The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

Chick mother

In the garden, the birds are getting busy. They sing beautiful, flirtatious songs. They flutter and spiral in aerial dances designed to impress.  They collect twigs and soft cashmere undercoat from the goats, helpfully deposited along the wire fence as they rub luxuriously along it. Two shiny blackbirds, bright yellow beaks and beady button eyes, face off at the bird feeder whilst a dowdy brown female watches with indifference. All is industry and love making. Soon, nests will be full of hatchlings; oversized beaks gaping and calling for food. Soon, parent birds will be even busier keeping their youngsters satisfied.

All this activity has reminded me of my old dog Sam, a few years back when he was a little more energetic. One spring afternoon, I stepped out of the back door to find him crouched on the pavement, head bowed. As I got closer, I noticed between his paws, two tiny featherless baby birds. On the fence, staring in anticipation, sat my three cats, licking their lips meaningfully. Helpless creatures fallen from the nest above, safe in Sam’s attentive care. He had protected them from becoming a tasty snack.

I’d noticed a pair of blue tits building a home in our rafters over the previous weeks. The babies had obviously tumbled down and landed on the path. Luckily for them, they were unhurt and Sam had found them before his feline friends. My heart was touched by his tenderness but I didn’t hold much hope for the pathetic little things. There was no way their parents could get them back in the nest and they were very young; bald, cold and eyes firmly shut. After Sam’s show of heroism, however, I couldn’t leave them to die so I scooped them up gently and took them indoors.

This was the start of a new role for me: chick mother. I found a little box, lined it with kitchen towel and placed them with care inside. Then I decided it would be more comfortable and warmer for them if they had a nest, so I took an old plastic bowl, put it in the box and filled it with shredded paper and tissue. They seemed happy in their new nest but still cold. I borrowed a small soft toy, a fluffy bear, from one of the children and sat him atop the nest like a surrogate mother bird. Then I searched the internet for any advice on rearing baby birds. Nothing encouraging came from my searching, mostly the information was don’t do it; never move a baby bird if you find one as its parents may return and rescue it. I could see the sense in this but my situation was different. If Sam hadn’t protected those birds, the cats would have had them for dinner. I had to bring them inside and see what I could do. I had to try. Further searching followed and I discovered that parent blue tits feed their young on green caterpillars that are abundant in the trees in springtime. They feed them many, many caterpillars every hour each day and into the night until dark. Never ever feed baby birds worms as these are too sticky.

My next job was a caterpillar hunt. There were plenty of trees; bashing the branches with a stick sent down all kinds of invertebrates onto my big white sheet of paper. There were quite a few caterpillars too. I took them inside and chopped them into pieces. A yucky, mucky job, poor caterpillars, but I knew parent birds regurgitate their offspring’s food and I wasn’t going to chew them! I found some cocktail sticks to use as a feeding implement. By this time, the baby birds were making quite a lot of noise and opening their beaks wide in starvation. I stabbed a piece of caterpillar and gave it to the first bird, which took it gratefully. This was the beginning of many days spent collecting caterpillars and feeding baby birds. Every two hours, to begin with, I fed my babies.

SONY DSCSadly, on the second morning, I came down to find one of the birds was dead. The process continued for the other bird, however, which seemed to be doing fine and ate greedily. After a few days, I bought some live meal worms and chopped them up to feed too. I was struggling to find enough caterpillars; the baby bird ate and ate. The more she ate, the stronger she got and the more food she wanted! I’d also developed a system for giving her a drink of water using a cotton bud. I called her Chickpea.

SONY DSCOver the days and weeks, Chickpea grew bigger and more active. Her eyes opened and she grew feathers, downy at first and then beginning to show her true blue tit colours. As she began to move around more, I realized the box was no longer a safe home so I constructed a makeshift cage from a bigger box and a clear plastic seed tray lid. I put in a small branch as a perch. She began to hop out of the nest and flutter clumsily onto the branch. Soon I realized she would need lessons in feeding herself and flying practice.  I started squashing meal worms onto the branch where she could pick them off. At least the gaps between feeding times were growing longer. Eventually, she had a bowl of meal worms to pick at as she chose. Then I started letting her out of the cage so her wings could grow strong. She would fly up onto my shoulder, then back to the perch, then up to a shelf and back to me. Once she was flying with confidence and feeding herself happily, I realized it was time for her release back into the wild.

One morning, just after dawn, I carried Chickpea, tucked safe in her box, far into the woods. When I got to a tranquil spot, full of the calls of other blue tits, next to a babbling stream, I opened the lid. She didn’t waste a moment, out she flew, up into a tall pine. She sat on an uppermost branch and sang. Then she pecked at the mossy bark and flew away. I’m not sure if I ever saw her again. On my woodland walks, I often hear a familiar trill but there are many, many blue tits living in the woods. I hope she lives there happily with them.

