Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Dangerous Year of Reading

This past year may have been one huge cluster-fuck of bad news, but one of the good things to come out of it was I had a lot of time to read. So much so, that I have finished 2020 having read more books than ever before (I have a spreadsheet; of course I do). The not-so-great news is, even with all this reading time, I still only managed to finish 44 books, which tops my current record by a slim margin of 1, leaving me, in equal measure, pleased and chagrined. Additionally, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that, when I saw I was closing in on my erstwhile record, I cheated a bit by selecting two rather slender volumes, the last of which I finished only this afternoon.

Still, an ugly win is still a win, and perhaps this will encourage me to try harder next year.

I am, you see, not a very fast reader. I have friends who can finish a book in a day (at least they tell me they can; I’ve never actually seen them do it) whereas I spend up to a fortnight on your average murder-mystery. What I found helpful, especially in my rush to ram as many books as possible into these final weeks of December, is a quota of pages per day, and I discovered something rather remarkable about it.

If you accept the notion that the average book is around 350 to 400 pages long, all you need to do is decide the number of books you want to complete in a year and read that many pages every day. (e.g. 1 page a day will get you 365 pages, or a single book, 2 pages, two books, etc. You’re welcome.) It helps if you develop a reading habit, such as devoting your lunch hour to reading while you scarf down your tuna-and-mayo sandwich, or reading before bed, or carrying a book with you everywhere you go so you can fill the downtime by reading instead of staring at the back of the person in front of you in the queue. (Ebooks work great for this, as do audio-books.)

In his book, A Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller states that he decided on 50 pages a day and, subsequently, read 50 books. (I didn’t read his book, by the way; my wife did, and told me about it.) In addition to a scattering of popular titles, such as Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, The Da Vinci Code and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Miller also tackled the types of books people claim to have read but actually haven’t, including Don Quixote, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Communist Manifesto, Beowulf, Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Middlemarch, Frankenstein and that bane of every American English Lit student, Moby Dick.

My list for the current year is shorter, less ambitious but, quite likely, more entertaining:

I admit to gravitating toward popular fiction, and murder, mayhem and madness in particular, therefore, the Jack Reacher books of Lee Child are on my Guilty Pleasures List. Unfortunately, Mr. Child has recently retired, so that particular stream has dried up. I had also been enjoying the books of Edward Marston (Keith Miles), but I’m afraid that has soured for me, as well.

Mr. Marston is, if nothing else, prolific. His historical thrillers—set in the 1850s, 1100s, WWI, et al—are fast-paced and superficially interesting, but also read like a first draft turned in by a talented 16-year-old. I used to be able to get beyond that, and take delight in the fact that I could point out things I would never do (like have two characters sitting in a room telling each other things they already know simply to get the information to the reader; simple, Writing 101 stuff) and thereby feel that I was a superior writer. But the fact that he has published nearly 100 books and has been nominated for an Edgar Award sorta puts a damper on that bit of fun.

As a substitute, I have discovered the books of Elly Griffiths, and I recommend reading anything with her name on it.

In addition to low-brow lit, I also read some non-genre fiction, thanks to the book club I belong to. This year, these included:

  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, a murder mystery set in the south. I recommend it.
  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, cold war shenanigans, really interesting.
  • The Snakes by Sadie Jones, good book, ruined by the final chapter. Don’t bother.
  • The Ballroom by Anna Hope, love in a prison. Recommended.
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, a weighty but highly recommend tome about (gulp) a pandemic. Must read!
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haigg, quirky, very entertaining, and short.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, ditto.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, really quirky and not as short, but I still recommend it.
  • How to Fall in Love With a Man Who Lives Under a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson. The title says it all. It’s fun, entertaining and short.

Books I highly recommend are:

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. If you have not read this book, go out, buy a copy and read it now.
  • His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman. Stunning in scope and imagery.

Books I do not recommend:

  • Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Prominently displayed at my local bookshop and heralded as a great read. It was anything but.
  • Lockdown by Peter May. He wrote this years ago and his publishers passed on it but, when the real lockdown happened, they pulled it out of mothballs and hyped the shit out of it. I read it, and now I know why his publishers passed on it. Utter rubbish. Read Wanderers instead.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books by Catherine Ryan Howard. Rewind and The Nothing Man were both good books and Ms Howard is gaining traction as an upcoming talent. Keep an eye on her, and buy her books.

That is my reading year in review. I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy many good books in the months to come.

I’ve got my spreadsheet ready for 2021, with 45 empty slots for the books I’m going to read, as long as I can fit in 45 pages a day.


Monday, December 21, 2020

An Early Christmas Present

 “Ask about getting a Shingles vaccine,” my wife says, as I prepare to leave for my flu jab.

Shingles? Isn’t that some medieval affliction, like cholera, typhoid fever, or the Black Death, and similarly consigned to the fringes of society? She assures me it is not, and is, furthermore, something I do not want to have.

