Monday, 5 November 2012

Office Party (A piece of Flash Fiction for Interzone Advent Calendar)

This has been written for TTA Press's yearly Advent Calendar of Flash Fiction (less than 1500 words...or bang on in my case).  As an avid Interzone subscriber, I've fancied giving this a go for a while.  I hope you enjoy it.


Office Party

Stephen Whitehead

Distant tinny music filtered along the metal corridors of the Epsilon Class Explorer Vessel, each note collecting a thin coating of rust as it went.  The vast pressure of vacuum caused dissonant groans as the panels of the ship’s skin shifted to bare the load.

Vast pressure of vacuum, she thought, gloomily.  Vast, silent pressure.  Briefly she toyed with the idea of spacing the entire worthless lot of them as they gyrated and flirted their way towards a paralytic coma.

“Christmas...” she sighed.

She’d grown up an Ep-Ex rat, living her entire life in the confined space of a ship designed exclusively to travel as far and as cheap as possible.  Not for her verdant vistas.  Even when they found an interesting spot in the galaxy, she stayed firmly in the cabin which was home, work and comfort.  She flew.  The crew explored.

The crew.  Every three years a new bunch of candidates.  Slung deep through the void on a gravity well and then cruising the solar currents in search of something new, interesting and, preferably, extraordinarily valuable.  Bunch of warp-drive wannabes.  Not one had any idea what their life would become.  They dreamt of glory and adventure but soon realised they’d have to drink away the next three years of their life or go mad in the dark expanse she so loved.

“The child is a King, the Carollers sing,
The old has passed, there's a new beginning...”

Not that drinking your life away was always a bad idea, she thought to herself, head dropping in defeat.

The damp tinsel tacked with hot glue and hope to the bulkheads wafted in the scant airflow afforded by the recirculation unit.  The goldish fronds clumping like some wet animal.

It was at that point her entirely relative calm was broken.

Judd was a typical adventuring space pirate quarterback.  Why a six foot four pile of muscle and teeth would take a job in the cramped confines of a space craft, she couldn't....well, actually, she could guess.  On his bare bicep was a passable representation of the ship complete with the date of departure and, rather optimistically she felt, return.  This was to be his great story.  No doubt he had already picked out the rocking chair from which he would recite great tales of daring do to the hundred or so grandchildren he could already name.  Juddson.  Judd Jnr Jnr.  Juddette.

“Join us!”  He gestured with a foamy bottle of many-times-recycled beer.

“I’d rather not.”  She turned away to the rows of instruments – lights with every right and reason to flash multicoloured.  This, however, did not deter him.

“Captain, I really feel like we've not hit it off like I wish we had...”

She aimed an eyebrow at him, usually enough to send any one of them scurrying.  But not Judd, probably thanks to numbing cheer.  He merely slumped into the worn foam sling-shaped navigator’s perch, his bulky knee thudding against her dainty zero-g adapted joint.

“ I've got a story for you!” he enthused, his face bursting into a sly grin.

“Ooooohhhh...” his face fell and she marginally corrected the nosedive of her response, “...good.”  Her tone didn't rise with any hint of enthusiasm, but a lack of outright threat seemed enough to convince Judd that his story was perhaps the greatest idea he’d ever had.  To be fair, she thought, this could well be the case.

“There was this other Epsilon class a few years back a mate of mine was on, came across a habited world covered in the greenest grass you've ever seen.  Fruit growing everywhere.  Only two species of sentient life on the whole planet – some sea mammals look like bright orange whales filtering algae in the seas – and these furry little primates who harvest fruit on the land.  No biggie, right?  No real trade potential – the algae wasn't bad, but eat a bowl and you end up as orange as the whales.”

Despite herself, the captain snorted – the irony of a drink-flushed boy criticising those of unusual hue was unintentionally hilarious.

“No language, no buildings, no clothes even.  They spent all year wandering around naked eating fruit and getting fat.  They sound simple, right?  But they had this weird orb thing, some kind of computer.”  He flicked idly at a kumquat-sized glittery bauble precariously attached to the main engine core release.  “ Didn't seem to actually do anything for them, but every few days the primates came over and pressed their hand against it,” he let the shiny ball roll against his hand, “and there’s this flash of light and...well...nothing.  Tech guys figured it to be some kind of scanner.”

She was impressed, thinking that the orb would turn out to be a weapon and the story inevitably descend into epic, culminating in an intergalactic battle for Truth, Honour and probably some kind of apple based pudding.

“So, anyway, as they’re observing, winter comes by,” he gestured around at the tinsel, as if it spoke of something as organic as a season,  “and by come by, I mean WHAM, two days later the grass is all sparkly white and even the seas have iced over.  The whales dived deep and entered some kind of hibernation.  But top side is where it gets interesting.”

He leaned closer, voice dropping.  She could smell the stale booze on his breath and the biological results of scant water reserves.  His eyes, though, still sparkled and she found herself unwilling to halt the story.

“When warm, the little guys were all spread out across the land.  But as soon as it got chilly, they scurried back to the orb, clustering around it like it was some great big heater.  And the techs said that yes, it was giving off a faint heat.  Like, maybe, a couple cups of coffee-worth!  But still, they snuggled up close to it, maybe ten thousand of ‘em.  We threw up an IR filter, and sure enough, right at the centre they were warm as an ostrich in clover,”

She blinked, but he didn't pause.  Or explain.

“...and they kept moving, milling around like a mass of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom.  But those little electrons, they started to fade.”

He flicked the sparkly decoration, sending it spiralling around madly.  Light caught and flickered across the room.  Irritated, she grabbed at it, carefully lifted it from the bank of switches, placed it under the heel of her boot, and with one deliberate squeeze, shattered the delicate ball.

He gulped.

“Get on with it, okay?”

“Okay,” he mumbled, suddenly much less sure of himself.  “Er, the ones on the edge started to die.  Just not warm enough, right?  But their friends didn't stop to mourn or bury or burn or whatever.  They just kept moving with three or four dying every hour.    Soon there was a thick wall of furry frozen bodies surrounding this circle of little guys buzzing about.  And the more died, the less the wind got in.  But the less heat they were all producing.  So it kept pretty stable.  And this carried on for well over a hundred cycles, them getting thinner and thinner and the bodies piling up.”

She almost asked why no one did anything to stop this, but everyone knew that you couldn't interfere.  You could convince them to sign away half the wealth of their entire planet in exchange for a plastic singing Santa (and given the distant rendition of ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’, she could almost support that policy), but stop a race from wiping themselves out and suddenly you weren't respecting their cultural autonomy.

“And all the time they kept touching this orb thing.  It was only by the time the numbers were way down, less than a hundred, we realised that the flash of light changed with the different beings.  What’s more, the shorter the flash, the closer to the edge they then went.  The longer the flash, the closer to the centre they stayed.  Until finally only two were left.  And on that day, the winter lifted.  The grass was green in a few hours.  But,” suddenly the greasy smile returned, “there was one thing the pair were left to do...”

She looked at him, could barely bring herself to say it.  “Repopulate the planet?”

His face split open, emanating an horrific glee like radiation.

“Well I thought we might just start with dinner, but OKAY!”

As he leaned towards her, she thrust an arm forward, her nimble fingers catching his flushed nose like a prize salmon.

“All that was some kind of,” she paused, letting sufficient bile rise to colour her words bright green, “COME ON?”

He was struck dumb, the stinging pain of his predicament causing tears to leap to his suddenly fearful eyes.

She sighed, letting go of him abruptly so that he tumbled from his seat and landed in a crumpled mess on the chequer plate deck.

“Christmas.” she muttered under her breath as she left the room.

Monday, 17 September 2012


As with most things, I'm rather behind the times.  It's been many months since most of the arguments to combat the closure of libraries in the UK have been made.  People have been impassioned.  Placards have been waved.  And so it's now, after all of that, that I've decided to blog about it.

