Benjamin and the Frog. Hmmm… Sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, having recovered from a really sleepless night and an exciting day in The Out, I thought I would tell you all about my meeting with poet, Benjamin Zephaniah at Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, and a meeting with a little frog the night before.

I was very excited that I was going to read my poetry to Benjamin Zephaniah. He is someone Colin and I worshipped from afar in the 1980s, those heady days of alternative cabaret and comedy. Tadpole and Co majored in disasters set to jazz and poetry, such as Herculaneum and the Titanic. These were surprisingly popular considering they were in very bad taste. Those days in the mid-eighties were brief but happy times brought to a premature end by the surge in interest in samba bands and the desertion of our percussionist, Richard Bett, aka Riccardo Thunderfingers. He was the only man I have ever met who was capable of sustaining a rhythm on congas whilst simultaneously being thousands of people going down with a ship or getting buried by volcanic ash.

Yes, we certainly did some crazy back stuff then. We performed music and poetry in gigs and literature festivals from Hastings to Edinburgh. Some of it was even quite good but it was the comedic disasters that earned us our Yorkshire bookings, courtesy of Wild Willie, and the opportunity to share the stage with such worthies as Henry Normal and Jo Brand. We never performed with Ben, but he was “Up there!” and when the opportunity came to meet him at Boston, read some serious poetry and discuss it we leaped at the chance.

The night before recording the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, excited and in that terrible place where the more you try to sleep the less likely it is to come. Add to that an annoying tune that kept running through my head courtesy of an advert on TV… you get the picture. Eventually I must have dozed off and about three thirty to four in the morning I was woken by a cat coughing. Now, when said cat is a Himalayan and there is a history of heart murmurs in the breed you worry, so I got up to check on him.

He seemed fine, but was scrabbling around his water bowl. Then he pounced on a blanket I had hanging over a box full of stuff I really ought to sort through, donate, throw away… you know the sort of thing. I lifted the blanket and in the semi-darkness of my Pusheen nightlight, I saw what looked like a pile of poop.
“Urgh”, I said, turning the main light on, but it wasn’t poop, it was a frog! We have an empty vegetable container we use for trapping and releasing flies so I grabbed it quickly and, with the aid of a piece of card, I easily caught the sleepy looking frog.

By this time Colin was up and about and wandered into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just caught in my bed room,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he grumbled.
He must have been half asleep because the surprise of finding a frog in the house didn’t register. Nor did he offer to do the gentlemanly thing and put it out for me. So here I was, standing in my nightie and slippers in the twilight before dawn, trying to unlock the front door while Froggie got more and more excited and jumped up and down in his box. He was released to the water feature by the pond (I know frogs hide in there). I was surprised that he made no attempt to escape after the first hop. I guess he is a very laid back frog and in my experience frogs are not scared of people.

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Now, I have no idea how a frog came to be in my bedroom, nor do I have any idea how long he was in residence. All I know is that he certainly seemed settled under the blanket and that one of the cat water bowls showed signs of dust-bunnies and what I assumed was a frog poop right in the middle. Cue vigorous cat bowl scrubbing and changing of water… I then went back to bed and caught about three hours sleep before I had to get up for an early start and our journey to Boston where we were due to read poems and discuss immigration, Pilgrim Fathers and Boston amongst other things.

I suppose I was a bit ring-eyed and stupid for my interview with Ben. It took me a long time to relax and come out of my shell, but he is a lovely, genuine man and seemed interested in my poems and Colin’s too. When it was all over the three of us chatted for a little while about the eighties, alternative cabaret and the parallel universes we seemed to exist in. Somehow we never shared the stage with Benjamin Zephaniah back then. Hopefully when the programme comes out, we will finally get that wish.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. Possibly (very likely) more than I should and that is possibly counterproductive in terms of time management, but I have grown my following by being real and interactive. Occasionally I am tempted to schedule tweets and I do find they can be effective for reaching people in the middle of the night. If I do, I always respond to follows and retweets as soon as I can.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of relatively small accounts growing their own followers by offering random retweets and telling you this is the way to go. It is almost like a follow train (another thing I won’t do) and while still within the rules it is only a matter of time before Twitter reacts to it and makes it harder to do. Already it is impossible to access your own likes for pinning to your profile later, you used to be able to keep them for years, now the limit is days. Favourites have been replaced by “moments” and I am not even sure what “moments” are. (Perhaps someone who is a real person can tell me in the comments?) That has been done for a reason, most likely to stop automation of this sort. It is very annoying when measures taken to discourage automation stop the user from sending real messages that quote your own old tweets… but there you go… It is the price we pay for these cheating Autotweet apps.

