Off-roading – Travels in America

Off-roading — a short story by 雷竞技官网  (PDF here)

Never has a hot shower been so refreshing. And, when I say hot, I mean truckstop-scour-off-the-elbow-grease hot. Was it five dollars each? I don’t remember. It was 96 degrees outside and that’s in Fahrenheit, the water inside was closer to 96 degrees on the Centigrade scale. The price, the temperature. None of mattered. It was, if not a baptism of fire, then a scalding rebirth. It was money well spent.

It surely felt like a rebirth, following a blue highway west that got ever paler as the miles unfurled beneath the seemingly unending froth of the Milky Way, a wrong turn-off, led to another, and before we knew it, it was pitch black and the Pontiac was careering the wrong way past a hairpin and into an emboldered field. It was an hour before we stopped shaking and got the car back on to the road. It was another hour before we got to the grease-dissolving truckstop and the chance to rinse away soured adrenalin and existential angst.

We’d picked up the car, not from Lemon Rentals, thankfully, and not from Freddie Hachiro who would only let us take it around the tri-state area and certainly not from Baltimore to ‘Frisco via The Grand Canyon, and back again. It was a Trans Am, rather than a Firebird, but hey we were on a student-tight budget with only free coffee refills and Salteens to live on. And, although ‘gas’ was cheap, incredibly just about 50 cents a gallon at the time, there were no free refills for an 8000-mile grand tour of a couple of dozen of the fifty states.

Once we crossed the border into Tennessee, we had used up all our cassette tapes and discovered to our chagrin that the car radio had no FM, only AM, and all stations had only two kinds of music for our entertainment — country AND western. The deeper you get into The Bible Belt the more happy-clappy that C&W became. One day at a time, sweet Jesus, one day at a time.

The Canyon was astonishing, if you could hover at a point directly above The Colorado River but level with its distant upper edges and look down at the raging torrent below, you would be looking down a mile and a half. Pebbles hewn from the rock by that torrent are a billion and a half years old. Those are some amazing numbers befitting an amazing sight. At that time of year, there were few tourists around, it was well after Labor Day, of course, and stepping out on to the first perimeter viewpoint to look across and down made us both draw breath sharply and laugh out loud.

We dismounted in Death Valley, it was fatally hot. There was so little moisture in the air, your cooling sweat evaporated before it even got a chance to form beads on your skin, you could become desiccated very quickly. We crawled in the dust, pretending to be stranded air-crash victims simply waiting for the circling buzzards to descend against the thermals and pluck our eyes. We snapped snaps with a pocket film camera, using so many of the precious 36 frames. We even strummed a few chords on the battered guitar that had been riding shotgun since our time in Gore. It was a classic with one fewer than the standard six strings and was wantonly disassembled by us red rock stars in the desert. We care a lot.

Onwards we rolled, blue highway after blue highway, imagining ourselves some kind of pioneers chasing the gold and fearing that The Big One would stir and shake us when we found San Andreas.

It was nobody’s fault. The road ahead was no road ahead. There were no signs, only a deviation. The boulders were emboldened, the Pontiac not so much. Blood is thicker than water, they say, they don’t tell you just how hot it can run, seeping into the dirt carrying with it the last of our elbow grease. Yesterday’s gone…tomorrow was never mine. Sweet Jesus.

Last Christmas – a Xmas Gothic

Last Christmas by 雷竞技官网 (PDF/Kindle version here)

Funnily enough, it was four years to the day since the fourth variant had emerged. So, it was Christmas Day. Four years since the death toll passed 200 million. What a gift. Four years since the last dying embers of the theory of herd immunity had burned out and even the rich and the beyond-rich were suffering.

Four years. It’s hard to believe. What started as a very localised outbreak, with a mere handful of hospitalisations had quickly thrown the global community into panic and ultimately pandemic. The present that keeps on giving. Each genetic mutation unwrapping new pathogenic characteristics. New biomolecular tools to defeat even the strongest of immune systems let alone those that were compromised from the start. New protein shakes, new genetic twists and turns, they all side-stepped the vaccines, they all resisted the drugs, again and again.

