Tuesday, 31 May 2011

We're waiting to go

Malika jumped up as her superior entered the laboratory. It looked like bad news so it was diplomatic to wait for Hafsa to speak; he did not like having his thoughts interrupted. Hafsa strutted about despondently for some minutes.

“More forms,” Hafsa eventually said. “More wretched forms.”

“What do they want this time?” Malika asked quietly. She returned to her terminal and retrieved the official communication. “It doesn't look too bad, really not that complicated. We can do that. It's doable. Six time units, tops.”

“But these trials are essential,” groaned Hafsa. “This is our final disease. Hundreds of our species are dying. Cure this and we could live forever – baring accidents obviously.”

Malika grunted, everyone understood this.

“Is there anyway we can produce this antidote without those horrid creatures?”

“You know the answer to that,” said Malika. “Look we're ready to go. We could start the Earth journey tomorrow. We just have to placate those over cautious bureaucrats.”

“All this fuss,” intoned Hafsa, “just because of a few billion miserable humans. And, anyway, humans have such short lives.”

Sunday, 29 May 2011

A Bus Journey

Two boisterous girls quickly alighted when the bus halted. Steeping out onto the half lit bus stop enveloped in blackness. The cold night wind briefly cascading into the bus. I watched, hunched in my seat, the hint of glorious beauty sinking into the dark council estate.

Each wore skintight denim jeans, clean, crisp, in myriad shades of fashionable, faded blue. The super snug contours seemed to highlight the wonderful curves that lay beneath. The pure expectant shape of each mound, bulge and crevice was gloriously conceivable – if only in the imagination.

They argue momentarily about nothing in particular. The ratty grimacing faces bickering and vengeful. The controversy dissipated almost as quickly as it flared. They kiss goodbye. Each pair of lips barely brushed the others cheek; a kiss so brief, so tantalising. The fragmentary kiss quickly over they vanished into the crisp night air. A fascinating image of what might have been.

Book Review – The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism by Tony Cliff

This book brings back a certain nostalgia. Long, long ago in 1977 I had just joined the Socialist Workers Party and, while not the absolute first, this was among the first batch of socialist books I read. Even then it had been superseded by Paul Foot's Why You Should be a Socialist, this being more a popular introduction to the SWP's politics. However the Cliff work was a longer and more detailed explanation and I found it more interesting. Curiously, even for the few connoisseurs of this political brand, it still appears to be one of Cliff's less well known works. For example it does not appear on the main online listing of Tony Cliff's works.

I have been outside the SWP for a number of years now, though I did not leave due to any grand political dispute. Rather it was simply the juggling of pressures of work, education and more that meant something had to give. So it was the SWP that had to make space for the rest of my life and I drifted away, without, it must be said, any great acrimony. Having been outside that organisation for some time now it's curious to discover how well this book – which influenced me so much – has stood up to the intervening years.

Friday, 27 May 2011

They Really Do Not Get It

David Cameron has spent more than £680,000 of public money renovating Downing Street in the year that his government inflicted the biggest ever spending cuts across the public sector.
This story in the Guardian shows show how they really do not get it, they really do not care about how things look. When every else is having cuts in services and losing out on wages due to inflation they can just spend as they like.

And given the likes of Cameron el al sing so loudly about waste in the state sector it's so amazing the blatant hypocrisy.

Looking Out

She looked out the front window of her corner two-up-two-down. It looked sunny, a clear blue sky, and nice weather to be outside, relaxing; if you only gave it a cursory glance. But she looked closer, as she folded her arms and hugged her shoulders, tugging on her thin inadequate cardigan; the trees in the distance, those showing above the houses on the far side of the narrow empty road, were billowing and even here, at this distance, you could hear the foliage rustling. And it was a cold wind, a sharp cold wind that cut into you, that blew away all the heat in her house. The cloudless wind was deceptive; she could feel it being deliberately malicious.

She could see Jake, her husband, out there; she stepped back, she did not want to appear to be watching, that might be mistaken for interest, a point of contact. Three times a week he was out in their small garden: Monday was allocated to the hedge along the pavement on two sides, Tuesday was the front grass and Thursday was the back grass. He could spend hours out there trimming and clipping and sweeping. Today was a Monday.