And so, I ask the needle nurse about getting a Shingles vaccine. She tells me I won’t be eligible until I am 70. I am comfortable with that. I have never given Shingles a thought, and was certainly not planning on contracting it, so I tell her I will ask again in five years’ time.

Then I went home and got Shingles.

This caused great consternation, for two reasons. First, it is jolly uncomfortable, but more on that in a bit. Secondly, and initially more concerning, was this: for the past ten months I’ve been masked, sanitized, distanced, and going through bars of disinfectant soap like a wino through boxed Lambrusco (in a “gone as soon as it’s open” sort of way, not actual consumption), so how did this malady evade all those defences? And, more to the point, what else might get through? (I’m looking at you, COVID.) 

My fears were quelled, however, when I learned that one does not “catch” Shingles. Apparently, I’ve been carrying this around with me, like unwanted baggage, for some 63 years, ever since I had Chicken Pox. The virus, Dr. Google informed me, has lain dormant all that time, waiting for a chance to strike.

I blame my wife.

I’ve been happily going about my business with this sleeping virus inside me, not causing a bit of bother, until she pipes up and starts talking about it. I’m certain the virus perked up its ears when it heard her mention “Shingles” and thought, “Someone’s calling! Time to get to work!”

That’s my version and I’m sticking with it because there is no way I would have done this to myself.

It began innocently enough. Just a patch of tender skin, slightly tingly, like someone had rubbed it vigorously with extra-fine sandpaper. I dismissed it, but my wife put on her concerned face.

The next day, it had spread over the right side of my torso and my wife pronounced it to be Shingles. I dismissed it.

The next day, the rash appeared. My wife managed to avoid saying, “I told you so,” and I consulted Dr. Google.

I was advised to call the non-emergency health number (111). So, I did. I explained my symptoms to the person who answered the phone (they said they were a Doctor, but you never know; he could have found the gig via the Job Centre and took it because it was a step up from Loft Insulation cold-calling) and they told me to call my local GP. So, I did. There, at least, I was told up front that the person I would be talking to was not a doctor, but to spill all the gory details anyway, because that’s what they were there for.

I told the lady I had Shingles and she replied (literally, I am not making this up), “What do you expect us to do about it?”

Taken aback, I said, “Well, nothing, really. I checked your website. It said to call 111. I did. They said to call you. So, I am. I’m just ticking boxes. I have Shingles. If it gets worse, I’ll call back. Okay?”

She was happy with that, and I was certain the disease was already at its zenith and did my best to forget about it. Then I spent the next four days in bed, unable to move.

I know I must have, at some point in my life, experience more pain and discomfort than I have from Shingles, but I struggle to recall when that might have been. It was so excruciating and supremely uncomfortable that it was impossible to stand, or even sit. All I could do was lie in bed and pop paracetamol like a Ketamine junkie. Even breathing was painful.

Further research informed me that Shingles lasts from three to six weeks and that, sometimes, the rash and blisters go away, but the pain doesn’t. It can, Dr. Google affirms, last weeks, months, or even years.


However, despite all this, given the choice between COVID, the flu or Shingles, I’d take Singles any day, mainly because its list of common outcomes does not include “death.” (I have since learned that you can, indeed, die from an extreme case of Shingles, but in much the same way that you can die from an extreme case of Stubbed Toe.)

At any rate, after a few days, the pain subsided to a point I would call “Manageable,” which allows me to get up and go about my business in a manner I would describe as nearly normal but involving more paracetamol and lengthy naps. If the malady follows its normal course, I can expect to enjoy it over Christmas and have its company as I ring in the New Year. I can only hope it is well and truly gone before my birthday.

I didn’t include any pictures on purpose. If you really want to see what it looks like, consult Dr. Google. I don’t advise this, however; some of those graphics are horrific.

In a way, now that I have Shingles, it seems like it was meant to be. What better way to end 2020 than with yet another unwelcomed calamity?

I hope your Christmas is as festive as it can be under these circumstances. And if you are ever offered a Shingles vaccine, take it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Lockdown 2.0

I ended my first Lockdown Diary on 18 July, and posted to this blog about it. The post ended with a mocked-up photo of my fictional, future Lockdown #2 diary. I don’t recall thinking that it would really happen, but here we are.

Lockdown 2.0 isn’t much like Lockdown version 1, however. In fact, if I didn’t know a lockdown was in progress, I might not even notice. (That, however, would mostly be down to me being so unobservant.)

The traffic is lively, but lighter, if you notice those sorts of things. Many shops are closed—the hairdressers, pubs, restaurants—and we can’t go to the leisure centre, the cinema or the bookstore, and, although my wife can still work with her volunteer group in the park, it is now in pairs instead of groups of six.