Months and months of lockdowns and curfews, of firebreaks and circuit-breakers, had all seemed to work for a short time, the curves flattened briefly only to take on an exponential uptick within days. The powers-that-be would clamp down, and then release their grip, the bubbles would burst.

The armchair epidemiologists and the conspiracy theorists continued to refer to it all as nothing more than a really bad flu. Influenza with its all-time death toll dwarfed by that of malaria seemed like the walk in the park no one is allowed to take any more. No walks in the park, no trips to the beach, no visiting ancient castles with their riverside walks, no trips anywhere.

Everything is online for those who can still afford the gigaband connections and can still get an annual delivery slot. The uptake had been slow and there had been complaints even at the governmental level from the hedge-funders and the off-shorers that the companies really ought to pay their way. But, needs must. People had to eat. People had to have some kind of entertainment. No more close encounters of any kind, everyone in their place, it was a lonely life even for the loners.

200 million dead. An unbelievable number almost half the world’s population as it stood when it all started. There had been a time when population was counted in the billions. Those kinds of numbers are beyond unbelievable. Unimaginable.

Billions of people. Something had to snap. And snap it certainly had, if an event that lasted more than twenty years can still be called a snap. Summers came and went, hotter and hotter each year, winters were all but a distant childhood memory for the oldest survivors. Some of the rebellious youngsters had shouted about the end of the Anthropocene, the extinction of the plastic age. It had not panned out quite like that, it was a slow burn and wave after wave of serious trouble along the way.

200 million. The population at the time of the very first Christmas, ironically enough. Obviously, exponential growth has a counterpart. As one number doubles every couple of weeks, so the number of the converse halves. 200,000,000 to 100,000,000 to 50,000,000 and so on…

Bubbles burst.

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You can read my previous short stories here.

Goin’ Greyhound – Travels in Australia

Goin’ Greyhound by Dave Bradley (Kindle/eReader version here)

Jaden leapt from the Greyhound into fetid coach-stop air that felt as heavy as a steam room but without the scent of eucalytpus oil despite this being the Northern Territory. He dashed to the gents and en route doused his ready-pasted toothbrush in tepid water from the nearest tap, and shuffled into a gap at the rankest-smelling trough for a well-earned pee, chewing on the toothbrush as he went.

“You must be German,” a fellow backpacker one splash along asserted, “only a German would urinate and clean their teeth at the same time.” The accent was Scandi…Norwegian perhaps.

“Gngnsh,” chewed Jaden.

“Aah, British, yes, a Brit would probably do that too.”

It was the briefest of encounter, with thankfully the minimum of bodily fluids exchanged, and Jaden dashed back to the bus and bounded up the steps out of the 100% humidity and back into the marginal air-conditioning. The doors hissed and slammed behind him. They waved their periodic “Seeya soon, mate!” and the bus panted north for two Creeks, a River, and headed for an evolutionary town with its netted off swimming areas. Jaden gave the toothbrush a final chew, before stuffing it into the tiniest of apportioned spaces in the pouch crammed into the cheapest of backpacks.

“Well, that was hilarious,” he laughed to his travelling companion Aimee. She had made a similar leap of faith just seconds ahead of him and had found the only privacy this side of Three Ways with a toilet seat and (unbelievably) toilet paper.

“What was?” she queried breathlessly, a five-minute stopover is exhausting especially at two in the morning with that kind of heat and humidity even if you are in your earlier twenties and out in the big, wide world for the first time.

“Oh this guy at the urinals thought I was German ’cause I was cleaning my teeth while having a pee, hahaha,” Jaden responded.

“You were cleaning your teeth and peeing at the same time, that’s disgusting,” Aimee added. “Funny though, you must have been a sight. Bit racist of him to narrow down your nationality on that basis though, isn’t it? Was he Norwegian by any chance?

“Dunno really, we didn’t have much of a conversation, it’s not really the done thing in the men’s toilets,” Jaden pointed out. “Had to be done though I think was as desperate to relieve my bladder as I was to get a day’s backpacking grime off my teeth.”

