Aug 17th

Harry Bingham's email/blog about Opening Sentences (13/08/18)

By Tony

Great opening sentences (and why I’ve never written one)

Folks,

There’s an internet meme which suggests that if you want your book to be taken seriously by readers / agents / editors, you need a great opening sentence.

In fact, there’s an entire sub-category of blog posts on the subject. You know the kind of thing: “How to write great opening sentences, including 101 examples.” (Those blog posts always steal each others’ examples too, so the same damn sentences come up again and again and again.)

But what I want to ask is: really?

You really think that great books have to have some slam-bam, attention-grabby opening sentence or they won’t get picked up?

That’s just horseshit. Sorry, but it is. The book I’m reading (and loving) at the moment is The Buried Giant by Kashuo Ishiguro. The guy has won about a bazillion literary awards including the Nobel Prize, so he presumably knows a thing or two about writing. And here’s his opening sentence:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.

I mean, that’s OK, I guess. I don’t really like the direct address to the reader. The phrases winding lane and tranquil meadow smack just a little of cliché to me. And the phrase for which England later became celebrated strikes me as a little awry. I mean, the English countryside has often been celebrated, but has England itself been celebrated for its ability to grow grass on a field? I’m not sure. I think the phrasing feels a tiny bit wrong.

So, yeah, the sentence is OK, but it’s not great. It’s not special. Me, I’d have rewritten it.

My own first sentences are hardly any better, however. Books #1 to #6 in the Fiona Griffiths sequence open like this:

#1: Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park.

#2: “Welcome.”

#3: I like the police force.

#4: Rain.

#5: “Well?”

#6: Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece.

That’s three books which open with a single word. The other three books manage actual complete sentences, but not one of them says anything particularly special or distinctive.

Those you-have-to-have-an-awesome-opening-sentence-or-Planet-Book-will-hate-you blog posts would disapprove of my terrible, lazy and self-destructive habits.

Except, except, except – these books have sold to a lot of readers in a lot of countries. They’ve had a lot of nice reviews from readers and critics. They’ve all been bought up for audio. They’ve all been bought up for TV. I get emails literally every week asking me when the next book is coming out. So my books aren’t obviously shite. And if the books are kinda OK, maybe there’s more going on with this whole opening sentence issue than those damn blog posts suggest.

And here’s the thing.

The “you have to write a great opening sentence” brigade tend to treat the start of a book the way an ice dancer treats some big competitive routine. “I’d better pull off some high-kicking, quadruple backflip, with extra twizzle, because that’ll really show them that I’m a Writer.”

So – biff, bam – out come the high kicks and the back flips right there in the first paragraph.

But peforming backflips is not your task as a writer. That is not your task on the opening pages.

You want to know what those opening pages have to accomplish?

They have to get the reader into your story.

That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

You don’t even need to get your story started. Not on page one. Not even on page two. Sure, you probably want to have your story-train chugging out of the station before the end of chapter one, but if you want to mess around for a bit first, you can.

Your task with that opening line / opening para / opening page is to do one and only one thing:

Get the reader into your story.

Once they’ve hopped on board your train, you can send them off to Hogwarts, or on a murder investigation, or on a trip across Dark Ages England (if you’re Ishiguro), or anywhere else.

But the train can’t chuff off anywhere if it doesn’t have any passengers on board.

Which means that, right from the first word, you need to start making your fictional world feel brighter and clearer than the (boring, boring) real world outside. The characters you tip into action have to start shimmering into real life. Yes, you do probably want some story question hanging over things, but that’s mostly because that story question is a way of luring people into your train.

And sure: there are times when a high-kicking quotable sentence is absolutely right way to get readers into your story. That’s what George Orwell did in 1984 when he wrote:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

The surprise of that final word makes Orwell’s fictional world flash instantly brighter. The reader is instantly eager to enter Orwell’s story-train, in order to find out more about a world that has these clocks in it.

But there are any number of other ways to accomplish the same basic goal.

My Fiona Griffiths book #6 opens with Fiona’s office-buddy building a dinosaur out of office stationery and Fiona preparing to demolish it with a pencil-and-rubber-bands crossbow. Sure, the reader wants to see if Fiona really will demolish the dinosaur (she does), but the whole episode lasts a couple of pages and is then never referred to again. It’s of zero consequence. But by the time the dinosaur is on the floor in pieces, my readers are in my world. They’re on my train and I’m ready to transport them. Readers didn’t need pyrotechnics, they just needed to be seduced.

Here's another example: the opening few lines of my Fiona Griffiths book #2:

‘Welcome.’

Penry opens his hands in what’s meant to be a spreading gesture, only they never get more than about eight inches apart. It’s as though the ghosts of his handcuffs are still there.

‘Nice place,’ I tell him.

Formica tables with metal legs. Overhead fluorescent lighting. No daylight. Official notices on the wall and a couple of prison warders watching everything. Seven hundred and eighty-five other prisoners, 94 of them lifers. Nice.