Since his retirement Jake had little to do apart from mope about the house getting in her way. Apart, that is, for these three afternoons a week where the garden was something to be manicured rather then enjoyed. And even in those three periods, of what should have been respite for her, he could be incredibly annoying.

She hated the prissy way Jake cut that hedge. He would raise the trimmer and make the smallest jab at the hedge. Then stand back and contemplate the cut, the trimmer hissing at his side. When suitably aroused he made another tentative jab at the hedge before relapsing into another spell of hissing contemplation. All this reflection, indecision and procrastination meant the hedge took an eternity to cut; with the sound of that trimmer throbbing maliciously in her head. She hated Mondays only a little more than Tuesdays or Thursdays; they always gave her a headache.

There was nothing for it but to lay on the couch and bury her head in her hands. There was no point in attempting to read a magazine or watch some tedious afternoon television as the; the motor of the trimmer was to intrusive and dominating. All she could do was wait, hold her head, and try not to cry.

The noise of the trimmer, at last, had subsided and she could hear the occasional swish of the broom as Jake cleaned up the hedge trimmings. She got her regular aspirin ready; it would soon be time for it, there was no point taking it to early as she would only need a second one. Again she looked out the window, standing far enough back not to be seen; really, for all that effort the hedge looked no better than when he started. The top was all uneven and wavy, patches looked threadbare where it had been cut back to leafless sticks. It would have been better if he had not bothered; just like their marriage.

He was still on the outside; but she hated that, even when he was on the outside, he intruded on her on the inside.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Film Review – The Gravy Train by Malcolm Bradbury

The 4oDDrama YouTube channel allows you to watch the The Gravy Train (I'm not sure how well this link will work for viewers outside the UK). This 1990 TV mini-series was written by Malcolm Bradbury and first shown on channel 4. From the first of these links you can also view the sequel series: The Gravy Train Goes East. As a YouTube movie it has not had many views: some 430 at the time of writing. And that's for episode one: only 89 bothered to see it through to the final episode four. This might give some, daunting, indication of what to expect.

Alas for Malcolm Bradbury's renown, this series is packed with clichés about foreigners, the EEC and bureaucrats. All good stuff, no doubt, for a knockabout romp. Here we have the politics of the gutter press rather then the writing of someone with the reputation of Bradbury. It's such a pity the author did not put a bit of effort into producing something better.

Christoph Waltz plays the lead as Dr. Hans-Joachim Dorfmann. Now I can see Waltz is a very good actor, and I would be happy to see him in something better, but here he just seems miscast. Waltz was, apparently, born in Vienna, Austria, even so he sounds too English, in fact all his mannerisms are too English – including that irritating pipe. Maybe this fault stems with the director or producer or maybe the character Dorfmann, as written, is not convincing; whatever it is, this character does not work. And given that the whole crux of the drama is built around this character it's a fundamental and irretrievable flaw.

Ian Richardson plays Michael Spearpoint and is the best thing in the drama. He plays the same character type as Francis Urquhart in the more successful House of Cards trilogy (1990, 1993 & 1995) and this is the acting Richardson does so well. However here the plot is sometime plain silly and so the result is less successful. The rest of the acting and production is good – so there is no need to dwell on this.

I guess some scenes are supposed to be funny, at least that's the impression I get from occasional slapstick moment and the description of this grand opus as a comedy. But the humour, such as it is, is very heavy handed. The best I could muster was an embarrassed wince, and never once managed even a knowing smile.

In an agonising moment you might want to watch it; or you might be tempted if you had a particularly masochistic aberration. Otherwise – well... don't bother.

Happy, Happy, Happy

I've taken a decision; a momentous decision: to be happy. It cannot be that difficult: to be happy. I just have to be positive: that's the gist of all those self help books my Neanderthal husband keeps reading.

There are a few tribulations to overcome: the ravages of time are creeping up on me. I avoid the mirror, the lines are getting longer and deeper, the hair just ugh. I haven't brought any new clothes in... it must be years, amazing, and in my twenties I was always in town. Really I should get some new dresses as these are getting ever tighter, I hadn't realised how dumpy I looked, and it's so uncomfortable.