Aimee grabbed her portable cassette player, her “Fakeman”, from under her backpack with its solitary tape crammed with early R.E.M and a couple of John “Cougar” Mellencamp songs from the same era. She offered Jaden the second set of headphones and plugged in the doubler, pressing play and then quickly ripping off the headphone as a far- too-loud Michael Stipe lamented “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”.

She slid the volume controller down from 11 to somewhere in between 5 and 6…

“I can hardly hear it now, Aimee”, turn it back up a bit,” Jaden charged.

“It’s deafening…here, you listen, I’ve had enough Fables of the Reconstruction to last a lifetime.”

“Aww, I like us listening together, it’s nice…”

“Well, I think I might just try and get some sleep, it is after 2 in the morning.”

Aimee dozed and Jaden sang along in his head, finger-drumming and foot flicking an imaginary pedal in time to the beat.

“That song’s on Document though,” he whispered but Aimee was already in the arms of the sandman. Despite the Fakeman being at 7 or 8, he too headed for a dreamy beach.

Jaden awoke to a gentle shoulder shake.

“Time for medicine, Mr Turner,” the masked nurse suggested.

Jaden brought himself up to the surface, clutching at a set of headphones that had long gone.

“Time for, time for? But, but I was listening to R.E.M with Aimee…are we in Darwin already? It’s a long way but that seemed an awfully quick journ…”

“Sorry, Aimee not here,” the nurse interjected. “Here, sit up please, take medicine, I’ve got you water.”

“I need to tell Aimee something…I can’t remember, it’s on the tip of my tongue…it’s a song, she fell asleep, it was a different album, she had it on too loud,” Jaden panicked and brushed some mince pie crumbs from in between the buttons of his cardigan.

“All okay Mr Turner,” the nurse responded. “You remember soon, don’t worry. Maybe write down, so don’t forget?”

“Yes, yes, I’ll write it down, but…but…I need to pee first…please, my stick, pass me my stick…”

A hexalogy for 2021

On a whim, just before Christmas 2020, I wrote a very short story, originally called A Strain in Time it was a Xmas Gothic. The name wasn’t really working so I changed it to The Teastrainer. However, my friend Barbara referred to it as The Tea Lady in her messaged critique and I reckon that works better.

I then wrote another two and so had a trilogy. A fourth made it a four-part trilogy in the Rushian sense and a fifth alluded to Douglas Adams. A sixth microfiction makes it more properly a double trilogy or perhaps more properly a hexalogy.

Goin’ Grey(hound) and Off-roading are both true autobiographical/anecdotal, at least initially until the plot twists and what you thought you knew is blown away with a flick of a mouse.

The three four five six “Xmas Gothic” short stories by 雷竞技官网 are now available in PDF format for your Kindle or other device:

The Tea Lady – There’s no future in her tea leaves

After Death – A rare cremation

The Tide is High – A pastoral or post-apocalyptic world?

Goin’ Grey(hound) – Travels with a Sony Fakeman

Last Christmas – Joy to the World

Off-roading – Travels in America

The third of the stories – The Tide is High is now something of a prologue to a book Wave Markers. Chapter 1 came to me in a dream, but remains a standalone short story for now – Remediators of the Anthropocene.

The Tide is High – a Fenland Gothic

The Tide is High by 雷竞技官网

Madalief watched from atop a crumbling embankment as a fox hunting on the fen below leapt suddenly into the air. It arched its back and as its brush quivered, gravity took hold and its forepaws pounded the damp earth and the creature thereon; the last heartbeats of the tiny, anonymous prey beneath.

The wind was soft and poured a mist over the land to set on the fen, shifting ambiguously as if in time with a far-distant tide. Ignorant of that ethereal and nonchalantly poetic endeavour, the fox moved on, ever hopeful of sensing the subtlest lub-dub of a murine heart or catching the fiery breath of a Devil’s coach horse.

Madelief imagined that it was her lowland ancestors who had taught the English how to drain the vast marshlands of this region all those years ago. The drains that crisscrossed the acres with their incendiary gases and their feverish ague. Ancestors that helped erect windpumps at strategic intervals between the inland island settlements whose inhabitants traversed their world only by coracle and causeway in times gone by. The V-shaped veins took the rains away to the north, pumped with the lie of the land.

