You Know, Anyone


(Kevin Harber [CC / Flickr])

“Could you keep an eye on my stuff?”

Phyllis looked up from her book. The man at the next table was waving at his laptop.

“Sure,” said Phyllis.

They were in a West London Starbucks. It wasn’t as if she’d have to defend it from a horde of zombies. She returned her attention to the novel that had brought zombies to mind.

“Do you know that man?” A new voice pulled her attention away from Lizzie Bennet’s deft moves with her katana.

Phyllis met the gaze of an overweight man facing her from a couple of tables away. His face had a reddish tinge, as if the effort of lifting his caramelatte to his lips was telling on him. He wouldn’t last long if the zombies did swarm up the stairs.

“No.” Phyllis looked back to her book.

“But he could be, you know, anyone,” said the man.

It occurred to Phyllis that the man with the laptop had looked Middle Eastern or Central Asian. She could guess what the fat man meant by ‘anyone’. She grunted and raised the book to block her eyeline, incidentally hiding her face behind the macabre grin on the cover.

The red-faced man didn’t take the hint. “He’s left a bag under his chair.”

Phyllis glanced at the vacated chair. There was indeed a Tesco carrier bag underneath it. As soon as she’d looked where the red-faced man directed, she wished she hadn’t. He took it as encouragement.

“We don’t know where he’s gone,” he said.

Perhaps the man just wanted reassurance, and he’d leave her alone when he got it. “I expect he’s gone to the toilet downstairs.”

“But he could be, you know, anyone. He could be doing, you know, anything.”

“He could be summoning a zombie horde to devour us as we speak,” said Phyllis.

“Yes, precisely. And what’s in that carrier bag, do you think?”

Phyllis blinked, wondering if he’d misheard or was simply immune to sarcasm. Answering in full sentences had been a mistake.

“Shopping.” She tried to compress two syllables into one and raised her book again.

“I think we ought to check.”


Phyllis winced at herself. She should have just grunted at him until he shut up. She cursed the mother who had raised her to be polite.

“The carrier bag.” The red face was noticeably redder than when he’d first spoken to her. “We should find out what’s in it.”

His tone conveyed that by ‘we’, he meant ‘you’. Phyllis found herself looking into two very round eyes embedded in a face far too big for them. There was something hypnotic about those eyes.

“What do you think we’ll find?” she asked.

To her horror, Phyllis found her defences crumbling before those ridiculous eyes.

“Well, you know.”

Zombie-fighting Lizzie Bennet would know exactly how to deal with a man who couldn’t even say what he meant. Phyllis was not Lizzie Bennet. Those eyes already had her on her feet, and then kneeling by the Tesco bag. Lizzie would be introducing the man to the business edge of her katana by now, not rifling through a stranger’s carrier bag because someone wanted to know if it was going to explode in her face.

She glanced at the laptop. It was a new looking Macbook Air. Any self-respecting you know, anyone, would have taken a beauty like that with him if he was leaving a bomb under the table. For a moment, she found the thought reassuring. Then she recognised that reassurance as evidence that she’d been drawn too far into the red-faced man’s jitters.

“Oh my god!”

Her cry made the red-faced man flinch as if it was the pressure wave of an explosion.


“It’s…I can’t believe it!”

“What? What is it?” The red-faced man’s jowls quivered as he spoke.

“It’s…it’s a…a punnet of strawberries!”

“What do you mean?”

Phyllis left the question unanswered. She returned to her seat and raised her book as if it were a shield.

The man who could be anyone returned to his seat. He looked at the red-faced man, whose hands were shaking on the table. “Are you all right, mate?”

The red faced man shrank away from him. “I…er…you know…yes.”

The man who could be anyone gave Phyllis a quizzical look. Phyllis shrugged, which he took to mean that the red-faced man was at least not having a heart attack.

“Thanks for keeping an eye on it,” he said.

Phyllis nodded back and returned to Lizzie and her zombies.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Mars One

24augustangel_origMars One was published at Grievous Angel yesterday! This is my first flash fiction to be published anywhere but here, so it’s something new for me. Another one will be out soon and I have a few more looking for homes, so hopefully it’s a new direction rather than an anomaly.

Many thanks to Charles Christian for going with it.

The story started with the Mars One organisation, a Dutch non-profit that claims to be planning a 20-person colony on Mars. They plan to offset the cost of the mission by selling the reality TV rights. Around 200,000 people applied for the mission even though it is nowhere near the level of funding they would need to even get started. They have been widely criticised for charging people to apply to a mission that will almost certainly never launch, and will be a one-way mission if it ever does.

Experts like Chris Hadfield, whose stint in command of the International Space Station was made memorable by his cover of Space Oddity, have discussed its technical shortcomings. For a layman like me, the opportunity for satire was too good to miss, but then so is Space Oddity in freefall:

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Posted in Publishing news

Inspirations: Celebrating the bicentennial monster in the Infinite Monkey Cage

  • This year is the bicentennial of the first draft of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • She wrote the first draft at eighteen, as a guest in Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland.
  • She had spent her childhood surrounded by writers and scientists.
  • She started a trend for casting scientists as villains, but her message is more subtle.


Miniature of Mary Shelley painted by Reginald Easton in 1857, possibly from her death mask (Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons])

Miniature of Mary Shelley painted by Reginald Easton in 1857, possibly from her death mask (Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons])The beginning has passed into legend.

In April 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora threw tsunamis across the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), flung so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused a global food shortage and inspired some of the most famous paintings of JMW Turner, and, the following May, brought unseasonably miserable weather to Switzerland.

On the shore of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron and his guests, Dr John Polidori, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s 18-year-old mistress, Mary Godwin, were whiling away the storms by telling each other ghost stories. With two of the most famous poets of the age in the house, it was only a matter of time before they started writing ghost stories of their own. Shelley and Polidori took up the challenge with enthusiasm.

