Critical Friend

It has been a while since I went to any kind of corporate training event and I’m afraid I’d just forgotten what they are like.  I have always been a bit of a coffee snob and it’s been a long time since I have accepted a cup of coffee from anyone I thought might make me instant.  If there’s a choice of hot drink, I’ll have coffee if it’s real coffee, otherwise tea, and I’d rather have a glass of water than an instant coffee.

So it was unfortunate that I arrived half an hour early for my Induction Day (as a new member of my local hospital trust’s team of governors) and found there was a neatly-laid tray with a hot water flask and a choice of teabags and … sachets of instant coffee.  Ah well: tea it is.  Next time, I’ll remember to put a coffee bag in my handbag (you know about coffee bags, of course?  They’re like giant teabags containing coffee grounds, supplied in individual foil sachets.  Protip: be careful opening the foil sachet they come in, as it’s easy to tear the inner coffee bag if you’re over-enthusiastic!)

The induction day proper began with us having our photos taken so we could be issued with photo id badges and I’m afraid I marked myself out as Instant Awkward Squad by asking for my photo to be taken three times before I was satisfied I wasn’t going to have to wander round with my bald patch showing for the next three years.  (Bad hair days always happen at times of maximum inconvenience!)  And then we had to complete the Disclosure and Barring Service checks (you know, the thing that used to be a criminal record check).  We’d been pre-warned and I’d already queried the list of documents to be provided as it didn’t correspond with the list I found here on – like I said, Awkward Squad!

Just take a moment, by the way, to look at that last link, and the documents the government thinks it’s appropriate to ask you to produce to prove your identity.  A passport or driving licence?  Well OK, but it’s not compulsory either to drive or to travel abroad and one can be a perfectly legitimate citizen without having either.

But look at the documents listed under “Group 2b: Financial and social history documents”: mortgage statements?  Bank and credit card statements? Utility bills?  Literally all my financial dealings like that are transacted online, and printing out a bank statement is hardly a guarantee of authenticity!  How long will it be before the system catches up with the twenty-first century and offers to verify your id by letting you log on to your internet banking in their presence and show a transaction then and there?  Or uses one of those verification methods that mobile phone companies use like “here’s 5p: log onto your bank and make an electronic payment of 5p into this account…”

That wasn’t, however, the issue on Thursday morning, unfortunately.

The person who was taking me through the checks was typing like a demon and it was all going swimmingly well… until we came to hit “send”, when there was an error message which said my postcode was entered in two different fields and did not match.  And of course sod’s law meant that the one which was still open to editing was correct, and the one which was a typo meant… yes, the poor lass had to go through and type the whole thing again!  As I said to her, not only will they have me down as a troublemaker but also as a criminal!

One final thing before I got my ID card and was officially inducted – the system also offered up an error message because my title is Ms and I had declared I’d never had another surname.  Please! I’ve been insisting on Ms since 1974!  It’s not an unprecedented title, it’s a title intended to be as uninformative as Mr, and it doesn’t designate divorce.  As the little old lady with the protest sign said, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit”

Government ID service, get your act together!

Hospital trust… I’m not a troublemaker, honest: just a critical friend!  (Unless I am denied access to coffee, of course…)


Tommy at the Crucible theatre, a musical based on the Who’s concept album/rock opera and its later incarnation on film, is a solidly, hornswogglingly, joyously G O O D production.  God knows I’d love to hear the Who perform at the Crucible, my platonic ideal of a perfect venue, but absent that the musical is the closest you’re going to get.  The pounding bass that makes your breastbone vibrate, soaring voices that sound like angels screaming? Yep, all that.  If you like rock opera, if you like The Who, if you have a soul, you’ll enjoy Tommy.

And the casting!  Great flying spaghetti monster, but it’s a glorious thing to have a cast that is actually joyously diverse.  Yes there are actors who are deaf, who are blind, who use wheelchairs, who have different limbs.  Yes, they comes in different shapes and sizes and colours and why the hell shouldn’t they, and why the hell don’t ALL musicals have signing as well as singing and dancing, and subtitles as well as programmes?  For a minute or two you go “woah!” and then they sing they dance they scream rock music at you and you go “woah!” again but this time it’s not because anyone in the cast is different but because everyone in the cast is goooooooooooooood.

So far so amazeballs.  How does Tommy work as a show (and I’m going to assume that you already know the plot of  Tommy-the-rock-opera).

First of all, Captain Walker keeps appearing to Tommy and it is he, not Tommy, who wants you to “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me…”  Which is all very well, and the actor is sexy as hell and has a fine voice, but it makes no sense for Tommy to be haunted by the sort of ghost of his father, rather than striving to break through the traumatic block in his own mind wanting to be heard and healed himself.

Then there’s Sally, who is a minor character in a single track on the original but has a major role in the musical.  It’s pleasing that she now has agency, and it kind of fits into the timeline that she knows Tommy from a child and her parents run the church where the youth club that they all meet in is located.  But, but but… at the end of the plot she gets a new scene entirely made of cheese where she has to sell us the idea that Tommy’s messiahood (is that even a word???) is all fake.  Maybe there weren’t enough actors left over to do “we’re not going to take it” and still stage a credible riot?