Having said that I'm behind the times, like most classicists, I can be surprisingly modern.  I bought a digital camera when they were still very rare (one of those Sony machines which stored the data on 3.5" floppy disk!  When they still measured things in imperial...), I have not one, but two Raspberry Pis and, if I had my wish, a flat screen television would rise up from the foot of my bed (I said I was modern, not that I have taste).

Why then would the disappearance of libraries matter to me?  The great meta-data cloud of the internet can provide us with, in some cases, a lot more information than can be gleaned in a wood pulp collection, and, what's more, in a fraction of the time.  Books sold on the internet are relatively cheap and easily found.  As much as I miss the excitement and sensual pleasure of browsing in a tiny book shop, I don't mourn the passing of these institutions in the same way.

But that's because they weren't institutions, they were businesses.  One of the many wonderful things about a library is that profit really should not enter into its ethos.  I think that this is one of the reasons that they have fallen foul of the twenty-first century.  'Profit as worth' is a concept which has trampled on places like these.

What then can we get from a non-profit space?  Everything else!  And do you know how I know this?  Because of my dreams...

I have nightmares every night.  It's to do with my body reacting to pain.  Some nights they're not too bad, others they're awful.  But they are usually very interesting and vivid.  I have many repeated themes that would, no doubt, fascinate any budding psychotherapist.  But let us concentrate on the dream image of the library.

In my sleepy brain, a library can house almost anything - violent struggles (blood on the crinkled spines), intrigues (whispered conversations behind the shelves), quests (the rows and rows of books leading on for miles and miles) leave it there in case I give too much away and sentence myself to a prolonged period of incarceration and therapy.

There is a very good reason why my brain can site so many different genres of action in one space.  A library can be a huge number of things.  It is an open, public space.  It does not discriminate on lines of gender, age, ability, literacy or even taste (you should have seen the number of x-files "novels" I borrowed as a kid).  People can gather for events (book readings, IT courses etc) and there are facilities entirely apart from the bound pages (in our library there were computers, a photocopier and spaces at which one could work).

When I was talking to Deb about this, she very sensibly pointed out that spaces of congregation were disappearing - fewer people go to church and the associated meeting groups.  Libraries worked in a similar way.  We as a species are bettered by being around a wide group of individuals.  We learn to tolerate and understand the true meaning of 'diversity' outside of political spiel.  It also gives a place which you don't necessarily need to drive to.  There's a reason why there were always a good number of pensioners wafting around the shelves.  It's a cheap, warm and safe venue.

And although I'm an advocate of actually owning books (if you buy enough of them, they act like a second layer of insulation on the walls of your dwelling), there are many advantages to being able to borrow them for free.  I developed much of my taste for fantasy and science-fiction literature through the dedicated shelf of my local library.  And I did this at a time when I desperately needed an otherworld to disappear into.  Escapism, though, was just one of the gifts given to me.

I remember as a child my entire primary school class going to the library to become members.  As cultish as that sounds, it was a rite of passage of which I heartily approve.  We all got our library card which we had to keep safe (it was made of porous cardboard too, not some kind of indestructible plastic.  If we wanted to keep borrowing books, we had to look after that thing!).  With the card we were able to take out our first book - and we did, the entire class.  I wish I could say that I remember which book I got out.  I only know that it was a reference book and so was probably about dinosaurs.

When studying for my A-levels via distance learning, I went to the library to study.  There was absolutely no practical reason to do this - I had all the information I needed in my course folder and I was comfortable working in my bedroom/study.  But I knew that studying in a library was something that people did.  So I travelled to the library on my mobility scooter, set myself up at a desk, and did my best to work for however long I could stand it (probably an hour).  I think in the handful of times I did this I read about twenty A4 pages and wrote less than five hundred words.  It was not energy efficient.  But I have that experience - sat at the shiny desk, trying my best to concentrate in this environment that was entirely shared.  It is a memory which makes me smile.

And then there's the issue of choice.  You can walk into a library and chose any book you want.  True, you have to make it past the judging eyes of the librarian ("Ground Zero by Kevin J. Anderson AGAIN?") but if you can cope with that, then you have the option to try everything with absolutely no monetary risk.  And so this place which you don't have to travel far to visit gives you access to a vast geography of knowledge and taste.  It really can open up eyes to new ideas.  And that's something we really need - new ideas and greater scope.  And we need that to be based in a space which is free from the tyranny of profit based worth.

So save the libraries!  If there are any left by now...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Idiocy of Recent Statements About Rape

Just to warn you, this post discusses rape and ignorant attitudes regarding the subject.

Last week Deb wrote a rather amazing post about some of the things we can do to prevent rape.  It was very well received.  Indeed, even her hero, Captain Awkward, retweeted and mentioned it.  And so she should, as it was very important.  It addressed some of the errors people make in campaigns to reduce incidents of rape whilst also pointing out the behaviours we can do our best to stamp out.  You Really Must Read It.

After having written it, however, the proverbial has most definitely hit the air circulation device.  There have been several things in the news which fly in the face of Deb's advice.  Obviously the people involved did not listen to me and read the post.  So, I feel that I should go through and list some of the mistakes people have been making, most of which are covered by point no. 7 on Deb's list;

Use The Word Rape to Describe Rape.

Julian Assange has been accused of a crime.  It is entirely beyond me to know whether he has or hasn't committed this crime.  That is what the legal system is for.  However, rather than relying on the process of that system, there seems to have been another tactic used.

Denial that the act of which he's accused is rape.

Although, as I say, I don't know if he's guilty or not, I find this difficult.  If I had been accused of rape, my first act would be to address my guilt rather than to quibble over what is or is not rape.

But quibble people have.  Most recently George 'Meow' Galloway has waded in.  He has suggested that raping a woman while she is asleep (and so unable to consent - hence rape) is 'bad manners'.  Even now, having been condemned and given the chance to retract his statement, he has not.

"What occurred is not rape as most people understand it. And it's important to note that the two women involved did not initially claim it."

As most people understand it.  Well now, this is part of the problem.  Mr Galloway is not human as I understand it - if he were he would be unable to say such a thing.  However, I understand that my belief of what constitutes humanity is in contradiction to what biology and, sadly, the law states.  If I wanted to, I could brutally murder a spider (if I were brave enough to get close to one in the first place, that is) with no legal comeback.  However, if I were to do the same thing to Mr Galloway, I would be rightly charged and convicted for the act.

If I went about expressing my view of Mr Galloway's lack of humanity enough, I might even be able to convince people to join me.  Soon, with enough voices chanting, he might become sub-human in the eyes of society.  It's happened before.

That is the power of belief.  And so we have to chant;

Rape is rape.

It might also be worth addressing the rest of the above quote - the two women did not report it initially.  Oh well then, that makes it so clear.  Because every victim of rape marches straight up to the nearest police station and reports the crime.  Because that's an easy thing to do when there are silly people out there muddying the waters by suggesting that what most people understand as rape is something other than what they have experienced.  As Deb says, 'So often accounts of rape begin, “I wasn't raped, but this thing happened to me once where I was forced to have sex against my will...”'

People are raped and don't report it.  Proper statistics seem a bit impossible to me, but take this Independent article from March of this year;

'One in 10 women has been raped, and more than a third subjected to sexual assault, according to a major survey, which also highlights just how frightened women are of not being believed. More than 80 per cent of the 1,600 respondents said they did not report their assault to the police, while 29 per cent said they told nobody – not even a friend or family member – of their ordeal.'

So the women weren't raped because they didn't report it, George?  Please.

The problem with the Assange situation is that he is a hero to many people on the left.  But in their desire to protect their hero, they are making the lives of those who have been raped so much harder.  They are also painting a very damaging image of sexual life.

Not that I blame this entirely on Assange and the left.  You just have to read some of the dodgy articles in both men's and women's magazines to see a very dangerous image of a sex-life which is both aggressive and plain weird (read point no. 5 in Deb's post).  And then there are things like the 'romantic' scenes in stories like Twilight.  Stalking behaviour is somehow elevated into something sexy.

Galloway's initial interview paints a picture of a man who, when acting properly, wakes up the love of his life and says,

"'scuse me, do you mind if I put it back in again, please?'


