Thursday, 26 June 2014

NutriPaste ®

The man walked along the near empty pavement with his usual shambling gait, carrying a bag of shopping. Heavy set and obese, he struggled to carry his weight. He passed the motion sensitive pixel poster. It flashed into life, the images creating a pool of light. The speaker crackled, “For a sustainable and secure food future; Monsauget bioengineering.” The man looked briefly at the images of rolling fields and woodlands. He watched it impassively, despite his thoughts, as the Corporate NewsAd made its grandiose statements; they always showed landscapes not seen in a generation since the food riots of 2074.

He came under the scope of Camera 77, slowly walking into and through its field of vision. Twilight was setting over the city, invisible stars would be emerging high above but in the mega city the light had a permanent orange tinge. Whether day or night due to the exhaust fumes and street lighting overspill, it seemed unchanging. High above too, barely perceptible, would be the orbiting satellites, ever watchful. The food riots had raged for months, when the bees became officially extinct in 2073 and  the crops failed on a massive scale. The Back to the Land Movement sprang up, with an eye to claiming the land back from the mismanagement of the MultiNationals.

He ensured that his face was seen by the camera. Not far now, he thought, as he scanned the familiar sights of the street. I hope I’m not too late.

In the man’s pocket a handheld device vibrated strongly whilst emitting a series of polyphonic tones. He reached into his pocket in irritation, wheezing as he fought to respond to the insistent device. A red light blinked on it like an angry eye, and with stubby fingers he activated the touch screen; it was a global text from the Central Nexus. “Citizen, you are 2.5km from your HomeHub. In precisely thirty minutes you will be in contravention of the 21st Law of Curfew.” He kept shuffling along the street as he struggled to read the device. One step, two steps and he was beyond the Camera 77’s field of vision.

He tapped the screen to confirm he had received and understood the warning. He didn’t have long to do this.

Out of the field of vision afforded by Camera 77 he moved surprisingly quickly. His eyes followed the walls of plasticrete that ran to his right. From his pocket he fetched a plastic spoon and retrieved a large pot of NutriPaste ® from his shopping bag. His eyes alighted on his prize. In a crevice, where dust had gathered to form a thin soil, a plant grew. It was wild flower, its buds almost ready to burst. It defied the choking world in a tiny oasis in a sterile desert. His parents had been in the BLM before it had been declared as an illegal eco-terrorist organisation. They had been keen allotment keepers at one time, before the planning laws had forbade such things. It was hard to believe that real seeds had been readily available so recently. They had suspected what was about to happen and had drawn up plans. Things would need to go underground, if their germ of an idea would come to fruition. 

Using the spoon he gently worked at dislodging the small plant’s roots free of the soil. The roots would be long, desperately seeking nourishment in the alien soil. He had to be careful not to damage them. He cursed his podgy fingers that made the work so difficult. His parents had seen the way the wind was blowing, when the Corporations, including Monsauget had patented all the fruits and vegetables that grew in this temperate climate. Such action had been easy to pass through what passed as a parliament back then. Corruption was rife and vision had long since died in the political class. Did they know the brave new world they were helping to create? Did they care? To think people really thought that they lived in a democracy back then!

He smiled to himself, as he felt the plant’s grip of the crevice yield. Quickly grabbed the pot of NutriPaste ®, running his fingers around the inside of the pot he gently loosened it and lifted the inner cup out revealing the large hidden compartment underneath. He placed the plant in this with the utmost care that his hands allowed, ensuring that no leaf or flower bud was damaged. He replaced the inner cup with the paste over it, hiding the plant. Looking concerned he noticed the ingrained dirt residue on the plastic spoon.  He placed the spoon in his mouth, gently sucking at it and using his tongue to clean it. He took it out and examined it again. Satisfied that it was free of particles he scooped out a spoonful of paste and put it in his mouth. He swirled it around his mouth before spitting out the sweet substance over the grate of a drain cover.