‘Well, you know, I was going to repaint. Freshen things up a bit. But …’ He shrugs. ‘You know how it is.’

There’s no "Remarkable Sentence" in there anywhere, but you are there, immediately, with two characters in a prison setting, and you want to know more. You are engaged with their situation. I have you in my story-train, and now I can send you wherever the heck I wish. (In this instance, the Black Mountains and plenty of murder.)

So – Great First Sentences? Forget them. Maybe one day, I’ll write one or maybe I won’t. But I won’t spend even two minutes fretting if my next book starts with another dullard. It’s not the thing to focus on.

 

Till soon, and happy writing.

Harry

Aug 17th

Free Will (even Freedom to be Gormless)

By Gerry

Some of you may have read this on the other site (back in 2015), but I’m jumping up and down at the gormless simplicity I’ve just been listening to on Radio 4: ‘A History of Ideas: Neuroscientist Paul Brock on Free Will and the Brain.’ Here’s the programme link if you want: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04p2bcz

 

But what I want to do right now is make a link to a post I wrote back in 2015:

http://dimensionsbeyond.typepad.com/gerryfenge/2015/05/free-will-are-we-will-free.html

 

The thing is, we humans have layers to our minds – wouldn’t be able to write anything decent if we didn’t – but the ‘scientific’ method often seeks the simplest measurable components (‘atoms of behaviour’). So what are they likely to end up with? Simple-minded conclusions.

 

Simples, you see.

Aug 15th

Best Sunday morning....

By Old Fat Prop

Flight was delayed.  Another three hours before boarding.  I was already sitting on four pints and having a morbid fear of aircraft toilets, I decided to not order another. Her-Indoors hadn't finished her thrid Bloody Mary so it was a decision taken wiht some mutuality.

We left the airport bar and sat in a deserted gate area so we could avoid the collateral damage that eminated from the surrounding hen and stag doos.  

One guy detached from a group of stags and staggered up to us screaming into his moby phone.

'Tell her I'm at the airport.' and he handed me the phone. 

I took it from him, turned it off and dropped it in the pocket of his hawaiian shirt. 

I put on my best British Airways voice and said; 'This area is closed, mate. You'll have to fuck off back to the bar...'

He looked at me without comprehension and staggered away, weaving with the skill of a downhill racer.

Her-indoors looked at me and me and laughed. 

'NBPE' I said. 

'NBPE?  What's that mean?'

'Not Been Punched Enough,' I said.

 

I sat back down. Conversation was required because if we nodded off, we might miss flight updates or even boarding. 

Years ago, in a similar situation in Bangkok airport, we overheard two couples on the seats behind us discussing their travel plans.  They were going to spend 3 months here and 2 months there.  We listened in total awe and jealousy. At that time in our lives we had struggled to take 10 days off and to scrape up the dosh to get to Thailand. 

I asked her if she remembered the conversation. 

'Yes, very clearly. And now we have become them, haven't we...'

'We've beome "us", I think. But similar to them'

And the conversation drifted to places we had been. Invariably, it was the mistakes and misadventures which had coloured our memories, rather than the finer meals or hotels. 

'Worst Hotel?' she said. 

'Easy. Rose Court in India. The fucking door was only 5'11" and I beat my brains out every time I went through it.  And you?'

She looked off a bit and nodded to herself. 'You've taken me to so many dumps... but it has to be Donsol, in the Phillipines... That builders shack on the beach we found when the hotel had no rooms.... and they killed the pig in front of us in the morning.... it just screamed and screamed.... That has to be the worst.....'

'But the fresh bacon rolls...' I offered.

She gave me the 'offside' look and I retreated. 

'Best Bar?...'  I countered. 

'Ooooh tough one.....  Conways in Manlia was wonderful....' she pondered.... ' Ned Kelly's in Hong Kong.  The first time.... that was epic'

'Yes... the band, ten guys, a piano and a double bass in the space of a phone box...' great craic....'

'And your favourite bar?' she asked.

'The Johnny Haliday Bar in Toulouse on that rainy Tuesday night' or the Dubliner in Playa Mar with the U-Too band.... or The Stock Exchange in Manginui, that was perfect.... '.

'YES!... that was so strange, the Johnny Haliday Bar and how we never found it again....'

'Best Sunday Morning?....' I asked.

'Singapore... Orchard Road Brunch...' she nominated with enthusiasim.

'That was pretentious shite. I had to wear a tie, for fuck sake and it burned out the Visa Card once you found the champagne bar...' I laughed.

'It was medicinal. I was ill....'

'That was the next three days...' I said. 

'Must have been the lobster, then..., how about you?  Best Sunday morning?'

'Easy. Cafe' Samaritin  on the Quay du Belge in the Vieux Port,  Marseilles.'

'Oh.. yes, that was perfect,... and that yacht owner asked you for a recommendation for a ship chandler... that was so funny. I was so embarrased....'

 

The PA interupted,'Ryan Air flight RA3478 to Limoges now boarding at gate 23.....'