I think this is where plain sense should overcome anything else.  If this is your image of right and proper...then something serious is wrong.

In America, the problems with rape have been somewhat different, and yet entirely the same.  No. 7 has been breached but so has all scientific (rather than just legal) reality.  I would be amazed if you'd not already heard the specifics, but in brief;

Todd Akin has suggested that women suffering 'legitimate rape' are able to magically protect themselves from getting pregnant.  Challenged on this he has claimed to have used either 'a wrong word' or 'wrong words' depending on which interview you read.  He does not, however, specify which of those words were wrong.

Obviously the whole thing is wrong.  It is scientifically, factually, morally and in all ways WRONG.  As I understand it (and I am no expert in American politics) his motives for saying and, presumably, believing such a thing is that if this were the case then it would help to support his anti-abortion stance.  If this were the case he can then say that only women wanting to get pregnant will get pregnant.  So there's no need for abortion.

As leaps of logic go, it makes Sonic the Hedgehog's jumping abilities look like, well, mine.  But as well as the logic and science flaws, we have a concept of different kinds of rape.  Legitimate and illegitimate.  The crime is once again something that can be question.  Was it really rape?  Well, you did fall pregnant, so you must have wanted it.

Well, you didn't report it straight away, so it can't be rape.

Well, you were in bed with him, so you were asking for it.

Well, you did put on the short skirt...

Well, you did go out walking in that neighbourhood...

Well, did you do everything you possibly could have done to stop him...?

It is heartbreaking seeing the look in someones eyes when they come to terms with the fact that they were raped.  It is heartbreaking when someone questions what rape is, questioning what a victim has experienced.  It is heartbreaking seeing what is, effectively, another violation and the change in their body language as the damage hits home.

But because of the fear that we might have to witness someone we love dealing with the aftermath of rape, because we might know someone who could have committed rape, and because, ultimately, we might have acted in such a way that we could be a rapist, we question the definition of rape and the validity of the experience of victims.  That is nothing less than absolute cowardice, if not significantly more.

And by we, I mean men.  Every one of the idiots involved in these things have been men.  They talk with such authority and absolute arrogant certainty and don't stop for a second just to question what it is that they're saying.  And the scary thing is, you get the feeling they wouldn't stop to question what they're doing either.

We need to question ourselves.  Men need to look at the things we do and think and say.  We need to listen to the experiences of women and understand.  And when we find other men saying stupid things, we have to speak out, lest those we love and care for are hurt.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Pi squared

You know, I don't know how I managed to miss the PlyPi from my list of achievements.  Although I listed artistic achievements, and the Raspberry Pi case was included vaguely along with that, I was trying to deal, at the time, with getting a couple of photos ready for an exhibition.  But I think it's fair to say that, other than one or two popular photos on Flickr, the PlyPi is my biggest achievement in terms of public reaction.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Open Case and Bolts

And today there's more!  Jon Yoemans has written a piece for ZDNet which features, along with seven other brilliant Pi enclosures, the PlyPi.  And I couldn't be more proud.

So here's a link - read and enjoy.

And if you've not seen it already, here's the Venture Beat article which has been drawing people to my blog for a good few weeks now.

Rest assured, I have more ideas for Pi cases and, fingers crossed, I will soon have the means, time and energy (all of which are in short supply) to put some together.

Thank you to everyone who have said such kind and supportive things about my work.  Being a poorly type means that so many of my achievements are small and unrecognised.  This is all rather...strange.  But nice.


Sunday, 5 August 2012

5/5 Going for Gold

Being traditionally British, success is a difficult concept for me.  I've been bought up to believe that taking part is the most important thing and that actually lifting the gold cup is actually a bit excessive, a bit immodest, a bit OTT.  We are programmed to say "Well, it's nothing really" and downplay success.  It's no coincidence that Ali's "I am the greatest!" came from supple American lips, not stiff British ones.

So please accept how tricky this blog post is to write.

I have been tremendously successful recently.  Even when I've not been.

Let's start with the easy stuff.  Already this last week I have written about;

  • My birthday and how well it went - no family rows, no trauma, no thrown birthday cake (only one dropped one, and that didn't do it much harm) and no unwanted socks.  Instead I got everything I wanted and more.  We all enjoyed the day in an easy and comfortable way.  And I did not suffer any anxiety about entering my third decade.
  • Although I didn't enjoy the film ever so much, I was able to see the theatre production of War Horse.  Although this might not seem like a tremendous achievement, it did mean travelling into London and surviving the theatre production and trip back home.  It was a big day and I suffered for it.  But the memories, as you could probably tell, live on in a very positive way.
  • I photographed an outdoor theatre production in the dark with a 300mm zoom lens.  Not many people do that kind of thing and I believe that I do it very well indeed.  I can get into the rhythm of Shakespeare and use that to help guide when I press the shutter.  I hope that my photos make some of the cast smile, especially given how much they make me smile.

And on a similar vein;

  • I have completed a degree in Classics and made it into London (again!  And I don't even like the capital!) to graduate.  Because of this I feel I have a set of knowledge I can use to rubbish incredibly successful novels.  And also to enlighten and inform anyone who wishes it.
  • I have two photos ready to go into an exhibition in a couple of weeks time.
  • I am learning Latin and ukulele and loving both.
  • I am producing art in various forms.
  • I am helping people in many ways, including practical things (I helped with a Holiday Club for children by sorting out IT issues) and more airy fairy emotional stuff.

Of course, life cannot be all success.  But when things go wrong, increasingly I feel that this just becomes another possibility for success.

I recently found out that my blood pressure and cholesterol were both raised.  Given that, due to my health, I cannot exercise, this means that my chance of heart attack or stroke are quite significantly raised.  Obviously this is a pretty bad thing, but since then I've been working hard on both diet and stress.  I have cut my salt intake (which was hard, because I didn't ever overload on salt) and reduced the amount of saturated fats I'm eating.  I've not had a single rasher of bacon in over three weeks now.

And the interesting thing is that success in this is not measured by the reduction in BP or cholesterol (my BP has reduced somewhat...although whether enough or not, I'll let my GP decide) but in how well I've made the change in diet.  I'm not doing anything with my diet that is hurtful or upsetting.  I'm still really enjoying the food we eat.  That's very important to me - food is a huge element of my sensual enjoyment of life.

Likewise, I've been trying my best to relax.  This one is harder and perhaps less of a success.  But I've found new images to use in an attempt to meditate and reduce BP, heart rate and such.

And even when health gets in the way of something like my planned blog a day for a week, it actually allowed me to include something more.  And my blogging has just extended into the weekend which is no problem at all.  And this morning when I've been awake early with pain, I've been able to concentrate on writing this.

So I really do feel that I am succeeding in life.  I don't believe that I am the greatest, but I'm beginning to feel that I'm getting close to being the best I could possibly be, and what's more, I'm accepting of the things that limit how much I can achieve.

Of course, I'm not always this enlightened.  I still get frustrated and angry.  I still sometimes forget my successes and dwell on the things that I wish I were doing.  But on the whole I feel...comfortable.

And the good thing about seeing all this success is how excited that makes me feel about the future.  Because if I'm succeeding now, then there's no reason why that shouldn't continue into the future.

The future's bright - the future's gold.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

4/5 - Moan of Achilles

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - Review

I'm part of a book group on facebook, although honestly I'm rather behind; in part because I've been doing other things (not to mention reading other things) and in part because...well...we'll get to that in a minute.

The group decided to read Song of Achilles mainly, I think, because of its recent win of the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I was very pleased with the choice because of the subject matter - an interpretation of the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus: heroes of the Trojan War.  And when the book arrived, I was even more excited - in the extensive list of recommendations and panegyrics were ones from both Donna Tartt and Bettany Hughes *swoon*.

Now I must make it clear that I'm yet to finish the book.  We're about a hundred pages from the end.  But those hundred pages are beginning to look like the last twenty meters of a particularly long and hot walk over burning coals.

