No Windows

nowindows3

No Windows by Chris Green

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘if I don’t have red paint, then I use blue.’ You have to be able to adapt to changes of fortune. I did not plan my early retirement, but here I am on a Tuesday morning sitting in my recliner with a cup of green tea and a toasted teacake. I am listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. I find Otto Klemperer’s interpretation on this digitally re-mastered recording both heroic and warmly tender.

The phone rings. I wait for it to go on to answer. It doesn’t. It keeps ringing. The caller seems to be determined. I make my way to the study. It is my partner, Amy. She has gone over to her friend Hermione’s house to go over the church flower arranging schedule and is phoning from there.

‘Why didn’t you answer the phone,’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying for ages.’

‘I was out in the garden,’ I lie.

‘We’re having trouble getting on to Hermione’s computer,’ she says.

‘Has she plugged it in?’ I quip. Neither Amy or Hermione are good with computers. Not so long ago I had to explain to Amy that there wasn’t an any key. When Hermione got her PC she thought the DVD ROM drive was a cup holder.

‘Ho, ho,’ she says. ‘Very funny.’

‘What is happening? Does the router need rebooting perhaps?’ I say.

‘The what?’ she says.

‘The router, the box with the flashing lights that gets you on the internet,’ I say.

‘No, no, it’s not that. It hasn’t got that far.’

‘You mean it’s still rebooting?’

‘No it’s not the box, it’s the monitor.’

‘Is the monitor plugged in?’

‘Yes, it’s plugged in, but it’s not working.’

‘Is there a message? What does it say on the screen?’

‘Can’t you turn the music down? I can hardly hear what you are saying,’ she says. It is the end of the first movement. I love the way Klemperer slows it down to realise the full majesty of the symphony. Not many conductors do this. They try to finish the movement at breakneck speed. I tell Amy that there is a quieter passage coming up.

She huffs.

‘There will be a message on the screen to tell you what Windows is doing,’ I say.

‘That’s just it,’ she says. ‘Windows isn’t doing anything. It says Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later.

‘But Windows isn’t something online. It’s resident on the hard drive,’ I say.

‘That’s what it says,’ she says.

I have never come across anything like this message before. It is a real puzzler.

‘It must be a trojan or a virus,’ I say. ‘What has Hermione been doing? Does she keep her firewall and virus checkers up to date?’

‘I shouldn’t think that she knows what they are. I know that I don’t. You always take care of that for me.’

‘Does she go on to any dodgy sites?’ The Andante Con Moto is just starting. This is divine. I am anxious to give my full attention to Beethoven, but I am equally keen to stay married, despite Amy’s shortcomings on IT and her lack of reverence for Ludwig, and her tendency to over-water the succulents.

I hear her asking Hermione about her browsing habits. She comes back to me to say that Hermione uses it mostly for celebrity gossip and gardening tips but sometimes Hermione’s daughter, Autumn goes on to youtube and spotify when she comes to stay.

‘No it won’t be that,’ I say. ‘Look, love, I’ll just fire up the laptop and see if I can find out anything.’

The main theme is just breaking out now. Klemperer handles this with a subtlety and grace that more recent interpreters of the work cannot manage. It is heavenly.

‘I’ll phone you back in five minutes when I’ve checked on google,’ I say.

I lose myself once again in the hymnal resonance of the Andante. It is sublime. Towards the end of the movement, I switch on the laptop. ‘Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later,’ my screen says. How bizarre! How can an operating system that is based in the kernel of the machine be temporarily unavailable? It is either there or not there. Where could this command originate? I try the Esc key and all the Function keys in the hope of Windows starting or resuming. Nothing!

I dig out Lance’s phone number. Lance handles all of my computer problems and upgrades. He is bound to know what is happening. The scherzo is just beginning. I pause it for a moment. I’m not sure Lance likes classical music. He listens to Kings Of Leon and Kasabian. Also, Lance baffles me with a lot of long technical words. He imagines that everyone understands what he is talking about when he talks about digitizers, bots, and crawlers. I listen and just say yes and no in the right places. He usually manages to come up with a solution.