 

So Placers, tell me of your Best Sunday Morning..... and have you put your favourite places into your WIPs?

 

 

 

Aug 14th

Three little prompt words

By Purple Witch

 

After my  writing - and life  blip -  I am  getting  back  firmly on  track.

 

Start a new job next week and have been working on my main WIP.

 

But… something else has started to take over … 

 

What i wanted to share with you is that I have also been writing a weekly entry on Sandra’s ’Prediction’ page blog.

 

With three set prompt words, you have to create a 100-word entry. On the second week, the prompt words were   Cheer Armadillo and Theft. To my surprise, I have a good fantasy/comedy storyline going about armadillos …. Dont laugh … well not yet anyway...

 

My emerging tale  has received  good  comments  from others on the site  so I have  added it to my  own  blog 'Inking The Page'  under my  flash fiction  section.

 

I'm not sure where it came from and it’s not what I had any intention of writing, but it’s insisting that I keep writing it.

 

I have now begun expanding it into a something a little more solid and am half way through chapter two with three beginning to trickle into shape 

 

 It all started with Armondo Dillo - Armi.... Don’t worry Sandra - Sarg, Pink- Fairy, Atlas, and the others   are all included.

 

I have chosen... no.. Strike that.. Armi has chosen ... to make himself a Secret Armadillo Soldier (S.A.S)

 

My soldierly knowledge is zip ... and, I only have a basic plot plan, but my characters are taking shape...  or is that taking over....  

 

Its fun, its making me look at sentence structure and content, and I’m writing every day.  

 

It just goes to show, you never know where your writing ideas will come from or where they will take you....

 

Once I've posted this  I’m off  to the Pangolin  Palace  to  help  Sarg  pick up the  pieces after a  bar room  brawl  and to assist  Armi in  his  mission  at  Fat  Franks.

 

I may need camouflage and some air freshener. 

Aug 14th

Shut your eyes and see yourself as you really are.

By Mezz

This is a bit of an odd blog, just my mind wandering.

It's been six months since vodka entered my bloodstream. I can't blame that for anything anymore. It's all just me.

*Actually I'm a tiny bit proud of myself for that.

Mind wanders back in time, looking for praise; "Nobody likes a smug face, Mezz."

Today I was waiting to pay for a sandwich. A simple enough task.

I had an agenda. I had driven to the shop and chosen food to eat at my Parents.

I chose it because I knew I liked it and it was nearly lunchtime.

Due to a botched op years ago I never feel hungry so I was pleased with myself for remembering to get food at an appropriate time.

I was about to pop and see my lovely Mum and my stubborn Dad.

Firstly; I always do, even though I immediately become 'The thumb-sucking awkward one' as soon as I set foot through the door.

Secondly, Today was to cope with the aftermath of my two sisters persuading them to have internet installed 'to make life easier'.

I paid for my food and was leaving the shop when a voice I recognised from my past but could not put an instant face to, shouted; "Mezz? Is that you? Is that REALLY you?"

I shut my eyes and the world turned.

I thought;

"Maybe - Depends which Mezz you think I REALLY am."

The child?

The happy one?

The Wife?

The Mother?

The dependable one?

The silent one?

The pissed one?

The honest one?

Just before I opened my eyes, I saw me, there I was - A little bit of all those things.

"Yes, It's really me! This is REALLY ME. How are YOU?"

Aug 9th

A Difficult Parting

By Jenni

18th June was the first of a four-day trip to the Cerdagne with my nature blog friends. The chalet I'd chosen was on the edge of a hamlet called St-Pierre-dels-Forcats (names in this region are often a jumble of French and Catalan), 1500m high on the Cerdagne plateau, between the Pyrenees and Carlit mountain ranges.

Because I'd made all the arrangements, I got there early to check out the surrounding area. I had my dog with me, and after a two-hour drive from home, we both appreciated a leg-stretch. I headed up the lane beyond the chalet. After only a couple of hundred yards, tarmac became stone track, and I found myself at the top of a rise, overlooking meadow after meadow of spring flowers. Narcissi, orchids, trollius, hawkweeds, buttercups, bistort, ragged robin, pink clover ... If I thought the journey had been impressive, this took my breath away.

Meadow & Cambra d'Ase

What brought me to a standstill, however, was a cluster of rocks on a mound in the middle of them all. The rocks cried out to be sat upon, which is exactly what I did. No fence, wall or KEEP OUT sign to stop me. While sharing a sandwich with my dog, I mused over who else, over the centuries, might have sat in this same spot, listening to the skylarks, breathing in the fresh mountain air and soaking up the views.


Cambra d'Ase

Because of my dog's need for regular exercise, and the convenience of such a quiet track so close to the chalet, I returned there several times each day after that - usually early morning and evening; rarely meeting anyone. Thoughts of my father often surfaced; he would have been in his element in this environment.

clover

For some reason, those rocks drew my eye every time I passed them. Bathed in sunshine, they, the flowers, grasses, butterflies and birdsong combined to lend this place serenity that I've rarely experienced elsewhere.

