Eighteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2016 in family, life
Tags: ,

Eighteen years. Almost two decades. Or to be more precise, eighteen years and four and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those eighteen years gone? Eighteen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Eighteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died eighteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.

A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998


“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

For various reasons, this is coming to you a wee bit later than usual; just making in into 2015 as it happens. But it’s still a few hours until the clock ticks over… so it still counts.

Now… about the pics you’re going to see below: I’ve already been about as embarrassed at the shots as I’m ever likely to be, but yes, if you feel the need to go “awwww” at the cute pics of me as a youngster, or mock the pictures of me during the decade(s) that fashion forgot, feel free to do so.

Look, the whole thing started in 2004 when there was a meme going around about putting up photos of yourself when you were younger. I did it… and then continued to update it every year or so for more recent pics…

So, here they are, bringing the photos up to date, as of December 2015. Not a lot of additions this year.But since this has now become a tradition as we approach the end of the year, and I’ve a few more people following me on Twitter and this blog, why not?

Why not indeed…

So, in rough order of age…

Probably the earliest photo I’ve got of me…

3 years old

Aged 4

I’m five, I think, here.

It was 1972, ok? And I was at my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was eight.

  Another – newly discovered – shot from Mike’s bar mitzvah. 

My son takes great delight in this shot – I think I was 10 at the time.

Me at age 11

Just after my 15th birthday

August 1980, I’m 16 – yes, that is a curly perm. Shut up.

November 1982 – Freshers’ Fair at Manchester Poly

1983 – me at the PULP office, 2nd year at Manchester Poly.

Age 21, at a work leaving do, having left Manchester Poly a month or so earlier..

1985, at my brother’s wedding… at which I was best man. Yeah, 21 again.

At my dad’s 60th birthday in 1989, aged 25. Blimey, was that really almost twenty-five years ago?

1994 – Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


September 1997, at UKCAC

Me in New York, January 1998, just after we lost Mike

Part of a formal family shot, mid-1999

June 1999 – my spiritual home

August 2000; taken by Phil – he was five years old at the time

October 2001; New York, six weeks after 9/11; visiting Ian

May 2002, Hypotheticals – not a happy Budgie

mid-2002, taken for a WEF World Wide Wednesday

Bristol, 2003. You can see the greying hair now…

July 2004 – working at the office

December 2004 – at my nephew’s bar mitzvah. See? I scrub up nicely occasionally.

August 2005 – at Brighton. First picture for ages that I’m genuinely happy with.

September 2005, last picture of the Nissan before I crashed it…

October 2005. Again, a photo taken by Phil…

April 2006, at the flat.

May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning.

December 2007 – at the office party, with my ‘secret santa’ gift. No, the book.

May 2008 – Phil and me at Comic Expo

May 2008 – Me interviewing Dave Gibbons at Comic Expo

October 2008 – Me and Phil, studio shot for the bar mitzvah

May 2009 – Me and Matt Jones, (pic by Jamais Cascio)

July 2009 – At the BERG 40th Anniversary Apollo 11 drinkup (pic by Matt Jones)

October 2009 – In New York, with my cousin Nikki.

November 2009 – Me and Phil at Ian’s son’s bar mitzvah.

April 2010, in Luton

July 2010, on Mastermind

August 2010, at Laura’s

October 2010, from Phil Tanner’s Photos – Mitch Benn ‘Proud of the BBC’ video shoot) The actual video’s here.

October 2010, again: at MCM

December 2010, after the office party

January 2011, at Tony and Tracy Lee’s wedding.

October 2011.

Yeah, I grew a beard in October, then shaved it off…

Laura took this one in April 2012 – not a bad shot of me, all things considered.

And then I had my hair cut…

No idea why I took this one, but it has me without a beard, anyway… August 2012

Lesson 1 about falling asleep in a friend’s house where children live. Don’t
(November 2012)

Me, at The Leveson Inquiry. The reading of the summary, not giving evidence…

Met up with an old friend, and wandered around Camden with him. A nice afternoon…

Yeah, I broke my foot…

Lost my father in October 2012 – here’s the progress of the shiva beard before trimming it down

And so to 2013…

Well, in March, I did a charity event where I wrote twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief.

That’s Mitch Benn in the background, writing his comedy album, which he did also within twenty-four hours.

