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!

The other day one of my readers said:
“I enjoyed The Wings to Fly but there’s a lot about flying in it, isn’t there?”
“Yes, there is.” I said.
“It’s different. It’s not often you read a historical romance with much history in these days. They tend to about the chase and the catch and the good sex at the end.”
“Well, that’s your standard romance isn’t it? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, things happen, boy gets girl back, happy ever after?”
“Yours isn’t like that though.”
“Why? What do you mean? Apart from the girls of course…”
She went on to explain that she felt this was more about a group of people, real people and their lives. Romance was a strong element but not the main one and there were boy/girl romances everywhere, plus a couple of girl/girl ones and not too much action between the sheets. I asked her if she was OK with that.
“Isn’t that what life’s like? It’s not just about two people between the sheets, it’s about all of us, our friends and what happens around us,” she replied.

I had to admit that was true; that we don’t all fit into convenient pigeon holes anymore than The Wings to Fly fits into a convenient genre. Life is full of awakenings, discoveries, disappointments, tragedies and, in time, true happiness when we eventually find love.

“But what about the flying? Why was that so important to you?”
“I suppose it was the flying that brought the whole thing about. The book I mean. Without feeling the inspiration of those early aviation pioneers, the tragedy of war and the heroism of combat and ferry pilots I confess I’d just have finished my second vampire novel instead.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, I’m not too keen on horror, but that enthusiasm certainly comes through in The Wings to Fly . I really wanted to be up in the air with Midge in the Tiger Moth – and touch the clouds with John Magee in his Spitfire – I loved Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart. I could almost feel the wind in my hair in that biplane.”
“Really? That is just what I wanted. I can think of nothing more wonderful than flying a plane like that. Not a big commercial plane though. To me that’s like being on a bus in the air and it’s a little scary being out of control. But to feel the response of a Spitfire or the lightness of a Tiger Moth in the wind? Now that’s the romance of flight, that overwhelming sensation of freedom most of us only get when we do truly fall in love.”

The Wings to Fly is available on Kindle and in paperback and you can read it free with Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Prime. I hope you will and that you will enjoy it.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I always have. Twitter has an intellectual beauty and simplicity that speaks to me and has none of the artificial, ad revenue induced limitations of Facebook. If you want your content to reach a lot of people then judicious use of hashtags and pinned tweets will do just that. It is also annoyingly possible for people to list you and read content without having to follow anybody at all. This one-sidedness of Twitter seems a little hard-bitten to me. Usually if somebody follows me, I will follow them back if they seem reasonable. I don’t then un-follow them. Having said that, there are some folks who can’t abide clutter and a busy Twitter stream can appear very cluttered indeed. There are those people who don’t follow anyone at all, yet seem to have followers and do frequently re-tweet what you post. They achieve that using their own curated lists and hashtags in case you wondered. I follow a lot of people because I consider it common courtesy to follow back but I don’t follow everybody and in today’s blog post I want to deal with that first; in other words, when a follow on Twitter is not appropriate, when to mute and when to block.

Let’s take the no follow option first. I see increasingly numbers of people with an “egg” for a profile picture, no personal details and no tweets displayed on their profile. There are two main reasons for this. The first and most innocent reason is that they are new to Twitter – and we were all newbies once so you will see 5-10% follow-back on these profiles. The second reason (and the reason I will now not follow an empty or light profile) is that some of these people are scammers operating below the radar using lists and direct messages. Follow them and you will immediately receive a message asking you for an action that involves sharing something. Whether that something is money, assistance or information, these empty profiles are on the make. This is the realm of the beggar, the hacker or the 419 scam. I avoid them.

Some people will post an attractive picture, possibly of themselves but usually of a model or minor celeb, then they attract followers by posting and reposting the useless “trash” that clutters timelines. These posts are usually click-bait, badly spun articles on interesting themes that send you away to ads that often refuse to switch off. You are downloading malware at that point. This is a good point at which to use the “mute” function. You can mute someone who posts trashy or suspect content that clogs up the flow but there will always be someone else who innocently reposts it because it looks fun. That is the nature of click-bait and here is where the “block” function is very useful. Just please make sure you are blocking the right account or you will continue to receive trashy posts from other friends and followers. It is the original person you need to block, even if you are not following them, because you are getting the rubbish second-hand.

There is a much more annoying use of the “block” function. Some people on Twitter are plainly self-important, rude and selfish. They will follow you, then un-follow when you follow back. You may not know unless you use an un-follower app like who.unfollowed.me on Twitter. If you do and you un-follow then re-follow them thinking they made a mistake they will block you. I know, somebody in my circle of friends has done that to me years ago. I have never had an unpleasant dialogue with him and in fact I have no idea why he should have blocked me all those years ago except that I re-followed him. What a gutless thing to do! There was never a cross word exchanged, no spam involved and it is a total mystery to me, but he does have a LOT of followers. How do I know about this unreasonable action? You are notified if someone has blocked you if you ever visit their profile. That means you can’t read their stuff and they don’t have to see yours. It is a blunt but savage weapon that some “people collectors” use freely. They are important celebrities in their own little bubble and you are not. Annoy them with a re-follow and they will sting you hard using a function that is meant to protect. I know, and I am not impressed, in fact I blocked him back only this week.