I know lots of people who used to interact personally and reciprocate RTs are now using random apps instead of spending time on Twitter. They no longer respond or reciprocate so I no longer retweet them. In my limited time I want to interact with real people, not be overlooked by third party apps. So, that is my curmudgeonly musing for the day. If you ARE a new retweet app user you are losing the impressions my RTs would have given you. I prefer the real deal!

I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.

Imagine the situation. You have a serious medical condition that holds you virtually bedridden for most of the time. It is an invisible illness that saps every ounce of your strength. You are painfully thin. Sometimes you can’t lift a fork to your mouth to eat and even if your carer does it for you you can’t swallow your food without a huge effort. You can’t have a bath without help because you no longer have the strength to get in and out unaided. You are only free from pain when you sleep and the pain stops you from sleeping. Your GP has retired. The new one doesn’t want to know.

For years you have been receiving Disability Living Allowance then with one slip of the pen you are thrown into the category of “new case” and new rules come into play. Despite the reassurances you have had in the past and old rules that the DWP stuck to for a while you now have to prove your level of disability, that you are unfit for work and deserve PIP at both levels. A “nurse” comes to assess you at home where you are so ill with a migraine that you can’t even speak, let alone answer the questions.

You are given a painkiller and it takes seven attempts to swallow it. The “nurse” notes this down as “Capable of swallowing, drank a glass of water in my presence.” Your carer, when attempting to answer questions is repeatedly shouted down and told to “Shut up and let her answer”. Every question is a trap, every answer is a minefield and you are given the very lowest benefit level possible and you are now subject to regular “assessment interviews” because of her skewed and unfair assessment.

You phone a stranger, reaching out in desperation because you can’t cope with the stress of the next interview. All that stranger can advise is that you record the interview. Let them KNOW you are recording it for your records (or for the Press perhaps). She will try and contact them to delay, rearrange or reconsider your case but has been told they will not discuss anything due to confidentiality.

This is a situation that is playing out day after day across Britain as a group of “Jobsworths” being paid to do the ugliest job possible do their best to deliver efficiency and cut benefit bills. Everyday, sick people are being driven to desperation, some contemplating suicide even, because of CAPITA’s Disability Assessments and Disability Work Assessments.

“Was this the creation of wicked Conservatives?” you might ask. No, it was the brainchild of a Labour minister but they did nothing to stop or reverse it. Somewhere in this cruel scenario that plays out like a Kafka story the people have been lost, humanity and compassion have gone out of the window, common decency is moribund if not dead. It is a scenario that probably costs more to administer than it could ever save, even if those people did not desperately need the help that a decent society should ungrudgingly provide.

Never mind Theresa May’s “money trees”, what we have here is a screening process that probably costs more to deliver than it actually saves. We witness untold pain and suffering caused to vulnerable people. There is actual fear of the bullies (and yes they often are bullies) employed to enforce benefit cuts on people with terrible and almost totally incapacitating conditions they never chose to have. Does this make you feel proud to be British? Personally, I think politicians of both Red and Blue varieties should hang their heads in shame at this vicious travesty of justice.

Please share. Please comment if you have been treated in a similar way. Somehow we HAVE to make them leave their ivory towers at Westminster and listen.

The wheels on the bus go round and round – unless you were with me this morning. I found myself car less when Theresa May called the snap election she had said she would never call. Getting to a meet and greet session with Age UK in Horncastle is not so easy if you are car less. Although Horncastle actually has a better service than, say, Louth or Mablethorpe it is still limited to one bus an hour. Evening services in Lincolnshire are virtually non-existent. You could travel to Louth in the afternoon and easily find yourself having to stay overnight if you miss the last bus back at around four.