Phil turned up to support us…

And I got progressively more tired, and more silly, as the hours passed…

A small accident with the beard trimmer led me to shave off the beard I’d had for roughly a year…

Most people were glad I grew it back almost immediately

Later in the year, finally managed to get a photo with two of my closest friends. There’s been any number of pictures of two of the three of us, but rarely any shots of all three… until now.

Not the best pic, I have to admit, but rather pleased we managed it at all!

However, another photo was taken that night which continues to amuse me no end.

You don’t think I’m in it? Really? Look to the right. Yes, just there… that blurred shock of grey/white hair? Yeah, afraid so…

Towards the end of the year, there was something new… a mini-me. Or to be precise, I was scanned for a 3D printing of myself. Very strange to see myself post-scanning on a screen…

But that was nothing to seeing the actual result…

Here’s another shot of the 3D model, this one with Mitch (who was similarly scanned.)

In July, managed to catch up with an old friend, at his reading of The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains at the Barbican. I like this photo, entitled Two beards (old friends attached), a lot.

Here’s the difference a haircut, a beard trim and sticking my contact lenses in makes… from September 2014.

Around the same time, I wrote a post on the rising tide of overt anti-semitism in the UK, and that I’d personally faced. I used the following shot to illustrate it. I was very happy with how it turned out.

Now, this blog post, indeed this blog, is pretty much all ages, and I’ve hesitated before sticking this shot up. Not sure I’ll keep it here, but since this is supposed to be a record of me through the years… I shattered the end of my collarbone in a fall in September. A week or so later, the bruising was well and truly showing, so here it is.

And onto this year.

This was March 2015. I have no idea where or why.

In September, was fortunate enough to catch up with Amanda Palmer after her gig. It had been much, much too long since we’d seen each other. Much and many things were said, but never enough.

From late this year. I think it was me trying out the new phone’s camera. It’s an odd pose, but as the foregoing shots more than amply demonstrate, that’s not a reason to exclude it. 

Bonus shot (which means I just discovered remembered it): Some time ago, the delightful Clara Benn took a shot which proved I was substantially smaller than Mitch, tiny in fact in comparison.

November this year, she proved it again…

isn’t perspective wonderful?

Aaaand, I think that’s about it for this update.

 Though he deals with irrational numbers, the very rational Matt Parker is that rare person: a mathematician who not only enjoys convincing others of the joy and fun inherent in mathematics… but actually succeeds in doing so. He’s a very funny man, being a standup comedian and part of The Festival of The Spoken Nerd (with Helen Arney and Steve Mould). Matt likes showing people that mathematics affects every part of your life, whether or not you realise it, and will then have you agreeing that’s a very good thing. He can create magic squares and charts that will have your jaw dropping in delighted astonishment. And he’ll then prove to you how Venn Diagrams are often misnamed, how charts are good and nice things, and how the lowest ring of hell is reserved for those who deliberately misuse them. He’s appeared on radio explaining how and why politicians misuse statistics and teaching everyone how to spot it, a worthy and essential service.

Matt Parker’s favourite number is neither irrational nor impossible but eminently reasonable.

Title: When Nothing Adds Up
Word: moreover
Challenger: Matt Parker
Length: 200 words exactly

He stepped out of the vehicle, so very weary; he’d been thinking about his bed for the past hour, although in truth an hour meant little to him. He patted down his travelling companions, murmured a few words to his favourite, then left them to be taken away by assistants. 

Assistants? When had he stopped calling them elves? he wondered, and shook his head, chuckling. It was not a pleasant sound; despite legends, Santa rarely laughed from pleasure. 

The final task awaited him; one last job before blessed sleep. An elf waited by his desk, pouring over a list: billions of names, each accompanied by green ticks, some large, some almost microscopic. The elf, warily, pointed out the discrepancies to Santa: the total number of gifts did not equal that of the recipients. Moreover, he could not verify six of the names. Santa sighed, and reached into his coat.

He was the sixty-eighth elf to have disappeared without trace in the past four centuries. Others had been more stupid, or more clever.

Santa walked to his rooms and placed several large boxes by his bed; then he took the list and slowly, carefully, appended a tick to his name.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek

“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

2016 minus 14: real power(s)?

