Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Chorus Line

No PMQs review this week again because I haven't watched it. I could of course watch it on the IPlayer but have decided that it's too hot today and life is too short. Hey, nobody is paying me for this.

Instead I am going to recommend to you another programme available on that IPlayer and one you shouldn't miss, whatever the weather. I caught it last night and can highly recommend it. I speak of the latest Gareth Malone project to bring a bit of culture into the lives of teenagers. This time he has set himself the task of taking a group of these low trouser wearing mumblers and creating an opera chorus. It may not sound compelling, but it really was.

The kids of course started out knowing little or nothing about opera but Gareth is not one to let mere ignorance stand in his way if he can get past surliness, poor time keeping, immaturity along with serial embarrassment and foot shuffling. He took them to see La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, and their reaction was startling to behold. Then, slowly, he began to teach them the tunes and the harmonies, he taught them to breathe properly and open their mouths and raise their heads to let their voices out. By the end of the second programme he had them singing loudly and proudly, harmonising, acting and experiencing real joy at their accomplishments. Shy wall flowers were transformed, immature and embarrassed boys were singing their hearts out. Sure a few very sadly could not get past the chips on their shoulders or couldn't grow up sufficiently to enjoy the experience; but most, after a hesitant start, blossomed before our eyes.

It was all rather uplifting. I frequently dabbed away a tear or two and smiled indulgently as these kids rose above their own expectations and began to enjoy enormously something of which they were previously completely ignorant.

The next episode is tomorrow night on BBC2, when they actually get to perform at Glyndebourne. I can't recommend the series enough. Indeed politicians bickering today about cuts and jobs and rehabilitation of offenders in places other than prisons ought to look in too. This is what can happen when you invest time, trust, imagination and energy in people and consequently broaden their horizons and their own self identities.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Spinning the Cuts

I know the new coalition government has a hard case to argue concerning the deficit and the cuts ahead. They have so far made a decent fist of doing so, albeit against an opposition with other things on its mind and with one of its leadership candidates - yes, you again, Ms Abbott - who is clueless and out of touch when she tries. Her arguments about immigration on Newsnight last night were nearly as fatuous as her defence of her private schooling of her son.

But just because it currently has a clear run does not mean that the Government should fall into the same traps as its predecessor. It is currently displaying a worrying tendency to go searching for headlines and worrying too much about news management. Thus today David Cameron followed the example of Gordon Brown by taking the Cabinet on an away day to Bradford to show how much it cares and is listening.

This was a ridiculous spin when Labour did it and is no better now. Please stop it immediately. How can the Government claim to be watching every penny when it is so ready to spend needlessly on this phony exercise. The decision to arrive in a coach was redolent of David Cameron's daily cycle to parliament only to be followed by a car with his bags. Apparently after arriving in the coach for the cameras, ministers then left in their ministerial cars. Whoever dreamt this up and thought they could get away with it should be fired immediately.

I applaud the Government's openness about what lies ahead and in particular Cam/Clegg's appearance to face an audience on the BBC. But this was spin and looks out of step with their austerity message. If they want to talk to the people of Bradford then the prime minister, his deputy and ministers should do so and visit plenty of other areas worrying about the cuts too. Taking the entire Cabinet there looks and is ridiculous.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The England Inquest

I appeared on Mark Parton's Capital Radio show in Australia last night to explain to him and his listeners the complex emotions being felt by England football fans after our latest dismal failure. It wasn't as if we seriously believed we were going to win the thing, but neither did we expect our team full of stars who regularly delight the entire world with their thrilling, fast paced football in the Premier and Champions Leagues to embarrass us. They couldn't pass or trap the ball, they rarely produced a decent cross and they only scored two goals in four games - or three if you count the one that crossed the line by two feet but which the officials somehow didn't see. Thanks, Sepp. Nice one.

It's the same at every major tournament, always supposing that we qualify in the first place. Now, after the disappointment and the slow tedious trek back home (or quick and in the lap of luxury if you are a player) we get the recriminations, the angry headlines, the inquests, the debates and of course the excuses. It's fortunate in a way that we lost by three goals, otherwise that goal that never was would be a handy excuse. Not that that has stopped Capello deploying it.

So why does it keep happening? The same reasons are again being proposed to explain our inadequacies. Lack of techical ability? Up to a point, but our best players are at least as good as the other top European teams like Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Two of those teams performed as poorly as England this month of course, but their record has been better previously and with teams not so very much superior, at least on paper, to ours.

And just how good is this German team? They have some good or even world class individuals, but it is hard to see why they should have so comprehensively outperformed an England team which had a similar number of players of high ability and talent, and who prove this week in, week out in a league acknowledged as the best or maybe second best in Europe and thus the world.

What about the tiredness excuse? Well maybe, although the English season finished six weeks ago and the players had a break. It should also be noted that Premier League players are performing well for other countries, Carlos Tevez of Manchester City and Argentina for instance and the seemingly tireless Kuyt of Liverpool and the Netherlands. There is certainly a case for a mid-winter break, say in January after Christmas. But let's remember that England play a friendly in August, before the domestic season has even begun. Are England willing to sacrifice that pointless game, or any of the others which make the season longer than necessary?

It's certainly true that games and injuries take their toll on our best players. And not just ours. Fernando Torres looks just as jaded and out of sorts as does Wayne Rooney. Ultimately perhaps the price we pay for the quality and cut and thrust of our domestic football is a poor international team. It's hard to see how that can change. The clubs won't accept it and neither, when push comes to shove, will the fans. I for one watch those internationals with trepidation in case a key Liverpool player like Gerrard gets injured, and most fans are the same - however many England flags they fly come the summer.

Then there is the excuse about foreigners preventing the development of young English players which is being trotted out again. Again, maybe. But they haven't prevented the emergence and development of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Walcott and Cole, all of whom are demonstrably better players than they have shown this past couple of weeks. And the Premier League brings out the best in our players, it teams them with the best and puts them up against the best. It forces them to improve. Football is about success and means total ruthlessness. To get into the top sides our players need to be the best, and that ought to benefit the England team.

Ultimately this poor performance is down to the manager. Following the bizarre appointment of Steve McLaren, the FA brought in Fabio Capello, a man of experience and stature in the game. Yet, like so many England managers before him, he failed the ultimate test - tournament football at the highest level. He did so through a  combination of factors, some for which he bears responsibility, some for which he is blameless. He can hardly be blamed for the poor performance of certain players, particularly Rooney. But he can be blamed for continuing to select them when they don't perform. Heskey? Wright-Phillips? Rooney himself? He made the big call not to take Walcott but then kept selecting others who were playing no better. Sometimes those stars just assume they are automatic choices. Rooney was hopeless. He should have been dropped. It might have done him good - both physically and psychologically.

And then there is the matter of tactics and formations. Capello is a proud and headstrong man and a martinet we are told. These were seen as strengths after the McLaren and Eriksson regimes. They don't look like that today. The 4-4-2 formation is outdated and inflexible, yet Capello stuck to it rigidly and obstinately, forcing players out of position to accommodate his preferences and prejudices and, one suspects, his pride. We had the age old conundrum of whether Lampard and Gerrard can play together. Clearly they can't. So here's a radical thought, why not drop one of them if a formation can't be found to accommodate both? At club level managers select players to fit his tactical demands, yet all too often at international level managers try to shoe horn all of the best players available to him regardless of whether they are a proper fit. Kevin Keegan resigned from the manager's job because, he said, he wasn't up to the tactical demands of the international arena. But how is Capello any better? What is the FA paying its £6 million a year for?

We have tried foreign coaches for England and they have failed. In time we may learn that what the team needed yesterday at half time was a rousing team talk or maybe a Ferguson style hairdryer treatment. Instead we have a coach who barely speaks English. How can be rouse his players if he lacks the vocabulary?

Change is clearly needed and it should start at the top. Capello has to go and, unless Guus Hiddink or Jose Mourinho suddenly become available, he should be replaced by an English coach. But whoever gets the job must be given the tools to do that job, that means starting afresh, building a team and being given the time to do so. Many of the players who failed yesterday will not play in the next World Cup so it's time to retire them. Build a new team, a new squad of players. Instead of meaningless friendlies, why not just have training sessions sometimes and team bonding sessions? Implement a mid-season break and don't fill it with internationals. Let them go on holiday. Do something radical and stop the top teams, those competing in Europe, from competing in the League Cup. Set a maximum number of games that players can play, including internationals. Have part of the an international players salary paid by the FA like central cricket contracts so that the national side has a stake and a say in the career and development of our best players.

We have this debate after every failure and yet nothing changes. As audiences for even these lousy performances showed this last week, the England team is a uniting force. Think about the feel good factor they would produce if they were any good.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Honesty on Afghanistan

The consensus, such as it is, seems to be changing over Afghanistan. In this our supposed leaders are just catching up with public opinion. Back in the days after 9/11 it was possible to buy the notion that we needed to go into Afghanistan to kick out the Taliban and put an end to the terror training camps. That was quickly accomplished. Nothing has been seen of Bin Laden ever since. So what are we still doing there? We seem to keep fighting the same war over and over again. It's like fighting the tide.

The stated aim, apart from supposedly protecting ourselves back home from state sponsored terrorism, is to build a viable state in this awful, backward, medieval country. Liam Fox was surely right when he called it 13th century, except of course that they have access to modern weapons. Can we possibly build a viable state? Can we do it in the kind of time frame politicians regard as acceptable? Or are we going to have a surge, declare a victory and then get the hell out of there only to watch as what we have fought for and indeed paid for quickly disintegrates?

All of this seems obvious to those of us on the outside looking in. David Cameron went some way to acknowledging that we cannot stay there for much longer. He should go further. If that incurs the wrath of our supposed closest ally then so be it. He deserves a lesson in diplomacy and the consequences of his lack of any.

Afghanistan is an unwinnable war because we don't know what we are trying to achieve. The only achievements were made nearly ten years ago when we had a visible and obvious enemy. An insurgency is a different proposition altogther. Our leaders should just admit this and get out. If and when that country represents a real danger to us again perhaps the time will come to deploy our forces once more. In the meantime we are shedding blood and spending money for nothing.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A Little Light Reading

Just a quick reminder that you can now read my novel, Light and Truth, online. It's a story about the conflict between science and religion and about what happens when scientists play God - literally. Can they resist the temptation?

It's available to read on my new blog Light and Truth and will be serialised over the coming weeks. Today I'm publishing another three chapters for your edification, delectation and delight. Anyone wishing to pluck me from my undeserved obscurity please feel free to get in touch.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Diane D'oh!



What a prize prat Diane Abbott made of herself on This Week last night. Oh, and I should add that Andrew Neil is fast becoming the best political interviewer on British television.

If you didn't see the programme take a look at it. She is so hopelessly out of her depth. Diane of course is fond of reminding us that she increased her majority at the last election. I wonder if her constituents can demand a re-run. Anyway, all that this does is remind us that safe seats are the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs. Those doomed to live in them end up being represented by the likes of Diane and the risible Jack Dromey, aka Mr Harperson.

It is bad enough that Ms Abbott has been shown to be such a prize hypocrite on the issue of her son's schooling, and that her defence of her actions plays to her Hackney constituents, at the expense of making her look out of touch and borderline racist. But she then decided that she had nothing further to say on the subject. She just stonewalled. Will this be what she does on the inevitable occasion when someone catches her out not knowing the facts on some other subject during this leadership race? It promises to be endlessly entertaining.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Why Bow?

Why are the media fawning over a dowdy octogenarian lady's visit to Wimbledon? Why all the fuss because a few tennis players and supposed worthies are going to meet the Queen? Why does the fact that she has condescended to visit the place for the first time in 33 years mean that our media have to stop and gawp? Why make all of that fuss over whether or not people bow and curtsey?

This is the 21st century and yet still this country, and much of the world it would seem, are in thrall to the bizarre institution of the monarchy. In many ways though this is a commentary on our obsession with celebrity. The Queen is more or less the most famous woman on the planet. But shouldn't we ask ourselves why? Why are people so thrilled to see this woman who is only remarkable because she is so unremarkable. Yet she turns up to this place, which she clearly doesn't think very much of - she would much rather watch people riding horses than hitting balls over nets - and the whole place stops and applauds and remarks on how marvellous she is. Why? Or is this an example of that great sense of duty we are told about so often? She turns up once every 30 or so years, smiles, waves limp wristedly and indulges in nauseating small talk. if they're very lucky she gives a short anodyne speech delivered in upper class monotone. What a trooper!

It was equally sickening when the two nice but dim princes were in South Africa last week. Oh how we laughed when they were crapped on by a snake. How we smiled appreciatively when they posed with David Beckham with faux modesty and told of how they had cheered up the troops/team. Yet in a way this is quite appropriate. Our underachieving football team, notwithstanding yesterday's better efforts, look like a team of world beaters when next to these serial underachievers. It's actually a very clever move. Perhaps they should adopt Harry as a mascot. Have him stuffed and see if anyone notices the difference.

Quite why the stars of tennis are quite so impressed by our mediocre monarch is more of a mystery. The Williams sisters were born on the wrong side of the tracks, had no advantages in life and yet have become world beaters. The likes of Federer, Nadal and even Murray work hard, train hard and actually have talent, but must show it constantly in this ruthless and competitive world. Yet here they are asked to bow and scrape to a woman whose life is served up to her by a vast retinue of staff because of who her father was. I'm no fan of Andy Murray, but I think that he and the others, and even the England football team, are a great deal more admirable than these parasites.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

PMQs 23rd June 2010

No PMQs coverage this week I'm afraid as I am too busy preparing to suffer the England game. It takes a lot of concentration. Normal service will resume next week.