The creature stirs

Godwin, on the other hand, was baffled. Perhaps she’d never tried her hand at a ghost story. Perhaps she was over-awed by her illustrious company. Whatever the reason, she wandered Byron’s villa, contemplating the rain hammering the windows, hunting for somewhere to start.

Then she had an idea:

I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.

And she wrote.

On the two hundredth anniversary of her flight of imagination, Frankenstein remains a household name. By the time it was published two years later, marriage had replaced Mary


Christian Michaud as Victor Frankenstein) and Étienne Pilon as the creature at the Théâtre du Trident in 2013 (Deckard 97 [Wikimedia Commons

Godwin with the name by which we know her now: Mary Shelley. The first edition was published anonymously, and widely assumed to be the work of her husband, but her introduction to the 1831 edition bore her name and told her story of writing the novel.

The panel in the cage

Not many possibly opium-related visions bear a celebration of their bicentenary, but that was what the panel of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage did in a recent edition. It combined the IMC’s trademark blend of science and humour in a panel led by regular hosts, comedic scientist Brian Cox and scientific comedian Robin Ince.

The guest panellists were:

Evolutionary biochemist Nick Lane, who researches the processes behind the origin of life. His favourite monsters are the Vogons from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Brian Cox (r) and Robin Ince (l) hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage in 2011 (NelC [CC / Flickr])

Cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling. When he was knighted, he chose the motto ‘perge scelus mihi diem’, which could be translated as either, ‘proceed, villain, and render the day perfect for my delectation’ or, ‘go ahead, punk, make my day’. His favourite monster is the Bride of Frankenstein as played by Elsa Lanchester.

Performance artist, actor and comedian Noel Fielding, who recently did a show in which he was urinated on by an animated statue of punk rock singer Joey Ramone. His favourite monster is Donald Trump, the ginger Godzilla.

The Frankenstein metaphor

Frankenstein became a metaphor for concerns about technology and science throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s, it was used to refer to poison gas, which emerged as the first weapon of mass destruction during the First World War. Its latest manifestation refers to the dangers of artificial intelligence getting out of control.

The panel discussed whether Frankenstein, or fiction in general, inspires actual science as much as it informs discussion about science:

Ince: Is there any point where you find in fictional works inspiration for real scientific ideas?

Lane: No.

No room for ambiguity there. Lane went on to point out that scientists rarely come well out of fiction. While there are scientific heroes in science fiction, the archetypes of scientific villains such as Victor Frankenstein and Dr Moreau have far more cultural traction. Neither of them are role models likely to inspire anyone into a career in science.


Diorama of the Dr Who villain Davros, yet another fictional scientist gone bad (Nata Luna Sans [CC / Flickr])

Lane said he was inspired far more by non-fiction, citing James Watson’s memoir of the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix. Lane raises an interesting point, in that real-life scientists tend to be much better regarded than their fictional counterparts. Brian Cox himself is a case in point, as he has become the well-coiffed face of science in several documentary series and incessant appearances in the media.

The scientist as villain

Why, then, do fiction writers so often give scientists the role of antagonists? I’ve done it myself in The Endocrine Tyranny, in which a scientist becomes carried away with her own discovery. She isn’t a villain, but neither is the eponymous Victor Frankenstein.

Frayling suggested that may be because the practice of science is far less glamourous than most film depictions suggest. A scientist’s working day usually consists of trying to find the time to repeat the same experiment on large numbers of samples in between writing grant applications and attending faculty meetings that are of interest to three of every twenty people in them. There is little high drama, and creatures lumbering into life tend to be frowned on by the safety officer.

With The Endocrine Tyranny, I have to admit to a degree of laziness. It’s easier to come up with a plot based on science gone wrong than on science solving a problem, which is a far more common story in reality. If you doubt that assertion, ask yourself when you last worried about being disfigured by smallpox.

Shelley herself was certainly not antagonistic to science. The novel’s alternative title was The Modern Prometheus, referencing the titan who was tortured for being a benefactor of humanity rather than a villain. Frayling mentioned that the original draft of Frankenstein described Victor’s education in detail, to the extent that it was practically a scientific treatise in itself.

The making of the maker of the monster

Shelley grew up in the heart of London’s intelligentsia before the dichotomy between the arts and the sciences had emerged.


18th century cartoon of galvanic electrotherapy (Wellcome Library)

After her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of an infection she contracted during the birth, young Mary was raised by her father, the philosopher William Godwin. The chemist Humphrey Davy, whose lectures at the Royal Institution were so popular that Albermarle Street outside had to be designated as London’s first one-way street, was a frequent visitor to their house. So was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also frequented the Royal Institution, and who reduced and enthralled Mary to hiding behind the furniture with his recitations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

There was a fascination with electricity at the time, to the extent that people would queue up to be shocked by electric eels brought back from South America. Shelley was certainly aware of Giovanni Aldini’s grisly experiment, in which he ran an electric current through the corpse of man who had only just stopped twitching on the gallows. According to one account:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

Aldini knew that his experiment would not bring the dead man back to life, but he hadn’t shared that information with many of the people in his audience. Watching that eye opening must have been horrifying, and indeed the account goes on:

Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


Giovanni Aldini conducting experiments in galvanism in Paris, published in 1804 (Fournier [Wellcome Library])

Aldini’s experiment did not restore anyone to life but if we believe the account, it did deprive someone of it.

That account is so strikingly similar to the first movements of the creature that Shelley may well have had it in mind when she wrote the words:

I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Victor’s failing

As the opening eye signifies a transformation from a corpse to a living creature, it also signifies a transformation in the man who effected it. Victor, who had sculpted the creature to be beautiful, is suddenly horrified by it:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

In a moment, Victor ceases to see the creature as beautiful and starts to see it as grotesque. In viewing the creature as a monster, Victor condemns it to act as one.