Posted: 18 December 2015 in 2016minus

Many years ago, I remember asking a friend what it was like, being a father? This was just a few weeks before my son Philip was born, and it was only when I held Phil for the first time that I realised what a damned fool question it was. Because, of course, there’s no way you can adequately explain it. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily better or worse than not having kids. I’ve friends who’ve made the decision not to have children; I’d never insult them by saying “oh, you’re missing out” or any such crap. It’s just… different.

And it carries on being different. While visiting one friend who’s in hospital, I caught up with someone I’ve not seen in ages. He’s got a young lad of his own. Said it (the experience) and he (the child) was so much fun… I told him, quite honestly, that he’s got more fun coming his way the next twelve months than he can comprehend; and it’s true. It’s true whether the child is two years’ old or six. Eight years’ old or ten. Of course the day the child turns 13, he’s got more hell coming his way over the next twelve months, he has no idea… But yeah, asking “what’s it like, having a child?”

In a similar way, I’m pretty sure that asking the question “what would it really be like, if super-heroes existed?” would be equally daft… because no matter what we think it would be like, the repercussions and consequences of having real life super-heroes can only be imagined, not explained.

For a start, of course, there isn’t any empirical data. Or, is that just what they want you to think?

No, best not to go down that route, I think. That way lies madness, turquoise tracksuits and a belief in the possession of  weapons of mass destruction by people just because you don’t like them.

There have been plenty of comic stories, even series, that have attempted, seriously or otherwise, to show what it would be like if super-heroes actually existed. Some of them try to show the effect it would have upon life on this planet. (This is, of course, as opposed to stories simply about super-heroes, set in the story’s own ‘continuity’.)

I’m tempted to talk about Wild Cards here, but I’ll leave that for another column. Although there was a comic book based upon the series of speculative prose books, and some well known comic book writers contributed stories, it’s not primarily a comics based series, and I’m sticking to them for this entry.

I guess at this point it becomes inevitable to mention Watchmen. But despite most people thinking of Watchmen as a super-hero book (the movie was certainly promoted that way) it’s not. With the exception of Dr Manhattan, they’re not super-powered heroes. They’re costumed vigilantes. But of course, that makes sense. In a world where super-heroes exist, it doesn’t make sense that the subjects of the book would be the only such super-powered beings, does it? Given that, Watchmen is predicated upon the existence of these vigilantes and attempts to portray the realistic consequences of their existence.

I love the book, although I do question the view that it’s a justifiable interpolation into ‘real life’. Despite my admiration for both the writing and art, I tend to the view (expressed by Peter David, I believe) that it’s realistic… right up until they stick that alien in the middle of Times Square…

But is even the earlier depiction of these vigilantes realistic? Rather than attempting to show realistic vigilantes, and their effect upon the world, I think the book predicates a specific world, and then shows how that has moulded and affected the vigilantes, which is a completely different emphasis.

So let’s reluctantly lay that book to one side, and instead take a look at my first experience of an attempt to bring superheroes into “the world outside your window”.

The use of that phrase is quite deliberate, since it was the tagline for an experiment by Marvel Comics, something called “The New Universe“. It was based upon the idea that up until 4:22 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, on 22nd July 1986, the world shown in the comic books was precisely the same as the world you live in. And then an event (“the White Event”) occurred, changing a number of people, some into heroes, others into villains. For a couple of years, the eight books in the line chronicled a standard ‘comics universe, with hundreds of paranormal’… until 1988 when, like Watchmen, editorial decided they’d had enough with the “let’s keep this the same as the world you see”… and destroyed Pittsburgh.

Which was a pity, since Barry Bonds then never got the opportunity to become the first Pirates’ player (and just the second major leaguer) in history to hit 30 or more homers and steal 50 or more bases in the same season. (See, I do research these pieces, occasionally)

OK, I’m sure there were other consequences, but once they’d destroyed a city, although it undoubtedly gave writers and artists more to play with, I always felt that the line ‘lost’ something special.

Starting a decade or so after Watchmen but continuing in various forms through twnety years’ of books, and still being published, is, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. The long delay between issues (caused early in the run by Busiek’s illness, and later by other commitments) may have led some fans of super-hero comics to miss this book. They’re nuts. There’s not been a weak issue in the entire run and Busiek constantly surprises with the way that he addresses questions that I hadn’t even considered needed asking.