So when should you use “block”? I use it on empty profiles that I find frightening. I am not prepared to elaborate on that one much, but I don’t want to be listed and possibly stalked by people whose tweets I can’t read. There are some dangerous groups out there. You will know them by their followers and possibly who else they are following – I always check it out. I also use “block” on people who spread hardcore porn on unconnected hashtags. I don’t usually see much porn in my stream and what I do see I generally just ignore, but there are a lot of apparently Russian porn accounts set up with English sounding names. These routinely tag “adult” pictures with proven successful hashtags that guarantee RTs – often from groups of writers, musicians, sportsmen and artists who use automatic programs to grow a following. Of course you also have the choice to report but the report options are limited and the nearest to hashtag abuse is “spam”.

The other use I make of “block” is for foul language related to hate speech and incitement to violence. I don’t mind people who disagree with me, I will interact with anyone politely, but when I see rudeness, disrespect or hate speech I hit the “block” button. I don’t use it too much because it can lead to account reviews and suspension of an individual. Just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean they deserve a ban but nor do you have to endure viciousness. How you use Twitter is your own affair. It is a valuable tool for communication and, let’s face it, that’s why we all sign up. If you choose to be interactive you can make lots of friends and enjoy the experience. Thank you for reading. Have fun but be safe!

Dear David Cameron and George Osbourne

I write to you regarding what I consider was one of the greatest mistakes the Labour Government made in office and on behalf of childfree adults everywhere I would request you repeal Tony Blair’s misbegotten legislation allowing small children in licensed premises.

Remember when we were very young, dewy eyed and innocent? When pubs were off limits to children and our parents planted us outside in beer gardens and car parks where we endured bottles of warm flat lemonade and packets of crisps with little blue bags of salt inside? Well maybe you are a little young for the little blue bags (or at least the sort you untwist to open) but you are old enough to run the country and as such I consider it my duty to inform you of the work shy culture and damage to the economy brought on by allowing small children in licensed premises.

Never mind that the screams of the spoilt babies and toddlers of this world make it impossible to enjoy a romantic lunch for two without dreading the inevitable consequences of romance. Never mind the lie that kids eat free which disguises the inflated price all adults have to pay to subsidise those with small children. Never mind the uncontrolled kids who run amok through the family restaurants and diners that good old-fashioned pubs have now become. Never mind the old curmudgeon in the corner who says he wants to organise a helicopter trip for all the bored screaming tots who won’t eat their so-called free meals to visit Eyjafjallajökull in full eruption mode. Far more important than any of this is the danger to our fragile economy.

Far more dangerous than the world banking crisis which your party would have me believe is the sole responsibility of Mr Brown; far more insidious than disabled people having box rooms outfitted for relatives and carers; is the destruction of that mainstay of the teenage economy, babysitting. Now when we were small we loved our flat lemonade and soggy crisps on country drives. We loved scampering merrily in and out of the parked vehicles, picking dusty blades of grass and stretching them in our cupped fists to make owl noises or chewing beermats to flick at passing vehicles using the six inch rulers all children seemed to carry permanently in those golden days. Even better were the balmy evenings when mummy and daddy went to the Dinner Dance and we were afforded a treasured opportunity to be truly naughty in their absence while frightened teenagers guarded us from death, destruction, fire, nuclear war and paedophile house invasions in return for a fee that would buy a bar of chocolate and the latest Bay City Rollers single.

This developed a culture of work among teenagers and encouraged them to get on their bikes and skateboards looking for something useful to do. Not so now! These same teenagers, now no longer frightened, do not have to work. From a young age they are encouraged to believe they can eat for free, they are given allowances on an informal national minimum scale that enable them to buy expensive clothes and smart phones on which, provided their parents pay the subscription or provide cash for them to “pay their own” they can listen to their favourite bands for free.

Budgeting other people’s money rather than their own hard earned fees for babysitting and chores leads to a disregard for the value of work and saving. It may lead to a belief that mummy and daddy will always be there to provide. It may lead to a sense of entitlement that afflicts young people for life. “I was conceived, therefore I am the centre of the universe!” may be the result of too much coddling. Why should anyone work in a job they do not enjoy when the state will provide? It takes over when mummy and daddy finally evict them from the second-mortgaged nest to build a nest of their own, a nest from which they can take their offspring to pubs, restaurants and diners to eat at the expense of other adults who would not mind paying the extra hidden cost of the kids’ meals in exchange for just a little bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday lunch timer at their local.

Now, where can I hire that helicopter for a one way trip to Eyjafjallajökull ?