On the last day, we had to vacate the chalet by 10.30, so there was much coming and going as we cleared up and packed cars. Everyone had plans to stop off somewhere on the way home, but three of us also had to visit the spring meadows one last time.



Partly to give Digby Dog a decent walk before the long car journey, and partly to delay the moment of departure for as long as possible, when the other two headed back, I continued beyond the meadows into the welcome cool and contrast of pine forest. And instead of immediately circling round to the chalet again, I followed a snow-shoe trail towards the neighbouring Eyne Valley.



Here and there in the dappled shade, rhododendrons were beginning to open; I was sorry not to see them at their best, but if they had been out the spring flowers would have gone over. You can't have everything.

forest
After a while, with heavy heart, I turned round and regained the circular walk, coming out at our deserted chalet and my loaded car. I felt at home here. Could have stayed for weeks - there was so much left to explore; raptors to track down (I'd hardly seen any all week - where were they?); new plants and butterflies to discover ...

Chalet
Already I was promising myself to return, though not necessarily to the same base; I was aware that a future visit at a different time of year could well affect me differently. At the end of this trip, I drove away with a strong sense of leaving something important behind.

Rocks

Aug 9th

london reflections.

By Old Fat Prop

My sleep lightened and the drone of the fan in our bedroom gradually became the reality of an early July dawn.  In that half-awake state, I contemplated the fan and how the noise was so similar to that of th drone of four engines of a C-130 at cruising altitude. Almost a lullaby.

I no longer took those to work. Today it would be a 9 carriage commuter train. I resigned myself to my mercenary new existence and how I had sold the best summer we have had in decades for a pile of money to come out of retirement.

Fully awake now, I lifted the sleeping hand of Her-indoors off my shoulder and sat up. The disturbance caused her to shift a few times and finally reposition on her side of the bed.

Ninety minutes later, I stepped onto platform 5 at Paddington Station and into the great throng.

I sidestepped hurtling commuters and made my way to the Hammersmith and City platform and caught the next tube to Liverpool Street Station.  I set my ruck loosely on my shoulder and held on to an overhead bar.  I looked around. There were no seats left but the carriage wasn’t too crowded.  I looked again at my watch, a Fit Bit, and ignored my self-hypocrisy. 06:48.

The tube clientele was my source of entertainment.  A guy opposite me, probably around 50 was dressed in a very unflatteringly cut expensive suit and was wearing a Jermyn Street shirt which probably had fit him when he bought it, but was now two sizes too small. He had badly coloured hair and gave the overall impression of someone desperately failing at looking much younger than he was.

He was reading the free Metro paper and had the page turned to read the Rush Hour Crush, lonely hearts adverts. He had an unread and neatly folded FT sat on his briefcase on the seat next to him. I mentally ticked off ‘One’ on my wanker score board and shifted my gaze around the carriage. 

A heavy set mixed race woman sat on the opposite side of the carriage.  She was chatting loudly to a small black guy next to her. He nodded his head several times as he leant over to hear her but he seemed to be looking at her chest more than listening to her conversation.  She paused midway through each sentence to laugh loudly and rock back and forth.

At Baker Street, a young woman got on and stood next to me. I shifted the rucksack strap once to move it away from her as if to allow her to pass to a less crowded space in the carriage but she didn’t move on and stayed in the space just under my elbow as I held on to an overhead bar.

As the train moved off out of the station, she bumped into me before regaining her balance.  I inwardly rolled my eyes and checked my pockets for my wallet and phone. All still there. I was pleased. Must be Grope a Grand dad Day or maybe she had a Brut Deodorant fetish, I reasoned.

The carriage slowed down and the whine of the dynamo assisted brakes announced that were entering Kings Cross St Pancrass. She shifted away from me a bit as we jolted to a stop.

More passengers debarked and several seats became available. I sat on an end one inwardly facing and the young woman sat one down from me on the same side. The train shifted from the platform and the windows soon just showed the reflections from in the carriages against the blackness of the tunnel.  I looked at the hoardings seeking some sort of entertainment and as I shifted my gaze across the window, I noticed her staring at my reflection in the glass.  Our reflected eyes met and there was a hint of a smile that reminded me of someone else a long time ago, who also could hold eye contact.

I stepped off at Liverpool Street Station and headed down Old Broad Street to the job. I thought about the guy wearing the wrong clothes. I thought about mixed race woman with a Jamaican accent and loud voice. And I thought about reflected smiles and pheromones

The day was meetings and surveys in support of changes to an agreed but now impossible plan to refurb an existing heating system in an occupied building without damaging the tenants. We traded lies at the summary and I signed out about ten minutes past five in the afternoon.  As I walked up to Liverpool Street Station, I noticed two complimentary things. A great crowd of commuters about to enter the tube station and opposite to it, The Railway Tavern.

It was a no brainer, the kind of which I am naturally equipped to deal with.  With Her-indoors out tonight with her sister, it was an easy shout. Spend the rush hour having a pint or three and catch a later and less crowded train instead of two hours of Commuter Twister in crowded tube carriages and trains.