Questions such as: when your childrens’ lives are at risk because of the preponderance of super-powered battles in the area, shouldn’t you move? If a petty crook found out a hero’s civilian identity, how best could he profit from the knowledge? With some people in our own society believing soap opera characters are real, what would happen if one of those people believed an actor in a television series really had super-powers? And, with no proof, how does a responsible newspaper report events including super-heroes?

A n interesting entry to the “consequences of super-powered beings on society” was Rising Stars by J Michael Straczynski. 113 children become ‘infected’, for want of a better word, in utero. Thirty years later, they’ve all become super-powered. After various events (including one going nuts and taking over Chicago as her own private fiefdom) those left decide, simply, to make the world a better place. Included in their plans are the removal of all nuclear weapons. This doesn’t please the power brokers of the planet in any way whatsoever, and the ways in which they attempt to neuter the “Specials” are chilling, and, in my opinion, absolutely believable.

Because that’s my problem with the whole idea of real life superheroes. Maybe I’m a cynic, but as others (including Sir Humphrey Appleby) have said, “a cynic is merely what an optimist calls a realist”.

Let’s take a look at some news stories and see how whether they’d have played out the same way had super-powers had actually existed.

Tyson Fury’s been in the news. Mainly because of what comes out of his mouth but his fists have accomplices. Various news stories have disclosed information various other people would have preferred they not. And in the US, politics has been a mixtures of stupidity, idiocy, irritation, and more stupidity. And that’s just the front runner in the Republican race.  

In a world of super-powers, where, say, a man can hit another man through a building, or can stop a train by punching it, or can carry a fuel tanker, of what interest to the public is it that a man can hit another man quite hard, repeatedly? Why would athletic achievement at all be celebrated when there would always be doubt in the public’s mind? Forget about special drugs, how about cheating using special powers? In the early days of Alpha Flight, the character of Northstar was an Olympic class skier… who had to give his medals back because it wasn’t believed that he’d not used his powers. In Spider-Girl‘s first story, May Parker gives up playing school basketball when she realises that it’s too easy, that she’d instinctively use her powers to win, whether or not she’d intend to.

Let’s look at news reporting. A story is leaked, fair enough. Happens all the time. But it doesn’t, you see. Not with any sensible comparison to what would happen if, say, you had telepathic reporters, or, as in Image Comics’ Phantom Jack, a reporter who can turn invisible. Even in Rising Stars, you had a character who could speak to the dead and in one memorable sequence stood in Arlington Cemetery… and screamed.
In those circumstances, you have a situation where news channels, far from having to find content to fill their allotted transmission hours, would have to pick and choose which genuinely newsworthy stories to use; talk about “a surfeit of riches”. As much as telepathic spies would change the nature of their business, how different would be the very concept of newsgathering? You wouldn’t need to doorstep, you could just stand near a political candidate, a union leader, a relative of a murder victim, to know the pork-barrel, the real wage demand, and the true views about the victim.

And speaking of deaths, what about assassinations? With super-powers in the ‘real world’, what makes you think that only the non-political would receive them? If super-powers genuinely existed, I suspect it would be a matter of weeks at most before you have the first super-powered assassination or terrorist attack. And such attacks would, inevitably, be met by overwhelming force, in the shape and powers of someone with a different agenda, be that political or social.

And what if there was only one person with super-powers in the world? What would be the temptation to think the worst of him, to assume that he’d want to take over sooner or later? As a species, we humans don’t do ‘trust’ very well. We talk about people having to ‘earn’ our trust. In a world where super powers existed? I’d give it no more than a year before the deaths started.

Kurt Busiek has written some of my favourite comics books. It’s as simple as that. His acclaimed runs on The Avengers set the standard by which all of their later tales could be measured. The same could be said about a run on Iron Man and – a personal favourite – Thunderbolts, which he createdHis Superman: Secret Identity is flat out one of the best Superman tales ever written and JLA/Avengers series is still one of my favourite crossover tales. Marvels similarly remains one of my favourite fully painted works (art by Alex Ross). Kurt just gets things… right. 