Then there's the kids, trouble is they've grown up like their dad. Kriss always did have more influence over them, he was the more dominating, so they have the same greedy, grab it all, mentality. Something I found so alien.

I never was the most house proud of people, and I must admit I have let things slide a little recently. Kriss never brings his friends around any more, so almost no one visits - not unless you count the person reading the meter. Even the kids don't come round, got things to do, life's to lead, money to make.

Friday, 20 May 2011


Why did she not feel something? She should at least feel grief, sadness, guilt or anything; just something. Happiness might have been inappropriate but at least it would have been a feeling. The funeral made its slow procession to the local church. Murial just managed to maintain her composure and not yawn.

Forty-five years and one of the dullest of marriages; then Albert had, at last, done the decent thing and died. As they assembled in the churchyard the mourners were few. Family dutifully turned up; they were unlikely to miss a funeral. Friends, mostly, had better things to do – after all it was midweek. Mr and Mrs Helm were there. He had been Albert's closest friend; she rarely seen. He and Albert having known each other since their school days. Occasionally the pair had had a drink together, thought this occurred less frequently towards the end. At least he had the decency to turn up. He was like that: reliable and dull – just like Albert.

The dull service ended and, somehow, the dullness making it an appropriate reflection of poor Albert personality. Mr Helm dutifully came across to say his goodbyes. Murial and he shook hands. Mr Helm lent forward and at first Murial feared he was going to kiss her. Kiss her – no thanks! That was something she could never countenance.

“I always fancied you,” he whispered, “back at school...” Mr Helm's face went red. “If things had been different...”

Open mouthed she watched Mr Helm scurrying back to his matronly wife; sheepish and ashamed.

If only she had known, you mean things could have been different. Not that Mr Helm was anything special, but he must have been more interesting than Albert. And if he was a possibility... if he was a possibility, what else was possible? What a time to discover her life really could have been different.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Listening In

“Yeah, just like Charlotte to choose someone like that. She always knew how to pick 'em.”

That confirmed it, they were talking about her; she knew they would, she just knew they would.

“And they were always getting into fights,” continued her mother. Charlotte twisted her not quite white robe about her; tightly clasped the upstairs phone and pressed it against her unwashed mousey hair; she gritted her teeth.

“Where's she now?” That was her mother's best friend and a right nosey parker she was too. Charlotte had never liked her; Charlotte frowned and jabbed her finger at the wall.

“She's back here, and she's being a right misery, moping about all day, at least when she's up, in bed all morning she is. Thought I'd got rid when she married that pig. But she's back; knew she would. And what's she like: she wants him back, then she don't, then she's sobbing, then she wants him again, right getting me down she is.”

Our House

I grew up in a small suburban house; three bedrooms and semi-detached. The neat manicured front garden was claimed by my mother and she was always out there; gloved and clipping away. The rear patch of grass was relegated to me and my dad – not that he ever entered. One bedroom was mine, always dishevelled; my mother complaining, what did she expect? One bedroom for my parents; full of chintz and my dad hated it. And one more for guests; the vaingloriously named Guest Room - only we never had any guests. The room seemed so desolate, full of junk, the clutter of loneliness. I longed for my parents to use this room, to have another child. Though I could never imagine how; they never seemed to talk.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Decline of Secondhand

I went out on a little trip this week; me, myself and I. It is infrequent for me to visit Liverpool city centre these days, living, as I do, a sedentary life on the Wirral. Residing just across the water from Liverpool, I rarely make the effort. Though, as today proved, hopping on the train is easy and cheaper than driving through the tunnel and struggling with the vagaries of parking. That is, if all you need is a wander round the city centre; anywhere farther afield and it all becomes a little more problematic.

The city centre has changed a lot since I lived nearby. I was a student at Liverpool University in the early 1980s and then lived in the Toxteth district during Thatcher's continued decimation of the city. Today there are masses of bright new and inaccessible buildings; inaccessible to the casual visitor that is. But my visit did highlight one detail of interest for the world of books.