The Railway Tavern sits on the intersection of Old Broad Street and Liverpool Street. The entrance is at the corner of the building.  I stepped past a dozen or so people smoking outside the doors and I entered.  It looked wonderful, a huge vaulted ceiling showcased ornate fixtures and mouldings.  The bar was along the left side  and high bar tables occupied the middle ground.  Along the right side, facing the alley, great high windows were open allowing air in.

The pub was busy but not rammed.  Almost all of the tables were occupied but the bar was uncrowded.

A pleasant, short woman with a polish accent asked me what I would like,

‘Amstel. In a racing glass...’

‘A what?...’

‘ A racing glass...’

‘What is a racing glass?...’

‘Well, the point is probably lost now, but your fastest glass is a racing glass.... in other words, give it to me as quickly as you can....’

‘Oh.... I’ve never heard it called that...’ and she handed it over.

‘Every day is a school day... thank you.’ I said as I tapped my card on a small machine instead of paying cash.   “When in London,” I thought.

I set my pint on the nearest unoccupied table and slung my ruck on a hook underneath. I took a quarter of my pint down as antidote for the venom I had taken in the meeting on site with the client’s engineers, otherwise known as the ‘Flat Earth Society’.  It was mood saving.

A cricket match blinked soundlessly from a telly on the wall in front of me.  Only a few punters seemed to be watching.

I took another gulp and felt the phlegm clear from the back of my throat. My life was improving in leaps and bounds.

Next to me was a window onto the alley and outside several people enjoyed conversations and cigarettes along with their drinks.  I watched them.  There was a broad mix of sizes shapes and ages among the group closest to my seat. I reasoned that this was some sort of after-work social obligatory fun event.

There were no obvious couples and the body languages didn’t give off the idea that these people genuinely liked each other.  Upon further observation, there were several sub groups. One of these consisted of three young twenty-ish women. The all were attractive and well dressed. I watched them for a while and noticed that they each spoke in rotating turns, like a game show and that when each one was speaking, the others gave total attention. It was impossible to discern what the topic of conversation was but they seemed to be enjoying the topic and each other’s company.

I watched further, fascinated. When one drank, the other two also lifted their glasses, nodding in agreement to some conversational comment.  The same synchronicity applied to cigarettes. When one lit up, the other two followed suit.  

I remembered a college course I had on sociology which first enlightened me to the idea of subliminal perceptions and how our behaviours are influenced by our environments.  You can get a PhD in Monkey See Monkey Do.

I smiled at them and looked at the other table near them. An old guy stood, clearly having had more to drink than anyone else, and was ear bashing another guy while pointing his left index finger at him, all the while two younger guys looked at their phones. The older guys were much better dressed that the two younger ones.

I looked around further, I was the only solitary drinker. Everywhere else, there were groups of people interacted.  Oddly, I didn’t feel out of place or even envious. ’I am a rock, I am an Island’.

I finished my second pint. The long day was having it’s affect and I was feeling a bit tired.  I thought better of another pint and I lifted my ruck onto my shoulder. I set my empty glass on the bar and I headed for the door.

And as I passed a group at a table, I had an odd feeling and turned slightly to my left. And there she was, the girl from the morning subway.  When our eyes linked, there was that unmistakable sense of recognition.  She smiled that same subtle expression and her eyes extenuated her expression.

I smiled back and headed out the door. The train home was uncrowded.  I resisted the urge to look into the reflections in the window in front of the darkening fields outside. You never know what may be looking back...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 8th

Has the internet lost its way?

By AlanP

This is the content of an email I recently received:

*******************
Hi, viсtim.
I write you beсаusе I put a malware оn thе wеb рagе with рorn whiсh yоu hаve visited.
My virus grаbbеd all your рersonаl infо аnd turnеd on your сamеra which саptured thе procеss оf yоur оnanism. Just аftеr that the soft savеd your cоntаct list.
I will delеte the сomрrоmising video аnd info if yоu pаy mе 400 USD in bitcoin. This is addrеss for раyment : 19QLKJQH2cCtNfrhEyriPdzFNL1YCnFFMX
 
I give you 24 hоurs after you oреn my messаge fоr mаking thе trаnsaсtion.
As soоn as yоu rеad the mеssage I'll sее it right аway.
It is not nесеssаry to tеll mе thаt you have sent monеy tо me. This аddress is соnnесted tо yоu, my system will dеlеtе evеrything аutоmаtically aftеr transfer confirmаtion.
If you neеd 48 h just reрly on this lеtter with +.
You саn visit thе рolice stаtion but nоbоdy can hеlр you.
If you try to dеcеive mе , I'll seе it right awаy !
I dont live in your cоuntry. So they сan nоt trасk my lосation even fоr 9 mоnths.
Goоdbye. Dоnt fоrgеt abоut the shamе and to ignore, Your life саn be ruined.