The popular conception of the stirring of the creature has far more to do with the 1931 film than Shelley’s description. Rather than being horrified by what he has brought to life, Colin Clive’s Victor raves about being God over the twitching Boris Karloff:

Shelley’s version of the creature only starts acting like a monster when people start treating it like one. Victor’s sin is not that he created the creature in the first place, but that he abandoned it to be shaped by a cruel world rather than guiding it into a fulfilling life. The creature is as tortured by Victor’s treatment of it as Victor is by its treatment of him, as the creature itself says:

Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse will not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them for ever.

Shelley gave us a creature capable of remorse, so it follows that it could have been dissuaded from the acts it feels remorse for.

While Colin Clive’s Victor gives us a story of a man who discovers things he would have been better off not knowing, Shelley was not in fact writing a paean to ignorance but was offering a more subtle moral: learn about the world, she told us, and create what you will, but make sure you can control what you create.

She tells us still.

Is that your interpretation of Frankenstein? If not, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Lost Luggage


Steven Vance (CC / Flickr)

“Months and days are eternal travellers,” said the woman behind the desk.

Bob leaned closer to read her name badge. “That may be true up to a point, Hannah. Or at least for a few billion years until the sun swallows the earth. Which is to say that it’s not true at all because something is either eternal or it is finite. But let’s not get sidetracked. Whether the journey of months and days is eternal or not, I am talking to you because I would like the journey of my luggage to be rendered finite as soon as humanly possible.”

Hannah blinked at him. “You what?”

“I was trying to phrase my request in the same poetic style as your unhelpful platitude,” said Bob. “My mistake. Let’s try this: where is my suitcase?”

“Not here,” said Hannah.

Bob closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“I know that.” Bob looked as if he was making a physical effort to draw back his cheeks, forming something that might have been a smile. “I wouldn’t be asking you if it was here, because the sign above your desk reads ‘lost luggage’. If my suitcase was here, it would not be lost so I would have no reason to seek out the angel of efficient service who dwells beneath the aforesaid sign. As I am here, at this desk, a moment’s celestial contemplation would lead to the conclusion that my suitcase is not. Or to put it simply: where is it?”

Hannah looked blank.

“Can the heavenly computer on the desk in front of you tell us where it is?” asked Bob.

Hannah scowled and tapped the keyboard. “It’s in a plane to Dubai.”

“And we are where?”

“Heathrow. It’s near High Wycombe.”

“Good. That’s good. I am now reassured that you at least know where you are. Now. How are you going to get my suitcase to Heathrow, near High Wycombe, from Dubai, near the Persian Gulf?”

“Near the what gulf?”

“Near the…never mind. When will my suitcase get here.”


Bob closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Hannah, I have a question for you. A moment ago, you quoted Bashō. A poet of sublime elegance, but not one very well known anywhere near High Wycombe. Where did you hear those words?”

Hannah shrugged. “Customer service training. They told us to remember those words when we feel ourselves getting annoyed. Said it would stop us losing our rags.”

“I had no idea that management training courses imbibed the serenity of Japanese poetry. Did they tell you to say it to your customers?”

Hannah furrowed her brow. “No, I don’t think they did, now you mention it. But you looked like you was getting pissed off – I mean, getting annoyed so I said it. Did it help?”

Bob moved his lips moved as he repeated the line silently. Months and days are eternal travellers.

He opened his eyes and looked at Hannah. “Yes, thank you, it did. Now, shall we talk about getting my suitcase back from Dubai.”


“Of course not. May one ask why?”

“It ain’t in Dubai. It’s on its way to Dubai. Can’t get it back from there till it gets there, can I?”



“Would you please repeat that line again? Three times, if you’d be so kind.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

TheSpyWhoLovedA schoolgirl wanted to know how saintly the school’s priest was. When this schoolgirl wanted to know something, she didn’t stop wanting to know until she found out. It transpired that the priest wasn’t up to the standards of the martyrs he aspired to: when she set fire to his cassock, he stopped the catechism to put himself out.

It was the sort of bold but not entirely direct approach that would characterise the life of the woman who christened Krystyna Skarbek who, after two marriages, numerous cover names and a change of nationality, ended her days as Christine Granville.

I first heard of her when General Graeme Lamb, former Director Special Forces of the British Army, named her as the ‘great life’ he wanted to explore on a half hour podcast. Lamb shared the program with host Matthew Parris and historian Clare Mulley, author of the biography of the woman she called Christine Granville, in deference to the only of her names she chose for herself.

The Spy Who Loved must have been a monumental task, as so many of the details of Granville’s life remain unclear. She spent her most interesting years navigating conflicting loyalties to organisations that were allied to each other but not exactly aligned. At the same time, many of her exploits were mythologised and exaggerated, often by people whose lives she saved. Frustrating and confusing as it must have been at times, Mulley’s writing left me in no doubt that it was a labour of love.

Schoolgirls who set fire to priests rarely grow into women who fit their society, whatever society it happens to be. As the daughter of a Polish aristocrat and a Jew, born into a Poland that didn’t exist as a sovereign state for the first decade of her life, Granville was destined to be a misfit from birth. When she found she preferred horse-racing and ski-ing to more traditionally feminine pursuits, she decided society would simply have to find a place for her.

She gave marriage a try and she was in South Africa with her second husband when the Wehrmacht marched into Poland. For millions of people across Europe, it was the beginning of a time of privation and death. For Granville, it was the adventure she had been waiting for.

A few weeks later, she was trekking back and forth across the border between Poland and Hungary as an agent of both British intelligence’s Section D and a Polish underground organisation calling themselves ‘The Musketeers. Section D had the rather muddled idea that she should carry propaganda into a country that was already resisting vigorously. More important was the intelligence she brought out, and the escape line through which she and her one-legged lover, Andrezj Kowerski, smuggled thousands of Polish soldiers across Hungary on their way to join the quarter million Polish servicemen under British command.

By the early months of 1941, much of the intelligence she was bringing out referred to the German buildup in preparation for invading the Soviet Union. At the same time, Hungary was cracking down on British and Polish activities. Granville left Budapest in the boot of a car to join Kowerski down the escape route where they had sent so many others before them.