Traffic, Lockdown version 1

Traffic, Lockdown 2.0

On the other hand, we can still go out as much as we want. There is no “one hour a day” restriction, and when we walk through town we can still shop at the markets, go to the mall and even get a cup of tea, though it is take-out only.

I realize that, like the first lockdown, many, many people have been adversely affected but, also like the first lockdown, we are in the very fortunate position to not be one of them. And because of that, to me, this seems more like Lockdown Lite than Lockdown 2.0.

And as a bonus, there isn’t any panic-buying going on, and there is a lot less angst. This isn’t our first rodeo, so we know what to expect; the virus is no longer an unknown bogey-man, the hospitals are better at treating it and, even without the continual prompting, we all know what to do (wash your hands, wear a mask, don’t French-kiss random strangers) even if we don’t always do it.

Town Centre, Lockdown version 1

In a way, this lockdown takes me back to those heady days of early summer when Lockdown version 1 was letting up—the ragged queues for take-out coffee, paying attention to the masking tape on the pavement, feeling like you’ve made a significant accomplishment when you finally step up to order, and mentally high-fiving yourself when a shop you need to go to is actually open. It’s a strangely nostalgic feeling, associated with freedom and hope.

Town Centre, Lockdown 2.0

The final difference is, this one is finite. Unlike the rolling three-week extensions of Lockdown version 1, Lockdown 2.0 is set to automatically expire* on the 2nd of December, and when it does, some/most/all of us will get back to the “normal” we were experiencing before. Which raises an interesting question: if we leave these restrictions and return to what we had come to know as normal life, does that mean things are back to Normal?

Perhaps this has been the Government’s strategy all along.


*I know the Government hasn’t had a stellar run of kept promises, but they really mean to stick to this one. No, really, they do. They won’t U-Turn on this one, they promised.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Strange Coincidence

Long ago, in the Before Time — before Breixt, before Trump, before COVID — I began writing a fantasy/adventure series for my grandsons. Any dedicated reader of Postcards… will be aware of this, as I keep banging on about it. Previously, however, I have only talked in general about the series; today I am going to mention something quite specific.

The series involves Arthurian legend and a stone—an obsidian Scrying Mirror called the Talisman—that holds the power to save the Land or, in the wrong hands, destroy it. The good thing about writing fantasy (something I had never envisioned doing) is that you can make shit up. So, I did.

The Talisman gets its power from Brighid (an actual goddess, supposedly, the origin of the goddess Britannia) and becomes even more powerful when placed in the Sacred Temple hidden deep beneath the Glastonbury Tor.

Of course.

The Tor is a place imbued with mystery, which made it the ideal location to hide a sacred temple. But how does one get at that Temple? What I came up with was the idea of a big, round stone, set into the side of the tor. The stone would mark the entrance to the underground temple and, to open the gateway, they had to…but that would be telling. What I can tell you is, I arbitrarily set it on the south side at the 5th level, simply to make it hard to get to as well as to avoid having it at the top, a location where there is, quite obviously, no large, round stone.

Earlier this year, while writing the final book, I needed to take another look at the Tor to help set up a scene, so I fired up Google Maps, as I have done countless times in the past. This time, however, I noticed something new: a location indicator pointing to something called the Egg Stone. A quick check revealed that this was the stone I had been writing about all along, without even knowing it was there.

The Egg Stone (said by some to be the “Dragon Egg” laid out by the Dragon of Avalon) has been there probably as long as the tor, and over the years has become mythologized as the gateway to the underworld, which is exactly what it is in my books. Even more coincidentally, it is in the same location as the stone in my books—the south side, on the 5th level.

It was a weird feeling, discovering that the fictional stone I had been writing about for eight years actually existed. I felt I needed to go see it in person so, on a lovely, sunny day in September—while my wife and I were on holiday in Somerset—we made a side trip to the Tor.

Level 5 on the South Side

We walked to the top, enjoyed the views, and then I set off to find the Egg Stone. It wasn’t difficult locating it—I’ve known exactly where it sits for years—but getting to it wasn’t easy, which is how it is in the books. I scrambled up a nearly vertical slope, dodging sure-footed sheep, prickly bushes and stingy nettles, to find it as I imagined, nestled in the slope rising from the fifth level. I was really chuffed, but there was no one to share my moment with. Then a woman came down the slope, wearing sandals, a psychedelic tee-shirt and glittery harem pants. She descended to the level ground and gave me no notice, even when I greeted her. Instead, she placed her hands on the Egg Stone and just sort of stood there, touching it.

The Egg Stone, right where I said it would be.

I figured that must be the thing to do, so I joined her, placing both my hands on the rock, but I didn’t feel anything, just cold stone and a rising embarrassment. Having achieved my goal, I left her to it, not bothering to say, “Good-bye” as I left.