Characters not caricatures

People are not simple. They are full of complexities and contradictions. As writers we must be careful to create characters that are not cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. We must make our characters come alive and appear real. We want our readers to be engaged, to believe in them. They may not like them but they must be willing to invest time and interest in them. After all, our main aim is to keep our readers reading.

How do writers do this? How do we reveal our characters in ways which make them seem true to life? There are many techniques we can use. We can provide a physical description of the character: how do they move, look, smell, how does the way they look affect the things they do? We can write about the character’s behaviour in their world: how they interact with others; any habits they have; how they react to external forces. We can use dialogue: what the character says; any speech patterns or phrases; what the character doesn’t say. We can think about the character’s back story: how this made them into the person they are. We can reveal the character’s inner life and thought processes.

As writers, we must be observant of people in our everyday lives. We must notice the ways they behave, the things they say, how they react to each other and their environment. We must remember to use our notebooks and keep a record of what we see and hear. These life experiences will help us develop our characters.

We must be readers too. We must study the way other writers portray characters. Do we believe in the character we are reading about? What techniques is the writer using? What works well and what doesn’t? We can keep notes on character portrayals that we find useful or particularly good.

Before we begin to write a story, we can make a character profile. This can include: the character’s looks, relationships, behaviours, habits, likes, dislikes, back story and motivations. This will help us make our characters well-rounded, fully developed people. Not forgetting, of course, that sometimes people can behave ‘out of character’. We are not straightforward after all and cannot be put into neat boxes. That’s what makes being a writer so interesting.

 

How do you develop characters in your stories? Do you write character profiles before you begin?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sitting in the grey and slate reception of a plain, somewhat dowdy, office building in lovely, ugly Swansea, I wonder what it would be like to be a receptionist. I have no idea what the role actually entails. I assume one would have to welcome people, organize appointments, do administration of some kind, talk on the telephone, tap on a keyboard, look at stuff on a computer screen, be smart and smiley.  This one is friendly and helpful. She has made me a cup of tea while I wait for my interview, which is running half an hour late.

It’s a worrying problem deciding what you want to be when you grow up. I envy people who are driven. As a child, I sometimes pretended to be working in an office. At the dining room table, I would sit, toy phone, typewriter, notepad and pen by my side: “Mr. So and So will see you now.” My father, on being told I was clever at school, said to me, “You can be whatever you want. You can be a secretary!” I had bigger ambitions. Enjoying telling stories, I dreamt of being a writer and journalist. Travelling the world, I would search out and share exciting tales.

My second ambition was to become a vet. I adored the James Herriot stories. Once qualified, I would publish hilarious tales about my antics. This, however, did not come to pass. On a work experience, aged fourteen, at a local veterinarian practice, my mind was changed by the old, head vet who told me of his experiments on calves as a student; transplanting their livers into their necks. Despite his assurances that it was pioneering work, allowing successful organ transplants in humans today, I was horrified. I wanted to be a vet to help, not harm, animals. That same vet had me wash his car too!

As for journalism, I went off that idea when I got bored in typing classes: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How could I be a successful writer if I couldn’t touch type? Instead, I became a teacher, sharing my love of books and writing with others. In fact, that is why I’m waiting in this reception today. I have an interview to join a teaching agency. After fourteen years of home educating my children, I’m going back to the world of paid work. It’s a scary thought, especially as I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, despite supposedly being a grown up!

The scribbling has always gone on though. I’ve continued to create stories and scenarios in my head. If I get some teaching work with this agency, I fully intend to keep writing and working on poems, short stories and my novel. One letter tapped on the keyboard at a time.

I’m getting braver about sharing my work, so I mustn’t stop now.

Paradise Lost

The radio told me

as I buttered toast,

There is no paradise now.

Beautiful beaches are

wrecked on Bali’s coast.

 

Under a fresh blue sky,

no shores lie pristine.

There is no paradise now.

The salty sea’s cold tongue

cannot lick them clean.

 

Waves spit dirty rubbish

on damp silver sands.

There is no paradise now.

Only rainbow vomit

formed by human hands.

 

On shopping bag jellyfish,

turtles choke and die.

There is no paradise now.

We cannot close our eyes;

pretend, ignore, lie.

 

Marine creatures swim in

our colourful spew.

There is no paradise now.

No putting the world right

or making it new.

 

Those dreams of romantic

escapes are all dead.

There is no paradise now.

We made a wasteland; must

face ruin instead.

 

 

Sometimes the news creates a feeling of hopelessness in me. This story did just that. Since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, awareness is growing and people are starting to act but is it a case of too little, too late? How do we change attitudes on such an enormous scale?

