Monday 30 November 2020



I came for the beautiful cover, I stayed for the magical sex scenes...


Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest's dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value behind.

Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she's everything Agnieszka is not - beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it's not Kasia he takes. 


A nice dose of high fantasy. I enjoyed this one. Made me think a lot of Diana Wynne Jones in terms of how magic works and kick-ass female protagonists, and a little of Janny Wurts's Sorcerer's Legacy in terms of all the court politics. 

It is undeniable that there's something a little bit sexy about irritable wizards. This follows in the tradition of self-absorbed sorcerers with Sarkan, The Dragon. He's right up there with Howl on a bad-hair day, and rivals Dr Diablerie in his need for privacy. 

It also played to the Beauty and the Beast scenario of a woman being locked up with a short-tempered old codger she can't stand, and somehow coming to find mutual respect for one another. Even I'm not entirely sure why, but that is a scenario I can get behind. It's always more fun when people have to navigate their dislike of one another and rewarding when that pays off.

This was a lot of fun, and kudos for the well-written hanky-panky. It's never comfortable writing sex, and I think she managed to get through that without a single direct or figurative reference to the penis. Not easily done.

There were some nice similes:

Her laugh was like a song that made you want to sing it.

And some really cute bloodlust:

Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn't know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn't know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible. And then they would take the knife and go inside your house, to your children, while you lay outside blind and choking and helpless even to scream. If someone we loved was taken by the walkers, the only thing we knew to hope for them was death, and it could only be a hope. 

A good read, and there's some nice fan art if you search for it.

Sunday 29 November 2020

A River of Words

Art by Lily Moses 
Art by Lily Moses

Well, I've had a lovely Sunday. I woke up late to the sound of rain, which continued most of the day. I poured myself a lake of coffee and heated up some cinnamon buns from Kigali Farmers' Market. They come with this sort of delightful vanilla icing that you melt on top. 

Once I was settled, I opened up my current WIP (that's writer speak for 'work in progress'), and started typing. I managed a respectable 3,250 words and I'm probably going to add another 500-700 to that before calling it quits today. 

Other than the research, there is no part of this story that feels difficult so far. It's just falling out of me. However, that in itself does cause a problem. As some might have guessed from the working title, Akkad, I'm tackling the story of the first author in history. 

The word author is from Old French, basically meaning father or creator. So, it's sort of ironic that the first ever author we know by name was actually a woman. Come to think of it, the first novelist, Murasaki Shikibu, was as well. Then men took over the show and women had to take on men's names just to get a publisher. An issue that apparently continues to this day

All of that aside...

The thing about this character is that her father was also a first. He formed the first known empire in history, the Akkadian Empire.

The problem I have been grappling with is that it's quite hard to tell her story without first telling his, at least up until the point of her birth, because his story shapes hers. He elevated his daughter to the position of one of the most powerful women in the known world. It's because she was in that position that we have so much of her writing. 

I'm splitting the novel into books, like I did with The Children of Lir. As with CoL, the books represent chunks of time. The first book is called The Legend of Sargon, and it's meant to tell the story of how her father came to create an empire. He actually left a written account, some of which survived to this day and informs my story, though I'm taking it with a heaped tablespoon of artistic license. 

The problem is that I'm already at around 25,000 words and I'm only halfway through the introduction.

If I was sensible, I probably would have split the story into two books: his and hers.

But I'm not sensible and I don't want to do that. 

His story interests me only to the point where hers begins.

So, I'm writing the first book in third person and the second in first, so that she has a stronger voice than her father. In essence, she will have told her father's story in order to get to her own.

But it troubles me. I usually have a fairly balanced sense of how long a book will be. Like many first-time authors, I started out small at around 70-80,000 words. I then started landing at around 90,000, and nowadays it's between about 100-120,000. Like any muscle, your writing benefits from exercise and you find you can lift more weight. 

Now, I feel like I'm on steroids. 