He idly walked back into the scope of Camera 77. In his hand he held the pot of NutriPaste ®, the handles of his shopping bag over his wrist. In his other hand he held the spoon and shuffled under the camera, pretending to eat the pink coloured goo. He walked back past the Pixel Poster. It was now broadcasting standard Curfew warnings: “Be a compliant citizen, obey the law; your safety is our concern.” When the food became scarce the population attempted to take back control of their destinies, despite the long standing restrictions on movement. Parliament had been stormed by the BLM amongst other revolutionary groups. They should have realised it had been all too easy; there had barely been any resistance. It was found to be almost completely empty, but there was ample opportunity for looting, which was filmed for the subsequent propaganda broadcasts. It became apparent that the hated politicians had long since deserted the old debating chamber, as if they had expected the invasion. It became clear that what was supposed to be Government was merely a facade, an illusion. When the population attempted to leave the city, they found that they were in a prison. The Corporations controlled the army and Police and there was to be no escape. Many people were killed; their deaths fuelled the subsequent massive propaganda campaign. The corporations were the people’s friend; Monsauget was their saviour, the solution to the food crisis. Eating their product was spun as being an almost patriotic duty, despite the rise of the MultiNationals making patriotism a near redundant notion in practical terms.They controlled all the old farmland. He had heard rumours that the countryside was almost as sterile as the city now. A vast monocultural wasteland of genetically modified crops and lifeforms.

He put the pot of NutriPaste ® away and hurried along as fast as his form would allow him, causing him to perspire; he would smell unpleasant now for certain. He was less than 1km away from his home when his Hand held spoke again. Despite his expectation it still alarmed him with its polyphonic invasiveness. He took it from his pocket and activated the touch screen; the angry red eye now stared unblinking. “You are in contravention of the 21st Law of Curfew. Peace Enforcement Officers have been dispatched to your present position.

He sighed; looking into his bag ensuring the lid was safely secured on his pot of NutriPaste ®. He walked a few more steps towards his HomeHub, breathing deeply in preparation.

The street outside his home was lit suddenly by flashing blue lights as the officers climbed out of their near silent electric vehicle. They wore black paramilitary body armour and encounter helmets that covered their faces. They were tall and well-muscled; in complete contrast to the man.

“Citizen… Smith,” one said though his helmet, his voice sounding electrical and alien, as he read the display inside it, “you are 300m from your HomeHub. Yet you were warned and were seen still moving away from it over 30 minutes ago.”

“I was…”The man was about to answer when the officer spoke again.

“Oh this is interesting; your parents were convicted criminals. You had better explain yourself citizen, or we may have to take you to the correction facility. Well?”

“I was getting some exercise Officer.”

“Exercise?” Even behind the electronic voice the man could hear the mocking tone.

“Yes, exercise Officer,” he panted,” but I got hungry and shaky. Luckily I had my NutriPaste ®.” He said, holding up the pot proudly.

Both Officers laughed electronically and cruelly. “Good for you Citizen Smith, now get to your HomeHub. But don’t you worry about exercise in future, there’s no need for you to trouble yourself. Exercise is bad for you. The NutriPaste ® gives you all the nutrition you need. We have to suffer lesser foods, live longer and keep fit in order to keep you safe.  Now get home, we will watch for your safety from here so there is no need to hurry.”

“Thank you Officers.” The man wheezed and he waddled on to his front door.

The two Officers watched him go. “Stupid bastard,” one said to his companion, “Imagine eating that hormone laced crap, and did you smell him? Unhealthy, sweaty pig of a man. Still it keeps them overweight, compliant and lethargic. Exercise, he says… exercise! I’ve heard it all now. Come on lets get on.” He laughed.

As he shut the door behind him and pressed the electronic key coder to lock it, he breathed a sigh of relief as he leant against the door. He looked through the verifier window in the door, watching as the blue lights disappeared around the corner of the street. He got out his handheld device; the red light had gone out. The Officers must have confirmed that all was well, and now he was at his HomeHub, the system had reset itself. Satisfied that he was safe he took off his coat and waddled into the kitchen, placing the shopping bag on the countertop. He took out the pot of NutriPaste ® and stood in front of the fridge. He opened it and retrieved a bottle of water, closing the door again.  On the front of the fridge was a digital display with a small keyboard. He reached his podgy fingers to the keyboard and carefully entered a code. He stepped to one side. With a sound of rushing air the Fridge disappeared into the wall. Lights behind it blinked on. The man stepped through, pressing a button on the wall, as the fridge gradually moved back to its original position.