Good thing, too, as I later found this review of the Egg Stone:

“A very peaceful and very spiritual place. I wouldn't disrespect it by taking photos. The best way is to go and experience it quietly and respectfully.”

So, I was a New Age Boor because I did both. But then she didn’t feature it in a fantasy/adventure epic, so I guess we’re even.




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Holiday II

We’ve just returned from holiday and, as usual, it already feels like we never left. There is laundry to be done, dishes to wash, and it seems that no one did the hoovering while we were gone.

Wait a minute! That’s the same thing I wrote last month. It’s like deja vu all over again.

But the truth is, we went on holiday. Again. This time up north, to Yorkshire, where we enjoyed the “atmospheric” (Read: clouds, rain and wind) scenery, which truly was stunning.

Scenic though it was, and even though we hiked and drove repeatedly thought the Moors (in various states of weather), I managed to take not a single photo of the breath-taking vistas. So, here’s one I nicked off the web. It’s better than anything I could do and, as a bonus, it’s not raining.

One of the highlights of the trip was a ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Heritage Railway. I’m not really a train buff, but it was certainly interesting and quite an experience.

Getting ready to board.

It's a steam train, what did you expect?

This is what it looked like when we went through a tunnel.
Must have given those Victoria couples quite the opportunity.

For you trainspotters, here's the engine.

The train brought us to the town of Whitby, a place famous for its Jet jewellery. It was a lovely town and we had a nose around, then dried out in a convivial café to wait for the train to leave and marvel at how the locals kept their famous Jet so well under cover.

We also went to Scarborough and, yes, the fair was in town. I think it’s always there.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme...

Here's the beach. And this was one of the better days.

On the way back from one of our excursions, the SatNav decided to take us on an adventure, leading us onto narrower and narrower roads, up and down near-vertical inclines and over what they call a “Splash,” which is a road that runs under a creek instead of over it; a circumstance, one must suppose, reserved for those hamlets that lack the funds, ability or ambition necessary for building a bridge.

Makes you wonder how they get to the shops after a heavy rain.

Oddly, the most exciting thing we did on holiday was listen to the news. Every evening we sat, giving the flat-screen affixed to the wall our full attention, as region after region fell under the juggernaut of COVID. One by one, the surrounding counties fell, like used face-masks, by the wayside, but the county of North Yorkshire remained resolutely in Tier 1, as did our home county of Sussex.

It might not have been such an exciting sideshow, but the Government (bless them) managed to keep everyone on their toes through obfuscation, random rule-changing and offering us the opportunity to realize the sad, yet frightening, truth that they, themselves, had no idea what they were doing.

That particular week, they came up with a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need for the COVID era, with a Tier System ranging from One to Three, as opposed to the traffic light system they came up with a few weeks back that went from Green to Red. Same number of levels, same meanings, same confusion.

The new Tier System.

The idea that we might be locked down in North Yorkshire and unable to leave or, worse yet, locked out of Sussex and unable to return, or perhaps be required to drive a circuitous route home to avoid locked-down counties, gave a little extra spark to our otherwise peaceful holiday.

As it turned out, we were able to leave North Yorkshire while it was still in the Green (I mean, at Tier 1) and were not required to avoid driving through any counties on the route home (fortunately, we were nowhere near Wales) and we arrived to the Sussex we left, which, though still in Tier 1, is slowly, politely, climbing the ladder—as is the rest of the country—toward Tier 2, and beyond.

Good thing we had a holiday when we could. We won’t be going anywhere else for a long time.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


We’ve just returned from holiday (or, as you in the US might say, We just got back from vacation) and, as usual, it already feels like we never left. There is laundry to be done, dishes to wash, and it seems that no one did the hoovering while we were gone.

And right now, what sticks foremost in my mind, is not the relaxing time we had, but the driving.

In traveling to and from the cottage—as well as nearly every excursion we went on during the week—we routinely ran into ROAD CLOSED signs. As you can imagine, due to the roads in that locality being unfamiliar to us, this caused quite a bit of consternation. And our Sat-Nav was of little use. No one had informed it of the road closures so all it did was lead us to closed roads and then try to circle us around so we could see the ROAD CLOSED sign again.

We saw a lot of these on holiday.

Travel aside, the weather was stunning and at least we were able to go on holiday.

When things began to open up, we decided to try to go…somewhere. Abroad was out of the question as it was too much of a crap-shoot: you might book a holiday only to find your location added to a “No Go” list at the last minute or, even worse, get there and then find your destination on the “No Go” list. Therefore, we stayed in-country, opting to go to Somerset, instead, which was very nice, indeed.

The cottage was located in the countryside, with the back garden bordering a broad field, offering views of curious alpacas and the gentle, unending hum of a nearby highway. Inside, the furnishings were POSH, almost too POSH.

Evening companions.

