Circumstances Are Temporary, Class Is Permanent

On Class, Social Mobility and Absurd Ancestors

My mother was born in a palace, the daughter of a family of wealth and influence. On coming to London she first worked in a factory. When I was born she was sewing for piece rates to make ends meet.

So when my daughter asked me what class we are I didn’t have a ready answer of plebian or patrician. Not having a ready answer turned out to be the right one, the question merited some thought.

The current method of measuring social mobility is based on the work of Goldthorpe in the 1970s. Originally it asked for your occupation in midlife and compared it to that of your father. Fifty years on the question has been adapted to ask what profession the main breadwinner in the household had when the respondent was aged 14. The seven categories are allocated to three broad ranges, the Salariat at the top, then Intermediate Classes and finally Working Classes.

When I was 14 my mother had a clerical job in a bank; routine work that put her squarely in the Working Class. The methodology does not ask if you were born in a palace. For me, my mother’s aristocratic heritage was just a rich source of stories. The reality was that our financial situation was precarious and there was no option other than hard work. Working Class it is, maybe.

Even without her history we didn’t fall easily into working class tropes. Although we lived in a terraced house, it was in a leafy London suburb and not a grim industrial town. When I was 14 my brother was studying at the LSE and I attended an eye-wateringly expensive school with my fees paid by the government, scholarships and bursaries. Education is the traditional lever for social mobility and we had pulled firmly on it.

By the way, if you want to give a poor kid some complex hang ups about wealth, privilege and entitlement, then send them to a rich kids’ school. Some of that may bleed into the rest of what you read here.

Both my parents were university graduates. My father’s very early death leaves unanswered what career heights he might have scaled. In Pakistan he worked for the Pakistan Economist, and as a younger man he had worked in the telegraph office because his English was good. At the time of his death he was an internal accountant for a firm of solicitors. His short life doesn’t give many clues but he clearly turned his hand to anything requiring literacy and numeracy. Without a family leg up I’d still back him to have free climbed his way up the social strata. His own father was apprenticed to a tailor when an illness wiped out most of the breadwinners in the family. Before that the trail goes cold.

It all seems to me to point to a place on the Working Class starting line, but with senses trained on the gun to race for a more comfortable economic destination.

Climbing the ladder

But what of my children? Both have crossed the threshold of 14 and in answering the social mobility question would put me in the Salariat; a senior management job gives me the hallmarks of Middle Class.

I’ll take that as long as they remember the path it took to get there: their grandmother sewing night and day while their father gurgled at her feet.

It all sounds very romantic and rags to riches, a salutary tale of hard work and good education being the foundation for progress; fuel for the myth of meritocracy. Well, perhaps not so much of a myth. A study by the LSE and UCL, reported by the BBC, concluded that social mobility was “the norm and not the exception” as 48% of people rose up the ladder from their parents’ position, compared with 31% who slid down. The social mobility game seems to have fewer snakes than ladders.

As ever things are not that simple.

Gregory Clark’s work has found that class is persistent for families. Individuals may break the glass ceiling or crash through it, but over the course of generations, certain privileges persist. He estimates that it takes ten to fifteen generations for familial wealth or poverty to dissipate. The New Republic notes his observation:

“…if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge.”

Clark, G The Son Also Rises

Something about the study sits uncomfortably with me. I’d like to believe that every person is a well of untapped potential waiting to be realised if only given the right opportunities and guidance. With my less dewy-eyed, more analytical hat on I can reconcile Clark’s observation with the UCL/LSE stats.

The Dyer lemma

Let’s start with Danny Dyer, a British actor. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” a TV show that traces the roots of famous people, we learned that he is a descendent of King Edward III (1312-1377). His reaction and the juxtaposition with the hard man, rough edged, cockney persona he projects (it may all be real) made for great TV.

A little bit of back-of-an-envelope calcuation tells me that in principle half the population of the United Kingdom could share the same heritage. Perhaps there is more to the saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” than we first thought.

The Dyer Lemma* provides the reconciling point we’re looking for. Even without the disruption of wars, rebellions, treachery and infidelity, it would only take a few generations for the second sons of second sons to be mixing it up with the rest of us. Clark’s observation that a core retain their status over several hundred years does not invalidate their cousins joining the ebb and flow of social mobility. Indeed, for a time they will over-contribute to the downward cadre as for them it is the only possible direction of travel. For all the Sinclairs, Percys and Beauchamps attending Oxbridge, there is a plethora of them who didn’t.

Even on Jacob’s Ladder some of the angels were going down not up. And though Jacob’s seed may indeed have “spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south”, very few were prophets.**

Goldthorpe’s original work on social mobility was limited in two important ways, which I believe he acknowledged – it did not account for the role of women in the workforce or of migrants. While the new mode of posing the original question “what was the profession of the main breadwinner…” leans towards gender neutrality it can still fall awkwardly in the career breaks many women experience and it misses the driving purpose of migrants uprooting themselves to change their stars.

My mother, woman and migrant, makes the traditional method of measurement next to useless in my case. Her story, while it is not unique, is both tragic and inspiring. It is also a reasonable case study for a three-generation model of the migrant experience.

From riches to rags

My parents had been married for just over seven years when my father passed away. Having worked in a factory, at a dry cleaner’s, and for a greengrocer, my mother had by that time acquired a large metal-framed Singer sewing machine. It dominated the dining room of our house. That room included a sofa bed which would be unfurled at night for her to sleep on. The rest of the house was rented out to lodgers. Her income from rent, that sewing machine, and her younger brother’s part-time jobs between his studies, formed the basis of our early survival.

