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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
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Saturday, 19 June 2021

Is a big fat zero really fat?

Small or big? Here's the answer

A friend recently blogged she had “nothing to say today.” More or less. I felt bound to discuss.

Don’t tell me I can’t, that it doesn’t exist. George Gershwin turns it into a thing of pride:

I got plenty of nuthin’, and nuthin’s plenty for me

Among other things, nothing is an absence and that can vary. Absence of food and I’m hungry. Absence of Donald Trump and I’m tranquil.

Is nothing microscopic or gi-normous? I think my carefully rendered drawing resolves that knotty philosophical point.

A blind man on the top of the Empire State Building looks out on God’s finest creation (Some might disagree here) and sees nothing. But what about all those flashes of imagination and laughter passing through his mind? They’re real to him. Might reality and nothing co-exist?

I read a James Paterson novel (unlikely, I assure you). Half an hour later details of the plot have been swept into the ether. A day later and I can’t be sure I read it. Two days later and I’m sure I didn’t. He happened, now he’s nothing. OK by me.

I consecutively drink a dozen different bottles of cheap sauvignon blanc. The difference in taste between them is indistinguishable. Perhaps there’s no difference. Has “difference in taste” become “nothing”?

Threesome, a novel. 5314 words

(Arthur*) had opened with an intensely detailed critique of the concert in which he sneered cruelly about the clarinetist’s inability to handle the concerto’s semi-quavers. Barbara ** sought a detour: “I understand you play the organ at St Erasmus?”

Arthur smiled fractionally. “Indeed but I wouldn’t bore you with any of that.”

Instead he bored them by slipping into his “sociable” mode…Another half-minute on how to choose a watering-can rose…

* Gladys’s “boyfriend”. ** Gladys’s mother.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

The shed renewed

The gardener is no longer “the gardener”, he’s Martin, tough and competent. He agrees to re-stain the shed, last done by me over decade ago. He’s going to B&Q anyway and will buy the stain but feels he must warn me “It’ll be expensive.” I don’t ask how much. Hereford’s “expensive” is nowhere near what’s expensive in Kingston-upon-Thames, 12 miles from London, where we used to live. In Hereford people tip taxi-drivers in coins and not many of them.

Next job will be to rid the brick-laid driveway of weeds. I have a wire brush but the bristle constantly clogs with greenery. Martin’s brush has much longer bristles and he gives me a demo. An example of “Don’t work harder, work smarter.”

Also of the apopthegm, “Don’t bend if you don’t have to. In fact, don’t bend.”

Threesome, a novel. 5117 words

GLADYS arrived at the concert hall a quarter of an hour earlier than scheduled but he was there before her. Wearing his new shortie overcoat even though the mild weather hardly warranted it. It was of course more a uniform than a form of  insulation… 

As he bent to kiss her cheek he raised a hand to the side of his face, paused, then lowered it. A tic which had puzzled her until she’d accompanied him to his favoured suitings supplier and found him gazing yearningly at a shelf devoted to outdated clothing accessories: detachable shirt cuffs, foulards, sock supports and… hats. Three trilbies, one of which might have been a snap-brim fedora. And then she realised. Had men’s hats still been fashionable Arthur would have worn one. Since they weren’t he made do with a gesture that went with hats, raising a hand to sweep off the trilby preparatory to kissing a maiden.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Croeso y Gymru*

Anglesea cottage with view below

The pride of Mynydd Cerig -
the Working Men's Club comes later

We’re booked for Wales, one week on the island of Anglesey jutting out into the Irish Sea, one week in rural South Wales (Mynydd Cerig to be precise;  you did know they speak a different language there, didn’t you?). Fantastic view of mountainous Snowdonia at the former, while the latter village has a Working Men’s Club! That won’t mean much to Americans I fear, but we’re already taking bets about who will have enough moxie to enter, waving a tenner and saying (tremulously), “Drinks on the house.”. Bearing in mind the traditional Welsh song:

His lance is long but yours is longer,
Strong his sword but yours is stronger,
Strike once more and then your wronger,
At your feet lies low.

The “his” are of course the English.

For those with dull imagination there will be lava bread (made from boiled seaweed), a plethora of community choirs with tenors predominating, a philosophical male populace whose muscles were exploited by the British government while the coal-mines existed and who are now largely ignored, a rock-climbing paradise even if, now, I may only look on, and long, long unpronounceable names on the road signs

THREESOME, a novel (4196 words)

Dark wood dominated Gladys’s bedroom. The heavy wardrobe doors were ripple-framed with grooves, ridges, twists and steps. Milky glass knobs to extract the drawers. A dressing table with a delicately mounted mirror which swung too low for Gladys’s high head. And the pictures – the World’s Ten Greatest Paintings – bought in booklet form from Woolworth when that institution still functioned, the pages torn out and squeezed into meanly dimensioned frames, the subjects occasionally trimmed to fit. “But then they’re only prints,” said George (her father), as reassurance that he would have treated the original oils with greater respect.