Across the fen, a barn owl fretted over the encroaching mist and headed silently away from the tide to its nocturnal roost. Its face mirrored the full moon that dimly spanned the horizon veiled by acres of mist. There would be no hunting in this lowly crepuscular light.

Madelief ploughed on, a solitary walker, espying an occasional otter or a grass snake taking to the water in its wake. They would sidle aquatically across the ripples for a moment or two before quickly disappearing from sight. They would take routes so strange that water will flow uphill to the sea from here on out. The sea that refuses no river.

The darkness was coming and with it, the occasional will o’ the wisp and more worryingly those insistent bearers of the ague. Madelief shuddered as if with an oncoming fever at the thought of catching her death and strode on. She ignored the skulking black shape of a fen tiger…there were no fen tigers, she knew that…it was merely mist-enshrouded shadows dancing to the devil’s tune in her imagination. She had a place to be, she had a message to deliver.

With each stride, the pulse of the tide pulled her on. On towards the settlement, the name of which had been scribbled in charcoal on the bare inside of a sliver of bark grappled hastily from the crumbling façade of a tree, a plane, ironically enough. Scribbled just as hastily but almost illegibly was a name. Refuge was that name. Somewhere safe to stay. Somewhere dry. Somewhere she could unroll her message.

Madelief had walked for miles along the muddy crests of those V-shaped veins, heading inland away from the tides, her journey charmed by the occasional grass snake or a vulpine pounce. Her message was all in her head, it was plain and simple and yet it was likely no one would take heed, Nevertheless, deliver it she must to those who might still care, to those who might know how to engineer a new solution to an old problem. The problem of how the full moon can give new land to the tides.

By degrees, the mercury had risen. Inch by inch so too the tides. Year by year, the air had somehow grown thicker, more cloying. It had taken on a new viscosity, soaking up the rays and staying them lest the winter be chilled once more.

So now, where Madelief fancied she could see a distant windmill on a rise it was not to be. There were no sails on this windmill. This windmill, surrounded by water, was strangely a far more ecclesiastical affair, an ancient translucent tower, reaching up, cutting the sky from its aquatic surroundings. A vitreous spire pointing accusingly at an angry God that once offered his people famine and flood. A shard…

 

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Riding High on the Tide is the third of three Xmas Gothic short stories I wrote just before Xmas on a whim and each taking less than an hour (as you can probably tell) to put together.

The first of the trilogy- The Tea Lady – can be found here and the second After Death, here, there’s a PDF version of the latter too. I have now written six microstories in total. Two trilogies, you might say.

After Death – a Xmas Gothic

After Death or We three kin by 雷竞技官网

A PDF version with colourised text for each of the three characters’ voices can be found here

“How does it go, again?

“Bad fly boss walk jam nitty gritty”

“You’re listening to the boy” Together: “from the big bad city”

“That’s it, yeah, that’s it, I remember.”

“Jaaam hot, this is jaaam hot”

“Sssh…have some respect.”

“Sorry, yes that’s it…sheesh, they don’t write them like that any more. You can barely make out the words in that awful stuff the kids listen to now.”

“Yeah, ‘granddad’, when did you get all ‘old folk’s home, you’re only 136, got your whole life ahead of you!”

“Hah, whole life, that’s funny…I remember when 100-years old became the new three score year and ten”

“Seems like only yesterday”

“Well, it wasn’t it, it was the year 2073, when they worked out that gene edit wasn’t it? When they reset the years to AM and started counting from 1 again”

“Yeah it was…funny, I’d just turned 13 when that song was recorded, it was class, annoyed the hell out of my parents, rest their souls”.

“13? And the rest!”

“Well, okay, I forget, it gets hard working backwards with these new dates and age really makes no difference these days, does it?”

“Yeah, ‘granddad’, like I say you’re still heading for the old folks home.”

“If you can get a place, even the multi-undergrounders are stuffed full.”

“Yeah, sometimes I think back to when they were almost empty, I used to work in one of the original sites, doling out the vaccine, I must have told you that before.”

