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A fertile land

A fertile land. For centuries home to simple people. Their homes lie to one side of the valley, sheltered from the coldest winter winds, shaded from the noon sun. Huts of mud built by honest men and wives and laughing children.

All around tree limbs are heavy with ripening fruit. Overhead, a blue void shot with white lashes that shimmer and slide in the mirror below, its banks spattered with coloured blooms.

For so long this land a place of peace.

No more.

The peacemakers float above the eastern ridge, dark sentinels in line abreast. Huge vessels designed to carry troops and equipment wherever they may be required, their shadows span the valley entire. Drums throb and shudder, broadcasting orders to the bloodbirds that spill forth clutching barbed and bladed weapons.

Sinewy figures with tar-coloured faces daubed with vibrant streaks, they are a band of macabre, chattering clowns clad in scraps of armour and cloth and accoutrements gleaned from battles past. Animals’ hides. Scalps of enemies slain. The tattered flags of decimated tribes.

Dull and battered breastplates and helmets clank and clatter, not a suit complete among them. One is naked but for a bowler hat with rainbow feathers tucked into its satin band. The scuffed headpiece nestles above his brow, warms its tiny pointed ears.

Another wears high-heeled boots of purple leather and a cloak of fine white silk draped between its leathery wings. Some trail strips of coloured cloth that flow like maidens’ hair.

They dash like escaped shadows among the pitiful creatures that scurry and hide, or unfurl tobacco-leaf wings to sweep and soar.

The people of the village put up a brave defence. Muskets and pistols pop and clap, flinging riverbed stones in unpredictable arcs. A small canon thumps and rocks on wooden wheels, belching charcoal clouds that hang ahead of its stout muzzle.

The villagers’ few metal machines chug and clatter and wheeze and churn, spouting inky plumes and spitting clods of mud as they become bogged in mire, embraced by quag. They fight on as the bloodbirds pull apart their primitive artillery with bombs that send waves of heat and shock and spinning chunks.

Such bravery.

The bloodbirds hiss and cry and warble throaty ululations. Limbs tumble. Heads roll. Abdomens spill viscera. They flick pointed tongues from razorteeth mouths as they slake their thirst.

Amid this terror a shattered man takes the hand of death. As his eyes cloud he sees the woman he loved and the sons they spawned and raised through winters and summers, and who set off across the world in search of a life. He recalls the building of their small home, its thatch now aflame. The years of famine. The years of plenty that followed the thread of gold discovered in the rocks. The laughter and the love. The unborn child who died.

Then his heart ceases and his blood begins to thicken, his fading watched over by the sun’s white eye, while all around the land lies so ravaged that a worker of the soil boy and man would swear it a stranger’s home, and weep with eventual recognition.

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The ISS experience

On December 24th Radio 4 gave a heads up that the International Space Station would be visible over the UK at about 5:20pm that evening. The sky was expected to be clear and the air crisp, the lady said. The station would be the brightest thing in the sky, moving like a very fast jet – or Santa’s sleigh. Cor, I thought. I’m up for that.

I expected cloud or some other factor to intervene, but when the time came conditions were exactly as promised: perfect. So at 5:15 I went outside, accompanied by Dudley, our Labrador, armed with hot coffee, iPad running the Star Guide app so I’d know where to look, and waited for the space station to appear.

Few things really impress me, I mean really impress me, but I watched the ISS nothing less than gobsmacked. It was a golden gem that rose from behind the houses and moved smoothly across the sky. To some this might have looked like an aircraft, but the speed – over 17,000mph – and colour of the solar panels were incredible. Yet these were not the things that struck me most.

This ISS is in orbit, in space, outside the Earth’s atmosphere. We know this. Yet the vehicle seemed so low. I know the atmosphere’s thin, but it was much closer than I’d expected, and as it described its perfect arc across the sky I was able to perceive not only the curvature of our planet, but also its size. It’s even smaller than I thought.

Some will question spending billions on the development of such a vehicle given the world’s multitudinous problems, but there is also the argument that the technological advances engendered by such endeavours can make contributions for greater benefit in the longer term. My belief is that we should push on beyond low Earth orbit – something not achieved since Apollo 17 back in 1972 – return to the moon, Mars and eventually beyond. In 2015 Tim Peake will begin a 6-month stretch aboard the ISS. I wonder if he’s open to visitors.

T’internet, lovely ladies, and know-it-all husbands

A conversation with Mrs S this morning brought to mind this post from a few years ago…

Right. eBay. It’s a blessing and a burden ain’t it? Availability of lots of items at bargain prices, rare stuff, bits and bobs you can’t get anywhere else, usually for good reason. And a helluva lot of old tat. Now, I’ve bought and sold a fair bit of stuff through eBay in my time: guitar gear, computer equipment, CDs. Usually, it’s relatively plain sailing. But there can be problems. Oh yes.

Last week, for example, my wife bought some Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff, which is highly expensive in the shops. She tells me that it’s usually about £30.00 for one thumbnail-sized pot, but this eBay bargain, dear reader, was just £9.99 for three thumbnail-sized pots.

Coo.

My missus was very pleased with this bargain. However, when the tiny tubs of Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff arrived, two of the pots contained a brown wax-like substance which looked neither special nor suitable for application to Very Special Ladies’ eyes. Rather Toxic rather than Very Special would probably be a fair assessment. The third pot contained a creamy white substance that looked considerably more as expected (although she says it still isn’t quite right).