The dishes were heavy and thick and gaily decorated in an afternoon-at-gran’s sort of way. The place mats were likewise flowery and eager to alert me to the fact that Digitalis Purpurea translates to Foxglove and Syringa vulgaris is the Garden Lilac. The cutlery was so substantial I wouldn’t have wanted to accidentally drop a soup spoon on my toe, not unless I was wearing steel-toed boots.

The bathroom, as in many of these places, appeared to have been an afterthought. It was, however, nicely appointed, with a heated towel rail, plush bathmat, and posh toilet paper. It is a good thing, though, that toilets come in a standard size, or I am sure they would have bought one from the same Munchkin factory that produced the absurdly tiny sink. The shower was of adequate size, which was handy because you had to dry yourself while standing in it as there wasn’t enough room if you stepped out.

Still, these were small considerations; we only rented the place for a week, it’s not like we signed a seven-year lease.

On the first day, we did a twelve-mile hike to Shepton Mallet. The weather was grand and so amenable to walking that neither of us felt it was too long. As a bonus, we were able to start and end at the cottage, as the circular hike coincidentally ran right by where we were staying. We went, for a good deal of time, along an old Roman road known as the Fosse Way, which is everything an old Roman road should be—straight and wide and well-used, and great for walking. In the peace of the countryside, it was easy to forget about face masks and social distancing. It was nice.

The Fosse Way

And it was good that the hike included a loop through Shepton Mallet, as it saved us a special trip to see what it was like, which is a bit down-at-heel. It appears to be the poor cousin of Wells, and looks a little ropey and sorry for itself. Still, it was an approachable town with some nice places to sit and eat lunch. We didn’t feel the need to go back, however.

On another grand day, with blue skies and low wind, we set off to Glastonbury and the Tor.

The Glastonbury Tor is famous, and prominent. You can see it from almost any place in central Somerset, except Glastonbury.

We parked our car, followed the signs to the Tor and were pleased to discover that the prehistoric people who built the Tor kindly put in steps and concrete paths, knowing their descendants would be unable to climb to the top without such assistance.

Due to the Tor and its mythical history, and the ancient well, and Arthur’s Tomb, there are a lot of shops in town selling necessities like healing crystals, dream catchers and vegan sandals to people dressed in flowing garments and shimmering harem pants. It made me think that it must be a difficult place to live if you want to be a chartered accountant, or have a sudden urge for a bacon cheeseburger.

Magic Wands and crystal dragon skulls--all your shopping needs.

On another day, we visited Weston-Super-Mare. It was a nice town, approachable, tidy and filled with amusements; all the things you want in a seaside town, except people. Granted, we visited on a weekday in mid-September, but it was sunny and warm and in any other time (READ: The Before Time) the place would have been heaving. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, I’m less comfortable in crowds than I used to be, and hundreds of people pressing in from all sides would have made for a less enjoyable day. Still, the near solitude couldn’t help but get me thinking about all the money they must have lost this season.


By noon, the place began to fill up with a reasonable number of people, though it still didn’t compare to anything you might have expected in a more normal time. Most things were open, however, and the people did their best to flock to them. We went to a nice bistro, which was bustling, where we enjoyed a satisfying, socially-distanced lunch. I’m sure they were glad for our (and everyone else’s) business.

That, of course, was last week, when things were looking a bit more rosy. Now, we’re just glad we got away when we could.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Closing the Barn Door

My Postcards books were published a decade ago, and some of the essays in them are nearly twenty years old. So why did I suddenly, and so belatedly, re-release them?

Am I really that vain? Do I crave riches and glory? Have I run out of things to say?

Okay, I’ll cop to some of that, but the real, honest-to-God reason I began this revision journey was because, incredibly, people are still buying the books.

It remains a source of pride, humility, chagrin and incredulity that every month a dozen or so people, for some reason or other, purchase one or more of my ten-year-old humor books. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased as a puppy in a squeaky-toy factory, but after a time I started feeling like people were paying good money for day-old bread. This was why, some years ago, I dropped the Kindle price to $.99 on all the books. (The paperbacks have always been set to nearly their lowest price, and there’s nothing I can do about that.) Then, in the lull between finishing my latest book and picking up the next one, I thought I’d combine all three books into one so the price could be even lower.

This took a couple of days and the results looked fine and I was about to release it into the wild when a nagging voice from the back of my mind said, “Really, if you’re re-publishing it, you ought to give it another once-over.”

Now, these manuscripts have been read and re-read, and checked and re-checked, and proofed and re-proofed, but I couldn’t shake the notion, so I thought I’d try a new proofing trick I had just learned and…oh…my…lord. There were errors, small ones (mostly), ones readers might not even see, but their numbers were scandalous.