There are two paths to financial security for the migrant, both involve dedication and hard work. Some have the acumen and appetite for risk to trade their way out of poverty. That wasn’t us. The other route is to study your way into the ranks of the doctors, lawyers and savants, out of the labouring classes.

For my mother, her straitened circumstances were a blip, a cruel hand dealt by fate but she still held the aces of diligence and frugality. Traditional, white-collar professions for her sons would provide enough money not to have to worry about money, and the linked but distinct goals of respect and respectability. Quality schooling and reputable universities were all part of that equation.

Her own family were Prufrocks to the Hamlets of the Kingdom of Avadh. The founders of our Indian dynasty were scholars and clerics at the royal court. The mahal, where my mother was born, literally means palace. It is in fact more of a grand country home, let’s call it a modest chateau. It is fronted by an Imambargah, a chapel will do as a translation for our purposes. The significance of the Imambargah is that it has two minarets. In this it is rare, possibly unique. The royal buildings of Avadh had four minarets, and during the British Empire Avadh’s kings had little else to do with their wealth than stand up grand buildings. Private buildings were only allowed one minaret. Our two were a mark of special royal favour. The gates to the mahal have recently been replaced. They feature the double fish emblem of Avadh, as the original gates did, another mark of royal favour.

New mahal gates

One of my ancestors was personal tutor to the children of an Avadh princess. The story goes that the British stirred up the soldiers in the princess’s palace to mutiny. My ancestor was in the bath. Hearing the ruckus he came out dressed only in a towel and faced the mutineers. He issued such a stern reprimand that they went sheepishly back to their posts.

My own grandfather reprised this act of courage, facing down a mob to save the life of a Hindu man in the Lalukhayt district of Karachi.

These snippets of history I got from my mother. In an unwitting precursor to Gregory Clark, she would tell me that our family had enough wealth to last for “saat pusht” seven generations but frittered it away in two. She saw first-hand the last vestiges of her family’s grandeur, and the hardship of migration first to Pakistan and then to the UK. It forged her character – diligence and frugality, dedication and hard work; wealth was a curse that led to laziness and indolence.

The goals were simple enough – security, respect, respectability.

What is respectable?

My first proper job baffled her. I was on the graduate training scheme at Ford, while my college mates were either doing crazy hours for silly money at Investment Banks, or duly, dully enrolled on training contracts for the big professional services firms.

Love for my friends aside, I still firmly believe that the audit profession is a full employment racket for the mediocre Middle Classes. It would have been the end of me and, while I eventually became an accountant by mistake, I count myself fortunate never to have endured life as an auditor. On the flip side this essentially meaningless activity is a predictable path into the Middle Class for those who aspire to it. Swings, roundabouts.

Guessing how much you can sell a car for in five years time (my last job at Ford) was still a bit too close to the actual act of manual labour for mum. She embraced that willingly for herself, she wanted something else for my brother and me. It wasn’t until I moved into one of the big consulting firms that she was reconciled to my “career” path, albeit briefly as I veered off again soon after.

I could have achieved the security objective as a plumber, I think I was better suited to it to be honest, but that respectability thing is a kicker.

That’s a neat encapsulation of the first two steps in the three-generation model. The first generation sublimates its own desires and comfort in the quest to set a platform for its children, a base from which they can power forward. The second generation follows in its wake, witness to what has been expended for its sake. Fitter, happier, more productive than its predecessor but ultimately slave to the same imperatives.

Third time’s the charm

The third generation, well this is where it gets interesting. The struggle to survive of the first generation is now a story, the history of the grandparents. The third generation lacks direct experience of those times, and the deeply ingrained philosophy of “get yourself a job first”.

Of course, most will follow in their parent’s footsteps, a small nudge up or down the place on the ladder that has been secured for them. Some will break out. Leaning on their financial security and their freedom from the schema instilled in their parents they strike a different path. They can take risks that might be incomprehensible to their grandparents, and make choices that will either be resented or revelled in by their parents.

The third is the generation of artists and musicians, the early blooming authors and aspiring sports stars. Of those that try, most will join the long tail of those who almost or never make it. The point is that they get the chance to try.

Those generations of my maternal ancestors who let generational wealth slip through their fingers were all well educated polyglots, university gold medals abounded. Their favoured pastime was writing verse in Persian and the higher variants of Urdu, and they were good at it – publishing books and occupying the pages of highfalutin journals. It wasn’t just a male pursuit, the women of the house were at it too, for reasons of modesty publishing anonymously. The problem was that no one was professionally managing the estates, investing the returns or handling expenditure like an adult. They were notoriously naïve, easily cheated and swindled.

The periodicity of the phases was longer in their time, leaning into the centuries Clark estimates, but the model stands for them too as medieval migrants with the Mughals – achieve security, embed it, leverage it, or in this case: spend it.

I find myself admiring those profligate ancestors. My brother, for reasons too complex to go into here, is custodian of a set of family treasures – decoupe art one of our forebears made. The pieces are delicate and really beautiful. Apparently as the family sat around in the mahal swapping verses and literary jokes he would join in and at the same time be snipping away with his scissors and these bits of paper ephemera would appear.

No photo description available.
Part of the collection of decoupe art

Yes, they had a life of extraordinary privilege, and yes of course they should have husbanded that wealth better. Nonetheless if all you can do with inherited wealth is curate it, then it is a prison. Life is a game of chance and cycles. Some generations have no choice but to build, to make a sacrifice. What’s the point if the drudgery continues through the ages?

And someone has to be the fall guy, to serve as a lesson that wealth, whether it takes a generation or ten, ultimately disappears.

There was a glorious, absurd, illogical stand my ancestors once took, refusing the money they were offered by the British for the land on which Lucknow railway station was built. The British were usurpers, their money was tainted. It was economic suicide; a genuinely beautiful sticking to principle and utterly magnificent act of stupidity. I never met them, I love them for both. Living in London I can rise above the irony and say we were never collaborators.