**********************************************************

I propose to use this to illustrate how I think that the internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, has lost its way. First, let’s deal specifically with the message reproduced above.  I am certain that it is a blind email sent to thousands on a list that trades for a few dollars on the dark web.

Let’s deal with specifics. It is indeed possible to plant a virus that will watch you through your web cam. Although I have good virus protection and it’s unlikely, I accept that some hostile entity could possibly do it to me, although I am more addicted to web sites such as the BBC, The Guardian, Amazon, IMDB, You Tube and of course here than watching actors pretending to have amazing sex. It’s true I do handle confidential material from time to time and I am possibly a target for surveillance for that reason.  Accordingly I would be exceptionally stupid to jerk off in front of my web cam and I am happy to report that my mother didn’t have any stupid children. Anyone watching me through my cam is likely to have acquired endless hours of my largely uninteresting visage not changing much, the highlight being an occasionally look of extreme pleasure as a caffeine hit enters my veins, or rarely some spectacular nasal excavations taking place. This is not stuff that I can be blackmailed with and so I immediately know, without having to give it any further thought, that there is nothing whatsoever to this. Nevertheless, in my opinion this email is a new development in a disturbing evolution on the internet.

People do visit porn sites. They are out there in number and many of them are free. As the recent news reports about Facebook, Google and the other so called tech giants show, nothing is free. So why do they put up porn for free. I don’t actually know in detail, but I know it isn’t altruism, any more than altruism made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest men in the world. The providers of free porn are not doing it because they have enough money already. So, let’s say this email is received by someone who does watch porn, is perhaps a bit cavalier with their firewall and online security and has seen enough on telly to know the things it claims can be done. They might pay. Leave aside that a blackmailer should never be paid, they might pay because he’s not asking for much. I have no doubt that is a real bitcoin account. Because I can I have back tracked this email. It isn’t that hard. I’m fairly sure it comes from Manila, in the Philippines. I imagine it’s a student looking to make a bit of money to pay their tuition. The scam itself is a derivative of a much more pernicious one in which people were genuinely duped into sex acts over video links and then had the video played back to them, along with their FB friends list – quickly followed by a demand for money. There have been suicides. This just goes one step further, there’s less effort involved, they don't even have to connect and trick someone.

This is my point about the internet having lost direction. When it all started the world wide web had the moral high ground. The ethos was that all information should be free, should flow freely and be available for all. It was to be a great leveller, to allow the little guy to take on the big guy. There were a few notable examples in those early days, although for the life of me I can’t recall one just now. But consider crowdfunding, “justgiving” and multiple other ways in which for little outlay good causes can be supported. They have all in common that they could not work without the internet, the WWW.  Facebook campaigns have achieved good stuff.


But alongside all that we have this, my example above. Technical weaknesses mean concealment and anonymity are easy. I traced this guy because he doesn’t give a shit and didn’t try very hard – he knows nobody cares. Bitcoin is only possible because of the internet. The dark web, where my email address, along with yours and possibly other stuff such as your credit card number, circulates can only exist because of the internet. Unspeakable acts such as the beheading of hostages are circulated on the internet. And it is hard to make these things stop without taking down the whole thing. And we can’t take the whole thing down, not now. You almost can’t bank without the internet these days, branches are closing all over. Credit card transactions all go over the internet, when did you last write a cheque? Pay cash over a tenner? Many big companies don’t take cheques, even. Shopping is increasingly dominated by internet shops. And on that subject, did you ever think that Amazon would cause your little car spares shop in a side street off the centre of town to close? Let alone destroy Maplin, my favourite store. I didn’t. Shut down the internet and the economic impact would be enormous. And to control it affects so many vested interests that ---- well just forget it. I really think it can’t be done now.

The very openness that was such a positive thing is now subverted. It’s clear that the stuff people reveal on social media is now used in ways that were not spoken of. Initially it was used to fuel targeted marketing and many of us knew that and didn’t care. But we now know that there is a derivative market where the profiles of people on social media are sold, crunched through algorithms with other sources and used for much darker purposes. Elections have been manipulated, of this there is no doubt; and before we go on a Brexit / Trump bash, Obama is credited with his victories through effective use of social media too, as was Cameron’s 2015 win.When did Twitter become the main means of all announcements, government policy, trading statements, obituaries, news gathering? It was limited to 140 characters because it was supposed to be trivial little announcements (tweets). These days POTUS threatens nuclear war using it, no doubt thankful he gets more characters these days in order to make his point more clear.

And at the same time, on our more human scale, it is possible to troll people, to depress them, to insult them with relative impunity. The principle of openness has morphed to a right to anonymity and a right to say anything that is defended with more vehemence than one might expect. The unscrupulous, the rich with big ideas and ambitions, and the simply evil can make use of it just the same as the good guys can.

And, just to touch base back to the pornography for a moment. It isn’t just actors performing for money. Revenge porn, secret filming and downright illegal abusive stuff goes out. And who polices it, does anyone police it? It’s hard to say, but if any organisation tries they soon stumble up against a well organised civil liberties argument that makes the NRA look like a bunch of Bash Street Softies.

