On Wasps and Roald Dahl

He calls my childhood doctor ‘The Roald Dahl Doctor’. Normally while laughing after saving me from a wasp marauding around whatever room I happen to be in.


Let me set the scene for you: I was sat in my doctor’s office at the age of 15 or thereabouts when I brought up my fear of wasps. I told him how I can hear the blood rushing to my ears, how I feel faint and can feel cold sweat trickling down my back when I see one. I told him that I can tell the difference between the buzz of a bee and the whirring hum of a wasp. He nodded along as I recounted the various points of my fear.

“Ah yes,” he said, “A lot of the time the body will know before you do if there’s an allergy there of any kind. For example, people find that they don’t like the look or smell of foods they later find they’re allergic to.” He turned back to the prescription he was writing for me, “You’ve never been stung by one I take it?”

“No,” I answered.

“Well, best make sure that you don’t. It might be that it’ll kill you,” and with that cheerful sentence, he waved me out.


I told this story years later to himself, “So long story short, I’m probably allergic,” I said.

“Sorry, what?” he asked.

“I’m probably allergic,” I repeated.

“But hang on, did he do any tests or anything to actually find out? Or did he say probably and then wave you off?”


“Jesus, he sounds like a character from a Roald Dahl book. Did he have a horrible beard and a hatred of little girls reading too?”

“No,” I said laughing, “At least not that I remember.”

“Hmm, it wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.

“Well, maybe he’s right. Maybe I am allergic and my body is trying to warn me,” I said.

“Maybe, but you don’t just say ‘Oh chances are that’ll kill you’ and then wave a child out of their office on that note. You actually check.”

“Right, well, either way, I’m not a fan of wasps. Definite phobia there at the least, and we don’t know that they won’t kill me.”


So now, whenever there’s a wasp related emergency around other people, he tells everyone about my Roald Dahl doctor. Other people gaze aghast at me over their drinks and tut about it all. But I loved my childhood doctor, he was always very kind to me, so I can forgive a Roald Dahl moment or two. We all have them.


Me: Dealing with other people after a prolonged period of time. Quentin Blake illustration from The Witches

The only time it’s a problem is like today. When I had to call himself away from his work to protect me from a drunk on Autumn wasp that had made his way into the bedroom. He came upstairs and there was no sign of the thing.

“What if he’s hiding from us both and is getting ready to spring out when we least suspect it?” I asked.

“Maybe, let’s check the bags and corners,” he said. No sign of it.

“What if he’s hiding under the bed?”

“Probably not, but I’ll check anyway,” he said. Again, no sign.

“What if he’s gotten out of this room and is in the house? He could be anywhere,” I said looking out into the corridor and clutching my imaginary shawl around me.

“Well, if he is, I’ll take care of him,” he said. A very reasonable man I must say.

“But try not to kill him,” I said, “I don’t like them, but I’m sure they’re very important for ecology or something.”(They actually are as it turns out: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/do-we-need-wasps-1311568.html)

He sighed, “OK, I’ll try not to kill him. But I can’t promise anything.”

Like I say, a very reasonable man.

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A Lousy Crook and Worse

“You’re nothing but a lousy crook; and worse too,” she said.

“And worse? What could be worse than being a lice infested criminal?”

“Lots,” she replied, “You, for example, are not only a petty criminal, you are a liar, a cheat, and an utter scoundrel.”

A shrug, “You knew that. You knew that from the start. From when you first laid eyes on me.”

“I thought – well, I don’t know what I thought. I suppose I thought that you’d be somehow different with me, that you’d want to be better,” she tossed her hair over her shoulder, it hung down like a black knotted rope over her red dress.

He sighed, “I robbed you. That’s how we met.”

“Yes, but you gave it all back,” she said.

“Only after you helped me take some of the more valuable stuff from that old woman’s house.”

“She was dead, she wasn’t going to need it was she?” She shot back. She looked up at him for a minute before looking back down at the ground. He watched her as she rubbed her toe in the earth and crossed her arms.

“You’re far too naive, you know that right? Look at you, you think that a couple of nights means something.”

“You called me the light of your life.” she reached a hand out to him, it hovered over his polyester jumper. He ignored it.

“I was hammered drunk, you kept throwing that moonshine down my throat. Not my fault. You knew what this was.”

“So now what? I just go back home?” She said while swallowing back angry tears.

“Yes, back home to your family. They’re probably wondering where you’ve been the last few days.”

“Well, they’re not. They think I’ve gone to stay with family for a night or two.”

