A couple of weeks ago, on a Monday morning, I was supposed to fly to Venice for a four-day break. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit but never managed to see. I was hoping that the timing—late February—would mean the weather would not be too warm for some serious walking around, the infamous odours would not be too, well, malodorous, and the crowds would be bearable.
I was due to arrive the day before the end of the annual Carnevale di Venezia, so a chance to see the masked costumes for which the festival is famous before everyone dispersed. Ideal.
The fates were not with me on this.
Over the weekend before I was booked to fly, the news was suddenly full of the first coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy—in Lombardo, which quickly spread to neighbouring Veneto province. The final two days of the Carnival were cancelled.
Cancelling the trip would not result in a refund. By that time, it was the morning of the flight out and the Foreign Office guidelines were that it was OK to travel if you took sensible precautions. The greatest number of fatalities seemed to be among the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
Plus, come on—it’s Venice!
My travelling companion was in her seventies (although is undoubtedly fitter than I am) and she also has asthma.
Even if I did not contract anything—and I was bearing in mind the dangers of passing through several international airports as much as the country of destination—what about the possibility of quarantine? Every news report brought a steady increase in numbers of those infected. I had no desire to have our trip forcibly extended by two weeks, as happened to holidaymakers in a hotel in Tenerife, or those aboard several cruise ships.
Not only that but three friends living locally, whom I see on a regular basis, have undergone recent cancer treatments that have left them with compromised immune systems. Another friend is prone to serious respiratory illnesses.
Becoming ill myself would be one thing.
But being responsible for passing it on to someone else? For that I would find it hard to forgive myself.
So, the flight came and went and I was not on it. Instead, I have been visiting Venice vicariously by indulging in movies partially set there. The end of Casino Royale, for instance—particularly the scene where James Bond and Vesper Lynd arrive, on a rather beautiful yacht.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade had some scenes set there, and during a more stylish era to boot.
And finally, The Tourist mostly takes place in Venice, which provides eye candy not only in the city itself but also in the forms of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. So, plenty for all tastes.
But that’s not all.
Because, staying put has meant more travelling for me rather than less. I’ve walked into isolated farmhouses on the side of Cumbrian fells in the Eden Valley. I’ve watched Gypsy horses being washed in the River Eden at Appleby-in-Westmorland. I’ve leaned over the shoulders of two detectives as they interrogated a suspect in the death of a child. I piggybacked onto a drone flight over a waterfall, searching for trace. And I was there when someone who should know better tried to plant evidence to incriminate another.
Yup, I’ve been caught up in the latest work-in-progress, which will be out in May. It has been slightly delayed due to STILL only having one arm working properly.
Because, let’s face it, the greatest journeys anyone can make are inside their own head. And no matter what the travel restrictions, now or in the days to come, the travel agent of a good book is always open for business and you can usually get a first class seat.
This week’s Word of the Week is Scrivener’s palsy, which is the old-fashioned name for writer’s cramp. It is also called mogigraphia, and is a disorder caused by certain muscles in the hand and forearm going into spasm, or being attacked by cramp, when the sufferer is writing or playing an instrument.
Read the illustrated version of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
On May 3rd 2019, the police were called to a home in Calne, Wiltshire. There they found Ellie Gould, a 17-year-old student, dead from multiple stab wounds. The knife used was still in her neck and her hand had been placed on the handle of the knife.
The police quickly arrested her ex-boyfriend, now revealed as Thomas Griffiths, then also 17 years old. In November, he was convicted at Bristol Crown Court of her murder and sentenced to serve a minimum of twelve and a half years.
The evidence apparently showed a ‘frenzied attack’ which included an attempt at strangulation and thirteen stab wounds. Ellie fought back, scratching Griffiths’ neck, but was overpowered. She was found dead by her father in the kitchen of the family home.
The pair attended the same secondary school and had known each other for around five years. They had been dating for three months, until Ellie broke up with Griffiths to concentrate on her exams. She had told friends that he had “not taken it well.”