We are not enjoying the book.  Well, that's not entirely true - we've enjoyed laughing at a few bits.  But thus far there are some major problems.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the editing doesn't seem right.  There is a lot of repetition.  At first I thought this might be a stylistic thing - attempting to mirror the repetition you get in traditional oral storytelling (of which the Iliad is a major example).  However, in the first couple of chapters there were three separate references to Patroclus' thumbs.  I half wondered if I'd forgotten something important about this particular body part, but it just seems to be some little fetishistic detail that got left in.  Again, it makes sense that Achilles' feet are referred to on multiple occasions; he is, after all, swift footed Achilles.  But does there have to be so many?  And why do we have to read at least twice each chapter what he smells like?

And the smells, in general, are a bit funny.  It's like someone told the author that the key to writing is to describe what you see, hear and smell and if you do that you can't go wrong.  But, well, firstly that's not true.  And secondly, there's something odd about the smells.  It's like they live in a Greece that's at least two thirds Boots perfume counter.  Nothing ever smells bad, but it does often smell exactly the same over and over.

From my perspective, however, the most upsetting thing is the damage done to the story.  From the reviews I've read, people have been very impressed and moved by the story.  But the story is not hers.  And she really has hurt it in key ways.

Firstly, and most scarily, Patroclus is made as un-manly as possible.  Soldiering?  Not for our Patroclus - he can't fight.  Apart from in the last few pages where he's suddenly survived years and years of hand to hand combat without a scratch.  Being part of a homosexual couple, it would seem that Patroclus isn't allowed to be 'masculine'.  Achilles, meanwhile, becomes a serene photo of a character.  He's a poster on a teenager's bedroom wall, with much the same level of animation and spirit.  Diomedes is unrecognisable.  Odysseus is perhaps the most correct in translation, but the way that his story-telling dialogue is written is completely obtuse to anyone without knowledge of the myths and just not correct.

Not that any of the dialogue is correct.  Honestly, it is entirely flat.  And reading it out loud to each other (as we have been) really proves that point.

The result is a story that, thus far, has read like poor slash fan-fic.  The Iliad has been ravished and the characters rewritten to suit the fantasies of the author.  She inhabits Patroclus, allowing her to fondle Achilles who remains as 2D as the paper he's printed on.  And the worst part of the slash fan-fic style is that it ruins the *proper* relationship.  Ancient sexuality is not modern sexuality.  The early scenes in the palace are absolutely devoid of other homosexual relationships even though it's a veritable den of heterosexual iniquity.  It's as if Achilles and Patroclus are, not only 'the only gays in the village', but also the only gays in Greece.

This is pretty inexcusable.  It changes the relationships as much as the truly disturbing Troy solution - "Woah, we can't have two men kissing in an action film.  So how are we going to make sure that doesn't happen?  I know!  Let's make them cousins!"

It also makes the elements of heterosexual sex feel extremely weird.  And it would seem that there's more of that to come.

There are other modern moralities that really mess with the meaning of the story.  Patroclus and Achilles 'saving' women from a life of rape and slavery is a prime example.  I can understand why you'd do that...but it's an ancient story.  Your main character is a sulky brute who brings about the doom of his comrades because he's upset about a slave girl being taken because that reflects badly on his status not because of some kind of humanitarianism.  He's not compatible with the modern idea of hero.  But either you need to accept that and move on, or at least rewrite him properly.

The Iliad is a story about the universality of war and the experience of death.  It is also, in the wise words of Dr Nick Lowe, a book that tells you all you need to know about men.  All of this is gone.  The fighting is, thus far, the most competently written part of the book.  But it is neither interesting nor meaningful.  The motives of the characters are lost.  How can Achilles be sulky about a wound to his pride when, presumably, he'll be upset because a woman who is treated as free and meaningful is stolen?  How can his great decision (fame or life) be understood as the foundation of his entire existence when it's replaced with some third rate romantic obligation?

Why on earth did it win the Orange Prize?  Deb feels that it's down to the Classical themes combined with a study of a homosexual relationship.  I don't know.  I'm just horrified.  I just hope that people go on from The Song of Achilles to actually read the Iliad and realise what the true meaning of war and love is.

Olympic Interval - Bouncing Back (Including a review of As You Like It by Abbey Shakespeare)

This is written in part to honour the wonderful athletes who we've just been watching during the Women's Trampoline.  Great stuff.

As has happened to so many Olympians, my efforts, though driven and deliberate, floundered.  I'd hoped to post on my blog once a day for a week.  But really that was rather silly given what a week it's been.  On the plus side, I now get to write an additional post explaining my absense, and then I'll follow on with my planned subjects.

So, Wednesday.  Each year I take photos for the Abbey Shakespeare play at St Dogmaels Abbey.  I'd hoped in the morning to get on and write Thursday's post, but alas I just didn't have the time.  Instead, I was trying my best to look after Deborah who was very poorly.  I wasn't feeling too good myself - a muscle in my leg was spasming for 14 hours straight.

So in the end Deb had to stay back in the van (with her cold weather gear consisting of Russian-style hat, tights, leggings, fleece jacket and sleeping bag) and I went off to the play.  This year was As You Like It, a rather distinct change of mood from last year's King Lear.  And excitingly the play was the directorial debut of one of the long term cast.  He did a great job and I hope he's really proud of the result.

I tried a new tactic this year with photos - raising both the shutter speed and ISO.  I'm still getting used to how well the 7D deals with ISO noise so it took a great deal of trust.  Also new this year was my fantastic monopod.  I've used monopods in the past, but only the very cheapest ebay sells.  This year I treated myself to a Manfrotto 680B with a 494RC2 ball head and the beast was more solid than any tripod I've ever had, let alone a monopod.  I'd read some reviews which mentioned people using it as a walking stick at the same time as a camera support and that seemed entirely appropriate for my needs.  It might make taking photos around the garden a bit more straight forward.

As for the play: it really was superb.  There was such a lot of humour packed in.  The rather eclectic modern setting was perfect and little touches (use of mobile phones and modern american wrestling) really raised it.  There were times it was hard to keep the camera steady from laughing.  The wrestling bout itself was very brave.

As You Like It - Abbey Shakespeare 2012
Photo of one man in one in mid air kicking another man in blue tights, lime pants and a blue hood in the face. And who wouldn't?  The colour clash deserves nothing less.

There were some great comedy performances from the supporting characters.

As You Like it - Abbey Shakespeare 2012 - My Favourites
A woman in a light blue skirt suit with a replica shotgun, flowery bag and glasses pinched from the receptionist in Ghostbusters.

Not to mention the puppets.

As You Like It - Abbey Shakespeare 2012
Two deer who are obviously deeply in love.

The leading actors were absolutely faultless.  And, of course, highly photogenic.

As You Like it - Abbey Shakespeare 2012 - My Favourites
Rosalind played by Mary Glynn - a blonde woman with flowers in her hair being a great actor.

And who can object to a happy ending?

As You Like it - Abbey Shakespeare 2012 - My Favourites
A happy ending - what more can you say?  Smiles, hugs and cherubs.  No, seriously, there are cherubs.

It took a day to edit the images and another day to get them all uploaded.  It has also taken a few days to get over the pain.  Hence the lack of blog posts.  But it was very much worth it.  I do hope that the rest of the run went well for the cast and crew.  The rain kept off for the entire evening on the Wednesday, but I'm not sure if that will have been the case for all the nights.  I also hope that they're pleased with the photos.  I would think as an actor, your memories of the performance might be strong but limited to your parts (not to mention your perspective).  Hopefully my perspective will make their memories stronger and more complete.

So now on with the next blog post...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

3/5 - Olympic Rings

Yesterday I was writing mainly about something that happened two years ago.  Today I'll write about something that happened two weeks ago.

You wouldn't believe it given the soaking we've had this morning, but for the last few weeks the Welsh skies have been relatively free of rain clouds.  The ground, though, has retained the consistency of slightly thickened ocean, having been pelted for the last few months.  But this also means that the surroundings are green and lush and full of life.

A demonstration of the lush green life around these parts.