‘Hi Robbie,’ he says. ‘Long time. You got a PC problem too?’

He knows that when I phone him it is not to invite him round for dinner.

‘Something like that, yes,’ I say. ‘I didn’t like the way you said, too’

‘You’re going to tell me that your Windows has gone AWOL aren’t you?’ he says.

‘That’s right,’ I say. How did you know? Hermione’s is the same too. What is happening?’

‘No idea, I’m afraid, mate. And I can’t get online to find out. I’m as mystified as you are. Android is down, and Blackberry is down. Even Palm OS is down. You will probably find that the OS on your mobile has vanished as well.’

I check my Nokia. Lance is right. The phone display just says. ‘No Symbian OS. Consult Your Nokia Dealer.’ Not that I use it much anyway. I preferred them when you just used them to make phonecalls. You don’t really need them to watch the sky at night or set the timer on the oven.

‘I’m going to check with my mate, Jago, to see if iOS, the Apple platform is down too,’ says Lance. ‘But I’d put good money on it being down.’

It occurs to me that I don’t use the computer that much either. I research family history sometimes go on ebay, but I don’t do twitter and Facebook or anything like that. My emails are nearly all spam. And I have to spend hours keeping the bloody thing updated. It would not be the end of the world if it did not work for a while. I suppose I had my fill of computers when I used to work for the civil service, before the accident. These days I prefer to read a good book.

Amy is not pleased with my progress report. She is used to my being able to fix things. She feels I should be able to work some kind of magic.

‘How are we going to work out the church rotas and what about the parish magazine that Hermione produces? Its due at the end of the week and she hasn’t started.’

‘I’m sure it will be sorted out soon,’ I say.

I’m not sure, of course. In fact I have a bad feeling about this. It does not seem an everyday kind of issue. We seem to be talking macro, not micro here. I wonder if there might be more important matters than Hermione’s church magazine that are affected.

Amy and I have not had that much to do with our neighbours. We don’t like the late night comings and goings and their noisy summer barbecues. We have regular conversations about how we can get them to move. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Guy Bloke on the doorstep.

‘Eh oop,’ he says. ‘Just wondering if you were having any problems with your telly, like.’

Like what, I am thinking. It is not snobbery or a North-South thing, or even a prejudice about the way his belly hangs over his trousers. Some people just don’t come across well and Guy is one of them. Why isn’t he at work anyway? Has he lost his job?

‘Only our telly is saying that it doesn’t work anymore,’ he continues.

‘Is that what it says?’ I ask. ‘On the screen……. like.’

‘What it actually says is we are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error, whatever that is when it’s at home.

I wait for him to add, like. He does not. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I hope that ours is working because they are screening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Proms tonight with that new Ukrainian conductor, whose name I can never pronounce. Do you know the one I mean?’

Guy doesn’t. I imagine he is thinking of buses in years gone by.

Guy clearly wants me to check ours. I invite him in and I turn on the new 42 inch internet TV that Amy insisted we buy to watch the new series of Cranford.

‘We are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error,’ the display says. I press a series of buttons but the message stays on the screen. The internet button displays ‘unable to connect with operating system, please try again later’

After Guy has left, I put on Einaudi’s Una Mattina, to calm myself. As I drift off to Ludovico’s soft piano, I try to put cares aside. I settle into the pranayama breathing technique that my acupuncturist, Li taught me during my course of treatment. I let the haunting hypnotic melodies wash over me with gentle waves of calm. I visualise white temples and imagine clouds drifting gently across the summer sky. Conjure of images of country lanes and babbling books. By the penultimate track of the album, Nuvoli Bianche, a melody even Ludwig would have been dazzled by, I am suitably chilled. Computers and mobile phones are but a distant memory lost in the mists of time.

