I know this is probably going to be painful to read, but I just have to tell you how I feel.
I know it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be born. You certainly didn’t ask to be given such an ugly name. And everybody hates you. Even your parents don’t want you. So I understand. I really do. And I feel sorry for you.
I’ve tried very hard to explain you to people, and to try to make it so that you can just dissolve back into the ether and leave us all to get on like we did before – a bit unsatisfactorily, true, but at least we didn’t have civil war like we do now. I’ve really tried to release you from this horrible situation.
But I can’t. No matter how many arguments I lay out, no matter how many jokes or cartoons I share, no matter how many headlines or opinions I quote, or even facts – and there have been so many of these, right back from well before you came into existence – nobody’s listening. A large number of British people still think you’re doing just fine. A small, but to me absolutely incomprehensible number of British people think that even if you’re the worst thing ever, they still want you.
And I’m tired of it, Brexit. I’m tired of hating total strangers because they’re unwilling to look the truth in the face. I’m tired of wondering whether people really believe that the British government has any idea what it’s doing, in any respect other than making its friends even more money. I’m totally gutted at the fact that the main opposition party, headed by a man who I truly believed in, also wants to take the country back to the mythical Golden Age of the 1950s, before all these nasty foreigners came along. As a student of history, I can think of any number of reasons why everything was apparently so much better back then. As a student of reality, I can think of any number of reasons why we’re actually doing pretty well today, if only we’d look at what’s around us rather than at what’s headlining in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. But what’s the point?
I still have many people close to me who are going to be negatively affected by you on a massive scale, Brexit, regardless of what you do next. But you know what? I don’t actually care any more. I’m safe from you, by virtue of being very lucky. And I know that’s all very well for me but what about everyone else, but that’s none of my choosing. I didn’t bring you into existence. I’ve fought you every day for three years.
So we’re over, Brexit. Because it’s not about you, it’s about me. You forced me to think about my identity in a whole new way. You made me wonder whether I was actually British. You forced me to choose sides. Well I’ve chosen. And I’m European through and through. And one thing I’ve noticed about Europeans is that they just don’t really care about you. They’re sorry for you, and a little embarrassed, but they carry on with their own lives and worry about stuff that’s really important.
So that’s it. I just can’t do this any more. Don’t ring me. Don’t text me, don’t Tweet. Don’t send me links to clips from Question Time or surveys on YouGov. I’m unfriending anyone who still sees you. I’ve blocked you everywhere I can, and I’m not going to change my mind. Have a nice life. Or don’t. Whatever.
Written for the flash fiction prompt “Clouds” for a Facebook writing group which may, or may not, involve badgers. Sparkly ones.
Layla whirled and leaped on the dry grass, skinny arms and legs flying as she threw back her head and laughed at the sheer joy of dancing. She watched the skies as she moved, squinting then widening her eyes to see how the clouds were developing above her. She raised her arms above her head and changed to a movement that would probably have been called a reel, in the time Before.
Not that Layla knew anything about Before. She’d been born in the throes of the sticky time, the time when there wasn’t quite war but there certainly wasn’t peace, when the stability of the previous 80 years in that part of the world had gradually tipped into chaos. Maybe if she’d have been born Before she’d have been different. Maybe she’d have had people care for her and help her through a much easier life than he could make for her. Maybe she’d have been cured by some of those miracle medicines he’d heard talk of and kind of maybe just about remembered. But now all she had was him. And all Malc could to for her was make sure she could dance every now and then.
He watched her ecstatic, loose-limbed spinning figure and remembered how he’d first found her, hands bound and dragged behind a family of Eaters, destined to be their next meal. He couldn’t stand Eaters, so he’d shot two of them as soon as he’d seen what they were, another two as the smaller ones ran and screamed and panicked, and the final ones he’d killed close up. One of those had been young enough that he’d hesitated, but the mother had been holding it and when she’d run shrieking at him with a knife he’d put the next arrow right through the both of them. Stupid Eaters never kept much of a look out, as if the act of eating human flesh somehow made them immune to any danger. He always left them for the scavengers – and maybe one day he’d eat the flesh of a creature that had fed on those Eaters. But he would never become one.
So he’d fetched Layla out of the camp, retrieved his arrows and they’d walked on. He wouldn’t do things quite the same now. Travelling with someone else had made him more cautious in some ways. Especially someone like Layla. He’d seen straight off that she wasn’t right. But she wasn’t stupid either. She’d held still in the midst of that camp as he killed her captors, and she’d not shied away from him when he went to free her, instead presenting her bonds to be cut. And she’d proven herself handy enough with a knife in the time since, too.