His creator owned series Shockrockets which I received as a 50th birthday present is by turns fun, thrilling and duly shocking. But, and I hope he’ll forgive me for this, his masterpiece is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. I cannot recommend this series enough, and whereas the comic at first spoke mainly to those who grew up with super-hero comics, it’s developed into so, so much more. Let’s face it, where else would you get the story of an animated character brought to life in the 1940s and be entirely absorbed by how he spent the next 60 years…? (PS Kurt is also a very, very nice man. Let’s not forget that.)

Kurt Busiek has a tattoo visible only under the light of a red sun.

Title: Gods On The Dole
Word: acetaminophen
Challenger: Kurt Busiek
Length: 200 words exactly

“Tradition,” they were told, though only one of them had heard of it prior to receiving the invitation, a stiff card of palest lilac with embossed lettering.

They were escorted to the hotel room at five minute intervals, but only once assembled was it plain they arrived in the same order they’d left another group to which they had all once belonged. Some had left months ago, others weeks; one had left it only earlier that day.

Now together again, these people who had shared so much for so long, frowned at the vast amounts of alcohol and drugs laid out, puzzled and fearful. The single guest who had previously attended such a meeting duly explained. There was disbelief, especially at his absolute assurance that the room was not bugged, but then there always was.

Then they drank a toast to the one who was not there, the man who’d paid for this, hoping he’d rot in hell, and had another drink. The anger came then. And another drink, and another. Finally, there was laughter.

And in the morning, the hangovers and the acetaminophen. Eventually though, the losing candidates for the nomination left the room and returned to the convention.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker

“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m unsure when admitting an issue was complex became bad. Certainly, the older I get the less I find I’m certain about things, particularly political issues. Yes, I’ve some issues where I think there’s a definite ‘right’ and a definite ‘wrong’, but far fewer than you might think. 

The recent Syria vote was a good example. I made it plain here and elsewhere that I was not convinced by the government’s case, as I saw it. That said, I never received security briefings, and I’m far from an expert in Syria, the warring sides or what is best. I’d have voted against not because I’m against bombing per se, nor inherently against military action in all circumstances but just because I wasn’t convinced military action was the right thing in this case and at this time. However, I’m not about to criticise those MPs who did receive security briefings, who do know more than I do, in reaching a decision different from mine.

Here are a couple of other things that have come up in the last week or so that I think have good arguments on either side of the divide and yet none of them convince me conclusively.

MPs under arrest should not be named in Commons, says committee
Basically, at the moment, MPs are treated differently to members of the public when it comes to being arrested. OK, in case you weren’t aware, there’s a very big difference in law, whether you’re in the UK or otherwise, between being arrested and being charged. Here’s a good explanation of the difference in the UK from the ever good UK Criminal Law Blog. However, whereas only sometimes are members of the public named on being arrested, MPs are always named on the Parliamentary daily order paper. Now, one might suggest that fair enough, if the MPs are suspected of doing something serious enough to warrant arrest, everyone – including their constituents – have a right to know. I’ve some sympathy with that view. 

Certainly, if they’ve done something – no, let’s be careful now, budgie – if they’re suspected of doing something serious enough in connection with their parliamentary duties that warrants arrest, such an arrest should be publicised. And indeed, the Commons committee says that should remain unaltered. It’s if they’re arrested in connection with something outside their parliamentary duties that the committee recommends a change. And I’m genuinely unsure where I stand on this one.

As I said above, I’ve some sympathy with the view that if an MP is arrested, their constituents have a right to know. However, on the other side of the argument is the case that an arrest isn’t proof of guilt. It isn’t any indication of guilt. No more than – in the US – an arrest or even indictment means they’re guilty. (As Alistair Cooke never tired of pointing out, there’s an astonishing number of people who believe that indictment means someone was found guilty. It means nothing of the sort.) Any person who has been arrested and then released with no further enquirers hasn’t ‘got away with it’, and more than when a person is charged and then, later, the charges are dropped. There’s nothing to get away with at that point.

(Sidebar: a lawyer pointed something out to me a while back, something about which I’d never truly carefully thought. To be gulty of something is not the same as having done it. And no, I’m not talking about being found guilty though that plays some part of it. Take murder. Most people would fairly accurately define it as the unlawful killing of someone. The important part there is unlawful. Guilt in law is perforce legal liability. If somoene has never been charged with unlawfully killing someone then they did not murder them. If someone was found not guilty of murder, then they did not murder them. They may well have killed them. In fact, that may not be in doubt. But legal liability is only tested in court.)