During Ancore, the final track, Amy blusters in, bringing with her chaos and uncertainty. I obey her unspoken command to turn the music down.

‘Waitrose is closed because the tills aren’t working, and I couldn’t get any money out of the ATM because they are not working either,’ she screams. ‘And, they tell me that you can’t get petrol, although there is a big queue at the pumps of people who haven’t realised it yet.’

‘Calm down, dear.’

‘And, on the way back from the supermarket the traffic lights through the town had stopped working and there was a tailback after an accident on the roundabout so I had to take a detour and I got lost and the satnav’s not working. What’s going on?’

‘It’ll probably all be back to normal later.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘It’s just a blip, I’m sure’

‘And now the phones aren’t working either.’

‘But we spoke to each other on the phone earlier.’

‘Well! They’re not working now. Try it!’ She hurls the headset across the room at me. Fortunately, it misses.

‘I suppose phones need an operating system too. Everything’s digital these days, you see.’

‘How can you be so calm. With your head in your music as if nothing has happened.’

‘But nothing has happened, dear. The world’s still spinning. We’re still here.’

‘Is that your answer. Well! I’m glad the world’s not digital too. That’s all I can say.’

There is no TV, so there will be no broadcast news. Also, there will be no newspapers. I speculate as to what the emphasis of the stories they would be running with might be, as the country, indeed the whole world grinds to a halt. The redtops might be talking about the looting taking place with stores closed given the absence of CCTV, Facebook withdrawal syndrome and the postponement of the Got Talent final. The broadsheets might be saying what might happen with satellites spinning out of orbit, the collapse of the world’s financial system, and the pollution of the water supply. The Daily Mail would be banging on about the potential rise in immigration, given the lack of border controls. The Express, of course, would be unchanged. It would have a story about Diana’s death or new hope for finding Maddie on the front page, no matter what crisis is looming in the real world.

We live on a fairly quiet suburban street and people tend to keep themselves to themselves. We are not what you would consider a community. Each has his own separate interest group outside of the estate. There are few common interests. On our street, we get a handful of dog walkers, mostly in the morning and the evening, but otherwise very few people walking up and down. You become accustomed to the gentle trickle of traffic throughout the day. Periodically there is a delivery van. The houses all have driveways and there is no street parking. From the bay window, you get a good view of the street in both directions. It is unusual to see people gathering outside as they are this afternoon. By about 3pm, a sizeable group has gathered outside the Bassetts at number 42 and all seem to be talking over each other or gesticulating wildly. Around these parts a dozen people together in one place constitutes a riot. Having settled our differences, Amy and I go out to investigate. It is not hard to guess what has brought the assembly together.

Other than Julian and Debbie Bassett, we do not know many of the gathering by name, so we introduce ourselves. We are introduced in turn to Duncan Boss, Kirstin Canada, Dorsey Johansen, Cornelia Hawes, Rolf and Masie Harrison, Daryl and Bonita Callender, Mohandas and Maya Joshi, Tilda Bolton, and Mr and Mrs Stover. Assorted children belonging to the assembled and who have been sent home from school come and go.

No-one has any actual information about what has caused the catastrophe. Opinions range from an alien attack to the a blip in earth’s magnetic field. Duncan Boss thinks it is a scam by Microsoft and Apple to get more money from users. Kirstin points out that her open source Linux system has lost its operating system too.

‘I can’t even start my Mercedes,’ says Cornelia.

‘All the on-board gadgets,’ laughs Dorsey. ‘My Mondeo’s fine.’

‘We were booked on a flight to Dehli,’ says Mohandas.

‘Even The Gordon Bennett is closed,’ says Daryl, who having been given the day off work was keen to get a lunchtime pint with his friends.

‘Good thing too,’ says Bonita, under her breath. She would like his attentions to be on her.