We drove down the coast road for fish and chips.  The particular chip shop has recently been visited by royalty, and so they should - the food they produce is absolutely outstanding.  It's always a really special occassion eating their food, particularly as we tend to wolf it down whilst looking out over the sea.  There's a circular unity of smells and tastes.  It is perfect and infinite.  And that's just the portion sizing.

This time was a little different though, as I had with me a ring.

Deb loves silver and her favourite colours tend to be on the blue spectrum.  So I'd chosen a ring inspired by the Welsh coast line.  Set in it (because we don't much like the ethics surrounding diamonds...not that other precious stones are necessarily that ethical, but you know what I mean...) was a deep blue sapphire.  It was, of course, too big and will need to be resized.  But she accepted it nonetheless.  She then gave me a silver band into which the skeleton of a leaf has been pressed.  It was, of course, the perfect size and I'm wearing it as I type.

So we got engaged overlooking the pewter sea.

It's a funny feeling, really.  It's not a massive change, but it was a massive emotional event and that was quite challenging.  I was rather poorly for a few fact, I'm not that sure I've entirely recovered.  And there is also the added pressure of planning a wedding.

However, and I wonder to myself if, in fact, all couples think this way, but even so I reckon that we might be right - I think we will have the best wedding ever.  We are limited by our health, but already we've got the bare bones of a day planned out that will be calm, relaxed, joyful and easy.  There will be no pressure for perfection.  It will not be expensive and we've decided one of the fun bits of the process will be making our own rings.

The day will be, I hope, about the equality and universality of love.  It will be small and wonderful.

When I studied Classics I was particularly interested in narrative.  One of the traditional ways of telling stories is to mirror the structure of the beginning in the end.  This, appropriately enough, is called Ring Composition.  And so, in my attempt to be traditional, I should point out that I'm already gunning for a wedding dinner of fish and chips.

My fiancee.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

2/5 - Equestrian (War Horse - Stage vs Screen)

Today's blog post honours the Equestrian stages of the Olympics.  My mother's been glued to the telly since yesterday morning...

Two years before my thirtieth birthday I had decided that I wanted to see a theatre production in London called War Horse.  There had been an article on the national news and a documentary.  I was very interested even without the publicity, but seeing the images of massive, life-sized horse puppets on stage really caught my imagination.

I'm not a horsey person.  The few times as a child I was taken on a donkey ride, I always felt for the poor beast carrying me.  But I do adore to see horses moving on their own.  They are something wild and free, if you like the cliche.  The ancient poetry I love equates horses with dangerous sexuality.  Of course, this makes perfect sense if you feel a wife needs to be broken in the same way you might a horse.  But I think it's more than that.  Horses are other.  They are alien in the same way that, say, a dolphin is.  But in an accessible way that almost allows you a glimpse of another kind of life.

So, although not horsey, I do have a great love for the equine form.  Puppetry, also, is something I admire.  I feel much the same about animation.  Creating a world with a set of tools which otherwise would be inanimate and cold.  It's magic, and so it makes sense that people would try to catagorise it as something for children.  Because the world can be cruel and stupid some times.

Finally, like many people my age going through the UK education system, I've been fed a steady diet of WWI since I was little.  The first assembly I remember in secondary school was taken by Mr Wilson, who banged a wooden blackboard rubber on a desk next to the microphone every second for a minute and then said 'That's a little like what it was like being in a bombardment.'  Good old Mr Wilson.

By the time I was fourteen I had a WWI poetry book complete with a photo of a dead (American I believe, but I can't remember the uniform off hand) soldier who, lying in the trench, had had any exposed flesh removed  by rats.  So a nice plump corpse with a completely skeletal head.  I read Birdsong (how I hate that book), the Regeneration trilogy (*so* much better) and as much poetry as I possibly could and the result was top marks in those sections in both GCSE and A-Level.

So while many people feel a great distance between their life and the Great Wars of history, I feel closer to them than I do, say, the Beatles.

So then, War Horse is a play about the plight of horses (and a particular horse and his boy) during the First World War.  Puppetry is used to bring both nature and the horror of human creation onto the stage.  The stage itself is circular and set up so that it can rotate.  Surrounding the stage are slashes of white like huge torn strips of paper.  The backgrounds (pencil drawings making them look like pages from a sketchbook) are projected onto these.  The main horse puppets (there are more than one) are handled by a team of puppeteers.  They wear black and, through some kind of psychological magic of the brain, they dissapear into the background.  No, that takes away from their work - it is their magic.  They mirror the movements of the horse, provide the horse's voice, they become the anima of the horse...its aura...its soul.

The film is a live action piece using real horses (and not such a little CGI) to tell roughly the same story.  However, there are some interesting alterations and additions to the narrative which were shocking to someone so wedded to the theatre production.  However, familiarity and love are not souly to blame for my distaste.  I believe they damage the story.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the film has no blood or torn limbs.  There are no Saving Private Ryan flashes of gore.  The skeletal face forever associated in my soul with WWI never stares, eyeless, into the audience.  Of course, the theatre production never shows blood and gore either.  That'd be pretty difficult.  But using puppets they were able to provide us with horror by the bucket load.  So for example, there is a kindly captain who rides our horsey hero.  In the film his presumed death happens in cut away.  It's an interesting shot, but because we have no solid evidence for his demise, it feels somewhat lacking emotionally.  His death on stage, however, happens in slow motion agony, caught by a puppet shell.  Now the puppet shell I wasn't 100% convinced by.  But even so, it was better to see the men torn from their horses in the charge.  We felt their death.

One of the most upsetting things I have ever seen was the horses pulling artilery on the stage.  There was no way this could be done with real horses, or even CGI ones.  The horrific, ghost grey skeletal wrecks pulling the gun carriage and dying on stage were so important to the story.  You needed to see the real fate of these once fine beasts in order to understand the message of the narrative.

The eventual fate of both boy and horse are also both reduced and "enhanced".  So, if I've convinced you to watch the stage version, or you care about watching the film, you must stop reading now.

The mad flight of Joey the horse through the WWI battlefield is a CGI flop.  It loses a true sense of physics, and his eventual barbed-wire fate is far too over the top (to excuse the WWI pun).  The stage version is relatively slow and confined and so the wrapping of wire around the puppet and the noise...oh the noise.  The sheer truth.  And a boy blinded by gas...well, that's nothing to do with puppetry.  I was angry by how they handled that in the film.  It diminished the suffering of soldiers.  The reunion of horse and boy is a thing of blood, snot, tears and choking.  Anything less destroys the ending.

Speaking of which, the weird extension to the ending didn't make the film any better.  I felt they thought it needed that to show that everything would now be well.  Other examples of defference to an audience who might want easy answers - the elevation of the father from town drunk to 'gimpy' (oh the horror of that script) war veteran was very annoying.  It is an example of film narrative which cannot abide having less than positive people who aren't out and out villains.  On the stage, he does the wrong thing, people pay for that and they move on.  Such is life.

I think the horrors of war were pushed on the audience with the new (from the stage version - I should admit that I've not yet read the book) section involving the AWOL German children and their execution.  This felt like an invented section to allow us to feel hatred for the German soldiers.  Of course, we feel, the Brits would never do such a thing.  I mean, we even saw them stopping a child from signing up to war, when the Germans let any old (or not so old) child join up.  I really liked the inclusion in the stage play of the older German soldier who handles the horses.  His section really felt equal to the rest of the narrative.  It spoke of universals.  In the film, he's a bumbler who is very quickly dragged away, never to be seen again.

Also, what was up with the 'I'm so ill but with absolutely no physical sign of it and might die at any time' girl?  And the horse jumping over the tank??  Ugh, I should stop now.  But I probably won't.

So, there were problems with the narrative and with the use of live action horses.  What should they have done, presuming that they not just film the stage production (which I'd love to see, but which I'm also sure would lose a little something, with the audience not feeling the pounding of the horses on stage)?  I believe that animation would have given them options.  The story needs the use of abstract imagery in order to properly tell it.  You need to be able to see people thrown from horses and dying without necessarily seeing them splintered and bloody.  You need to be able to see horses mangled and dying.  You need to limit the sheer scope of the front so that you can take in even a fraction of the true horror.