On arrival in British-held Cairo, their welcome wasn’t as warm as they hoped for. The Musketeers had been caught up in squabbling among the fragmented Polish factions and British intelligence found parts of her story so improbable that they suspected her of being a double agent. The British came around when they confirmed the intelligence they brought, but none of the Polish networks wanted any more to do with her.

She spent some time immersed in the hotbed of spying around the cafés of souks of Cairo but it was only through her links with Section D, now under military command as the Special Operations Executive, that she found a task more suited to her thirst for adventure: a night-time parachute drop into occupied France from 500 feet into the teeth of a gale.

By that time, the allies had the upper hand on the Western front. One allied army was fighting in Northern France, another was advancing through Italy toward the French border and a third was expected to land in the south of France. Granville arrived as France was turning from a German logistics base into a battlefield, and the resistance was abandoning its low profile for full scale guerrilla warfare.

Granville arrived to find Francis Cammaerts, her commanding officer and soon her next lover, caught up in the sort of factional dispute that had plagued the Polish resistance. Worse, the groups involved were untrained, under-equipped, outnumbered and so over-confident that they were seeking a pitched battle. The Battle of Vercours was as bloody a debacle as Cammaerts and Granville predicted, though they escaped and continued operating in the Alps. Once again, Granville was slipping back and forth across a mountainous border.

Perhaps her finest hour came when she found out about a German garrison manned by Polish conscripts. None spoke French so they were isolated from the local population, but the Germans hadn’t reckoned with a Polish negotiator in the resistance. Granville persuaded the Poles to destroy their heavy weapons and desert, leaving a large gap in the German front. Many of the Poles joined the resistance, turning their weapons on the army that had drafted them.

A few days later, Cammaerts was arrested along with two other SOE agents. The Gestapo had no idea they had captured one of the most wanted men in Europe, but decided to execute all three on the off-chance that their cover story was a lie. Armed with nothing but money supplied by SOE, Granville tracked down the Belgian interrogator. Never one to underplay her hand, she opened by saying she was the niece of General Montgomery. She followed up with a detailed explanation of what the resistance would like to do to a Gestapo collaborator. By the time she finished, the interrogator was more than happy to sneak the three men out of their cell in exchange for the money.

When the Wehrmacht withdrew to the German border, she joined the rest of SOE to celebrate liberation in Paris. She didn’t stay for long. While Cammaerts and the rest of SOE were celebrating the end of their missions, Granville returned to London to beg for a new mission to her beloved Poland. She ended up at an Italian airfield, waiting for a green light that never came. The Soviet army had over-run Poland and to her dismay, the British government agreed to Stalin’s demand for a de facto Soviet occupation of Poland.

Like so many veterans of the Free Polish forces, Granville ended up in a country racked by postwar austerity and resented by people who saw them as competition for the few jobs available. Granville still preferred freedom to comfort, and worked a succession of menial jobs rather than accept a marriage proposal from the solidly employed Kowerski. She ended up cleaning toilets and changing bedsheets on a cruise liner, which at least allowed her to sate her urge to travel. Unfortunately, a policy of having staff wear medal ribbons on their uniforms left her ostracised. The rest of the crew believed a woman who wore the George Medal, Order of the British Empire, Croix-de-Guerre and a row of campaign medals must be a fraud.

Isolation drove her into the arms of, Dennis Muldowney, a mentally unstable steward. Granville’s pattern had always been to move from lover to lover as her circumstances changed, and some found being left behind easier to accept than others. Muldowney was unable to accept it at all. He stalked her after they returned to London, and ultimately cornered her and stabbed her to death.

There is a bitter irony to her being murdered by a man so much less formidable than many she had faced.

In Budapest, Granville had been housebound with flu when she and Kowerski were arrested and spent the night being beaten by the police. Granville bit her tongue and, combined with her obviously being ill, the blood she coughed up persuaded the police she had tuberculosis. The police threw her out and, believing he would also be infected, they threw Kowerski out with her. On another occasion, she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Italian conscripts. Before they could search her, she pulled out a pair of hand grenades, held them over her head and dared them to shoot her.

Faced with an obvious threat, she showed the courage and resource that led a special forces expert like Lamb select her, of all the possible candidates, as his great life. Faced with Muldowney, she saw a nuisance rather than a threat and dropped her guard for one fatal moment.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Mopane Seed


(Kiril Rusev [CC / Flickr])

The tree she planted was a mopane. No one told her mopanes don’t grow in back gardens in Dunblane.

She watched the morning frosts go from daily to weekly and vanished altogether, and as the rain pivoted from the horizontal to the vertical to announce the arrival of summer. On days when the cloud yielded to the sun, she could leave her coat in the house and stand over the mopane seed.

That summer, she gave a moment to the mopane seed every day. Sometimes she pulled up the dandelions and groundsel that tried to take its patch for themselves. Most days, she just looked for the shoot that didn’t come.

The frosts returned. Some days, a fusillade of rain rattled against her back without touching her front. Some days, she shoved snow off the mopane seed until her hands were numb with the snowmelt saturating her wool gloves.

Next year, she didn’t like her pink dress anymore. She wore jeans and a black denim jacket, and longed for the day when she could switch denim for leather and add the boots. She still returned to the mopane seed, but now only once a week. By autumn that year, it was once a month.

She knew it wouldn’t grow but when she remembered the pink dress, she knew that she’d done the growing for it.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Inspirations: The Duchess of Newcastle transported England to The Blazing World

  • Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published The Blazing World in 1666.
  • It told the story of a lady transported to a strange world where she was made empress.
  • Margaret was a theoretician who used the novel to satirise the experimentalists of the Royal Society.
  • The empress may be the first Mary Sue, and The Blazing World is sometimes described as the first science fiction novel


Portrait of Margaret Cavendish on the cover of her ‘Poems and Fancies’, 1653 (Amelagar [Wikimedia Commons])

1660 was the year England decided the Enlightenment had gone too far. A decade-long experiment in republic ended with Charles Stuart brought back from to the triple crown of England, Scotland and Ireland, last occupied by his executed father. With him came an entourage of followers who had loyally lost the English Civil War by his side.