On the morning of the murder, he walked out of school, drove to Ellie’s home and first strangled her, then stabbed her. He then tried to make it look as if the wounds were self-inflicted, and passed off the defence wounds Ellie had inflicted on himself as ‘self-harm’. He had also sent a series of fake messages to her phone and to friends, playing dumb about what had happened to her.
Until that point, Griffiths had been welcomed into the Gould home by Ellie’s parents. He had celebrated her birthday with them and had frequently eaten meals with the family. They had no inkling that he was capable of such an act.
The reason I’m writing about this story now is that last week school friends of Ellie’s appeared on national radio and TV as part of their campaign for self-defence to be taught in schools. They are convinced that her life might have been saved if she’d known some basic skills to defend herself.
I confess that whenever I hear of such a senseless crime as this, I wonder much the same thing. When I first started writing the Charlie Fox series of novels, Charlie is teaching self-defence classes, having herself been the victim of violent crime. As she tells one of her pupils in KILLER INSTINCT: “It takes remarkably little time to be strangled. You can’t afford to waste it.”
The throat is a highly vulnerable area. Relatively unprotected, usually not covered with heavy clothing, it’s more or less just a narrow tube that houses blood vessels to the brain as well as the main airway. Running down either side of the trachea are the vagus nerves. I go into a little bit of detail about these in HARD KNOCKS: ‘They control just about everything of importance in the body, from the heart and lungs to the abdominal organs. Hit the vagus nerves hard enough and your victim ceases to breathe, his heartbeat stutters, his nervous system crashes. And then he dies.’
In one-third of homicides by strangulation, the hyoid bone is fractured. This is a U-shaped bone in the front of the neck, to which the tongue is anchored. It sits between the lower jaw and the largest cartilage of the voice box, or larynx. Damage to the hyoid is often accompanied by damage to the cervical spine, larynx, pharynx (the area of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity) and possibly the lower jaw itself.
Given a choice—or possibly that should be if given no choice at all—I would always choose the throat as my first self-defence target. Doesn’t matter how big you are, or how covered in muscles, the throat is always vulnerable to a well-directed blow.
But if someone grabs you around the neck, there are a lot of ways to avoid being strangled. It fills me with both anger and sadness when I hear of tragedies such as Ellie Gould’s murder. A good self-defence instructor could have shown her a variety of techniques not only to escape such a hold but to put her attacker on the floor while she was at it.
A knife is a different matter. Go up against someone with a knife and you’re going to get cut, like it or not. It takes a different attitude—one you need to have decided upon in advance. But it can be done.
So, if those school friends of Ellie’s decide to set up a petition to have self-defence made part of the curriculum, I’d sign it. Would you?
This week’s Word of the Week is supervene, which means to follow something closely, either as a consequence or in contrast, while intervene means to come between persons or things.
May 1-3, Newcastle City Library, Newcastle upon Tyne.
June 4-7, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol.
This blog also appears over on Murder Is Everywhere
Does the name Worzel Gummidge mean anything to you? Worzel was a scarecrow who could walk and talk, and who befriended two children who came to stay at Scatterbrook Farm, with resultant adventures.
If you were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, you possibly remember the TV series with Jon Pertwee in the title role, and Una Stubbs playing life-size fairground attraction, Aunt Sally.
Far more recently, actor Mackenzie Crook—better known for his appearances in the UK version of The Office and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—took up the mantle. Two episodes were broadcast in the UK over last Christmas. And a pure delight they were, too.
I know everybody didn’t quite get on with the look they gave the scarecrow—some unkind references were made to Freddie Krueger. Claims were made that some younger viewers were ‘left terrified’ but that simply makes me wonder who allowed them to see the horror movies from which the Krueger character originates in the first place?
But the history of Worzel Gummidge goes back much further than you might think. The stories were written by Barbara Euphan Todd, with the first published in 1936. A couple of years later, the rights were acquired by Puffin Books and WORZEL GUMMIDGE: THE SCARECROW OF SCATTERBROOK became the first fiction title published by that imprint.
Ms Todd wrote ten Worzel Gummidge books in all, with the last—DETECTIVE WORZEL GUMMIDGE—published in 1963, and illustrated by a number of artists. She also collaborated on turning the stories into radio plays for children in the 1950s. Five of the stories were narrated by Gordon Rollings for the BBC children’s TV programme, Jackanory.