The mainstream bookseller on the high street is surviving; just about. These shops are clinging on; though for how much longer who can tell. You can still go to your town centre and have a peaceful browse. Though I must admit, I myself, have looked at titles in-store and noted how much cheaper they were on the internet.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Fighting Web Censorship

So the US government has seen the light and the state department is spending $30m (£18m) in fighting internet censorship. Of course this only applies to countries like China and Iran. Sounds great at first but in no way would I trust any technology developed by the US government.

Meanwhile back at WikiLeaks and on the same day!


They were arguing again, upstairs, as they often do. And it's noticeably more frequent these days. Sometimes it's annoying, intrusive. Today I listen, amused. But making no noise myself, being so careful to keep quite, I do not want to get involved. I cannot make out what's being said or know how it all started; if anything specific did start it.

He's domineering, as usual; she's feisty, relenting. He's so much louder than her, making most of the noise; aggressive, more so than usual, possibly. But she's answering back; holding her own, will not let him coerce her.

Then something new. A thud. A distinct thud. And silence. A silence that echoes through the building. Did he hit her? It's hard to be sure, but likely, most likely. And now the softest crying; no more than a whisper. Tears so silent they are barely discernible. It's a strain to hear them; but they're there allright.

I'm ashamed, wondering. Should I do something? I don't, of course.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


Thick rimmed glasses, cute smile, thick legs, waiting at a bus stop. I watch as best I can; hoping I will not be seen staring. We wait, the only ones at the bus stop and the bus arrives all to soon. Not that I would ever have had the courage to introduce myself. I follow onto the bus, its crowded, we're separated, and I miss where they get off.

That afternoon I'm back home. I cannot get the image out of my mind: the think glasses, the stocky legs. Irrationally I return to the bus stop; hoping they're there. I fantasise about them being there, about the possibility of destiny. “I'll believe in God if they're there,” I repeat to myself, not believing it. “I'll believe in God if they're there.”

There not, of course they're not. I can see this from a distance, and still I walk passed the stop just to make sure.

The memory lingers. Then fades. There is no destiny.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


“How did you meet Dad?” The younger woman sipped her coffee while waiting for an answer. “Well?”

The starched trouser suit looked down; shuffled an empty packet of sandwiches and placed it on the tray. “Does this mean you've met someone?”

“No, course not, just asking.” She finished off her coffee. “Well mother?” She neatly pushed the cup aside. “Well mother?” she said again only louder.

“A rave somewhere in the countryside. We also had them in those days. Hottest week of the summer it was, bonfires, dust everywhere, got some in my eye. Painful it was.” she lingered, holding her cappuccino in both hands, it was starting to get cold.

“What's that to do with it? What about dad?”

“He assumed I was winking at him. Daft bugger.”

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pride, Tree Roots, Fall

Out having a stroll around Arrow Park yesterday and walked up the mud path towards the fish pond. There I stood for some time, soaking up the sun and looking at the ducks. Sometimes there's a Heron here and I was wondering if I might see it. It looks as if it has not arrived yet.

I set off again along the mud path. To one side a metal fence over which was the steep bank down to the water. To the other side thin trees and more indistinct pathways.

Coming towards me was a tubby, out of breath woman, possessing the vast expanse of a pink top. She must have been forty, and though jogging, looked like it was not a frequent activity. (Not that I should criticise, being older and more out of condition then she.)

I stepped to one side to let the expanse pass. She waddled onward, puffing. Beside her a little off white scottie dog struggled to keep up; half dragged along on its tartan lead; its little legs spinning away at the ground.

She loomed closer on the mud path, and when the pink expanse was alongside, tripped on a tree root, squealed and fell; of all places right beside me. It was odd, and not entirely pleasant, looking at her from such an unusual angle: flat on her back and down below.

“Oh, Georgie,” she squealed. That horrible little dog must have been called Georgie. It just stood there, looked on, attached to its red tartan lead. Frankly I wondered how it might react, you never know with dogs, it might have thought its owner was under attack. But it just stood there, attached to its lead, compliant.

From this bizarre angle I looked the woman up and down: the plump sweaty face, all puffy and red; the obviously dyed too blond hair, tied in the most constricting of knots behind her head; the too tight lilac shorts, undefining her fatty contours; the podgy legs. Like the dog, I did not know how to react. Should I try and help her up? And would that appear like I was trying to grab her? (Grab her! No way, no thanks.)

