If only 18-year-old me had known…

I’m typing this on my laptop, sitting in the courtyard of my house in France, at the picnic table under the fig tree*.

Fig tree workspace

I’m listening to my streaming music service on my mobile phone, which is picking the music out of the air and beaming it via Bluetooth to my wireless headphones.

A few minutes ago I was working on my current translation project, about the digitisation of a Belgian city’s administrative processes. My next project is the script for another set of meditation sessions. There’s always something new to do, always clients asking me if I’m available. And I’m making a – very decent, by most people’s standards – living too, from a job I can actually do anywhere. No commuting, no dress code, no office politics.

In a minute I think I’ll go for a walk through the marais, in which case I’ll listen to an audiobook. My current listen is set on a British island not entirely unlike Lindisfarne, and I’ve been toying with the idea of spending the winter somewhere like that – an island connected to the mainland at high tide. As a native of a permanent island, I find places like that very odd and interesting.

Even the cows love the marais

Later this evening, I’ll probably play a computer game to unwind. Either No Man’s Sky, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and really is excellent for relaxation, or Witcher 3, which isn’t so relaxing but is utterly stunning in terms of graphic detail and sheer depth of scenario.

At the weekend, I’m going back to Sweden, via Paris** – a city I’m quite familiar with now, and where, of course, I can talk fluently to any French person I happen to encounter.

Our house in Sweden is near the sea, surrounded by beech woodland, and has a garden larger than a whole block of houses in the UK. On Saturday I’m going to a party in Copenhagen, which involves crossing the Öresund Bridge. We’ll pay the bridge toll via an electronic bleeper attached to the windscreen (or, more probably, as I’m going in my friend Richard’s car, an electronic bleeper that I’ll be holding up to the windscreen, because his one has lost its sticky and normally lives in the glove compartment).

I can’t help thinking 18-year-old me, setting off to university for the first time about this time of year, 33 years ago, would be pretty damned impressed and happy with my life, and the technology*** that allows me to live like this.

Actually, 51-year-old me is, too.


*This makes it sound a lot posher than it is. We’ve been renovating the house, which we bought for the price of a garden shed in the UK, for three years, and we still don’t have ceiling lights, or heating. It’s Normandy, so today’s sunshine is going to be eclipsed by thick cloud for the rest of the week while everyone else in the country is sunbathing. The car’s developed a fault that means you regularly have to leap out and wiggle the battery leads before it’ll start. The sickly stray cat that’s adopted us has just snorted a streak of bloody snot onto the picnic table near my mouse mat, and there’s a disembowelled jackdaw (courtesy of said cat) decomposing in the rubbish bin. But anyway.

**Yes, I’m climate compensating the flights, but I still feel guilty. Then again, I don’t have kids, which by my reckoning puts me well on the side of the angels in terms of carbon emissions over my lifetime.

***And, of course, with the EU, which is what really allows me to live like this. Because in the UK I’d be lucky to be able to afford a flat, never mind two large houses. And – tax avoidance for the super-rich aside – this is the point of Brexit. They want people like me to stay in the UK, trapped in a monolingual economy of insecure jobs and extortionately priced housing.

True grit

A spot of murder to start the day, inspired by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch.


They dragged her into the brightly lit interrogation room, struggling and spitting, and forced her down into a chair.

Once they’d read her the standard caution, the words flooded out of her exhausted frame. How she’d put up with his violence for years until she’d finally snapped and decided to kill him. How she’d set up an alibi and learned the patrol patterns at his heavily guarded office so she could slip between them unnoticed, in and out like a ghost.

“And I’d have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that stupid pebble in my shoe.”

How to win the British Political War

I’ve dashed this off rather quickly because, although it’s only been brewing in my head for about 48 hours, things in UK politics are changing so rapidly and so insanely that by Thursday the entire country may be under martial law governed by a junta. So it’s not as concise as I’d like, and it should probably be two separate posts.

Still, when the British government are announcing that they might start ignoring the law just because they feel like it, I’m not absolutely sure writing a perfect blog post is terribly important.

[And yes, I know I promised at least a couple more writing exercises, but I’ve been busy, and then travelling, then travelling while sick, and then just sick.]