The gravity of their gesture lived on. My grandfather could have spared his family great hardship, spared me as a direct consequence, had he taken up property he was entitled to in Pakistan. He turned it down as others were homeless and adrift in their new homeland. By that time he had none of the familial wealth to fall back on, but the morality instilled in him, to do the right thing irrespective of the cost, is immensely precious. I love that too.

I don’t begrudge any of them their principles and the consequent costs. What matters in the end is not where you stand on the ladder but what you stand for. That can be from the privilege of a palace, or sewing night and day in a single room to make ends meet. Ultimately, that is true class. 

Which still leaves my daughter’s question to be answered. “What class are we?” the subtext, with the self-centredness of childhood was “What label should I attach to myself?” What I eventually said to her was that it did not matter. If it was important to her she could claim to be descended from great wealth or great hardship. The key was to know the history, to learn from it, to absorb the stories of courage, diligence, frugality, and understand the pitfalls of entitlement, indolence and profligacy. From there she should strike her own path and make good decisions or bad decisions, unencumbered by her ancestors, immediate or distant. She is, after all, the third generation.

END

* The Dyer Lemma is not a thing, I made it up

** Genesis 28:12-14

Find out more about my writing here.

The Healer of Kabul

*

I haven’t shared one of my own stories here for a while. In the light of what is going on in Afghanistan at the moment, and our fears for the rights of women and minorities, I thought I’d share something set in Kabul. It is a bit of action / adventure I wrote for a competition and it tries to look beyond the tropes of terror and insurgency to a more hopeful future. That hope is in pretty short supply right now.

The story got me into the next round of the competition. I hope you enjoy it.

The Healer of Kabul

Hana took a deep breath and steadied her nerves. From across the room Ester gave her a thumbs up.


“This is my signature piece,” Hana said, lifting a creamy bowl decorated with vivid poppies in bloom. She remembered the instruction to smile. “Anti-tank mines have a porcelain liner to make them harder to detect.” She put the bowl down and lifted another, dull beige with a hole in the base to show the original state. “Each liner is hand-painted, with a resin insert to make it watertight.” She gestured to the side. Ester panned the tiny GoPro around to show the display. “You can use them as planters, or for decoration, maybe to serve your favorite sweets. My country has seen so much violence. The reminders of it are everywhere. I hope to take these objects and show my people we can grow beyond war to lives of peace and beauty.”


Ester tapped the GoPro to stop recording. Hana took the opportunity to shrug off her abaya. It was stifling in the tiny shop.


“Perfect,” Ester said, “I’ll splice it together with our other segments. We’ll have your first promotional video ready in no time.” She clipped the little camera around her neck and glanced at her phone. “This is going to be a real success Hana, I can feel it.”


“A success for us both, Ester. We should be partners.”


Ester laughed and reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “That’s not allowed, my dear. Anyway, no one works for a charity to get rich.”


The door to the tiny room opened, letting the clamor of Kabul’s traffic flood into the room. Ashar popped his head in.


“Finished?” he asked. Hana nodded, trying not to smile as she watched her brother’s eyes swing to Ester, softening in adoration. He was smitten by the tall German woman, even though she was technically old enough to be their mother.


Without shifting his gaze he waved a satchel by its strap. The flap was thrown open. The shop lights glinted off the grenades stuffed inside. “Delivery,” he said. Ashar didn’t have many words in any language, but he was smart enough to use them effectively.


Ester’s eyebrows shot up. “Are those…?”


“Hand grenades,” Hana said. She snapped her fingers to get Ashar’s attention and gestured for him to keep hold of them. He swung back into his seat under the awning in front of the shop.


“Are they safe?”


“This is Kabul,” Hana said, a little surprised that Ester was rattled. The flare of her nostrils gave Hana away, Ester shook her head and laughed. The German worked for a non-profit organization that promoted local artists in some of the world’s most troubled countries. She had an office in the highly protected Green Zone, and while she had arrived in a rickshaw, her armed guards had followed in a dented Pajero and now watched from the tea shop across the road.


Ashar’s shout from outside stalled the conversation. Hana bumped her hip hard on a table corner as she hurried to see, Ester hot on her heels.


A skinny man with a scraggly beard pulled at the strap of the satchel. Ashar tried to keep hold of it. With a yank the thief snatched the satchel, still loaded with its contents, from the boy’s grasp and leapt away onto the back of a waiting motorbike.


“Hey!” Ester yelled. She grabbed Hana’s arm and ran out into the street. A rickshaw idled by the side of the road, the driver squatting beside it, dragging on a cigarette and watching with disinterest. Ester leapt in. Without thinking Hana got in beside her.


“Follow them!”


The driver shrugged and looked away.


Cursing in German, Ester hopped into the driver’s seat thumbing on the GoPro. She stabbed the throttle and the rickshaw lurched away. Hana yelped as she over-balanced, shoulders slamming into the rickshaw’s metal frame. For a few paces the barking driver kept up with them. He reached in and grabbed a handful of Ester’s light headscarf. It fluttered away as they sped off down the little side street.


The motorbike was an aged, sputtering Honda. It hadn’t got far ahead. Ester twisted the handlebars to swing the rickshaw into the stuttering traffic on the main street. Horns blared as the rickshaw tipped on two of its three wheels. Hana threw herself the other way to counterbalance it.


Hundesohn!” Ester swore at the slow-moving traffic and hawkers with wheeled carts. She pumped her palm on the horn.


A gout of diesel smoke from a brightly-colored bus hid the motorbike for a moment. The air cleared. Two men pushing a heavy wooden cart laden with cages blocked the road, stalling the motorbike. The thief and his getaway driver twisted and backed up.