A natural philosopher in exile

Among them was the courtier, poet, playwright and natural philosopher, Margaret Cavendish. Born Margaret Lucas, she had been a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta, wife of the defeated King Charles II, and had fled with her to France. The court of a queen who wasn’t queen of anything offered her more freedom than she might have had if it had remained in England, and Margaret made use of it. Living in France and later Holland, she cultivated friendships with the natural philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Constantijn Huygens, and was soon engaged in the correspondence of ideas that crossed Europe at the time.

These was not at all an approved pastime for a lady, let alone a maid of honour, but these were not normal times. She caught the eye of William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, who had distinguished himself by commanding the Royalist forces in the North of England to a resounding defeat and losing most of his wealth in the process. Cavendish was attracted by Margaret’s intelligence as much as her looks, and to have been very conscious of his own limitations as a suitor. They shared their wedding day with Princess Marie of France, prompting Cavendish to write to Margaret:

The Princess Mary married King of Poland,

And you, my dear, have married Prince of No-land

Although Cavendish was thirty years older than Margaret, they enjoyed a very happy marriage in which he took pride in her accomplishments. We can assume it became substantially happier when they returned to England and were elevated from Marquis and Marchioness to Duke and Duchess of Newcastle by the newly crowned King Charles II.


William Cavendish as a young man in 1610 (Thomas Gun [Wikimedia Commons])

Better still, Cavendish’s lands were returned to him. Far from being prince and princess of No-land, the Cavendishes were now among the wealthiest people in England.

Entering The Blazing World

Charles II may have been derided as the Merrie Monarch for his inability to keep his breeches on, but he was a keen patron of natural philosophy, as science was known at the time. He formed the Royal Society for Improvement of Natural Knowledge, now simply the Royal Society, whose experiments provided the fodder for several of Margaret’s six works on natural philosophy. The most important was Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, published in 1666. Alongside Observations, she published a satire titled The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, a tale of a beauteous lady who finds herself spirited away to the North Pole of her world in an inept kidnap. Incompetent to the last, her abductors freeze to death while she falls through a portal into the eponymous Blazing World.

The text is only the length of a modern-day novella, but I find Restoration-era grammar hard work. Where possible, I prefer to let a good narrator demystify the archaic sentence construction:

The Blazing World is what we would now call Swiftian satire, although Margaret wrote it a year before Jonathan Swift was actually born. Like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Margaret populated her Blazing World with thinly veiled caricatures of individuals and groups. The narrative structure is, if anything, even thinner than in Gulliver’s Travels and most of the text is taken up with a description of the various enterprises of the lady.

From abductee to empress

The lady is found, cold and forlorn, by a boatload of bear-men, who carry her off to the city they share with the fox-men. Struck by her beauty, they tend to her every need and introduce her to the emperor of the entire Blazing World. The emperor is so taken with her that she has to stop him from trying to worship her as a goddess. Overjoyed to find she is mortal, the emperor promptly marries her, gives her sovereign power over his entire world and politely withdraws. After that, he only shows his face in the narrative to approve her decisions and reaffirm his love for her.

Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, had written the first Mary Sue.


Title page of The Blazing World (Scribblingwoman [Wikimedia Commons])

Peace in Restoration-era England depended on an uneasy truce between the Royalist Tories and the Parliamentarian Whigs, stoked by a distrust of a Catholic queen and a king who had become distressingly French in his habits during his exile. Margaret nailed her colours firmly to the Tory mast when she populated the Blazing World with citizens happiest under an absolute monarch. The place of each citizen in the world is defined by form:

Some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men, otherwise called Syrens; some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men, some Lice-men, some Fox-men, some Ape-men, some Jack daw-men, some Magpie-men, some Parrot-men, some Satyrs, some Gyants, and many more, which I cannot all remember; and of these several sorts of men, each followed such a profession as was most proper for the nature of their Species

The empress quickly shows that she’s not just a pretty face when she engages her astronomers, the bird-men, to explain such things as the sun, the stars, the moon, elemental fire and thunder and lightning actually are. The bird-men peer though their telescopes and describe what they see but their explanations do not satisfy the empress. The empress calls in her experimental philosophers, the bear-men, to provide explanation. The satire ratchets up a gear as the bear-men fall to dispute in the manner which the Royal Society was known for.

These Telescopes caused more differences and divisions amongst them, then ever they had before; for some said, they perceived that the Sun stood still, and the Earth did move about it; others were of opinion, that they both did move; and others said again, that the Earth stood still, and Sun did move; some counted more Stars then others; some discovered new Stars never seen before; some fell into a great dispute with others concerning the bigness of the Stars.

And so on.

The empress concludes that the telescopes are ‘false informers’. If the bear-men cannot agree on what they see through them, they cannot be certain that what they see is real.


Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, where Margaret and William Cavendish lived after their return to England (Chris [Wikimedia Commons])

She orders them to smash all their telescopes to put an end to their arguments. The horrified bear-men prostrate themselves and beg her to reconsider, saying that they would have nothing to argue about without the telescopes and besides, ‘we take more delight in Artificial delusions, then in Natural truths’.

The Royal Society had been firmly put in its place.

Experimentalists vs theoreticians in the Restoration

The tension between experimentalists and theoreticians in science has never gone away, but it was far more marked in Margaret’s time than it is now. In a podcast for BBC Radio 4’s Science Stories, broadcaster Naomi Alderman explored that tension and Margaret’s place in it.

A key feature of the Enlightenment was the move away from searching for knowledge in venerable texts, mainly the Bible and Aristotle, and toward learning from experiment. Galileo pioneered the experimental approach and very quickly got himself into trouble when his results contradicted the results of the former approach. His renouncement of his finding that the earth moved around the sun rather than vice versa did nothing to stem the enthusiasm for experiment, particularly in the Protestant nations of England, Scotland and Holland where performing experiments not only provided interesting results but also cocked a snook at the pope’s denial of inconvenient results.