For the record I expect England to prevail as they always do after a precarious journey involving bitten fingernails, ponderous defending and moments of arse clenching anxiety. It's not a matter of life and death - that's PMQs of course. Football clearly is.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Bold Budget

Now that was an impressive Budget. George Osborne is not a particularly impressive speaker. His voice could do with being a semitone or more lower to give him the sort of gravitas required of his exalted position. But then he is only 39 years of age. Our Chancellor of the Exchequer is younger than the man currently in possession of the England goalkeeping jersey, assuming that Fabio doesn't change his mind again. So, in football parlance, the boy done good.

This was a Budget which set out to do exactly what we have been softened up for. It is getting the pain in early. The pain is there for all to see. But at the end of this parliament, always assuming the Lib Dems don't panic as they start feeling electoral pain in the middle, Osborne will have reduced Brown's structural deficit to zero. Indeed he may even be paying a little of it back. That is a worthy goal. It is one for which the country will ultimately be grateful, even if it takes a generation for them to admit it.

Labour are of course using their standard arguments. This is endangering the recovery they say. Yet the Office of Budget Responsibility, which they delight in quoting selectively and unironically given how selective they were about their own statistics in government, says that the Budget will cut growth a little but that growth will continue and indeed strengthen. When to cut is of course a judgement call. If we do have a double dip recession they will be able to say we told you so. But the fact is that this is most unlikely since our reduced borrowing will ensure that interest rates stay low. Osborne set out what it is to be hoped will be a real 'progressive' agenda, an agenda creating real sustainable and long term jobs. He was also brave in beginning to tackle the welfare problems Labour promised to address but in fact made worse. It is a nonsense that those on middle incomes receive tax credits. In time the aim should be to reward those in work by reducing their taxes, not taking it off them and then making them apply to get some back according to their circumstances.

Cutting now, as much of the rest of Europe is doing, is the responsible thing to do. But Barack Obama isn't says Labour. Well Barack seems content to  keep borrowing from China and mortgaging his country's future and exporting its jobs. He may regret that approach this November. Labour have not yet had the sense or honesty to accept that their borrowing was profligate and wrong.

Osborne, at the beginning of his speech, revealed how widely Gordon Brown had missed what were his golden rules. Someone should engrave those figures on a monument and erect it somewhere in Westminster, or maybe in Victoria outside Labour's HQ. The taxes we must now all pay are the consequence of Brown's flexible approach to fiddling the figures and ignoring his own rules. Remember that every time Labour figures quote the Office of Budgetary Responsibility.

It is of course regrettable that VAT has had to go up, although exactly how regressive it is as a tax is debatable. But this is one of those hard choices. Perhaps in one of those opinion polls which are sure to be conducted in the wake of today, the pollsters should ask whether people want the NHS to be cut or VAT to go up. That's essentially the choice. Schools and hospitals Labour used to repeat as their mantra whilst stealthily raising our taxes. At least the coalition has raised them clearly and openly. They would do well to ask Labour what they would cut instead?

Labour promised to cut the deficit less quickly, thus postponing the pain for later - pretending that the borrowing can somehow be magically erased with more Brownite sleight of hand. The current leadership candidates seem, in the absence of any new ideas, to be continuing this discredited approach to the management of the nation's finances. Today we saw the new reality. How long will it take Labour to catch up? 19 years?

The Osborne Agenda

Today is of course Budget Day. We're getting two this year thanks a) to the fact that Labour have made such a mess of the public finances b) that the Budget in April was really a party political broadcast in all but name and c) that we now have a government which is prepared to tell the truth about those finances since the nasty and unpredictable election is out of the way.

Much has been written about what George Osborne will subject us to over the last few days including this excellent piece by Fraser Nelson with which I agree completely.

The first Budget of a new administration sets the tone and is a statement of intent. Osborne has inherited a mess but also an historic opportunity. The various candidates for the Labour leadership, in their confused and confusing way, still seem wedded to ever higher public spending funded by ever higher taxes. One, Little Milly Minor, has even said that he believes that the 50% tax rate should be made permanent.

Now is the time for Osborne to set out an alternative view encompassing a smaller and more efficient state, lower taxes for all starting with the lowest paid, a less complex, fairer and more competive tax system. Yes, he should say, taxes will for now have to go up. We are going to get on with the business of sorting out the mess. By doing so, rather risking the recovery as Labour allege, he will ensure that we are all better able to enjoy it and reap its benefits.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Oh Dear, Dear Leader!

You can't help wondering how the 7 nil thrashing of North Korea has gone down in Pyongyang. I think we can safely say that this is a game that the people of this people's republic will remain ignorant about, unless of course they find a way to edit a win.

Given the unpredictable and unstable nature of the dear leader's regime, what will be their next move? Will they fire a few missiles into the sea to show their fury? Will they kidnap a few Ivory Coast citizens to ensure a more acceptable result in their next game? Will they threaten war or some other military response for this shameless example of capitalist imperialist arrogance?

If you lived in South Korea the temptation would be to send several thousand DVD copies of the game across the border to enlighten your northern cousins, except of course they probably don't know what DVDs are and even if they did the country's electricity generating capacity would be unable to cope.

Still, the DPRK as they insist they should be called, has certainly brought some colour to this World Cup. True to their communist beliefs they trained close to the people of South Africa in public gyms. Their small contingent of fans were dressed in uniform red to show the superiority of Korean fashion - perhaps these were costumes left over from one of those mass grinning rallies praising their way of life and the dear leader for giving it to them. And so busy toiling for the motherland are the people that they couldn't actually travel to see the football and so sent some Chinese fans instead. No doubt it is this dedication to hard labour which explains why few North Koreans will be able to watch the game. But you can't help wondering if their now eliminated team will be doing some special hard labour if they are silly enough to go home rather than defect.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Rachael: An Open Letter

Well my short term and hypcritical fixation with Big Brother is now over thanks to the eviction of the lovely Rachael. Thank god for that. And it's for the best for you too Rachael. Now you can get your pictures in a few papers and magazines which was surely the object of the exercise.

And there's nothing wrong with that if fame is what you want. At least you have the looks. Why are any of the others on the show? And what right have any of them to judge you for wanting to capitalise on your looks?

Another upside is that you are now away from that prize Australian dick, the arrogant John James. This is a man with a double barreled christian name for god's sake. Pretentious? Full of himself? I'd say so. He too is good looking and he is very well aware of it. His criticism of you, Rachael, was pure hypocrisy. And if you had ended up having a romance with him you would have regretted it. He is controlling and arrogant. I wouldn't be surprised if he's not above a bit of violence either.

Go get your picture taken and enjoy your freedom.

Woeful England

Only yesterday I wrote on this blog that the England performance in the first game was not as bad or disastrous as has widely been muttered and written ad nauseum this last week. It was mediocre, but then so were the performances of several other teams.

But I can't defend that sorry excuse of a performance last night. It was woeful. It lacked energy, creativity, imagination and enterprise. It was lacklustre, ponderous, inept and embarrassing. They couldn't even get the basics right. This is a team full of players earning £100,000 a week plus and yet they couldn't string a few passes together, their first touch was awful and they somehow contrived to make Algeria look good.

It has become fashionable to blame the ball for some of the woes of this tournament and it is notable that we still haven't seen a decent free kick in any of the 25 or so games. But that can't explain the inability of the England team to complete elementary passes, and it certainly doesn't explain the fact that they were strolling around as though they were playing in tropical heat and leading by six goals. On the many occasions that a pass didn't quite reach them they just shrugged their shoulders and allowed the opposition to get the ball instead of chasing and harrying and throwing themselves at it.

And what exactly are the FA paying Fabio Capello his millions for? England, the inventors of the beautiful game, have now recruited two foreign managers, allegedly for their tactical acumen. Yet Mr Capello sticks rigidly to a 4-4-2 formation which is hopelessly out of date and used by very few teams in the Premier League where all of these players ply their trade. Furthermore, in order to use this formation, he has to play Steven Gerrard out of position. Gerrard is one of our genuinely world class players. For Liverpool he has formed a superb partnership with a world class striker. So why isn't this formation used for England? Because he prefers to use Emile Heskey alongside Rooney. Heskey is a lovely chap, the quintessential gentle giant. But why in god's name is he in the England squad let alone the team? He is a striker who rarely scores and yet he is preferred up front to the likes of Defoe, Crouch and indeed Gerrard, all of whom have better claims to play alongside one of other world class players Wayne Rooney.  Granted Heskey had a relatively good game in the first game because he held the ball up and set up Gerrard's goal. But he also missed a sitter. And is holding up the ball well all the qualification one needs to be an England striker? Isn't this supposed to be the golden generation of players? Aren't we entitled to expect a little more?

Now England go into the last game of the group stages and on a knife edge as usual. Perhaps this is the only way they can stir themselves to perform. Perhaps our highly paid manager cannot inspire them to a performance except when they are staring down the barrel of elimination and despair. We will know if this is the case this Wednesday afternoon. But if it does turn out to be the case we will know that once again the FA have appointed a dud for a manager, a man who is stuck in his ways and, though a strict disciplinarian, does not have the man management skills to motivate and guide these multi-millionaires to play for their country. The only consolation is that several other managers seem to be having similar problems.

Friday, 18 June 2010

It's Wide Open

You know, whisper it quietly, but this World Cup is wide open. England could even win it. No, really!

We English go through the same ritual in each and every tournament. We talk up our chances in advance and then became doom laden and depressed when we fail to play Ole football and give everyone the sound thrashing they deserve.

But the fact is that all of the major teams have disappointed to some extent. Some have even lost. Even the Germans, whose performance was the best of the first round of games, have now lost. They even missed a penalty. That hasn't happened since 1982.

And England's performance against the USA was actually not that bad. But for a terrible error we would have won, albeit in an unconvincing way. There were also signs that we can do better. If Fabio now changes goalkeeper, stops playing our best players out of position (who do managers keep doing that?) and our players actually perform as we know they can, there is no reason why England can't take this tournament by the scruff of the neck. After all South Africans will probably start supporting us once they are eliminated and the weather is in our favour.

I know I have predicted Spain will win it and I stand by that prediction. But England could do it. If Spain can be defeated by good organisation and a bit of luck then anything can happen. The bandwagon may start rolling tonight.

Big Brother - Paul Loves Racheal

Okay, I admit it, I have been watching Big Brother this week. It's still intensely irritating and in doing so I hate myself and find myself muttering and frequently either changing channels or muting the sound. But I've been doing it nevertheless.

Why? It's the beeeeeautiful Racheal. She has me hooked. And I have been watching in  amazement as that arrogant Australian prat has been bullying her. What the hell is going on there? What's his problem? And why aren't more people telling him to back off? I would go in there myself and subject myself to the inanity and stupidity just to stand up for the girl. It's my chivalrous side.

Anyway if she's voted out tonight I won't have to anymore. She would be better off out of there for both of our sakes. Not only will it mean she doesn't have to take his crap anymore it will also mean that I don't have to watch it anymore.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Book Factor

Just a quick reminder that you can now read my novel, Light and Truth, online. It's available on my new blog here.


Charles Dickens originally published what became his novels initially by serialising them in magazines. They were the soap operas of their day. The internet now allows us to do the same. With the publishing industry facing so much uncertainty and new technology such as the iPad and various other book reading devices threatening to do to the printed book what the net is doing to newspapers, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr Murdoch, this could be the future of the book. Getting published has never been harder. Getting people to even read manuscripts is immensely difficult. This could well be the future.

So please take a look and feel free to let me know what you think. Tell your friends. Think of it as X Factor for books. Maybe I'll set up a phone vote to earn myself a quid or two. Maybe I'll even set myself up as the Simon Cowell of novels. I can be rude about people without a second thought. I've always seen myself as a trend setter.

The People's Football Team

You have to love the fact don't you that North Korea not only cannot afford training facilities for the footballing representatives of this communist paradise, but apparently none of its citizens could afford to go there and cheer for them. It was either that or the dear leader didn't trust any of his brainwashed citizens to go to a foreign country, see what was on offer and not go back and ask a few awkward questions, or perhaps elect not to come back at all. And this is South Africa, a country in which there is huge poverty and inequality. Yet that is nothing to the kind of inequality people suffer in North Korea if you happen to come from the wrong family or to voice dissent.

The manager of the team became angry when his beloved country was referred to as North Korea. They do not recognise the south. How I would have loved to have been there when he said that. Did someone point out that they recognise South Korean warships when they torpedo them? Did anyone think to point out that they are happy to recognise their southern neighbours when they are sending food and other aid?

It's an irony isn't it that this World Cup is taking place in a country which was also once divided and torn apart by another kind of division. The world, and in particular the sporting world, vetoed its inclusion in sporting and other cultural activities as a consequence and eventually the apartheid state fell. Yet North Korea makes it threats - earlier this week it threatened military action if the UN criticised it - blusters and shouts and still we invite it to talks, send aid and allow its teams to compete in sporting events while its people starve and while it blows ships out of the water. One can't help wondering why.