Also, you need the humour which was almost completely removed (I say almost - I really liked the conversation about a hat).  Humour is life.  No matter how awful a situation, people still find things to laugh at.  Even if it's just my grammar.

And there's one more very important point.  I know that the soundtrack of the film was praised, but I felt that the work John Tams put into the stage soundtrack was immense.  The folk songs (and war songs) bought life to the people and the situation.

The stage production managed all the elements of the story and the truth about war in such a way that it was entirely accessible to everyone.  Humour, music, horror, beauty, truth and hope.  All the things that make up life perfectly balanced.  A child could see it, the Queen did see it, anyone can understand and empathise and grow.  The only ways I felt the film tried to make itself universal was to manage the blood and cursing.  That feels at best inauthentic and, at worst, manipulative entirely for the ultimate return of box-office gains.

I really will stop now.  The film's not necessarily a bad thing.  People spoke about the tears they shed feeling forced.  I didn't cry, but the times when I felt close were not because of the film, but because of the memories of the theatre production which, two years on, are still fresh and bright and living.  And I suspect they always will be.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Blog 1/5 - Turning Thirty

It was my thirtieth birthday in May.  The day fell on a Sunday, so food wise it was an easy decision - roast lunch!  But aside from that, it was a very quiet occasion.  My parents had just come back from Wales, we were aware that very soon my uncle would be going into hospital (which turned into a real nightmare) and I don't think that any of us really felt up to making much of a song or dance about it.

But anyone who knows me knows that musical-type behavior doesn't really suit me, so we had a great time!

Deb made the cake.  I dropped it.  It didn't make much of a difference, really.

The surface of an ice-cream cake, looking a bit like that scene from The Thing right at the end.

My camera kit had been expanded with a 50mm f1.4 lens.  Hence lots of lovely shallow depth to the photos.

A pretty, pretty photo of my birthday cake, candles lit and light reflecting on glasses.

I didn't feel much fear about turning thirty.  I know it's quite traditional to start fretting about the state of your life in general and your internal organs in particular.  But on the whole (not withstanding a little glum thoughts about wasted time...but only for a minute or two) it was very happy and felt much like, well, not quite a start, but definitely a strong footfall in a recently begun sprint.  I almost wrote 'sprint to the finish', but that sounds rather fatalistic.  Perhaps it should be an early footfall in a long and interesting ramble.

Most importantly for this mind-set, of course, was that I got to spend the day with Deborah.  How could I be worried about the future when it has her in it?

The usual suspects - an amazingly attactive woman in a particularly pretty dress, light streaming onto her skin and hair, casting a golden aura around her, reflecting her inner glory.  And me staring at the camera like a psycho.

So really, that's it.  I can't write much more, which seems a shame when this is the start of my Olympian five post week.  But it was really that simple.  And that happy.

Olympic Effort - five posts in one week

Life, as always, has a habit of getting in the way of things.  Such has it been with my blog.  It's been a hectic few months.  I have a lot to write about.  And so, risking legal action from the LOGOC, I decided to write an Olympian five blog posts over the next few days.  I'm definitely going for gold.  I will certainly break boundaries.  Legacy is everything.

My first blog post will take us back to May and my thirtieth birthday.  For a good few years I've tried to mark the passing of each birthday with something or other, and it seems strange that on my thirtieth it get so overlooked.

The second will focus on an analysis of War Horse - Film vs Theatre.  We recently had the chance to catch the DVD and, being such a huge fan of the theatre production, I was bound to have a strong response.

Third will tackle some big news.

Fourth will be another review of sorts - a partial review (as we've not yet finished reading it) of Song of Achilles, winner of the Orange Book Prize.

Fifth will round things up with the theme of "success" (or, in some cases, the lack thereof).

I'll have great fun writing them all.  I hope you enjoy reading them!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The PlyPi - my Raspberry Pi computer and handmade case

May I introduce you all to the new addition to our family?

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Happy Families
Pi and Owner together with a free to love a free T-shirt!

So small, and yet so full of potential.  Certainly doesn't come with any instruction manual but there's plenty of opinion floating about online (and in forums a lot less scary than Mumsnet).  This is my baby.  And I'm already so so proud.

The Raspberry Pi, to those of you not in the know, is a tiny piece of British computing.  It comes in at £25 for this, the top spec Model B.  For your hard earned Pony, you get a 700mhz processor, 256mb of RAM, two USB ports and an Ethernet port.  It uses HDMI for digital video output and is powered by a 5v Micro USB mobile phone charger.  The OS and any programmes/files you create are stored on a single SD card.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Board
The Raspberry Pi Board

The idea behind this little slice of genius is to encourage people back to the magic of true computing, rather than sucking at the consumerist teet of all things easy.  Children in schools, it's hoped, will all be able to own one.  And just as kids will customise pads of paper and books with stickers and messy ballpoint pens, so they will customise their Pis.  In so doing, they will learn about the beating heart of what makes our world work.

Of course, it's not all about kids.  Already I've seen a dozen projects of great originality and fun.  A low powered machine running Linux can do *so* much it's mind-blowing.  My own dreams are much less grand.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Pins
The Pi comes with plenty of pins so that clever people can take over the world

First and foremost I wanted to have a computer I could really play with.  It's all well and good experimenting with your every day computer, but the fact is that if you do something wrong you risk not having access to email, losing important files etc.  This way, if the very worst happens, I can just wipe the SD card and start again from fresh.  Also, being a Linux OS (currently Debian Squeeze) I get to have the fun of playing with the command line.  I like the command line.  It feels polite.  Most of the time we prod at buttons, lacking the courtesy to ask nicely for what we want.  Command line is please and thank you.  And what's more, you're able to do pretty much everything from one place rather than having to trawl through the desktop menus to find the one thing you want.

One of the first things I learnt to do was to tweet from the command line using Twidge

Secondly I liked the idea of simple, low power consumption computing for things like word processing.  I've installed Abi Word and, with my Filco keyboard hooked up, I can't think of a more appropriate word processing machine.  Forget wifi internet access - unless I go to the trouble of plugging in the ethernet cable, I'm without the net.  And anyway, if I start trying to do both at the same time, things will slow down.  So it makes sense to be disciplined and single minded in your writing.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Case (Ethernet/USB)
Looking straight on at the Ethernet port (which was heavily recessed) and the USB ports

Thirdly, I've been wanting to scratch build a computer enclosure for a very long time.  I'd dreamt of doing something with mini-itx as I didn't care about great power and wanted the finished item to be small.  Small?  Mini-itx is massive in comparison to this thing!  Just take a look of it in comparison to my HTC Desire.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Case vs HTC Desire
Size comparison between finished PlyPi and HTC Desire Smartphone

So here we have it - 3mm plywood layers cut carefully on my rusting, aged scroll saw.  Honestly, it shook so much I expected it to fall apart.  I will hopefully upgrade the machine at some point which would make the whole thing easier (poor cutting depth meant I could only cut one layer at a time).  The eight layers were split 3/5 and glued to form the top and bottom.  I 'temporarily' glued the two layers together with Tesco own brand pritt stick, only to find afterwards that it was the strongest glue in the world!  With the case in one block I was able to sand it down to even up my poor cutting and, after drilling the four bolt holes, finish to 400grit.  It was then (eventually) split into the two halves and coated with sanding sealer and wax to keep it looking as natural as possible.  In the original design I'd been thinking about a flower press and had intended to use wing nuts on top.  However when I fitted some temporary (too short at 25mm) machine screws, I was rather taken with the look.  So the case was finished with 30mm M4 stainless button head bolts with stainless washers and dome head bolts (which then acted as feet).  It's easy to undo the dome heads with your fingers and then gain access to the Pi.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Case (Audio/Analogue Video/Dome Nut) Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Case (Ethernet/USB/Bolt) Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Open Case and Bolts
Close-ups of nuts and bolts and an image showing the split PlyPi and fixings

I had thought about leaving a hole to view the LEDs, but as my initial use will be less experimental (globally speaking - it's pretty experimental to me!) I don't see this as a great problem.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - LEDs
Close-up of the LEDs which have been left covered - design flaw?  Or sacrifice to aesthetic perfection?