(Picture: AFPG/Getty Images Newsround BBC)

 

Stuck in the mud

Today, I have a confession. Despite my writer’s resolutions, I haven’t had a good start to 2018. Yes, I have tried to write something every day – a bit of poetry, some thoughts and a few story ideas. But no, I haven’t worked much on my novel. If I’m being really honest, I’m feeling a little stuck with it. Like the gooey mud I trudge through daily to look after my goats, the bare pages suck and cling to my pen making progress slow. Like the grey, gloomy skies above, thick with rain cloud, my mind is a blank, heavy mass.

There is plenty of material to work with, I think,  but I cannot seem to organize it in a coherent way. My scribblings stretch across numerous notebooks, scraps of paper and sticky notes. I have part chapters and sections on my computer, along with completed ones. My method so far, if it can be called that, has been some sketchy planning and then writing with the flow. This has helped to develop some interesting ideas but also plenty of disorder. My writing style seems to have uncovered a secret me that I was unaware existed under my skin – a messy, uncoordinated me. Normally a fairly neat control freak, I seem to morph as a writer into a scruffy, chaotic hoarder.

Before I can carry on with my novel, I need to put this right. I need to find order so that I can get some clarity. My aim over the next week is to gather all my writings together in one folder. Then I think I’m going to continue my novel writing in one place – a large notebook. Once written in the notebook, I can transfer it to computer ready for editing. I’m still old-fashioned and write much better with a pen in my hand first time round, though I’m fully aware this is a much slower process.

I’m off to Ireland soon to visit a friend – on my own, what luxury! There I will have space, time and quiet. Surrounded by lush, green mountains, I hope to tackle more sections of my novel and come home feeling that I have achieved something. So, I have a deadline (which is good for me as I’m sure part of my problem is only being answerable to myself). I have to get sorted before my trip.

Wish me luck!

 

Is it just me or have you ever got stuck with your writing? Are you a muddled writer or highly efficient and organized?

Four lads go out for the day

Another poem using material gathered on my recent train journey.

 

Four lads go out for the day

 

Posing, strutting,

rubbing crotches

along the seat.

Shouting, braying

billy goats on heat.

 

Throw our cans,

crunch of tin,

on the luggage rack.

Furtive, frightened glances,

give ‘em a smile and wink back.

 

I’m a big man now.

Did anyone see?

Only me mam would

be ashamed of me.

 

A boyo’s day out,

rampage in the city.

Shake our tails,

feathers wide.

Don’t we look pretty?

 

Throw our wrappers,

plastic rustle,

on the dusty floor.

Tutted annoyance meets

with snorted guffaw.

 

I’m Jack the lad.

Look at me ‘ere.

Only me dad would

clout me ‘round the ear.

 

Attracting attention,

standing out

from the rest.

Silver-backed apes

beating our chests.

 

Throw a quick f-word,

sharply crude,

in the stuffy air.

Young kids in the next seat

but we don’t care.

 

I’m a foolish child.

Hear me loud.

Only me parents would

be so proud.

 

 

‘Tis better to have loved…

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H, spoke from the heart about the loss of his friend and the grief he felt.

On Boxing Day, we had a car accident in a surprise snowfall. My husband lost control, despite driving at a sensible speed for the inclement weather, and the car skidded. As we danced a graceful pirouette, a full 360 degrees across to the opposite side of the country lane, time seemed to elongate. I watched in horror, completely powerless; thoughts of dread that my son or daughter might be injured or killed filled my mind. “It’s all right…Hold on everyone!” I said aimlessly. I braced myself against the seat as the car returned to the correct side of the road and landed with a gentle bump against a fence post. When we stopped, the relief that everyone had escaped without harm was immense. Walking the three miles home through freezing sleet, feet slopping and slipping on the wet snow, I felt protective of my two children and husband. I led the way, torch in hand, fussing about our insufficient coats and footwear. I needed to regain some sense of control. It felt as if I had nearly lost everything that mattered to me, everything that I loved, and that shook me far more than the accident.

When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare. I stood watching as my parents and brother descended an escalator straight into a sheet of plate glass. Every time I had this dream, I would awake crying and shaking, believing that it had happened. I was alone; I had lost everything. Since having my children, I regularly experience anxious dreams. A multitude of horrible images where they have been maimed or killed in all number of horrific incidents. When they were babies, I would imagine falling down the stairs with them in my arms. These nightmares leave me feeling drained and afraid. There is nothing I can do. I have opened myself up to this vulnerability; I have no control over what may (or may not) happen to my children. I love them and this involves the risk of getting hurt.