 I know Kim Jong Il is a clown but he is a dangerous clown who has brought misery to his people and endangers the entire region. His football team may be plucky and well organised, but no doubt the match highlights have been edited to show them as footballing geniuses and proof positive that communism is superior when guided by the dear leader. Why on earth do we even allow them to compete?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Big Brother

Unable to sleep the last couple of nights during the small hours, I have been channel hopping and ended up watching bits of Big Brother. I know!

It's just as inane as ever and full of desperate, witless, irritating, ill-educated, inarticulate, uninspiring, talentless, pathetic wannabes. It still has the narrator with the broad Geordie accent and the peculiar delivery which makes him sound as though he has recently been lobotomised.

Yet I found myself watching it like a moth to the flame. Why? Well, that's the clever bit. It's good looking girls. As I switched over one of them, Shabby I believe her name is, and a lesbian as it turns out - not that any self respecting man would let this get in the way - was talking about going to bed and sleeping naked. Thus I watched in the hope of getting a peek. There was also a really rather gorgeous Beyonce lookalike called Rachael. I just kept watching. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. I am a slave to my hormones. I can feel myself getting stupider by the minute whilst watching this crap, and yet a glimpse of flesh, the sight of a beautiful girl, holds me in thrall. Hell, I would consider going in there myself and entering what is my idea of hell in order to meet the lovely Rachael.
Actually if the producers had any sense they would put someone like me in there. I and people like me would be torn between the desire to meet a babe and disgust with myself for being such a hypocrite. I would be unable to adhere to their stupid rules. Their various tasks and games would make me rebel. The nation would hate me. I would actually be okay with that if meant be hanging on to a scinitilla of self respect. That alone would distinguish me from all of the other sheep in there. They actually had someone in there the other day dressed as a mole and trashing the place. They have to share a bedroom and indeed beds with complete strangers, one of whom snores like a blocked drain. Why? Why don't the idiots just say no? Are they really that desperate to stay in there and have this peculiar form of devalued fame? Would my attitude to this idiocy really be so alien to them? Do they have a functioning brain cell amongst them or have they been brainwashed by the thought of tabloid fame? I suppose the sort of people who apply for the show are pre-disposed to adhere to its rules and inanity. But it would almost certainly make for better television if someone rebelled and told them to take a hike.

The fact that there are people willing to undergo this humiliation and millions are all too willing to watch them is why the show has been such a phenomenon. My only excuse is insomnia and libido. And at least I feel ashamed of myself.

Spain to Win It

I haven't yet given my tip for who is going to win the World Cup. This is because I was waiting until they played. Yes this blog is tipping Spain to be World Champions. Everyone else from those rated as hopefuls, with the exception of the Germans, has had a lukewarm start. I expect Spain to start as they will go on.

PMQs 16th June 2010

Remember when David Cameron first became leader of his party and promised an end to punch and judy politics? Well the new politics of the coalition era seems to be destined to a similar fate.

The old style PMQs is slowly coming back. It's not there yet and this new parliament will definitely have a character all of its own - not least as Lib Dem and Tory backbenchers assert their independence - no bad thing surely. But the ding dong battles between PM and Opposition leader will be back. I'm rather glad.

This was one of those ding dong battles (well nearly) which revealed nothing at all and wasn't really meant to. It's all about positioning for the cuts to come. Both parties (or should that be all three?) are spinning furiously and trying to gain an advantage. The Tories are spinning the line (as they must) that the cuts are all Labour's fault and things are much worse than they imagined. The first accusation is true and the second untrue. Labour on the other hand are trying to pretend that they left everything hunk dory and that their cuts wouldn't be anything like as painful. Neither of these assertions stand much analysis, particularly as Labour adopted the Brown approach of refusing to enumerate those cuts.

Hattie shouldn't do economics. She's not very good at it. She stuck rigidly to her script and kept making the same vapid accusations. It was a repeat of her performance last week when she tried to claim that the new government was introducing electoral reform which was unfair and in danger of disenfranchising millions.

Labour seem intent, at least for the moment, on sticking to the same sort of strategy set out by Gordon Brown - spotted today in a Scottish school but still staying away from parliament, perhaps we should dock his pay to save public money. The potential leaders are struggling to come up with new things to say on public spending and cuts. Even when they try to distance themselves from their government's record they are struggling to do so from its toxic economic legacy. That may be what taints the party much as the chaotic ERM exit tainted the Tories.

But that was what Harman shamelessly tried to do today. She welcomes the introduction of the new Office for Budget Responsibility even though it has rubbished the figures Alistair Darling produced only two months ago. She cherry picks the parts she likes and ignores others. Yes the deficit is slightly better than feared, but the structural deficit is worse and the growth assumptions were in fantasy land. Labour know that the coalition will try to pin the blame on them for the pain to come and are determined to resist. They will need a better performance than this to pull that Houdiniesque feat off.

PS

On a lighter note there was an intervention from an early runner for the new parliaments most fanciable new MP. Step forward Luciana Berger. Those of us bemoaning the defeat of Julia Goldsworthy are feeling much happier.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Gerrard.....Drives a Hyundai

Why is ITV showing the next England game on Friday rather than the BBC? I thought they usually take it in turns. We all know that most people prefer to watch football on the BBC, notwithstanding the commercial channel's recruitment of Adrian normal bloke Chiles. And this was the case even before ITV developed their recent habit of showing adverts instead of important goals. I know ITV needs the dosh but that seems a bit excessive. Or is this an attempt to force FIFA to allow ad breaks during games? They tried this during Formula One racing but the cars kept going and viewers just had to wonder what was happening while they tried to sell us cars and beer. Now when they cut to a Hyundai advert we can be pretty sure that England have just scored a goal. It's hard enough watching England at the best of times without the tv companies adding to the stress.

But now the next game is on ITV too? What is the BBC doing? We can be pretty sure they won't try to flog us a Hyundai as Gerrard skips into the penalty area because they usually only try to persuade us to watch their own programmes. Then again anyone who saw the recent trailer for Lee Nelson's Well Good Show would probably conclude that missing Stevie Gerrard's sublime finish was marginally less irritating.

Blowing Their Own Horns

Why is everyone complaining about the Vuvuzelas? Are they irritating? Well yes, a little. But ban them? Absolutely not. What's the point of having sporting tournaments go to different parts of the world and then trying to homogenise them so that they are all the same? The same people who are wittering on about diversity and the wonderful vibrancy and enthusiasm of this World Cup are now complaining about a bit of noise.

And anyway all of this is what John Motson used to call a talking point. They are even getting the Americans talking about soccer/football and a World Cup which involves more than the fifty states plus Japan. An ABC reporter last night was out doing a piece on these portable fog horns and asked a passing England supporter why he was wearing ear plugs. 'Cos of the ****ing noise innit,' said our roving ambassador. It makes you proud.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Book Factor

Just a quick reminder that you can now read my novel, Light and Truth, online. It's available on my new blog here.

Charles Dickens originally published what became his novels initially by serialising them in magazines. They were the soap operas of their day. The internet now allows us to do the same. With the publishing industry facing so much uncertainty and new technology such as the iPad and various other book reading devices threatening to do to the printed book what the net is doing to newspapers, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr Murdoch, this could be the future of the book. Getting published has never been harder. Getting people to even read manuscripts is immensely difficult. This could well be the future.

So please take a look and feel free to let me know what you think. Tell your friends. Think of it as X Factor for books. Maybe I'll set up a phone vote to earn myself a quid or two. Maybe I'll even set myself up as the Simon Cowell of novels. I can be rude about people without a second thought. I've always seen myself as a trend setter.

The Trampoline Loses a Spring

Speaking of balls (see above post) the new Office for Budget Responsibility has, not surprisingly, downgraded our growth figures. The trampoline recovery invented by the last government to make its own incompetence look slightly less embarrassing has lost its bounce. The economy is still remarkably fragile thanks to the economic crisis. The new government ought to take a look at those banks again and get money flowing. With Europe struggling and cutting back on government spending, even today's lower and independent forecasts may well be too optimistic.

All in all it makes one wonder what Labour would have done had they somehow contrived to win. How would they have gone about ensuring that recovery? How would they then have dealt with the run on the pound?

 

Balls

Ed Balls, living up to his name as usual, is arguing today in the Telegraph, that Labour lost the election because they refused to rule out an increase in VAT. It's classic Balls. Actually it's classic Balls and balls. He learnt from the master, the man currently playing Macavity somewhere in Scotland whilst drawing a salary and accruing a pension on the public purse.

Actually, Mr Balls, the reason that Labour lost the election is precisely because you and your party were serially dishonest about issues such as VAT. It is of course possible to rule out an increase in VAT and some would argue that it is desirable and indeed 'progressive' to do so. But the money has to come from somewhere. Labour lost the election because they tried to pretend otherwise and spent 13 years raising taxes, albeit not VAT, whilst claiming the opposite. Raising National Insurance rather than the headline rate of income tax was a classic ruse. It was also classic Balls and of course balls.

The country became accustomed to double counting and double speak. It is why in the end nobody believed a word that Labour and Balls's mentor said. The line over VAT was actually a rare example of Labour being almost honest at someone else's - Alistair Darling's - insistence. It's why Macavity wanted someone else as Chancellor.

That Balls objects to this honesty and regards it as so toxic tells us all we need to know about what kind of leader he would make. It's one remarkably similar to the one rejected just over a month ago, and with a similar amount of charisma and integrity.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Chapter Three

I am publishing my novel, Light and Truth, on a new blog. Dickens used to publish his novels first in weekly serialisations. They were the soap operas of their day. Now we can do the same thanks to the internet.


You can find my new blog here. A new chapter will appear once a week. This week however, as a special introduction, I am publishing the first three chapters on my new blog and here on my old reliable one.

Please feel free to get in touch with comments via the usual channels. And of course if anyone wishes to publish it anywhere in the world in a more conventional way, or indeed turn it into a film then get in touch too. You can e-mail via the link at the top or give me a call on +447947 735173.

It was a modern building in as much as it had been built recently and modern techniques and materials had been used in its construction, albeit grudgingly at times. Its design however, though certain modern considerations had necessarily intruded, was determinedly old fashioned. Elsewhere in the world, buildings were being built which sought to compensate for the changes wrought by nature. They were built to maximise what little light there was, to insulate those inside from the cold outside, they were adapting and changing according to the exigencies of the new climate.

Here such adaptations would have been considered anathema. God, in his wisdom, had seen fit to visit a great punishment on the world. It was for man to suffer that punishment not to seek through technology and design to ameliorate it. Thus the buildings were traditional, even antediluvian, the church especially so.

There was a tower at the top located, of course, in its traditional place. In there, swinging to and fro was the single large bell, tolling incessantly and calling to the populace. It was nagging and insistent and hard to ignore. But then people never ignored it, although this was not a testimony to its resonant qualities. People knew what it meant and they came. They always came and usually very promptly.

They began to arrive in ones and twos and sometimes whole families dressed up in their finery. They milled around without quite knowing what to say or do, except for the younger children who ran around, cried, kicked small stones on the ground and generally behaved like small children do. They were nevertheless admonished for doing so. The boys fiddled with their stiff and constricting collars, the girls fiddled with the hems of their pretty best dresses and wondered what was going on.

If truth were told, the adults did much the same, or a variation on the same theme, but were better at hiding it.

Enquiring glances were exchanged between neighbours and friends. No-one dared ask the question outright but were desperate for any information they could glean. There were suspicions of course and there had been gossip and innuendo, but nothing concrete. At such times nerves are raw and paranoia is rife. In this little town, in this country and at this time those natural reactions were multiplied tenfold.

It only took a few minutes, for almost the entire town to gather and stand nervously in front of the church. Stragglers broke into a trot when they saw the crowd in the distance. These days it didn’t do to be late or early. These days it was best to take the safest option and be on time. Being on time was the right and Christian thing to do and was the best way of blending into the crowd.

The suspicion was that they had been summoned to a Condemnation. Only a Condemnation could be shrouded in this much secrecy and excite this much nervous anticipation. Now it wasn’t just the children who were nervously fingering their collars.

The big heavy doors to the church swung slowly and ponderously open and the crowd turned and watched. The men who had opened the doors as usual stayed out of sight. It had been explained to them that the doors should appear to open on their own for the better glory of the Lord. The doors swung open to admit his children into his house. It was symbolic and beautiful. It was silent and meaningful. It didn’t need men cluttering up the lines of sight to the simple wooden altar and the low pews before it awaiting the penitent.

There was a momentary pause once the doors had opened to their full extent, just a couple of beats whilst people waited for someone to make the first move. Inevitably it would be whoever was nearest who started the slow, nervous walk to the doors and so there had been a kind of genteel jostling amongst the crowd, people milling about so as to get away from those dreaded doors. This was often disguised as socialising or catching hold of errant children but the object was always the same, to get away from those dreaded doors before they opened. Once they were open it was as though the Lord himself was watching. Once they were open it was best to look keen to enter.

The procession started. The occasion was solemn and so there was no talking. Or at least they assumed it was solemn. Solemnity seemed the best and safest approach in the absence of further information.

They filed in to the gloomy darkness of the church. It was as though it had been designed to appear this way, although anything so indulgent as design was frowned upon for the most part. The altar was well illuminated, or at least as well illuminated as was achievable with candles. But the rest of the church relied on the windows and what little natural light they allowed in. There was precious little natural light anyway but what little there was found it difficult to make its way in here.

