over to Bryher, which went relatively smoothly until Ed unexpectedly hit a wave side on and got flipped upside down. Not a good kind of exciting, but definitely outranks the seals in white knuckle what-should-I-do-ness. Luckily Ed surfaced quickly and the guide helped him back in the kayak. After a hot chocolate at Bryher we tried to head back, but the wind was against us and, being very inexperienced, we just got turned round and exhausted ourselves battling the wind. In the end we beached the kayaks on Tresco and caught the boat home. I always wondered if sea kayaking was difficult; now I know.

In between all these water related shenanigens were many other highlights, of course. Probably the best day was the one on St Martins which started with the seal snorkelling, followed by a Cornish pasty for lunch, then a trip to the local vineyard to help with the grape harvest and then to a jewellery workshop where I admired the beautiful pieces and jeweller proudly showed Ed his finest piece of work: a roughly welded hydraulic press. On Tresco we watched the golden pheasants bicker in the gardens and were tempted to buy some ridiculously large squash, which we then spent the rest of the trip eating. Our interest in huge vegetables also manifested in the purchase of a marrow, which we stuffed.

I’m not normally much of a one for biking but I loved it here, since there were almost no cars. The steep hill where we were staying ensured I got my cardio every day. In the evenings we cooked and I occasionally tried to write, while Ed rediscovered his love of reading in a hot bath while drinking a gin and tonic. Looking for something light, I was tempted by Tales of a Scilly Sergeant, which was good fun and gave a (now much needed) boost to my confidence in civil order.

I hope updates to the blog will start to be more frequent now. Someone has given me an excellent collection of classic science fiction to read, and perhaps review. For now, though, the evening has run out, the turkey curry lasagne is in the oven, and it’s time to go.

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Seven ways that an academic career is like Game of Thrones

1) Most of the people you know growing up through your PhD and postdocs will suffer horrible career deaths.

2) Being a good or bad person has no impact on how likely this is to happen.

3) You will travel to many exotic and interesting places, but most of your time will be spent inside, talking about things that will sound intensely boring when you try to explain them to people who are not already interested.

4) As you progress, you realise how much of the power structure that you know relies on academically incestuous relationships.

5) If you are female, there will be guys who are very keen to help you. It will become apparent why before long. Eventually, if you are lucky, you will get to see one of them make a mistake and kill his career.

6) Every so often, a huge new fire-breathing idea comes into the world. When this happens, you want to be moving forward in alliance with the metaphorical idea-dragon, not cowering in your castle trying to keep a non-viable research area alive.

7) You will love you career, but many people will think you are deeply strange for wanting to spend so much time and energy on something which is painful to watch.

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On the river

“there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A month ago, before the political world blew up and everyone started running round with their hair on fire, we went on holiday to Cornwall. On the way out traffic was surprisingly light, and we were able to pass by the increasingly horrible trio of Slough, Reading and Swindon quickly. Since we were ahead of schedule we detoured to see the vale of the white horse, which was much smaller than I remembered, and is also surprisingly difficult to see in its entirety without being in the air. Pushing on to Clevedon Court we were reinvigorated by a scone and tea, and then took a look round the house. We enjoyed the impressive collection of glass and the great hall, but the highlight was definitely the gardens, with terraces of beautifully manicured lawns backed by large flower beds. Basking on a bench in the sun occupied us until closing time, and then we made the short hop to Weston Super Mare.

I had decided a night’s stay on the road was preferable to attempting to drive to Cornwall in one day, and since Ed had never been to Weston, I thought this lack of a traditional British experience should be remedied. We stayed at one of the big hotels from when Weston was a popular resort, all fish tanks and overapplied gilt. We were one of only two couples for dinner, and the chef compensated by using at least enough salt for twenty people. An after dinner stroll was everything you could have hoped for, the wind-whipped sand abrading your legs as you stared out over the mud flats to a distant sliver of sea.

After a refreshing night’s sleep we fortified ourselves with breakfast, which in contrast to the dinner was extremely good. And a lucky thing it was, since the drive was rather an endurance test, through road after road clogged by roadworks and a detour to completely the wrong place as I hadn’t read the directions properly. By seven in the evening we were getting rather weary as we drove through a gate that warned us no vehicles were allowed, into a green tree tunnel and down down down till we ran out of road. Things didn’t look hopeful but I went down the footpath at the end of the road, turned a corner, and suddenly found myself looking at a little yellow cottage nestled in the middle of the forest.