So, yeah, I’m genuinely unsure what my position is on this. I can see strong arguments on both sides but none that convince me.

House of Lords and the vetoing of secondary legislation 
No, it’s not as boring as it sounds, I promise. We have a mainly toothless second chamber. Which is, I suppose, just about slightly better than the Socttish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who mange quite well without a second chamber at all. But – and one can argue the merits of this till the cows come home – the House of Lords has had its power to reject legislation passed in the House of Commons severely curtailed over the past century or so. Putting it simply, the Lords cannot completely reject primary legislation (the Comons can use the provisions of the Parliament Acts to force it through, though they rarely do so, the Lords usually bows in the end), cannot reject ‘money bills’ such as budgets at all, and by convention does not reject measures in the manifesto upon which the government took office. They can, and sometimes do, reject what is called secondary legislation, which is passed through the House of Commons with less debate and obviously less scrutiny; the deal is that the House of Lords, being a revising chamber, is supposed to give it that which the Commons doesn’t. And since there’s less scrutiny, they can reject it absolutely. 

Well, they can at the moment. 

Y’see, what happened recently was the Chancellor tried to get his tax credit cuts through with as little scrutiny as possible, hence why they were presented to the House of Commons as secondary legislation. Had they been primary legislation, the House of Lords would have had a problem rejecting them. But they weren’t. And the Lords did. And governments as a rule never like having their legislation rejected by the Lords. But instead of going “damn, we should have…”, Cameron ordered a review of the House of Lords’ powers and now that review has reporters, recommending that the House of Lords can still reject secondary legislation but only once; if the commons votes again on the legislation and passes it… the Lords have to acquiesce and similarly pass it. 

And at this stage, I find myself impersonating Vicky Pollard from Little Britain: yeah but no but yeah but no but yeah but no but…

As a general rule of thumb, I think the Commons has a right to have their expressed view prevail. They are the elected chamber, for all their faults (and there are a lot of them, many of them elected). And, like it or dislike it, the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention do restrict the Lords’ powers on primary legislation. It does seem on first glance that it’s an anomaly that they can prevent secondary legislation, especially when it’s the expressed will of the Commons. But then there’s the argument above: if the government want something, especially something contentious, then for fuck’s sake, do it via primary legislation. The government already has the Parliament Acts as a back up to ram it through if they need it. (I said earlier that they rarely need to; the only relatively recent examples were  The War Crimes Act 1991, The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 and The Hunting Act 2004.)

(Amusingly, because of the Lords’ rejection of the tax credits cut and the threat of rescuing the Lords’ powers, I’ve seen many left-wingers supporting the Lords on this occasions, and many right-wingers saying their powers need to be reformed. As a commentator said, this isn’t as ludicrous as it at first sounds: you can loathe a system and want it reformed/abolished, yet still want it to act in the best interests of the country while it’s there. But the reversal of the normal positions is, as I say, amusing.)

So, yeah. No. I’m not sure. Good arguments on both sides, but I’m not yet convinced. More information on all of the above is in the links; I encourage you to click them and read.

But then hell, I encourage everyone to read more anyway.

Something more definitive tomorrow, before on Saturday the penultimate Saturday Smile of this run.

I’ve never been one for poetry. No, that’s not quite true; I enjoy the occasional poem, but only that. I’m quite prepared to acknowledge that’s from a lack of exposure rather than a considered view, reached after extensively researching the field. There are some silly pieces of verse I learned as a child, and which have stuck in my head, and – again when I was a child – there was a tradition of signing each other’s autograph books when we left secondary school. Having a signature thing to scrawl above an actual signature always made sense to me, and I stole the following to use:

Can’t think
Brain numb
Inspiration won’t come
No ink
Rotten pen
All Best wishes

My first exposure, you see, was to rhyming verse, and this was probably the first thing I remember liking so much I learned it: The Akond of Swat, by Edmund Lear


Who, or why, or which, or WHAT, Is the Akond of SWAT?

Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or chair, or SQUAT,
The Akond of Swat?

Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold, or HOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,
And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk, or TROT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a turban, a fez, or a hat?
Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed, or a mat, or a COT,
The Akond of Swat?