Longer books don't always mean they're better books, and, in an ideal world, it shouldn't matter how long a book is so long as the story is good. However, in marketable terms, it does matter a little. People don't always like long books, therefore publishers are wary of them, and reviewers often won't take them unless there's a really long lead-in period. 

It's the opposite issue of writing a novella.

There's sort of a sweet spot for acceptable speculative fiction, and I think I'm about to overshoot it. For example, the sweet spot for a chapter is supposedly around 3,000-4,000 words. I'm finding it hard to contain them at 5,000 and have already had to split one in half.

It's worrying me because this has never happened before. I've never been quite this prolific. I feel like I've filled my brain with Cola and added Mentos. 

I'm certain things will calm down a bit, they have to, and I'm still a million miles from writing all the words I think I'm going to, but I feel that's where it's headed. Plus, the more words you write, and the faster you write them, the harder you start to doubt yourself. It's like climbing a tall tower and looking down - it's a lot further to fall (or to fail).

Thankfully, the lovely writer Paul Magrs started an online gang where a few of us gather to promote new work and cry about old problems. I needed reassurance over the first/third person switch and someone came up with a couple of examples of that having worked for other authors in the past. 

I'm still not sure, though. Successful examples usually involve alternating first/third person throughout the book, whereas I'm literally going for one fat chunk for third, then moving on.  I don't think I've seen that done before and I might find out there's a good reason for that. 

Sometimes you wish you could go back to a time before you knew anything about genres, publishers and markets. When you just wrote without ever thinking about the technical aspect. You wrote because you were fully engrossed in the story and you never planned for anyone else to read it. 

Unfortunately, Pandora, box, opened.  

I just really want this book to be as epic as it is to write.

Saturday 21 November 2020

The Serpent and the Apple Tree

Akkad hasn't been going very far very fast at the moment. I scored a job teaching other people to write, so my own writing has been on hiatus. Things are calming down a bit now, so I'm back at it. Nothing much happens in Kigali over Christmas, so I'm going to lock myself away and type. 

I've managed to bash out 4,000 words in the past two days, and I'm loving every minute of it. I get a tingly feeling from this one. I can usually tell when something's going to be good, and I think this will. It's sort of Borgias meets ancient Sumer.

I need to give a shout out to Leif Inselmann at The University of Göttingen, for patiently answering my questions - of which I have many. Leif is also an author writing German pulp fiction and science-fiction, some of it based on The Epic of Gilgamesh. You can find his website here and he's on Facebook here. I've been exceedingly lucky to find him as gaining expert support when writing is not always easy and it does make all the difference.

The research for this one is intense. It's further back in time than The Children of Lir, but because it was a written culture, whereas Ireland was oral, there's more known about it, so a greater number of slip-ups to make. This one's also straight historical fiction, rather than historical fantasy, so less artistic license available. 

It really is a fascinating era. I knew that the story of the biblical flood was nicked from Sumerian legend, but I didn't realise Lilith, the snake and the apple tree were also in there. I think there's a bit of mythological oopsie-daisy going on. I remember Stephen Fry on an episode of QI mentioning that the Forbidden Fruit that Adam eats in the Bible is always depicted as an apple in paintings, but that it was never actually given a name in the Bible. This becomes interesting because, in Sumerian legend, the snake appears in the  Huluppu tree as 'the serpent that cannot be charmed.' Scholars seem to agree that the Huluppu tree was a willow tree. However, there is another, very explicit poem, in which Inanna speaks fondly of her vulva and wanting it ploughed by several men, and at that point she is leaning back against an apple tree, which seems to become the symbol of female sexuality. Possibly where the idea of the serpent in the apple tree comes from.

Though, since visiting Armenia and seeing the veneration of pomegranates there, I've always harboured a pet theory that the forbidden fruit wasn't so much a symbol of sexuality, but the literal pomegranate, which was apparently the first fruit they made wine from in that region. As Christian says in Clueless, "You notice how wine makes people wanna feel sexy?" Combine that with in vino veritas and you have a recipe for rebellion against Christian social order. Sex, loss of inhibitions and a Bacchanalian sense of celebration.