The first couple of days were rather rainy, and apart from a hike around the coast we mostly sat indoors, reading and cooking and enjoying the view of the lush growth of trees and ferns around us. As the weather cleared we ventured to Helford, where we could get the ferry across the river and go and visit the spectacular gardens, which featured a pond full of huge koi, tree ferns, beds of sub-tropical succulents, and the largest spread of giant rhubarb that I have ever seen. There was a sunken path between the spiky stems, and once you were in the enormous leaves blotted out sound and light together. Then down to the garden’s beach for an ice cream, and I finally, after ten years, learned how to skip stones. The second garden had a maze but I am afraid that compared to seeing a rock that I threw bounce on the water for the first time it was rather tame.

However, for me the highlight of the holiday was the two times we went out in kayaks on the river. Ever since the days I rowed I have found nothing in life quite so relaxing as – Grahame put it so well – messing about in boats. The Helford river has a multitude of little creeks to explore, the banks covered in oak forest which reaches right down to the water in many places. We paddled for miles, watching fish dart away, birds take wing and water squirt up from the mud flats, presumably from some hidden creature. A heron shouted its disapproval of our presence from its nest as we pushed on, the water getting muddier and shallower until we reached Gweek, where we finally ran out of depth in sight of the town. Heading back proved easier work, and we were able to venture up Frenchman’s Creek almost to within sight of the cottage. The river was so lovely that I could have stayed out all evening, but the final ferry and our tired arms called us back.

On Ed’s birthday we celebrated with a roast chicken, roast potatoes and a homemade cake. Afterwards we sat outside, each with a gin and tonic, listening to the owls calling and watching the bats flitter across the sky. There was no internet, no phone, no link to the outside world at all. We were quiet, and alone, and the world seemed a very peaceful place.

Of course, in the end, we had to come back. But a story is shaped by where you choose to end it; and this one ends here.

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Brexit: like Red Dwarf with only Rimmer

Once upon a time, several countries decided to band together for an unprecedented journey.


There was:

Germany The only one who knew how to do anything useful. Always apologising for past transgressions.

Italy Unique style. Adorably open with the fact that they didn’t give a toss about anyone else.

France Just wanted to eat and lounge about all day. Occasionally moved to action, but it quickly died down.

UK Completely up themselves and 100% convinced that the team would collapse without them.

Everyone else Tried to steer the ship, but every so often just lost it and banged their heads against the wall instead.

Now try to imagine it with just the UK, or the show with just Arnold Rimmer. Oh, wait. You don’t have to imagine. That show actually exists. It was called The Brittas Empire. I watched it in the nineties, and thought it was hilarious. Turns out, that’s because I was an idiot. There may be a metaphor for something here.

You can experience the terribleness yourself: here’s the first episode on Youtube. If you can’t bear to wade through it, or if you’re reading this at work (perish the thought!) here are some things that I, and many other viewers, apparently thought were funny:

– Alcoholism is the best solution to relationship problems.

– It is wrong to criticise littering.

– If builders don’t do a good job, you should just accept it. Anything else is rude.

– People in service industries have no obligation to be nice to customers.

– In fact, people in general have no obligation to do the jobs they’re employed for. Employees should just be left alone, and if you try to get them to work, you’re in the wrong.

– When you have an area of expertise you should have a right to a job in that area forever, even if there is no call for that expertise.

– Gay people are intrinsically funny.

And you know what? All these attitudes were familiar. I just thought they were normal at the time. If the past is a foreign country, it’s one whose visa requirements must include rose-tinted glasses for it to be properly appreciated.

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What happened today

You wake up one day and the world has changed. It’s the premise of a million science fiction stories. And sometimes, in the real world, it actually happens. It happened to me today.

I don’t know what happens next. We can’t plan this out, like an author plotting a story. Real life can give you a totally unsatisfactory ending, a tragedy without meaning or unearned happiness that arises from luck rather than anything the protagonist did.

The smile scarring Boris Johnson’s face is as bright as the end of the world, and just as terrifying.

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