Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, turn and face the strain.

You know how it is, pretending to be normal, day after day, is exhausting and after three or four weeks where I was feeling surprisingly mentally switched on, the fog descended again this week. I had McMini off school on Monday which meant that, on some subliminal level, I managed to think it was Sunday and therefore spent Tuesday firmly convinced that it was now Monday, with interesting results. This brain fog is an entirely normal part of my monthly cycle but I’ve reached a point in life where my hormones are exacerbating it.

You may not know this, although you could well have guessed from all the effing and blinding and impotent anger on here – impotent but funny, I hope – but I am at that age when my periods are stopping, or preparing to stop or possibly finished already, I don’t know.

Amazingly, it’s not something people talk about that much. Well … I do, but I realise I’ve never really posted about it on here. I think I ought to. The bit where your periods stop is a part of your life that is probably different for every single woman but maybe if I share my own experience it’ll help someone, somewhere to know that they’re not a freak, and certainly not alone. If you, or any of your friends have reached that stage, hopefully sharing my thoughts will be of practical use. So here is your guide.

What is it, this menopause thing?

Well, what most women refer to as ‘the menopause’ actually happens in two parts. There’s the menopause, which is the actual moment your periods stop. A few years after you will still be enjoying – although that isn’t really the right word – the hormonal aftershocks. I’m not sure what they call this bit. Post menopause I suppose. Then there is the perimenopause which is the time leading up to the point when your periods stop when your body has clocked that the eggs are running out and is quietly, or not so quietly, shutting up the fertility shop.

OK so if it’s not the menopause, what do I call it?

The change.

Fine, so I know, in your Mum’s day, everyone called it the menopause but these days you’re not allowed to do that. When I say ‘the change’ I feel a bit giggly and old fashioned. I want to mouth it soundlessly, yet theatrically, possibly with a knowing expression and one finger pointing downwards, the way Les Dawson might in a Sissy and Ada sketch when they’re talking about ‘downstairs’ problems (snortle).

Seriously, though, avoid calling this time in your life ‘the menopause’ at all costs unless you’re absolutely sure your periods have stopped. Many people I’ve met use the word ‘menopause’ as a blanket term to describe the phase where they are experiencing symptoms, which are uniformly vile both before and after your periods finish. Don’t do this. For every person who knows exactly what you mean, there is another who also knows exactly what you mean but will still feel it their duty to explain to you that you are incorrect in your use of terminology. You will have to pretend this is news to you, or risk flaunting your sloppy and inaccurate use of language and eliciting another ear bashing for your shoddy lazy thinking and general wrongness as a human being.

Naturally, perimenopausal/menopausal as your anger levels are, this will annoy you extensively. Indeed, there is a real danger you might actually lamp one of these well meaning pedants if you let this scenario happen too often. So don’t. Call it the change.

Moving on.

What are the symptoms?

Try as I might I haven’t been able to verify this but as I’m sure I read somewhere that there are something like 98 different symptoms that can present themselves. Common ones, or at least, the ones the NHS list, are – and I quote:

  • hot flushes – short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, which can make your skin red and sweaty
  • night sweats – hot flushes that occur at night
  • difficulty sleeping – this may make you feel tired and irritable during the day – especially if you have the problems with memory and concentration listed, below, because it’s frustrating as hell. Try remembering to make school packed lunches, to pack the swimming things in the school bag on the right day or turn up to a dental appointment when you are supposed to, when you can’t find your arse in the dark with both hands and need cue cards to remember your own fucking name!
  • a reduced sex drive (libido)
  • problems with memory and concentration
  • vaginal dryness and pain, during sex or, generally, itching and discomfort
  • headaches
  • mood changes, such as low mood or anxiety
  • palpitations – heartbeats that suddenly become more noticeable
  • joint stiffness, aches and pains
  • reduced muscle mass
  • recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • in some instances, it can cause a recurrence of post/anti natal depression

How long is it going to last, Doctor?

Hmm, well the symptoms can start up to ten years before your periods actually stop and they usually go on for about four years afterwards, but one in ten women is lucky enough to have them go on for twelve years. Oh joy. I can attest to this, one of the ladies at my gym is in her 70s and still gets hot flushes. Sometimes, hot flushes are called hot flashes but we still call it looking flushed when we go red so unless you’re a bit Victorian about using the word flush because you think it’s something not quite nice a lavatory does (mwahahahargh!) or American – because they probably do talk about looking flashed rather than looking flushed let me know my lovely US readers – I can’t really see the point.

Yeh but how long is it going to take for me? How many years?

Ah yes, well, you see, there’s the thing, this is hormones. No-one has a fucking clue because the driving factor is your hormones and only they know and they’re cagey little bastards. Each woman’s body has its own, unique and joyous interpretation of how the business of ceasing to ovulate is achieved. For the record, the health professionals treating me reckon I went into an early one after having McMini aged 40. I’m now 50 and neither my periods, such as they are, nor the symptoms show any signs of stopping.

How do I know when it’s starting, then?

Some women start getting hot flushes, which is a big indicator. I haven’t really. However, I was first officially diagnosed as perimenopausal at the age of 45 when they thought I had been for five years, already. Nothing seemed to have settled down after McMini. My cycle was weird and I was getting constant headaches, the kind of nutbar hormonal activity that was giving me the spins, period pains that made the bout of appendicitis I had once look like a walk in the park and a temper that was … short. They reckoned I’d gone into it early  having waited until I was 40 to have McMini. I had a marina coil put in – this has nothing to do with Morris cars and does not mean I go faster but it did put paid to the headaches and stomach cramps every time I had what Viz magazine euphemistically calls, ‘the painters in’.

The folks who inserted my first coil reckoned I’d have finished my periods by the time the hormones wore out, when I was aged 50.

They were wrong.

Aged about 49 I went to the doctor because I’d had sore boobs – yes that’s another lovely symptom – for three months and thought I ought to get that checked. I also wanted to discuss what appeared to be early onset dementia. We did the boobs first and she asked a whole raft of questions finishing up with,

’I’m pretty sure I know what’s wrong but I just have one more question, are you having problems with your short term memory?’

I said that was the other thing I was there to see her about and she said that it was entirely hormonally induced which was kind of good and kind of not as in, I’m not going mad but I’m not going to get any better.

Am I peri or post menopausal? Well, ladies, the point of a coil is to limit or stop your periods, so unfortunately, I haven’t a blind clue. I have had one hot flush but that’s all. Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone does get hot flushes, one lady at the gym I spoke to never had any at all. If you don’t have them, try to ignore the people who say you can’t possibly be having the change if you haven’t had a hot flush. They’re talking through their arses.

Is there a cure?

Most judgements about, treatments of and general related aspects to the change are based on scientific fact but their application definitely appears to be more of an art than a science. Also, clearly, the symptoms you are experiencing make a difference to the treatments you can have and they are different from woman to woman. Here are few options, anyway.

HRT

You can have hormone replacement theory, usually, but not always, involving a pill with a tiny dose of progesterone and an eostragen gel which you rub on.

Originally, HRT merely put off the inevitable, hence my choice of a coil over HRT, so the eggs go on disappearing. The last thing I wanted was to come off HRT after five years only to have the whole bloody hormone circus back in town. HRT these days is getting to smaller doses at less risk so it’s not beyond the realms that you can just take it forever. My beef with that would be periods. NO WAY am I voluntarily going back to having periods in any way shape or form. On the up side, you’re not going to end up with brittle bones which can happen over the course of the change.

Some think that the risks of HRT are too great, there is a small risk of increasing your chances of getting breast cancer but it’s much smaller than the increased risk of getting breast cancer you’ll have if you drink too much or get fat.  It also means your cardio vascular system will remain in much better shape and you won’t have to worry about the brittle bone thing.

CBT

Yep you read that correctly, cognitive behavioural therapy. Addressing the anxiety about whether or not an embarrassingly hot flush will appear at a bad time has a sizeable impact on the number of hot flushes a woman has, linking them to stress. Obviously, this also works well for women who are suffering from totally irrational anxiety – another jolly symptom of the change. A friend told me, recently, that her first inkling that she was having the change was when she sought treatment for what she thought was a nervous breakdown. Yes hormones can really mess with your head.

On the hot flush front, the chemical that causes them has also been identified and a drug tested that blocks the effects of this chemical. It has worked extremely well in trials and is now creeping through the safety checks and validation process – it should be available in a few years.