As it is, I like the simplicity.  Frankly I think it's prettier than anything Apple could do.

Raspberry Pi - PlyPi - Case (Audio/Analogue Video)
Isn't it lovely?

So there you have it.  I've already learnt all manner of exciting things and there's so much more to come!


Monday, 14 May 2012

Wrong Wrong Wrong

Far better and more politically astute bloggers will write (and have already written) about the silliness in government arguments surrounding reform of the DLA (Disability Living Allowance) benefit.  However, having woken up to yet another repetition of the silliness, I thought I better write down why the arguments are wrong, even if reform is important.

There are several points I'd like to answer in this BBC article  as briefly and clearly as I can (thereby proving why I could never have a career in politics)

"Mr Duncan Smith said the number of people claiming it had risen by 30% in recent years."

In recent years: don't you just love when a statistic is varified like that?  What are recent years?  Ask a ten year old and ask an eighty year old and the difference will be very great indeed.  And so, I will qualify my next statistic.  Between 1994 and 2011 there was a 34% increase in the number of cars on the road.  Now obviously we're all aware of this (apart from the ten year olds) and it's no big shock.  But if you say it about people who live lives which are often unseen by many, who you're insinuating are taking money unfairly, it's a shocking thing.  Mr Duncan Smith might further qualify by saying...

"It's been rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability or for that matter, general trends in society."

...but I don't believe him.  I mean, the general trend is less than the increase in cars on the road.  There are more people surviving dangerous illness and injury.  There is better care for people with mental health problems (even if it's still woeful).  Disabled children are kept alive longer.  And, of course, of the 34% increase in cars, there are now plenty made in such a way that you're less likely to die in an accident.  And how many of those 34% collide with pedestrians?  Nice soft bouncy bonnets can only do so much.

To suggest that there's something sinister in the increased numbers of DLA claimants is just weird.  I mean, between 2009 and 2011 there was a 100% increase in Prime Ministers who claimed DLA for a child.

So what does Mr Duncan Smith claim is the reason for the increase?

"A lot of that is down to the way the benefit was structured so that it was very loosely defined..."

If something is loosely defined to begin with, why would the number of successful applicants suddenly increase later on?  The only thing I can imagine is that 1.) he's suggesting that people have somehow worked out loopholes that allow them the benefit, or that 2.) we've developed disabilities in such a way as to fit the criteria, tricksy little things that we are.  This is so silly and strange I really can't work out how to argue against it other than saying it's wrong.

"Second thing was that in the assessment, lots of people weren't actually seen. They didn't get a health check or anything like that."

This really annoys me.  Every single flipping form I've filled in, I've had to go through paper-work / google in order to find out my GP surgery address.  I have to do this so that the people in the benefits office can contact my GP and ask if I'm lying.  Surely, rather than go to the cost (and it's cost we're arguing against) of sending someone to assess me (and let's not even get on to whether that person's qualified or even rewarded for failing you) it'd make more sense to trust a qualified doctor who knows at least a little about my life?

Also, there are some conditions which are quite 'obvious'.  If one of the 34% extra cars were to have had the exhaust fall off and you rang up the garage to tell them and they said 'yes, well, you're hardly qualified to say if the exhaust has fallen off and whether this actually necessitates a repair...' you'd be pretty upset.

Of course, condition is not impairment and we should remember this before we get too angry - there is a reason the form goes beyond diagnosis.  MS is a good example of a condition which can be highly variable.  But surely the need for greater face-to-face assessment is minimal if we remember that all forms sent back should have doctors details.

"Third problem was lifetime awards. Something like 70% had lifetime awards, [which] meant that once they got it you never looked at them again. They were just allowed to fester."

I love the use of the word 'fester'.  The gorgeous writer of Diary of a Goldfish, creator of all things magical and light of my life, has a pregnant sister.  Very soon this will make me an uncle.  Yes - I too could be Uncle Fester.

DLA is about not letting people fester.  It's about giving them the ability to pay for the expensive needs of their disability and so allow them to live as normal and equal a life as possible (allowing them to, say, pay for someone to take them out rather than just festering at home...).

Do I really have to point out the major weakness to this?  Do I really?  Does anyone fail to see the really really really silly really really really wrong wrong wrong thing here?

Disability can result from conditions and injuries which are permanent.

At school I had a friend called Nigel.  He had a condition which has, by now, killed him.  There was no way he would recover.  No way his care requirements would get less.  To burden his family with reapplying for benefits for a condition which eventually killed their son would be cruel.

There are people with mental impairments which will never go away and they will always need help.  There are degenerative nerve conditions, bone and joint problems, mental conditions, cancers and tumours and lions and tigers and bears.  There are so many awful things which DO NOT GO AWAY.

If another one of those 34% extra cars were to have its engine blow up in such a way that the entire front end was mangled beyond repair and, every few years you had to contact the DVLA to confirm it was still un-drivable, you'd get pretty fed-up.  And then, if you thought about the time and money it takes to administer that check, you'd be horrified.

So that's it really.  Most people agree that Disability Benefits need to be reformed.  There's wasted time and money in administration, disabled people are put in positions of fear and dependence, and it's all talked about as if it's a charity rather than a part of NATIONAL INSURANCE.  Those things should change.

Which brings me to my final point.  If one of those 34% extra cars was damaged by an accident and you'd paid your insurance premiums, would you be happy if someone then started droaning on about the high number of insurance claims and how much this was costing them, and how they were going to cut the number of people to whom they pay out?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 - Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Troll

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012 For an audio version, either stream using the player below, or click here for the MP3 file.

Clippity-Cloppity Goat and the Troll under the Bridge.

Clippity-Cloppity Goat was a young kid, and like young kids everywhere he was easily bored.  He liked going out and about, hoping he might find something exciting and different.  But given that he lived in a field, this was pretty difficult.  After all, one patch of grass looks much like the rest.  So one afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, Clippity Cloppity Goat let loose the gate and scampered out along the path.

He felt excited and free.  The sensation was intoxicating and he laughed.  He splashed in puddles, bleated at the goats he saw in other fields and butted trees to show them who's boss (and got a bit of a headache as a result).  But, being a young kid, he soon began to get bored.  And that's when he saw the bridge.

It wasn't a particularly special bridge.  The road above was paved and rutted.  But underneath in the dark, mingled with the burbling noise of the little river the bridge forded, Clippity Cloppity Goat could hear a deathly growl.

Now, it's fair to say that the goat was at least a little nervous.  What could possibly be there?  He'd heard all manner of stories about the weird creatures that lurk in the dark, never going out anywhere.  He'd heard that they were aggressive and hateful and were part of the reason that all the fields around here weren't as green as they used to be.  Wanting to be a big ram, Clippity decided he'd make a point and have a laugh at the same time.

So Clippity Cloppity lived up to his name.  He strutted up to the bridge and Clippity Cloppity-ed his way over top, stamping as hard as he could on the cobbles, whilst shouting in his loudest voice;

Trolls who live under bridges smell
They spend our hard earned cash
Claiming not to be very well

Trolls who live under bridges are bad
They never go to parties
And they never look glad

Trolls who live under bridges deserve to die
They're a waste of space and air
And everything they say's a lie

Of course, as with all people who show off, Clippity Cloppity hadn't actually been paying attention to what he'd been doing.  Somewhere around Verse Two he'd climbed up onto the edge of the bridge and, still stamping, had managed to dislodge one of the stones.  With the final line he gave a great stamp, which echoed.  But as the echo died, the noise was replaced with a scraping and the great block upon which Clippity was stood gave way and the young goat was thrown down into the cold water below!

He scrambled about in the river, choking and crying in fear.  You see, he'd grown up in a field all his life and he'd never had anything to do with water deeper than a puddle.  He couldn't swim!  He shouted out for help, not really expecting any reply, but he was desperate!  What could possibly save him?