“Right, well, you’ll be home early then, won’t you?”

“I’ll tell them all about you.”

“Not all about me though, right?” he flashed her a grin, “I mean not everything. Not what you and I got up to, I doubt your parents want to hear all about that.”

“No, just that I got robbed by a small time crook,” she said, while twisting her hair between her fingers.

“There’s nothing small time about me, sweetheart.”

“Isn’t there?” she smirked.


There was a silence. She had only the clothes she was wearing and only some loose change, enough for a bus maybe.

“Fine. I’ll go, but you’ll see me again,” she said. He said nothing. “You’ve humiliated me, you know that,” she said.

He sighed and looked up at the sky. After a moment he spoke, “Come on, I’ll walk you into the town, get you on a bus back home.” He took her arm, but she shrugged him off. He shook his head, “This way,” he gestured down a small trail.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Of course I am.”

There were only bare trees and the odd call of a solitary bird. The ground was carpeted with rotting black and brown leaves. After walking for a while she started to limp.

“I didn’t think it would take so long to get back,” she said. There was only silence from him, she scowled to herself. “It’s getting dark. Will we be there soon?” she tried again.

“Yes. It’s only a little bit further.”

“Shouldn’t it be less woody if we’re getting closer? I mean the trees are closer together now, and I can’t even see the path anymore. And I’m cold.” No answer again. She turned around to look at his face, to see if he was laughing at her or if there was any softening at her cold arms and sore feet.

But he wasn’t there.

She looked around to see where he was hiding, ready to jump out and scare her. She didn’t even feel the small shove in the middle of her back. She just felt her feet give way and a gust of cold air as she fell down a height that she didn’t even know was there. Branches scratched her white skin as she fell but she didn’t even feel them.

When she woke up at the bottom of a large hole in the floor of the forest, she was more hungry than scared. She tried to stand up but cried out when her ankle gave way; then she noticed the bumps and bruises. Her ankle was sprained and her wrist was damaged, she assumed broken. She had no idea how to get out and back home.

“The lousy crook,” she said to herself as she curled up under the darkening sky.

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The Baby Turns Fifty

Took part in a challenge that gave you a terrible title for you to write something with; this is the result of one. The best I could do at the time…

The baby is born – The mother and father look down at their seven pounds eight ounces of happiness, oblivious to the bustling hospital room around them. They are so suffused with love and tiredness that they neglect to name it for the first few hours. They continue to call it ‘The baby’, even after its name is officially written down in some government documents.

The baby turns one – It still hasn’t gained any weight. It still hasn’t crawled. It still hasn’t gurgled out any garbled pretend-words. The mother sits and watches it stay the same small, wriggling infant that it’s always been, while all the other children scoot around on their backsides with demon-like speed.

Her lip wobbles in panicked worry; something must be wrong. She brings it to the doctor and hovers her protective hand near its perfect infant body while the doctor carries out his examination. It’s perfectly healthy, he says. Probably just a slow starter; nothing to worry about. The mother exhales in giddy relief and takes her baby home, where she showers it in cuddles and kisses.

The baby turns five –  The doctors had stopped visiting and running tests a couple of years before. They gave up trying to find out what was wrong with it; gave up trying to make it grow. The baby lies and screams in its cot, opening and closing its tiny starfish hands into loose fists.The mother cries and the father sits in cold silence in the next room.

The baby turns ten – It cries and snots its way through its little sister’s birthday party. The three year old sister holds her breath over the thick, princess-pink frosting of her cake trying not to cry, while her mother stares at the crib as though she wants to throw it in the bin. The sister thinks that she should. Later that night, the sister feels bad for wishing the baby had never been born.

The baby turns sixteen – It goes to live with the mother along with its brother and sister in a small house with paper-thin walls. The neighbours complain about the noise of the crying amongst themselves but never say anything to the mother. They’ve all heard about this family. The father now lives in a brown one bedroom apartment on the other side of town. He only ever sees the brother and the sister; he always turns his face away from the baby.

The baby turns twenty-one – It goes to live with the father after the mother begs him to take it. He refuses at first, but is finally to forced to agree after she’s found in cardinal-red bathwater with deep, oozing cuts on her wrist. The mother has to go to hospital to try to get better. The sister bites her lip and wonders what getting better means exactly. The father sits with a mask of horror on his face while the baby cries and cries.

The baby turns thirty –  The mother is gone, the father as well. It lives with its little sister now. She keeps it in a blank room with white walls and no pictures. At feeding time she goes into the room with the small heated bottle and feels as though she could scream along in a duet of rage.