Then there’s the Gypsy, the Acid Queen, who gets one faaaaabulous number in the original (remember Tina Turner in the movie?)  Here’s she’s an ageing drag queen albeit one with a faaaabulous voice, and they decided to give her a second number in the second half.  I mean, of course, obviously once Tommy became famous she’d have turned up wanting to sell her story to the tabloid papers.  But giving her a second number unbalances the piece somehow: I’m not sure how but if it comes to me I’ll update this.

There we are then.  It was a glorious, amazing, absolute joy of a production.  I went with someone who was a Tommy virgin who enjoyed it almost as much as I, a veteran of the album, live, film, blah blah blah versions also loved it.


…well, except I’m free.

“I’m free.  I’m free!  And freedom tastes of reality.”

That’s the line.  Great flying spaghetti monster, you don’t ask this cast to sing it with the tone deaf tin-eared bludgeon of a rewrite that they used.  You just don’t.

“I’m free.  I’m free!  And freedom lies here in normality.”  It does?  Fuck that!


No, I didn’t love it.  I mean, I enjoyed the heck out of the scenes in thermywhatsitsface, where all the Amazons were jumping around and fighting and what not, of course. Although even in those scenes I had a certain amount of ice in my heart.  You know the kind of thing.  Who does their laundry?  Why are they all the same age?  What do they feed the horses?

It’s when they leave thermywhatsitsface and wind up in WW1 that it gets annoying.  I mean, the woman has lived all her life on an island full of muscular effective autonomous women.  Why doesn’t she walk into a room full of male generals and wonder where are the women? (Wouldn’t it have been neat if there had been a solitary female secretary in the room taking notes and she’d gone straight to her?)  Why does she wander off through the western front accompanied by a man in a kilt, a man in a fez and a man in the wrong movie altogether?  (Wouldn’t it have been neat if she had picked up a suffragette, a VAD nurse and a lady despatch rider instead?)  And why oh why wasn’t the woman in the mask the secret bad guy all along?

Yes, yes: if you like the kind of summer movie where pretty people beat seven bells out of each other using buses and other handy implements then I’d rather watch one with a hero who’s a woman than one with a hero who’s a panther or a hero who’s an ant.

Because in the end THAT was the problem.

Being a woman, for Wonderwoman, is as significant as being rich is for Bruce Wayne or being an occasional rage monster is for Bruce Banner.  It wasn’t the superhero movie that finally recognised women are people: it was the superhero movie where being a woman was the hero’s schtick.

Week two

The first week of the writeathon went pretty well.  On Monday I worked on what I used to call the Groats novel and I’m now calling the Taxpunk novel, a near-future what-would-the-world-look-like-with-a-different-economic-system novel that I’ve been taking in bits to my writers group for the best part of a year now.  I have lots of bits but I haven’t found the voice of it yet or found how to stitch my bits of plot together.  However I had a binge re-read of Paul Gallico a couple of weeks ago and I think it might work in a twinkly, people are fundamentally OK, slightly sentimental mode and I certainly had no problems throwing words at it in that register.

Tuesday I put some words onto my prospective non-fiction book, a handbook of government consultation and how (not to) do it.  More of that later, maybe.

Wednesday I had set aside to work on short stories, in particular one that I’d already taken to the writing group: they thought it was ready to go but I wasn’t so sure.  Turned out it needed pruning, not expanding, so I worked on it a bit and then threw some more words at the taxpunk novel to make my quota for the day.

Thursday was the fantasy novel of which I already have several chapters and I got past a passage where I was previously blocked, yay me.

On Friday…. well, that was set aside for PhD work and that’s a whole other blog entry.  Or indeed a three volume novel.


Five by five

It’s now that time of year when the Clarion West students are settling in to the six weeks of the writing workshop and some of the rest of us are shadowing them in the Writeathon.  This year I am using the writeathon to kick-start my writing in the Five by Five challenge: I have five writing projects and I intend to write 500 words on each of them every week.  I’m giving myself the weekends off, and each weekday I shall write 500 words on one of the five projects.  I will also spend at least five minutes a day on each of the other four – thinking, reading, researching, plot noodling, whatever.

Today it’s stupidly hot so I got up early to make the best of the cooler hours of the day, so I’ve already written my quota (616 words) on the near-future economic-change (“tax punk”) novel.  Plot noodling later. #fivebyfive

Another year older…

I had a birthday.  (There are fabulous photographs here: the Sekrit Password is Bespin)

There are two things that have annoyed me about birthdays for the past, what, forty years or so.  First of all, for some reason I have always wanted to be given a Surprise Party, in the cheesy way they have on American tv shows, but having no Significant Other to organise one for me, it’s never happened.  But it’s a no-win situation: once you’ve got the thought in your head you are always going to be disappointed.  Every year I do something for my birthday, but every year however brilliant it is it fails to live up to the platonic ideal of the surprise party in my head, so it’s never quite enough.  And you just know that, if I finally do walk into a room and find everyone I love wearing party hats and yelling “surprise!” there will still be a part of me grumbling “well finally!  I’ve only been hinting for half a bleedin’ century!”  The things we do to ourselves!