When he writes a copy in round-hand size,
Does he cross his T’s and finish his I’s with a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Can he write a letter concisely clear
Without a speck or a smudge or smear or BLOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Do his people like him extremely well?
Or do they, whenever they can, rebel, or PLOT,
At the Akond of Swat?

If he catches them then, either old or young,
Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung, or SHOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Do his people prig in the lanes or park?
Or even at times, when days are dark, GAROTTE?
O the Akond of Swat!

Does he study the wants of his own dominion?
Or doesn’t he care for public opinion a JOT,
The Akond of Swat?

To amuse his mind do his people show him
Pictures, or any one’s last new poem, or WHAT,
For the Akond of Swat?

At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
Do they bring him only a few small cakes, or a LOT,
For the Akond of Swat?

Does he live on turnips, tea, or tripe?
Does he like his shawl to be marked with a stripe, or a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like to lie on his back in a boat
Like the lady who lived in that isle remote, SHALLOTT,
The Akond of Swat?

Is he quiet, or always making a fuss?
Is his steward a Swiss or a Swede or a Russ, or a SCOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like to sit by the calm blue wave?
Or to sleep and snore in a dark green cave, or a GROTT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he drink small beer from a silver jug?
Or a bowl? or a glass? or a cup? or a mug? or a POT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe,
When she lets the gooseberries grow too ripe, or ROT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a white tie when he dines with friends,
And tie it neat in a bow with ends, or a KNOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like new cream, and hate mince-pies?
When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes, or NOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he teach his subjects to roast and bake?
Does he sail about on an inland lake, in a YACHT,
The Akond of Swat?

Some one, or nobody, knows I wot
Who or which or why or what
Is the Akond of Swat!

Since then, I’ve always enjoyed rhyming verse, in all sorts of meters, and I’ve written some; some are standalone pieces, and some have been for the fast fictions; The past three years Twelve Days of Fast Fiction have have included one written in verse, and I’ve no doubt this year’s will also include at least one. I wrote two for Twenty Four Hours of Fast Fiction, but only rarel have I written in ‘free verse’.

So… Here are two more poems I like a lot, and then two of my own. Enjoy.

One of my guilty pleasures is watching El Dorado. Every so often during the movie, James Caan’s character, Alan Bourdillion Traherne – yeah, you can see why he goes by ‘Mississippi’ – recites part of a poem.

Here it is:

El Dorado by Edgar Allan Poe

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of El Dorado.

But he grew old —
This knight so bold —
And — o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like El Dorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow —
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be —
This land of El Dorado?”

“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied —
“If you seek for El Dorado.”

And The Owl Critic:

The Owl Critic by James Thomas Fields

“Who stuffed that white owl?”

No one spoke in the shop,
The barber was busy, and he couldn’t stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Brown,”
Cried the youth, with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is —
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck ‘t is!
I make no apology;
I’ve learned owl-eology.

I’ve passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskilful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you’ll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

“I’ve studied owls,
And other night-fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He cant do it, because
‘Tis against all bird-laws.

Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can’t turn out so!
I’ve made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don’t half know his business!”
And the barber kept shaving.

“Examine those eyes
I’m filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They’d make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!”
And the barber kept on shaving!

“With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there’s not one natural feather.”

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time, anyway:
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I’m an owl; you’re another. Sir Critic, good day!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

And finally, as promised, two of my own:

Her… And Home

She opens the door, and silent music surrounds me.
A waft of perfume strikes my senses and I’m lost.
She brings me home with a smile.
A toss of auburn hair, a feline glide across the room as she sits.
Clumsiness permeates me as I remove my coat and then –
Her eyes promise so much, and I wish.
The day is over, and yet somehow not.
Later, I watch her, sleeping, all stress removed.
The regular pattern of her breathing soothes me.
At rest, I sleep, safe.
And wake alone.

Hangover? What Hangover?

Bang! Crash! Noise!
Oh God, how much did I drink last night?
My teeth itch; my skull throbs
And why does the world look purple?
I’m sure that you’re supposed to wear
Clothes that are silent.
And how did this balaclava get inside my head?
You’re writing too loud.
Please be quiet.
What’s that you whisper?
Tonight? 8 o’clock?
Sure, why not?
Never agains are for other people.

Something different again tomorrow…