Not that this seemed to affect the Preacher. He still seemed to see everything despite the will sapping gloominess of his place of work. He was famously reluctant to buy candles.

The Preacher was up in the pulpit gazing down on them all, a look of fiery indignation in his eyes. Maybe it was that fire which he used to illuminate what the modern recalcitrant sun would not reach.

He looked especially fiery today. This confirmed what many had suspected. The Preacher’s demeanour was always close to indignant, but only when he had summoned them to a Condemnation did it rise to its full frowning fury. His congregation looked at the floor as they shuffled sideways into the pews, crossing themselves as they took their seats.

He stared at each of them in turn, just for a second and without saying a word. They looked back fixedly, trying not to gulp, trying not to clench their jaws or allow any muscle to twitch. Was this a Condemnation? Or was this just the Preacher fishing, fishing for sinners, fishing for guilty little secrets or peccadilloes? It kept people on their toes.

The scan complete and the congregation now assembled, the Preacher took an almighty gulp of air which he expelled in a slow and weighty sigh of despair and disappointment. He stared up to the skies as if seeking inspiration before slowly bringing his gaze back down to the potential sinners before him.

‘Brothers and sisters,’ he cried out sententiously.

There was a nearly but not quite silent gulp in a hundred throats as they recognised what was coming.

The Preacher’s knuckles turned white as he clutched the edge of the pulpit and waited for his particular brand of righteous indignation to build. He was known far and wide for his righteous indignation. It was a purple faced, wild haired ranting kind of indignation of which the Lord himself would be proud. This was biblical indignation and there was no better recommendation.

‘We have amongst us a sinner and a sinner of the most abominable kind,’ he cried out sonorously. ‘In these dark days when mankind is trying desperately to make amends for our sins, to repair the damage we have done to our Lord’s creation, we have amongst us someone who cannot cast off his sinful ways. Or maybe it is that he will not. His depravity is in danger of bringing us all into disrepute with the Lord. We’ve already had a taste of what Armageddon will be like, a warning from the Lord to stop raping the Earth he gave us. One amongst is determined to do as he will with this bountiful but delicate Earth, meddling in his dark arts and experimenting with things that the Lord himself has decreed are off limits. Note that this disciple of Satan himself is not here with us now. He has failed to answer the toll of the bell of righteousness.’

‘Oh I’m here,’ a voice called out at the back and stepped in through the doors. Behind him the horse and cart stood outside the church where he had left them.

The Preacher glared at him. He was not a man accustomed to being interrupted. ‘Come to atone for your sins?’ he shouted angrily. ‘It may be too late for you now.’

The man smiled a smile that was in its way every bit as intense as the Preacher’s glare. ‘I thought it was never too late to atone for sins? I thought it was never too late to repent and place one’s faith in your Lord?’

‘Did you hear that?’ the Preacher shouted exultantly. ‘He’s your Lord too Ezra, even though you seem determined to forsake him.’

‘You cannot forsake something you never embraced in the first place. And my name isn’t Ezra.’

The Preacher’s eyes bulged. ‘You dare to say these things in this house of God?’ he said with a new apoplectic fury. ‘The Lord’s punishments were not enough for you?’

Now it was the turn of the man who was not Ezra to be angry, although his anger was of the quieter variety. ‘The Lord’s punishments?’ he said staring up at the Preacher. ‘Are you sure about that? Take a look around you,’ he continued, waving a hand at the watching congregation, ‘even someone as blind and partial as you cannot have failed to notice the scars and burns and the death rate amongst some of your flock. Those are radiation burns. The cancer rate here and all around is higher than anywhere else in the world. I’ve asked some questions. Apparently this town took in a large number of new people a few years ago, just after the super volcano erupted. Now I’m no volcanologist, but I do know that the hot rock and gas emitted is definitely not radioactive. So what happened? Whatever it was happened at the same time as the super volcano. Do you know? Somebody knows because they sent people here, far away from the site of what happened people who are too scared to talk and tell me what they know and who have been dying prematurely ever since. But I’ve put the puzzle together you can be damned sure. I’ve made sense of what evidence I can glean even here in the back of beyond. Whatever happened was man made and nothing to do with your imaginary friend.’

‘It was caused by your scientific friends meddling in their dark arts.’

‘I thought you said it was caused by God? God with his finger on the nuclear trigger perhaps?’

The Preacher ignored this. ‘Those scientists playing with their particle accelerators and searching for the answers when nobody had asked the questions. They brought about Armageddon. They nearly destroyed us all.’

The man known as Ezra shook his head and laughed as he walked down the aisle towards the red faced Preacher. ‘No they didn’t. That is a convenient fiction put about by people who don’t understand. The particle accelerator had a minor malfunction just before the volcano erupted. Oh it’s all very convenient for the likes of you. But that happened in Europe, thousands of miles away. These people have radiation burns from much closer to home. There’s still radiation in the air now, even this far away. When the wind blows in from the north you are all right in the firing line. It’s interfering with everything. It’s slowly killing all of you.’

The Preacher had turned red now. ‘This is nonsense,’ he shouted furiously. ‘We all know what happened. We know about that infernal machine built to smash atoms. It smashed our world. It produced a black hole which sucked the hot molten rock from beneath the ground and blotted out the sky for us all. This is the Lord’s punishment. This is the penance we must all undertake to cleanse ourselves in the eyes of the Lord. And how do you know so much about all of this Ezra? You talk about people coming to live here. Where did you come from? What is that alien accent of yours? What do you know about all of this? How do you know so much about that machine and their dalliance with the devil himself?’

The man who wasn’t Ezra smiled and shook his head. ‘I came from a place where knowledge and learning are encouraged. Where the truth is accepted and embraced, however unpalatable. I read the reports about what happened. I read about the particle accelerator. I also read about the super volcano. These were two separate events which just happened to occur within a few days of each other. One was a minor equipment failure which caused a small amount of damage and resulted in no injuries whatsoever. The other was a long expected and predicted gigantic volcanic eruption which had happened before but in a time you don’t believe existed because you believe that the world isn’t old enough.’

‘I tell you now Ezra, repent your sins. It is not too late even now to repent, call for the Lord’s forgiveness.’

‘I told you, my name isn’t Ezra. It’s James. And I thought you said it was too late for me?’

‘The Lord forgives, the Lord always forgives those who truly and humbly follow his path .’

‘And if we don’t he fries us in a volcano? I thought he didn’t do that any more? Isn’t that what you tell us?’

‘The Lord had to punish us when we wouldn’t follow the right path. He had to force us onto the right path, this new and simpler life; the life as set out in the good book.’

James laughed. ‘But he’s supposed to be omniscient, all knowing. Surely we were set on this path by your god himself. So he knew we were going to do what we did, allowed us to do it and punished us for choosing a path he designed for us. That’s right isn’t it?’

The Preacher looked around at his congregation who were becoming restive and sitting forward in their seats curiously. ‘The Lord saw what was happening to the planet, what science and technology were doing; the pollution, the extinction of species, the plundering of resources, the biological tinkering, the abortions and experiments on foetuses, the global warming. He saw all of this and he caused a huge super volcanic eruption which cooled the Earth and repaired the damage and gave a warning to mankind to take greater care of the home he created for us.’

‘So it was caused by your god? Not by the scientists?’

‘The scientists brought it upon themselves with their meddling.’

‘Then why didn’t he punish the scientists? Why kill millions of innocent people and decimate that delicate planet you were just telling us about?’

‘The Lord visited a great Old Testament punishment on us. It was an instruction to us to reject our modern ways, to live simply. He went back to the Old Testament way of doing things as an instruction to us to do the same thing.’

James had now walked down the end of the aisle and was standing right in front of the Preacher, albeit on a different level, staring up at him angrily. ‘And how do you reach this conclusion? Based on what?’

The contempt was reciprocated by the furious Preacher. ‘Based on divine revelation. The Lord has spoken to me and others and has revealed his truth and it is our duty to pass on his word. We are vessels of the Lord. The Lord speaks through us his divinely revealed truth and it is incumbent upon us, his chosen ambassadors to tell everyone we meet, to give them the chance of redemption. I give that to you now Ezra. I give you the Lord’s word just as I gave you your true biblical name and I beseech you to heed it and accede to it and throw yourself upon the mercy of the Lord.’

‘The mercy of the lord who decided to fry millions of people in a volcano because he disapproved of what some scientists thousands of miles away were doing? That doesn’t sound very merciful to me.’

The Preacher stared at him and his face turned redder. ‘This is the word of the Lord your God, Ezra. This is his house. You dare to speak this way? Are you intent on bringing down the wrath of God upon you?’

James shook his head and then turned around to address the congregation at whom he knew this speech had largely been addressed. He could see that it had achieved what it had set out to do and he shook his head some more. He felt the anger and resentment and frustration building in him as he looked upon that sea of credulous faces.

The anger was reaching a new pitch now so that he was suddenly considering a course of action that seconds ago would never have occurred to him. Already he had said more than he had intended to say. He had come here with the sole intention of letting the Preacher see him defying the call to attend the church, not to go in and begin a stand up argument. It was the energy within him doing it. Now, couple to his righteous anger he felt bold, courageous and utterly confident.

James pursed and then licked his lips in thought for a moment. He knew what he was going to do but he couldn’t quite believe it. It was as though he was watching himself in a dream, silently exalting at the wonderful audacity of it all whilst at the same time wondering if this was really him doing it.

He smiled to himself and then, with a glance at the watching congregation, walked around and climbed the six steps to the pulpit. The Preacher watched him in disbelief as he took the short walk and turned to watch James climb towards him.

James reached the top step and their eyes met. Suddenly it was as if the fire that had been blazing within the Preacher had been extinguished with a torrent of water. He went pale and his knees seemed to buckle under him as James stared at him, steadfast and unblinking.

He took a further step and was in the circle of the pulpit. The Preacher, almost unconsciously had moved aside for him. James took a further step to the front of the pulpit and looked down on the congregation who gasped at the sight of him there, despite the fact that they had watched him all of the way.

This gasp seemed at last to rouse the Preacher from whatever trance he had been in. ‘How dare….,’ he began.

Slowly, without saying a word, James turned and stared at him again. The Preacher went ashen now and backed away and then a little further until he reached the top of the steps. Now he stumbled backwards down the steps, his hands scrabbling desperately for the rail to arrest his fall but to no avail. He tumbled down and landed with a thump on the floor behind the pulpit where, after a few seconds, he managed to pick himself up and sat on a low bench facing the congregation but now on their level.

James turned back to look at the congregation and, tearing their eyes away from the strangely subdued and extremely confused Preacher, they stared back as if mesmerised. ‘This man,’ James said quietly, pointing at the Preacher. ‘This man who claims to speak for the lord in this house of the lord is nothing, he is a charlatan and a sciolist. People like him are trying to drive humanity back to the dark ages, back to a time of ignorance, superstition and bigotry based on your fears of the unknown. They want to make humanity regress to a time of fear and authoritarianism and guess who would be in charge? He’s setting himself up as your feudal lord based on nothing more substantial that a feeling and a prejudice. He points to events that were cataclysmic and terrible it is true. But these are events which can be explained without recourse to the supernatural. They are events which have happened throughout Earth’s history. Indeed there is mounting evidence that this man who stands before you is a representative of a state that knows a great deal more about what caused that super volcano than it is letting on. But I do not yet have full evidence for this and so, unlike your preacher, I shall not make claims I cannot prove.’

James looked around at the faces looking up at him. ‘Humans are at their best when we question and investigate, not when we blindly follow and obey strictures which make no sense. Don’t take my word for what happened either. Find out for yourselves. Take a look around you, at your fellow townsfolk suffering. Why? What caused it? In other parts of the world they know that the super volcano erupted and caused the terrible events we all know about. But then they are not allowed to come here, to the country where that event took place. Why? What does your New Christian Republic government have to hide? Why are they trying so hard to blame it on a machine 6000 miles away?

‘But whatever happened, whoever is to blame these events are not unprecedented. Natural disasters have happened before and will happen again. These are events that can be recovered from. This is not the time to take recourse in backward medieval thinking, to abandon all that we have learnt and discovered and invented. This is a time to embrace our innate inventiveness and genius for innovation and resourcefulness. Humans are at their best when we face adversity head on, not abandon all hope to ignorance, subservience and idolatry. Humans are at their best when we group together, help each other, foster a real community spirit. Don’t take things at face value. Find your own truth. Don’t let others tell you what the truth is and dictate how you should lead your lives based on lies.’

He stood now and surveyed them all, staring into individual eyes until they felt the need to look away. They couldn’t look away for long though, once they felt that his gaze had moved on they felt compelled to look again at those eyes and the grave disapproving countenance.

‘And finally,’ he said, after a suitable pause, ‘I have news for you. The skies are going to clear very soon and there will soon be a new light in the sky, a bright shining star. I am telling you this now. I am forewarning you of this event. When it happens charlatans like him,’ he pointed at the Preacher, ‘will seek to make great play of this event. They will make great claims that this is a message from god, an ominous warning to do something. He will tell you what you must do to appease and propitiate his god, this god he claims is merciful and forgiving. Yet I am telling you of this in advance. Think on that my friends. Think on all that I have said.’

Finally he took a deep breath and turned on his heel, past the cowering Preacher and then down the aisle and out of the church. He strode purposefully, looking straight ahead and without once looking back.

The congregation turned their heads and watched him leave, those who could see all of the way out of the church watched him mount the cart and trot off and away from them.