Diet and gut health

What you eat can help a bit. There are various foods that can help balance hormone deficit, mainly things like oily fish, nuts and seeds, the omega things basically. I also take vitamin B12 and have for years, along with evening primrose oil which seem to take the edge off my PMT (or PMS if you’re in the US) and cranberry capsules which keep the cystitis down to a minimum. Much of this, in my case, is about feeling that I’m doing something to try and control my symptoms. It makes me fee less like a piece of driftwood tossed on a stormy sea and more like … well, if not a boat then at least, a life raft with some rudimentary form of steering and a vague notion where land is. Although, that said, whether or not it’s a victory of belief over science, it’s amazing what a can of sardines can do to get rid of the headaches I get at certain times of the month.

Yeast …

If you are suffering from the brain fog side of things, then, bizarrely, the balance of your gut flora and fauna can make a difference. Apparently 70% of your serotonin is produced in the gut. I am a great believer in trying anything once so when a friend said she had some Kefir grains going for a good home I went and collected some. Kefir can be grown in water or whole milk. It is a yeast which feeds on the water/milk and ferments it – the water has to have sugar and stuff in. Essentially, what this means is that you are drinking yeast shit. Try not to think about that. Like spreading manure on the fields, yeast shit in the guts does wonders and-

I should stop this here really shouldn’t I?

Anyway …

Bob the Blob

He looks like adenoidsMy personal stash of Kefir grains are collectively called Bob the Blob and they are the whole milk kind. Bob in his naked state looks like adenoids, under the milk he looks like something out of Dr Who – the Brain of Morbious springs to mind. He lives in a jar in a dark cuboard in our kitchen. Bob is like that thing out of one fish two fish red fish blue fish, he will grow and grow so you can give bits of Bob to your similarly post/perimenopausally challenged friends. I wouldn’t sell his … producings …  as yeast shit though or they might not want it.

Bob’s home made stuff is an acquired taste, it’s a bit like drinking feta cheese. To be honest – the water kefir is made with lemon and sugar and is much tastier – but Bob definitely cuts down on the brain fog and certainly on the length of time each monthly fog bout lasts.

Cutting down stress

Yes, I realise you can’t do this, but what I mean is, it’s worth taking an open minded approach and trying everything. Take Bob the Blob for example. If drinking yeast shit reduces my brain fog, it reduces my stress. It also reduces my total and utter frustration with the day to day business of dwelling among the normals – never my strong point even without brain fog. As a result, I am a lot less stressed and that makes the headaches easier to manage. And talking to people and making jokes about it certainly helped me cope.

Magnets and cucuramins

If you get joint pain, magnets and curcuramins may help. On the curcuramins front, not the turmeric pills I mean the real heavy duty ones where the curcuramins are extracted and concentrated way more. The bonus of curcuramins is that there is some actual proper scientific evidence that they do help, and they also help fight/prevent cancer. My joint pain was identified as not being down to my arthritic knees during a prolonged bout of physio therapy in the summer. Having tried turmeric pills and discovered a definite drop in the pain levels, I decided I’d give the curcuramins with extra grunt a go and they have helped. Like Bob, they haven’t eradicated the symptoms but they have drastically reduced them and I do now have days where it’s only my arthritic knees that hurts.

Magnets, similar. Putting magnets on joints that hurt works for me. I have no idea why but it does. I use big fuck off magnets, naturally. A lot of the ones you buy are too small to make a difference. You need maximum Gauss to get any benefits. I also find a magnet on the affected area works better than one on a wrist band.

Any other advice?

The best for me, was to talk about it with other people. I’m lucky enough to go to a ladies only gym where most of the ladies are going through the change now or retired. Iti

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Accepting the way dementia transforms someone you love.

It’s been a rough two weeks on the old dears front and now things have settled again, I feel I can talk about it. There is a maze of guilt and awfulness to experience when someone you love gets dementia. It is really hard to watch the pieces of their personality gradually disappearing. I know that Sir Terry saw it as little pieces of himself disappearing forever every day. The trouble is, if you are close to a dementia sufferer then for the sake of the sanity of both of you, you cannot allow yourself to see it like that.

Mum and Dad’s wedding photo. Check out the hands. Hanging onto one another like they never want to let go.

There was a time when I felt that Dad was dead to me. That the person I knew had gone. That made me feel like shit on oh so many levels. Actually, it isn’t true. The person I knew is still there, but parts of his brain have gone. I reasoned it out like this:

If he’d had an accident and become paralysed from the waist down, I wouldn’t write him off because his legs didn’t work. So his brain is stuffed, it’s just a different part of the body, so what was the problem?

Even so, there was a period when I felt that I could never learn to cope with this new stranger in a familiar guise. My dad who wasn’t my dad. There were times when I almost wished he would die, not because I wanted him to but to end his suffering, and ours. I still envy people whose parents die suddenly or after a short illness, but that’s because treating Dad with the dignity and humanity I should takes an exhausting amount of moral fibre, mental stamina and strength of character not to mention time, a commodity of which I have absolutely fuck all! And emotional energy, another commodity of which I have jack shit. I guess there is always going to be the odd day when I wonder what it would be like if I could stop being quite so badly needed and get my life back.

Then I remember what my Dad’s friend Ken said. Ken looked after his wife, Biddie, when she had dementia. He was just lovely with her and she’d wander off, get confused, be unable to work out where she was. Ask where the children were and he’d say, ‘They’re at home, now come along Biddie, it’s quite alright.’ I once told him I thought he was doing a wonderful job and that I thought he was amazing, the way he looked after her, the way he coped with it and that I was in awe of how he did it because I didn’t think I could.

‘It’s an honour. An honour and a privilege,’ he said.

He got emphysema and his son and daughter came to live in, turn and turn about. At one point, before his wife died, he was very sick and was given the last rites. The next morning he felt better and rang the priest to say thank you! Like Mum is doing for Dad, he held on. He survived Biddie, but not for long.

So that’s my motto for when things get difficult. Be like Ken. And it was Ken’s attitude to Biddie that I aim for, that ability to see her as she had always been when, to the rest of us, she seemed have become someone else.

Mental disabilities are hard. People who have cognitive problems, or who say and do inappropriate things can be hard to love. The parameters in which they operate are not the same as ours, so it’s awkward. Connecting is hard. Sometimes, it’s even dangerous. I confess, it’s not great when you consider it a success if you get away with hugging your father without him groping your arse. But the important thing with dementia is not to give up on the person. They’re still in there, they’ve just lost their ability to process the world through memory and all that is left is emotion, so the trick is to keep them feeling emotionally comfortable – yeh, I know, easier said than done.

Dad is not always very nice to people anymore (understatement of the century) when he panics he gets defensive and sweary. He’s particularly bad in the mornings. He’s never been a morning person and actually, I thoroughly sympathise there, because neither have I. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is get up, wash my face and clean my teeth because, even with an electric toothbrush, cleaning my teeth is one of the most boring things in the world and I like to get it over and done with. And this is the thing with Dad. To look after him, we all have to make the links between the extremes in his behaviour to the norms in our own; to understand, to give it a lot of thought.

Despite being a very social animal, Dad also struggles with a busy house first thing, so he’s not great at having visitors to stay. Indeed, the vilest and most horrible I’ve ever seen him was last Chirstmas, when McOther, McMini and I went to stay with Mum and Dad. There’s a hotel just up the road and I think staying in that might be worth a try in future. But at Christmas most hotels have been booked years in advance, or are closed. At Christmas, it will always have to be round theirs.

Some days, Dad is completely switched on. He knows who I am, he remembers how to have a conversation, more to the point, he can follow one. He pauses and listens when others are speaking and chips in with his own comments. Other days, he shouts that no-one’s paying him any attention. That just means that, today, he can’t follow the thread and is feeling a bit frightened and disorientated, or just a bit left out. His reactions are more childlike as new parts of his brain succumb. It can be hard to find Dad in there, beyond all that effing and blinding, throwing things around. Strangely, while in some respects, there is an element of a two year old throwing a tantrum, with much of it, the main gist is seeking reassurance or trying to hurry things up. So he empties out his cup or clears his plate, but he doesn’t realise that scraping the leavings off it onto the drawing room floor is the wrong way to do that. It gets a reaction and gets everyone’s plates cleared so that’s fine by him, he fails to grasp the gap in his logic.

