mug, tea, writer

That Monstrous Country

That monstrous country where I lived

when I was a child,

where everybody looked like me;

that monstrous country

where we played cowboys and Indians,

and the Indians were fierce warriors,

and the cowboys rode over the hill

to save us;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always won,

and the bad guys died peacefully,

tumbling down like leaves

and lying still;

no blood, no shattered bones;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always 

looked like us—

that monstrous country 

is still with us.

The wounds are bloody now.

This is a poem I wrote during another dark time, in 2017. God bless the people of Iraq and Iran. And of my country, too. May we all work for peace, and help to bring it. 

Mary Johnson


A daughter of Bajor (Tora Naprem story, chapter 2)

Without actually getting into full-on nanowrimo, I've been trying to make November into a writing month. This hasn't been altogether successful, but my Deep Space Nine story about Tora Naprem, Gul Dukat's Bajoran mistress, has advanced to the stage where there is a rough outline, and a few chapters are starting to emerge. Here is the first of them.

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Death of a Russian doll.

I haven't posted on here for ages - I haven't even logged on for ages. Sorry. This is more of an attempt to post for the sake of posting than anything - that, and, I hope, something of an exorcism.

For most of my adult life I have seen my national identity as being like those wooden Russian dolls that nest inside one another. I come from Edinburgh, Scotland, the United Kingdom and Europe, in that order, and all are important to me. (I do actually have a set of four such dolls, bought for me by my father in a Russian shop in London when I was very little.) Beyond that, I am a citizen of the world, but those are the four subsets of the world that have my allegiance. So when I woke up a month ago now and found that - by a very narrow margin - we had voted to leave the European Union, it felt as if I had lost part of myself.

And a month on, it still feels like that. Oh, we (in the sense of the UK) will get by - we always have before, as the song says, although it looks very likely that there will be an economic price to pay, possibly a very considerable one. And for British universities (about which I care a great deal, as they employ me) there will certainly be a price, in that (unless we agree to the free movement of people, something that a large number of Brexiteers specifically do not want) we will lose our access to important funding bodies and exchange programmes. Those who say 'why don't you just work with the Americans/Australians/whoever instead' don't understand that we do already - the EU did not prevent us from working with other countries, but there is less funding to help us to work with them, and leaving the EU will not magically make it appear from nowhere. The set of dolls may lose more members - Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU, on top of a narrow vote to remain in the UK two years ago. Our pragmatic First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is not committing herself to a second independence referendum at the moment - she is probably waiting, like everyone else, to see exactly what the terms of our departure from the EU are like - but there is every possibility that there will be such a referendum, and that it too, will be a vote to leave. (The other part of the UK that voted to remain was Northern Ireland - there have been calls for a united Ireland on the basis of Brexit, but I'm afraid I don't know enough about Irish politics to know whether the new circumstances would be enough to win over the Unionist community.) So it feels like the calm before the storm at the moment - we know nothing, and we are waiting.

Some of this does seem to have been a case of the usual suspects - dislike of immigration, fear of terrorists (both of these stoked by irresponsible politicians). Now that 'Leave' has won a narrative of the 'little people' socking it to the 'elite' is emerging - it's somewhat bizarre, when I cannot afford a house, to suddenly be part of an 'elite', and a metropolitan one at that! And, as in the case of Donald Trump, the representatives of the 'common man' seem to have backgrounds that are anything but common - Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Balliol, distantly related to royalty) for example, or Nigel Farage (Dulwich College, former commodities trader). Beyond this are complaints about 'sovereignty' and 'democracy'. It's difficult to know what to make of these - the EU's decision-making process is certainly cumbersome and opaque, giving a great deal of weight to the appointees of national parliaments - but on the other hand we are a country whose parliament has an unelected second chamber, and which has no written constitution (something that potentially allows far too much power to the Prime Minister), so can we actually afford to throw stones? It is hard not to feel that 'the EU is not democratically accountable' really means that 'the EU is not democratically accountable at the level of the nation state' and that this is actually a mask for an English nationalism that wants to have full control of its own affairs. Which is fair enough, I suppose - but this means nothing to people who are not English. For me, the UK is already a composite body, for which we (as in Scotland) agreed to give up part of our sovereignty in 1707 - I think that this union has served us well, but am annoyed to find our partners getting all prissy at the very idea of a further union. However, this may just be me!

