Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Bloody tourists

It was the night after Guy Fawkes’.

Verity woke up in an odd position. When she tried to rub the sleep from her eyes, she found she couldn’t reach them with her hands. She couldn’t even turn to check the time; something prevented her legs from moving. And the room sounded strange: not with its usual softness.

“Here, let me.” said a voice, and somebody carefully wiped the sleep from her eyelids with witch-hazel. She recognised the voice: Mills. But when she opened her eyes she found the room unfamiliar to her: mainly black and red. The ceiling, higher than it should be, loomed in shadows. She noticed spotlights. Thankfully they weren’t on. She was in her dressing-gown: a full length, deep green silk wrap-around that Sacha always said made her look slightly mediaeval.

“Where is this?”

“Do you know the city’s torture museum?”

“I’ve, er, never wanted to go there. I don’t even like the idea of it.”

“Well, you’re here now, lass. You’re on the rack.”

“I’m what??” She tugged her left arm; a cold manacle bit at her wrist. The same happened when she tried to move her feet. Bare feet. They ached with cold. There were chains. She suddenly found herself out of breath. She heard Mills explaining something.

“Remember the other day when I offered you a question and you asked about the Apple?”

She nodded.

“I made a mistake. You were not entitled to that question.” He grinned “I bet you were so chuffed about getting that answer that you never even wrote it down did you?”

She shook her head. She hadn’t told a soul about Mills. She got the feeling people already regarded her as a bit eccentric; she didn’t want to be dismissed as totally hatstand.

“You were not entitled to that question, and I can do what I will, to clear the answer out of that head of yours.”

“But...surely that’s not fair! I asked that question in good faith. Nobody else knows the answer, so no damage done. I can go home, and forget about it all. Really...I’ll not tell a soul...ever...”

Mills spoke quietly. “You cannot forget. Not unless something, or someone, causes you so much pain as to make you lose your mind. That is why I brought you here tonight.”

Verity’s thoughts ground to a frenzied standstill. But in her confusion, she could have sworn she heard him whisper the words “Fear: perfect, white fear...”

She tried to grab a corner of her mind that could still work, could still be rational.

“If you destroy’ll miss me!”

More whispering “it even goes with her hair...”

“’ll incur another penalty!”

He spoke clearly, but softly. “If I am to concede another penalty, I intend to make it worth my while, now, while I can. I have waited centuries for a night such as this. I shall start gently...” He repositioned her hands. They were cold. “All right?” He put his fingers on her left wrist.

“Your pulse. I don’t want you going and dying on me, not now.” She heard two heavy clicks as he turned the ratchet and it took up the slack. She took a breath, to scream_

“I have brought the echo silencer.” She tried to look around, but couldn’t see it. “I have put it over there, on top of the iron maiden.” he went on “And now you’re wondering why there, and not here next to you. Aren’t you?”

She could only nod.

“Your screams are important to me. They show that you still have the full faculties of your mind: that you are still fighting. As morning approaches, that will cease. I shall then undo these bonds and take you home. I shall tell your Sacha that I found you in the road: that for once in your life you had been careless in traffic. Your beloved N.H.S. will repair the physical damage. As for the rest, you will be lost.”

Verity could feel her mind beginning to unravel with dread. Threads snapping...

“So we’ll take our time, lass. We’ve got all night. Ready?”

She heard him whispering; about icing on cakes? Something pure? Resonance, and...time? Nothing made sense any more...

Another heavy click, and she felt a pain in her right shoulder. The shackles bruised the little bones in her wrists and ankles. The room filled with a blinding white light_

“Who put that bloody light on?” she screamed as she sat up in bed with a start. Her right arm, caught in the bedstead, twisted at the shoulder.

“Oh it’s you.”

Sacha had accidentally hit the light switch as he got out of bed to get a handkerchief.

“I had a bit of a koshmar...”

She decided she’d said enough. Hatstand and all that. She reached for the glass on her bedside table: for a sip of water. Her notepad lay next to it. A sentence, written in her own handwriting, stretched crazily across the top page:

“Well, some of us here are old enough to know when enough is enough.”

She couldn’t think why on earth she might have written such a sentence.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Bond issues: part four, a letter

Dear Hugh Bayley,


A backbench debate on “Money creation and society” has been tabled for Thursday 20th November 2014. This will be the first Parliamentary discussion of money creation for 170 years, and I urge you to attend if at all possible.
Money creation affects almost every aspect of our lives, including public and private debt levels, house prices, and rising inequality. It is also the reason why an economy whose growth is constrained (for example by natural limits) cannot remain stable: debt will inevitably overtake the means available to repay it.