The trick is this: MS Word now has the ability to read your text back to you. Reading your work out loud has always been a basic method of proof-reading, but having a machine read it works a hundred times better than reading it yourself. The robotic voice never reads what it thinks it sees, or glosses over missed words; it says just what is there, exactly as it is written. It even has inflection, so extraneous (or missing) punctuation is also highlighted.

Click for larger image

And so, I spent a few days listening to George as he read through the new tome—all 542 pages of it—interrupting him every few paragraphs to eradicate yet another of the astoundingly frequent boo-boos we found. (Yes, George. The Read Aloud function has three different voices: George, Susan and Hazel. If you are in a document set to UK English, you get David, Zira or Mark.)

This, however, allowed me to put the book up on Amazon with a clear conscience. Then that niggling voice said, “What about the ones already up there?”

And so, I spent a few more days fixing each, individual manuscript and re-loading the updated books to Amazon. They are all up there now—Postcards From Across the Pond, More Postcards From Across the Pond, and Postcards From Ireland—and they are as error-free as is humanly possible. (Well, possible for this human, anyway.) Now, the baker’s dozen of purchasers will, at least, be getting better books. Sucks about all the other people but I can only do so much.

The lesson learned: Never, never, (never) publish anything until you have it read back to you by a machine, and—despite this—there are always, always, (always), ALWAYS more errors.

All of my books are available on Amazon:

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Summer, Revisited


I’m sitting in my office with a limp breeze floating in through the open window, bringing with it the scent of dry grass and sun-baked tarmac, as well as a distinctive “new clothes” smell, as I am wearing a shirt I just bought from FatFace. The odd combination brings to mind vivid memories of the first day of school, and an ache of nostalgia.

My intention was to write about the blue skies, blazing sun and record-breaking heat we’ve been enjoying (well, I have, anyway) this past week or so, but I think I’ve done that to death and, rather than rehash something I’ve already said, I will, instead, offer up a post I wrote a decade ago, of another heat wave, as it takes place in the “Before Time” and speaks of the same subject, but in prose so poetic that I can only look back on it in wonder.


And so, it is summer. A heatwave: that’s what the locals are calling it, despite the improbability of it meeting—as far as I am concerned—any of the criteria. But who would want to quibble over esoteric details on such a fine day? Certainly not I, especially when I’m on a mission.

The days here are hot, the nights long and soft, leading me back to my younger days when, like today, I remained at leisure while my elders toiled these most enjoyable of days away. I’m heading into town, to journey to a place I have never been before; a rare adventure, which makes the pull of my youthful memories even stronger. And so, as I wander past the shops selling mobile phones, iPads and the latest in electronic wizardry, I find myself yearning, with an intensity that makes me ache, for those days when a game of hide-and-seek was enough to satisfy, and the latest in high-technology was a three-speed bicycle.

One, lone person, brave enough to face the heat.

I wait in solitude at the edge of the market square, watching life buzz around me: Near the bandstand, a clutch of young mothers clucks and coos over the latest arrival while, at the bus stop, a doddering of matrons looks on with approval. In the shade of the chestnut tree, an elderly woman stands still as a frightened fawn, watching other pensioners parade past in jackets and jumpers. On the benches a languor of long-limbed ladies (heedless of the dangers of excessive alliteration) lounge lazily in the sun, their white skin steamy in the sultry heat. Nearby, an indolence of boys—bare-chested, tattooed, and rugged—gaze on in anticipation. There is nothing for me here, so I move on.

I’m on a reconnaissance mission to scope out a local village in preparation for a meeting I have there next week. I find it advantageous to make a practice trip in such instances for reasons that become obvious even as the bus rumbles along the impossibly narrow country lanes: if you have never been to a place before, how do you know when you have arrived?

When we enter an area where there are at least a few houses, I get off the bus. I had envisioned a twee village, perhaps with a cobbled main street lined with shops, an old stone church and the pub I was searching for. Instead, there were just empty roads, some houses and, alarmingly, no people. I walk up the road and down the road but find nothing promising. At the opposite bus stop I see a young woman and, as she is my only option, I approach her.

“Do you know…” I begin, but then I realize I have nothing intelligent to ask her. “Where I am?” would make me seem hopelessly inept and, perhaps, dangerous. Asking the location of the pub would be a good opening line, but I have neglected to memorize it. I didn’t feel the need, as I have memorized what I regard to be the one piece of information I need to know: it is the only pub in the village. But where is the village?

So I continue. “Is there anything that resembles a village around here?”

She seems puzzled by the concept of “village,” so I take her to be a local.

“Well, if you go up this road and take a left, you’ll find a pub and a store,” she tells me. I thank her and set off, but soon begin to wonder if, having noticed my accent, she has decided to play “trick the tourist.” The road I am on is narrow and empty and I am about to turn around and try the opposite direction when I round a corner and find, just as she promised, a pub, a store and little else.