The first time Worzel appeared on television was in 1953 in Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective. Another series—with Pertwee and Stubbs—ran from 1978-1981. It was revived six years later, based in New Zealand, as Worzel Gummidge Down Under and ran for another two years.
Mackenzie Crook’s decision to revive the character now may seem strange but in fact it reflects a growing trend in TV drama to approach the subject of the climate crisis. The latest series of the long-running sci-fi drama, Dr Who, with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, has had catastrophic climate meltdown at the heart of several episodes.
And the first of the latest Worzel Gummidge incarnation saw the countryside stuck in the perpetual heatwave of summer, with crops refusing to ripen and the seasons unable to change without some otherworldly intervention. This involved getting two old adversaries to work together for the greater good. A moral lesson, for sure, but delivered with a light touch.
It seems that TV drama is slowly starting to move away from the bad guys wanting to dominate the world and instead focusing on the good guys trying to save the planet. Is this a trend we’re going to see more of in novels as well? I wonder what influence it might have? And will it all be too late anyway…?
I’ve only had environmental issues as the focus of one of the Charlie Fox series so far—FOURTH DAY. At the time I wrote it, I wondered if anyone would believe that such a fuss might be made about the extraction of oil shale. And we know how that one has turned out!
This week’s Word of the Week is inchoate, which means something just begun and which is still rudimentary or not yet fully formed or developed. It is often confused with incoherent, meaning lacking in clarity. Only when the inchoate thing is completed can it be judged to be truly incoherent.
Over the years, I have put my series main character, Charlie Fox, through the mill. She has been shot (more than once), stabbed (also more than once), pushed off her motorcycle and then shot (OK, that was just the once), shot down in a helicopter, mildly tortured, Tasered, experienced various broken bones, been punched more times than either of us can count, and buried by an earthquake.
So, I suppose it’s only fair that for the past month or so I’ve been suffering from the process of actually writing about all this stuff. Despite not attempting to play tennis since I was about twelve, I am now the proud owner of tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, if you want to be proper about it.
Charlie Fox would, no doubt, be greatly amused at my expense.
The problem is usually caused by ‘strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint’. In other words, too much chipping away at the word-face and using a computer mouse.
I began to realise I’d got a problem on the run-up to Christmas. Pain in the outside of my forearm up near the outer knobble of my elbow, problems picking anything up that also entailed gripping with my hand, and discomfort regardless of my arm being bent or straight. Gripping and twisting motions, such as opening a jar, turning on a tap, or using a screwdriver produced the worst effect.
If the muscles and tendons in the forearm are over-strained, tears and inflammation occur near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of the elbow. I’ve previously had similar problems with my left elbow, although on the inner side, which is golfer’s elbow.
And no, I don’t play golf, either.
I confess that, since the beginning of November, I’ve been working pretty much continuously on the sequel to DANCING ON THE GRAVE. (And yes, I know I originally said that was a standalone but events have somewhat overtaken me.) And now, as the end of January approaches, I’m almost done. In fact, I’ve just extended my self-imposed deadline by a week into February, just to give my elbow half a chance to recover.
My problem was not just caused by too much keyboard time. I think I can also put it down to poor ergonomics. I was using an old table in lieu of a desk, so the height of seat-to-desktop was never quite right because of the frame. It was also not quite deep enough for me to get the keyboard far enough onto the surface, and the top was slightly warped, leading to a raised ridge under my forearms.
So, for Christmas, my pressie to myself was a custom desktop, made from 15mm plywood on an Ikea height-adjustable frame. I’ve even covered the surface in dark green pleather, like a proper olde-fashioned desk. I also got a new upright mouse when my old one gave up the ghost, and a padded wrist rest. I have been using a curved ergonomic keyboard for years, plugged into a separate monitor.
But, nevertheless, this is a case of fitting new padlocks to the stable door, long after the horse has naffed off into the distance.
In lieu of being able to get a doctor’s appointment, I’ve been treating this in a number of ways. (As many as I can think of!)