It was then he heard it.  The growling noise had stopped, and in its place there was a calm and gentle voice talking to him.

"Relax little one." said the Troll, his voice deep and tired-sounding, "I know this river well - I've watched it every day for years - and you've fallen on the shallowest part.  If you relax and put your hooves down, you should be able to stand on the bottom."

Clippity Cloppity, gasping and thrashing, was almost too scared to take this in, but there was something about the calm, caring voice that made him trust it and he stuck his feet down, throwing his head up.  And the Troll was right - he could stand on the bottom!  And although the water was very cold and the current quite fast, he was able to walk towards the deep voice.  As he neared it, the water got shallower and shallower, until he was, at last, out of the river and shivering on the bank.

Blinking the water out of his long lashes, the goat looked around him.  His eyes were used to the bright sunshine on shiny grass, but under the bridge everything seemed shades of black and green.  Eventually, though, his eyes adapted and he could make out a large shape comfortably ensconced in an alcove.  The hard stone was padded with great blankets and pillows as big as a Ram.  The Troll himself looked very strange, having many features which were unlike those of any goat.  Clippity felt scared, but he was too tired and cold to just run away.

"Who are you?" Clippity stammered.

Looming out of the darkness, the Troll's face slowly became distinguishable.  It certainly wasn't the kind of face Clippity was used to seeing.  And being a young kid, he saw lots and lots of faces.  In fact, he thought the world was made entirely of the kind of faces he was used to seeing.  So he felt scared.  And yet, the face did not seem angry.  And the more he looked at it, the less scared he became.

"I'm Arnold" said the Troll.  And this surprised the little goat, as Arnold seemed like the least scary name he could imagine.  Arnolds should not live under dark bridges.

"What are you doing here?" asked the inquisitive little goat, his whiskers twitching in curiosity.

"I live here" breathed the troll, the growl of his voice distant like far off thunder.  "I am not able to leave the shade of this bridge because the sun hurts me.  I was born differently to you.  My limbs won't hold my weight.  So I stay here on my own."

"On your own!" exclaimed Clippity.  He had been away from his herd-mates only a few hours, and yet already he felt the distance between them and longed to return to his lush, green field and be surrounded by all the people who made him feel safe.  "It's weird not wanting to be around people." he declared, stamping a little hoof on the muddy bank, the damp little clop echoing in the dark spaces above him.

"But I do want to be around people.  I do talk to people."  The troll gestured to the water, one huge hand skidding across the silver surface.  "My friends all live along the river and we send messages in the water.  Just this morning, my good friend Emma wrote me a lovely letter on the back of an oak leaf.  I fished it out with this."  He produced a willow wand, at the end of which was a simply lashed hoop, criss-crossed with bind-weed.  "All of my friends are in the net."

And he was right.  Clippity watched open-mouthed as Arnold up-ended the net, letting leaves, bark and sticks rain out on to the floor.  Each one was inscribed and marked - some times with text, sometimes with pictures.  One particularly beautiful silver-birch twig was even decorated with multi-coloured flowers.

At this very moment, a sand martin swooped low over the water, its sharp, pointed wings skimming the surface.  It caught a fly, swallowed as it banked, and came around again, calling as it passed.

Arnold's face screwed up and he chuckled as only a troll could.  The hair on Clippity's neck stood on end.  Eventually Arnold explained "As well as the net, we have learnt to communicate through birds who send our messages.  In return, we keep the bridges clean and tidy for their nests and keep them safe from predators.  It's useful being able to 'tweet' a friend, especially if they live up-stream...."

"But it's not right being stuck in one place."  Clippity continued, feeling, though, that perhaps the things he'd heard might not be entirely true.  He was also intensely aware that for all his short life he'd been stuck in the same field.  It was only today that he'd finally broken free to see more of the world.  And he guessed that soon he'd have to get back.  It was hard to tell in the darkness under the bridge, but the sky outside seemed to be getting darker.  He would be able to find his way back in the dark, wouldn't he...?

"Stuck in one place?" Arnold said, with surprise in his heavy voice "As well as the messages I receive from my friends, I can watch the entire world go by on the river.  I can smell the mountain soil on the water after heavy rain has washed it down to the sea.  I can watch the cherry-blossom float on the surface when there's a strong April wind.  I hear the trout splashing on its journey between river-bed and sea-deep.  What am I missing?"

And Clippity could not answer.  Although not able to join in with the same games all the other goats enjoyed, Arnold clearly was the same as he.  They both enjoyed talking with their friends, watching all the creatures around them, and the smell of the world after rain.  And they were pretty important things.  But still...

"Why do people think you're so scary, then?" asked Clippity, sitting down in a comfy spot as he looked up at his new friend and listened, patiently.

"I have to sleep a lot during the day.  Whenever people come along, it's likely that I'll be snoring.  And when I snore, people go away, scared.  I can't help it.  If only they'd stop and wait, I'd wake up and they'd see I wasn't to be feared."

Clippity saw a big tear well in the dark eye of the troll.  With a small 'plink', the tear fell into the river.  Perhaps, Clippity thought, another troll might notice it and send a bird to check that everything was alright.  But just in case, Clippity nuzzled the great troll gently.

"I'm sorry," he said "I just didn't know."

The great Troll patted the little goat on his bristly head and said, gently, "It's alright, little one.  It is normal to be scared of the things we don't understand.  What isn't right is to ignore reality and truth when we see it.  It's not right to make up hateful stories.  But you have found the truth and understood it.  That is the meaning of all great quests."

Clippity felt a huge sense of pride, but whilst his heart was full and warm, he shivered against the cold wind which whistled under the bridge and, when he turned back, he was shocked to see that the world had turned dark behind him.

"Oh no!" he cried, "It's got late and dark and I don't know my way home!"

Clippity began to cry, far more scared now than he had been when he'd heard the snoring of a hidden troll.  How on earth would he find his way back to his family and friends?

But the troll patted the kid again and quickly reached for one of his stores of dried leaves and delicately wrote a note on it.  This was placed, gently, into the water where it was quickly taken away by the fast flow.  He then carefully tapped on two of the martin nests which were dug from the fragile bank of the stream.  In a strange language he spoke to the birds who had been resting, and, like bullets from a gun, they flew out into the air and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

But Clippity hardly noticed this.  His vision was clouded by tears and his body felt trapped - trapped under a water of despair and floundering as surely as he had when he fell into the river.  He shivered again.

He gasped with shock when a heavy weight of wool fell around him.  Arnold was making for him a bed of his own blankets and pillows.  Too upset to say anything, Clippity collapsed onto the soft space and, very soon, was snoring almost as loudly as the big troll who was now his friend.


Clippity awoke with a start.  He was scared because he didn't know where he was.  But soon he remembered and once again was overcome with remorse and upset.  At that moment, however, he heard a familiar sound.  It was the clank and clamour of a rough bell.  The bell he knew so well.  It was the bell that, for all his life, had been tied around the neck of his mother.  And here she was, appearing in the glow of the fire Arnold had built especially to keep little Clippity warm.

"There you are, you young rascal!" she called.  "If it wasn't for your new friend, we'd never have found you.  Thank you, sir," she said, bowing her head slightly with a rattle from the bell, "We'll never be able to repay you for keeping our little one safe."

The troll shrugged, "It wasn't really me, I just sent out a message.  My fellow trolls had heard young Clippity in the woods and, later, had heard your folk searching for him.  With the help of our birds, we were able to track you down and guide you."

And so, with a sleepy backward glance at his new friend, Clippity made his way back home under the watchful eye of his mother (who would later have many things to say about going off on your own and the real dangers of the wood which would make a troll look like a kitten).  But from then on Clippity knew that wherever he was, he was never alone.  Even in the dark places and where people seemed strange and different, there was always a good chance that there would be things shared and commonly valued.  He understood the difference between 'different' and 'bad'.  And he also knew that, whatever he did in the coming years, he would set out to find truth and understanding and never to give in to fear.  Because truth and trust would keep you safe even when the night falls.