But the pub is lovely, old and dark with low, beamed ceilings, and the publican is cordial. I had planned nothing more than a quick drink and a return trip, but the waitress explains to me that the bus service is…well, …

“Crap?” I offer.

She smiles, relieved at not having to break the news to me herself.

“So, I’m going to have to stay here until four o’clock?” I ask, incredulously.

She shrugs and looks at the pristine sky.

“It’s such a lovely day; I shouldn’t think you’d mind.”

And, indeed, I don’t.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Faking It

The US 2020 Presidential Election is beginning to gear up, and we all know what that means: the tidal wave of Fake News (real Fake News—not opinions you don’t like) that is currently swamping Twitter and Facebook (and wherever else virtual people gather in virtual meeting places to argue with virtual strangers) is set to swell into a tsunami.

For the most part, people seem unwilling or unable to do much about Fake News other than spread it. I do not; I’m one of those obnoxious people who call it out.

What do you think? Real, or Fake?

This, however, gives me little satisfaction, and it takes enough time as it stands now, so when the election really gets rolling, it’s going to become a full-time job. Unless I do something about it, and since I can’t stop it, the only thing I can do—the only thing that remains in my control—is to not look at it.

This won’t be easy, as it is so pervasive, but what I propose is this:

If anyone I follow posts Fake News, I will block and/or de-friend them.

I don’t take this challenge lightly, as I have few enough friends—real or imagined—as it is, but at least the few that I am left with will have their feet firmly planted in reality. I’m not saying I’ll agree with them, I’m just saying I don’t want to engage in conversations with people—real or virtual—who base their opinions on fantasy. 

The Fake News Spreader comes in a variety of flavours, but I don’t wish to sample any of them:

- The Originators: I don’t have to worry about these people, they are not on my Friends List, and most of them are in Russia, operating out of some dank warehouse, churning out pseudo-news for fun, profit or world domination.

- The Believers: These are the people who can look at a mocked-up news story that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old and exclaim, “Oh, my GOD! I have to send this to as many people as possible! This has to get out! People need to know this! How come CNN, FoxNews, NBC, ABC or any major news outlet anywhere in the entire world has not picked up on this yet…ow! My head hurts! I must be doing something I’ve never tried before…like…like…thinking…”

From the 2016 Election. A Chihuahua could tell this has been Photoshopped.

- The Provocateurs: These people know they are posting lies, but they don’t care. 

I tagged this as Fake. The thread was deleted. Then it was 
put back up without my comment on it.
So I tagged it again...

There really is no lower form of human endeavour, except, perhaps…

- The Clueless: These are Believers who are so wilfully stupid that they cannot tell the difference between real fantasy and fake reality, causing them to post satire and call it truth.

These people should not be allowed out without supervision, and should be discouraged from watching movies like Game of Thrones, The Hobbit and Avatar.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, or that I might not come upon some disappointing truths while attempting to ferret out lies.

I looked this up. It really did happen. I guess, as far as the
US Government is concerned, black lives don't matter.
But using it to scaremonger a vaccine is just crazy.

Nor do I harbour any hopes of being able to completely avoid it. But I do hope, when the tsunami does hit, that I will be on ground solid enough and high enough where I will only get wet and not washed away.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The NeverEnding Story

During those long-ago days, when Lockdown first began, I—and almost everyone else in Britain—began a Lockdown Diary.

For me, this wasn’t a big change. I have been keeping a journal since the age of eleven and the only difference between the Journal and the Lockdown Diary was that I proposed to update the Journal every day and number the entries accordingly. Therefore, I am, as of today, up to Lockdown Day plus 117 (reminiscent of the WWII designations of D-Day plus ##).

Initially, I determined to keep the daily lockdown entries going until normal life returned. After a few weeks, however, I realized this was never going to happen.

The earliest entries in the Diary contain accounts of the peculiar qualities life had taken on, followed by the repeated chronicling of events before the shutters came down — the period I now think of as The Before Time — and the unbelievably rapid unravelling of normal life. Accordingly, for a week or so, I obsessed over The Last Time I… 
  • went to the cinema
  • had a drink in a pub
  • got a haircut
  • visited a tea shop
  • browsed a bookstore
  • rode on a train
  • etc... 
It was, I see now, my method of mourning for a life that, deep down, I knew was never going to return.

After that, it became a record of how we, and the rest of the world, were coping.

But then things began to open up and, gradually, the entries became more (for want of a better word) normal: we were allowed a second walk, we had a cup of tea in the park, we could go to a different park, we could drive to another part of the county…

It was then that I thought the Diary had gone on long enough, but I wanted a clean way to cut it off, so I decided on an event that would act as a bookend, of sorts, and signify that Things Had Returned to Normal. That event was to meet up with my friend in a pub for a pint.