Margaret Cavendish would have walked through this gateway to get to Gresham College, where the Royal Society was meeting (Matt Brown [CC / Flickr])

Alderman focuses on Margaret’s visit to the Royal Society the year after The Blazing World and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy were published. While Margaret had corresponded with many of the Royal Society’s members and discussed their experiments in their writings, she had never actually met them before.

If luminaries such as Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke were miffed at being caricatured as squabbling bird-men, they weren’t about to show it to a visitor who arrived in her own carriage, surrounded by footmen and draped in white ermine. They demonstrated their experimental techniques, though it is not recorded whether she regarded them as brilliant or as mad as the empress’s bear-men.

Nullius in verba

There was a clash of viewpoints in the room, between men who had adopted the motto Nullius in verba (accept nothing on authority) and demanded rigorous experimental proof, and a woman who, in the words of historian Emma Wilkins, ‘believes in the importance of great leaps of insight and understanding’. Samuel Pepys, who saw the whole thing, was disappointed that she expressed no opinion at the time though as Wilkins points out, she was hardly likely to be overtly critical of a demonstration put on for her benefit.

While Alderman presents Margaret as a theoretician in opposition to the experimentalists of the Royal Society, Wilkins had previously written that her ‘relationship with the early Royal Society was more nuanced than previously thought’. Margaret had no objection to experiments and had ‘dirtied several white petticoats’ in Huygens’s laboratories, although such behaviour was more becoming to an exiled Marchioness in Holland than the Duchess who visited the Royal Society.

It’s unfortunate that Alderman focuses more on the novelty of a woman being involved in


Robert Boyle probably demonstrated this air pump to Margaret Cavendish at the Royal Society (Astrochemist [Wikimedia Commons])

natural philosophy at all than on Margaret’s contributions, though the late Lisa Jardine described her work on the mystery of ‘Prince Rupert’s Drops’ that she carried out with Huygens. Jardine does not show us a woman with a fundamental objection to the experimental method.

Experimentalists vs theoreticians today

Alderman went on the interview theoretical physicist Malcolm Fairbairn, who further expanded on the dichotomy between experimentalists and theoreticians:

I think experiments have to be done but there always have to be a few people around who interpret those experiments.

Here I must declare an interest: when I was a scientist, I was very firmly in the experimentalist camp and one thing guaranteed to drive us wild was people who couldn’t find the laboratory telling us we didn’t know how to interpret our own experiments. Fairbairn’s view that ‘experimentalists have got a very strange attitude toward theorists…they sort of think theorists are kind of crazy people and they don’t really believe a word we say ‘, may be influenced by the reaction he’s likely to get to statements like that. I certainly recognise Fairbairn’s statement that:

Even if a theorist came along and told them there’s no point in doing that experiment…I think they’d just go ahead and do it anyway…probably that’s a very sensible thing to do.

I concur with the last part of that statement, and have said more than once that no experiment ever works properly until an expert tells you it won’t.

Mad Madge and the bird-men

Fairbairn’s statement shows that even in today’s world of professionalised science, experimentalists are still the bird-men to the Blazing World’s ‘magpie- Parrot- and Jackdaw-men, which were her Orators and Logicians’. The dichotomy was far more pronounced in the early days of the experimental method, and may explain why the Royal Society nicknamed her ‘Mad Madge’ while she was befeathering them in literature.

Further, the empress’s command to the bear-men to smash their telescopes demonstrates a key failing that some theoreticians still suffer from: when an observation doesn’t fit the current theory, they dismiss the observation rather than question the theory.

In fact, the empress shows repeatedly that she has no patience with dispute or dissent. When she hears of war in her native world, she announces her support for one man and enlists the full might of the emperor’s forces to establish him as the absolute monarch of his world.

Duchess trumps Prince

There is no portal between our own world and the Blazing World so she is unable to perform a similar service for Charles II, but she visits it in spirit form and enlists none other than the Duchess of Newcastle as her guide. Having put herself into the story, Margaret makes herself a fast friend of the empress and has the empress hold forth at some length about how the Duchess of Newcastle is a great lady:

You are a Princess of the fourth or fifth Degree, for a Duke or Duchess is the highest title or honour


A modern experimentalist (Army Medicine [CC / Flickr])

that a subject can arrive to, as being the next to a King’s Title; and as for the name of a Prince of Princess, it belongs to all that are adopted to the Crown; so that those that can add a Crown to their Arms, are Princes, and therefore a Duke is a Title above a Prince; for example, the Duke of Savoy,

the Duke of Florence, the Duke of Lorrain, as also King’s Brothers, are not called by the name of Princes, but Dukes, this being the higher Title.

The Royal Society was reminded who they were dealing with.

Such reverence for aristocracy combined with the empress’s autocratic manner suggest that Margaret had more authoritarian views than were compatible with the principle of nullius in verba.

One who did not dispute her intellectual approach was her husband, William Cavendish. He prefaced The Blazing World with one of the many sonnets he wrote to her:

Our Elder World, with all their Skill and Arts,

Could but divide the World into three Parts:

Columbus, then for Navigation fam’d,

Found a new World, America ’tis nam’d;

Now this new World was found, it was not made,

Onely discovered, lying in Time’s shade.


Then what are You, having no Chaos found

To make a World, or any such least ground?

But your Creating Fancy, thought it fit

To make your World of Nothing, but pure Wit.

Your Blazing-World, beyond the Stars mounts higher,

Enlightens all with a Cœlestial Fier.

All of which begs the question of whether we should retrospectively award The Blazing World the title of the first scientific novel. If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Conflict Resolution

(Artis Pupins [CC / Flickr])

(Artis Pupins [CC / Flickr])

“Excellent work, girls.” I was already on my feet to take it to the director.

“It was my idea,” said Annabelle. “Make sure you tell himself that, won’t you?”