She was, he reckoned, maybe 17 – perhaps a little younger, perhaps a little older. But no more than a couple of years either way. Skinny, always, no matter if they spent time in a caravan of travellers – not that they were ever tolerated for long – or were just walking the roads alone, sometimes hungry for a day or two if the hunting luck wasn’t with him.
So they’d travelled together for the best part of a year now, first as companions and then when Layla came unbidden to him one night, as lovers. He supposed he was perhaps five years her senior, but she was the first woman he’d ever had, all the same.
As for him, he’d survived first because he was with a big group and his parents were still alive. Then they both died, one of a broken leg gone bad and the other of some kind of fever, and he’d been tolerated for a while because of his skill with a bow. And then the boss man’s daughter had wanted him and he’d seen the way that was going and run rather than have his throat slit some night.
Since then – until Layla – he’d been alone.
He looked up at the sky. Time they were going, more than.
Layla was still dancing, but even she could see that her dancing was nearly finished for the day. He sighed. He knew that sometime – and he should have done it already – he’d have to stop this. Stop her. She wound down and came to a slightly swaying halt, smiling that beautiful, relaxed smile she always got when she’d been cloud dancing.
The adrenaline of the hunt had gone now, replaced by the fear of the potentially hunted. The smoke of the pyre would be visible from a long way off, and soon others would come to pick over the corpses. Not Eaters this time, but Layla had been jumpy and snappish for days and when they’d come across this lot she was in amongst them with her knife and no thought for her own safety before he could stop her.
Still, he thought again, he really would have to do something about Layla. As they walked quickly away from the billowing smoke rising into the sky, drifting away like a host of small black clouds, she put her hand in his and smiled happily up at him, her blue-green eyes full of love and joy. Yes, he’d have to do something. Just maybe not yet.
I recently visited Mont St Michel for the third time, this time staying two nights on the island. It’s always difficult to know whether to say “I stayed on the Mont”, “I stayed on the island” or something else, because the former sounds like I’ve been exposed to the elements in the style of a Spartan baby, and the second isn’t really accurate as it’s (still) not really an island, although it’s obvious that the new walkway is having some positive effect on reducing the silting of the bay.
Anyway, at night, and early in the morning, Mont St Michel is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, because there are no roads and therefore no cars. It’s ironic, therefore, that I had the worst two nights’ of sleep I’ve ever had in a hotel room – entirely as a result of the traffic.
The problem with hotel rooms on MSM is that you never know quite where you’re going to be sleeping, because the bedrooms are scattered around the village in what are referred to as “Annexes”. Mine was, at first glance, a beautiful large room in an ancient building, with, of course, a stunning backdrop – which is actually even more impressive after dark.
As you can tell by the angle of this picture, it was pretty close to the village wall. It was also situated over La Grande Rue, which meant that it was fairly noisy during the daytime. But I had thought it’d be quiet at night after the (other) tourists had mainly gone home.
However, it turned out that despite the hideous price of hotel rooms in/on/at Mont St Michel, the owners haven’t invested in either internal or external noise insulation. This meant that I could hear every word exchanged between the couple in the next room – although they weren’t talking loudly – until midnight, followed by his snoring. As I’d planned to get up early the next day to go out with my camera this was slightly annoying, but I went to sleep anyway. Meanwhile, Mont St Michel carried on being magnificent in the darkness.
My first inkling of the real problem with having a room over La Grande Rue came at 5.45 the next morning. And it’s an obvious one, if you think about it. The site gets not far short of 3 million visitors a year, and many of them want to eat or stay there. This means that vast quantities of food and laundry have to be brought in and out – up a street far too narrow for delivery trucks. This means that deliveries have to be done using trolley type things. Trolley type things that make a terrible noise, whether full or empty, when running at high speed over ancient cobbles.
I got up, looked out to see what was going on, swore a lot, both at the racket and the rain, and went back to bed. After about another hour I fell asleep again, and thus my early morning was abandoned.
The next night, however, the trolleys began at 4.20 am… This led to more swearing, but this time I also got up and watched what was going on.
First came the laundry sorters. There were at least two of them, and they spent most of their time having a very loud conversation, presumably in case the noise of the trolleys hadn’t quite woken everyone in the village.
Then there was a forklift truck with a motor that made an extremely menacing howling sound, taking food supplies further into the village for the restaurants.
It also got up to quite a respectable speed on the way back down the street, when it was empty.
Eventually the laundry men were finished, departing with a train of trolleys each. They must have pretty strong muscles to go with their voices, because as I know from my time as a femme de ménage in a French hotel, full laundry bags are far from light.