97% of money is created by banks as they make loans (as recently confirmed by the Bank of England - see link below). Most of the money created by banks is directed towards the very "casino" banking which the Labour Party wishes to rein in, as mentioned in your letter to me on 24th September, in which you also noted that you found the information interesting.

Please find a briefing for the backbench debate “Money Creation and Society” here […/11/Backbench-Briefing-Note.…]

I know you are often busy on issues of overseas development, but would you be willing to commit to attending this debate on Thursday 20th November?

Yours Truly.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Things I didn't know at eighteen: part three

In the student revue sketch, the accidental 1980s banking career of Yours Truly goes from strength to unlikely strength. Stage set as last week: two desks, on one of which there lives a cardboard cut-out computer.


Yours Truly is sitting in the swivel chair, working at the computer

Yours Truly: morning all! Here we are: this week’s new clients! (reads from computer screen) A.B.C., they design telecomms systems for share dealerships. These 3-letter acronyms are getting very popular aren’t they?
D.E.F., they’ve just landed the government contract to promote relocating to the North of England. G.H.I., they have the government contract to run the programme that promotes relocating to the South of England. J.K.L., they specialise in Reputation Management for the oil and gas industries. M.N.O. are a charitable foundation formed to raise awareness of “Climate Change”, whatever that is. Then there’s Personnel Quality Recruitment, who advise on hiring staff, and Streamlining To Upgrade, who advise on downsizing labour costs. And, V.W.X., they’re specialists on helping charities secure funding, you know, helping them through the funding maze, making the bids look professional, and finally Y.Z., they evaluate the bids with a view to selecting the ones whose writing hasn’t been outsourced.  
And last week there was Mr Van de Graf Generator, a Dutch property dealer who appeared to have bought every house in Brighton. He wanted re-finance on his entire property empire. Then he disappeared with all the money, which seems to have left me with, hmm, every house in Brighton. I’ve put them in a special Trust, just in case he ever comes back: I don’t want him taking the entire Bank of Yours Truly with him if he does!

Rawls (the Chauffeur) wheels in a trolley laden with bundles of notes

Y.T.: Oooh, here comes the first year’s rent!

Rawls: and the morning papers, ma’am.

Y.T.: Thank you Rawls. (opens the Financial Times) Good heavens, have you ever seen anything like it? They’re selling off the entire national telecommunications, electricity and gas industries, and the ordnance survey! Hmm, I always loved gadgets...

Y.T. writes on computer 'screen' BUY BRITISH TELECOM. She turns over a sheet of the 'screen' (which is still just a flip-chart) and the next one says 'Your offer has been accepted' A stage hand brings on a brick wrapped to look like a 1980s mobile phone.

Y.T.: (picks up brick and punches in a number) Electricity and Gas? Oh great. About the share issue: I’ll buy the lot....

Stage hand brings on an anglepoise lamp and a mug with a “nuclear” sign on it, brimming over with dry ice vapour.

Y.T.: ooh except the nuclear part, that looks a bit dangerous! (pause) What? I have to take it? Oh all right but my Auditor will call you tomorrow. 

Y.T.: how d’you hang up one of these things? Oh 'end call', right. (dials another number) Hello Ordnance Survey? Yes, I’m another inquiry about the shares, have there been a lot? (pause) Oh right, lots of retired geography teachers and fellwalking enthusiasts but no-one actually bought any yet...great, I’ll buy it all please if I may? (pause) What, don’t you have to vet me or something? Isn’t it part of the M.O.D. though? (pause) oh well. 

Stage hand brings on large Globe and puts it on desk. Y.T. puts down phone and looks at globe and can be seen thinking, hmm, The World...I wonder if it’s possible to buy it?


Fade down and up. Y.T. is still looking at the globe. Smartly-dressed gent carrying attaché case walks in. It's Mr Bond.

Bond: the name’s Bond

Y.T.: Ah, I’ve been expecting you.

Bond: I have papers from the following countries who wish to raise money on the Markets (opens attaché case and takes out smart brown envelopes one at a time as he lists them): Angola , Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium...

(fade down and up with a bit of 1980s music. There is now a large pile of envelopes on the desk)

Bond: ...United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe. 

Y.T.: I’ll see what I can do.

Bond: Of course.