Later that day they heard that he had left the town, seemingly for good.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Good Luck England - Well Done South Africa

Good luck to England in their first World Cup match today. Like many I shall be watching full of hope but probably with a knot in my stomach.

And congratulations to South Africa and its people for staging what promises to be a memorable and spectacular tournament. I admit I had my doubts about their ability to stage this event. It would seem that I was wrong. Not only have they pulled it off technically they are bringing a new sense of excitement, enthusiasm and vibrancy one would struggle to achieve anywhere else in the world, despite our greater experience and better infrastructure.

It is of course appropriate that England are meeting the USA today when that nation is engaged in a bit of British bashing. Beating them at what they insist on calling Soccer will feel sweet. So don't let us down boys. Let's show them what you have to do to win a tournament that actually deserves to have World in the title.

Chapter Two

I am publishing my novel, Light and Truth, on a new blog. Dickens used to publish his novels first in weekly serialisations. They were the soap operas of their day. Now we can do the same thanks to the internet. 

You can find my new blog here. A new chapter will appear once a week. This week however, as a special introduction, I am publishing the first three chapters on my new blog and here on my old reliable one.

Please feel free to get in touch with comments via the usual channels. And of course if anyone wishes to publish it anywhere in the world in a more conventional way, or indeed turn it into a film then get in touch too. You can e-mail via the link at the top or give me a call on +447947 735173.


It was the other side of the world. Here, nearer the equator the climate was very different. The political climate was different too and that was also a consequence of geography.


The wind blew gently from the north east and rustled through what remained of the leaves on the trees, dislodging a few and sending them on their slow dance to the ground. But here the ground was not covered in a thick layer of snow. There was a slight chill in the air for certain, the days here were nothing like as hot as they had been before the day of reckoning as it had come to be known locally. But all in all, given their proximity to the event itself, they had got off lightly. They thanked the lord for it every day. Truly this was God’s own country and they meant to ensure it stayed that way. Indeed they had already done just that.

The sky here was still the same dark and unforgiving grey that it was the world over. The Sun had to work just as hard to make its presence felt but it was that little bit closer to make a difference. Their prayers were working their magic here too. Slowly, month by month, the lord cleaned a little more of the ash from the sky. Slowly, as they had cast off their evil and licentious ways, as they had banished the evil technology which had led them from the path of righteousness, they were earning the lord’s forgiveness and he in turn was making the world beautiful and bountiful for them once again.

They heard occasional stories, gossip from those who would be condemned once the preacher found out, about what was going on elsewhere in the world, particularly in heathen Europe. They heard stories that planes still flew, new vehicles driven by electricity filled the roads, television and the media still filled the airwaves with idolatry and pornography. They heard that, though the day of reckoning had forced a savage curtailment of their former lifestyles, much remained intact and that they refused to give it up. Despite what had happened they had developed new technologies, they persisted in the research which had so angered the lord including their search for the origins of the universe and into nuclear fusion so that they could generate more energy to drive their empty, meretricious lives.

Here they had taken the road which the lord had so clearly prescribed for them. They knew that they had chosen the righteous path. No doubt the skies were clearer here than elsewhere. No doubt their climate was better and their food more plentiful and healthier. There was no doubt at all that, though the New Christian Republic must share the planet with the unbelieving heathen races, it was they and they alone who would survive the wrath of the lord when the scientists and technologists once more infuriated Him with their meddling in matters that were not their business.

Today though was an average day, an unremarkable day. The wrath of the lord would not be visited just yet it would seem. Indeed the most remarkable thing about this time and this place was how quiet and serene it was. But then quietness and serenity were part and parcel of what this place had become. This was a quiet and serene part of the world these days. It had been made that way. People noticed of course. They couldn’t help contrasting the present with the past and couldn’t help remembering that they had been happier back then. Generally speaking they didn’t say anything though. It didn’t do to talk about such things. There were a lot of things people didn’t talk about these days. The powers that be were doing their best to prevent people even thinking about them.

And then there were the outsiders, people sent there just after the day of reckoning amidst the turmoil. They had been taken in of course. They had been fed and sheltered and their terrible burns treated. Those who had survived had even been built new homes and assimilated into the community. Yet it was very noticeable that one by one those new homes had become surplus to requirements. Even when the burns had healed they had left behind scars and other afflictions and the people had withered away like a flower denied water. But then it didn’t do to talk of these matters either.

Now, today, the valley in general was quiet and seemingly deserted. Even their small town on the banks of the river seemed deserted. The people were in their houses and work places it was clear. But there was no bustle, no noticeable activity. That would have been too much like those other parts of the world they were scrupulously trying to differentiate themselves from.

In the distance a horse and cart appeared on the horizon and started winding its way at funereal pace towards the field along the dirt track which passed as a road. Occasionally there were traces of a former more robustly constructed road peeping through but it was decayed and hadn’t been maintained in years. Parts of this relic of a former world even seemed to have been deliberately destroyed.

The man holding the reins stared vacantly into the distance and exercised no control whatever over his horse. There was no need. There was no need for him to be holding the reins at all.

As the horse neared a bend and dip in the road he slowed even further, again without prompting. This was clearly a treacherous stretch even for four legged creatures. The track was rough and loose for its entire length, but here, for no obvious reason, it had become particularly unstable and treacherous. The compacted earth had become powdery and uneven for a few metres and the ground dipped suddenly as though someone had started digging and then thought better of it.

The man in the cart looked up from whatever thoughts or dreams had been occupying him and recognised where they were. He spoke softly and reassuringly to the horse. They negotiated the rough ground and dip tentatively but without incident before pulling up to a halt.

The man hauled himself out of his seat and, with a gargantuan effort quite at odds with the size of the task, climbed down to the ground, grimacing and grunting in pain with each limb movement, further adding to the wrinkles and lines on his weary and battered face.

He was an old man, or at least he looked old. His was a face on which the elements had taken their toll. His hair was long and white where once it had probably been long and blonde and most likely cut according to the fashion or whatever complemented his looks. Now it just grew and when it grew too long he cut it himself in a rudimentary fashion, indeed rudimentary was the fashion these days. It was considered more pious.

But there was something else about him. This was not the face of a man who merely had the sun and wind to thank for his appearance. This was a man who had lived, who had seen things unimaginable to those around him. This was a man who had stories to tell that he could never tell, not in this place and in this time. Perhaps it was this that was wearying him. But the weariness was all pervasive in him. It seemed to have taken over his body and to be dimming him by the minute. This wasn’t mere tiredness, the sort that can be overcome with a long sleep or an afternoon cat nap. This was fatigue at its most fundamental and debilitating and life threatening.

Once on the ground he gathered what strength he had to raise his chin from his chest and, wincing at the pain and stiffness in his neck, looked around him listening intently for a few moments. At first he looked at the horizon and then to the middle distance, at the fields surrounding him. Only then, when he seemed satisfied, did he look around at the ground beneath his feet, studying it intently and critically.

He looked now at the patch of ground so different to the rest of the road and shook his head and scratched it at the same time. The patch itself was matched by an area away from the road but hidden by the grass next to it. It became obvious once one got closer. Fortunately nobody ever did. Nevertheless the man looked at it and worried about it and wondered what he could do about it. As usual he came to the conclusion that there was nothing, or at least nothing he could do in his present state of health and if he could have done something about that then the problem would not exist at all.

Of course he knew what was causing it. He was just anxious that nobody else saw it and tried to find out for themselves.

He walked around the patch, kicking some dirt and sweeping his foot across it as though this was going to make any difference. He walked stiffly around for a few moments stopping only to pat the horse and slip him a treat whilst always keeping his eyes on the ground, analysing and worrying and occasionally looking up to see if anyone was watching.

Finally he was satisfied that there was nothing else he could do other than hope for rain and he looked about him again, carefully scanning the horizon and fields for any kind of wrong movement, any sign of people where they ought not to be, at least from his point of view.

He nodded to himself and then fixed his view on a part of the field nearby, a part that was different just like the patch he had just tried to disguise. He reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a small leather case and then, after patting the horse’s neck reassuringly he drew a deep breath before heading off the road they were on and into the field.

He waded into the waist high grass for a few metres and then stopped and once again checked all around to see if anyone was watching. He opened the leather case now and pulled out a round metal instrument about the size of a compass or pocket watch. With a flick of his thumb he flicked open the lid and the instrument opened up like an oyster’s shell. He held it in the palm of his hand and moved it around, raising it and lowering it and moving it through 360 degrees always keeping an eye on the dial and grimacing in frustration at what it was telling him.

Finally, after two or three minutes of this he seemed to find what he was looking for. He had walked a few paces forwards and then a couple backwards and had adjusted something on the device. Now his face lit up and he frantically adjusted a control. Now there was no more surveying the horizon, now his focus was solely on this palm sized, silver coloured gadget and whatever it was meant to be doing.

The seconds and then a minute or so ticked away and his face contorted with frustration as he fiddled with the control and moved around from left to right, forward and backwards, up and down as though he was trying to get a signal on an old fashioned wireless set. Every once in a while his face would light up as he got something approaching the response he was expecting but then it faded from view again, as did his more animated expression.

But then, just as the frown on his face was threatening to plough a new and deep wrinkle across it, he at last got what he was looking for and was dextrous enough to catch it and enhance it and then harness it. With a triumphant tweak of the controls and an expectant lick of his lips he took a couple of steps backwards, narrowing his eyes in readiness for what he knew was coming.

The light seemed to just erupt out of nowhere. One moment he was standing there in an unremarkable southern American field and the next moment he was on his backside, thrown there by a flash and a loud bang which spooked his horse and made him groan with pain as he landed.

Every time it happened. Every time he tried to distance himself, or at least brace himself so that he might fall better, but each time it seemed to pick him up bodily and throw him in just the right way so that he fell directly on to his coccyx shaking his entire spine.

He picked himself up gingerly, the pain etched on his face and looked at the light. It wasn’t right. He knew it wasn’t right. He could tell now, after all of these months.

This time though the disappointment wasn’t so acute. This time even the pain was somehow bearable. This time he knew what was happening and why it was happening like this and why he was trapped here amongst these idiots. And if he was right, and he knew in his bones, his poor and rapidly ageing bones that he was right then he knew what he had to do. He knew exactly what he had to do and where he had to go.

But first there was something else he had to do. He turned and looked at his horse which was still making nervous noises and doing the equine equivalent of hopping anxiously from foot to foot. ‘You should worry,’ he said, ‘it’s me who has to go through this every time and get tossed on to my arse. You just get to watch.’

He turned back and regarded the light again. He had come to know it so well, its strange pulsations, its power and intensity. He knew that its power and intensity was diminished here for reasons he had still to prove. He had a pretty powerful theory about it all though and those pulsations were part of it. How long had it taken him to notice them? How many times had he tried before he had begun to question and observe what was happening? He should be ashamed of himself. Given how long he had been forced to live here, given what he had been forced to do and say in the meantime until his training and experience had finally kicked in, he truly was ashamed.

But for now he needed the light. He needed what it could do for him. It couldn’t do all of what he wanted it to do but this would have to be enough for now. He just wished it didn’t hurt quite so much.

He took a deep breath for courage, clenched his fists and to the accompaniment of more knowing whinnying from the horse he launched himself at the light with all of the force his aching limbs could muster.

There was another bright flash but this time no bang as he completely disappeared. The light was still there, hovering in the air but its luminescence was diminished now. The pulsations had slowed too. Now they were slow and rhythmic like a lighthouse. They stayed like this for a few seconds and then they started to accelerate again. Now the lighthouse was turning into a strobe light, flashing away to an inaudible beat. The light started to regain its intensity too, growing stronger and stronger like the Sun as it rises in the sky.

Within a minute they had both reached their former intensity until with another colossal bang and an even brighter flash he was thrown clear and into the field again. He landed with another thud and a groan but this time it was quieter and notably less intense.

He got to his feet with the kind of alacrity that he had previously been incapable of, almost bouncing to his feet like a character in a cartoon. The stoop was gone, the pained expression with each limb movement was gone, even the wrinkles seemed to have disappeared. His skin looked healthy and vibrant with the greater shine and elasticity of youth. His movements were those of a man ten or twenty years younger. Even his hair seemed to have developed a new bounce and sheen and to have grown back in certain places.

He looked at the now fully restored light and then down at himself. He held up his hands and turned them over to see that they too, just like the rest of him, had been revived and revivified.

Now he fished that same silver device out of his pocket and flicked it open again. This time it took just a couple of turns of the controls and light faded from view like a star at dawn.

He stood for a moment looking at where it had been, apparently considering what to do next. There was a pensive and slightly angry expression on his newly youthful face. He looked for a moment up the valley far off in the distance. Then he looked back in the other direction, at the little town he had come from and as he did so his face darkened with anger.

He stood for a moment thinking and considering. He knew what he had to do. He knew that there was not much time. But he also knew what he wanted to do. He had wanted to do it for a while. It was a burning desire in him and it had burning for weeks or months. He stood and considered and wrestled with the decision.

Idly he walked out of the field and towards his horse which he patted absent mindedly. He smiled as he saw how nervous it still was. ‘I know, I know,’ he said sympathetically. ‘Hopefully that will be the last time, the last time for you anyway.’ He stopped to consider this new idea. ‘I’d not thought of that before. I shall miss you, you’re about the only friend I’ve had around here.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sweet for the horse which he fed him affectionately, accompanied by another pat. The horse ate it quickly and then nudged him for more. He fed him another and then stared back at the town. ‘What shall we do? Shall we go and bid them all adieu?’