“Hold on,” Ester called over her shoulder.


They careened towards the motorbike. A crash was inevitable. The world slowed. Hana looked into the dark eyes of the thief. Cold, calculating. There was a menace there. Was it a crime of opportunity, or were they targeting her? A woman running her own business in this fiercely patriarchal country. A woman bringing a message of peace with the relics from fifty years of near-constant war.


In those agonizingly slow seconds, she realized this wasn’t about theft, it was about her.


The motorbike leapt away. Ester slammed on the brakes, hurling Hana forward. Hana’s face planted between Ester’s shoulder blades. Ahead of them chickens pecked and shuffled in their cages, entirely unconcerned.


Sheisse.” Ester hauled on the handlebars, manoeuvring around the cart and back into the chase. The road cleared for a few meters. The thief looked back from his pillion seat, held out the satchel and dropped it in the road.


“Stop.” Hana grabbed Ester’s shoulder and jumped from the slowing rickshaw. Her sandal twisted away from her foot. She hopped, jumped and landed on the satchel, smothering it with her body. She counted the seconds, dimly aware of horns blaring, shouts. From somewhere a long way away – Ester’s voice.


The grenades were all meant to be safe. Dismantled, fuses and explosive material removed, then reassembled. But the thief had known her and had dropped the satchel for her to pick up. He could have added a real grenade. She couldn’t allow innocent bystanders to be harmed for a vendetta against her.


Three breaths. Four. Plus the time it took to get to the satchel. If it was an old grenade the chemical fuse could have degraded. Five, six.


“It’s OK. I think we’re safe.” Ester’s shadow fell on Hana. It was brave of her, Hana thought, to come so close. She gripped Ester’s outstretched hand and got to her feet. Hana’s hijab was awry and a crowd of onlookers had gathered, unaware of the potential for mortal peril. She glanced around. They were more interested in the tall blonde woman in jeans and boots who had been driving a rickshaw. There was a beep as Ester switched off the GoPro that still hung around her neck.


Hana slung the satchel over her shoulder. “We’d better take that rickshaw back.”


Business boomed for a while. The promotional material Ester filmed in the shop may have won Hana some international sales, but it was the jerky video of an expletive-laden chase through the streets in a rickshaw that won Hana brief renown. The “Healer of Kabul” – a slightly built, modestly dressed, hijab-wearing young woman became a social media star. Those dignitaries that ventured outside the Green Zone looking for a photo opportunity or a souvenir from the real Afghanistan asked for her by name. Hana smiled and sold them her hand grenade candles and bullet kohl bottles.


Hana’s fame was waning by the time Ester managed to arrange an exhibition of Hana’s painted porcelain in Berlin.
“It seems a terrible risk,” Hana said, as they sipped tea in her small apartment. “You can’t seriously mean to buy all those pieces yourself.”


“The gallery is threatening to pull out and the sponsors are losing interest.” Ester shook her head. “There’s a Rohingya kid in Burma who makes kites that everyone’s gushing over now. That’s just the way of the world. But I believe in what you are doing here, Hana. I want the world to see it properly. I’ll buy the inventory and underwrite the exhibition. Are the crates ready to go?”


“Ashar has been packing everything carefully.” She smiled across at her brother. He’d grown more accustomed to Ester but was still clearly besotted.


For a moment Ester stared into her tea. Lipstick marred the edge of the glass. “I have an appointment with the customs people,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Ashar, see Ester to her car please, then buy us some bread for dinner.”


Hana tidied while she waited for his return, humming to herself. The fading of her fame did not bother her the way it seemed to bother Ester. Her items still sold enough to make a decent living and Hana felt happy to be independent, able to support herself and look after her brother. For a long time that had been a distant dream. In a way her independence was a greater symbol of Afghanistan’s healing than the art she made.


Ashar was late getting back. He’d probably stopped to watch the local boys play soccer. By the time he wandered home the bread would be stiff and cold. With a sigh Hana readied herself to go and find him, tying on her hijab with practiced efficiency and shrugging into her loose abaya, and checking the deep pockets for all her necessities.
She opened the front door and stopped. Ashar stood in the doorway, his pose still and unnatural. There was a sharp stink. He’d wet himself. Tears stood in his eyes


“Ashar!” she started, angry and upset. He hadn’t done this for years. Then she saw the muzzle of the gun pointed at his ribs.


“Take the boy inside, tie him up and leave him. Someone will find him eventually. It’s the woman we want.” The gunman spoke in heavy, hill tribe Pashtu. She knew those eyes. The grenade thief. Fear rooted her to the spot as a bag went over her head and rough hands tied her wrists together. She stifled her scream into a sob. They had her brother.


Hana gasped as her shins caught on something hard. Someone pushed her into a van. They didn’t travel far, she guessed no more than fifteen minutes of bumping on the uneven roads and stuttering through traffic.


The bag came off in a large spartan room. There were two men. The thief and his getaway driver. Hana’s mind whirled. Why them? Why now?


The room was well lit. Her blood went cold. One wall was adorned with an ISIS flag. She turned around. On a heavy wooden table a GoPro pointed at the flag. The thief untied her hands and gave her a shove.


“On your knees.”


She slumped down. Tears dripped on the black cloth of the abaya. The thief wound a cover over his face, leaving only those cold eyes showing. He ranted a speech to the camera. Hana vaguely registered something about the erosion of values, the disease of liberalism. She couldn’t focus, she knew what was coming. Everyone knew someone who had been lost to war or insurgency. Not third or fourth hand but direct relations, close friends.


She’d made herself a target, the symbol of a different life, the different country Afghanistan could be. She could accept her fate, but who would look after Ashar?