When Dad is like this, it’s really hard to engage. You don’t want to. You withdraw. You cut off contact. You don’t talk to him because it hurts you. Except that makes it worse. I guess the biggest trick is to remember that while he’s behaving badly to get attention, the reason he is vying for that attention is because he needs reassurance. You have to constantly remind yourself of the dementia sufferer’s humanity, even when they seem to be inhuman. If I chat to Dad and give him lots of attention when I arrive, he is happier and I also end up having far more time to talk to Mum.

A couple of years ago, Mum finally got too exhausted to look after Dad and her health broke down. Waking up and talking him to the loo whenever he needed a wee in the night, every night, for fifteen years had finally taken it’s toll. Lack of sleep and the rigours of living with someone who, essentially, needed the kind of vigilance required to look after a two year old is hard enough when you’re young. When you’re 82 it’s a pretty tall order. I remember talking to my brother, and we felt that Dad was dead and all that was left was this weird shouty stranger who was dragging Mum down, sucking out her life, her energy, the joy in her life. My brother wanted to put Dad in a home but Mum said she’d promised she’d never do that and refused. I stood by her because I wanted her to be OK with herself.

Luckily, I don’t feel that way about Dad anymore, but I’d lay bets that feeling is a natural stage in coming to terms with any brain-damaged loved one. So to anyone reading this who feels that way, chill. It’s normal. Likewise, feeling shit about yourself for feeling that way is, undoubtedly, normal as well. And if you work at the way you are thinking about this, analyse why you feel that way and do your best to work out ways to engage with dementia sufferer on their own terms, it will pass.

Dad can’t understand why Mum no longer looks like this.

While putting Dad in a home would, undeniably, be better for Mum’s physical health, it would be disastrous for her mental health and, at the moment, it would be terrible for Dad, too. Maybe further on, when he doesn’t really realise it’s a home he’s in but not now when he is very aware and wants to stay where he is, with Mum. For all that he is ‘engaged’ to one of the carers and two of the young women who work in the pub, there is still a weird habit of love for Mum. He doesn’t realise he’s old, so he can’t quite understand how they are married, but he does understand that he loves her, even if he has difficulty placing how or why. My brother is probably right. Looking after Dad may well be killing Mum, but it’s what she wants to do and it’s her choice. If she stops living life on her terms, or doing whatever she needs to do to be able to look herself in eye in front of the mirror in the morning, that really will kill her.

However, recently, Dad has been doing some very silly things, like throwing himself on the floor and refusing to get up. I worry that he may hurt himself and then Mum’s whole argument – My friend X put her husband in a home and he didn’t last three weeks – goes by the board. Because if he ends up in hospital and then has to just go somewhere where they have a bed, it would be disastrous. So we need to establish a relationship with a home. One where I think he would be happy if he lobbed himself onto the floor and broke his hip, or if something happened to one of the live in carers and he had to go there for respite. So this last couple of weeks, I picked out a home, a really, really lovely place nearby, took Mum and Dad to visit it and put his name down. It will be a while before his name comes up but at least he’s been there now. I was hoping to look at social days there but he realised it was a rest home, so I think we will have to wait and try that again in a month or two. The idea is, that he gets to know a home then, should he need to go into one, it will be a place with which he is familiar.

Going to see Dad and Mum every week does help me to see the dappled light and shade of Dad’s moods. Sometimes he is on amazingly good form and is unmistakeably my father as I knew him, others, not so much. The thing is, as the disease takes more and more of his brain, you have to work harder to engage. I guess I have come to see him as some kind of Dad-shaped enigma, a puzzle that has to be solved. Sometimes he says,

‘I don’t like you Mary.’

When he does this, I rush over to him, fling my arms round him and say,

‘Nooo! You can’t say that Dad! Because I love you!’

He will then hug me back with all his might, laughing with relief, well, we both laugh with relief at that point. It used to hurt me a lot when he did this to start with, until I learned the hug trick. But now I understand that when he says he doesn’t like me, what he’s really saying is that he’s worried that I don’t like him. He has enough emotional intelligence left to know that while bad behaviour gets him the attention, and therefore the reassurance, he craves, it also upsets people. He’s asking for a different kind of reassurance, but in a defensive, spiky way, and when I give it to him, he relaxes and his bad temper fades. But it’s hard and it takes mental energy. And I watch the carers, because they learn these techniques more quickly than I do, so I can see what they’re going that works best and copy. That side of it must be much harder for my brother because all the carers are women, so he has to work out his own path. I don’t envy him.

Sometimes, when you’re caught up in the admin, the things you need to get and do, it’s easy to forget that Mum and Dad are people; to forget the human element of the logistical problem. It’s not always easy to give them the freedom to make decisions for themselves and I often feel caught in the middle, because I think, being further away, my brother takes it harder than me and is more keen to just sort it out, by putting Dad, or both of them, in a home. The gaps between his visits are longer, therefore, the deterioration in Dad is more obvious, Dad’s behaviour is always at its worst, and techniques that my brother has learned, which are successful one visit, may no longer work on the next. Because I’m lucky enough to live nearer, and visit every week, most of the coping strategies will last longer before new ones need to be found.

Despite spitting on the floor, throwing stuff about, making inappropriate comments and loving the F word above all else, there are times when we do get Dad back, even on the bad days. Just pop on a dvd of Dad’s Army and suddenly we are all laughing together, on the same level. Or sometimes, listening to music, looking at something outside, taking him for a walk, talking about my grandparents, he will suddenly light up and tell a funny story and we will all be laughing as if he was fine.

But that’s the thing I need to get my head round, of course. He is fine. I’m the one with the problem. He’s just disabled.

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The sky is falling apparently … again.

Today, let’s talk about publishing! Yes, I’m going to talk author shop. That said, I’m supposed to talk author shop really, aren’t I? That’s why I mark all the McMini and dementia posts ‘off topic’ although to be honest I go off topic so often that the book-related stuff is the off topic theme here nowadays. But hey ho, onwards and upwards.

 

So this week I was listening to Joanna Penn’s podcast, at least, I think it was this week’s, it might have been last week [MT disappears to check]. Ah, yes. Last week, number 402. The point is, she was talking at one point about the apparent disappearance of the also-boughts on Amazon. Now, I’ve never actually got much out of the also-boughts, myself, because the folks who read my books seem to have very enquiring minds and read all kinds of weird shizz so they were always stuffed to perdition from the start. People who bought my books have also bought thrillers, horror books, text books and mostly, my other books leaving the Amazon recommendation engine going, ‘Uh?’

However, if your readers are a bit more genre-centric, I’m reliably informed that you can glean readers from the fans of authors similar to your via the also-boughts, readers who are likely to enjoy your stuff. Amazon notices their buying habits so if readers of Terry Pratchett books start buying mine, for example, the recommendation engine goes, ‘Oy-oy!’* and starts automatically recommending my books to people who have bought Sir Terry’s books (oh how I wish). If that happens Bob’s your uncle, your work is introduced to a new and interested audience.

* you didn’t know it was Jewish, did you?

Word is that for some time, Amazon has been trialing the removal of these also-boughts from its current, prime position, or removing them altogether, and introducing more strips of paid advertising instead. They’ve been doing this mostly on their US site so I haven’t seen it but obviously, if they make the switch permanent, it has some serious ramifications.

If the also-boughts disappear, then, in theory, the ads should provide a similar premise, since most authors who advertise chose similar authors’ names as advertising keywords, so that when readers look at books by them, they see adverts for your similar book. However, as usual, there are some unscrupulous spammers advertising everywhere, without a nod to relevance at all like those people who keep offering me products to enlarge my penis … when I’m a WOMAN (money down the drain boys). Or thinking about it, maybe they just have the SEO equivalent of also-boughts like mine.

Anyway, a lot of authors head the advert something like, ‘If you like Douglas Adams you’ll love M T McGuire’ except I don’t because it’s like telling everyone you’re actually God, down to visit the planet incognito, and will unleash a string of one star reviews from Douglas Adams fans who are incensed at your presumption. Indeed, advertising anything funny that’s not Douglas Adams to Adams’ fans is a bona fide recipe to send them into conniptions about your sheer brass neck and bring down a tidal wave of snark upon yourself – believe me, I’ve tried it. Luckily Terry Pratchett fans are more benign so I say things like, ‘The K’Barthan Series. A bit like the discworld series but not as funny.’ But I digress.

So will also-bot-ageddon make any difference if it sticks? Yes, in that it will mean authors and publishers will have to pay for their place on the also-boughts. For readers, there will be no also-boughts to trawl for similar authors to the ones you like. For authors, there’ll be no easy way of finding alternative yet similar authors to yourself to use as advertising keywords. But as David Gaughran, points out, the infrastructure will still be there and Amazon will still use the also boughts algorithm to make recommendations to customers by email. Also, since what an author thinks her audience is may not be correct, Amazon will always go on the buying habits of target readers rather than an author’s guestimate, because that will make them more cash, so presumably they are unlikely to bin the also bots long term.