A few days ago, my lovely old dog had a funny turn. My husband and I returned home from searching for a replacement car and he ran excitedly to greet us, then collapsed trembling and letting out a long stream of urine over the carpet.  As we bent down to help him, he looked up at us with confused, frightened eyes and we both burst into tears. We thought it was the end for him. He is nearly sixteen; his weak heart makes him pant continuously and he stands on shaky legs, often falling over. Miraculously, it was not the end and he recovered, carrying on much the same as before. I realize this cannot continue forever, of course. Every day, week, month spent with him is a bonus.  Soon, we will have to face the heartache of losing him. We made the decision to get a dog; to let him become part of our family. We allowed ourselves to love him and must suffer the pain that is to come.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why choose to have partners and children and bring pets into our homes? Why do we allow ourselves to love when we know it will mean pain and loss at some point? Would it be better to protect ourselves from this pain; to avoid love?

Quite simply, to love is to live. Life is about having relationships with others; to make connections. I have had many moments of fun and laughter with my dog. My children have enriched my life and made it more worthwhile. If we do not allow ourselves to love through the fear of being hurt, then we do not truly live our lives. Having relationships and loving others helps us to grow and learn. It gives us meaning and purpose. There will be times when it brings us pain and loss, but living a life alone and afraid would be unbearable. Life is difficult, we must share it with others – family, friends, neighbours, pets.

I have found somebody who explains it more eloquently than I am able:

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”    Henri J M Nouwen

Going down Cardiff for the rugby

Train journeys always provide inspiration for writers as we get to spend time with a bunch of colourful, interesting characters. We can be observers and eavesdroppers; imagining where and why the other passengers are travelling and creating stories for them. I love sitting with my notebook, listening, watching and scribbling. It helps the journey pass quickly too. I am thankful to my fellow travellers for sharing with me such gems.

Here is a poem based on a conversation overheard on a recent train journey (it would have been impossible not to hear it!). It brightened up my trip and made me giggle. Ideally, it needs to be read in a Swansea accent. Warning: it’s a little bit naughty!

 

Goin’ down Cardiff for the rugby and Linda’s 40th.

Got the T-shirts printed,

lookin’ good girls!

C’mon girls, find a seat, find a seat!

One ‘ere, one ’ere,

one by ’ere, next to me!

Open up them jelly shots, girls.

Get ‘em down yoo!

Have a drink.

Have a jelly shot.

Have a drink, girls!

Oh my God…we got a celeb ‘ere.

Gethin, he is.

We got a celeb ‘ere, girls!

Eastenders!

Quick girls, get down there…

Selfie, selfie.

Get a good’un

for Facebook like.

Don’t mind, do yoo?

He don’t mind.

Gethin he is.

Eastenders!

The teacher, he is…

Do your nails, girls.

Stick ‘em on,

stick ‘em on.

Did mine last night, mind.

Bet they’ll fall off.

‘Ow much make-up yoo got in there?

Good God!

Where yoo sleepin’ tonight?

Top ‘n tailin’ in the

same room.

Share with me,

share with me.

Mind, yoo don’t know what I got in

this ‘ere bag!

Vvvvrrrmmm –

yoo know what I mean!

No, not really like…

left it at home, didn’t I?

Don’t use one, do I?

Don’t need one.

Lucky yoo!

I got a couple of

cucumbers though.

A big one for yoo,

this long!

Come and sit up by us, Gethin.

Oh, c’mon, have a drink.

Have a jelly shot!

Have yoo put that

selfie on Facebook?

With Gethin, selfie with Gethin.

Send it me, send it me!

Gethin, sit by me ‘ere.

Sit by me.

Squish up girls,

gettin’ crowded in ‘ere.

The rugby, see.

Ooh! Squish up!

There’s nice.

Gethin, c’mon, squish up by ’ere love!

Have another jelly shot, girls!

We’ll be fallin’ asleep in the rugby.

God, I need a fag.

Not long now,

not long now, girls.

Them shots it is.

Soon as I have a drink,

I need a fag.

Gettin’ warm in ‘ere, mind.

I’ll be strippin’ off next.

Gethin, I’ll be strippin’ off love.

C’mon girls, have a jelly shot.

Cool us down, like.

Have a cocktail.

I got ‘em, in a tin, like.

Cocktail in a tin.

What in a tin?

No, not a cock in a tin!

Cocktail in a tin.

Better than tinned cock!

Gethin, come by ‘ere.

Have a cocktail, Gethin.

Want a pringle?

Want a pringle, love?

No, a pringle!

I’m starvin’! Should have

made sarnies…

We’ll fill up on cocktails, girls!

My fortieth, right, I’m

doin’ a party.

Butlins.

Brilliant.

That’s class.

I’m havin’ karaoke,

limousine, bubble disco.

That’s a date, that is.

Class.

Date that is, girls!

Gethin, come by ‘ere…

You’ll come to my fortieth, won’t you love?

Butlins, Gethin.

Class.

He’s from Eastenders, he is.

Got a selfie on Facebook.

A celeb.

Are we ‘ere?

Oh my God, I need a wee.

Desperate I am, girls.

Lookin’ forward to this, I am!

I’m free!

No kids.

I don’t get out much, see.