The Twain Assertion

Mark Twain famously stated, “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. So in case anyone thinks Covid or anything else might have got me, I’m still here, or at least I think I am or I am in this one of limitless variant worlds perpetually branching off. I’m just not a natural blogger. Things interest me. People interest me. But perpetually telling people what I’ve just done does not interest me. Some bloggers, of course, are very influential, for good or ill, spreading truth or lies, but somehow this way of influencing people leaves me a bit cold whether I’m posting or reading.

OK, that’s a bit of an excuse for having had time to post, but not having done it. I don’t write much poetry now and while I do write some short stories, that doesn’t lend itself to blogging so well.

Recently on LinkedIn I responded to a prompt to record my achievements of the year. That was an interesting question for someone retired, but involved in UK politics to an extend that would probably turn off some of my few readers. So there’s an interesting point: the question is really TWO questions: what have I achieved that I value; and of that list, what can I explain or don’t want to keep private and is likely to interest some other people.

We’re making compromises and calculations like that all the time. Actually, that’s characteristic of politics – and that word has got so dirtied, it’s worth pointing out it’s simply the activity by which people resolve decisions that can’t be left to individual choice, like what to do with that bit of waste ground in the middle of town or where to go for the Christmas party.

I hope to be back after a less long gap!

Not another Covid post?

Recently someone in Essex birdwatching on a walk in his local area was stopped and warned by the police. Another birdwatcher asked the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner to clarify the situation. This was the reply.

“The Health Protection Act regulations that apply to the current lockdown does [sic] not include birdwatching as a reasonable excuse for a person to leave their home. Whilst walking is considered as exercise frequently stopping to view birds would make this activity a recreation as opposed to exercise.

I am aware that angling has been declared an exercise but I am unaware that the same has been done for birdwatching.”

So in other words, sitting still with a fishing rod is exercise, but walking around stopping from time to time to look at birds is not. On the whole, the philosophy seems to be that except for anglers, if you do anything you enjoy while exercising, it’s not exercise, but recreation. Next stop – joggers can’t have music systems plugged in because that’s attending a musical performance?

Enforcement of lockdown is essential to save lives, but I haven’t seen a police officer in a supermarket since the pandemic started and I don’t believe they’re visiting offices. Scientific evidence is that the vast majority of infections occur through sharing air with an infected person indoors.

The main fault, of course, lies with a government that produces vague and loosely-worded legislation; but as with any other law, police can use common sense.

On the plus side, I’ve had my first jab and it was all immaculately and courteously organised.

Obeying the Rules – whatever they are

My last post about Covid was philosophical. This one is political – not that this should be a huge leap.

Apologies to non-UK readers. This is about how the UK is handling the pandemic, and actually just one aspect. Rules about exercise.

The stated rules for our second lockdown say – STAY AT HOME except for a few things, including exercise in a public pen space IN YOUR LOCAL AREA. The local area is not defined. At one point it was “your quarter of your town or city”, which doesn’t help if you’re in a village. If “quarter” is taken literally – 25% – that means you could travel from Greenwich to Bromley, but not from one end of Manningtree or Accrington to the other. Or it may have that other common meaning of “neighbourhood” as in “the Chinese quarter of Newcastle”, which is about four streets and like many urban neighbourhoods, has no public open space to speak of.

It appears that people are being fined by the police in some areas for driving a few miles to exercise when they believed they were within the law. So the process seems to go like this:

1: Government makes a vague law which can’t be enforced without making it specific.

2: Government declines to clarify.

3: Police make their own decision – say, “up to five miles is OK, but no more”.

4: They don’t tell people what the rule is.

5: They catch people breaking it and fine them.

I’ve had good friends in the police; I’ve often in my work days worked well with police officers. One relative was a copper for most of his working life. But this is all just a bit like a police state.

OK, the main priority is to cut Covid deaths. For that, a second lockdown is probably the right measure and maybe should have come sooner. But are these rules helping? During the first lockdown, some police forces applied a rule which never had legal justification, that people could not drive at all to a place to exercise. Given that many people had dogs or restless children, but were scared to drive, they clustered in places on the edge of town. In my coastal town, there is only one. It was crowded. Bad for reducing transmission, surely? Then people realised the no-driving rule had been dropped and they spread out. Much easier to avoid getting too close. Now, though, people don’t know if even a four-mile journey might get them in trouble. Result: they’re clustering together again.

Stopping people going even a few miles would make sense if the virus was localised in a few pockets, but it isn’t and won’t be. That might have worked right at the start – not now.