One night she tries to drown it after its bath in the luke-warm water of the ceramic bathtub. It turns red, then purple, then blue, and keeps wailing and screaming under the airless water. She holds its head under for a good twenty minutes, but it doesn’t stop crying beneath the bathwater. She throws up afterwards; the vomit burns like soured milk through her nostrils.

The baby turns forty – The brother begs the sister to just leave it somewhere. Bury it under the floorboards of a house and run away. Their own tell-tale heart, screaming under the floor for someone else to uncover and deal with. It could be somebody else’s burden.

The sister shakes her head, remembering how it felt holding an infant under the water and feeling it wriggle in protest. The brother presses on, desperate for his sister to abandon it. He asks her how long is this going to go on for? Until they’re dead, and their children have to look after it? And theirs? And theirs? The sister just shakes her head again and sighs.

The baby turns fifty – The brother’s children stare at the baby in fear and back away to the next room. The brother watches them and swallows down terror. A knife might do it he thinks. Drowning didn’t. Abandoning might not work either; he concedes that now. But chopped up into pieces of soft pink flesh might do the trick. It wouldn’t be able to scream without a voice box, and nothing can survive being dismembered. How could it?

He gets a little drunk that night, on whiskey so strong it may as well have been all fumes and no liquid. He hesitantly broaches the plan to the sister. She slaps him hard, pours a glass for herself, and then thinks for a while. Before long, all eyes are on the sharp, glinting knives in the kitchen.

The baby turns one hundred – It still cries, but now it screeches like a violin played by a beginner; rough and ruptured vocal chords sound worse than healthy ones. And the baby is terrifying to look at with its red braised scars around its arms, legs, and throat. Its nephew’s grandchildren play in the same room as it during the day. The family feel that it’s important they get used to it.

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Getting over the last of a head cold, I sat up in bed and felt my head lurch as though it was being pulled by a tide. I don’t recall ever becoming aligned to the gravitational pull of my own personal moon, but it happens so frequently now that I must accept that it probably happened during the one operation I had when I was a child. I had felt this wooziness that day too, after I had woken up. And this is exactly the kind of thing that my mother would pull as a prank. This is the same women who convinced my younger sister that Eskimos aren’t real.

That operation was a small procedure on the delicate skin around my eye. It was going to involve ‘butterfly stitches’ – not that I had any clue what they were. Instead, I imagined a giant and benign butterfly floating into the operating room and stitching me up. It would be a beautiful, serene experience I decided.  

Of course on the day, with no food and beginning to feel the effects of a nameless fear, I got it into my childish head that actually that wasn’t what that butterfly was about at all. No no, I had at this point overheard some rumours of a possible needle being involved in my day. And so the butterfly of peace and serenity had morphed in my head to become an evil, flapping creature with black papery wings and a giant needle, that was going to sting me in lieu of a proper doctor’s needle.

I didn’t mention this to anyone at the time. Instead I lay in the hospital bed feeling sick. And also that I kind of wanted rice-krispies with lots of sugar, and milk so cold that you couldn’t even taste it. But mostly sick. I didn’t want to say to the grownups that I knew of their plan to use the butterfly. I was afraid that this would make it worse, and perhaps they’d bring it in early.  If I acted dumb maybe I’d have enough time to find a way out of all of this.

My heart sunk when they brought me on the bed with wheels to the operating room. So with a squaring of my tiny shoulders,  I accepted my fate.  With what I hoped was the bravery of one of the soldiers I had read about in my books, I inquired to the whereabouts of the butterfly.

I could feel the nurses confusion.

“Butterfly?” she asked with a flick of her eyes to my stressed looking mother. My mother shrugged.

“The butterfly,” I said, exasperated.

Surely they weren’t going to carry on with this silly charade and pretend that there was no needle wielding butterfly waiting for me. I was clearly on to them.

“Oh, look there it is,” said the nurse in a sing-song voice. I looked over to where she was goodnaturedly pointing, and saw nothing. I narrowed my eyes. She was treating me as though I was stupid.

Once in the operating room, I felt something sharp sting my hand.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I thought as I drifted off. The butterfly was the lovely, benign kind afterall.

I  slept and dreamed of strawberries and rabbits.

Of course now that I’m an actual, proper grownup, I’m now fully aware that there was no butterfly, malevolent or otherwise. Instead I know now that I had a miniature moon attached to my skull that pulls its own tides. I’m not one hundred percent sure why my mother chose to have this done to me, but I’m sure it’ll all make sense at some point. It’ll probably have something to do with an elaborate long-term joke.