She blinked away tears and stared into the camera. The camera. She knew that GoPro. She’d rehearsed in front of it, the scratches on the casing were etched into her memory.


“Ester,” she said, her voice hoarse.


The ranting thief stopped.


“Ester,” she said again. Clearly this time. Her voice pitched to carry. A shadow crossed the doorway.


“We’ll have to edit that out of course.” Ester stepped into the room. She nodded to the thief who took a couple of steps away from Hana towards the door and stopped, his hand resting on his gun.


“Is this some kind of game? A publicity stunt for the exhibition?” Hana asked, her voice rising as panic gave way to incredulity. She started to get to her feet but the jerk of the muzzle sat her back down again.


“Publicity, yes. But not a game.”


“You can’t be serious. Who are these men? Are they actors?”


Ester dropped to her haunches, eyes almost level with Hana. “Deadly serious, my dear. We had a good run, you and I. But I’m cashing out now. Can you see the headlines? The Healer of Kabul, a martyr for peace. If it’s any consolation your exhibition is guaranteed to be a success.”


“You said no one ever joined a charity to get rich.”


“I won’t be. Just comfortable, without worry.” Ester reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “I’d need several more like you to be rich.”


Hana jerked away, slipping her hands into her abaya as she did so.


“Kill her,” Ester said to the thief, stepping back.


“Wait.” Hana pulled her hands out of the abaya. In her right hand she held a grenade. In her left, she held the pin.
Ester laughed. “Really? I know all about your grenades.”


“Do you? I want to heal my country Ester. I may dream of a better, peaceful Kabul. But I live in the real one. Do you really think I go about without protection?” The thief was backing away, the driver had his back to the wall and was sidling to the door. “Your henchmen don’t seem too confident.” Hana taunted, rising slowly.


“It’s a bluff. Kill her.”


Hana gave the thief a chill smile and tossed the grenade towards the door. One breath. There was a plink as the lever released and fell away, a pop as the fuse lit. The grenade skittered across the floor stopping just outside the door. Two breaths. Hana was already diving for the table, tipping it as she fell, the GoPro sliding off beside her. Three breaths. Hana’s shoulder hit the floor as she curled and covered her ears. She heard heavy footsteps pounding.


Scheisse.”


The explosion rocked the room, ripping plaster from the walls and ceiling, filling the air with dust. The house groaned, a crash reverberated over the echoes of the blast. A billow of new dust wafted over the edge of the table.


She crawled out into a monochrome world of plaster dust. Ester’s booted foot poked out of the rubble, motionless. A messy pile of spattered blood and shredded cloth was all that was left of the thief. Hana stumbled out of the room. The explosion had torn through the wall of the hallway leaving a gaping hole to the courtyard below.


The driver had made it some way down the hall. The blast had taken him in the back. His handgun lay a little distance away. She picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of her abaya, opposite from Ester’s GoPro.


Kabul was not yet the city she dreamed it could be, and it would take her a while to walk home to her brother.

END

You can find out more about my writing here

* If you’d like to lend me a Kabul streetscene to replace the Karachi scene above get in touch

Letters and the Lost Art of Forgetting

When is the last time you wrote a letter? I mean really wrote a letter; got out the nice paper, put a ruled sheet behind it. Used a proper ink pen. I’ll let you off the paper, maybe a note card; filled, not just Happy Birthday or Wish You Were Here.

I miss it. I miss the ritual. I miss the slowing down. There’s a special type of concentration that comes when you don’t have the facility of ctrl-z. Structure matters, it can’t be imposed later. A train of thought, once started, has to be taken to its conclusion. There is no hiding behind a delete key.

Of course you can start again. As Nanci sang, that’s a bad hand at solitaire, you lie to yourself no one cares. Besides, thoughts once written are real, whether they are sent or simply balled up and sent for recycling.

I miss loving people enough to spend the time writing to them. The investment of me into them, the gift of a reply.

I’ll admit I don’t miss the waiting, much. But there is a pressure that comes with the urgency of emails, and Lord save us, instant messages and chats. Immediacy denies us pause and consideration. In a way it deprives us of our humanity. The amygdala reigns. Write, send, read, write, send in repetition laying bare a visceral self stripped of any higher brain functions.

A letter invites our better selves to step forward. Handwriting betrays hurry, lies, hesitation. Patience and honesty are rewarded on the page.

Most of all a letter allows us to forget, and grants us the privilege of being seen only through the eyes of others. Only politicians and narcissists keep copies of the letters they send. The rest of us entrust our words into the safekeeping of another. What we wrote is lost, there is no scrolling back. The correspondent is a mirror. Imperfect, trusted, external and close. Only in the reply, seen through their lens, filtered through their perception, reshaped by their priorities to do we receive any record of what we wrote.

This is what you said meant to me, is what they tell you. An elevation out of our self regard, feedback on how we made another feel. Not in a guttural, animalistic way, but with all the clarity of the civilised mind.

In our hurry, in our quest for connections, in our surrender to instinct we have lost something of ourselves.

Drop me a line, maybe together we can find it again.

End

You can find out more about my writing here

An Off Brand Bowl of Disappointment

A dedicated follower of fibre

I’ve been eating Weetabix for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of having it spooned into my mouth, a bit left on my face wiped off and being packed off to school. I guess I was four or so. When I had the mumps it was all I could eat.

I was even a member of the Weetabix fan club. That short lived experiment where five manic characters in dungarees and possibly on angel dust* exhorted you to eat more fibre. OK!

Four decades on, I reckon I have eaten something in excess of twenty thousand of those rounded biscuits. Originally only two per day, but now three and a liberal dose of honey, usually with hot milk. Once, while camping in Ireland, from a shared bowl.