As a reader, I only use the also boughts or buy on personal recommendation, I never use search because it never returns interesting books, only commercial ones and I’m British so I’m far too cynical to click many ads. That, alone, is enough to suggest Amazon probably won’t bin the also-boughts entirely. I can’t be their only customer who works like that. Maybe it will appear in some other form or maybe they will fix the shambolic awfulness that is AMS ads so they present a more accurate alternative. We can but hope.

What this whole panic does flag up to me, though, is that now, even more than ever, it’s important to avoid being beholden to one big business for anything, be it a retailer for all your income, a particular form of social media for all your communication, or even one product. We have to get our books out to as many retailers as possible, in as many formats as possible and while social media is best done in earnest on one site alone, there’s no harm in having your blog posts go to all the others if the software you use allows.  And yes, that means I really should make some audio books. I’m not sure it has to involve remortgaging the house or tying myself in an exclusive deal to one retailer for however million years* for a crappy 40% royalties, anymore.

* actually, I think it’s seven, or maybe fourteen years, but that’s a sod of a long time. I may be dead by the end of that.

For a number of reasons, mostly Real Life’s continual and annoying interference with my plans for literary world domination, I write slowly. That means that, ideally, I need to engage the kinds of readers who are prepared to pay for my books because there’s a longer gap between each one. But, as digital content becomes further and further devalued we probably will reach a point where it’s all free on subscription and we authors get paid for page reads of our electronic content, if at all. If the review site I used to write on was anything to go on, payment starts at a good rate, the site in question paid 50p a read at the start. By the end, it paid a fraction of a penny for each read and you needed to get hundreds of reads on any piece you submitted to net 10p. I see the subscription model going the same way; 1p per read of each of my 100k+ books. Ouch.

Yet, one of the things Joanna Penn raised this week, was that while recent trends point to electronic content decreasing in value to nothing, there is an increase in people buying other things, instead; their favourite albums on vinyl, hard backs of their favourite books or box sets and other deluxe or collector’s versions. There’s also the idea of the author as a brand, the value of a personal appearance, visiting conventions, schools etc. Not something Real Life gives me room for at the moment but there’s no harm building the MTM brand.

As for product diversity, as well as forms of output for my books, there is merchandise. Many readers do and will buy merchandise, possibly more for comedy books, but, for my own part, the stuff I made on Zazzle with the art work from my books netted me rather more than the books, themselves the first year they were out. Again, I stick that stuff everywhere; redbubble, zazzle, cafepress, and any I go on to find. More importantly, I should to put them on my own site – don’t forget to do that, kids, I’m working on mine. It’s an easier decision for me, since my books aren’t mainstream and committing to one retailer makes little business sense if you write the kinds of books I do. My fans are eclectic and far flung and I usually only sell a couple of copies of each book a month on each site (it’s particularly low at the moment because I’ve run out of cash for ads). The way I see it, on pretty much every site where my book is on sale, I’m likely to sell a handful. The more sites my book is on, the more people will be buying those couple of copies and suddenly, £5 a piece from twenty or thirty obscure book retail sites adds up fast.

Finally, it’s all about control. I think, possibly, the smartest thing you can do is retain control of as much of your work, rights and reader contact as you can. I’ve spent enough time in marketing to be wary of relying on any one big business. Remember when Facebook showed your posts to, like, everyone? Remember when they stopped and authors with followings of thousands found they were only reaching a handful of their fans? Yeh. That. So to me the most important thing, above everything else, is to get a mailing list going, achieve a rapport with the readers there, sell your stuff on your own site and keep all those small sites going. Because that way if one of the big boys does something funny and stuffs up your earnings, it won’t be the end of the world.

To sum it up then, nothing is constant, the only thing we can guarantee about the ebook business is that it will keep changing. And people who are reliant on Amazon will run round complaining that the sky is falling on their heads. So you have to keep as much of the process where you can control it as possible while, at the same time, giving yourself as many options as possible. That’s why, if you write slowly, the way I do, there are probably only three golden rules:

  1. Have as many sources of income as possible, by having your products available in as many different places as you can.
  2. Aim to generate as many different income streams as possible around your books.
  3. Aim to get a good rapport with your readers and sort out as much of that as is humanely possible, through channels where you have control, on your own cyber turf.

______________________________

Happy news. If anyone wants to try reading the weird shit I produce without having to join my mailing list to get some free, and then be subjected to even more weird shit in the form of newsletters, you can buy Book 1 in the K’Barthan Series at a reduced price on Kobo from today until 27th November. There are a lot of other books reduced like this on Kobo, too, not just mine!

Few Are Chosen

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The lady vanishes, or at least, the kids do …

So a light one this week from the non fiction family stories thing. The other day, there was a spoof article from SuffolkGazette – a jokey ‘news’ site on Facebook; ‘Girl, 9, disappears after putting on cream that makes you look 10 years younger.’  It made me think about this story about the antics my grandmother and great aunt got up to one evening when they were youngsters. My grandmother told me this story, herself, so it does come straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. She swore it was true and my mother thinks it quite probable that it is, so here, for your delectation …

The Vanishing Cream …

In this tale, Nye, my grandmother, was twelve years old, which would make Aunty, her sister, four. Nye comes over as a great deal less streetwise than twelve year olds today, but then, it was another era and having lived with ‘Granny’ Mum’s view was that she would have kept her children as young and naive as possible for as long as possible. Nye and Aunty didn’t go to school. They had a governess, who was French. When this story takes place I can only assume that she was elsewhere, or believed her charges to be in bed. 

Anyway, Nye had discovered a pot of Pond’s Vanishing Cream on her mother’s dressing table and was extremely intrigued as to what it did. Vanishing cream was first introduced in 1892 and got the name because it’s a cream that disappears when it is rubbed on. Nye’s Mum would probably have used it as a moisturiser or a colourless base for makeup. However, Nye had convinced herself that her mother wore it to make herself invisible. Reading a bit too much E Nesbitt, perhaps? Who knows, but whatever the reason, one night, while their parents were downstairs entertaining friends to dinner and the Governess was … elsewhere … Nye and Aunty, went ‘exploring’ around the house and crept into their mother’s bedroom. 

Immediately, Nye’s eye lit on the pot.

‘Look!’ she said, showing it to her little sister. ‘Vanishing cream! If we rub this on ourselves it will turn us invisible.’

‘Really?’ asked Aunty, saucer-eyed.

‘Yes. That’s how Mother knows when we have been naughty in lessons,’ Nye explained, never thinking, for a moment, that this might be because the Governess reported it to her when she reported on their progress.

The girls decided they would test how effective the cream was. Aunty went first and was disappointed to discover that she could still see herself. Nye put some cream on, with similar results. 

The two of them thought for a moment. 

‘I know what it is,’ said Nye. ‘We should undress because otherwise, even if people can’t see us our clothes will be visible.’

‘Is that why we can see one another?

‘I don’t know, let’s try.’

The two of them took of their clothes and put vanishing cream on literally every part of their bodies, I do hope, for their mother’s sake, that it wasn’t too expensive. They stood back and regarded one another.

‘Can you see me?’ asked Nye.

‘Yes,’ said Aunty.

‘I can see you too.’

‘Perhaps it isn’t working,’ said Aunty.

Nye thought for a moment. 

‘There is a way we can find out.’

‘How?’ 

‘I’ll tell you …’

Aunty was all set to try Nye’s cunning plan and so together, the two of them, still as starkers as the day they were born, crept downstairs. 

From the dining room came the sound of cutlery chinking gently on plates and genteel voices having refined and proper dinner time conversation. Nye pushed the door open a crack. Nobody took any notice. She turned back to her sister.

‘Remember, they can hear us, even if they can’t see us, so we mustn’t talk,’ she whispered, and put her finger to her lips. Aunty mimicked the gesture and nodded.

Nye opened the door a little more and slipped into the room.

The two girls stood there, in silence.

No-one reacted.