You think it's perhaps overboard that they needed an entire story to stop people drinking, but stranger things have happened. In the 1200s a law had to be passed in France to stop people dancing in graveyards. What we do when we're free to do it, is anyone's guess.

Other things that have surprised me relate to European witchcraft and modern paganism. We associate witch dunking with the European witchcraft trials of the 1400s. This is where they tied someone to a chair, threw them in a pond and, if they sank, they were innocent but dead, but if they floated, which you always do on a wooden seat, they were a witch and therefore also dead - but dry. Anyway, that apparently also dates back to ancient Sumer, where it was used to weed out sorcerers. 

In modern paganism there's something called 'skyclad,' which are rituals conducted naked. The idea behind it today is that you were born naked, and the naked body is to be celebrated. It's also a sign of coming before the gods humble, without trappings or finery. Apparently, same in ancient Sumer. The priests and priestesses conducted their rituals naked, with a fair bit of ritual sex thrown in for good measure.

I was just taken aback at how very much came from Sumer. Not just the flood, but the resurrection-from-death story, the Greek spring and winter divide of Persephone, the purple robes of Rome, and, possibly my favourite brain bomb moment...

Those who have read Rosy Hours, might remember that I talked about Nowruz, the Iranian New Year that happens at the spring equinox. It lasts for twelve days, with the thirteenth day being Sizdah Be-dar, the Day of Chaos. Which, today, coincides with April Fool's Day. The idea being that the only way to protect yourself from chaos is to create even greater mischief. It is the Day Between Years, the moment between the old year and the new.

So, fascinatingly enough, the Sumerians had a festival called Zagmuk

...which literally means "beginning of the year", is a Mesopotamian festival celebrating the New Year. The feast fell in December and lasted about 12 days. It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of Chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamat. The battle between Marduk and Chaos lasts 12 days, as does the festival of Zagmuk. In Uruk the festival was associated with the god An, the Sumerian god of the night sky. - Wikipedia

So, that gives us our twelve days of Christmas, but the Akkadians had a festival called Akitu, meaning 'head of the year', which was similar in nature and lines up with modern-day Nowruz and the vernal equinox.

I just thought this was fascinating.

There's so much going on here. So many things that are so familiar and yet many other things that it's hard to navigate with authenticity as they're so alien. Especially where sexuality is concerned. My story takes place long before the Code of Hammurabi comes into being in the early 1700s BC. The code really was a pivotal point in women's freedom and especially freedom of sexuality. Although it was codifying commonly held morals at the time, it set in stone that women were the property of their fathers and husbands, and also solidified the eye-for-an-eye style of revenge. 

From around this point, goddesses gave way to gods, ending up with the paternalistic figurehead of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions, which are both so young in the history of human beliefs.

In the time of ancient Sumer, sex in the street was not uncommon, women slept with strangers as a holy act, and temples were full of prostitutes. The patron goddess of prostitutes (Ishtar/Inanna) was one of the most revered goddesses in the lands, and rightly so. 

Meanwhile, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that made the Fertile Crescent what it was, were orgasmed into being when Enki, the creator god, masturbated. In tribute, men would climb into the river to masturbate on holy days to ensure the crops. I just hope they warned anyone washing their clothes downriver.

I find all of this fabulous. You think you know what a culture is about, then it throws you a curveball. A bit like in The Children of Lir, when I learned about the pissing competition women had in the snow to prove their  attractiveness.

Every day is just a new discovery with this book. Stuff I wish I'd known years ago. Of course, it's a balancing act between telling a good story and writing a historical textbook, but I'm really enjoying this one.

Thursday 19 November 2020

The Patient Assassin

This book is brilliant!