“Yes, yes, a million times. Vaccine was never the right word though, was it? It wasn’t a stimulus for your immune system to fight a disease, after all. It was something altogether different.”

“True, true.”

“I still don’t get why we say AM though…ante mortem…doesn’t that mean ‘before death’, we’re living in a world that’s after death, so it should be AD.”

“Yes, but back then AD had religious overtones, didn’t it Anno Domini, year of Our Lord? Allelujah, Jeebers saves and all that?”

“Yes, no need for religion now, but I suppose labeling the years PM, for post mortem, comes with its own baggage and it’s not really like we’re living ‘after death’, we’re just, you know, living without it.”

“Indeed we are, hence all those multi-undergrounders, and all those people with so much time and so little to do with it…”

“It’s quite sad, really”

“Which is why we’re gathered here today, isn’t it? Not everyone wants to be ‘vaccinated’ or ‘edited’, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not like you stop getting old.”

“No.”

“No.”

“Cracking tune though.”

“Aye, a banger, as we used to say, haha.”

“Interesting choice…oh, oh the curtains are closing.”

“This is jam hot, this is jam hot”

“Sssh…have some respect for the dead, would you? And it’s not ‘bad fly boss’ it’s ‘tank fly boss’.”

 

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After Death is the second of three Xmas Gothic short stories I wrote just before Xmas on a whim and each taking less than an hour (as you can probably tell) to put together. There’s a chronological joke for Rush fans in this story.

The first one – The Tea Lady – can be found here. The third, The Tide is High, is here. I now have six microstories in my trilogy.

The Tea Lady – a Xmas Gothic

The Tea Lady by 雷竞技官网

Rare these days is the house with a pre-warmed pot and the vessel filled with near-boiling water to mash loose leaves. Most people just dunk a dusty bag, swirl it a bit with a spoon, and flick it into the sink. There may be a little hug of the bag against the lip of the mug to leech the tannins into their brew prior to that nonchalant flick. But, rare is the proper teapot, the ceremony of the tea strainer, the chink of teaspoon against china cup and saucer. Rituals are ingrained and maybe our descendants with their vacuum-sealed space food will see that lip service of the teabag in the mug as somehow quaintly ceremonial. Who knows? Maybe they won’t even have electric kettles come the next millennium. Not even the tea leaves can look that far into the future.

But they can stew over the coming days and months, sometimes even a year or two. The dregs that slip through the fine gauze, strain against the interior curves of the cup. They might in their astringent configurations foretell of a new-found friend to be well met, a tall, dark stranger perhaps, or even an imminent death in the family. It’s all grist to the mill for Georgie.

Georgie was actually christened Mabel Georgina Brown, sweet enough. Even as a child though, Georgie thought that Mabel made her sound old, like somebody’s grannie. Georgie is much more sprightly. Georgie is fun. Mabel is maudlin…although not quite so maudlin as Maude. Georgie laughed inwardly at her own little joke. A joke never shared with an audience, a joke with no real punchline, not much of a joke at all.

Now, she’s entered her tenth decade, Mabel is still Georgie and she measures out her afternoons in teaspoons.

Ah, yes tea. So revered that one particular strain, a poignant blend, takes its name from God’s Own County and yet its roots are very much in the far-flung reaches of the long-gone, rosy-flushed Empire. Georgie never drinks the stuff. Too bitter for her palate and the addition of the proverbial spoonful of sugar really wouldn’t help it go down. Tastes like history rather than the future, Georgie always thinks. And, it is futures that Georgie sees in tea. Not futures of the fiscal kind. No, the futures Georgie sees in other people’s tea, and specifically, the tea leaves that reside in the smooth curves of china, once the drink is drunk, are an investment of an often much more maudlin nature.

Today’s guest is late. It is not a problem. The kettle is yet to boil and to pipe aboard the visitor. Georgie is expecting a gentleman caller this afternoon. In her youth, her cheeks would rapidly take on an embarrassing glow at the very thought of a gentleman calling on her. The gentlemen, and more commonly, ladies who call these days are investors, not in love, but in futures…their futures.