I can be persuaded. But I’ve yet to hear why driving ten miles to exercise where few people are is more dangerous than driving one mile to where lots of people are.

The New World

As we approach a year locked into a pandemic, and as I give thanks for the safety of those closest to me, I think about how the changed world has affected me and what I can learn from my reactions.

As I said in my last post, I haven’t felt disoriented or puzzled or even helpless. An unwanted situation has happened, as they do, and I am not powerless because I can take sensible precautions by choice, take calculated small risks by choice when they seem worthwhile, and although my government is unlikely to listen to me or mine, I can help expose its mistakes and dishonesties. Compared to the experience of a world war starting, with your country a combatant, this dislocation is quite small. Moreover, it’s never seemed to me the most important thing happening – that’s the climate emergency and our inadequate response.

There are things I miss a lot: drinking, chatting and just watching the world go by in the pub (a bottle of beer at home is not a complete substitute, not by a long chalk); cancelled holidays; some birding day trips when (as now) lockdown is intense. There are even gains: the cats and I share one another’s company more, which suits us all. Most of these things can be replaced. What can’t – and what effect does it have?

I’m still in regular contact with friends, political allies and relatives. But we don’t meet face to face. That matters after a while, particularly in the political field. Meetings happen by Zoom. The business gets done, but all the informal contact, the taking someone aside after the meeting, the chat, much of which is also useful to the campaigning effort, is lost. You learn less about the people you’re working with. Human experience is narrowed.

I’ve got out birdwatching and on long walks as much as before, even if that involved a little rebellion in the first lockdown when police were making up the rules including some very silly ones. The birding is more local, but that’s OK. For a long time, though, out of caution and because other people were abstaining, I wasn’t delivering leaflets. Can you believe how glad I was when I felt I could go back to that? Why was this? I was doing something useful, yes, but also, I was getting out, seeing different sights, going to different places. The meetings, too: I might dislike driving to a meeting in heavy rain after dark, but it meant being in different places. Not being in different places so much, however much I visited places on the net, had a bigger effect than I expected and eventually, I did feel, not quite depressed, but unfulfilled, unchallenged.

So what does that mean for people who for reasons of health or anything else, in or out of pandemic, can’t get out? How much does that do to fuel mental decline?


People say to me, “We’re living in strange times”. True, but on the whole, I expect times to be strange. I’ve got a History degree. I read Science Fiction. In both, strange things happen. I’ve also got a lively interest in both emergency planning, and how people react in a crisis. The assumption that if something has never happened in your experience, it won’t happen, is horribly common and leads to a lot of bad decisions.

I’m not sure if that’s why I’ve been a bit scared, and bothered by things I want to do but can’t, but not disturbed or disoriented by the crisis. Of course, it makes a big difference that no-one I know has been hospitalised. But if they were, disoriented would be the last thing I’d be.

I get on with political planning tasks, with writing, with local birdwatching while maintaining social distance. I’m phoning people and getting phone calls. The cats are happy with things. I’m reading more – “New Scientist” and some books. I’m learning Italian – something I’d started as a project before lockdown, but I have more time for now.

Our government’s response is all over the place, but then I’d expect that. “New Scientist” mentions Chinese research that places of work were 100 times more dangerous than public transport; so the government makes face coverings on public transport compulsory and not at work. I did my big food shopping two days ago (now at 9 to 10 day intervals to reduce risk). None of the staff busying around (often coming close to customers) were wearing face-masks, though the checkout-people were.

OK, I’m not surprised – just disappointed.





Tales of the Supernatural



My serious writing commitment is to poetry (book out soon with Angella Horner’s pictures). But I enjoy taking part in writing groups, particularly the one in Chelmsford named “Write said Fred” and led by Mad Tom (well, he’s a psychiatrist). I’m beginning to think I could collect the stories I wrote for this. There are themes of a sort – confusion of identity, misunderstandings, no-one being quite sure where the border of reality is. Oh, and humour: I love writing dialogue.

Three of the stories could be described as ghostly or supernatural. Now outside writing, I just view the supernatural as an unknown country as real in its way as Australia (never having been there, Australia I mean). The ghostly or supernatural story, though, is when something outside our understanding invades the world of our understanding.

On such story features Viking traders forced by a storm to camp on a small Hebridean island which is now uninhabited and what happens overnight (not scary: this is a feelgood story). Another has a couple taking over a long-closed pub called “The Resolution” (that was the title for the Freds), finding out it had been named after a Napoleonic warship in honour of its stand-in captain who’d become a regular in the pub and then finding the past has a way of coming back. Again, not scary, though the story does include sadness.