He stepped up onto the cart and took up the reins with renewed energy and with a light tug and a word or two of encouragement he spurred the horse into action and set them moving at a new and sprightly pace down the road. They found their usual spot for turning around on a patch in the field where the grass was not growing normally and then came about heading back the way they had come. Now the patch on the road presented no obstacle, it was just a bit of loose earth and no cause for worry and they trotted across it in seconds after some words of encouragement for the horse and a firm tug on the reins.

He glanced at the place in the grass he had just visited and smiled for the briefest of moments before returning his attention to the road ahead with a new sense of vigour and purpose. The transformation was astonishing.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said softly to the horse, ‘we won’t be coming here again. And I won’t leave you here amongst these bastards. You deserve better than that. Once we’re away from here everything will be okay. I’ll find you a nice field to eat your body weight of grass in. And it will be completely different kind of field too. A nice field, maybe with a pal or two for you. Anything’s possible now. The next time you see a light like that, well it will be of an entirely different dimension.’

From across the fields now a single bell started to sound. It clanged tunelessly and monotonously echoing across the valley. He looked up and in the direction of the sound and then laughed uproariously. ‘Excellent timing,’ he shouted exuberantly. ‘I’m in just the right mood. I wonder which poor soul is to be tortured and teased today. Well today is your lucky day whoever you are.’

With a sharp tug he got the horse to speed up as they headed towards the town and that insistent bell.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Obama's Anti British Rhetoric

Barack Obama's rhetoric about BP is understandable at the political level because his popularity is plummeting and he fears a Katrina type legacy. But, along with his coolness towards this country, it is also becoming tiresome.

I have never been a great believer in this notion that our two countries have a special relationship by default. Frankly it is embarrassing, although now that Gordon is gone and we have a less needy PM it should become less so. But when the leaders of the two get along well great things can be achieved, well things can be achieved anyway. Their greatness rather tends to be a matter of opinion.

If Barack Obama now wishes to move on from our traditionally close if non special relationship then so be it. But perhaps our politicians should point out that it is an American company, Transocean, which was responsible for the initial disaster out at sea which has led to this leak and another American company which supplied much of the equpiment. The whole operation was regulated by American federal agencies. Why is Obama blaming it all on BP? Is it because the media is doing the same? Watch what is laughingly called ABC World News every night and there is no mention of American involvement at all. They are merely outraged that BP requires supporting documentation before paying out cash compensation.

And what exactly is BP supposed to have done wrong? There was an accident and this led to the leak. There may have been complacency and even negligence but, as I have already pointed out, this was not actually a BP operation, even if they have ultimate responsibility. Since then BP have tried repeatedly to cap the well and stop the leak. But these are uncharted waters. Similarly they seem to be doing all they can to clean up the mess. It is easy to nit pick and find fault with detail, but aside from a few PR gaffes what is it BP has done wrong? BP has even now said that it is prepared to defer the next dividend  even though there is no obvious reason why they should. Have they given any indication that they are short of cash or unwilling to pay for the clean-up. So why the pressure over the dividend? This does all smack of politicians trying to look tough and picking on an easy target to cover for their own failures.

America is of course a notoriously parochial nation and that is being starkly illustrated in the gulf. American multinationals are no saints. But for now we nasty Brits are the convenient scapegoats when the problems are close to home.

It's just politics of course. But Obama should be careful about the anti British rhetoric. With this episode and their irritating even handedness over Argentina's Falkland bluster we might become a bit more French in our attitudes.  As for the British government they should tell the White House to back off. It is not British Petroleum. Americans work for the company and own its stock. Talking the company down will just damage it and endanger its future. How does that help anyone? The British government should say so and should also indicate that they will protect it from any hostile takeover attempt in the near future whilst it concentrates on clearing up the gulf.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Light and Truth - Chapter One

Beginning today then I shall be serialising my novel Lux et Veritas,  or Light and Truth whichever you prefer. It's kind of science fiction, albeit including current themes and so genre snobs should look away now.

Genre snobs irritate me. Rod Liddle, whom I usually admire, made some ridiculous remarks about Terry Pratchett's work at the weekend, before going on to admit that he rather enjoyed the television version of the very funny and clever Going Postal. Pratchett is in fact one of our best living writers and our best selling one until Joanne Rowling came along. But because he writes fantasy a certain section of the media refuse to take him seriously. Yet there is a great deal more wisdom and erudition in Pratchett's work than you get in the vast majority of modern novels which are regarded as literature and win awards like the Booker.

Anyway this is an unashamed sci-fi novel. It deals with themes like man playing god and the conflict between science and religion. It also addresses why, in the 21st century, we are still so beholden to superstition.

It will appear here on my new blog created specifically for the task. But for today only I'm also putting the first chapter on my main blog. After this I shall just post alerts and links on this blog to direct you to the other when new chapters are published. This is the modern way, well at least it is until such time as it appears in print.

Anyone wishing to offer me a deal or to option the film rights please feel free to get in touch via e-mail or on +447947 735173.


CHAPTER ONE


There were children, children who could walk and talk, read and write, who were beginning to think about what they might want to do with their lives, children on the cusp of not being children at all in fact who had never seen the Sun. Oh they could infer its presence by the fact that there were things called days when it was a little lighter and everyone went to work. But they had never seen that golden orb rise in the morning and traverse the sky before setting in a blaze of red on the opposite side the following evening. They had never basked under it. They had never known what had once been called a ‘nice day’. Where once they might have gone their entire lives never having seen snow, or never knowing what it felt like to be cold; now a whole half generation of kids had never seen our local star. They had to take it for granted like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. The hazy light which just about differentiated day from night was due, they were told, to the Sun. One day, one day soon, it might peep through the clouds again. One day they might even feel its heat on their skin in a way that would make them want to dispense with clothing. They always laughed at that one.

They talked about it all of the time. Something they had once taken for granted had not been seen for years now. Until it disappeared behind the clouds of dust and debris that had been thrown into the sky they had not appreciated it. Oh they had basked in it when it came out. They had complained at how hot it was. They had worried about what it was doing to their skin. But now that they never saw it anymore, now that its rays were unable to reach them in the way that they once had, life was very different and very much impoverished. It was impoverished in so many ways that nobody could ever have imagined. The weather was of course the worst of it. But then there were so many knock on effects. The list was endless. It affected everything from food and drink to the birds no longer singing in what was still the morning but didn’t feel like mornings should.

Things were slowly improving. It was noticeable how much lighter the days were now. But they still had a long way to go and the world would never be the same again even when they could see the Sun again and show it to their kids. How easy it would be that day to keep them entertained and out of trouble.

Of course they were lucky to be alive and to be able to have kids at all. They were lucky to live where they did and to be comparatively well off. They were lucky, in fact, to live in a part of the world that had begun to prepare for catastrophic change and had invested accordingly. The fact that the catastrophic change that had come to pass had turned out to be a completely different catastrophic change had been mentioned more than once, usually sardonically.

Right now they were contemplating a rather different and more trivial consequence of catastrophic climatic change. It had necessitated a long journey.

Stephen glanced surreptitiously at his watch. This journey was taking forever. Without thinking he sighed and immediately regretted it.

‘You’ll be glad when we get there,’ Sam said irritably. ‘I don’t know why I fucking bother. All this to try and motivate you bunch of….’ He decided not to finish that sentence, perhaps realising that it might detract from the motivational nature of the trip.

‘I didn’t say a word,’ Stephen protested.

Sam frowned. ‘You didn’t need to,’ he said petulantly. ‘You’ll be glad when we get there. This place is a real find. Think of it, wine and at really good prices too.’

That word always worked on them. Wine.

‘I’m dying for a drink. I can’t remember the last time I had a drink,’ Karen said, pulling her skirt back down to somewhere approaching her knees but making sure she flashed some leg in so doing.

‘Exactly,’ Sam said, glancing at her legs. ‘All of the decent cheap wine is gone, used up. The vintage stuff isn’t even a decent vintage now. And that costs a fortune. This place is fantastic. I’m telling you.’

‘So why is it so cheap?’ Mike asked on the other side of the car, sitting opposite them.

This provoked further frowning from Sam. ‘I don’t know,’ he said angrily. ‘Maybe they’re feeling charitable. Let’s just drink the fucking stuff and be thankful.’

‘If we ever get there,’ Stephen said, wiping the condensation from the window with the back of his hand and peering out. Whenever he did this he seldom learnt anything, or at least not since they had left the city. One snow bound road looked very much like the next. He sighed again without thinking. ‘We’ve been going for miles.’

Sam shook his head. ‘God almighty.’

‘Seriously though,’ Mike said, determined to get his point across. ‘Why is it so cheap? It’s like you say, wine’s rare now. Booze is rare but wine in particular. Why is this so cheap? What’s the catch?’

Sam pulled a face as he wrestled with a decision. ‘All things are relative,’ he said defensively. ‘It’s still bloody expensive. It’s still a nice treat for you bunch of ungrateful bastards just to show what a lovely boss I am.’

‘And because we just earned you a stonking bonus,’ Stephen pointed out, without removing his gaze from the window.

‘Indeed. Well, me and the bank, we are very grateful for your efforts and now we’re taking you to this fine hostelry to sample some of their rare wines.’

‘Rare cheap wines,’ Mike pointed out.

Sam smiled at him in a distinctly unamused way. ‘Comparatively cheap,’ he said.

‘But why are they cheap?’ Mike asked again. ‘They have a rare and in demand commodity. We work in the markets. When something is in demand and difficult to get hold of, the price shoots up. It’s basic economics. It shouldn’t be cheap.’

Sam leaned forward menacingly. ‘Yes, but as we also know, Michael, markets do not react in a logical way. Bargains can be had. Sometimes perfectly good stocks or commodities, just because they have fallen out of fashion, get marked down in price for no good reason. People are like sheep, especially with things like wine.’

Michael, seemed incapable of noticing the tone in Sam’s voice, it was possible that it was being drowned out by the bee in his bonnet. ‘So, these aren’t the best wines then?’

Sam rolled his eyes. ‘They may not have the best labels but they taste good and that’s all that matters surely? You know what wine drinkers are like, they’re all bloody snobs. This wine they serve here tastes great and it gets you pissed the same as Chateau La whatever it’s called. It just doesn’t have the right label on it that’s all. But who cares, eh? It’s a drink. Karen needs a drink. These days she has to go out and pick up a bloke sober and where’s the fun in that?’

Karen protested a little at this minor character assassination but only a little.

‘So,’ Mike said, apparently still not sensing his boss’s tetchiness on the subject, ‘what is this wine then?’

Sam looked at him and sighed. ‘It’s English wine,’ he said resignedly. ‘Okay? It’s English. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s very nice actually. They sold it all over the place. It was beginning to get a decent reputation.’

Karen shrugged. ‘I don’t care,’ she said. In fact it’s better. More patriotic.’

‘Quite right,’ Sam said, putting his arm around her and giving her a squeeze. ‘Wine is wine. Anyway, this was made when they were talking about global warming and all of that crap. It’s from the south of England, Hampshire I think. The fields where the vines grew are in a similar sort of ground to the Champagne region apparently. Something to do with chalk and draining well or something like that. It’s good stuff. Those fields are probably under three feet of snow now, but a few years ago they were giving the French a run for their money.’

As he said this the car shuddered and groaned as it hit a particularly icy bit of road. The tyres were struggling to get any grip and every now and then the car shimmied as the various safety systems struggled to keep it in a straight line.

Sam leaned across Stephen who was still peering out of the window. ‘It is taking a long time though,’ he said. ‘Where are we?’

Stephen turned back. ‘No idea,’ he said. ‘We’re in the country somewhere from the look of the road but I can’t make anything out. The signs are covered in snow.’

‘Everything’s covered in fucking snow,’ Karen opined. ‘All the fucking time.’

Sam looked at her with a big grin on his face, glancing at her legs again. ‘Yeah, it must get on your nerves, having to put on all of that warm winter gear all of the time. How will you ever get to show off your figure?’

Karen grinned back and crossed her legs just for his benefit.

The car shimmied and shook some more and then suddenly lurched to one side, throwing the occupants of the car violently to one side before it ground to a halt which threw them back the other way.

‘Oh God,’ Stephen said, pulling himself back up to an upright position. ‘I think we’re stuck.

Sam, who seemed to have fallen on top of Karen in a manner which didn’t really make sense given the direction they had lurched, was now in no hurry to right himself. ‘Go and have a look then,’ he said, showing no interest in their plight now that he had the more arresting vision of Karen’s chest in close proximity.

Stephen sighed and rolled his eyes. He had known this would happen. He really wished he hadn’t come, wine or no wine. He would have felt like a gooseberry had Mike not been there too. Whilst getting out into the freezing cold and traipsing through the snow was distinctly unappealing at least it gave him an excuse to get away from the nascent love birds.

These cars hadn’t been designed for these conditions. Sure they had been adapted and modified to cope, but ice and snow had not been something the designers had thought much about. Indeed the very existence of these cars had been predicated on the notion that ice and snow would be a thing of the past pretty soon unless cars like this were built and rapidly adopted by everyone. They had improved the design in recent years of course and made them more ice friendly, but this was one of the older cars. It would have been all right in the city but out here in the sticks it just couldn’t cope.