Nobody who actually lives here has ever claimed that public transport in Lincolnshire is adequate, of course. Our rail services are limited and indirect, thanks to Mr Beeching, which is terrible news for our coastal resorts. Compared with London, Sussex and Kent we are undoubtedly a poor relation and an embarrassment. You can travel until midnight or even later on trains in South England. Busses run well into the evening to connect London with towns nearby. How can you have a busy city and a great night life without public transport? Well, in Lincolnshire you don’t travel far at night, to party or otherwise, unless you have a car and a designated driver. No wonder we are a sleepy lot!

So, my trip to Age UK for a meeting and coffee morning involved two busses. One to take me to Lincoln and that arrived at eight in the morning. I kicked up the dust and trialled my shooting stick – a necessary travelling accessory as there are no proper benches at Lincoln bus station. (I suppose because they don’t want to make it easy for our rough sleepers). At nine, I gratefully got on the Skegness service, which stops at Horncastle amongst other places, and sat back to enjoy the beautiful scenery en route.

We were well on schedule until, having just left Wragby, I heard a colossal bang.

“Jimminy cricket!” I exclaimed (the way you do). “What in tarnation was that?”

I didn’t think domestic terrorism had travelled to rural Lincolnshire just yet. Perhaps some oik who was bored on half term holiday had fired an air rifle at the window? A few seconds later we heard the unmistakable whine of a slipping clutch and the bus slowly ground to a halt in the middle of the back of beyond – or somewhere very farm-ish between Wragby and Hatton.

The driver was efficient, polite and tactful in the emergency, he called Lincoln and Skegness for mechanics and a replacement bus. He allowed parents with small children and a large dog to stroll along a farm track. He let me use his mobile phone as I couldn’t get a BT signal to use Skype on my notepad. Shortly after the mechanics had arrived, declared the bus undriveable, and the ten o’clock from Lincoln had passed us by, we all piled into a replacement double decker and cheerfully set off. The driver even told us to claim a refund of our fare because of the inconvenience.

A lady from Manchester led the singing. We sang “The Wheels on the Bus” and “If you’re Happy and You Know It”, much to delight of a three year old boy who had been positively angelic all through the journey. Then she launched into a cumulative rugby song about boils on noses of the women of the harem of Caractacus which frightened the little soul, probably because he was as confused as I was trying to figure out the words.

Well, they didn’t mind that I was an hour late. We joked about making this a social media opportunity about the poor public transport links in Lincolnshire. It wasn’t traumatic or stressful. There are much worse things happening in the world than a bus breaking down in the countryside on a glorious sunny day but we really, really need a decent transport infrastructure in this county.

There was a time, not too long ago, when to have a well-rounded liberal education was considered a good thing. I grew up in such a system. My education in areas of health, careers and financial management was non-existent but I could read and speak a little in three languages, knew a little Latin and dabbled in music and poetry while studying towards maths and science A-levels. That was the point at which things started to change for me.

I was blessed with a Maths teacher who was somewhat of a genius mathematically but not very gifted as a pedagogue. He expected us all to understand instinctively what was needed to solve problems. For the A* students that was no problem but most of us struggled. For me, it fell apart with integral calculus and that, I was told, was essential for A level Chemistry. Without Maths and Chemistry my best subject, Biology, had to be dropped much against my protests and those of Mr Howard my Biology teacher. Why? Well, in those days one science A level was apparently no use to anyone when it came to University entrance so when I dug my heels in and refused to give up A level Music and have extra maths homework I was reassigned to taking English and French midway through my second term.

I suppose I had these difficulties because I was a bit of a polymath which was fine up to year twelve (sixth-form we were called then) but afterwards you had to think about University and careers. Had my Maths teacher been more imaginative I could possibly have conquered the little block I had on integral calculus; at that time I could do it mechanically but didn’t understand its application to real life problems. I would have completed my science courses as planned, but I didn’t. In such circumstances I would probably have gone on to study music therapy, which needed science and music, or psychology which fascinated me then and still does – or even both – but as it was I was left with arts subjects and no ambition.

The whole experience was demoralising and I dropped out for a while after passing those exams. What followed was two years in the retail trade, then a four year degree in teaching and a lifetime drifting through the education system in various incarnations, cover teacher, class teacher, college lecturer and peripatetic music teacher. It was a good career but it never set me alight. I spent my free time variously scribbling poetry, stories and scripts, making musical arrangements for guitar, writing songs and composing my own serious “classical” music.