Nye walked round the table. The grown ups carried on talking, oblivious. Aunty’s hands flew to her mouth to try and muffle her gasp of delight. She went to join Nye and the two of them danced, cavorted and skipped about the room in silence. The grown ups made absolutely no sign of noticing anything. Perhaps if they were a bit older, our two heroines might have noticed Grandpop’s demeanour take on a somewhat stoic set, or might have seen the visible loss of colour on their mother’s face. They might even have noticed the atmosphere among the adults become a little strained, seen how a couple of the guests eyes bulged or heard how the conversation had taken on a somewhat stilted tone. But as it was, they were twelve and four, and not yet sufficiently aware of human nature to hoist in any subtleties like that.

After about ten minutes cavorting about without being seen got boring so Aunty and Nye left the room and returned to their bedroom; upstairs, next to the nursery. The Vanishing Cream Experiment had been an unmitigated success and the two of them slept soundly that night, dreaming of the wonderful things they would be able to do and places they would be able to visit now that they could become invisible.

The following morning, Nye and Aunty heard the governess being told off, extensively. When the two of them were called in to see Granny and Grandpop in the drawing room after breakfast they knew something was up. 

‘What do you think you were doing last night?’ asked Granny. 

‘Sleeping?’ asked Nye with more hope than conviction.

‘Before that. When you were cavorting about the dinner table divest of every single stitch of clothing.’

Nye was surprised. 

‘Did you see us?’ she asked. 

‘Of course I did.’

Oh dear. Although, thinking about it, maybe family members could see one another, yes, Nye reflected. That would explain why Aunty and her could see one another, too. However, she was sure none of the guests had noticed.

‘But we thought we were invisible,’ said Aunty.

‘Why on earth would you think that?’ asked Grandpop.

‘Because we were wearing vanishing cream,’ Nye explained, ‘and that’s why no-one else noticed us.’

‘You utter fools! Of course they noticed you!’ said Granny. 

She heaved a sigh and then Grandpop stepped in and went on to explain that some things are ‘not quite nice’ and those things are ‘not talked about’ and that two nude child children cavorting around the table at dinner would fall into the category of ‘not quite nice’ and ‘not talked about’ hence the gathered guests would do what any British person should do when confronted with such a disgusting spectacle. Ignore it stoically until it went away.

Nye was in a home by the time she told me this story and sadly, Aunty had already died, so I was never able to get her side of the story, and I’d have loved to have heard it. I remember Nye saying, 

‘Can you imagine it? There they were eating while two little girls danced around the dinner table naked and they were so stuffy they pretended we weren’t there.’

She clearly felt it served them right. I suspect Granny and Grandpop may have had more of a sense of humour than family history gives them credit for. But it’s quite clear that, whether or not they did, Nye was unrepentant, if not at the time then certainly in her late eighties.

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A family take on remembrance

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to post about our sneaky weekend away to look at the battlefields of the Somme. What better time to do it than today, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War?

It’s complicated, but basically, McOther had two grandfathers on his dad’s side, one who gave him his name and one who is his blood relative. Both are held in love and revered. Name grandfather was injured at the Somme so we went to have a look at where he was. McMini is very keen on flying and aviation, mainly from the Second World War but also from the First World War, especially Baron Von Richoften. So as well as going to see the spot where McOther’s namesake grandfather was shot we thought we’d see if we could find the area where the Red Baron was shot down, too.

McOther’s grandfather was found in no-man’s land by the Germans, with a sizeable head wound, taken to the first aid station and patched up. He had lost almost a third of his brain and was repatriated in a prisoners swap. The Germans, I think it was the Germans, had given him a metal plate in his head. Subsequently, he was paid £200 each year to go up to his nearest teaching hospital – Glasgow, I think – where the metal plate would be removed and eager medial students would crane in to see what a live brain looked like. He made his living on this – it’s the equivalent of … I dunno, about £8.5 – £10k today? As much as some people earned, anyway, and definitely close to a living.

Naturally McOther’s family were very pleased to get their son home with a Blighty wound that would ensure he didn’t have to go back to the front. However, there were hidden aspects of his injury that only became apparent as he grew older. Part of the problem was that the large part of his brain that was lost was to do with maturity and its departure meant that his personal, emotional and mental development stalled; frozen, forever at eighteen, the age he was when he was shot. This wasn’t so noticeable, at first, but as he aged he still behaved like an eighteen year old. As his wife grew older, and her outlook matured, his stood still. He began to find it difficult being married to someone so much older than him. He felt eighteen, he expected his wife to be the same age as him, and, more to the point, look eighteen. This woman was more like his mum. Likewise, McOther’s grandmother began to find the maturity levels of an eighteen year old husband a serious challenge when it came to the responsibilities of being a father and raising children.

I remember one of McOther’s uncles telling me that his father still expected to be as fit as an eighteen year old aged sixty. He would come out cycling with said uncle and his friends and couldn’t comprehend why he wasn’t able to attain the same fitness, stamina and speed levels at the young lads around him. It wasn’t an affectation, he literally, didn’t know or even comprehend that he was older. Unfortunately this caused a bit of tension at home, which is why, eventually, he and McOther’s grandmother divorced and she married again. The children all kept the original family name, including the two sons she had with her second husband. This just goes to show how, on top of the death rate, the mental scars the survivors carried may often have been as significant, if not more so, than any physical injuries they endured.

Thus it was that, a few weekends ago, we went off to France and went to the Somme.  Over the weekend, we looked at Beaumont Hamil which is where McGrandfather’s regiment went over the top and where he was injured, the site of the Red Baron’s death and we visited the Australian Memoral. We also visited one of the best air museums I have ever been to which I’ll have to leave for another post.

Site of Baron Von Richthofen’s death.

The weather was lovely on the first day so first we visited the area where the Red Baron died. There’s not much there. Just a plaque by the side of the road, a bit like Agincourt.

Apparently, shot and mortally wounded as he was, Baron Von Richthofen managed to crashland his plane, clipping a chimney with the wheels as he flew over and landing roughly in a field. This photo shows the chimney on the left hand side. Allied soldiers rushed to the plane and he whispered the word, ‘Kaput,’ slumped over the controls and died.

McMini, who has devoured every piece of literature he can find about the Red Baron, explained that Baron Von Richthofen was one of the true knights of the air, in the tradition of chilvalry, because he was always at pains to stress that his pilots should try to break the opponent’s plane rather than kill the person flying it. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it sounds plausible. He was buried with full military honours by the allies, anyway and it’s the reason McMini admires him so much.

Afterwards, we stopped in a couple of cemeteries and walked through the graves reading the inscriptions. The thing that always strikes me about these places is the atmosphere of calm and peace. It feels as if these people are, well … if not at rest then, at least, reconciled to their deaths. There is an almost healing intensity to that calm which I can’t really explain but it is special. Some of the families of the fallen had inscriptions put on the headstones. There was a limit to this. Sixty characters, including the spaces. A world of love and grief to express. A life to sum up. Sixty characters to do it in. That’s pared to the bone, raw, sometimes powerful and often moving.

Every war-mongering idiot in charge of a nation should be made to read these before taking office and then one or two every day. Sixty characters may be all they had but, done with feeling, sixty characters is all it takes, trust me.

Perhaps it’s because I’m peri-menopausal, perhaps it’s because, as a mother, I know how much effort and energy it takes to make a life and raise one child, let alone more. Whatever it is, I only need to read a few of these and I’m distinctly moist about the eyes. Linger too long and I’m in danger of bursting into tears and blubbing like a four-star nut-bar. There’s one grave at Beaumont Hamil with an inscription from a wife to her husband which reads something like, ‘Husband, best friend, I loved you in life and I love you still’. I think the guy was about 40 when he was killed. Thinking about it, perhaps I’m not menopausal, because I found that 10 years ago and I cried then. I didn’t find it this time, so I couldn’t check the exact inscription but as we walked about the other cemeteries, I found more. And as it’s the 100 year anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War tomorrow, I thought I’d share some of the inscriptions with you.

One of the first things that strikes you, coming to these places, is that people have come from the four corners of the earth to honour their fallen just as those family members travelled thousands of miles to fight, before. Not just in the main memorial areas but in any cemetery you cared to stop at along the road, there were knitted poppies, and even, in one instance, a little knitted flower and Australian flag on one unknown Australian soldier’s grave, which was almost more poignant than if the occupant’s name had been known.

Some inscriptions were religious, ‘he was a good catholic’ one French Canadian grave reads.  Another Australian grave, ‘Christ will clasp the broken chain closed when we meet again.’ Others while grieving, are kind of upbeat, ‘A noble son, a brother kind, a beautiful memory left behind.’ Or on the date of a sargant in the medical corps, who died so tragically late in the conflict; on 1st November, 1918, aged 28, ‘With Christ, which is far better.’ And the strength and raw power of feeling behind the beauty of this one; ‘Still living, still loving, still ours.’