Possibly involving my sister denying the existence of the Inuit Community in front of a large, glittering audience, while I sway and faint in the background.

My mother will then turn to the crowd, raise an eyebrow and lift a glass of wine as they all rise to their feet and give her a standing ovation, congratulating her on the excellent job she has done.

Because it’s a prize giving ceremony you see, and she’ll have won top prize in the contest of ‘Best Long-term Damage Done to Children, For No Real Reason, That Nobody in Their Right Mind Would Possibly Believe.’

I am on to you, Mother. Oh, I am on to you.

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Pond Scum Summer

I came first in a flash fiction round with this, so thought it was worth popping up.

The swimming pool was one of those organic, natural ones; straight weeds and flat lily pads lined the shallow sides acting as a natural filter for any human made grime. Her uncle must have forgotten to install something that kept the water circulating though; a green bedsheet of pond scum had spread across the surface. Sarah stood at the edge, hip deep in grassy weeds, and looked out at the sickly scum that floated on top of the stagnant water. With no thought, she took off her shoes and stepped out of her white cotton skirt.

Lowering herself in, she felt the green slime cling to her pale arms and legs. She floated on her back for a moment, enjoying the sensation of cool water on her hot skin before diving underneath. She opened her eyes to try and take in the dark of the watery below. How deep was the pool? She couldn’t see through the water and weeds all the way to the unseen bottom. All she could see were mysterious plants swaying in the liquid hues of grey to inky-black. Weeds reached up from unknown depths and stroked her limbs with their silky tendrils as she swam on. She was a strong swimmer, the best in her class at school, but her lungs soon felt as though they were going to burst. Kicking hard, she pushed herself up through the jelly of the floating scum, to find her mother stood barefoot at the edge with crossed arms and irritated hairs floating in her face.

“You look like a savage.”

Sarah leaned against the side, looked up at her mother and shrugged, saying nothing.  She could feel her red tee-shirt and pale pink knickers sticking to her gooseflesh skin.

“Get out of there, Sarah. Dinner is almost ready. Your uncle has cooked us pasta.”

“I didn’t think he’d mind,” she said, heaving herself out and into the weeds, shivering like a blancmange under the French summer sky.

“He probably does mind since it’s clearly not clean and hasn’t been used for a while. And even if he had said that you could, that wouldn’t mean that you should. Look at the state of it, it’s disgusting. You could get a rash from swimming in there.”

“It’s just algae and plants, nothing bad,” she argued, scratching at her wet scalp.

Dinner was served with a little thud on the soft wooden table. A white ceramic plate filled with a tiny hill of pale and wobbling, over-cooked pasta was handed to her. It looked wet and slimy to Sarah, and the sharp green pesto that was drizzled over the top of it all made her feel queasy; it reminded her of snot.

Her uncles new wife sat across from her, smiling at them all. She had hair so blonde it was almost white and skin that seemed almost transparent to Sarah. When she shut her ten year old eyes, she could imagine a gust of wind taking her and breaking her against a house.

The wife had been hastily introduced to Sarah, in a quick and distracted manner when she had arrived. Sarah had nodded and given her light-as-air kisses on her cheeks and had forgotten her name almost instantly.

“I hear you’ve been swimming,” her uncle said, as he grabbed a husk of crunchy and flaking bread.

“Yeah,” she said, and kicked her feet under the wicker seated chair. It was too high; her grubby feet only barely grazed the stone-tiled floor. She was short for her age; all the other girls had sprang up like slender lilies, while Sarah had stayed short and square. Her mother said she would sprout later on, that she’d only gotten her growth spurt when she was fourteen, but it still didn’t stop Sarah from fantasising about finding a way to stretch herself out to painfully graceful proportions.

“I need to clean that pool,” her uncle continued while he put chunks of hard butter inside the velvet soft innards of the bread, “You shouldn’t have let her go in there.” Sarah thought he was reprimanding her mother, but when she looked up from her plate she saw that he was admonishing his wife.

“She didn’t tell me that I wasn’t allowed – I didn’t tell her I was going in there,” said Sarah, upset that someone might get into trouble because of her.

He ignored her and kept scowling at his young wife. “I‘ve told you, nobody should go near the pond-pool. It’s too deep and it’s too dangerous at the moment.”