I gestured to help and she gestured no-thanks. Fortunately the worst the she appeared to have suffered was embarrassment; and she must have felt that in great big spoonfuls. More quickly than she should, and out of breath, she started to get up.

She stumble up and limped off with as much dignity as she could muster. I resumed walking in the other direction and felt her embarrassment.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Parable

A man, let's call him Tony, has committed war crimes in Pakistan. He now lives just outside Washington in a expensive house.

The Pakistan authorities desperately want Tony and have placed a bounty on his head. It has become a point of honour for their government so they call on their military. They send a group of helicopters to the United States without even informing the US government.

Landing outside Tony's mansion the Pakistan military engage in a firefight. Tony along with Tony's wife – we shall call her Cherie – are killed along with a number of US civilians. The Pakistan military escape in their helicopters, though one was lost due to a 'technical failure' and was left burning on the freeway. Over the sea the Pakistan military dump Tony's body.

Unofficially it was considered better to kill Tony rather then have him stand trial. After all he may have used it as a propaganda platform or exposed unsavoury past dealing with the Pakistani military.

Back in Islamabad there is dancing in the streets and shouts of “Pakistan, Pakistan.”

What do you think the US government and media would make of this unlikely scenario. No matter what you might think of Tony and his crimes would it not be viewed as an act of aggression, an act of war, by Pakistan? So why, in the real world, all the hypocrisy?

Book Review – The Castle of Otranto by Horatio Walpole

I have always avoided Gothic horror. I have never quite been able to suspend disbelief enough to appreciated the story. And when Gothic horror is done badly suspending disbelief is the more difficult. I gave Horatio Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) a try a largely because it was short and it was a well known eighteenth century work that had influenced the birth of genre – and, possibly, the British novel itself.

To my amazement I enjoyed it. The story is more like a Greek tragedy only with ghosts influencing the action rather then gods. In fact the fantastic element do not intrude as much as I expected or feared. The Gothic horror elements as just there to prod the characters in the direction of the rightful ruler. The King with the honourable blood line is the only one who can bring peace and prosperity to the land. Ghosts must never have heard of democracy! and getting rid of Kings and rulers altogether is never considered a possibility.

This book was an enjoyable and easy read. So it's well worth giving it a go.

Monday, 2 May 2011


The energy was entrancing, unexpected. We'd only just met and we were alone, together, joyous. (I cast away the doubt; tried ignored the contemptuous, selfish streak.)

Naked in the heat. Voices unknowing in the distance. We fumble energetically. We grope wildly. We drink in the sweet smell of fresh sweat; the perfect perfume. Cascading ripples of perspiration announce a moan of delight. And then we quickly dressed; nothing remained of our encounter.

Tomorrow expect nothing. There was no name, no contact number, no matter how much I begged, just disdain. The pity was palpable and only made us meeting again the more remote.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Book Review – Love's Anvil by V. I. Dmitrieva

I picked up Love's Anvil by the Russian author Valentina Ionovna Dmitrieva in a secondhand bookshop recently. With a not very exhaustive search of the Internet I found out almost nothing about the author and have to rely on the sketchy introduction for any biographical details. This translation was published 1921 and the original must have been written before 1916 as an unnamed Russian friend of the author's says: “Is she alive? I don't know. I have not seen her, or heard of her since 1916.” Dmitrieva seems to have had some radical tendencies but the preface writer (J. A. T. Lloyd) is too coy to be explicit. The book is obscure enough to think that few modern readers even know of the tale.

The book is described as a “simple and charming story” and really this is not true. Proof is provided by Dmitrieva, like much Russian literature, having some vivid descriptions of poverty and the contrasts between classes.

The story is set in Woman's Medical Fatality a sort of girls school for chemists but we are far from a Russian St Trinian's. The author herself also studied in a smiler faculty. The hero is Gomotchka a student in her early twenties who's always trying to do good for others despite her poverty. Such a premiss could prove nauseating for a modern author of supermarket tripe. But Dmitrieva is better then that; she explores the philosophical issues and ultimately the tragedy Gomotchka.