Then there are the stiff upper-lip ones, ‘As a soldier and a man, one of Australia’s best.’ Laid at the grave are two crocheted poppies and a little Australian flag. On the grave of a 20 year old sapper, ‘In memory of our dearly loved son and brother.’ Or on another, ‘Far away but not forgotten, Mother’. Or the one that still makes me cry, ‘In loving memory of my darling son, sleep on in peace dear’. Jeepers. ‘Not dead in hearts left behind.’ Or on the grave of a member of the Gordon Highlanders, ‘One of the best, Drumoak’. And another, a member of the Black Watch, which was McGrandfather’s regiment, ‘Time makes his memory still more dear,’ or on a member of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire regiment, ‘Sleep on, dear son, and take rest.’ On another sapper, a British one this time, the achingly poignant, ‘Only good night beloved, not farewell.’

Then there is the out-and-out anguished, ‘Oh how I miss him, no tongue can tell, the happy face I loved so well,’ or there is, ‘His war is over, his sun is set, but we who loved him can’t forget.’ Or ‘Sleep on dear son in a far off grave. A grave we never see.’ I wonder if they were going to say ‘we’ll never see’ but were left, two characters short. The message comes over well enough without.

Lastly there is the occasional political one, ‘Who lives if Britain dies, who dies if Britain lives.’

Even now, 100 years on, it is incredibly poignant to visit the cemeteries and read the graves. There is a world of grief and love in sixty characters.

Drawing by an Australian solider

 

 

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Updates, ramblings and witterings

Well, it’s prettier than a blue-arsed fly.

Wow! Time seems to have bitten me on the arse this week, my goodness but there’s been a lot for schools to use to torment me by giving me too many things to remember each day get McMini’s teeth into this term. First harvest: collect tinned and dry goods for the local shelter. It’s for people fleeing domestic violence too so toiletries like flannels, bath caps, toothbrushes and toothpaste are appreciated, as well as tampons and lady requisites. McMini, upon discovering a packet of tampons in our bag of stuff, refuses, point blank, to hand it in. Eventually, to spare his blushes, I have to.

Then it’s Halloween, a bit too quickly after our holiday for organisational comfort. I’m still catching up on the post holiday washing and do not have the capacity for pumpkin carving. Although this year it wasn’t me tramping the nearby streets with McMini as he shook down the neighbours for sweets, he went with a friend and the friend’s brave mum!

Having whinged, I quite like carving pumpkins. I was hoping to have a go at edgy political satire and make a Donald Trumpkin this year but alas, my cartoon drawing/cutting skills are not quite up there enough to make a suitably recognisable effort, indeed, the only similarity is the colour which doesn’t show in this photo. This year’s pumpkin crop seems to be particularly dense fleshed and thick skinned. Maybe it’s the heat. Good for cooking I may even make it all into pumpkin soup. But tough to carve. Indeed it took so long that I ran out of time to do the hair. As McMini said, I should have done it with a cheese grater, or a blonde wig. Meanwhile several of the people who saw it thought it was a set of ovaries.

Halloween Trumpkin.

Ooookay … mwahahahahrgh! Moving on then.

When it comes to the stress of life, clearly I’m not the only one affected. McMini’s school meals are all lovely winter warmers this quarter which means many come with sauces or gravy or other things he refuses to eat. As a result it was three packed lunches this week which stretches our supply of suitable receptacles. That meant he had to be sternly warned to bring his lunch bag home with him – otherwise every tupperware box I possess will end up at his school. Bless his little heart, he has managed to remember to bring the lunch stuff home so fair play to him.

However, it appears that, like his mother he is only able to remember a finite number of things to be done before extraneous others start falling off the list.

On Tuesday we cycled to school. McMini is walking some of the way home from school on his own now so as I waited for him at our designated half way point, I saw he was approaching on foot. For a split second I thought that maybe something terrible had happened to his bike. Then I remembered that this is my son, and relaxed.

‘Mum! I’ve remembered my lunch box,’ he said proudly holding out the lunch bag as soon as he was within earshot.
‘Well done mate,’ we high fived. ‘Um just out of interest … where’s your bike?’
‘I forgot it. I was walking down the street and I looked up here and I could see you and I thought, “Why on earth has Mummy come to meet me on her bike?” Then I remembered, I’d left mine at school. I’ll bring it home tomorrow.’
‘Well, Daddy is collecting you tomorrow so-‘
‘Oh yes, he doesn’t have a bike. I’ll bring it home on Thursday then.’

He forgot that, but he did remember the bike albeit on the wrong day. Apparently McOther had to run a bit to keep up but I expect it did him good. McMini is definitely making a concerted effort to remember more stuff though. It’s a bit hit and miss but I know how difficult it is for me so I have to give him kudos for trying.

There’s been another development this week, which is that McMini has discovered the joyous feeling of clean teeth, which is brilliant as instead of my having to force him at gunpoint he now happily cleans them morning and evening. As a child who normally eschews any attempts on my part to instil any sense of cleanliness, whatsoever, this is good news.

However, it has also led to what may well be one of the grossest conversations I have ever had. Yes, last night we had this conversation.

‘Have you cleaned your teeth.’
‘Yes I have. My mouth is lovely. My teeth are all smooth with no bobbly bits.’
‘Yeh, no horrible stuff under your fingernail when you do this,’ MT scrapes fingernail down front tooth.
‘Plaque you mean?’
‘Yes.’
Oh no Mum, plaque is AWESOME!’
‘It is?’ I ask weakly.
‘Yes it tastes just like sweetcorn.’
‘Bleurgh, ugh.’
‘Whereas scabs are like crunchy chicken, unless it’s other people’s scabs. Those are vile, like raw beef or something horrible.’

On the writing side, I have just discovered the gobsmacking truth that I’ve written 131,000 words this year. Clearly there are many people who write that many words a month but I reckon it’s not bad on an average of 10 minutes a day. I’m just tinkering with ideas for another two shorts and the new K’Barthan shorts series will be ready for editing and covers. Hopefully, they should be done for release next year. I’m a bit too concentrating on one thing at the moment, the short that’s turned into a long is taking far too much time, but I am too interested to find out what happens and the scenes that are popping into my head at the moment seem to be mostly related to it. I’m a great believe in doing what comes naturally so that’s where I’ve been concentrating my efforts for the moment. It’s creeping slowly forward but I definitely want to finish something soon so I need to get another short going too. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on progress. In the meantime, for the word nerds among you, I’ve discovered a cracking website.

Have you ever wondered how to pronounce the word ‘gif’? Or what TASER stands for, or why the word ‘laser’ can never be spelled with a Z even in America? If you want to know the answer to these and many other splendidly obscure and trivial word related questions head on over to Emma Wilkin’s Wordy Rambles. It’s funny, too so I promise you will not regret it.

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Rarer than unicorn shit.

I’ve just realised that it’s now half past four on a Tuesday evening and that I haven’t written a blog post for about three weeks. Oops. But then I found this one. I’ve no idea why I didn’t post it at the time, suffice to say I suppose life has been a bit busy since I wrote it and it’s quite long. I also have a horrible feeling I’m repeating myself with the story about my parents. Yes, I know I’ve just been fifty and I know that menopausal brain fog really IS a thing but I still feel I should be able to work out whether or not I’ve told a story on my blog.

Apparently not.

Oh dear.

Never mind. I can find no evidence, so I’m going to assume that I haven’t told the stories and my memories of having done so are just rather vivid ones of writing the original draft.

Right then. Onwards and upwards.

So a while back I was negotiating with Mum and Dad’s neighbour. They were putting in a fence and we were trying to work out where it’s going to go. But the process went on for a long time because the neighbour and I were both very busy and very leery about putting it in the wrong place for either of us.

However, the negotiations weren’t what made it difficult. What I struggled with was that it brought the progress of Mum’s dementia into stark relief. Because Mum would normally have sorted this, herself. Even six months ago, she’d have sorted it. But this time, she was just not able to. I had to and it was tricky from a long way away. Also because it was my parents’ garden, and my parents’ fence I found it difficult to detach myself, emotionally which hindered the process – because I wanted to be sure that what I agreed was what they’d have negotiated if they were able to – and that also made it take longer.