“I’m sorry,” said his wife. She spoke louder than Sarah thought that she that would. She sounded sharp and severe; like an axe hitting stone.

The way her uncle looked at his wife made Sarah feel nervous. They had come out to meet this new one. Her uncle had gone through a few wives already. This would be his seventh.

He seemed to meet them and marry them all within a year. Sarah’s mother had once commented to her father, when she didn’t think that Sarah was listening, that it was all so silly and he was foolishly romantic; he married them, and then after a year or two they’d hear that they were gone. They left him heartbroken, these wives, and that was that. He never invited anyone to his now numerous weddings anymore, and Sarah’s mother didn’t want to go.They only visited afterwards. This new one looked like all the others, like air, so Sarah knew already not to get too attached to her.

The next morning, as dawn fizzed through the low clouds, Sarah snuck out for another illicit swim. The pond scum looked as though she had never broken through it. It had kept its beautiful rich green. She wanted to feel it on her skin. Dragonflies buzzed around her head while she took off her clothes.

She dove through the green, and swam underwater, the same as the day before. She thought that perhaps she had gotten quite close to the bottom of the pool. Another dive and maybe she’d make it. On her way up through the water she felt something brush her chubby knee. She caught a glimpse of something white and long as she surged towards the surface. Just a weed, she thought.

She got out and took a running jump back into the water. Bubbles raced against her as she rushed down into deep water. Once they settled, she felt something rest against her thigh for a second. She looked down to see a graceful white arm standing out starkly against the gloomy water. It looked as though it was waving quite cheerfully at her.

She stared at the independent limb, her body hanging and floating in the depth of the pond-pool. Her eyes slowly became adjusted to the dark, and then she could see that there were black sacks with bricks sat on top of them lining the very bottom of the pool. Her stomach swooped as she realised the pond-pool was deeper than she ever thought it could be. It was as deep as a cathedral.

The arm hung and waved by itself, attached to nothing and tangled up in green weeds. Sarah saw then, that one of the bags at the bottom had a hole in it. She observed it all. She took it all in as though she was studying a painting in a museum. The dark murky water was now separate from everything that the sun touched and illuminated above.

She turned and swam back up, exhaling as she went, and breathed a heaving gasp when she broke through the thick pond scum. Dragonflies were still flitting by and the sun was still flowing through the clouds and onto the green water. Her uncle was by the pool-side watching her.

She took in his downturned mouth and hunched shoulders and thought he looked sad. She could see he had a cheerful yellow towel beside him, it looked impossibly fluffy and warm. She clambered out of the water and he handed her the towel, it didn’t feel as soft as it looked. She rubbed it’s rough material all over her painful skin. It felt like sandpaper; it tore at her flesh.

She was starting to feel dry and warm again when he sighed, “It’s very hard, he confided, “To find the one thats meant for you. To find the one that is perfect.”

Sarah nodded with her arms and towel pulled tight against her flat chest. He looked away towards his perfect house and back again to her.

“But I keep trying,” he said, almost as an aside. He looked at her properly then; not past and through her, as though she was an old, long-remembered ghost. “You shouldn’t be swimming in there,” he said.

“I  know, I’m sorry,” she said. She remembered her feet kicking out under her, keeping her bobbing like a cork in the water. She shuddered thinking about what she was floating over. What was lying fast asleep below her.

“Good. Come on up to the house. I’ll make you some hot chocolate to warm you up.” As they walked away from the pool, he carried her crumpled clothes for her.

She took a deep shuddering breath, “I think one of your bags has a hole in it.”

“Oh? I’ll have to sort that out later on.Thank you for letting me know,” he said. “You’re a good girl.”

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My Great-Grandmother never had a “proper” Christmas tree. Instead, she had a foot-high plastic thing that she placed on a sideboard already cluttered with ornaments and souvenirs. The tree had built in Fibre Optic lights that slowly changed like traffic lights; green to yellow to red throughout the day. It took pride of place beside the “My Left Foot” ashtray and the low, tasselled lamp.

Across the way was the black and stern range cooker with her chair beside it. Above, on the wall were what seemed like hundreds of photographs of people. Black and white photos mingled in with stained yellow photos from the seventies, the more recent photos looked almost lurid beside the restrained hues of the older pictures. There were only a few that were in actual frames; frames were reserved for the important ones. Instead, it was mostly a collage of smiling and stern and shy and nervous faces.

I didn’t know any of them. But I believed her when she told me that they were family.