I think it might have been recommended after I bought Shantaram, or perhaps the massacre was mentioned in there and I went looking for information. Anyway, this ended up on my TBR pile.

Anita Anand tells the remarkable story of one Indian's twenty-year quest for revenge, taking him around the world in search of those he held responsible for the Amritsar massacre of 1919, which cost the lives of hundreds.

When Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, ordered Brigadier General Reginald Dyer to Amritsar, he wanted him to bring the troublesome city to heel. Sir Michael had become increasingly alarmed at the effect Gandhi was having on his province, as well as recent demonstrations, strikes and shows of Hindu-Muslim unity. All these things, in Sir Michael's mind at least, were a precursor to a second Indian Mutiny. What happened next shocked the world. An unauthorised political gathering in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919 became the focal point for Sir Michael's law enforcers. Dyer marched his soldiers into the walled garden, filled with thousands of unarmed men, women and children, blocking the only exit. Then, without issuing any order to disperse, he instructed his men to open fire, turning their guns on the thickest parts of the crowd. For ten minutes, they continued firing, stopping only when 1650 bullets had been fired. Not a single shot was fired in retaliation.

According to legend, a young, low-caste orphan, Udham Singh, was injured in the attack, and remained in the Bagh, surrounded by the dead and dying until he was able to move the next morning. Then, he supposedly picked up a handful of blood-soaked earth, smeared it across his forehead and vowed to kill the men responsible, no matter how long it took.

The truth, as the author has discovered, is more complex but no less dramatic. She traced Singh's journey through Africa, the United States and across Europe before, in March 1940, he finally arrived in front of O'Dwyer in a London hall ready to shoot him down. The Patient Assassin shines a devastating light on one of the Raj's most horrific events, but reads like a taut thriller, and reveals some astonishing new insights into what really happened. 

I wasn't too sure what to expect when I started reading. Biographical non-fiction can be a bit dry sometimes, but Anand was just excellent in the way she told it. Really drew you in, and what a strange tale it was. You were left with more questions about Udham Singh and his clandestine lifestyle than could be answered in three or four volumes. 

There's a good overview in The Guardian. There's also a scene from the film Gandhi which depicts the massacre. Though, from the book, it sounded more like it was just a place where people were hanging out and eating food, rather than a political protest at the time. Be warned, it's an upsetting clip.

The whole thing was just madness. The guy who led the shooting, in the hat in the video, was called General Dyer. Apparently, when he was a kid, he accidentally shot and wounded a monkey, and he cried for days over it. As the book asks - how does somebody like that end up leading a mass slaughter?

But, then, that's a question that's been contemplated a long time here in Rwanda, too. I think I previously mentioned Syndrome E, which is an empathy blocking brain response to extreme stress. Turns perfectly normal, empathetic individuals into complete lunatics. 

That, or the boy who loved animals just grew up to be an imperialist twat who didn't mind killing people. I'm sure that can happen. Hitler was a vegetarian, and Richard Speck was known to show momentary kindness to animals.

Anyway, whatever his thought process, he opened fire on a lot of people that day, and Udham Singh, the patient assassin of the story, waited over twenty years to assassinate his superior, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. He would have tried to kill Dyer, but he'd already died. 

It was a truly fascinating story, and what I really liked about Anand's telling was that she didn't simply present the characters as hero and villain. Although the Raj were undoubtedly villains, she also made them human, with families and interests outside of India. And Singh, far from being a saint, was into fast women and fast cars, and did a whole lot of shady business with Russia whilst waiting for the opportune moment.

It was just really, really interesting, as is the author, who is a British broadcaster and journalist whose family are Punjabi Sikhs.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Three Women

I have no idea how I ended up with this one. I think it was in a sale and I thought the blurb sounded interesting:

All Lina wanted was to be desired. How did she end up in a marriage with two children and a husband who wouldn't touch her?

All Maggie wanted was to be understood. How did she end up in a relationship with her teacher and then in court, a hated pariah in her small town?