So many years later, I regret nothing. I did what I had to do and followed the paths I was told to follow by my elders and betters. Now I find I am still torn by many interests; history, politics, science, the environment, animals and nature – not to mention a spiritual side I usually keep under wraps. I am content if not happy. In this life nobody can be completely happy if they are aware of the plight of others. We all experience loss, which we learn to accept, and horror at terrible events, which is perhaps harder to cope with. I have fans who listen to my music on internet radio. I sell musical arrangements and compositions worldwide. I have just published my second novel which, until last week, was selling and being read. I have four books of poetry under my belt and I am working on several projects when the cats allow me some free time.

Why do I write this now? Well, as an author, I am daunted by the importance of genre and tropes. I see specialism is not confined to the sciences now but has filtered through into the arts too. Authors are expected to use pen names when they write in different genres. This is a process that is all about selling and targeting readers. The great writers of history did not confine themselves in such an unnatural way. Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies. He toyed with history and the paranormal. Edgar Allen Poe dabbled with detective fiction, science fiction and poetry although he is remembered for horror. Oscar Wilde dabbled in horror, moral tales and poetry although he was best known for satire, wit, and the theatre.

Take a look at my page at Author Central if you want to see diversity:

Lisa Gabriel on Author Central

If you travel over to iTunes and look me up there you will see my music is not particularly specialised either:

Lisa Marie Gabriel on iTunes

It’s just that sometimes creative people need that bit of freedom just to BE. The selling is something we would hope, often in vain, that others with entrepreneurial abilities might do for us and in this day and age that becomes less and less likely. So please forgive the polymaths of the world, the multi-genre authors and the fusion musicians. We are not trying to deceive you, we are just who we are. I hope you all had a wonderful Easter, Ostara or whatever else you like to call it and may your God/dess bless and keep you whoever He/She is.

Escaping Barcelona (Mad Days of Me #1)Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to Henry Martin’s book following a discussion of literary fiction in the modern day. I mentioned the cult novel Trainspotting and pointed out that difficulties with the heavy Scottish dialect did not override the fact that it was totally realistic in its handling of drug addiction. Escaping Barcelona also has a form of gritty realism dealing as it does with uncomfortable and unpleasant issues like statelessness, homelessness, exploitation and homosexual rape. It is however a much more approachable book.

The quality of the writing here is excellent and it is not written in dialect or the vernacular which makes it easier for the general reader to get into. To me, the language of evocation and description is vital. One of my favourite poets, for example, is the war poet Wilfred Owen because he brings a talent for visual description to things we don’t consider poetic subjects. In this way Owen gives the horror of war a striking and vivid reality. Henry Martin, for me, achieves something similar on a smaller scale in Escaping Barcelona from the trilogy Mad Days of Me.

In an era where increasingly readers have little time for description, characterization or exposition, he allows us more than just a glimpse of his protagonist’s world. The author is not just content with what his character does and what happens to him; you feel Rudy’s initial sense of awe and excitement on arriving in Barcelona, you smell, taste and see his surroundings. Later the same skills are applied to his physical deterioration, how the fabric of his unwashed socks becomes embedded in the skin of his feet for instance.

Rudy starts out, as many young people do, by feeling trapped at home. He longs for freedom and adventure and leaves the safety and security of his home to seek that freedom on the road. Ironically his search leads to virtual imprisonment in a world where everything is reduced to the absolute basics of survival and where it is hard to trust anybody. His interactions with young women on holiday draw attention to this irony. They too seek freedom and adventure through travel, but unlike Rudy they have not been victimized; they have not lost the physical means of escape and they are still in control of their own destinies. He envies them and he fears for them too. His eventual escape is almost a very final escape, the significance of which was not lost on me.

The novel Escaping Barcelona deals with issues on the underbelly of society; issues of criminality, exploitation of the weak, powerlessness, hopelessness and the all too convenient invisibility of the poor and the homeless. Its premise that this can happen to anybody young, innocent and trusting is sadly built on truth. Your hopes rise and are dashed along with the young protagonist, you see life at its most fundamental, learning survival skills and dealing with frustration and fear along the way.

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