I didn't take any photos in the pub, so I had to steal this.
It had been one of the final normalities in that eventful week before Lockdown, so the ability to revisit the event would, I supposed, confirm that Lockdown was over. Only, as the day approached for our planned meeting, I began to have doubts. We might be meeting in a pub for a pint, but things were far from normal.

First of all, I had to make a reservation. For a drink. In a pub. Then, I was shown to my table by a staff-member wearing a facemask. I ordered food and drink from an app on my mobile phone and the items were brought to the table by other staff members, also wearing facemasks. Could I really claim that this was enough like The Before Time to allow me to call an end to my Lockdown Diary? I didn’t think so.

But as we sat and chatted, certain things began to occur to me. While it might not have been Normal when compared to The Before Time, it was as normal as it was going to get for now. Also, I rather enjoyed the idea of having a time slot rather than just showing up and hoping I could find a table. And ordering via the app was kinda fun: you press a few buttons on your phone and someone comes and gives you food. What’s not to like? Finally, the pub, although not full, was buzzing and busy and a lot less surreal than the original visit I was comparing it to, where my friend and I were, for the most part, the only two customers, and the bar staff clustered around a container of hand-sanitizer worrying about not having any jobs.

What the pub pretty much looked like the last time I was there.
That visit, back in March, during those twilight days just before Lockdown, was much more surreal, and laced with foreboding, than the visit I was currently enjoying. Therefore, I felt it met—and, indeed, exceeded—the criteria.

And so, what I am calling Lockdown Diary #1 has—instead of becoming a never-ending story—finally come to an end.

Let us all hope I do not have occasion to begin Lockdown Diary #2.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Adventures in Baking

I’ve always had a fondness for baking bread. It was a nice winter pastime, something to do on a snowy afternoon when I had no place to go and nothing else to do. I hadn’t done it in a few years, mostly because I’ve been too busy. But then came a lot of free time, and my thoughts turned to baking—along with about 47 million other people’s. (I’d say 60 million but I assume some people must not be baking, though I have no proof of that.)

Consequently,… but you already know this; there was no flour to be had. Anywhere.

Remember the Great Flour Shortage? It came right after The Great Toilet Paper drought.

The odd thing was, despite the empty shelves, there was not a flour shortage, there was simply a shortage of flour in 1.5 kg bags. So, I went on-line and ordered a 16 kg bag. Problem solved.

Yes, 37 pounds of flour, delivered by Amazon.

Sort of. But after we found a place to store it, things went a little easier.

And so, for the past two months, we have not bought any bread. I am making two loaves and a dozen rolls every week. With mixed results. Thing is, I’m a numbers guy; I believe in formulas and precision, and the notion that, if you follow the instructions and do it the same way every time, you will get the same results, sort of like those chemistry experiments we did in high school.

Turns out, baking isn’t science as much as it is art—and a dark art, at that.

Not sure what caused this...

The variables are too numerous to track and on-line advice needs to be treated like anything else you read on-line: with suspicion.

For example: prior to buying 37 pounds of plain, white flour, I did my research to make sure I could use it for bread making. The alternative was to have one 37-lb bag of bread flour for me and another 37-lb bag of plain flour for my wife (she manages the cakes and scones baking division). That wasn’t really an option, but I was assured—on several bread-baking websites—that you could make bread with plain flour. Bread flour, they told me, was optional. And it was—the same way that wearing underpants with your new blue jeans is optional: you don’t need to, but you may experience unanticipated outcomes if you don’t.

This resulted in several disappointing weeks of attempting to make sandwiches between slices of bread with the consistency of battenberg cake. (This, however, was an improvement on the loaves I baked that had the consistency of a breeze block.)

Fortunately, I discovered that you can make plain flour into bread flour with just a bit of wheat gluten. The downside was I could only buy it in 1 kilo bags, so I now have enough wheat gluten to make 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of bread flour.

Unfortunately, this did not solve all of my loaf-consistency issues. Too much flour, too much kneading, too much moisture in your oven—all of these things (and many more) contribute to the stability of your loaf (no, that is not a euphemism).

And then, stable or not, crumbly or not, cake-like or not, you have to cut it. Whoever said, “the best thing since sliced bread,” knew what they were talking about, and being a generation or two away from the era where a bread-knife was in daily use, trying to obtain an actual, store-bought-loaf-sized slice of bread is something of a challenge, especially with those aforementioned stability issues.

Seeing as how we are committed to eat whatever results from my weekly bread-making fiestas, lunchtimes might have become a gruelling exercise, had it not been for the buns. Oddly, happenstancially, and thankfully, I make really good bread rolls. And I don’t mean in comparison to the disappointing loaves, I mean I’d rather have the ones I bake than the ones we used to buy in the store. They are that good.

Given that, if my experiments with loaves don’t yield better results after another few weeks, I at least have the option of switching exclusively to rolls.

They’re easier to cut.

Dodgy loaves; nice buns!