Whatever the arguments, wherever this is going, I do feel that the country is smaller now. Perhaps I just watch too much Star Trek, but, whatever its shortcomings, the EU always felt to me like a noble project - an attempt by old enemies to work together in the interests of a greater whole, a sort of tiny precursor of a United Federation of Planets. By leaving it, it feels as though we are turning our back on something difficult, and opting instead for the flattering, and easy. There is increasing talk of the Commonwealth - 'good' foreigners seem to be our former colonies, people comfortingly made in our own image (or so we think - wrongly, IMO). Above all, there is an embarrassingly fawning attitude to the US and the 'special relationship' - rather like the little old lady who proudly shows the photo of the successful son who barely finds time to phone, let alone visit. And there is a lot of rather jolly encouragement to 'pull together' and show that 'bulldog spirit' which is extremely irritating to those of us who remember that only 52% of those who voted chose this in the first place.

Oh well. Mustn't grumble, I suppose (but I will, oh, I will!)
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My rather heroic grandfather.

I did plan to be posting more this year - unfortunately events, mostly family ones, have rather caught up with me. However, things are going pretty well on that front at the moment, so I will try to get round to posting every few weeks again - or once a month, anyway.

This is a family-related post, in that it is about my grandfather, my mother's father, Dr Alexander Joe. I never met him - he died a couple of years before I was born, but he was a doctor - a specialist in infectious diseases, and for twenty years Medical Superintendent of the City Hospital, Edinburgh's fever hospital. But he started his career as a Surgeon Probationer - that is, a medical student doing the work of a fully-qualified doctor - in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in World War I. His ship, the HMS Nestor, was sunk at the Battle of Jutland, 100 years ago today, and I came across the following account of this from an interview with him in a German prisoner of war camp after the battle. (The Nestor, unlike many of the larger British ships at Jutland which suffered catastrophic explosions, was disabled and then sunk by the Germans, so most of the crew managed to get into lifeboats, and were then picked up by German ships.) It is such a dramatic account, that I felt that I would like to share it:

By this time the German fire was a bit hot, and before I knew where I was someone pushed a life belt over my head and shoved me in a boat. I was no sooner in and we were about to shove off when someone shouted ‘What about Freeman?’ This man had been left on the bridge with his leg half shot away, so I rushed up on top only to find poor Freeman dead. In about 30 seconds or so I was back in the boat again. There was a frightful shriek and the whole bridge crashed over the side. If Freeman had been alive and it had been necessary for me to carry him down I would assuredly have gone at that time, for he was a heavy man . . . We were now out of the frying pan and into the fire, as we had no oars and couldn’t shove off from Nestor, while the wash from the shells dropping into the sea close to us nearly swamped us, not to mention that it half drowned us with spray. At last we got away . . . paddling with our hands . . . and I saw Nestor about 30 or 50 yards away badly down astern; then she sank, gradually and with dignity until her bow remained projecting out of the sea.

Gareth Thomas

I woke up this morning to the news that Gareth Thomas, who played Roj Blake in Blake's 7, died yesterday at the age of 71.

In memory of him, I am posting this short story I wrote a while ago, in which Jenna Stannis, Blake's pilot and lover, mourns him after his death on Gauda Prime.

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The Moral of the Story.

Still on the topics of Deep Space 9, Cardassians, and Gul Dukat, I'm afraid. I was struck by a comment in an online discussion of DS9 that the episode 'Indiscretion' (where Dukat finds, and fails to kill, his illegitimate, half-Bajoran daughter Ziyal) is almost half-way through the entire run of the show, and affects everything that happens afterwards. That inspired the following short story (about 1000 words) - a conversation between Dr Julian Bashir and his old friend, Elim Garak, some time after the events of 'What You Leave Behind'. One of the great joys of making Garak the narrator, of course, is that one is never quite sure how serious he is being. It is called 'The Moral of the Story'.

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Sympathy for the devil?

Well, we seem to have been here before. I think I must be naturally insubordinate - I can remember watching Dr Who as a child and feeling that the Doctor (in his Tom Baker incarnation) was far too smug, and imagining stories in which he got it wrong and had to be rescued by other characters (mostly of my own devising). As an adult, it often seems to be the case that I like the characters I am apparently not supposed to like. So, as I am coming up to my fortnightly posting deadline, some thoughts on the subject of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

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New Year.

Well, I've already broken one new year's resolution, which was to post to this journal once every two weeks. It is now seventeen days into January, and I do not have much to write about at all. It has been a very wet winter so far, and York has flooded badly - the flood barrier on the smaller river, the Foss, failed, so water was able to back up that river and into the city, and places that never expected to flood have been badly damaged. Some friends of mine were stranded in their fourth-floor flat, an island in the waters, for three days. They seem to have rather enjoyed it, but it has been a sad thing to see all the shops and restaurants in the area, completely ruined. Some will take months to reopen, some will not reopen - including the famous King's Arms, the ground floor of which floods almost every year, but which this year has been under water for about six weeks. And York has certainly not been the worst affected place. So a grim, damp start to the year, really.