I’ve just written one that has gone way beyond the one thousand word guideline for Write said Fred, so I’ll have to do it in episodes. 4600 words when I set out to write 1000! It has just three characters of any substance – a damaged ex-copper (Tim Ward) who has left his home and old work area and set up a new life running  a computer services business from his new home in the Yorkshire Dales; a mid-nineteenth-century vicar in the same place (Rev Somerton Warley)  who investigates the scary tradition of the ghostly Kempsdale Riders and writes a book which Tim gets hold of; and a mysterious young woman (Talia McQueen) who appears when Tim is checking out a ruin involved in the story and encourages him to repeat the Reverend Warley’s experiment into the truth of the legend.

Writing it has been huge fun – getting the tone and language and thought processes of a fairly broad-minded 19th century Anglican clergyman just right; making Talia hopefully just mysterious enough, so that Tim senses something odd but still sees her as a beautiful woman who seems to be interested in him and might act on that; and especially inventing a load of credible Yorkshire names like Skegsgill Cottage, Stainford-in-Kempsdale, Brant Hagg, Grimsbar Knoll, the Blood Beck and Hammerthorpe.

Is this story scary? I hope so. But the theme is strangeness rather than horror and panic.


As I was saying…

When a well-known British newspaper columnist died many years ago, his obituary contained something that made me laugh out loud. He’d started his column not long before the Second World War broke out. He’d been called up to the army (artillery, I think). After six years of fighting and waiting, he returned to his old job. His first column on his return started, “As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted…”

So – I’ve been a long time without posting. I haven’t been to war and it hasn’t been six years. I’ve been busy – writing-related things, political activism, birdwatching… I haven’t posted poetry because of publication issues and because I’m not writing as much of it as I used (some short stories instead). I suppose also I see social media as something interesting I can take or leave, not as a pressing need.

Anyway, sorry I’ve been silent so long. A book collaboration with Colchester artist Angella Horner (her art, my poems) will be out soon. I’m very tied up in preparations for our local elections. Just over a year ago I was in Ecuador, my first visit to Latin America. Maybe more about that later. For now – just Hello.



The Lone Kitchener: The Remains of the Haggis

Let’s say you’ve decided to mark the New Year, Burns Night or any other occasion or none by eating haggis, tatties and neeps (note for the uninformed: neeps are tiny, sweet-looking rodents found only in the wilds of Inverness-shire and on neep farms in East Lancashire). OK, they’re turnips. Turnips were alive too.

You live alone – or no-one else in your household shares your liking for this traditional and symbolic Scottish dish. The haggis you’ve bought is family-size: smaller ones were not available. You have eaten. You have drunk. You are full. There is still quite a bit of haggis left. You don’t want to risk re-heating a meat dish. What to do?

I may have found the answer. Put the remains of the haggis in the fridge. When you’re ready, add stuff. My recipe is for a bowlful of haggis – the sort of bowl you might have breakfast cereals in. Add four or five cherry tomatoes chopped in two, half a stick of celery chopped up and one or two very lightly-cooked shallots. Add a teaspoonful of chutney (not the super-salty kind: I used home-made banana and lime chutney) and five or six grapes, cut in two. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Mix vigorously. Eat. The end result is tasty and vaguely North African.

Happy Christmas


Writing exercises

Quill    Apparently that’s an image of “Medieval man writing”. How do they know it’s a Medieval man? Hands look very smooth to me. Could be a modern man or a woman.                                                                                           I’m getting off the subject.  There are two kinds of writing exercises or prompts – the sudden and the considered. The sudden I dislike and tend to avoid poetry or other groups that do this – without warning, all write about – I don’t know – HANDS.  The ones where you get your prompt and can take it away and think about it, play with it, or forget about it till the evening before – those can be interesting. Liking play with words as I do, I tend to try to find a way to twist the topic from its obvious meaning. In a fun Chelmsford writing group I go to, I took “AS THE DOOR CREAKED…” (Gothic, ghostly, threatening maybe) not to mean “as” in the sense of “when” or “while” (as the door creaked, I felt a shiver in my spine) but in the sense of “because” and started, “As the door creaked, I didn’t buy the house”. This time the prompt was “Dressed for success” – not really my thing, dressing up I mean, not success – and came up with a story involving a fictional River Drest in Sweden, the town named after the waterfall on the river (Drestfors) and the local brewery’s premium beer, Drestfors XS. This turned into a comedy of cultures, the cultures being Swedish and Japanese. Really interesting showing two different cultures interacting and misunderstanding when neither of them is your own.

The other efforts were downright brilliant. Many thanks to Tom the Mad Psychiatrist who organises it.