Every Christmas Eve, my dad would bring me, my brother and my sister to her home and sit us on the low couch in front of that sideboard. He’d always time it so we’d catch her before she headed out to Christmas Eve mass.

She’d come in all smiles and offering drinks of fizzy orange. She’d go carefully slow, pulling out ancient bottles of long dead fizz from a cupboard down the side of the couch. The drinks were always warm, and far too sugary, and we’d gulp them down fast.

We’d sit watching her tiny television as a smiling newsreader told us that Santa was on his way, before showing us footage of a red-clad figure in a sleigh  driving across  an impossibly snowy landscape. We’d squirm with excitement while my dad chit-chatted with her about aunts and uncles.

She’d give us our presents then. Normally shower gels, or body spray wrapped with far too much wrapping paper. We’d give her our traditional gift; either a hat or a scarf or gloves. She’d put them on, and then my father would offer to drive her to Christmas Eve mass. Every year we’d do this – it wasn’t really Christmas until we did this.

She died when I was twenty-one. I’d gone to see her in the hospital at the start of December and she’d asked me to help her sit up. She was a big woman by then; my dad had to help me heave her up. It must have looked quite comical – two people losing a tug of war with an eighty-something year old woman. I can’t even remember what we spoke about that evening. To be honest, I barely remember what she looked like at that point. She died about a week after that visit.

We carried her to the the local graveyard from the church she’d used to go to on Christmas Eve. It was normally a ten minute walk. Normally; like i said, she was a big enough woman in the end. We had to change coffin bearers more than a few times on what turned out to be a good half an hour walk. We shivered in the weak winter sun, making dragon’s breath with our mouths in the cold.

My dad had already gotten her the Christmas presents when she died. He’d gotten her a hat this year. He called me, not sure what he should do with them.

“You could put them on the grave,” I suggested.

He never did. My grandmother pointed out that she wouldn’t have liked that. You weren’t supposed to visit the grave until a month after a burial. By that point, Christmas would have been over, we’d have been halfway to February. No point really.

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The Origin of the Geek

I’m sure that if you’re watching American Horror Story this season, you’re already familiar with the small scrawny figure of the Freak Show’s resident Geek. The Geek’s job was to bite the heads off live chickens and eat them and they were a staple in any self-respecting Freak Show. But watching the television show got me wondering; when did the word ‘Geek’ stop meaning live chicken-eater, à la Ozzy Osbourne, and start referring to the person who probably has waaaay too much knowledge about obscure comics and tends to be pretty savvy with a PC? Because it was still associated with Freak Show performers as recently as the 1970’s. In fact, ‘Geek’ as we know it is a relatively new concept. It was only around 1983 that it came to refer to people who lacked social graces and were obsessed with technology. But this isn’t the whole story of this word.

The word seems to have come from an old Germanic word meaning fool, along with a Dutch one meaning crazy. Back in the 18th century the word ‘Gecken’ first appeared describing any sideshow freak. I haven’t gone into any real detail on this because I’m fully aware that I may be the only person who finds this kind of thing interesting; but if you do happen to enjoy the etymology and evolution of words, I have popped a little timeline below.

So far, you can see where the concept of how a foolish crazy person could end up referring to the person who ends up being a sideshow in a carnival. But the jump from crazy to Bill Gates in less than twenty years in usage is still a mystery to me. 500 years from a German village idiot to a live chicken-eater makes sense. Chicken-eater to technophile, less so.

So I decided to look it up and find out.

And I found out nothing.

Seriously – I could not find a single actual explanation as to why, in the space of about 13 years, the word’s meaning made this massive leap.

I once read somebody describe being a geek as somebody who was willing to forgo popularity and being included because they liked something so much (the ‘willing’ has me raising an eyebrow here, but I digress). But maybe they were on to something. There was a time when being called a geek was a proper insult, a bit like that bit in Clueless when Cher is called a virgin who can’t drive. If being a geek in the 80’s and 90’s made you a social outcast, maybe it wouldn’t have felt completely dissimilar to the social exclusion that most Freak Show performers would have experienced.

Or maybe I’m grasping at straws, trying to create a connection between the two things when the only thing they have in common is a word. If anyone does happen to know what the connection is, if there is one, can you please let me know? Seriously. It’s kind of bugging me now and I’ll send you chocolate if you can give me an actual answer.