He opened the bottle and took a drink of water, eager to wash out the sweet taste of the sickly NutriPaste ®.  He walked to a large wardrobe and opened the door. Reaching under his left armpit he found a small tag of Velcro which he pulled. Exposing a zip he drew it down. He then took off his greasy wig and peeled the mask off his face and neck. He grasped his left gauntlet with his right and pulled it off. He opened and closed his hand enjoying the experience of having them exposed to the air again. He removed his right gauntlet and with both hands free extricated himself from the fat suit, revealing a lean body. He hung the boneless suit in the wardrobe, as well as the gauntlets, wig and mask. He was about to close the door when he suddenly remembered something. Reaching into his nose he removed both nasal filters and threw them in a bin. He sucked air in through his nose and screwed his face in disgust. The fat suit smelt badly, but it made the illusion all the more realistic. It was fortunate that he wore anti-pollution filters.

Picking up the pot of NutriPaste ®, he went to a door at the opposite wall. Pulling it open he walked into a brightly lit room behind thick plastic curtains. Here was a room full of plants; tomatoes, beans, lettuce, carrots and potatoes amongst others, all grown hydroponically. The room was alive with the sound of trickling water and a low buzzing sound, never heard now in the world outside. He grabbed a ripe cherry tomato and popped it in his mouth, relishing the flavour. His parents had chosen a good variety.

He walked to the far end removing the cup from the NutriPaste ® pot, screwing his face up in disgust at the sweet pink goo; he carefully lifted out the flower and carefully secured it in a trough of the nutrient rich water. “There you go now my lovely, you’re safe now.” As he spoke he noticed one of the flowers had just opened. He smiled as he heard the buzzing of a bee that passed his ear to alight on the fresh bloom.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Another Woodland Tale.

We are a noisy species, we humans. I suppose it is because using sound is our chief form of communication. I can frame my thoughts into words and speak them to you. You hear these sounds and instead of hearing grunts and growls you discern information from my mammalian chatter. Most amazing of course is our ability to draw sounds on the page; sounds with meaning, sounds with names. You’re making sounds through your eyes right now. As you read this, a voice you hear every day is silently speaking. Try SHOUTING, go on, give it a GO. Was that louder in your head? Yet beyond the confines of the personal word within your skull, nothing was heard. Of course this is assuming that you follow the modern trend of reading quietly. Believe it or not, this only became the norm in the Middle Ages; Monastic libraries and scriptoriums must have been quite noisy places. You see watching QI does have its uses…
Interact with other species and you have to employ different forms of communication. My dog can understand a few words, his name, sit, walkies etc. But his main form of communication is smell. Messages are written and left for other dogs to read using urine.  Not having the olfactory skills (or indeed the stomach) to read his lamp-postings (see what I did there?), he talks to me with certain barks, the tilt of his ears and the look in his eyes. Yes, he really can speak to me through his eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, or so they say, and therefore two souls can understand each other, even if they’ve never met, through their organs of sight. I have no empirical evidence for this of course, only experience...

I was in my late teens, yet again escaping into the woods seeking solitude, and wondering what I would see. This time, hearing the occasional blast of shotguns in the distance, I had climbed the slopes above our house and was in the belt of woodland between our neighbouring farm’s fields and the Steep heathlands of Bracken, Heather and Gorse that rise to the summits of the Blackdowns. I knew these woods well, had followed the hedgerow edges, the tree covered curves and promontories, knew where the big oaks and beech avenues were, the high boggy woods and the old stone pits. These were where people had once excavated stone for buildings. Now consumed, by the wild wood, they were steep sided and thicketed; not a place to stumble into, especially in the dark, but that's another story...
However on this day it was bright and sunny, during the college summer holidays, if I recall correctly. I let my feet lead me. I came to the edge of the woods – a hedge of Beech trees and a ditch carved into the red earth and rock by winter rains. It was very deep and difficult to get out of. Jumping across the ditch I followed the curve of the slope. I liked to walk the woods as quietly as I could, still do in fact, although my children who accompany me these days tend to underline my “humans are a noisy species” statement.