I’ve looked up the appropriate exercises, and while doing any kind of strenuous work I’ve been using an elbow brace that consists of a Velcro strap with a padded lump that goes on top of your forearm. In theory this takes some of the strain off the inflamed area.
I’ve also been using an ice pack at regular intervals. I have one that contains gel and never freezes solid, so I’m not in danger of frostbite when I forget and leave it on for far too long. It’s in a cover that Velcros around my arm, which means it stays in place nicely.
I borrowed a TENS machine to zap myself with. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which uses low-voltage (or should that be low-amperage?) current through two or four pads placed strategically around the elbow. It’s like being constantly prickled but better than the alternative.
The scientific jury is still out, apparently, on the effectiveness of a TENS machine but I used one when I damaged my back a few years ago and it was about the only thing that allowed me to function. It’s having much the same effect this time.
Just as long as I don’t shuffle my feet across a synthetic carpet and then grab a metal door handle, I should be fine.
Apart from that, I’ve just been on occasional doses of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’m all ears!
Like I said, Charlie Fox would be laughing her arse off…
This week’s Word of the Week is selenology, meaning the study of the moon. Also, selenography, the study of the features of the surface of the moon. From the Greek name for the moon, Selene.
This blog also appears on Murder Is Everywhere.
To kick off the new year, I wanted to finish my look back at the quirkier news items from the second half of 2019, as reported in The Guardian newspaper online.
The England team at the Women’s World Cup reach the semi-finals before going out to the USA, narrowly failing to become the first England team in a World Cup final since 1966. Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, not only dances but does his own choreography, too. As an incentive for good behaviour, prisoners are offered keys to their own cells. A message in a bottle dropped into the seas off the Australian coast in 1969, is finally discovered. A study reveals that chimps are more sociable after watching movies together. And Neuroscientists manage to decode brain speech signals into written text.
Having a healthy social life is shown to help ward off dementia in later life. Scientists produce ‘Atomik’ vodka from grain grown around Chernobyl. Two footbridges, cantilevered out from the cliffs with a 4cm gap in the middle, meet to connect Tintagel Castle with Merlin’s Cave in Cornwall. A cure for the previously deadly Ebola virus is tested successfully in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Growing up in areas with high air pollution is linked to mental health issues, a new study shows. Six portraits of the ‘Petworth beauties’ which had their lower legs removed in the 1820s when the owner of Petworth House, the third Earl of Egremont, required more room to hang other paintings, have been restored to full length by the National Trust.
It is thought the Loch Ness Monster could be a giant eel, after researchers from Otago University find the water contains no dinosaur or monster DNA. Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler space telescope determine that there is water on planet K2-18b, in the constellation of Leo. The planet is twice the size of earth and orbits a cool red dwarf less than half the size of the sun, which warms the surface of the planet to approximately 10C (50F). The annual science prizes the Ig Nobel, given to work that ‘first makes people laugh, then makes them think’, are awarded in a ceremony at Harvard University. A British researcher, part of an international team, wins one for discovering which parts of the body are most pleasurable to scratch. The ankles, apparently, closely followed by the back and then forearm. A Japanese Airline indicates seats with infants up to two years old for the benefit of other passengers booking seats.
A council house development wins the Stirling Prize for architecture. The development of 105 environmentally and socially conscious houses in Norwich has been called ‘a masterpiece’. The tiny island of Sark in the Channel Islands is called a hotbed of crime by the outgoing constable in charge of law and order. The island, which has no cars, also has no customs post, and smuggling is rife, apparently. A man is arrested in the Netherlands after keeping his five adult children in a cellar for years, ‘waiting for the end of time’. They were discovered when one ‘ran away’ to a local bar. The Amazonian white bellbird is revealed to have the noisiest mating call of all avian species, at 125dB, three times louder than its nearest rival.
NASA’s Voyager 2 probe sends back its first message from interstellar space. First launched in 1977, the probe has been sending back pictures of the solar system. There’s a public outcry in Japan after a TV show exposes a business ban on female staff wearing glasses at work. The new Disney+ streaming service attaches warnings of ‘outdated cultural depictions’ to classic movies such as Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. Thieves break into the Jewel Room at the Green Vault in Dresden and steal ‘cultural treasures’ of ‘immeasurable worth’ in what the German media describe as the biggest such theft since World War Two.