Y.T.:  The pleasure is all mine. (Bond exits. Y.T. goes to the computer and starts writing country names and columns of numbers on the screen)

Y.T.: this is brilliant! The Bank of Yours Truly could buy bonds from every country actually is possible to buy the world! (draws line under numbers as if to add them up) All two hundred and forty trillion dollars of it! (writes and adds a few more numbers) It even looks as if we can afford it. We’ll end up collecting all the interest, of all the money, issued all over the world! Aren’t the 1980s just fantastic??

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bicycles: the dénouement

It need hardly be repeated that, on the weekend of 5th-6th July, the Tour de France temporarily became the Tour de Yorkshire (including such linguistic delights as "le Cote du Jenkin").

It all made for a great weekend. Day 1: accidental choice, in deepest Wensleydale, of one of the best vantage-points ever (because it happened to lie just after a watering-point, so we got to keep team logo water-bottles as souvenirs). Day 2, riding four miles along the river path to catch the Peloton as they leave town and start the race proper, serenaded by (among other things) the strains of "Riders on the Storm" (it had been raining heavily earlier on) from a local resident's garden, then our delightful glide afterwards along completely car-free roads all the way home.

But I could never quite stop myself from looking twice at each yellow-painted bicycle that the Great Yorkshire Public had put up all along the route just to check: was it my missing bike?..

It was some consolation to read the following week in the local paper that an aid charity had offered to take all the yellow bikes, recondition them, and ferry them to villages in Africa. There they would enable people to launch small businesses, go on health visits, or otherwise improve quality of life at a tiny cost.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Cool Space

A dilemma occurs over lunch: the weather is hot enough that any butter left in the butter-dish on the kitchen counter turns, in short order, into unpalatable goo. And yet, if we were to put the same butter in the fridge, it would be too rock-solid to make ham-and-raspberry sandwiches*. 

I found myself wishing we had a Beurrier-a-l'eau,one of those useful little devices that no self-respecting French kitchen would be seen without. And this got me thinking about France. 

Americans like to sneer that the French have yet to discover the delights of air conditioning. But have you ever noticed, on a hot day, how cool it is inside, for example, Chartres Cathedral? Heat energy soaks into the walls. When it gets there, instead of heating them up, it goes to work on evaporating years'-worth of accumulated dampness from them.

An air conditioning unit uses the same idea, but with an ugly twist. Instead of leaving the dampness floating around in the open air, only condensing once it has found a place (or a time, like 4:00 a.m.) cool enough to do so, the unit expends a lot of energy compressing the vapour it creates, so as to retrieve and re-use the liquid. The compression process produces heat, which is then dumped unceremoniously on to passers-by of the car or other space in which our transatlantic punter wishes to remain, well, cool.

In other words, the thick walls of Chartres Cathedral, and the entire French fleet of beurriers-a-l'eau, are quietly doing their job in a much more considerate and public-spirited way than typical air conditioning. As befits French dirigisme rather than American laissez-faire, in fact. They also give much less of a shock to a body as one moves from one space into another. 

After all this existential musing, I now recall that there is a
beurrier-a-l'eau lurking in a high-up cupboard here at Space: it was bought as a souvenir in, where else, France.

Looks as if it's time for lunch...

*At 32oC it is a touch too hot for Wensleydale-and-honey

Monday, 9 June 2014

Schrodinger's Bicycles

Wedged between the frame and brake cable of the bicycle that wasn't mine was my original note, now very faded after all the rain. Without thinking, I pulled it out and stuffed it in my coat pocket.

There were two reasons I could not bring myself to lay instant claim to the bicycle that wasn't mine: firstly, shifting it would require quite some physical force and I was on my way to a concert, and thus dressed in clothes which I wished to preserve free of rips, mud smears and oil stains; and secondly (and rather obviously) it wasn't my bicycle. I found the nearest person with a phone (to protect other people from the consequences of my absent-mindedness, I don't take phones to concerts) and called Rozzer Central once again. Having taken the details, they assured me they would deal with it.

Then, nothing happened. When nothing had continued to happen for two more days, I emailed Rozzer Central to enquire if they had at least re-united the bike with its owner. Their reply came as a bit of a shock.

It transpires that, at least here in Viking city (which, I might add, has somehow awarded itself the strapline "cycle-friendly"), the Police don't recover stray bicycles: that job is delegated to the Council. And the Council, in their turn, don't treat bicycles as objects of value, but as items of fly-tipping, to be got rid of pronto.

Which leaves me in the horrible position of not knowing whether my bike, or indeed the one that wasn't mine, are still in existence at all: they may by now have been melted down as scrap (probably in Sheffield).