All Sloane wanted was to be admired. How did she end up a sexual object of men, including her husband, who liked to watch her have sex with other men and women?

Three Women is a record of unmet needs, unspoken thoughts, disappointments, hopes and unrelenting obsessions.

Very engrossing book, examining sex and desire from the female perspective. There was quite a bit relatable about all of the participants that Taddeo included.

There's an interview about it here:

For her debut book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo listened to her subjects’ stories over a period of eight years. She recorded their histories of sex, love, loss, abuse. The book’s brilliance is in making new the very oldest universal experiences: falling in love for the first time, mourning the end of a marriage, how wanting the one you can’t have will almost kill you. Three Women is a reminder, or perhaps a warning: desire is a thing you can question, deny, chase—but rarely catch.

It's a good book. As it says in the interview, men's passion often ends with orgasm, whilst that's the starting point for most women:

With many men, after sex, you find an utterly different person. Like mere milliseconds after an orgasm. Even if they are in love. Whereas for a woman, especially in the earlier stages of a relationship, that moment after the orgasm is when something often switches on. Even if prior she didn’t like the man as much as he liked her. It’s not lust but that deeper need, that holier want. 

It allows women to connect through shared experience and men to understand the physical and psychological side of relationships through women's eyes. 

From a writer's perspective, I think it did what writing was born to do - give voice to those who have not been heard. Especially in Maggie's case. She goes up against her teacher in court and it doesn't go well. It could have ended there, with people in her small town deciding how her story ends, but this book brings that story to the world, and in so doing, makes it a more positive, impactful dialogue with no final chapter.

There were a few comedy moments. I like to listen to audiobooks in the shower, and my bathroom window is very close to my neighbour's house. Some of the scenes are pretty blue, and I scrambled across the bathroom, covered in suds, to turn the volume down. Then I thought, 'huh, why should women put their desire on mute?' and turned it back up again.

Almost broke my neck on the wet tiles.

Anyway. Really good book. Ran the gamut of emotions. Maybe wear headphones.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

A House of Ghosts

Had a little read of this.

My friends Paul and Jeremy decided to open the Levenshulme Little Free Library outside their house during COVID, so that people had something to read whilst confined to quarters. I was browsing through the pictures and examining this clearance box. The one on the bottom caught my attention.

So I picked up a copy because it gave me a sense of being there, and I probably would have taken it had geography allowed.

Winter 1917. As the First World War enters its most brutal phase, back home in England, everyone is seeking answers to the darkness that has seeped into their lives.

At Blackwater Abbey, on an island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering to contact his two sons who were lost in the conflict. But as his guests begin to arrive, it gradually becomes clear that each has something they would rather keep hidden. Then, when a storm descends on the island, the guests will find themselves trapped. Soon one of their number will die.

For Blackwater Abbey is haunted in more ways than one...

It wasn't entirely my cup of tea. Someone recently asked in a writing forum whether there is a genre you don't enjoy reading. I didn't think I had one, because I read quite widely, but I've come to realise I'm not a big fan of the Victorian era or the two world wars. Although, there's always exceptions - I loved The Ruby in the Smoke series and Birdsong

This one is set at the end of the First World War, and it's very much of that era. I had to check a couple of times that it really was published in 2018, because it's so convincingly written. A game of Cluedo in 296 pages. Growing up, there were whole shelves of battered old leather-bound mystery collections in people's houses. I could imagine pulling one down and it being this story.

My problem with that genre is that all of the characters are so stiff and formal that you never really warm to any of them. There's a lot of polite greetings, carefully concealed animosity and eccentric behaviour, but not a huge amount of action. There's a reason Poirot gets reduced down to one-hour episodes. However, in terms of matching the period, it was perfect pastiche. 