No, I’m not asking you to *organise* a surprise party for me, I’m just trying to explain what’s going on in my head every year when it comes to my birthday.  I’m putting it out here now, officially, that I have accepted I will Never, Ever Have a Surprise Party and I’m putting it on the list next to Giving Notes to Keanu Reeves on His Hamlet and Having Lunch With Benedict Cumberbatch.  You know, the It’ll Never Happen list.  I’m OK with it, really.  I had a great time this year, and I really did have (just about) everyone I love in one room, and I’m letting it go.

But the second thing about birthdays is that I had this bloody therapy thing back in the day, when I was working at HMRC.  They sent me off for some individually tailored development sessions with a remarkably groovy advice/counselling/NLP service that included all sorts of useful 360 degree feedback, career planning and goal-setting stuff.  Trust me, it was excellent.


One of the exercises was imagining your retirement party or your 60th birthday party and looking back on your life.  What would it be like, how would you feel about it…. and what did you have to do in the here and now to make the exciting possibilities you had envisaged actually come about.

And here I am.  I had a retirement party when I left HMRC.  And now I’ve had a 60th birthday party.  And, you know, there were speeches.  Kind friends and relatives looked back on my life with me and drew me a picture of it that made me go, yes, I think you’re right: it wasn’t so bad after all.  I can be a grown up, after all.  Thank you.

There was no-one there from the world of science fiction.  No-one.  And now I see that’s the part of my life I have let go, the plate I stopped trying to spin.

No, I have no conclusions to draw from this.  I just notice it, and move on.



The Abominable Bride

OK here’s my personal fantasy about the making of the Abominable Bride. Because you must have noticed, there was no Vinette Robinson (Sally Donovan, Lestrade’s sergeant).  Why not?  Did the writers miss Sally out because there were no black people in the nineteenth century? {insert eye roll here}

No: my theory is that the part of Watson’s random inefficient servant girl Jane was originally written for Sally.  And then Vinette Robinson (in my head anyway) read the script and went “you want me to be a maid? Who isn’t even any good?? Because she’s too busy fangirling S/W??? And then she puts on a Klan hood as part of the Evil Female Conspiracy???” And then in my head Vinette said many, many blunt anglo saxon words to Messrs Moffat and co and departed into the night. Possibly twirling a cape.

As I said, personal fantasy. (OMG I’ve committed RPF!)

If I still lived in London…

…I’d go to Harrods and walk around the food hall, and buy some quince jelly and manchego cheese and maybe some of their hand made ravioli with walnuts.  And I’d call in at Konditor and Cook for some lemon chiffon cake, light as air, and a box of the little fondant fancies that they call magic cakes.  Maybe pick up a chocolate croissant for tomorrow’s breakfast – but who can choose between the chocolate and the almond?  And then the brownies and oh, the walnut bread rolls!  I’d fill a freezer drawer with them, and have them with the manchego and the quince.  And then I’d go to Fortnums, for the milk chocolate coffee creams and perhaps a tiny, perfect, box of marron glace.

No, I don’t miss living in London.  That much.  But, if you wanted to send food parcels…

Good neighbours

Are you afraid of flying?  Spiders?  Clowns?  Most of us are afraid of something or other.  Let’s say spiders, like Ron in Harry Potter.  So if you were afraid of spiders, would you be happy to find Aragog the spider in your living room if someone said helpfully that “he won’t hurt you”?  Of course not: whether or not he’ll hurt you isn’t the point.  You aren’t afraid that a spider might hurt you, you’re afraid of spiders.

So let me tell you about the family who live up my road.  I don’t know them – they’re a fair bit further up my road than leads to casual conversation.  But since my operation I’ve been walking up and down the road a fair bit, because it’s half a mile to the bench and a mile to the Garden Centre, so I often get in my daily steps by walking either to the bench or to the garden centre and back.

The other day I walked past the house, and the kids were doing something or other in the front garden with their dad.  And their big goofy labrador was sitting just inside the gate watching the world go by, and the gate wasn’t shut.

Now I’m not phobic about dogs, but I’ve never had one and I’m not terrifically comfortable around them.  And I had abdominal surgery and I am (and I think legitimately) terrified of a big friendly dog jumping up and putting its weight on my scars.  So when big goofy dog saw me coming and wanted to make friends (and he was out of the minute gap between the gate and the fence in a flash) I froze.  He lolloped up to me… and the kids and dad all yelled “No Igor!” (or possibly Ivor) and the dad was out of the gate almost as fast as Igor/Ivor, collared him and firmly escorted him back inside the fence.  And shut the gate.  And said sorry.

See, that’s what you do if your dog is friendly to someone you don’t know.  You don’t let him have his moment and say “he won’t hurt you”.  Because it’s not up to you to judge what constitutes “hurt” for someone else.  You don’t know if the person is just a bit nervous around strange dogs, or has just had abdominal surgery, or feels about dogs like Ron Weasley did about Aragog.  That’s not within your control, or your responsibility.  Whereas your dog, is.  Thank you, thoughtful neighbours, and responsible pet owners everywhere.