Comparisons with the English Civil War have abounded ever since the extent of the country’s division over Brexit became clear.

And it’s a tempting correlation. Like the Civil War, Brexit has split the UK along entirely new lines. Rich side with poor, north with south, urban with rural, and family members are almost literally at daggers drawn.

But it’s that “almost literally” that embodies the difference. We’re all furious about it – whichever side we’re on – but none of us are actually going to take up arms and make this a real fighting war.

Of course, that’s partly because we don’t in fact have arms to fight with. Yes, most of us could muster a pointy stick, but that’s about it. We don’t have swords. We don’t (thank God) have firearms. Any pitchfork you might have hanging around the house is likely to be doing exactly that – suspended on the wall for decoration, the shaft long since well and truly hollowed out by woodworm.

But it isn’t even the lack of weapons that makes it different.

As with most wars, the English Civil War had a range of complex causes, including religious differences – the key reason why the Brexit situation isn’t and never can be the same – but essentially it arose because the people of Britain weren’t apathetic.

These days, we have our toasters and our TVs and our steel-belted radials and although we do say something, we do nothing. We protest, we march, we sign petitions and crowdfund billboards, but we don’t take direct action. We don’t (again, thankfully) start killing our neighbours just because they’re on the other side. Why? Because we might lose our perceived personal freedom. Before the real Civil War, things were different. People already were losing their personal and religious freedom, and their possessions. And they weren’t as distant from death and reality as we are today.

The right wing, with their advanced grasp of the best levers to use on the masses, have long since realised this. So they’re not worried. Particularly as the left are still ineffectually trying to combine their parties, or create new left-wing ones, to beat the Tories and bring this madness to an end.

Which leaves me wondering why nobody’s thought to create a party on the right, to soak up the traditional Tory voters and siphon them away from the loonier, Boris end of the party. To establish a common sense, traditional conservative with a small C approach to the whole Brexit issue.

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of Tories who could be involved. Ken Clarke. Michael Heseltine. Dominic Grieve. John Major. I’ve said and thought many rude things about all of them in the past, but these days they seem to be the only people in British politics talking any kind of sense.

All it would take is a rich backer to support individual candidates in every suitable seat – because there probably isn’t time to form a party as such before the next General Election – who’d all stand on a common platform, with a single name. One Nation Tories, perhaps?

I reckon that would split the Tory vote and lose them more seats than anything else, and perhaps bring some sadly lacking common sense onto the UK’s political landscape. After all, Macron did exactly the same thing in France two years ago. Surely it’s worth a go?

Writing exercise #23 –Journal play

A fragment, this one. I do have a few thoughts about where it could go, but anyway, you get the idea. And at least nobody dies! (yet)


“So I hope you all brought your journals with you”, said Leader Len. “Because this week we’re going to do a journal play.”

His name wasn’t really Len, but he was the leader of their writing circle and she never remembered people’s names anyway, so she’d given all of the group members onomatopoeic names that describe their main characteristics.

“A journal play?” asked Suspicious Sheila.

“Yes. We’ll go around the group and you each read a line from your journal that fits – or doesn’t fit, that’s sometimes even funnier! – with the line before it. You’ve got five minutes to pick out some suitable lines and then 20 seconds a go to find a line you like, and no cheating! Anyone can challenge at any time if they think you’ve made your line up.”

‘I thought the whole point of the creative writing circle was to be crea… oh, sod it’, she thought as they all flipped through their diaries and underlined potential lines. Len was getting more and more peculiar every week – last week’s assignment title had been “Liver and lights”, for God’s sake – so there was no point arguing.

“OK, so you start”, said Len, pointing at Larry. She stifled a groan.

“That girl in the chip shop doesn’t half fancy me”, read Lecherous Larry with a repulsively oily smirk. Fortunately Brusque Brian was sitting to Larry’s immediate left.

“I really think she must need her eyes testing”, he said triumphantly, leaning over to Larry and pointing to a page of his diary.

“Tonight I went to the pub”, droned Dreary Dave. “Three pints of bitter, a packet of cheese and onion crisps and three games of darts. 2-1.”