Geeky Timeline

1510’s – Germanic word used to describe a fool or a simpleton

1700’s – ‘Gecken’ referred to freaks in some circus sideshows in Austria-Hungary

1916 – Used to describe any sideshow freak

1970 – Writer Arthur H.Lewis uses ‘geek’ to describe a performer who bites off the heads of chickens or rats

1983 – used in teen slang in the United States in reference to peers who lacked social graces but were obsessed with new technology


Books With Pictures

You like books, right? Of course you do, look at you, you’re obviously a well-read and attractive individual. Books are right up your street.
But perhaps you haven’t given too much thought to the books with pictures in them. Well, without putting too fine a point on it, you should. Comics and graphic novels are the shizz.

The comics and graphic novels that you see huddled together on a small shelf in your local bookshop look up with thinly-veiled hope as you saunter on by, and then back down at their feet as they’re ignored by you. They just want to be picked up, and loved, and re-read the same way that the (so-called) proper books are. They just want to be shoved into your friends hands with the phrase, “You have got to read this!”

Because they’re not just collages of colour, weirdness, and super-heroes. Comics are filled from the cover to the back-page with vibrant art, story, and dialogue. The uses of different art styles, onomatopoeia, and panel-sizes to control the narrative’s pacing can draw you into a much more immersive experience than some novels can. This is why comics and graphic novels are ideal medium for fantasy stories such as Batman, Superman, X-Men, and Fables. It’s a throwback to the days when you were read bedtime stories and had to take an extra minute to have a good look at the pictures to help visualise what the words were telling you. Comics do that for grown-ups.

But it’s not just fantasy worlds that have used graphic novels and comics to help tell their story. That was what surprised me when I first started reading them. I was expecting nothing but superheroes and speech bubbles, instead I came across polished and thought-provoking novels. For example.I recently spent an afternoon reading Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot. This novel is part personal memoir, part biography of the life of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. It’s elegant and fabulous, the type of book I’d happily shove into anybody’s arms and hiss “Read it!” in a wild-eyed fanatical voice. It also won the 2012 Costa Biography Award, so there’s that too.

Speaking of graphic novels that are highly praised, you can’t not mention ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman. This novel is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and uses techniques that echo Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ by depicting different races of humans as animals. When you pick up the physical book the first thing that strikes you is that it’s heavy and a long piece of work. This is not surprising when you take into consideration that the author is telling the story of his father, a Polish Jew, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. It’s a postmodern piece of work and the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer.

The best news about graphic novels is that it’s a genre that’s booming. More and more people are reading them, and there are loads of currently existing works that are being adapted for them. For example, if there are any Margaret Atwood fans reading, her acclaimed ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is currently being adapted into graphic novel. Game of Thrones people: there’s a comic series there too for you.

So if you like your strong narratives and striking imagery in your reading (who doesn’t), you really should take a stop by the graphic novel and comic section sometime. You might be surprised what you find there.


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The Art of Gaming

When I say video games, what do you think?

Do you think Call of Duty or Battlefield-esque gameplay, complete with guns, explosions, and a couple of enemy crushing tanks?
Or do you think casual mobile games such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds, or Bejewelled?
Maybe you think platform like Super Mario, Crash Bandicoot, or what my youth was dominated by – Croc.
Or perhaps you think old-school: Tetris, Space Invaders and Pacman.

But do you think art I wonder? Because you should.

When I was first introduced to the concept of games being art, I dismissed it immediately.
“Of course they’re not art”, I thought to myself. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledged that they were fun and creative, but to me art is something else. Art is that beauty or ugliness that comes from within, art evokes feelings; the only feeling that I was experiencing while playing games, was frustration.
Not only was that attitude wrong, but it was snobbish and incredibly pretentious. Could you imagine someone saying that now about films? That they’re not an art-form? Imagine how you’d react if somebody you knew said that. At the very least you’d be expecting some kind of explanation for having that point of view.

I only realised that games were art a few weeks after I’d, so very rudely, dismissed the idea of them being so. I was sat at home, playing through a platform game that brought me through to Victorian England all the way to 19th century China and back. I had stopped to take a gulp of my, by that point, lukewarm tea when I just looked at my screen and took in what I had paused the game at.
The detail in the graphics was astounding. Vanilla and raspberry sky with delicate birds flying lazily around some trees in the horizon. It was gorgeous.
Then I started to pay attention properly. The way it deserved to have been paid attention to. The soundtrack was beautiful too. Not that dramatic music that the game plays when you’re about to fight off some baddies, but just that atmospheric music that floats around in the background.
That didn’t compose itself.
And the artwork didn’t create itself.
And the story-line – no matter how in depth or cursory it may be – didn’t write itself.
This is living, interactive art.