Mixed-sex civil partnerships become legal in England and Wales. An artwork that consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall, which sold for $120,000, is eaten by a performance artist while on display in Miami. He said ‘he was hungry.’ A painting believed to be by Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady, is found hidden in a wall after being missing for 23 years. Certain species of crocodile can perform a horse-like gallop, where others can only do a fast trot, it has been discovered. Tests were carried out in Florida. What or who they were chasing is not recorded… Fallon Sherrock becomes the first woman to beat a man at the PDC World Darts Championship.
This week’s Word of the Week is the buzz word of 2019, prorogue, meaning to delay, postpone, to discontinue or end a session of a legislative assembly, from the Latin prorogare,to ask publicly.
As this is my last MurderIsEverywhere blog of 2019, it seemed only right to look back at just a few of the oddball news stories that have caught my eye this year.
In January, it was announced that by the time the average child in the UK reaches the age of ten, they have eaten eighteen years’ worth of sugar. As part of the pre-Brexit preparations, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, awarded a £13.8m contract for additional ferries to a start-up company that didn’t actually own any ships and had never operated such a service before.
A yacht called Wild Eyes, which was abandoned in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 2010 by teenager Abby Sunderland, who was attempting a round-the-world voyage, was spotted floating upside-down near the Australian coast after eight and a half years adrift. A beach in Ireland disappeared overnight. Two teenage Indian girls posed as boys for four years in order to keep their father’s barber’s shop going when he became too ill to work. They were honoured by the Indian government. The British intelligence service, MI5, was named among the best LGBT-inclusive employers by the equality charity, Stonewall.
The largest collection of protective symbols to ward off evil were found in a small cave in the East Midlands at Creswell Crags. Researchers discovered that the stripes on a zebra deter flies from landing on it. They experimented by dressing horses up in striped rugs. Numbers of Scottish Terriers—the most famous incarnation of which is possibly the piece in Monopoly—have fallen to an all-time low. Susan Rennie published a dictionary of author Roald Dahl’s most inventive expletives.
Read the rest of this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.
In my last blog I talked about the instances of flooding in the UK and touched briefly on the problems it causes. Or, more to the point, the mess it leaves behind. Of course, if you actually find yourself caught up in flooding, the last thing that should be on your mind is how you’re going to get raw sewage out of the living room carpet.
You have far more important things to worry about.
Like not drowning.
In a House
If you’re in a building, unless it’s in direct serious danger of becoming completely submerged, they reckon your chances of survival are far greater if you stay inside.
Turn off the mains electricity and gas.
Close all the doors and windows.
Fill empty containers with drinking water as tap water will quickly become contaminated.
If you’ve had enough prior warning, think about moving sentimentally important items onto tables or to an upper floor. If you haven’t had much warning, leave it. Nobody ever said during a eulogy, “She died trying to save her credenza. It was what she would have wanted…”
Move to the uppermost floor with water, food, spare clothing and flashlights. Also take a ladder with you, if one is needed to access the roof space, just in case the water gets really high.
If you are forced to take the the roof, rope together all the members of your party to the chimney, so no-one is swept away. If no rope is available, use bedsheets or blankets, knotted together.
Read the rest of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
I’ve just come back from a trip to south Wales (old rather than New) with either the cleanest car bottom ever, or the dirtiest—not sure which!
There was a huge amount of standing water all over the main roads and dual carriageways. And even the A-roads had deep puddles lurking at corners, or full flooded sections in the dips. As for the B-roads, well, I managed to get within about half a mile of my destination before I was confronted with a lake where the road should have been.
As my car is not blessed with the greatest ground clearance in the world, I decided discretion was definitely the greater part of valour. This involved reversing along a watery single-track lane for about 300 yards and finding an alternative route. Mind you, even the navigable way meant driving along several miles of what seemed to be a muddy river bed.