I slipped between branches, walked on the balls of my feet, trod as lightly as possible, as I practised my woodcraft of avoiding the snapping of twigs and a tell-tale trail showing my passage. I climbed up through a stand of Ash trees, avoiding the brambles that hung down from the lower branches; I endeavoured not to crush the thick waxy leaves of the wild Garlic now past their flowering, likewise the drooping foliage of the blue bells, their glory spent. Atop the mini summit I looked back through the light dabbling canopy, now at eye line, to see glimpses of the fields and the grazing cattle below. I heard a rustling behind me. I turned and saw her.
She came to a sudden stop, bursting through the undergrowth, four feet in front of me. Her eyes were fearful, her dark nose glistened, and her red flanks rose and fell quickly showing she had been travelling at speed. She, of course, was a Roe Deer.

We both froze, her ears twitched. We both held each other’s gaze, unblinking. I stared in wonder and I saw her fear dissipate in her eyes; I stood on two legs, yet I was not a threat to her. She knew, she saw it in my eyes. The spell was broken when we heard human voices through the timber to the right, behind her. Her ears suddenly quickly twitched back and forth, as did the flesh on her legs, her instinct to run returning. Still holding each other’s gaze, I understood her need to escape and blinked to give her answer, releasing her eyes.  Her head turned, and with a near silent bound, she disappeared into the woods to my left. I was left smiling but my smile disappeared when I heard the voices through the trees again. I had come into the woods seeking solitude and these interlopers had broken it. I don’t know why, but something inside me told me to avoid meeting whoever the voices belonged to. They were noisy and lacking in fieldcraft, or so it seemed…
I followed the deer’s path eastward a short distance and then, hearing voices behind me, struck south, up the slopes to the edge of the heathland, abandoning stealth for speed. On the edge, between wood and moor, I ran as lightly through the chest high bracken as possible, doubling back westward until I reached a long abandoned and overgrown hedge that ran up the slopes to the summit of the hills. I relaxed, on the far side of it; once  more I was alone. I looked back the way I had come and then I saw them.

Two men, both dressed in cammo. In their arms they carried broken shotguns. They were following my path through the bracken. It was then that I realised that they had been hunting the deer and had picked up my trail; following the sound of my passage through the woods and my carving of a path through the virginal bracken. Hunting deer with shotguns though? That was plain wrong.
I remembered when, two months before, the neighbouring farmer and I had gone shooting rabbits for the pot, on the edge of these same woods. We had failed in our expedition but we had come across a recently deceased deer. It had suffered terribly before it had died; its skin and flesh blasted and torn on its flank. My companion had shaken his head and muttered angrily. “Shooting a deer with a shotgun? You should use a rifle.” He had said, patting the 0.22 in his hand. “Using a shotgun on such a beast, it’s so wrong. It won’t kill ‘em outright, not unless you’re feet away. This poor bugger probably ran for miles until the shock of her wounds killed her. What a waste and a shame.”

I wondered if these hunters were the self-same culprits. Well then, I’d lead them a merry dance. Nothing on two legs knew these woods like me.
Uphill and downhill they followed me; through the deepest thickets, through the boggiest parts of the woods. You needed to know where to put your feet and which rotting logs could take your weight; otherwise you could all too easily sink into the treacherous stinking mud, in which the birches struggled to grow in without drowning.