If you fancy playing through some games that are more on the arty side, rather than the traditional platform or shoot em ups, I have a few suggestions below:

Limbo is an amazing game. It’s all done in black and grey with nothing fancy at all. But don’t let the simple, almost childish graphics fool you, this game is emotionally brutal.
This is the story of a little boy who is searching Limbo for his little sister. He had to deal with shadowy spiders, other children who want to hurt him and mind controlling parasites.
When he dies, (which he does a lot) it’s done with no ceremony or ‘wipeout’ music. The game just lingers for a second or two too long on this little boy’s broken ragdoll body, and then you try the puzzle again. The whole idea behind it is that there is no punishment for failing in Limbo per se, instead the death is just a little bit too brutal and too real, and you have to experience it every time you mess up.
I cannot recommend it enough, but be warned, it’s an emotionally draining experience.
limbo screenshot

Dear Esther isn’t a traditional game at all. Instead it’s been described as a poetic ghost story told through the gaming medium.
As you play you walk through an abandoned island and as you do so, fragments of the story are narrated. I don’t want to say too much about this game because I’d only ruin the story and the immersive experience. Just play it. Even if you hate games and everything that goes with them, this is an amazingly emotive story that blends the narrators past and present together.
The music is sublime and almost heart wrenching at times. The graphics don’t look like graphics – they look like hyper-realistic paintings. All of this is set with the sound of piercing winds blowing in the background and cold surf rushing onto an abandoned beach; if anything was to make you feel like you were out wandering around an offshore Hebridean island, this is it.

dear esther


Valiant Hearts is a game set in World War I and is done in pretty and cheerful comic book style artwork that just seems to highlight the brutality of that war.
The game tells a story that deals with love and loss as characters try to survive the horrors of the trenches, gas, and bombings. It feels almost innocent in parts of the game, but that innocence is beautifully transposed against the heartbreaking story-lines and the moments of utter futility that the characters go through.
Reading Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, at school came rushing back to me as I played through my first battle-scene. At that point, it felt almost macabre to play through something as grim as this in those bright cartoonish colours. But every now and again as you play, you look upwards and you see this pale dawn light, seeping down from the pencil drawn sky and rain, and it’s beautiful.

valiant hearts



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There are two printers behind you, glowing that low yellow light that almost looks like very low-fat butter. The same colour as that olive-oil butter stuff that your grandmother back home likes. You furrow your brow trying to remember its name, but you only remember the packaging. Pale-dawn yellow, with those colouring-pencil green olives sitting in the foreground. Was there a girl by a tree in the background? Maybe.You feel like there should have been, possibly wearing a red scarf, but that could be just your memory teasing you.

Those printers and your blue monitor are the only light left in the office at this hour. Everyone else has gone home or to the pub. You could turn on the main lights and watch the square panels flicker on, out of sync with each other, until the entire office is lit up. But it’s too big for just one person. Too many lights lighting up what feels like a great hall of sentient machines for just you. Besides you’re almost done here, done for the day and night.

So there you stand, looking out of a seventh floor window waiting on an email from the other side of the world before you can leave. The lights of the city burn red and green and white, forecasting a Christmas that’s still months away; not that the supermarkets care. The moment August was wrapping up – wrapping paper was jostling for space beside tacky Halloween outfits, as you walked in to do your grocery shopping.

Rain splatters against the window silently with bursts of cold from the outside. If you put your cheek to the glass, you might feel them as they land. Spots of ice glowing with traffic-light colours. It feels like being a bird perched up high over a city that you’re not from, but only read about in books and magazines, or saw on gritty television dramas. It feels like you’ll never penetrate it all, you’ll never wear this place like a second skin, but then again have you seen anyone who moves anywhere with ease and belonging? Even those who are born and brought up in these places.

Cars drive on roads, carousels of lights snaking around and around on a conveyor belt. If you open the window a crack you’ll hear the distant thump of music, any music. It’s all the same really. It’s all the same.

Your shoes are shiny as you look down at them. Your pants are sharply creased. Your hair being mirrored in the glass window looks neat and parted correctly. There is a beauty in fitting in. There is a beauty in being the same. You like being this way. You like to feel lonely. Loneliness can be delicious in dark offices that are perched up high above rain splattered dark cities. It feels like atmospheric moody music has been written just for you at these moments. Perhaps there are dozens, hundreds others doing the exact same thing right now as they wait for global emails from people who will do the exact same thing in a few hours. In their dark offices, over their dark and glittering cities.


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