“I really must talk to Mrs Stevens at number 21 about her dustbins”, said Haughty Hilda. “I’m sure she’s mixing her plastics with her biodegradables.” Flirty Fiona leant towards Len, giving him a better view down her cleavage. “Spent far too much in the La Perla shop in Maidstone”, she breathed. “Now all I need is a nice man to try it all out on.” Judging by Len’s uncomprehending expression, he’d never heard of La Perla, but Bryan snorted and Larry turned rather red.

Writing exercise #22 – Hands up

“Hands up!” I shouted, and the people in the room all froze. Then, a second later, they all burst into laughter, and looking down I realised that the black, vicious-looking object I was holding in my two clasped hands wasn’t in fact a Tariga pistol – or even a good old-fashioned Uzi or anything useful like that. Instead it was a crow. Again.

The bird cocked its head, did an eye movement that on a human would be both sarcastic and impossible, and gave me a sharp stabbing blow with its greyish beak.

“Ow”, I said, and dropped it. Well, I let go but it didn’t drop to the ground. Instead it soared over the ducking heads of the still amused spectators and took up a position on the gilded head of a cherub amongst the ornate marble of the Embassy’s entrance hall.

As for me, the security guards either side of the door weren’t slow to explain – demonstrating excellent non-verbal skills, I thought, although admittedly I was probably somewhat biased – that my attempting to hold up the Swiss Embassy, whether or not armed with a crow, was not being seen as a joke.

They really don’t have any sense of humour, you know – security guards, that is, not the Swiss.

So anyway, I was marched fairly unceremoniously through a side door and into the bowels of the building, then deposited in a small windowless room with two hard chairs and a grubby grey metal table – all clamped to the floor, I couldn’t help noticing – and left there, presumably to reflect upon my sins. Which, admittedly, were many.

I took advantage of the peace and quiet, climbed up onto the table and went to sleep.

Some time later, I was woken by the door opening to admit a tall, lean man with a shaved head and wearing an expensive suit. He looked rather like the more skilful kind of Italian footballer shortly after he’s become a manager for the first time. I half expected him to start talking about how “the lads all played well”, but sadly he was more interested in my little corvid jape.

Sadly for him, that was. Because a croak in the implant in my inner ear let me know that the entrance hall was about to be filled with the most hideous smelling gas, and as the sirens went off and the man turned his head to the door, I tried out my line again.

“Hands up!” I said, making him look back at me instantly, a half smile on his lips. Only this time I really was pointing a Tariga pistol at him.

Writing exercise #21 – Mapping her moves

He’d been mapping her moves for days. Just like all the other bitches, she was so fucking predictable.

She always left her brownstone at 8:15 am. She always walked three blocks to the subway in eight minutes, plus or minus one minute. She always got the second or third subway carriage, because they stopped where she always came to rest on the platform, head buried in her smartphone, earbuds in, totally unaware except of potential threats to her purse.

He grinned as he flipped through his notes. Money wasn’t the prize he was after.

Then she always got off the subway at the same station, walked up the same stairs leading to the street and stopped on the corner to get a soy caramel latte to go from the same coffee shop. Then, still immersed in whatever her headphones were feeding her, she’d walk a further four blocks (eleven minutes, plus or minus one) to her office building, never sipping from her coffee mug with “Magen” written on it in sharpie until she was half way there.

Once she’d disappeared into her building he knew she’d be there for the day. To begin with he’d hung around at lunchtimes, trying to pick up her trail again, but after a week or so he’d realised that she probably didn’t often – if ever – leave the building to lunch. This conclusion was confirmed first by a quick bit of research (he’d rung the building’s management company pretending to be from city’s health department and asked for the contact details of the catering manager), and then, with a big stroke of luck by overhearing two of the woman’s colleagues commenting on her eating habits as they left the building.

“That Magen who works at your office. Does she never stop working?”

“She does, just not for long. She eats a sandwich at her desk so she can go home a bit earlier. We’re on flexitime and the boss doesn’t mind if we do that.”

“Well why don’t you, then? You’d get home at least half an hour earlier, have more time with Roy and the kids… Oh right.”

“Yeah, it’s because I’d have more time with Roy and the kids.”

So after that he hadn’t bothered waiting for her in the daytime during the week. But he was there again every day at 4.30 pm when she emerged from the building and did the whole route in reverse.