I contacted the seller not expecting very much, but the two Rather Toxic pots were replaced with Very Special ones without question and, lo, my wife was happy again.

That was not the end, however. She’d also tried to buy some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, but hadn’t had much luck in finding the right stuff: there was Gentle Créme for Sleeping Ladies, Mild Créme for Ladies with Delicate Skin, Mild Créme for Lovely Ladies, and numerous other crémes, sérums and other things with “é” in them, but very few listings for Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, which was what she particularly wanted.

I stepped boldly in, as know-it-all husbands the world over are wont to do. I promptly sought out, bid on and won on her behalf some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, at a price which, she tells me, is about a third of the shop price. It was the right stuff, the right size, the right box, the right price, the works. It arrived yesterday.

Or did it?

When I showed my wife the packet, her Lovely Lady’s Face dropped: instead of Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, I’ve been sent some kind of Super Sérum! Rather than a Super Sérum, this is actually an Absolute Bugger for several reasons:

  • My wife is disappointed;
  • I look like a prize chump (even though I DID buy the right stuff – we checked);
  • It means I’ve got to contact the seller and faff around with an exchange.

So, what’s the point of telling you all this? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose for myself I should learn to mind my own business and stay out of my wife’s transactions (LOL, snicker, etc). As far as you’re concerned, make sure you exercise caution when buying products with “é” in them via t’internet, especially if you are the know-it-all husband of a Lovely Lady.

Home Front – season 1

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Today saw the final episode of season one of Home Front (see previous post). The series has been fantastic – I haven’t missed an episode – and a triumph of storytelling. The writing is of a supremely high quality, and it’s hard to believe each episode crams so much in to just 12 minutes. Even the lines that could slip by unnoticed are often absolute gems, and there’s a wonderful thread of humour that runs concurrent to the fear and grief.

She’s brilliant at following people
Adam Wilson tries to persuade Rev. Winwood to let Jessie into the Boy Scouts

Every acting performance is exemplary. Obvious examples include the forthright conversations Adam has with Reverend Winwood or Jessie; Dorothea’s confrontation with said reverend – her husband – regarding his relationship with Isabel Graham; Gabriel Graham’s gradual unravelling; the just-about-keeping-it-together tension of Alice Macknade; the down-to-Earth, no nonsense bobbying of Sergeant Harris.

Every time you kiss me someone seems to die
Isabel Graham ties herself in knots

We still don’t know what’s happened to the two missing boys, Jimmy and Sam. I have my suspicions – and to be honest I’d expected to find out by the end of season one – but I guess we’ll just have to wait. (Interesting to note that missing children crop up a lot in Katie Hims’ writing.) And in today’s episode missing Dieter’s written to Kitty, who only yesterday wed Victor in a marriage of mutual convenience! I honestly hadn’t expected to feel so strongly, but I love this programme. If you’ve missed any episodes, every one is available on iPlayer.

Now Home Front is off-air until December 1st, I’m looking forward to Tommies, – a new drama about British soldiers serving on the front in World War One. Tommies is scheduled for broadcast in Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot at 14:15 weekly from October 7th.

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Home Front – WW1 drama from the BBC

This is a brief follow-up to my previous post about my enthusiasm for BBC radio drama, having recently visited the BBC studios at the Mailbox in Birmingham to sit in on a recording session of the BBC’s epic new World War One series, Home Front. This was followed on 31 July by the series’ launch at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

I was invited in to the studio by Home Front Editor Jessica Dromgoole. Director for the day was Lucy Collingwood, and the Studio Manager Martha Littlehailes. Overall, I was struck by how the team worked together. This was a swift, smooth operation. No one even appeared slightly stressed. The way the team identified problems with the script or recording and tackled them was fascinating. Every scene improved slightly with each take – no scene requiring more than three – with tweaks to scripts and delivery made on the fly. Having said all that I did see people run on a couple of occasions; although rather than “bloody hell the train’s about to leave!” running it was more “hey look, there’s an ice cream van!” running.

A highlight of my visit was meeting playwright Katie Hims, writer of the episodes being recorded on the day. You’ll know from my previous post that the Hims/Dromgoole partnership has resulted in some of the radio plays I’ve enjoyed most, so seeing Hims in action amending her script and picking up tips direct from a writer whose work I’ve admired for so long was a real privilege.

The actors’ performances were remarkable, and I was pleased to meet Katie Angelou, who played Queenie in Hims’ award-winning Lost Property trilogy. I was even called upon to make a contribution myself! A congregation was required to give authenticity to a church scene. Studio Manager Martha was keen to use real people rather than an atmosphere from the sound library, so everyone available was whisked into the studio where a church was hastily constructed. I feel I played my role with great warmth and depth. Amen.

The series’ launch was a fabulous event held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, attended by crew, cast, writers, BBC representatives and Birmingham’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, no less. Those attending were given a preview of the first two episodes of Home Front followed by a Q&A session with some of those involved in the series’ production, during which we gained insight into the process of research and how the commission came to be.

Writing is something of a psychotic episode: there are people in our head; we watch what they do and listen to what they say and write it all down. Professionals in radio drama play “pretend” all day long. Put talented examples of the two together and magic’s bound to happen.

Home Front starts on Monday 4 August at noon, and is on every weekday, with an omnibus on Fridays at 21:00; there’s also a podcast, and episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer for the next ten years. The quality shines thorough in the Home Front scripts I’ve seen and the samples I’ve heard. These will be great stories of life in Britain during World War One. Enjoy.

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