Price comes before a fall

With all that Weetabixperience you’d think I’d know better than to buy off brand.** In fact not that many months ago I had stern words with my missus over an experiment with some Weetbisk nonsense she picked up. “Never darken our home with this abomination again,” was the high handed law I laid down.

Hubris, Nemesis and the insidious price tag. I saw this in my local Tesco through the face mask condensation on my specs.

Seventy four pence. 74 vs 280 copper headed queens.*** A quarter of the price give or take. And if you look closely the earnest people of Stockwells claim they’ve been at this since 1924.

I was seduced. I knew better than to fall for the yellow box, I’m not a moron. But 74p, and since 1924. How bad could it be?

Method to my madness

There is a point to eating Weetabix in the morning beyond the benefits of a high fibre diet. It fits into my process. Kettle, prep meds, bowl, 3x Weetabix, honey, milk, microwave for 1 minute 10 seconds. Get the coffee on. Weetabix out of the microwave and wolf them down. Sometimes pouring into my gullet and not bothering with a spoon except to clean up the dregs. Then meds, make and take the coffee up to my study to start the day.

Weetabix don’t actually taste of much, the honey takes care of that, but there is a distinct texture that remains despite being largely liquefied. The key is they’re quick. It takes a while to work your way through a bowl of Rice Krispies. Longer still for Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. Toast is a faff with too many parts to the process, and in our arctic kitchen there is time penalty for every second the toast remains unbuttered. Porridge takes longer in the microwave and has to cool before it can be eaten.

If you’re the kind of person who cuts fruit to put on their cereal, or arranges dollops of yoghurt and blueberries, good for you. I prefer the extra minutes in bed. In the words of the immortal Half Man Half Biscuit: I don’t know anyone who puts peaches on their cornflakes either.

I used to work in manufacturing. Complexity means cost. In this case time. Weetabix is cereal made simple.

All that glistens…

You’d think with all that the off brand wheat biscuits would be viable substitutes. The key elements are something quick that can be poured down your throat in a hurry and doesn’t taste of too much. Can’t be too hard to grind up grains and achieve that limited set of requirements can it?

Dear readers it is. It’s all about the texture. Weetabix retains a crucial bit of bite. A solidity within the smoothness. Grain. The off brand biscuits dissolve into a sludge. Gloopy, almost slimy. Tongue and throat are not fooled. A neutral start to the morning turns negative.

And that’s what I got in the karmic repercussions of my harsh tones with my missus. Tempted by the provenance of another, as Squeeze didn’t sing. And by the price.

I mean, 74p! I’m a follower of Jack Munroe. I felt I had to. I really shouldn’t have.

A week and a day of purgatory

Eight breakfasts. Eight mornings I’ll be living with the regret of this moment of madness. On day one I vented on the first Teams call of the morning and a colleague commiserated. Her own experience was the same with Rice Krispies. Not even the Marks ones were up to the mark.

The lesson is clear: speak softly to your spouse and buy the brand.

End

*this was in the era before crystal meth

**privilege check. I have had my share of dark days where offbrand was the only option, those are not counted in the 20k

*** oh give over. The family pack is between the Stockwells and the comparable 24 pack

Lockdown Loveseat Pallet Project

All aboard the pallet bandwagon

Everyone is making things out of pallets these days. The videos and posts make it look so easy. Planks that prize apart at the slightest effort, beautifully planed and straight oak, blocks you could build your house with.

Not wishing to let this bandwagon leave without me I jumped aboard.

Regrets? I have a few. And splinters. Aches. A lot of aches.

I’m pleased with the outcome, and I learned a lot along the way, but it was a mission and I’m glad its over.

Here’s what I found out.

Not all pallets are equal

Quality, shape, size, wear. All variables. These are the three pallets my wife acquired for free from a local store. Two went into this project.

These are a far cry from gorgeous blonde, smooth pallets of others’ posts. I suspect the splinters have carried a substantial amount of blue dye into my bloodstream. Frankly I’m surprised I don’t look like a smurf now.

Not all parts of pallets are equal Or Square

These aren’t designed to be beautiful. The idea of a pallet is that it does not fall to pieces and can carry a load, over and over. The tolerances on the components are pretty loose. Planks that were optically similar were as much as 5mm different in width.

Differences in length were more about where the wood split when I was breaking the pieces apart, or where there was previous damage. Some parts were warped, some bowed.

That set the tone for this build. It had to be something robust and rustic. Without a planer/thicknesser and a huge amount of waste there was no way this was going to turn into something beautiful and refined. Not in my hands anyway.

Oh, and the less said about the compressed fibre end blocks the better.

So many nails

Each fixing point had at least three nails. All were rusted, and deeply embedded, strengthened by years of compression. I cut where I could but it still meant prying and pulling and hacking.

Then I got to the second layer. Nails bent over and hammered back in to provide an immovable hook. I ignored those as long as I could, then took the Dremel to them.

Of course I had to remember there might be bits of metal embedded when I was sawing and sanding.

Notice also the splits and cracks which rendered the ends of many of the planks unusable.

Making the best of it

All that effort and this is what I got. A pile of potentially usable planks. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to make. Our garden bench has been getting a bit wobbly, so another place to sit was a reasonable challenge.

Most pallet projects keep as much integrity of the original pallets as possible, and I can see why. There was a lot of waste and effort involved in getting this far. I could more easily have created a flat bench which was perfectly functional by chopping and reattaching large sections. I’ll use that method for the next project (a potting table) because I’m running out of dry days and daylight hours.

The point here though was to find out what could be done. Onward!

Loveseat, baby

I’d settled on the idea of a loveseat pretty early on. The design morphed as I got to grips with the materials and worked out what was feasible with what I had.