The thing is, when someone has dementia, it’s like the slowest death imaginable. At the start they are just a little bit forgetful but then, as it begins to take hold they become unable to cope with things, and as that starts to happen, you have to do those things for them. With Mum it was cooking, she started to forget recipes, indeed, the moment I realised she was getting dementia as well as Dad was the day when she rang me and asked me how to make flap jack, pretty much her signature dish. Luckily, she’d given me the recipe but after that I made sure I collected all the recipes she used regularly, the’d she’d collected from various people over the years.

When that sort of thing starts to happen, you start to mourn the loss of the fit healthy person. It’s not that you can’t have good times with them as they are, it’s just that you miss the jokes, being able to discuss things with them, the advice they would give. The subtlety, the nuances of conversations with them, the multiple shades of colour and tone in your relationship start to fade to simpler notes; black and white, primary colours, capitals only.

Of course, they are still with you, and yet more and more of these subtle things you so love in them are not. And that hurts. It’s natural to withdraw a little at this point. You still love them, you still care for them but you simply can’t be as open because it hurts too much.

Mum and Dad’s dementia is something I cannot look in the face for too long metaphorically speaking. I can look through it, round it, I can turn my head sideways and look at it out of the corner of my eye but if I look at it head on for more than a second or two, I am undone. So what the negotiations with their neighbour did was compel me to appreciate the full extent of Mum’s dementia; to look it full in the face without flinching or turning away, all day, every day for about five weeks, after which every single piece of white goods, and their shower, broke in succession followed by other things which I didn’t think could break, which proved me wrong by … well … breaking.

It’s been tough. Although at least the fence looks fab, the shower is fixed, the new washing machine works and the new fridge is working, too, even if the stair lift is on the blink and all power to their kitchen has failed (can’t win ’em all).

Mum and Dad are both very smart. Even now, Mum is one of the best judges of character of anyone I know and Dad was. That’s one of the things I really miss about him. When I pine for the things that are gone, I turn to memories, just as if I am grieving, for real. I guess I am grieving, for real, in respect of these personality traits because they are things that I will never see again. I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of grieving recently and I remembered this story, which, in turn, has led me to think about religion and faith. Run with me I do get to the point eventually.

A few years ago now, when Dad was beginning to become forgetful but was still perfectly able to do some things on his own he went off to do some some bits and bobs at the church. It was about five o’clock in the evening and as he came out he met a man in the churchyard who asked if there was a bus to the next town. At that time of day, the last one had gone so Dad explained that there wasn’t.

The two of them got talking and after a while, the man admitted that he was sleeping rough. Dad asked if he wanted help with the bus fare and the man said no. He then offered the man a lift into Brighton where there was a hostel. Again, the guy said that no, explaining that many of his fellow rough sleepers were mentally disturbed or on drugs, and if they weren’t, they soon became that way after a few months of homelessness. He explained people in the hostel would steal the few things he had to his name and flog them to get another hit. Some would go in groups from inmate to inmate extorting money and beating up any that had none to give or refuesed to pay. Others were suffering from mental illness, often without any medication. He said he’d been beaten up several times by gangs but also by people who appeared to be having a paranoid episode or who were clearly hallucinating. However, he said that if Dad was happy to do so, he would appreciate a lift to the station at Shoreham By Sea.

Dad asked him if he’d eaten that day and when the man said he hadn’t. Dad loves his food and has always got distinctly ratty if he misses a meal, indeed, to him the idea of missing a meal is a pretty major disaster, so immediately he invited the man home to tea; an action Mum would have one hundred percent endorsed. The man accepted and Dad drove him home where he was plied with copious cups of tea and a lot of home made cake, flapjack etc. By the time they’d finished, it was seven pm and the man thanked them and said it was time he went as he wanted to get the 8 o’clock train. Mum and Dad had spent a couple of hours in his company by this time and found out where he grew up, how he became homeless, what he’d done before etc. When the man went to the loo they had a discussion and decided that it was too late to take him to the station. They had a bible study group that evening, so people would be coming to the house and they were certain he was fully in possession of his faculties and highly unlikely to hurt them, why not ask him to spend the night?

The man was completely overjoyed to be asked to stay and Mum went and made up the bed in the spare room. She asked him if he’d like to join them for bible study or if he’d like to watch TV or something. He said that what he’d really like to do was stay quietly in his room and listen to the radio. So she took her radio up to the spare room and made up the bed. She asked him if he would like to have a bath and his eyes lit up. It would be wonderful, he told her. So Mum dug out a huge towel and ran a bath for him. She asked him if he’d like her to wash any of his clothes, she could hang them over the radiators and they’d be dry by morning but he said no.

Ten or twenty minutes before the bible group was due she rang me.

‘Darling, I’ve done something you may not approve of.’

‘Uh huh. Come on then out with it.’

‘Well, look, if I don’t ring you by 9.30 tomorrow morning, can you call the police? Only your father found a homeless man in the churchyard and we’ve invited him to spend the night.’

I’ve met countless rough sleepers in London and since I never had any money, I always tried to talk to them, because I felt that if I couldn’t give them a place to stay or money for whatever it was they spent it on, then at least I could acknowledge their humanity by sitting down with them and having a normal chat. I reasoned that they probably don’t get many of those. I may have been lucky with the folks I’ve spoken to but those conversations have left me with a strong belief that most of them are decent people. Some are damaged, for sure, but most of them are decent.

‘Is he an addict?’ I asked her, confident that after 40 years of teaching and 17 as a house master my father would have no trouble spotting the most cunningly concealed addiction from a mile way.

‘No, he just seems like a very nice man who is down on his luck.’

’You’re nuts and you have absolutely no sense of self preservation. You know that don’t you?’

‘Yes darling. Oh and darling?’

‘Yes.’

‘You won’t tell your brother about this will you? Only he’ll be furious.’

‘No, I won’t, at least, not until afterwards.’

‘Afterwards is fine, just not now.’

‘It’s OK, I won’t tell him now.’

‘Thank you.’

‘It’s a pleasure. On you go then, speak to you tomorrow morning.’

Needless to say it was fine. They gave him a slap up breakfast – ‘I hadn’t a thing in the house so the poor man had to have porridge, fruit and then some toast, and then I managed to find an egg so I boiled that for him’ – and dropped him off in time to get the 9.40am train.

McOther, was especially impressed by this. As a confirmed atheist, he felt that actions such as these are what religion is supposed to do for people. He even told the story at a lunch with some friends in London, to illustrate the point. When his friends laughed and told him my parents had been unbelievably naive and stupid McOther, in an incredibly touching moment of loyalty, went into orbit, bless him, telling them that my folks were well aware of the dangers of what they were doing which was what made it such a Christian act in the first place. I think he and his friends were all half cut as McOther ended up totally losing his biscuits and having a massive row which finally came to a head on the pavement outside when he told them they were all bastards and he never wanted to see them again. Then – his memory of events is a little hazy – he thinks he threw his brief case at one of them who had followed him up the street to apologise and try to calm him down, before telling him to fuck off, a grand gesture that was rendered a bit less grand by the fact he then had to go and retrieve his briefcase from his friend’s feet before he could storm off properly!

When McOther arrived home, he had many, many missed calls from his friends trying to apologise. I was touched that he should have stood up for my parents but at the same time, I told him, ‘It’s not a real row, you were rat arsed and they were rat arsed. They’re a decent bunch, they know it’s a blip, just ring them back and make up.’

He did and they are all firm friends again but I’ve noticed that he comes home from these lunches a little less under the affluence of incohol than before so they might be moderating the excess! Not sure.

Anyway, it made me think, because in these days of the internet it’s so easy to think that a Christian is someone banging on and on about how all gay people are evil and that Jesus needs your money to buy an important preacher a new private jet. And if you are a person of faith it’s easy to forget that the kind of dickhead who does that is what most lay people think a Christian IS. Especially when most folks’ only experience is encountering absolutely mentalist American Christians on the internet. Or morons who start spouting the Old Testament at them and telling them to repent their evil ways. Some Christians seem to have completely missed the transition from Bronze Age Syria to modern society. Never mind.

However, trust me peps, Jesus will NEVER need your money to buy some smarmy, bouffant-haired fuckwit an aeroplane. Jesus got pissed off with the money lenders in the temple precinct, went off on one at them, and trashed the place. You know, like The Who at the height of their 1960s hotel-room-smashing excess might have done – I suspect the Who are far more well behaved now, they probably retire straight after each gig with a hot water bottle and a cup of Ovaltine with a slug of whisky in it but I digress.