Which brings me full circle, back to my purported student in the Far East, sending out thousands of free emails. He’s a little guy - I regard him as an insect – but that’s not quite the point. What he does costs next to nothing.  A tiny tiny response will earn him enough to get to the end of his term, which is probably all he wants. So he does it, because he can. The internet free for all allows this. It has created the environment in which it is possible. It is immeasurably far from the ideals I recall before it all became what it is today. Rather like the old fable of the boiled frog, it seems to have happened without us noticing it was happening until after it has all happened and we are cooked.

I don’t know where this all leads. I just wanted to say it. Stay safe, buy proper online protection and, if you really must, stick a post it over your cam when you aren’t actively using it.

Aug 3rd

An Almighty Omelette

By Whisks

I’ve kept the eggs laid by the Bare Girls for several almighty crackings (to see what’s going on) and made giant omelettes for me and any passers-by. 

I’ve done this before with new intakes of laying girls, first to learn who lays which egg by their shell, and because  it’s been fascinating to see the progression of colour changes in the yolks.

 

It’s useful to know who lays which egg. If you can identify the egg mother, then you know who’s laying and who’s not: when they stop, it can signal they’re unwell. Also, if you ever need to medicate a girl allopathically, you only need discard the eggs of the afflicted matron, not the eggs of the whole flock. So it’s fun to know, useful to know, and saves wasting so many perfectly good eggs.

 

As for yolk colour, it depends very much on what they’re fed. 

With my first three ex-bat flocks and this latest flock, all they’d ever eaten was layers pellets. Layers pellets are like space food. Contain (probably) the minimum nutrients that they need for their short stay on this earth to pop out an egg each day, and at the least cost. Layers pellets look like cardboard pellets. Not not very interesting, if space food is what you’re going to eat all your life; and some brands may contain hormones to make them lay, even when they’re not old enough or fit and ready to.

It’s difficult to tell which brands contain hidden extras; unlike human food, the contents of animal feed don’t need to be displayed clearly on the packaging. Doubtless it’s discoverable, but I’ve not been able to discover it yet.

Back when ex-bats first came to live with me, the yolks started off a sickly lemon yellow. Once here, their diet varied and - I hope - improved. I did feed my early flocks with layers pellets, because everyone told me I had to and I believed them. But I also fed them lots of other nice things, like fruit, vegetables, pasta, sultanas, cheese, porridge, yoghurt, greens. 

When I broke all the eggs in date sequence, the change was startling. The pale yolks became richer, deeper yellow, almost orange. I smiled with pride. 

 

Then I had a few flocks from school hatchings and they’d never been in battery. Gradually I stopped giving layers pellets. I didn’t know what was in them and that worried me. I wanted to give my girls as natural and healthy and varied a diet as possible. Yes, I know melons and courgettes and tomatoes aren’t likely to be a wild chicken’s natural diet, but a) show me a wild chicken, and b) they’ve got to be better (to my mind) than space food. 

I gave them plenty of grain too: wild bird seed, sunflower seeds, millet. A wide variety of all the different nutrients they might contain, which I hoped provided a balanced diet. 

If I feel they need a protein and oil boost, I even give them sardines or tuna. Yes! When I was in Malawi, all they fed their chickens was fish - and they tasted of it, too. But I only give mine wild-caught fish, as farmed fish are also fed dyes to make the salmon and trout pink. Besides, the dyes can go through to the eggs and make them pink too.

In addition, my chickens eat all sorts of natural greenery from my garden every day. They forage and gobble up worms, earwigs, snails, catch moths that are startled up from the grass. Plus the grass. Luckily I’m a botanist not a gardener and have plenty of wild plants (weeds?) that they munch through. So I hoped they’d get a good, varied diet in a different way to space food. 

This isn’t all for their benefit, by the way; it’s for me, too. I also want to eat as close to real food as I can, and to know what’s in it if it isn’t. Not too many chemicals, thank you very much. 

I’m not against space food as such; very useful when you’re in space. I have a problem if it’s the only thing to eat, ever. Like only ever eating a Big Mac every day of your life. All things in moderation.

 

The taste of my eggs was lovely, too. I love eggs, but rarely eat a shop-bought one; they’re not so creamy rich with that savoury protein taste. Yummy.

 

Then after several years of bringing up non-industrial school chicks, along came my Spice Girls (blogged on the Cloud: http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/magazine/read/introducing-the-spice-girls_8896.html ). These weren’t ex-bats, but ex-free-rangers. The chappie at the sheds had gone to great length to explain to me that they didn’t like their hens eating grass; they wanted them to eat the space food. That’s why 5,500 girls were banged up in the sheds under fluorescent lights and not outside in lush grass on a glorious sunny day. He also told me that various medicines and antibiotics were added to their food and water. Not sure if this was to the pellets, or what. 

 

Anyway, I kept all their eggs, numbered, as is my habit. And prepared for a Grand Cracking, as I’d done in the past. 