There was a brief period of quiet, and I wondered whether to make myself a cup of tea or to try to get back to sleep. But the night’s entertainment hadn’t finished. The dulcet tones of “cardboard box being kicked along medieval ramparts” came next, culminating in it being booted down the steps opposite and along the street by a man who for some reason made me think of Enrico Caruso.
By now, it was about 6ish and I was beginning to think that was it, but of course the reason why Caruso was out indulging in a spot of pre-dawn box-booting was that the binmen were coming.
These guys also had a loud conversation, probably about the Health and Safety rules they were infringing, as they had a vast amount of rubbish in the trailer thing they were pulling behind the forklift, and indeed when they finally moved off one guy had to steady it from behind. Although quite what he’d have done if it really had tried to escape, I’m not sure.
As I watched their lights disappear under the archway to the right, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to bed.
Then the next set of trolleys full of food arrived…
The moral of this story is always, but always, travel with a set of really good earplugs.
Oh, and just in case you’re thinking “But how much noise can a trolley really make?”, here’s one of them in action. Yes, it really did sound like this.
Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.
I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.
I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.
I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.
Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.
In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.
Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.
I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.
But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.
I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.
The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)
The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.
I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.
I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.
I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.
And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.
But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.
But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.
Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.
Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.
But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.
I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.
So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.
Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.
So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.
A few weeks ago, I listened to an audiobook – “From Darkest Skies”, by Sam Peters – and enjoyed it so much I immediately emailed the author about it. This is extremely rare for me. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it in nearly seven years of Audible membership.
It’s an SF book, but in practice it’s very much in the noir genre. On a particularly inhospitable planet, someone’s up to no good, and it’s down to the hero, Keon Rause, to work out exactly what and exactly who. And do either of these answers involve his dead wife? She says not.
Sam Peters’ worldbuilding is enviably complete, and the planet Magenta’s hideous weather and back-breaking gravity feel real right from the start. And to aid him in his sleuthing, Keon has probably the most realistic team of characters that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, all of whom come across as real, rounded people, especially in the version narrated by Peter Noble.
One of these characters in particular was the reason I wrote to the author. Voiced as though he comes from the north of England somewhere (Burnley? Bolton?), Bix Rangesh is a total nightmare to work with – he doesn’t stick to procedure, he’s got no respect for authority and he’s far too familiar with the various players in the Magentan underworld. But he also gets results, and clearly whenever Bix is around it’s party time, whether you felt like having a party or not. Increasingly, as the book went on, I found myself worrying that he was going to be killed off. Yeah, he’s that good.
So I wrote to Sam Peters and said, essentially, ‘nice job, thanks for Bix, glad he’s not dead’.
And I didn’t get a reply.
Now, I know that authors are busy people. I gather that “From Darkest Skies” has already been optioned for TV, which is pretty good going for a début novel. And there are a couple of sequels planned. But I did think I’d get a standard “Thank you”.
However, what with the weather and renovation, this hasn’t been uppermost in my thoughts, and I was still intending to download the audiobook of the next installment as soon as it arrives on Audible.
Then yesterday, I did get a reply.
A reply to me, personally, referencing something I’d said in my email, from Bix Rangesh himself!
I actually have, in my inbox, a little piece of original Sam Peters writing! How cool is that?
Anyway, it turns out that the next book in the series, “From Distant Stars” is out for pre-order now from Amazon. Personally, I’m going to hang on for the audio version because it’s so fabulous, but I’ve pre-ordered the paperback version anyway, because according to Bix, “pre-orders totally make a difference to some algorithmy stuff”.
So if you like SF but you only read paper books, buy “From Darkest Skies” and I’ll send you my copy of the second one as soon as it arrives (this time next year).
And if you’re really into audiobooks, buy that instead. In either case, you won’t regret it!
There’s a programme on the radio this morning about the history of antibiotics. It was quite interesting while they were talking about the discovery of penicillin, but I’ve just had to turn it off.
Because, as I knew they would, they’ve got to the bit about antibiotic resistance all being our fault. “People became addicted to antibiotics” is how they phrased it.
By which they mean the following dialogue, which I know you recognise because you’ve played the part of the villain many many times:
Patient: Doctor, I have a cold and I really need antibiotics to cure it.
Doctor: I’m very sorry, but antibiotics don’t work against colds so they’re really not appropriate. I suggest you take an over the counter painkiller, drink plenty of liquid and rest.
Patient (threateningly): But I insist on having antibiotics! If you don’t give me antibiotics now, I’m going to get very very angry!