The kettle begins its call, its lament to the repeated, once almost daily, scalding of its insides.

The teapot is silent and ready.

Leaves sit heaped in the caddy awaiting their calling.

Perhaps today’s caller has had a change of heart. Not everyone looks to the future, even at this time of year. But, as the kettle whistles its climactic monotone, Georgie does not respond to its plea. The kettle boils dry. Georgie sinks into the past.

The tea leaves remain unmashed.

 

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The Tea Lady is the first of three Xmas Gothic short stories I wrote just before Xmas on a whim and each taking less than an hour (as you can probably tell) to put together.

The second of the three is After Death (PDF version) and the third The Tide is High. I have now written another three microstories.

BIRD REPORT 13 – Glossing over any egrets

BIRD REPORT 13 – Glossing over any egrets

This post is an online version of my latest nature column, which I volunteered to write regularly for our bimonthly, printed village newsletter. the Xmas issue has an article about local starling murmurations, report 13 is for the next issue.

In the last Bird Report, I mentioned sightings around our local patch of some quite unusual birds, birds that are normally associated with sub-Saharan Africa, or at least the much warmer parts of Europe. There were two glossy ibis at RSPB Ouse Fen in November. Subsequently, there were sightings of more at RSPB Fen Drayton and close to Earith Sluice. It is likely there are about seven not too far from us.

I also mentioned Cattle Egrets in the last issue of which there were five or so on farmland on the edge of Fen Drayton and sometimes some seen in the nearby RSPB reserve roosting alongside the cormorants beneath skies filled with the shadowy forms of the starling murmurations. Now, many readers will know the little egret, the grey heron and perhaps the bittern, but the cattle egret is a less well-known member of the family.

3x Glossy Ibis at Earith Sluice

When I moved to Cambridge a little over thirty years ago, it seemed rare to spot a little egret, although grey herons definitely frequented the banks of The Cam not far from where I lived. Seeing a little egret on the Norfolk coast was an occasional treat, but now their numbers are up greatly, it seems. I’ve counted 30 or so at a time in fields at the edge of the Fen Drayton reserve. Also on the rise are great white egret numbers. They seemed to be a true rarity until very recently, now even the most novice birder will have “ticked” them several times on local reserves and I’ve seen them on several occasions feeding on the Cottenham Lode alongside grey heron and little egret. Those cattle egrets too, once a very rare sight, are seen more and more, with handfuls, trailing after any cattle they can find in our locale. On the Somerset Levels they are now reported in their hundreds.

bittern wmk 768px 1
Bittern

Climate change is no doubt playing a part in allowing these species to spread farther and farther north into the British Isles from their erstwhile homes in sub-Saharan Africa, to North Africa, The Mediterranean and beyond. The glossy ibis is found scattered around the warm regions of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean, for instance, but birds that are breeding in southern Spain seem to opt to spend the winter in The British Isles over the last decade or so. But there seems to be another force driving these egrets and other wading birds. The non-native and very edible red swamp crayfish has in recent years thrived in the lakes of northern France, for instance.

Cattle Egret

I say edible, this delicacy known stateside as the Louisiana crawfish or crawdaddy, is a native to northern Mexico and the southern USA, but has been introduced to Asia and Europe and has established itself invasively in southern Europe and more recently spread to those French lakes. This has apparently given the birds that enjoy a few crawdad themselves a stronger foothold further north. It was perhaps inevitable that those species would find ways to extend their range and feed on the native aquatic species found in our coastal, brackish, and inland water, especially the species with a migratory tendency. If the red swamp crayfish gains a clawhold in those waters, it will be bad news for some of our native species, such as the European crayfish, but good news for the feathered fishers.

Great White Egret

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Spottin’em in Cottenham: Recent sightings

Some interesting recent activity in and around Cottenham. One cold and foggy November night, wigeon were reported flying over the High Street and a Sunday morning soon after saw a couple of Egyptian geese over Broad Lane, a first sighting for one reader of that non-indigenous, but widespread, bird in Cottenham.