I tired of the game eventually and headed for home through the fields, running doubled up, keeping low behind the thick hedgerows. I looked behind me, but of the hunters there was no sign, they hadn’t left the woods. I hope they enjoyed the hunt as much as I had. That ditch carved by the winter rains WAS awful deep… ;)

Friday, 13 June 2014

Dreams amid the Storm

The storm raged, the wind howled; it swept around the curves of the slopes to smash against the house, under the hill. The house that it had long sought to level. The gusts strived to find entry into its adversary of stone, brick and slate, causing the gaps under the doors to whistle and the roof beams to moan and creak. Yet still, through the chaos, the boy dreamed.
Thunder boomed up above the high heathland, the rain lashed the heather and bracken. The water dripped from the waxy fronds to overwhelm the thin soil below. The water gathered and flowed, carving rivulets through the dirt until it began to pool around the bog alders and birches at the foot of the steep incline. Their roots clasped the treacherous earth like fingers, desperately treading water. To root risked drowning in the quagmires of the high woods. All around the remains of their fathers and mothers lay moss covered, sinking and rotting.  Yet still the boy dreamer dreamed.
Unable to retain its desperate hold in the wet earth, its upper branches caught in the wind that swirled amid the tree tops, the alder fell, to splash into the boggy ground. Its roots pulled at the sodden earth, the dam that held the water back broke and the water flowed onward once more, gathering speed, as more streams joined it to flow down the hill, urgently seeking the valley floor. The dreamer still dreamed, but something else awoke.
The alder roots had caught in its matted hair and they yanked it violently from its muddy slumbers. It emerged, worms and foul things falling from its beetle brows, as it sought revenge for its rude awakening. Its eyes blazed, its claws were fen-filthy, cracked and ragged. It roared its defiance as the thunder crashed. The lightning, exploding across the storm wracked sky, illuminating its fur that was green with moss and lichen. It showed its yellowed teeth, its breath heavy and strong as the things that decay deep in the watery morass. It hauled its slime covered bulk from the mire with a squelch. Yet still the boy dreamer dreamed.

It bounded down the hillside with the rain-fed torrents, following the curve of the slopes, leaving the woods and crossing the fields. Ahead it saw the house that had stood for so long, as the fingers of lightning  spread across the sky.  Inside the dreamer still dreamed and the thing perceived the boy and it roared anew in a jealous rage as the thunder boomed above.
Climbing up the walls, its claws finding holds between the rain lashed bricks and stones, it hung from the eaves. Its ragged nails scratched and tapped first one window and then another, from one end of the house to the other, seeking entry as the thunder rattled the roof tiles. Disturbed at last, the boy dreamer awoke.
Listening intently and fearfully, amid the howl of wind and crash of thunder, the boy first heard one window rattle in the far room, then another in the room that adjoined his. He swallowed as inevitably he heard his own room's windows rattle, as the wind and rain was hurled against them. Hardly daring, he looked over the blankets' edge as the lightning lit the dark of outside. What was that shaggy form, who's silhouette was dark and monstrous, against the curtains? He fearfully hid himself under the blanket and dreamt no more.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Star Dust

Far up above me, the infinite expanse.
Distant suns reel in a timeless dance.
Clustered and drawn to the galactic heart
Seething nuclear cauldrons are mere candles against the dark.
Orbiting these sparks on worlds familiar, yet strange
Dwell biological musings of a god deranged.
From these sparkling jewels that sunder the night,
How long has travelled, their light to my sight?
And when the rays first erupted from these far off spheres,
who looked up, like me, in wonder and fear?
Maybe my father, or his father before?
Or further back still, through myth and folklore.

Babylon, it is said, was raised from the mud.
Fertile loam between rivers made bricks, mixed with blood.
Thieves and merchants, warriors and whores.
Lived and loved in a world familiar to yours.
Or Assyria. Conquerors. Fierce and proud.
To Niniveh, their city, they dragged the enslaved and the cowed.
Yet defeated, Niniveh, once clad in marble and gold
Its crowns and treasures broken and sold.
Its proud walls now ruins and buried in sand.
Its terror a mythic memory in an ancient land.
I feel a connection with those gone before,
looking up at the darkness in wonder and awe.
For fashioned from dust are we and those past.
Dust exuded before time from primal dead stars.

At the worlds eastern edge an excitement has begun.
And rising. Majestic. Our life giving sun.
Gathering its power, a circle of gold.
Making day anew from a night that was old.
Yet one day, long hence, its fuel will be spent.
Reddening and angry the skies will be rent.
The oceans will boil, the earth melted to glass.
The world consumed as Sol gives its last gasp.
Shedding its body to the vast vacuum of space.
No memory. No ruins. No sign of our race.
Yet maybe, separated by distance and time,
other beings will be moulded from the dust that was mine.