Originally I had visions of built in shelves for herb pots, and that the central divider would be a planter where I could put in some rose geraniums. That came crashing to earth pretty quickly.

I still liked the idea of two seats facing each other, and a trawl through the available finishes in my garage gave me the idea of a two tone colour scheme. That’s about as much planning as I ever do for something like this.

Here’s the first stage complete:

Also need to do something with the logs

There were mishaps along the way. My trusty pilot and countersink snapped.

Now to find the allen key to remove the countersink

The thicker planks have a little bevel, which I decided to make a feature of. You can see it in the image above. That meant a lot of measuring and re-thinking the design on the fly to make everything fit because it would have been too easy if I just had enough of the right pieces.

This is the test fit of the design I went with for the backs. You can spot where the damaged ends have been hidden away. I didn’t do too much filling on the backs despite the very knackered state of the wood. Let’s say that was to retain the history of the material and not being heartily sick of the project by this stage.

There’d been long delays for bad weather, back injury and other commitments, but it is all about the history.

The final push was a battle against the weather. The task is complete just in time for us to enjoy it next year.

End note on finishes

I’ve been using the Cuprinol Garden Shades range for a while now. Experience from the treehouse shows that it lasts in London weather for five years before it starts to get scruffy, and a couple more before really needing to be refreshed.

This one is done up in Muted Clay and Summer Damson, a colour combo I used on the shed refurb and I quite like.

END

Talking to myself

A bit behind with this one.

This year I had the good fortune to take part in the Lockdown Film Festival – 45 films of isolation inspired monologues. Each in our own bubble, writers wrote, actors performed to their smartphones, and the producer Suki Singh put it all together.

You can head over to the festival home page to browse through all the successful contributions, and there are some crackers, or just jump straight to mine – Rats, performed by the excellent Dani Claydon.

Each one only lasts a minute or two. Go have a listen, come back and tell me what you think.

End

And you can find out more about my writing here

Sideboard, upcycled

Somewhere in the mists of time, probably three years ago now, we inherited an upcycling project from my sister-in-law. The once quaint wooden sideboard didn’t fit the decor of their new home, and my wife and I thought we’d give it a go.

Good from afar, far from good

The sideboard turned out to be a wreck. It had been left outside for some time, and as I didn’t have space for it in the workshop it was outside and covered in tarps for another winter before I could even get started on it.

A closer inspection showed that it wasn’t a particularly good piece either. No wonder they’d picked it up for a tenner. The main structural parts looked like oak, but the rest was plywood and veneer. Most of that was de-laminating.

A good clean up works wonders

The first step was elbow grease. Sanding, and more sanding. All by hand because the parts were a bit too fragile to risk the orbital sander, and the belt sander would have reduced the whole thing to dust.

Slowly a picture of what might be possible emerged.

Left, sanded and cleaned, right with just the cobwebs brushed off

The veneer from the shoulders was all over the place, bits missing, the ply underneath also coming apart. I stripped away everything that was loose and built it back up with that rough packing paper you get with Amazon deliveries and watered down PVA.

With enough bits and layers that gave me a base to put on some new veneer. I had assumed the fascia was square to the shoulders, but obviously over time the two had warped, so there was a bit of fettling and filler required before that process was complete.

I didn’t mess too much with the veneer on the sides. It was wafer thin and ripped in places. I glued down the loose bits and made judicious use of filler for the gaps. It really was in a bad way and stripping it back could have destroyed everything.

We had toyed with the idea of covering the shoulders with copper coins, and I really would have liked to give it a go, but the curve was a bit too severe and undoing that if it went wrong would be really destructive.

We did of course give it a bit of a personal touch at the end. More on that later.

Pro tip – heat breaks up old glue. It took about five minutes of half power and jiggling per handle to get them out. Don’t forget to wear gloves.

Finishes, and the end in sight

I have no idea if there is any science to this, but it felt right. I used two coats of walnut wood dye first. In part this was to even out the colour and hide some of the water damage, and harmonise the different wood types, and in part the wood was in poor condition from exposure and I felt it needed some care lavished on it.

That gave me a good base on which to apply two coats of walnut stain.

Dyed on the left, first coat of stain on the right

The split in the doors posed a tough question. It was theoretically feasible to unglue, disassemble and try to straighten and repair them, but it was a risk. The crack has not penetrated all the way through, there are bends in the back of the door but no open space.

In the end I went with the easy option, and consoled myself that this allowed the sideboard to tell its story.

That said there were myriad cracks and splits that needed repair. I mostly used dust from the sanding and pva in the gaps, and an array of clamps. I’m pretty pleased that the repairs aren’t obvious.

Coming unhinged

The hinges were also a mess. At some point a previous owner had varnished over them. Don’t ask me why. It took a combination of gel paint remover, a toothbrush and wire wool to get this mess off.

I don’t actually like the hinges, and I don’t see how they fit the overall style. There are no holes indicating other hinges were once used. I’ve stuck with these for now, but I can see a future in which they are replaced.

It was around now, with the wood recoloured and a shape emerging that it was clear this was a bit of Frankenstein furniture. The style of the doors, drawers, hinges and top piece don’t seem consistent.

That made it easier to give it a bit of a flourish of our own.

Top, tiled

The flat top on the base was a ruin. It was where the water damage was worst, and it needed a complete replacement. I went with plywood because why be different to what was there before, and a beading to finish off the edge.

There’s something very satisfying about a hand cut mitred corner

That high edge and flat surface meant we could add a personal twist. Tiles.

A bit out of sequence, this is before I cut the top to size, also the beading had been kicking around in workshop for a while and was decidedly wonky at one end

We used a contact adhesive to stick the tiles down, and then grouted. I really like the effect we achieved with this. My wife’s idea and choice of tiles, so well done to her.