* Long thought to be Welcome to Wales. Actually: Welcome the Wales

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Pays de Galles, then

Not to be. Hélas

We cancelled the French villa. The others were alarmed about the huge sum of money which VR and I would pay, half of it already lost. She and I were more concerned that this might be our last go at France, a yearly tradition which goes back forty years. In your eighties none of your plans are ever “firm”.

On Skype we toyed with other destinations. “Anywhere but England,” said OS and everyone agreed. I’ve never been so ashamed to be English, to be represented in the world by the most wretched collection of liars, brown noses, self-servers and what my mother used to call “clawpokes”.

We favour Wales which is close by and beautiful. Also because Wales has regularly been screwed by Whitehall and we sympathise.

The novel is going well:

Threesome (The third or fourth working title; it may stick for a while)
3961 words.

… Those of Gladys’s schoolfriends whose parents were rackety, over-familiar or plain negligent said they envied her.

Envied Gladys her hollow step-parents.

The Greenwoods lacked imagination. They assumed everyone they met toed the line that guided them. If, subsequently, they discovered that other parents owned a glider, were devout Christians, bet on horses, had become vegans, organised exchange holidays with Germans or voted Communist, they ascribed these deviations to random aberration. None of which really mattered.

What did matter were the assumptions they made about Gladys. Except “assumption” was too strong a word. It was impossible to imagine them thinking about their stepdaughter in a way that differed from their banal and repetitive dialogues. Or asking questions which might encourage unexpected answers.

Grammatical note: I’m aware of the “them/their” prescription. Decided (if I’m wrong) this sounds better.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Still working

Hereford has a cathedral so it’s a city, but it isn’t all that big. Even so it seemed whimsical to drive from one side to the other to spend eight quid. And what’s so great about a de-rusting agent and a light lubricant?

Because the two, used together, transformed opening my up-and-over garage door from a burden into to a featherweight finger-tip operation. Also because one’s called WD-40, the other Three-in-One, and all three of us are about the same age. I’m guessing.


A novel, 2189 words, so far 

Mrs Rashid had arrived home early with time to enjoy a quick bath, switch her business suit for a kimono, add new make-up and welcome her daughter and Gladys in polished hostess style. “I have green tea and – if you’re worn out – half a carton of saké.”

The Japanese garment and drink seemed mildly out-of-place in a living room furnished in Indian restaurant style. But then the husband who might have resisted these Far Eastern incursions had been dead for almost a decade and Gladys couldn’t help thinking Mrs Rashid had taken full advantage of the shift in responsibility. 

The late Mr Rashid was rarely mentioned in conversation and then only laughingly with reference to his Islamic severity. It seemed doubtful he would have approved of his wife’s current employment which often involved evening visits to single male drivers who had misused their flash sports cars. And by this time Nasrin would surely have been married to a mosque-goer ten years older. Various odd details Gladys had picked up over the months implied Mr Rashid had foreseen his death and tried, with growing desperation, to force his wife into a second marriage with a gloomy corner-shop owner three doors down. Not a hope.


Saturday, 22 May 2021

The curse of the green

It’s poetic justice, I suppose. As to gardens, I deserve this turn of the wheel.

Readers of Tone Deaf and, before that, Works Well, will be wearied by my anti-garden threnodies. I hate digging, planting, weeding and all the rest of the seasonal labours even if I do enjoy sitting with VR on the patio, drinking an expensive  Rhone Valley white and contemplating my shabby horticultural empire.

We’ve paid gardeners (very well by Hereford standards) but for one reason or another they’ve fallen by the wayside. Recently we thought Paradise had descended when Barry and his grandson spent two days tidying up out back. Good grief, it actually looked like a garden, even if my criteria are modest.

But Barry should never have done it. A self-admitted perpetual-motion machine he’d just had his knee replaced and by attending to us he aggravated the healing process. This week he re-entered hospital and I’ve yet to hear the outcome.

Before he did he bestowed twenty marigold plantlings on me. Wouldn’t accept cash. Then give it to charity, I urged. Rumbling somewhat he admitted he and his wife supported the Cat’s Defence League. No, ten quid was far far too much. A fiver then.

A dozen plantlings occupy the two troughs at the front. The casual sticks you see are from rose trees and their spines – ironically – keep cats out of their chosen lavatory. Thus begins the paranoia. Frost might have happened but didn’t. But the wind was strong enough to shift the troughs never mind the piteous green shoots. They survived. We now need hanging lobelias and they may not be so lucky. Worry, worry, worry. I did once raise the subject of silk flowers. But that, I’m told, would be cheating.

The new novel waits, lusciously.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Could it work 3? First steps


Roderick Robinson

Her factory coat hung on a hook; no clothes lockers at Robertson’s, management thought they encouraged theft.

There it drooped. A true factory coat for which, it seems, there is no other word or phrase: dark beige, down to the knees, a breast pocket for ball-points, patch pockets at the sides, ludicrously out-of- date lapels. Lapels! Who wears a rose to work?