There have been a couple of waders, green sandpipers, specifically, sighted along Long Drove, they’re not uncommon in the fens, but always nice to see. Also, at the time of writing, around 60 whooper swans were on farmland at the Twentypence Marina end of the Cottenham Lode where it drains into the River Great Ouse, sometimes known as the Old Bedford River.

Also, way off its normal patch, a dusky warbler has been seen in Aldreth at the part of the village known as The Boot. A white stork (possibly an escapee from a collection) has been seen in Somersham.

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Grey Heron

 

A Saturnine and Jovial conjunction

Jupiter and Saturn will appear very close together in the night sky on 21st December in what astronomers refer to as a rare ‘Great Conjunction’. They are not literally close together, they will be millions of kilometres apart but as viewed from Earth they will appear to be separated by less than a fifth the diameter of the full moon as it appears in the sky. This is the closest they have been in conjunction, just 0.1 degrees of arc, since the seventeenth century (the year 1623), in a rare ‘Great Conjunction’. In that year, Wilhelm Schickard invented his Calculating Clock, a mechanical precursor of the pocket calculator.

When that last similar conjunction occurred the two planets were close to each other in the sky but also appeared close to the Sun so would’ve been difficult to observe. Prior to that, an observable conjunction occurred in 1226 long before the invention of the telescope in the year that Saint Francis of Assisi died, apparently.

Just to clarify, as planets orbit the Sun, they occasionally appear to be close to each other in the sky, it’s an optical illusion. On 21st December, Jupiter and Saturn will be almost 800 million kilometres apart in the solar system.

To see the conjunction, look low in the south-west after sunset. As the sky darkens, first Jupiter and then Saturn will become visible. Both planets are bright — in the case of Jupiter brighter than all the stars — so will be obvious in a clear sky. By 17h00 GMT both planets will be less than ten degrees above the horizon for UK observers, so it is important to find a line of sight without tall buildings or trees that will block the view.

They will be visible to the naked eye, but with a small telescope you will be able to see both planets in the same view and Jupiter’s cloud belts will be apparent as will Saturn’s rings. The peak of the conjunction is the 21st, but they will appear to move apart from each other only slowly in the days that follow. There is lots of musing as to whether such a conjunction in history was the origin of the myth of the Star of Bethlehem.

UPDATE: Night of 17th December, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn will form a pretty little triangle together in the night sky

Midline Glioma – research fundraiser

UPDATE: December 2021 – Fast approaching 100k! Research has already been funded from your donations, so thank you!

UPDATE: Emily was hoping to reach her target by Xmas Day, she went storming past that number on the 23rd December – £50615 raised from just over 1700 donors, which is fantastic. She originally set 10k as a target, then moved it up to 25k, passed that and moved it to 50k, which is when I first mentioned the cause here, on Twitter, and on Facebook. She was at the half way to the 50k at that point just over a week ago. Hopefully, we can draw in more donations from a few of my followers. Thank you! Keep those donations coming in.

Diffuse Midline Glioma, H3 K27M Mutation is not a phrase you want to hear from a doctor. It’s a type of tumour that most commonly affects people under about the age of 25 years but over 3 years. It’s very rare – 100 people in the UK annually – but always lethal, sadly. The tumour grows rapidly within the Central Nervous System and has a devastating effect on the spinal cord or the brain depending on precisely where it grows.

I must admit I’d heard of spinal tumours, but don’t think I’d heard this full phrase until a friend posted about it on social media as their daughter had started a fundraiser to raise funds for research. Emily passed her initial fundraising target quite quickly and has upped the ante, now aiming for £50000. She’s more than halfway there with well over 1000 donations so far. Sciencebase is happy to give this worthy cause a mention in the hope that a few readers take her plea to heart.

I’ve written generally about rare diseases several times over the years and how they are often neglected by mainstream medical research and the pharma industry because by definition they each only affect a small number of people. Of course, there are many, many rare diseases and the total numbers of people that are affected are large. At the other end of the scale though, is often a terrible tale of someone afflicted by something rare and untreatable, which is precisely why we need to raise funds for the individual cases. So, here’s the link to Emily’s JustGiving page. Please dig deep, as they say.