Occasionally she stopped off somewhere on the way home. Sometimes she went out again to the gym or to meet friends. But pretty often the only other time she left the house after returning from work was to go for a walk. To the park. On her own. The stupid bitch was just asking for it.

So tonight he was sitting in his van, right by one of the park entrances. He wore a pair of Parks Maintenance Unit overalls and a baseball cap pulled low over his face. And his van had the right Parks vehicle paint job. It had taken him to a while to get that right, but it had been worth it. Nobody would look twice at either him or his van now.

Just as he looked at his watch again, she appeared in his rear view mirror. He slipped quickly out of the driver’s seat and had his hand over the woman’s mouth and her dragged through the van’s side door and into the soundproof interior before she could even begin to think about drawing breath to scream. He held her limp body closely against him, inhaling her scent. He was going to get to know how she smelled real well real soon.

And then suddenly, he wasn’t quite sure how, he wasn’t holding her and contemplating what he was going to do next. He was lying on his back on the floor of the van while she held him by one wrist with a force only just this side of breaking the bone. He couldn’t see her face very well in the gloom, but he could tell from her voice that she was smiling. “I’m so glad you invited me in”, she said. “I was beginning to think you were never going to get up the courage.”

And then he felt her teeth graze his skin, and he was suddenly very, very afraid.

Writing exercise #20 – Lighting up

It was always special when it was Selin’s turn to light the beacons. She was lucky that her group of novices had been so small – and that there had been so many who hadn’t made it this far. Well, she corrected herself, remembering Nalia’s pale face and her limbs splayed at the base of the Magnetic Keep, maybe not lucky exactly. But she was glad all the same that her turn came around relatively often – about every 200 days as far as she could tell. It was hard, sometimes, to keep track of time, especially when they did their long practices which could have them emerging, blinking, into the daylight and marvelling at the brightness of the sky after hours – or possibly days – spent in ritual.

Eventually she’d be able to count better and then she’d know what day it was just like Revered Lyanka, who could count seconds better than an automaton, even when she was performing the complicated ritual dances requiring her to sing a rhythm other than the one her feet were keeping.

Lighting the beacons required an awareness of time, too, but fortunately it only had to coincide with sunset, and that was easy to count. Selin had lived here in the Sacred Fort since she was very small, and she knew what the sunset looked like at every time of the year.

And she always started early too, partly because beacon duty was an acceptable excuse for avoiding anything else scheduled for that day, and partly so she would never be late with the final lighting.

She had some time left, still, she knew. Just the right amount of time to prepare the two beacons in the lake and then make the climb to the top of the Forlorn Tower to perform the lighting ritual. Many of the other novices preferred to take the easy option and light the beacons one by one as they prepared them. But ever since Selin had first seen it done, when she was only just old enough to be out of bed at sunset, she had vowed she would always do it properly, the way Revered Amanda had taught the first novices all those years ago.

So she removed her robes and took the wicks and flints and special oils, in an oiled skin bag tied around her waist, and she swam to the two beacons in the lake. One by one she lifted the heavy glass covers onto their special iron stands, prepared the wicks and replaced the covers, always remembering to seal around them with the special red beacon wax and to mark it with the Order’s seal.

And then she swam back to the shore, her arms and legs shaking slightly from the exertion of keeping herself afloat as she worked – and set off on the long climb up to the Forlorn Tower. The beacon there was easy to light, thankfully and this time she was profiting from someone else’s hard work because the large oil vat was nearly full. The only lighting days she disliked were when she had to fill the vat too.

And now everything was ready. She stood at the top of the tower, hearing the faint sounds of the Order drifting up to her in the blueing air, and she breathed the ritual breaths and spoke the appropriate words and finally lit the holy circle – the apparently magical iron ring that sent the flame to all of the beacons at once. The sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the lake, the sky darkened immediately, and the rest of the Order, all gathered in the main courtyard, all sang a single harmonious note at the same time… and the beacons lit.

From the one by her side to those around the curtain wall, the three huge ones on the roof of the main temple and the row of nine small ones on Revered Lyanka’s house, to the two now submerged in the lake – they all shone with a cool white light, and the dusk was suddenly a greyer, more veiled thing around her. And she held her breath and listened. Because now, she knew, they would come.