There are strong arguments to suggest that one of the most important aspects of JC’s ministry was the idea that it was a new era and people who were not Jews could be baptized and be part of this. The idea that changes could be made, new people, different people could be admitted and accepted into the new faith while still keeping the premise and core ethos of the old one. Then there’s the whole thing about The Law. Originally it had been set up to help people live good and loving lives, to stop them abusing their slaves and servants or eating things that would make them ill and to keep them actively participating in the arms race with the tribe next door – the one where the bunch who can breed the highest numbers of strapping young men gets to beat all the other tribes when they have yet another war. But now the Pharisees were using it as a stick to beat the people over the head with. There are so many parallels between what Jesus appears to have been trying to tell us then and what is happening, today.

You see a Christian is called that because they are ‘a follower of Christ’. And as the priest at my church pointed out the other day, we started with ten commandments, each beginning with the words, ‘Thou shalt not,’ and then along comes Jesus and he gives us two commandments which start with, ‘thou shall’. It seems to me that a lot of Christians look to the Old Testament over the new, putting a tremendous amount of time into ‘thou shalt not’ at the expense of ‘thou shalt’. They strike me as a bit off message.

For a start Jesus explained that it’s a new covenant, new start so yeh, New Testament. So if the Old Testament lays down some draconian dictat, and you believe that, over and above contradictory statements made by Jesus in the New Testament well … are you even a Christian? Because if you’re calling yourself a follower of Christ and you’re not fucking listening to him, but, instead, turning to old lore, the one supplanted by the New Testament ie His law, surely you’re something different; a gentile follower of some really extremist Jewish sect, possibly? If you’re not accepting the Christy bits, how can you be Christian? The clue is in the name and surely the love thy neighbour Christy parts are the whole fucking point.

And this is what perplexes me. Because it appears that, for many folks, the point of being a Christian is to force your behavioural norms on others, turn everyone into some kind of holy Stepford clone and to vilify those who don’t conform to your ideas of what a ‘wholesome’ life is. There is no compassion in this wholesomeness. No mercy or pity for the afflicted, it’s all about kick-back reactions to stuff, someone’s an alcoholic so all alcohol is evil. There is a medieval simplicity to this approach. In US Republican politics, it seems to come with the suggestion that if people are poor it’s their fault and it is always, always this sickly saccharine ‘wholesome’ over happy. It’s always about the minutae. It’s all about judging, condemning. It’s about not swearing and not drinking, about not doing bad things and stopping other people from doing bad things. So often it seems to be about condemning young women who get pregnant, ruining their lives with approbation and censure, with disapproval, shunning them and then vilifying them when they have an abortion to avoid a life time of stigma. A life of stigma which is entirely unnecessary. There seems to be fuck all about love, and kindness and doing good things, and compassion for people who can’t help doing bad things because they’re damaged or hurting or indeed, who might be very different if given a helping hand.

Mostly it seems to be about following the ‘rules’ and condemning those those who don’t confirm. It’s about not being gay, although so long as you vilify and condemn gay people loudly enough in public it’s OK to go cottaging or sleep with rent boys while your wife is at bible club! Just don’t let anyone find out. It’s about brainwashing rather than free will and reason. It’s about controlling other people’s behaviour rather than looking at your own.

Is that what Jesus would do?  Just like the Pharisees, who went around looking for tiny faults in others so they could point them out and make themselves look good, these folks seem to have completely and utterly missed the point of religion. And that’s why normal people, like McOther’s friends, just didn’t get that Mum and Dad’s actions there, though possibly unwise, were Christian. Because the only Christians they’d met were people who were so busy obeying rules and judging those around them who didn’t, that they’d forgotten the whole be-like-Christ thing.

That seems to be the difference, to me, between the Christian Right and … well … Christians. A Christian tries to live like Christ. That’s where the name ‘Christian’ comes from. A Christian is supposed to love their fellow humans as much as they love themselves. A Christian heeds Christ’s words, ‘judge not, lest you be judged.’

A Christian is supposed to ask themselves, ‘what would Jesus do?’ and do that.  A Christian is supposed to reach out to another humans in need, whatever the cost. God knows we don’t manage it much – or at least, I know I don’t – but we’re supposed to try. A Christian is supposed to be kind and loving to everyone and every thing; like Jesus. The reason Christian countries don’t torture prisoners of war, even if other countries do, is because we are supposed to have evolved beyond all that. It’s the whole goddamn point. So if we waterboard people because we think the brutal regime they come from is bad, we’re just being like them and completely surrendering any moral high ground. Suddenly it’s just two differing regimes, wrong versus wrong as opposed to right versus wrong. An eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything, it just makes for a lot of blind people with even less understanding of one another than before. Was Jesus being remembered for how incredibly judgemental he could be? Wasn’t it the Pharisees who are remembered for that? And when did he condone violence and torture? Oh yes, that’s right, never.

Also, correct me if I’m wrong but try as I might, I fail to recall the bit in the New Testament where Jesus says that rich people will inherit the earth. Indeed, wasn’t it the poor? And wasn’t it blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers … anything about the merits of vainglorious pomposity and bald pursuit of power? Mmmmnope. Only when Jesus is deriding the behaviour of the Pharisees. Oh wait there’s something about how it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man get to heaven isn’t there?

Another thing about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to go in for organised bullying, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, try as I might, I find myself unable to recall the moment when Jesus picks people out of the audience – possibly at random, or possibly because he knows they disagree with his view – and vilifies them for being ‘unpatriotic’ Jews. At no point does Jesus ask some of the more sturdily built disciples to hustle these folks out of his sight while the crowd chants ‘Israel, Israel,’ and Jesus exhorts their manhandlers with choice phrases such as ‘don’t go too easy on them! Get them outta here!’ I confess, I’ve heard accounts of Hitler doing that, and seen film footage of America’s devout christian president, Donald Trump doing it, of course, but not Jesus. It’s not the way someone who professes to be a Christian should behave. Not if they have the smallest understanding of their ‘faith’.

Conversely, when the crowd don’t like what JC has to say, he just leaves them to it. We are told that ‘many turned back and stopped following him’ after they didn’t like, or understand, his preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, so many that he asked the twelve apostles, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’

One of the things that strikes me about internet christianity or Trumpian ‘Christianity’ is that there’s no dialogue.  Jesus talked to his enemies, he debated with them, he proved them wrong in intellectual discussions. He showed people why his way was the right one. It’s no good deciding that everyone who disagrees with you is a morally dissolute liar and refusing to talk to them. That just brings polarisation, extremism and deadlock. Oh yeh and if you’re a leader, it also shows you up as too thick to argue.

A few years back I remember being extremely impressed by something I read after the death of the Revd Ian Paisley; a Northern Irish MP who was a tub-thumping, protestant, hell-firer if ever there was one. The impressive thing was that one of the first people who popped up in praise of him was his opposite number from Sinn Fein. He explained how, while they both disagreed on many aspects, he had an enormous amount of respect for Paisley for a) coming to the table and b) the way he conducted himself when he did. The way these feuds are perpetuated is when each side has managed to convince themselves that those on the other are less than human. That’s what the alt right do. Teach you to fear and distrust other human beings so you are afraid to talk to them and believe the hype. Lack of contact between polarised communities helps perpetuate this.

Our fellow from Sinn Fein, who, let’s face it, had made the same brave step, was impressed with the way that Paisley didn’t treat him as an enemy, but as a fellow Northern Irishman with different viewpoint with whom he must work for the good of the people. He – I think it was Martin McGuinnes but I can’t be sure – felt that a man could only cross that divide if he genuinely put the well being of those he was elected to represent over his own personal viewpoint and that for someone who had held such an entrenched viewpoint for so long to do that took not only conscience but moral courage.

Those first stage talks were difficult and long, but apparently, despite their polar opposite political viewpoints, the two men grew to respect each other enormously and became firm friends in their work to try and bring peace and some kind of cease fire that both sides could agree over.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if Christians in politics would follow JC’s instructions to leave judgement up to God. Wouldn’t it be grand if they tried looking to their own behaviour, rather than endlessly picking out faults in others to score points and win votes, or looking for ethnic groups and minorities to blame for economic problems of their own, or other politicians’ making. Wouldn’t it be great if they took the hard path of truth rather then pandering to extremists and stirring up racial and ethnic hatred. The end doesn’t justify the means.

Why is it that God in politics seems to bring out hypocrisy of the worst type? ‘Christians’ and holy people in the public eye who behave like actual Christians appear to be rarer than unicorn shit. I guess we should just thank fuck (or possibly God) for Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

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