The theory of continuity of bicycles may therefore have to be abandonned. The saddest thing of all is that, as I smoothed out the note to take a photograph for this blog, I noticed an addition in neat, pale pencil along one edge:

"This bike just arrived on my doorstep _ please keep!"

Friday, 30 May 2014

Probability Cloud

So I finished a turn of heavy digging at the Plot one Wednesday morning earlier this month. Tired, aching and frankly filthy, I staggered out of the gate. And there, where my trusty bike usually waits for me so that I can get home quickly and have a wash before lunch, was just an empty space!

I had to admit, on reporting the sorry tale to Rozzer Central, that I had never bothered to lock my bike. Nobody else does at the Plots, and my machine is plenty the worse for wear, unfashionable, and old enough to vote. It also happened to be covered in mud after a recent minor prang. Plus, it's so unusual that random people have recognised me just by seeing it in town.

An impromptu gathering of fellow Plotters decided that whoever took it was just having a laugh and would soon get bored and abandon it somewhere. Someone had the idea of putting up a notice simply saying that I missed it and it would be nice to see it back. I even found a picture of it, and put it up with my plea.

I happen to believe in the Theory of Continuity of Bicycles, which posits that the said machines don't, as a rule, simply vanish into thin air or change into, for example, lampshades or iguanas. And a bike like mine would not have been "stolen to order" and whisked off to Leeds, Manchester or the Continent. So for the next few days I went walkabout. Just, anywhere I could think of where a bike might be abandonned. The river path, the park, round the edges of playing fields, the local car-boot sale.

It was only after this last that the thought occurred to me: a bike has a "probability cloud" of all the places it's likely to be found. Without realising it, I'd been gravitating to the places where my bike's cloud had been at its densest before it went missing. I'd missed out a whole semicircle of town, including the University, the nature reserve and the winemakers' kit shop. It was a long walk, but I was on to something. People I met on the hidden footpaths said things like "you often find bikes just left here, sometimes quite nice ones..."

Then it rained so much that I didn't go back to the Plot for over a week. And even that was only because I happened to notice the words "cycling music" on a flyer in the health food shop, and that it was happening just down the road, that very evening! So off I went. On the house's spare bike. And as I passed the Plot what should I spy embedded in the fence but...a bicycle? Which, to complicate matters further, wasn't mine?...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

A crisis in Space

Lately, backstage at the Erudite Space has turned into something of an obstacle course. Our crates of donations perch even higher and more precariously than usual, with bags more sitting in corners, under desks and even lurking in the dumb waiter. And still donated wares come. I start recalling the pictures in Dr Seuss books. No matter how rapidly we sort them, label them, sneak a quick peak at some of them (yes we've all been tempted...well, mostly me, actually), and then put them out on display...and indeed, no matter how enthusiastically our punters buy them, the piles still grow and the room for manoevre becomes ever more thin, divided and frankly triangular.

And then the lad who brings donations from the city's various drop-off points turns up with an entire carload of books. As I help unload, I notice what interesting tomes they are, and in what excellent condition compared with the usual fare from that quarter. It transpires they come, not from the drop-off points, but from a Canadian family, who are quitting Blighty and returning to the Great White Space.

"I can't blame them, with the weather we've been having..." and therein lies, apparently, the cause of the Erudite Space's predicament. Our sister shop on the coast, who usually take our surplus if we think it'll appeal to the Holiday Reader, are presently flooded out. There is no alternative route for excess donations that will still sell, and so here they all sit with us, patiently waiting 'til the coast is clear.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Instant Political Slogan Generator

We thought we'd get this one in first, here at Space, because it's best to get the campaign launched in good time. All that's needed to use it is a Birthday and a Surname, then simply look up the words in the table below.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Street corner gang

This may (or may not) be the World's Smallest Forest Garden. It measures about 2 metres by 2 metres and, to cap it all, the high wall to the left is shielding most of it from the sun, most of the time. So it is effectively North-facing.

The cast of characters, in order of altitude, includes:

1 Bramley apple tree (producer of prizewinning apples)
3 Redcurrant bushes (producers, with the help of some local strawbs, of prizewinning wine)
1 Blackcurrant bush
1 Gooseberry bush
Alpine strawberry ground-cover
1 Bramble (rather drastically cut-back, so not really visible)
3 Garlics (subterranean, ditto)

In five years I think I have had to pull up a total of 1 (one) weed.

The wall behind it protects it from the road and its many users. Including a Tesco van which recently (and very audibly) reversed into it.