Looking down to where she was sitting gave me a good view down her top.

“Hey, what are you talking about?” Harriet spun on her chair to face us. “I thought of it first. Annabelle just came up with a couple of suggestions.”

“No, I came up with the whole logo. You just changed the colour.”

“What are you…the logo was my idea. You just changed the serifs.”

I lost the rest of it as they both talked at once. I pulled my attention out of Annabelle’s cleavage. Something had gone awry while I was distracted. “Can we take this down a bit?”

Neither of them heard me. I tried to remember why I’d accepted the promotion to line manager. I wasn’t sure the extra three grand a year was worth the headache that was mustering its forces.

As if they’d somehow come to an agreement while they were squabbling, they both looked at me and spoke together. “Tell her!”

I’d been on a management training course last week. I had the certificate pinned over my desk to prove it.

“I’m sure you both contributed equally,” I said. “I’ll tell the director it was a joint effort. You’ll both get equal credit for it.”

The consultant who ran the course would have been proud of me. It was conflict resolution exactly as she’d taught us.

The two faces in front of me darkened to the same shade of red. From the torrent of words that followed, I caught ‘not fair’ several times but nothing else.

All right.” I spoke loudly enough to cut off their babble. The cost was that I unleashed my headache in full force. “Let’s talk about this.”

“We are taking,” said Annabelle.

“Aren’t you listening?” asked Harriet.

“OK,” I said. “Enough’s enough. I’m going to tell him it was my idea.”

I didn’t exactly run out of the room to the director’s office, but I can see why some people may have got that impression.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Greater Minds: Niall Ferguson and Jane Smiley fight over history

  • Two historians and a novelist argued about the roles of historian and historical novelist.
  • Niall Ferguson argued that a novelist projects their own view on to past events.
  • Jane Smiley argued that historical fiction and non-fiction are both constructs of the authors’ theories.
  • Gabriel Gorodetsky argued that only history can properly advise policy.


(Dickson Phua [CC / Flickr])

If you’re read a few of my pontifications, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a Radio Four bore. How could I resist all those people talking about subjects they’re knowledgeable and passionate about? The panel discussions are usually well chaired to keep the experts on topic and to time, but now and again the panellists seize control, diverting the program on to a tangent that’s too fruitful for the chair to pull them back from.

That’s what happened when a Start the Week panel lurched from discussing the Cold War into a debate about the respective value of the academic historian and the historical novelist. Listen to the podcast and you can practically hear the chair throw away his plan for the program and let them get on with it. It was a wise decision because if we cut through the bombast and barbs, Niall Ferguson and Jane Smiley made some profound points about the distinctions and similarities of their respective professions.

The weigh-in

The podcast is available here, and spends the first half hour focusing on Henry Kissinger and Ivan Maisky, two defining politicians of the Cold War. It’s interesting in itself, but if you just want to listen

The panellists, or rather combatants, were:


Niall Ferguson in 2011 (Chatham House [CC / Flickr])

In the blue corner, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson, author of a recent biography of Kissinger.

Also in the blue corner, if not quite in the ring for most of the fight, is Gabriel Gorodetsky, an academic historian who recently translated and edited Maisky’s personal diary of the 1930s and World War Two.

In the red corner, Pullitzer Prize winning historical novelist Jane Smiley who recently concluded a three-part family saga of 20th century America with Golden Age.

Playing the role of referee is Andrew Marr, who apart from being a broadcaster and journalist, is also an author of both popular history and novels.

View from the kitchenette

Marr rang the bell for the fight when he asked Smiley about the role of the ‘view from the kitchenette’ that her novels offer, and Smiley answered that history tells us what happened while novels tell us how it felt:

I think that’s what novels are for. History and memoirs tell us what happened but novels tell us, or have a theory about, how it felt and they make it live for us.


Jane Smiley in 2016 (Christchurch City Libraries [CC / Fickr])

The dichotomy was too much for Ferguson who donned his gloves to insist that what happened is not separable from how it felt:

This is an important distinction and one that I wouldn’t make if you weren’t implying that historians were just giving you what happened as opposed to how it felt.

Gorodetsky backed him up:

 History perhaps is the only profession that can provide today a proper advice as to policy making. The political sciences actually proved to be somewhat bankrupt during the Cold War.

An appeal to authority?

Ferguson was undoubtedly correct in his argument that historians cover ‘how it felt’ as much as what happened, especially when they are writing biography as he and Gorodetsky had been doing. Both of them had drawn heavily from the private diaries and correspondence of their subjects, and Ferguson’s opening description of Kissinger’s early years focused very much on how his feelings shaped the views he would later convert into policy.

Well-aimed as Ferguson’s opening blow was, he and Gorodetsky left a few gaps in their defence, and I do not mean Ferguson’s overbearing manner or his repeated insistence that history is based on research as though Smiley had never opened a book on her own subject.

For one thing, Gorodetsky’s assertion that history alone can inform policy making implies that looking at the past is more informative than information about the present, which can be gleaned by academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, economics and


Gabriel Gorodetsky in 2010 (Ggorod [Wikimedia Commons])

epidemiology. For another, it risks placing historical analysis on a pedestal, invalidating criticism from the disciplines he dismisses as ‘bankrupt’. We can’t evaluate his claim for the primacy of history as a discipline as he didn’t get a chance to explain it, but even if he had made a convincing argument to back up his claim, it would be dangerous for a policy-maker to assume that every historian is diligent and unbiased enough to offer the ‘all-encompassing’ perspective he described.

Gorodetsky’s insistence on the primacy of history comes perilously close to being an argument from authority, which is a logical fallacy that we can only hope he wouldn’t tolerate from his students.

Projections on projection

As blows were traded, Ferguson’s beef appeared to be as much with Smiley’s claim to know how it felt as with her statement that how it felt was distinct from how it happened. Gorodetsky summed up Ferguson’s rather lengthy point with, ‘you project your views and perceptions’.