To my enormous surprise, the colour gradation went the other way. The earliest ones were vivid orange, the latest ones were much paler and sunnier. Not as sickly as the poor little ex-bat lemon eggs, but not orange, either. 

This flummoxed me. I was feeding them real, fresh food, yet the eggs became paler?

I furrowed my brow. On the rare occasion I’d eaten a shop egg in recent years - usually in a B&B or similar - the colour of the yolks was lurid dark orange, too. 

I had half a bag of layers pellets left unused at the back of a cupboard, and so read the package again. It mentioned ‘colour enhancers’. Yeah? So they’re dying the yolks? The rest of that packet went on the compost heap. 

The yolks of all my girls’ eggs stabilised at a warm, sunny yellow, and not virulent, dark, marigold orange. 

And I remembered the terms we used to use: sunny side up, golden yellow. 

Many shop ones aren’t any more. They’re marigold orange. Dyed.

I’m much happier now we’ve come off the layers pellets. I know exactly what’s gone into my eggs and it’s all as natural as I can make it. Sunshine on a plate.

 

So now we come to the Bare Girls. 

 

See in this photo, how the eggs are particular to individual birds. Instantly recognisable, which will be so useful going forward. 

They’re laid out with a column for each girl, and each row is the next egg/next day.

I borrowed a supermarket organic egg for the photo and include it for comparison.

Yogi’s eggs are two-tone - paler toward the bottom. Baloo’s eggs are pinky and torpedo shaped. Paddy’s are huge, orangy-brown and speckled. 

They’re all very large. Girls lay larger eggs as they age, and these girls have aged. 

For completeness, I’ve included Luna’s little ping-pong balls  - nearly round and speckled - and Victoria’s elegant pinky porcelain eggs with a bone-china sheen. Her eggs are entirely oval, but I dare say that’s a tautology and ‘oval’ comes from ‘ova’ - eggs.

L&V are very little chickens, although the size of the mother doesn’t necessarily correlate with the size of the egg. 

Oh - why are some missing? I had them for my tea :).

 

 

 

 The columns of eggs are from L->R: Yogi, Baloo, Paddy. Luna, Victoria. The Sainsbury's egg is bottom right. So each girl has a distinctive signature design for her shells.

 

Sometimes I peek inside a supermarket egg box just out of curiosity, and they all seem identical. 

Not sure why this is. Does an egg develop personality with the age of the mother? Or - more likely perhaps - the non-standard eggs my girls laid would have ended up as liquid egg, which accounts for a greater market share than eggs in shells; so people eat them without realising. They’re all individual and like wonky fruit: carrots with two legs, potatoes that look like Winston Churchill, and curly beans. Nothing wrong with them at all - except they don’t match the others, nor the available packaging. Indeed if I put mine in a large egg box, I can’t shut the lid.

 

I wrote all of the above before The Great Crack Up; before I knew the contents. So let’s get to that.

 

Yogi’s egg Day 1: 

 

 

 

So pale, insipid and anaemic. 

 

I’ve been photographing them over the six weeks I’ve had my Bare Girls, but you don’t want to see all those pictures, do you. The rescue foxes, the wild foxes and me - we’ve all eaten stacks of omelettes. 

 

Now, six weeks on, here’s where we are now:

 

 

Top row is eggs, Day 4.

Second row is eggs, Day 42 (yesterday)

Bottom row is for reference: Victoria’s egg and Sainsbury’s Medium Organic Free Range egg (borrowed).

 

I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the Sainsbury’s egg isn’t the dark, dyed, orange-red of those I’ve been served in B&Bs. I rarely get to see anybody else’s eggs.

 

All three girls’ eggs are definitely improving in colour with their new, fresh diet. Paddy in particular has responded well. Yogi and Baloo are nearly there, but I’d rather they used the nutrition I’m providing to build themselves up first, before building up their eggs.

 

Don’t forget that an egg is very nutritious, and a hen has to provide that nutrition out of her own body, day after day. It’s easy to get depleted when she’s been on minimum rations her whole life. 

Meanwhile, I now have another eight cracked eggs to use fairly swiftly. That’s my dinner sorted. Even lonely little Carlos Fox will have a three-egg omelette tonight.

 

 

Aug 2nd

Yesterday

By AlanP

Yesterday evening I was in Brixton. I was in the middle of a fairly major street event and hundreds, possibly thousands, of local people were milling around in a sea of primary colours, big hair and.... let's say I breathed in the sweet air a few times and the world seemed a slightly less stressful place than it had previously been.

Speakers were bellowing out from a stage, I expect it was a cause to which they were dedicated and felt strongly about, but to be honest it was so overamped and shouty I couldn't understand a word. I just enjoyed my moment of being in an ocean where almost every other skin was different to mine and nobody cared.

There was a highlight amongst this stream of high points. A Dalek with a Donald Trump head was being pushed around and people were being invited to punch it. Honestly, you had to be there. I didn't join it, but there was a queue.

And why have I penned this little missive? Because it was on my mind and because I can. God I'll miss this. Go Stovers.