Stephen turned his back on the proto lovers and towards the door and began messing with the mechanism in order to persuade the car to let him out. It usually took at least three attempts. There was an art to it he had been told. He doubted that. That was just the sort of thing that people said when they were good at something and you weren’t. It was like those who were good at puzzles or word games. They had been born with a talent which just happened to make them look good in a world where such things were valued. If they had been born in a jungle in Borneo they wouldn’t have been so bloody smug.

It took him four attempts, much to the bemusement of Mike who offered plenty of advice but no assistance. He didn’t seem to be bothered or in any way embarrassed by the early canoodling that was happening centimetres from him.

In fairness they had all known that there was an ulterior motive for this trip. Stephen and Mike had been brought along so that it could be legitimately claimed as a business expense, so clearly the wine wasn’t that cheap. That didn’t make it any easier to watch when the inevitable happened. Or at least it didn’t make it any easier for Stephen. It was embarrassing quite frankly. He really wished he hadn’t come.

He clambered awkwardly out of the car which started bonging and clanging an alarm at him. The wheels were spinning on the snow and so the car thought it was still moving and thus one of its passengers was endangered. The wheels stopped spinning instantly.

He stepped away from the car and immediately into a snow drift. It was quite deep here. The road they were on was narrow and with the snow banked against the hedgerows in drifts it had been reduced to a single track. Clearly this had confused the car, hence their current plight.

He took a look around. He had no idea where they were. It was difficult to see above the banked snow and the hedgerows which formed the foundations of the banks. But even if he could have climbed up and taken a look he doubted he would have recognised their location. Everywhere was white. Everywhere looked the same once they got out of the city.

Stephen turned back to the car to see what was preventing it from making any progress. On further examination he could see that it had skidded into the looser snow at the side of the road. He just needed to wedge something under a wheel or maybe a couple of wheels to give them traction.

He began looking around for something, anything that would serve this purpose. Suddenly the banked walls of ice felt distinctly unfriendly. He felt hemmed in and trapped. He was not normally given to claustrophobia but that was how he felt now. It was like he was in a pristine white cell. And everywhere was silent too. There seemed to be no sound coming from anywhere except his own feet crunching on the fresh and formerly untouched snow. Adding to his unease of course was the fact that he and the others had no idea where they were. This was normal for any journey now that the cars navigated and drove themselves. It was easy to allow the mind to wander only to find oneself suddenly miles from anywhere and entirely in the hands of technology regarded as evil and satanic in other parts of the world.

He trudged around on his quest to find something, anything that wasn’t made of ice which he could shove under the wheels. It was starting to get dark now, although at least the snow helped make the most of what little light they had. He wasn’t cold yet but knew that he soon would be. Then again there was a distinct possibility that he might end up trudging somewhere to look for help if they couldn’t free up the car. It was either that or wait for the car to realise that it was stuck and in trouble and to call for help itself. He wasn’t prepared to risk hypothermia waiting for its programming to kick in.

‘Come on Steve,’ a voice called out from the car. ‘It’s bloody freezing.’

Stephen turned around to face the stranded car. ‘I can’t find anything to jam under the wheel,’ he said irritably. ‘The snow’s really deep here. Do you know where we are?’

Sam got out of the car and trudged over to him. He nearly fell over as his foot dropped unexpectedly into what must have been a pot hole disguised by the depth of snow. ‘Christ, I see what you mean,’ he said. ‘This can’t be the right route can it? Where the hell are we?’

‘I’ve no idea. Are you sure you put the right details in when you booked the car?’

‘Of course I am. It was arranged through the restaurant. They asked if I wanted them to organise a car, said something about a discount and so I agreed. They ought to know where they are. I mean for fuck’s sake. I wasn’t paying attention to where we were going. Well you don’t do you.’

Stephen nodded. That was the trouble. You didn’t. Nobody did.

He could just about remember a time, a time when people had driven cars themselves. Even then, as he recalled, they had had devices which told them which route to take. And in those days they had all owned cars themselves. There had been millions of them, in all shapes and sizes designed for utility, even for fun in some cases. Then they had switched over to hydrogen cell cars. Suddenly travelling by car was just a utility like everything else. Cars that were fun, cars that were pieces of art in themselves had been put in the museums. He had been to see them. Beautiful metal sculptures with real style and flair, but with engines which made the most god awful noise and belched smoke out of the back. They looked lovely, in the same way that a horse and cart had a certain romantic appeal, but you couldn’t stop progress, or at least not in this part of the world.

Now you just hired a car for each individual journey. They just moved around, controlled by computers picking people up when booked. It had done away with the need for huge car parks. It had done away with the need to buy and maintain and own a car yourself. It was cheaper and safer. These cars didn’t have to guess what the car in front was going to do because they knew thanks to a kind of electronic telepathy. They were all controlled by the same computer systems. All of these cars talked to one another and drove at the same speed. They didn’t fall asleep, they didn’t get distracted by the kids or by the passing scenery. They just drove to where they were told to drive and then drove somewhere else to pick up their next passenger. It was so much more efficient.

Cars could travel a few centimetres from the car in front and they would never collide. The whole configurations and shapes had changed to make journeys more pleasant. The people inside could sit and chat, or they could work, or they could sleep, or they could darken the windows and fuck if they wanted to. It was just travelling. They just did it and got it over with as soon as possible. These cars ensured it was over as quickly and safely and cheaply as possible.

It had just become second nature. They did it and thought nothing of it. They just paid for them when they needed them in the same way they paid for trains and buses and trams. The trouble was they trusted the technology implicitly. The trouble was they never looked where they were going. They didn’t need to.

‘Sod it,’ Sam said as they stood and shivered and considered their plight. ‘Let’s pull those mats out of the car and shove those under the bloody wheels. We shouldn’t be having to do this. We’re not even supposed to be able to get out of the car during the journey. So much for their bleeding safety systems. I wish I’d used my usual company. I would have done if I’d known they’d send one of these old crappy things. I’ve got an account with a much better company.’

They marched back over to the car with some difficulty in the deep snow and, after moving their colleagues out of the way, pulled the mats up off the floor and shoved one under each of the back wheels.

‘Should we do the front ones too?’ Stephen asked as he looked doubtfully at their rudimentary efforts.

‘I dunno. Nah, that’ll be enough. Come on, jump in. It won’t work until we shut the door and anyway it’s bloody freezing.’

They piled back into the car and shut the door after them. The car began bleeping and going through its usual pre-flight checks, which included various announcements, a lot of clunking and clicking as it checked locks and safety devices and then, and only then, did it engage any gears and try to move anywhere.

They soon felt the same juddering sensation as before as the wheel started to spin on the snow. This time however, thanks to the mats, it did occasionally find a bit of traction and the car edged forward slightly, a bit at a time.

They all sat with clenched teeth, some of them making jolting movements with their hips as though this might help as the car juddered and jolted as its electronic brain tried to figure out what was going on.

For all of their technology in this part of the world, they still didn’t seem to have been able to program a car to be able to cope with getting stuck like this. They had systems to stop skidding and wheel lock but whenever the roads became particularly snow bound like this one had, the cars still could not cope.

‘We’re going to have to get out and push the fucking thing aren’t we?’ Sam said as they started to roll back, presumably having come to the edge of the mat and thus back on to the packed snow.

‘We can’t can we,’ Stephen said, joining in with the pointless jolting and stamping and rocking that Karen and Mike were indulging in for want of a better idea.

‘Why not?’ Karen asked in mid jolt. She looked as though she was rather enjoying it actually, almost as if it was preparation for what she had planned with Sam or whoever else got lucky later. She was now in a semi crouched position and was putting her full weight and a great deal of enthusiasm into it. The men watched her and formed certain and, judging from their expressions, probably identical thoughts.

‘Because it won’t go unless we’re in the car with the doors shut and locked. If one or two of us get out and push, we won’t be able to get back in once it gets going.’

Karen acknowledged the truth of this with a less than gracious gesture and fell back into her seat. ‘What are we going to do then? I’m starving and I’m dying for a piss.’

The men looked across at her but said nothing. ‘We’ll have to call someone. Is there a help number or a booking number at the front? Or an emergency button?’ Stephen asked, leaning forward so as to answer his own question. As he did so there was a huge flash and a bang from somewhere outside. ‘What the hell?’

They turned as one to their nearest window and in the direction from which they thought the sound had come from. Tellingly they all looked in different directions.

It had been a very loud bang. The flash, well there was no way to tell where that had come from, the windows were steamed up from all of the jolting. Despite this however, it had lit up the entire car, albeit for a fraction of a second.

Stephen began scrabbling at the door controls again in an attempt to get it open. He looked across at Sam. ‘Help me.’

Sam sighed. ‘Why?’

‘Why? You heard it. We’ve got to go and check it out. Someone could be hurt.’

Sam sighed again and pulled a face of extreme reluctance. ‘I don’t see that it’s any of our business,’ he said, turning and looking back wistfully at Karen who was adjusting her clothing back into shape again. He watched Stephen fumbling with the door for a moment. ‘Oh come here,’ he said and leaned forward. With a couple of deft movements he had the door open, smiling at Stephen’s look of consternation. ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t,’ he said.

Stephen scrambled out of the car, nearly falling over in the snow in his haste. Sam watched him and shook his head. ‘I’d better go and help him,’ he said without enthusiasm. He looked across at Karen. ‘Keep it warm for me.’

Sam got out of the car and pushed the door to but not completely shut behind him so that the car wouldn’t try and go anywhere without them. There was absolutely nothing to see. It was the same lane, the same snow, the same barren emptiness. And now the silence had returned. He trudged after Stephen, waving his arms and stamping his feet to keep the already encroaching cold at bay.

They ventured a little further from the car this time. Whatever had made that flash and that bang had to be somewhere nearby, presumably in the field on the other side of the snowdrifts and hedges.

Stephen started trudging along in the direction that he had decided the bang had come from. He was sure that it had come from behind him and to his right. Sam took the other side, although more by default.

That was why Stephen saw it first. There was a gateway, a standard five bar metal gate leading into the field from the road. Beyond it was a field, a normal field in the country, albeit with what these days was its standard thick coat of snow with its usual sprinkling of volcanic dust. Under normal circumstances such a field would have had mud and dung peppered about it giving it a suitably earthy, agricultural feel. But the snow transformed it. It was pristine, clean and nearly pure white. The trees, the only form of life visible, seemed to take on a greater dignity and poise on this background by virtue of their towering solitude. They stood alone, like figures on an unfinished landscape painting. But this was a painting destined not to be finished for some time to come.

But this was just the background to what Stephen saw now. The overwhelming clean and bright whiteness of the field was overcome by something even more refulgent and luminous. In the middle of the field, hovering a couple of metres above the ground, was a light. That was the only word for it. It was a point of light shining intensely and apparently hovering in mid air, as though someone had taken a star and brought it down to Earth for a closer look. Not that anyone ever saw stars these days any more than they saw the Sun. Children found it hard to imagine one light in the sky let alone a night sky full of thousands, millions of tiny lights representing distant suns. Now it was as though someone had brought one to educate them.

The size of the point of light itself was tiny, possibly no bigger than a small coin, but it was as bright as a star, or even brighter. It was certainly brighter than most of those that Stephen could remember. He couldn’t look directly at it. Even the second or so he did look at it burnt an image on his retina that was there for several seconds afterwards when he blinked.

‘Sam!’ he almost shrieked.

‘What?’ Sam said a few metres away behind him and still in the lane.

‘Come and look at this.’

‘What?’ Sam said impatiently. ‘All I wanted was a nice drink, sitting by a nice warm log fire with friends followed by a fuck with nice warm Karen. Instead I’m traipsing through snow with you looking for a bang instead of…..what the fuck?’

Stephen turned to look at his colleague and saw the expression on his face, along with the squint he was obliged to adopt so that he could look at whatever it was without permanently damaging his eyes. Even so neither of them could look at it for long and were forced to keep turning away or shield their eyes with their hands, which of course made no difference whatsoever.

‘What the hell is it?’ Sam said.

‘I don’t know. What shall we do?’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘Well it could be dangerous. Shouldn’t we, call someone or something?’

For the first time Sam tore his eyes away from the light and turned to look at Stephen sardonically. ‘And say what? Who are you going to call?’

‘I don’t know,’ Stephen said defensively. ‘But that’s not natural is it. It could be a weapon. It could have fallen off a plane or something. It could be nuclear fallout for all we know. It could be something to do with the super volcano. We have to tell someone.’

‘Fine. Who?’

‘The Police, I suppose.’

‘They’ll lock you up. Do you really think you’re gonna call up the Police, tell them there’s a funny looking something in a field in the middle of nowhere which might be dangerous and not be all across the internet tomorrow morning? If you’re lucky they’ll just ignore you and write you off as a crank.’

‘So what are we going to do, just ignore it?’

‘Ignore what?’

‘Ignore th…..oh I see what you’re doing.’

‘Bloody hell, well done,’ Sam said with heavy sarcasm. He shook his head at his young, na├»ve underling. ‘Steve, these are strange times we’re living through. Strange and paranoid times. In fact they may not even be paranoid. They’re probably right to worry about spies and insurrectionists and god botherers waiting to forcibly turn us back into peasants grovelling in the mud. You might be right, it might be dangerous. But I bet they already know about it. I bet right now someone has noticed that that is missing or that something has gone wrong and there are trucks full of men in space suits rushing to this field even as we speak. I bet they’re very keen to make sure that nobody else knows about it and if they know that you do know about it they will take certain steps to ensure you forget. Solution: don’t let them know you know and get the fuck out of here and go drink some wine to create a convincing memory lapse.’