Doctor (cringing): No, no, please don’t hurt me! Here! (scribbles prescription and hurls it across the desk at the ravening patient)
I don’t know what the point of this myth is – although my cynical side tells me that it’s to distract us from the agricultural use of antibiotics which mean that most of us are being subject to constant low-level doses whether we want to or not – but isn’t it about time that the media stopped blaming antibiotic resistance on ordinary people? If there’s ever been over-prescribing of antibiotics for inappropriate uses, surely that’s down to the people doing the prescription, not the poor bloody patients?
It’s occurred to me in recent weeks that there’s more going on than you think when you’re offered dessert in a French restaurant.
Now, I’m talking here about the kind of restaurant where they don’t print a menu – but of course you already know to avoid those, don’t you? The most this sort of place has is a chalk board with the menu du jour scribbled on it. But the menu du jour usually only lists the first two courses. So the available desserts always come as something of a surprise, and you really have to get your tactics right when it comes to choosing one.
If you’re very specific about what constitutes a dessert, then you may already be limited to a couple of choices. If you want something chocolatey, you’re not likely to be offered more than mousse or fondant au chocolat. So that’s easy. If you’re a pie-eater, then you probably don’t even that much choice in large swathes of France – here in Normandy and in many other areas it’s always apple. Although where I used to live in the Limousin my other half got so blasé about the prune tart he now so desperately craves that he would only eat it if all the other variants (pear, apricot, peach etc. etc.) had run out. But even there he did once play an extremely good trump card in the dessert menu game and was rewarded with a piece of mirabelle tart, which he still reminisces about to this day.
Anyway, the way the dessert game goes is this. The waiter/waitress will sidle up and begin the manoeuvres with the traditional “Vous prenez un dessert ?” To which, of course, the only response is “Yes”, even if you already feel like your stomach is bursting, because once again this is a particular type of restaurant and the chances are that the price you’re paying includes dessert – and quite possibly coffee too.
The starting position thus established, the waiter/waitress is once again forced to make the first move. They rattle off the list of desserts. If your French isn’t good, or if they’ve got an impenetrable accent or a bad cold, you may have to put yourself in a disadvantageous position by asking them to repeat the list. Or you may – as I often do – simply panic at the plethora of choices and end up going for the first thing you’ll definitely like, only to hear something much nicer being offered to the next table five minutes later.
However, there’s an interesting thing about dessert menus, which I’ve only recently managed to formulate. If you wait right until the very end…. and then beyond it, you may just be offered the secret dessert.
Of course it’s not a secret to the restaurant staff, because it’s often the one they’ve squirrelled away for their own delectation later in the afternoon when you’ve all been turfed out full of boring old fromage blanc and îles flottantes. But they will offer it to you, if you can keep your nerve.
It has to be said at this point that the hidden dessert may actually be something that’s no nicer than the other things on offer. But you’ve got, in my estimation, a 30% chance of it being something absolutely stunning.
This happened to me recently (and the discerning reader will note that this was clearly not in Normandy). The exchange went something like this:
Waiter: “J’ai mousse au chocolat, tarte au pomme, crême caramel, îles flottantes, tarte à la pêche, baba au rhum, de la glâce, des sorbets…”
Me: (maintaining an expectant silence) …
Waiter: (faltering) “Et (sighs)… j’ai également une tarte bon accueil.”
Me: (brightening) “Et c’est quoi ?”
And the Tarte bon accueil (created by and named after the restaurant) turned out to be an indescribably good concoction of egg and mystery that tasted rather like the smell of an old French farmhouse, with added sugar. Smoky, acrid, sweet and fabulous. One to go on the list of Top desserts I have unearthed along with the Tarte délice au rhubarbe that I ate precisely once, about 12 years ago, and can still taste.
Today, however, I was outplayed by the waitress and patronne of the restaurant, who cleverly played the Age card just at the perfect moment:
“Il y a mousse au chocolat, crême brulée, tarte au pomme, fondant au chocolat avec crême anglaise, buche glacé…” Here she looked a little nervous and I really thought I had her – until she continued, with a slight quaver in her voice, “mais je ne me souviens pas de quelle saveur…” Then she came to a stop.
Only the Cruelty card would have trumped this, and I really didn’t have the heart to play it. A simple “C’est tout?” or even a suitably timed sigh might have worked, but she really is extremely elderly and I worry every time I visit the establishment that she’ll have retired, the place will have closed down, and that I’ll then have one less venue where I can hone my dessert hunting skills. So I caved and had the fondant au chocolat. And very nice it was too.
Just… probably not as nice as the dessert she had tucked away in the fridge to eat later.