Manual workers these days wear sleeker one-piece garments, once referred to as boiler suits, now known universally as overalls. Less likely to snag on whirling machinery but you have to wriggle into them. Rained on, they grip like lobsters

It’s said factory coats are hard to find, that there’s no market for them. Perhaps because they are so durable. The fabric is uncomfortably stiff, more akin to canvas. Gladys had worn hers since starting with Robertson’s three years ago; it was grubbier now but that was the only hint that time had passed. She had no affection for it, convinced it made her look socially downtrodden. But regarded it with a certain wryness. So typical of the company that employed her.

Haseen had worn a loose-fitting artificial silk blouse to interview her. A cartoon red dragon on a green background, the cuffs secured with links that dangled silver discs the size of saucers.  His moustache upswept and piratical. He shook her hand which was unexpected and his teeth shone brilliantly white against his dark skin when he smiled. Which he did a lot.

“Miss Ashworth – such a rhapsodical name. Though they say it’s quite common in this part of Lancashire.”

His smile was infectious. “Common as muck?”

“Good gracious, not at all. But my family name – Mohiuddin – might so be described in Islamabad. But tell me, Miss Ashworth, were you surprised that a company called Robertson is run by a family of Pakis?”

It sounded like a trap. “I don’t care for that abbreviation. I associate it with racists. But to answer your question. I suspect there may be marketing reasons. I’ve seen your clothing brochure and it’s clear your customers are not limited to Asians. You’ve crossed national boundaries.”

His laugh was falsetto. “How shrewd of you to notice. Perhaps I should be interviewing you for my job. But the classified asked for a packaging operative and we mean what we say. Someone who understands the mechanics of protecting goods in transit and can come up with safe solutions.”

Gladys realised one of her trainer laces had untied itself. To bend down and interrupt the dialogue? To leave it be and risk being typed a slut? Decisions, decisions. “I wouldn’t want to doom the interview but I’m not sure…”

“We’re not expecting immediate skills. You’re here for three reasons: your grade 8 GCSE maths, the fact that you run middle-distance races, and that you are a woman. Take that last point first; there seems to be a tradition that packaging systems in Asian retail suppliers are served by women. And only women.

Gladys nodded. Haseen continued. “Packaging is vital to nationwide distribution. Amazon spends millions on just that aspect of their business. Dozens if not hundreds of carton designs covering all sorts and sizes.” He spread his hands in mock humility. “We are not Amazon. The economics of pre-buying all those packaging designs – in bulk – would bankrupt us. We decided on ad hoc solutions, with you, or some other woman at the heart of it. Do you understand?”

Gladys frowned. “Many patterns – designs as you say – would recur. “

“They are stored on a stamping machine and accessed according to need. We buy cardboard and plastic for sleeving in huge rolls. I’m hoping your Grade 8 maths will help you see the goods and their dimensions in terms of solid geometry and you call up or design a slightly oversize container. You’ll be slow to begin with but will speed up as more and more standard patterns accumulate. Your female colleagues down the line will assemble the cardboard flats into cartons.”

“And my middle-distance running?”

“You’ll need to be fit for this work, As will your colleagues. Any questions?”

Gladys shook her head. But she had her doubts. During college holidays she’d done intern work with manufacturers and gained an inkling of the equations that square labour needs with investments. Maseen would need more than one woman with a knowledge of advanced maths and fit legs. So it turned out although by then the cost of two more stamping machines had changed the basic premise and the accountants were called in to fudge the figures.

She reached for her drooping factory coat and slipped it on. Robertson’s had probably realised such coats would last for ever. But failed to see they belonged to the post-war forties and were depressing to look at. Especially if you came to work in artificial-silk blouses. Luckily for Haseen, he held shares.

Gladys had wondered whether Muslim women working the packaging line might envy her as the only whitey. One had eventually tested her with quotes from the Koran but by then Gladys had become popular; a whistle was blown and the offender was transferred to marketing support. Does this mailer go into that size of envelope? That sort of thing.

More important she’d gained a friend.  Nasrin was about the same age but came from a home with slightly fewer faith-driven restrictions. Her mother, widowed early, had fallen back on her A-levels and found reasonably well-paid work as a loss assessor with an insurance company. Often she was away in the evenings and Nasrin, the eldest child, became her surrogate. Even to the point of being allowed to join the local ADS and indulge her enthusiasm for the stage. A chance remark about Pinter, within Gladys’s hearing, brought the two of them together and the relationship had blossomed into sotto-voce, giggly conversations during lunch breaksabout the shortcomings of Robertson, Gateway to Eastern Splendour, as the website said. Within a month Gladys had also joined the ADS.

They were an odd looking pair – Gladys, tall, muscular, irregularly dyed hair swept up into a crown that frequently required attention, Nasrin, a mere five feet, delicate cheekbones and eyes like a gazelle. But friends, definitely friends, capable of lending each other tenners and not falling out. Sharing laughter. Dining at each other’s homes.