A glance at the UK government Flood Warning Information Service website on Saturday evening shows 106 Flood Alerts in place, meaning flooding is possible and should be prepared for. It also shows 72 Flood Warnings, meaning flooding is expected and immediate action is required.
According to the figures, there are more than five million people living in areas of the UK vulnerable to flooding every year. They used to talk about such events as happening ‘the first time in living memory’ or ‘once every hundred years’. Now they seem to have become almost annual.
Read the rest of this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Do you recognise this woman? No? How about the name Lhakpa Sherpa? Still ringing no bells?
Still nothing? I am as unsurprised as I am saddened.
Lhakpa Sherpa lives in Connecticut. She washes dishes in a restaurant for minimum wage. And yet she has conquered Mount Everest.
Lhakpa was the first Nepalese woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest and make it back alive. She climbed Everest eight months after giving birth to her first child, and again while two months pregnant with another.
One of eleven children, Lhakpa is around 45, although as she and all her siblings were born at home, no accurate records of birthdays were kept. Her whole family are Sherpas. One brother has summited ten or eleven times, another eight times. Her younger sister has done it once.
But Lhakpa is the current holder of the World Record for women. Despite this, her name is almost unknown, her accomplishments unsung, and her climbing efforts unsupported by the kind of corporate sponsorship that has become so familiar for such a remarkable athlete.
Read the rest of this piece on Murder Is Everywhere.
Here in the UK we throw away approximately seven million tonnes of food every year. They calculate that about five million tonnes was food that could actually have been eaten. The vast majority of this waste comes from households. This has a cost both in monetary terms (around £14 billon) and in its effect on the environment, accounting for something in the region of 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Sobering figures at a time when more and more people are in food poverty, forced to use food banks and make decisions every week on whether to pay a vital household bill, or to eat.
According to the UK charity WRAP (the Water and Resources Action Programme) household waste in 2015 would fill 70,000 three-bedroom terraced houses.
However, we have reduced our food waste since 2007, saving local councils nearly £70 million in 2015 alone through lower landfill charges.
Each household throws away the equivalent of eight meals each week, costing almost £70 per month for an average family with children. The carbon generated by the production of this food is the equivalent of that produced by one in four cars on the road in the UK.
And, as every statistic is obliged to be compared to something the size of Wales, how about this: An area the size of Wales is required to grow all the food we waste annually.
Among the foods wasted in UK homes are:
- fresh potatoes (4.4 million of them)
- bread (1 million loaves at an average of 20 slices per loaf)
- milk (3.1 million glasses’ worth)
- 1.2 million whole tomatoes
- 1 million whole onions
- 2.2 million slices of ham
- chicken (the meat from 120 million of them)
- 0.7 million whole oranges
- 0.8 million whole apples
So, this weekend, in an attempt to do my bit for reducing food waste, I picked all the cooking apples from the tree in the garden, which had actually fallen over because of the weight of fruit on it. I didn’t weigh them, but they filled four of those large bag-for-life supermarket shopping bags. Some of the apples were so big you could barely get both hands around them.
I’m not much of a pie maker, so I’m in something of a quandary to know what to do with cooking apples. I took some to the local community shop for them to sell, but then I spotted a notice from the village pub in Kirk Ireton. the Barley Mow, saying they were having an apple-juicing day. They invited everyone to bring along their spare apples, together with either clean containers to take away fresh juice, or to donate it to the pub’s cider-making process.
Some of the apples I took were so big they wouldn’t fit into the pulping machine and had to be quartered. Once suitably mushed, they went into a wonderful old-fashioned apple-press, which produced pure juice with no artificial flavourings, colourings or additives.
And the result? Absolutely delicious. Didn’t need a drop of extra sweetening, despite being mostly cookers. Of course, without preservatives, there’s a limit to how long it will keep, even in the fridge, but you can always freeze it. And I look forward to trying a sample of the rest of it, once it’s become Barley Mow cider in due course.
This week’s Word of the Week is amanuensis, meaning a literary or artistic assistant, particularly one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. It also refers to a person who has the authority to sign a document on another’s behalf. The word comes from the Latin servus a manu, ‘servant of the hand.’