Some of the characters also had the ability to see ghosts, but it was very matter-of-fact rather than spooky. From the title, I was hoping for paranormal suspense. I've watched The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor on Netflix, and was hoping for something in the vein of James Herbert's Haunted, but it wasn't that kind of setup.

The final issue I faced is quite an age-specific one. The main character was called Donovan. If you're my age and you're British, the only Donovan you've ever heard of is Jason Donovan, who you grew up watching every day on Neighbours. So, every time the character's name came up, that's who I thought of. Especially For You became the backing track.

It certainly wasn't a bad novel, it just wasn't gripping - for me. And, as I've said before, books are highly subjective. One person's 'wow' is another person's 'meh,' and that's part of the joy of reading: discovering what you like. I just can't help thinking there's a reason people don't write books like that anymore. Then again, it's getting rave reviews on Amazon, so perhaps I'm out of step with the times.

It's always worth taking a chance on a book, though. I loved the cover of this one and the title stood out among all the others. You discover something about yourself with every spine you crack.

Monday 9 November 2020

And Breathe


Aaaah, how much better does the world feel today?

It was a long time getting there, but what a wonderful feeling when Pennsylvania was finally called. 

I was at my friend's bonfire night, surrounded by friends, and a huge cheer went up. The Guy also bore an amazing resemblance to a certain toxic Wotsit. Very satisfying to throw it on the flames. Though, I must admit, every year we adults do stand around quietly questioning whether this tradition is necessarily setting the right example for the next generation, as all the kids stand there chanting 'let him burn, let him burn,' the flames reflecting in their eyes...


Still, good ol' fashioned family fun, the British way.

It was a wonderfully multinational crowd that night: Rwandan, British, Australian, American, Danish, Chinese and Canadian. Such a global sense of celebration that things are finally returning to normal. I'm privileged to say I was in Africa when Obama was elected, and again when Harris became VP. I really like Kamala Harris, and she's already had such a positive effect. Many of my friends have mixed-race daughters, so it's a double win on gender and skin colour. My friend posted what her daughter said the next morning:

There's just such a sense of relief and celebration, even when you're not American. That country has such a huge impact on all the other countries in the world. Every nation had a vested interest in the outcome. 

For my part, I'm really hoping two key things:

  1. They rejoin the whole climate agreement and start working on that.
  2. They cancel the idea of leaving the World Health Organization.

Biden has already hinted that he's going to start reversing Trump policy on a lot of things, so I hope they're high up on the list. 

But it feels as though the planets are slowly coming back into alignment. That was a bloody long four years. 

Right, moving on, what should we talk about next...?

Saturday 7 November 2020

The Amber Ruffin Show


Amber Ruffin is a writer for Seth Meyers. She recently got her own show and it's really good fun. Definitely my kind of humour (see below). I think Catatonic sums it up perfectly. A friend asked yesterday how everyone was coping - I didn't realise we were supposed to be. Still, with a little bit of luck it will all be over soon. Well, soon-ish. Well, maybe not soon, but eventually.

Thursday 5 November 2020

Scoby or not Scoby, That is the Kombucha


I have just become a proud scoby momma. 

No, I didn't know what that was until earlier today, either.

Went for lunch with my lovely friend Gerry, and she gifted me a scoby, which is a round, rubbery disk of yeast and bacteria that you pop in a jar of strong, sweet tea. It gradually transforms the tea into a carbonated probiotic drink called kombucha. Rather amazing. More on that here.

It's quite entertaining, but also feels like a huge responsibility. I went out for pizza and came home with this whole other life form to care for. If you leave it too long it turns into vinegar, so you have to keep feeding it. Still, not as bad as the time I went out for Kinyarwanda lessons and came back with four cats.

In the same day, I also bought a yoga mat and I'm considering buying kimchi jars tomorrow. It's also been nine months since I had a cigarette... is this a weird symptom of nicotine withdrawal that nobody tells you about? 

I turn forty in a couple of months. Apparently my mid-life crisis is 'hipster.' Who knew?