Fit, and not quite finished

The two parts are attached with a pair of dowels and pair of screws on each foot. I decided to keep the original dowel position and put in new screw holes. A bit of precise measurement was required to get that right, as well as making a template for the two feet.

Finish line just out of reach

The handles we like aren’t in stock, so there will be a bit of a wait. The build work is done though, and the whole thing put together and in place.

It fits the colour of our fireplace and the two sets of tiles riff off each other. That was completely intentional, obvs.

After a couple of years of on and off tinkering, and a bit of lockdown inspiration, I’m quite pleased with the result. Of course I know every inch of this thing now, I know where the veneer is tap away from falling off, and where glue, filler and hope are holding things together. The whole house is like that.

It was never a high end piece. It looks like it was several ideas cobbled together before we got hold of it, and we have added a few of our own. Something about that feels right. It fits our house and our family.

Job (almost) done.

I had to do some last minute drilling when the screws for the hinges would not sit quite right.

End

Publication Announcement – new story in Space Force: Building the Legacy

What We Learned from the Fire

Funny how certain themes pervade my writing from time to time. A little while back I wrote a short piece (not sold at the time of writing) on religious extremism / militarism being grounded in an blind faith and an unwillingness to ask questions.

Exhaustion has also been on my mind, and how it can be a catalyst for reflection. If you took a chance to listen to me reading from Robert Nichols (head over to Instagram if you haven’t yet) you might recall this line:

Only sometimes will exhaustion allow

Us peace to observe the image of love’s ghost

from Sonnets to Aurelia by Robert Nichols

It has been on my mind that only when adrenalin has been drained, or passion spent, that we can look back on what drove us. Think of it as the seconds needed to overcome an amygdala hijack, and allow the rational mind to take over, writ large.

From that was born What We Learned from the Fire, a reflective piece looking at the horrors of war in the aftermath of a battle, seen from the fatigued perspective of those who execute orders rather than those who give them.

The stories I have sold so far have been, by and large, refined and honed over years. Edited, rejected, re-worked and re-sent over and over. This was a stark contrast. It emerged fully formed, was scraped and cleaned and landed the first time I sent it out.

Thanks for that to Doug Irvin, who saw something in it that fit the theme of this anthology. Read his thoughts on how the anthology came together here. He observed on accepting the story that it put him in mind of Wellington. The comment was a little inscrutable, but I guess he meant this:

Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

It is a melancholy piece, that’s for sure. Don’t worry, the other contributions aren’t.

There are more guest posts about the anthology hosted on Richard Paolinelli’s blog as well.

Interested? Check it out:

And you can find out more about my writing here

End

Storytelling – or just me telling a story

Why let your voice be tamed?

The irrepressible Phoebe Darqueling at Steampunk Journal has posted the audiobook version of my story In the Cavern of the Sleepers, head on over to have a listen.

This was a really fun project. For the reading I had to try my hand at different voices. I also experimented with Audacity to get just the right meditation drone noise for the interstitial music.

It was surprising exhausting to do the reading. Paying attention to every word, switching voices, concentrating on keeping a measured pace but adding urgency when required, all took its toll. I enjoyed it, and if the chance comes along I would like to do it again. Next time I’ll be better informed about what it takes.

Go have a listen then pop back and tell me what you think. If you really liked it here are a few other readings:

Sonnets to Aurelia by Robert Nichols (Instagram)

An excerpt from Desole Habibti (Youtube)

An excerpt from Like Clockwork (Youtube)

My story is set in the jungles of India. If your steampunk interest leans more to airships you can also check out Phoebe reading Secrets and Airships by A.F. Stewart.

End

The opening quote is from Emeli Sandé of course, and the photocredit goes to my cousins the Photosapiens

And you can find out more about my writing here

The Sound of Sonnets

I hold this truth to be self-evident that Shakespeare was a genius. A truth reinforced by watching The Globe’s excellent 2018 Hamlet last night (my TARDIS was broken but luckily the lovely Globe folks are putting some of their archive material online).

So, Uncle Bill. Unparalleled as a playwright and prolific as a sonneteer. Damned by faint praise (did you see what I did there?). The majestic Sir Patrick Stewart has been reading Will’s sonnets on Instagram, and his readings are indeed a thing of beauty. The poems? Well for me they do blur a bit. As Sir Patrick comments, Shakespeare revisits the theme of encouraging his object to have a child across the first seventeen sonnets. (Link to the first one here or follow @sirpatstew)

I hesitate to say it, all to aware of the stratospheric gap between Old Bill and my limited gifts, but he does bang on a bit.

Selections from Sonnets to Aurelia cover.jpg

Inspired by Sir Patrick I thought I’d bring you something you might not have heard. Check out my Instagram, you’ll find a recording of four sonnets by the early 20th-century poet Robert Nichols. I never hear his name mentioned, and it is possible he has been entirely forgotten. 

His book “Aurelia and Other Poems” has a number of “Sonnets to Aurelia”, of which four were selected for the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. My electronic copy of Aurelia was lost in some forgotten system failure, but the Oxford is a treasured tome I have had for more than a quarter-century (the introduction is by WB Yeats no less).

The selection provides a neat arc, from the first nervous flush of love, through tentative coming together, and then skips to the grounded, temporal nature of love. Love that is lost on death, or through faded memory. And yet, somehow at the end lingers as a ghost.

Go have a listen, let me know what you think. Then go and record your own favourites and tag me back. Introduce me to someone I have never heard of, or your rendition of If. Read aloud and share.

End

You can find more of my readings here:

An excerpt from Desole Habibti

An excerpt from Like Clockwork

And you can find out more about my writing here