Ironically enough, reactions to their argument offer case study on projection. It was covered by the Daily Telegraph and, as inevitably happens, argued about in the comment section. People who had listened to the same ten minutes of discussion came away with opinions ranging from, ‘heard it, and agree with Ferguson – though he was characteristically rude and patronising. Must be an historian thing’ to ‘He is a high-status idiot along the lines of Stephen Colbert (the character)’.

These are people who followed the event in its entirety, yet projected very different perceptions on to it.

At the same time, Gorodetsky’s point about projection touches on something that historians and historical novelists must have in common: an opinion. Historians are never happier than when they’re offering an opinion what led to what in the past, or what the


(Hartwig HKD [CC / Flickr])

people around at the time thought about it. We bring different assumptions to history and historical fiction; we assume that history is fact other than where it is identified as speculation, and we assume anything in a novel is fictional unless an author’s note informs us that it is not. It’s very difficult to draw a clear line

Ferguson argued that historians are rigorous in their separation of facts and opinion:

As a historian you have to be really careful because you can’t really easily distinguish in your mind between these imagined facts and real ones. Historians are in the business of reconstituting past experience.

Smiley was quick to challenge him with, ‘you don’t think that’s projection?’ It’s a good question. Ferguson referred several times to the large volume of primary sources that underpinned his book on Kissinger, which begs the question of how he chose what to include and how to balance how much prominence he gives the different elements.

If a novelist’s projections appear in what they invent and put in, can a historian claim that projection plays no part in what they choose to leave out?

Soviet monster or Soviet mouse?

Ferguson returns to Smiley’s own novel of the Cold War, in which a character working for the CIA admits to exaggerating the Soviet threat:

Anyone reading it who was trying to understand the Cold War would say there wasn’t a Soviet threat at all…the historian’s job is to say one vantage point is to say that the CIA exaggerated the Soviet threat and another vantage point is to say that there really was a Soviet threat.

The gravity of the Soviet threat is a separate debate, so let’s concentrate on Ferguson’s argument that ‘anyone reading it’ would take a novel as definitive historical fact. Smiley said the historian’s role as to present the available facts and to identify the gaps in them:


Korean War-era recruiting poster (James Vaughan [CC / Flickr])

The historian must say that my record is as complete as I can make it but it’s not truly complete because if it were then it wouldn’t be accurate…the historian is pointing toward accuracy and therefore must have incompleteness. The novelist, in order to have a story that works for the reader, for the reader to willingly suspend disbelief, must offer a sense of completeness.

Ferguson acknowledged Smiley’s craft, if not her intellectual rigour:

I could never write a novel. I tried once and it’s difficult because you have to make stuff up.

Seconds out

In the ten minutes of argument, Ferguson and Smiley had dug deep into the two different forms and Marr had to ring the bell for the end of the round long before the combatants had given all they had. He gave the last word to Ferguson, who probably would have insisted on it, by asking if there is any sort of truth best expressed in fiction. Ferguson answered that, ‘it’s dangerous to think that it’s historical truth. There may be a truth about the human condition.’

Not to be outdone, Smiley offered her summation when she wrote about it a few days later:

If there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it. A history book is, therefore, a construct.

In short, Ferguson and Gorodetsky are suspicious of historical fiction because it depends on the author’s projection and invention to form the satisfying narrative Smiley mentioned. Smiley defends her corner by insisting that a historian must themselves be projecting a theory.


Who won the bout? (Katia Sosnowiez [CC / Flickr])

If I was scoring the fight, I’d say Smiley won on points but not by knockout. Although she retreated from her initial statement that historians tell what happened while novelists tell how it felt, saying ‘it’s not a split, it’s a continuum. That’s how the two forms work’, she made a convincing argument that a historian needs a theory as much as a novelist.

Ferguson and Gorodetsky never refuted her argument that theory is as much the domain of the historian and the novelist. Instead, Ferguson delivered an impressive uppercut to his own chin when he said, ‘novelists are at a disadvantage because they’ve never worked in organisations’, demonstrating that even Harvard professors of history are given to fact-free statement.

Who do you think won the belt? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Man on the Train

(David Woo [CC / Flickr])

(David Woo [CC / Flickr])

Step through the sliding doors and take a seat. Look round the tube carriage. See the cylinder full of tired people. They sit close enough to rub elbows, each inhabits the world they’ve built with their silent, distant gaze.

They’ll tell you nothing of their worlds. Strangers on the tube remain strangers, even when the rush hour presses them as close together as lovers. It’s a code that may only be broken by an emergency such as a heart attack or a dropped phone about to be crushed underfoot.

It’s not the rush hour now. It’s late enough that everyone has a seat, and there’s enough space between these people that we can look into their worlds. Look again at the man opposite us. He’s leafing through an Evening Standard he’s just picked up from the seat next to him.

What does that say about him?

He isn’t reading it. If he’d wanted to read, he’d have picked up a newspaper from the stand at the station. The paper is simply occupying his hands while his mind is too full to absorb even a tabloid written for the limited attention of a tired commuter.

Look past what he’s doing to what he’s wearing. See the electric light reflect off his jacket and his light blue tie. That’s a suit a man buys to meet a dress code as cheaply as possible, not because he likes wearing a suit. He’d rather be wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

So what is it that’s preoccupying his mind? He’s wearing a wedding ring, but his frown doesn’t belong on the face of a man who is looking forward to going home to a loving wife. Is that because he’s carrying a burden from work that he can’t leave behind until he sees her? Or is he frowning at what’s waiting for him at home?

He reaches the back page. He turns the Evening Standard over and starts leafing again from the beginning. He hasn’t read a word of it. It’s as new to him as it was the first time.

He pauses. He flips a page back. Look closer now. See what’s caught his attention. He won’t notice. He’s completely immersed in his own world.

Did you see it? The headline that held his attention for a fleeting moment?

The picture of the celebrity couple who divorced six months after their daughter died.

The man retunes to his unseeing page turning.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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