Anyway, I've settled the little scoby into its new home, which is only marginally larger than its old home. Hopefully it will be okay in there until I can buy more suitable containers. I'm quite excited to see what happens. 


Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid



I really like Bill Bryson, he's one of the few authors I've read more than once and, alongside Terry Pratchett, one of even fewer I find laugh-out-loud funny.

He's written fascinating works on world history, Shakespeare and my native homeland

This is an autobiographical look at his younger years:


Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends. 

Although it was funny, it was also a little sad, the way he recounted what life was like in the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone world of the 1950s. He talked about what it was like growing up in the baby boomer generation, where kids seemed to rule the world, and where technology's dark side hadn't yet been discovered. Where household appliances, moon landings and even the threat of nuclear annihilation took on a sort of cheerful tone. Technology could only improve the world in the days before CFCs, plastic waste and pollution were really understood. 

David Attenborough touched on something similar in his recent A Life on Our Planet documentary. Looking at how quickly the world has changed in such a very small space of time, both in terms of technological progress but also what we have done to the environment. It was a bit depressing listening to the variety of new inventions and the uniqueness of each town that Bryson remembers from his youth, and knowing that almost every big city around the world now contains pretty much the same international brands, fast food take-outs and clothing labels. 

It would be interesting to know what the world will look like after the impending population crash and whether we'll beat the clock and manage to ride the population peak through to the other side. Mass farming, multinational companies, advertising and even capitalism surely can't survive what's coming. It's just a matter of whether we give up those ideas earlier or later. The earlier we do it, the more chance we might survive. 

My friend Jo said something interesting the other day, about how we were taught about CFCs and global warming in primary school, but we assumed that adults had it under control and were working on the solution. I felt exactly the same in school. I remember doing the art project on global warming and the hole in the ozone layer, and assuming it was under control. Now Jo's daughter is learning about it at primary school and it turns out nothing was under control.

Which is why it was rather wonderful to disappear into Bill Bryson's childhood, where there was a sort of innocence about all this. From childhood, I was taught about CFCs, lead in petrol and global warming. He wasn't. At that point, refrigerators, television and cars were all brand new and there to be enjoyed.

It would be nice if there was a bit more joy in our technological age. More inventions to awe us and take pleasure in, without those things then inviting a global apocalypse. 

I feel like we could all benefit from a holiday to Iowa in the late 50s.

It's hard for people now to remember just how enormous the world was back then for everybody, and how far away even fairly nearby places were. When we called my grandparents long distance on the telephone in Winfield, something we hardly ever did, it sounded as if they were speaking to us from a distant star. We had to shout to be heard and plug a finger in an ear to catch their faint, tinny voices in return. They were only about a hundred miles away, but that was a pretty considerable distance even well into the 1950s. Anything farther - beyond Chicago or Kansas City, say - quickly became almost foreign. It wasn't just that Iowa was far from everywhere. Everywhere was far from everywhere.


I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without his noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, as many of the pennies as you could carry). I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy- five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in a way that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me, and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom.


Soon millions of people were caught in a spiral in which they worked harder and harder to buy labour saving devices that they wouldn’t have needed if they hadn’t been working so hard in the first place.

Having watched The Social Dilemma recently, I do hope that we can turn it around. Technology could be capable of so many amazing things if it wasn't constrained by the greed of the mass market for jangly-key levels of distracting crap. Hopefully the fertility crash will remove that obstacle to some degree and return necessity as the mother of invention.

Sunday 1 November 2020

The Queen's Gambit


Netflix has really outdone itself lately. The Queen's Gambit is absolutely worth watching. It's stunning in every way, from set and costume through to plot. It's about a childhood chess protégé and her rise to fame, but all of the characters feel incredibly genuine. Different people come and go through her life and are important at different times, but all feel relatable. Very interesting that it was written by two men, as it feels like a story that not only has a female protagonist, but is very much told from a female perspective. It's extremely well done.