Stephen looked crestfallen, all of his good citizen instincts defeated by a bit of, he had to admit, perfectly reasonable and probably appropriate cynicism. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said reluctantly, taking another quick snatched look at the light again in case it inspired him to come up with a counter argument.

‘Of course I’m right. If there was ever a time to mind your own business it’s now. Too many weirdos in the world right now. You don’t want them thinking you’re one of them. Now come on. I’d just got Karen nicely primed before we got stuck. I was planning on getting stuck somewhere much nicer and much warmer tonight. Apparently she gets very wild when she gets a few drinks inside her and that is something I want to see much more than your bloody weird light thing. Let’s go.’

Sam turned and stomped off back into the lane and back towards the car. Stephen watched him go and, after weighing things up in his mind, turned to follow him. As he did so he heard the crunch of something in the snow behind him.

‘Sam!’

Sam who was nearly back at the car stopped and closed his eyes in despair. ‘What?’ he shouted back angrily. ‘Has it started flashing or something.’

‘I think you should see this.’ Stephen shouted back.

The tone in his voice dissipated Sam’s anger and frustration. He rushed back to the gate.

When he got there the light was the same as before, or possibly a little brighter. It was difficult to tell. Stephen was still stood in the same position as when he had left. The difference was that a few metres in front of him an extremely confused looking man was standing staring back at the two of them.

He was a man in his late fifties or early sixties. He was white with a head full of grey and slightly unruly hair. He was dressed in a suit with the requisite collar and tie. In other words he was dressed in the same way that they were, except that they were dressed in this way underneath the heavy coats that had become de rigeur all year round for some time now.

The man stared back at them and then looked all around him; at the sky, the snow on the ground, the field and the general landscape. He seemed surprised to say the least.

Sam moved alongside Stephen and leaned close to his ear. ‘Where the hell did he come from?’

Stephen pointed a finger at the light only to stop again as he realised how this might look to the mystery man. ‘He came out of the light,’ he whispered back. ‘He just popped out.’

‘He just popped out?’

‘Yes. One minute I was just about to follow you and then there he was.’

‘Has he said anything?’

‘No. He seems a bit confused. Lost.’

Sam opened his mouth, no doubt to say something caustic or sarcastic or both when the man took a couple of steps towards them. They both, as one, took a couple of steps backwards and away from him.

‘Erm…’ the man said hesitantly

Stephen looked at him curiously. Did mutant homicidal maniacs who could appear in the middle of a field from nowhere generally wear lounge suits and start their sentences by saying ‘Erm?’ He doubted it. It had sounded as though he even had an English accent. ‘Are you English?’ he asked.

‘This is England then?’ the man said.

‘That’s right,’ Sam responded. He took a step forward. ‘We don’t want to interfere,’ he said. ‘You’re clearly …..’ his voice tailed off as he ran out of ideas as to how to finish that sentence. ‘We don’t want to interfere,’ he said again. ‘If you like we’ll just go and leave you to do whatever you’re doing. Don’t mind us. We were just having a spot of car trouble. Wrong time, wrong place sort of thing.’

The man smiled and then nodded. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said in what was definitely an English accent. ‘So am I.’

Stephen took a hesitant step forward so that he was again next to Sam. ‘You’re what?’

‘I think I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ the man said. ‘Well definitely, actually,’ he added, looking around him. ‘I don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but I definitely didn’t expect anything this….prosaic.’

‘Where have you come from?’ Stephen asked.

The man didn’t appear to hear this at first. He was still looking all around him, at the featureless tundra that the Home Counties had become away from the conurbations. Then he looked up into the sky which was rapidly darkening as the unseen Sun disappeared under the obscured horizon. Finally his gaze fell once more upon Stephen and Sam. ‘This is going to sound odd,’ he said and paused for a moment. ‘But as you can probably tell, something very strange has happened to me. I’m a scientist. I’ve possibly discovered something quite important. But I need to know what precisely has happened. It’s fortuitous in fact that you were both here. You could be of enormous assistance.’

‘Yes,’ the puppyish Stephen said eagerly to the obvious chagrin of his cynical companion. ‘Anything we can do.’

The man smiled graciously. ‘I just need information really. Nothing complicated. First of all, where precisely are we?’

‘How precise do you mean by precise,’ Sam said.

The man smiled again, although this time seemingly through genuine amusement. ‘I’m a scientist, when we say precise, we mean very precise. But I recognise that you do not currently have access to a functioning GPS unit.’

‘There’ll be one in the car,’ Stephen said, scrupulously avoiding Sam’s angry stare.

‘You have a car?’

‘No,’ Sam said, still looking at Stephen with angry incomprehension. ‘We were just out for a stroll, looking for glaciers.’

‘Might I have a look at the car?’ the man said, ‘if it’s not too much of an imposition. I realise all of this must be rather disconcerting for you.’

‘Yes, disconcerting,’ Sam said, ‘that’s exactly what it is. You’re sure you’re not being pursued by crack teams of men in space suits intent on keeping you a secret?’

‘Not that I’m aware of,’ the man said. ‘In fact I can safely say that that is not the case. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. It’s odd that we still use that expression don’t you think. Then again we still refer to those non printed organisations collectively as Fleet Street. Another historical curiosity. I’m sorry, where did you say the car is?’

‘It’s over here,’ said Stephen, pointing in the direction of the lane.

‘Then please lead on,’ their new friend said. ‘I realise by the way that I haven’t told you my name, or you yours. I can see your friend here is uncomfortable. So let’s just stick to first names, Christian names as they were called once upon a time. My name is James.’

The introductions were made, albeit rather churlishly on the part of Sam and they walked the short distance back to the car.

Once they were there and indeed as they approached it, James paid a great deal of attention to this rather ordinary and unreliable vehicle. It was obvious he was interested in a great deal more than their position, however precise. Perhaps he had been so keen to see the car as it was a kind of silent witness; a means of ascertaining information without having to ask questions in a world in which a curious stranger might attract a great deal of attention.

Stephen watched and noted and wondered. He felt a strange fascination for the man. He couldn’t explain it. Well, he could explain it, after all the man had just appeared in front of him out of thin air. But there was something more. There was something curiously compelling about him that made Stephen watch him and keep watching him, never wanting to take his eyes off him. He started to feel uncomfortable about it. Surely James must have noticed?

Suddenly James turned to him. He smiled apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, did you say something?’

Stephen shook his head.

This seemed to puzzle James but he shrugged it off. ‘Now,’ he said, clapping his hands together enthusiastically, ‘these cars are all run from a central computer, so we should be able to get an accurate map reference for where we are. While we’re at it we could alert the company to your predicament.’

‘Have we told you we’re in a predicament?’ Stephen said.

James considered this. ‘No I don’t suppose you have,’ he said hesitantly. ‘I suppose I just assumed. It’s not the time or place for a picnic is it?’

This enthused Sam. ‘That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said.’ He opened the car door. As he did so Mike jumped back guiltily into his own seat from the seat next to Karen. He and Karen smiled sheepishly and she began adjusting her clothing once more. Sam turned and glared at Stephen. ‘You see?’ he shouted furiously. ‘You see what you’ve done?’

‘How is that my fault?’

‘Because that would have been me if I hadn’t followed you, bloody curious George. God almighty!’

James watched this exchange in bemusement before stepping into the car. ‘I’ll just get on with it, shall I?’ he said.

Sam turned to him. ‘You know what to do with these things? Cos I don’t. I usually just call the helpline and get them to do it all remotely.’

James considered this for a moment as he looked at the control terminal in the car. A look of surprise just for a moment crossed his face only to be replaced by one of supreme confidence. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think I can do it. I’ll get them to send help for you too shall I?’

Sam nodded and then returned to glaring at Mike. ‘Good idea,’ he said. ‘Maybe get them to send an ambulance too.’

The terminal which controlled the car was in the middle of the floor of the passenger compartment with the seats arranged in a circle around it. They could be arranged in various configurations according to the needs and numbers of passengers given that nowadays there was no need for a driver or for driver controls.

James sat in the seat next to Karen smiling at her pleasantly as he did so. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I’m James. I just need some information. I won’t be a moment.’

Stephen and Karen watched in fascination as he began manipulating the controls with remarkable dexterity and obvious technical insight. Sam was too busy glaring at Mike and Mike too busy trying to look the other way to notice.

Stephen craned his neck to get a better view past Sam in the doorway of the car. James was pressing the various buttons in a series of combinations that were evincing readouts on the small screen he had never seen before. Usually the panel was merely used by customers to pay, or give account details and then inform the car where it had to go if it had not been informed of this when it was booked. What James was doing was altogether more complicated and required specialist passwords. Stephen watched and wondered. Maybe Sam had been right in his caution. Did James work for the security services or in some top secret research centre of which there were supposed to be so many these days?

At that moment James turned and looked at him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do. But it’s best that we keep that to ourselves.’

They all looked up at this and then turned to Stephen who wore the same look of bemusement as they did. ‘Sorry?’ he said on behalf of them all.

James looked up again. ‘Yes,’ he said ‘I work for a secret organisation, part of the government. But I can’t really talk about it. But,’ he added with a smile and a flourish of his right hand as the computer bleeped a couple of times and the display started flashing, ‘it does mean I know how to work these little boxes. They have hidden programs in them that can be used by the government. We have become a surveillance state I’m afraid. Cars are just a part of it. But because I know the right codes they will think you’re someone important now and rush another car out to you. They might even give you extra credit.’

‘Excellent!’ Sam said. ‘And did you get what you need?’

‘Yes. Thanks for you help.’ James said. He pulled a pen out of his pocket and a scrap of paper and jotted down the map reference for where they were and then got back out of the car. ‘I’ll say goodbye then,’ he said cheerily. ‘Thanks again.’

‘What?’ Stephen said. ‘We can’t just leave you here in the middle of nowhere. We could drop you off somewhere.’

James, who had already started striding off away from them with the energy and sprightliness of a man half his age, stopped and turned around. ‘No need,’ he said with a smile. ‘I’ll be fine. Thanks again.’ He waved a hand and strode off again.

Stephen turned to Sam who shrugged and climbed back into the car, taking care to sit next to Karen who was revelling in her popularity.

Stephen stayed outside. He watched James for a second before coming to a decision. He was almost sure. There was an obvious way to find out. He stared at the retreating back of James and thought hard. You can read my mind can’t you, James?

The effect was magical. James stopped in his tracks with one foot still in mid air. He turned around and faced Stephen, a look of anxiety on his face where the smile had been a moment before.

Stephen trotted back up the lane until they were side by side again.

James eyed him warily. ‘You shouldn’t get involved,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand what’s going on myself. Do yourself a favour and forget you ever saw me.’

‘You can read my mind then?’

‘It would seem so, although don’t ask me how. It’s as much of a shock to me as it is to you, believe me. I only realised it myself just now. I answered a question you only thought didn’t I?’

‘Twice.’

‘Twice? Did the others notice?’

‘Sort of. But they have other things on their minds. Karen and wine mostly.’

James laughed. ‘Yes, I noticed. No, actually. I more than noticed. I sort of knew.’ He stood silently and thought about this and his other new talents. He glanced at the piece of paper he had just written on and then back at the field.

Stephen looked at him intently taking care not to actually think anything. James took the hint anyway. ‘I’m a scientist as I told you,’ he said. ‘That light you saw is something new, something we’ve only just discovered. It seems to have done these things to me.’

‘Made you able to read minds?’

‘Much more than that. It’s amazing. I’ve never done anything like that to a car before. I just suddenly knew how to do it. I’m a changed man, believe me.’

‘I think I do.’

‘Yes. I can see that about you.’

Stephen looked at him earnestly. ‘Is there anything I can do. I want to help. I feel strangely compelled to help.’

James returned his earnest look and nodded. ‘Yes. I can see that too. I can see things in fact…..’ his voice trailed off. ‘Stephen, at this stage, I don’t know enough about what is going on. I need to experiment and research this. I don’t know enough about it to ask for your help. The best way you can help is to keep this to yourself. Maybe, when I understand this better, I will come to you for help. But for now, please tell nobody about this. Don’t even discuss it with your friends there. I have a feeling, in fact, I just know that this is very very important. But Sam is right about the world we live in. It’s dangerous. What I’ve discovered must not get into the wrong hands. Do you understand?’

Stephen nodded.

‘Good man.’ James shook his hand and turned to walk away again.

‘Aren’t you cold?’ Stephen asked.

James stopped and turned around again. He looked around as though he was noticing for the first time the snow and ice and freezing wind. ‘I’m not,’ he said, a note of surprise in his voice. ‘I’m really not.’ He smiled again and turned and walked away.

Stephen watched him go and then stood for a few seconds alone in the lane just staring at the space that James had occupied. It was almost as if a part of him was still there. He thought back. Had Sam talked of his fears and paranoia about the world before or after James had arrived? Before surely?

He started to walk back to the car. As he did so there was another huge flash behind him but this time no bang. He didn’t turn around this time. He knew what had happened. He got back to the car and climbed in just in time to join in an argument about wine before the rescue service arrived.