Thursday, 5 June 2014

Home Grown

I've always had an appreciation of folk music, its stayed there in the background of my being (like a guilty secret) alongside my love of rock, heavy metal and prog. The old songs tell a story, and if you drop your modern pretence of  supposed sophisication, they will touch your soul and resonate still. As a people we don't really change; the technology around us might, but out hopes, desires and dreams are the same since when we first stood upright.
A few years ago I used to play in a covers band. As well as classic rock we would cherry pick modern anthemic crowd pleasers, but around ten years ago, such modern songs that grabbed me (and were accessible beyond my tastes!) seemed to disappear off the radar. Meanwhile deep inside an old sound in my soul stirred again and I listened.
I went to see a singer songwriter and was captivated  by the sounds and tales told and instantly became (shock, horror!) a "folky". I hasten to add that there were no thick woolly jumpers or fingers in the ears!  I now endeavour to see this singer, Steve Knightley, at least twice a year; either playing solo or in his band Show of Hands with the ridiculously talented multi instrumentalist Phil Beer and the double bass and sweet vocals of Miranda Sykes, as they perform old and original songs.
It was with pleasure that I learned that he was due to play a stripped down solo show in Taunton during his Grow Your Own Gig tour. A suitably organic form of bringing music to the people, organised, literally, by the grass roots.  I grabbed a couple of tickets in anticipation. It was an added bonus that I'd finally be able to take my wife as well; it would make a change from annoying her playing SoH CDs in the car everytime I get behind the wheel.
The gig took place in a newly built school hall. It was very civilised, instead of my usual cider I had a cup of tea... I've never had a cuppa at a gig before! We took our seats (in the front row no less!). Steve had a backdrop of a country kitchen with his hand made weapons of choice on stands - Guitar, Tenor Guitar, Cello Mandolin and Cuatro.
Steve came on, recovering from a summer cold but still strong of voice, testing the acoustics of the room without amplification or instrument, singing Low Down in the Broom. He seemed a little subdued at first, as he gauged his audience, but soon was in his stride regaling us with anecdotes that linked the songs together, as well as the inspiration he found as a young man listening to Bob Dylan. Some of the first half's highlights included Cruel River, a song of the River Dart (every year it claims a heart), Red Diesel a song of a Dorset man called Terry; the kind of down to earth countryman you'd want in your corner and  in your pub darts' team. We listened to the haunting Reynardine, a warning that not all men are of honourable intent, and the hillarious Yeovil Town, a true story of fear, threats of violence and fish & chips!
During the second half Steve reminded us that as West Country folk, under our modern facades, we are still looters and pirates with the song Napoli. We learnt of the ways of poachers with Long Dog, were treated to a Dylan/Pink mashup with Try/Boots of Spanish Leather which was really well done and seamless (we were even told that even his daughter appreciated it!). The usually angry Country Life (a SoH favourite) was stripped down, becoming instead a lament; where would Terry play darts, now all the pubs have closed down? Armed with his Cello Mandolin (hand made by David Oddy in Exeter) Steve performed an exquisite version of Twas on one April's Morning. Steve played one song as an encore, the seemingly ever resonant Arrogance Ignorance and Greed about the ongoing banking crisis. As an extra treat Steve managed to have both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen guest on a couple of verses... well if you closed your eyes it could have been them!
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and highly recommended. I'm forgetting a lot of the other songs performed such as The Keeper (very apt with the centenary of WW1 this year) and Home to a Million Thoughts (a song commisioned by Exeter Museum) but alas I didn't nick the set list from the stage which I usually do! We had heard funny stories, (not all at the expense of Phil Beer!) and a fine selection of traditional and original songs performed to Steve's usual high standard, some of which we were all invited to sing along to.
A personal highlight was that even my wife sang along too, as she said later "She knew the songs." Heh heh, and another secret folky is born!