‘Doesn’t anyone remember how life used to be before computers and mobile phones?’ asks Tilda.

‘We were still able to find out what was going on from the newspapers,’ says Dorsey.

‘Depends which newspapers you read,’ says Rolf.

‘Before newspapers, callers ran from city to city, town to town, shouting out the latest news,’ says Mr Stover. ‘Before that, jesters brought news about a recent conquest or disaster in song.’ Mr Stover, we discover, teaches History.

‘But only to royalty, of course,’ suggests Mrs Stover. ‘Commoners were kept in the dark.’ Mrs Stover, we discover, teaches Sociology.

‘I can remember the three day week coming in,’ says Guy Bloke, who has decided to join us. ‘My dad said, I’m not working an extra day for anyone.’

No one laughs.

Our gathering builds as more residents come along to attempt to find out what has turned their lives upside down. More speculative guesses are aired. Perhaps it is a new terrorist group. The Illuminati maybe. Might it be GCHQ? Having worked at the base, I keep quiet on this one.

Grange Road has not to my knowledge ever held a street party. Even the Queen’s Golden Jubilee passed by without teasing out community spirit. By eight o’clock, though, there is something of a party going down here. People have brought barbecues out to the street along with bottles of wine and cans of beer. I wonder if maybe the off licence has been looted. Some musicians have brought along guitars and we are having a singsong. The hardships of digital communication are being buried under a new festival spirit. Is that a piano that Julian and Debbie Bassett are wheeling out? Who could imagine that a gathering of relative strangers who just a few hours ago had been stressed out and despondent could be so carefree?

Our gatherings we are told are being replicated everywhere. A make do and mend mindset is spreading as people realise they are going to need to be more resourceful, but forty eight hours on, there is still no explanation for the technological failure. Digital radio, which might have helped to spread news in emergencies is of course off the air and FM and AM were closed down just a few months ago, a move primarily aimed at selling digital radios. The move, like many things changed under the label of progress, is beginning to look a little short sighted. The maxim, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it went out the window years ago. Nowadays it is more like if it isn’t broke it will be soon.

The initial release from responsibility is turning back once more to a sense of concern. The problems are becoming apparent. The supermarkets are closed and food supplies are running out. There are no planes or trains because the services are tied into central computer systems and road transport and private motoring are being run down because the lack of fuel. It may be in the pumps but no-one has worked out how to dispense it without the help of computers. With container ships navigation systems affected too, there is a lot of potential for disaster. Given the complete absence of global communication, Amy is worried about Emily in Florida and Justin in Australia. I keep telling her they work in safe environments. Emily works in design at Disneyland and Justin is a cricketer. It’s not like they are in the Everglades or the Outback. They can look after themselves.

Amy seems to have grown tired of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps I play it too often, but I can’t help it. Alfred Brendel’s elegant fingerwork is a delight.

‘I’m going down to the allotment,’ she says. ‘I noticed that the Bassetts were putting the canes up in the back garden for their runner beans earlier. We’re probably all going to need to grow vegetables, you know.’

The Largo in E Major is beginning. The solo piano opening is divine, an oasis in a sea of calm. ‘I’ll pop along later, love, if that’s all right,’ I say.

‘I understand you can’t do a lot of digging with your leg,’ she says. ‘I’ll get Hermione to come and help me turn the ground over.’

‘Is this to make me feel bad?’ I wonder. We took up the allotment last year before the incident and now it is overgrown with weeds. I have not been able to do much to it because of my leg. Twelve months on, I still get nightmares about the episode, sometimes in the middle of the day. It is not an experience you can put away in a drawer and forget about. I had finished my shift. I was coming home from work. Two men dressed in police-style fatigues grabbed me and bundled me into the back of a black Nissan Qashqai, not far from the base. I think they mistook me for someone else, someone higher up. At the lights at the Harry Palmer roundabout going out of town, I managed to open the back door and make a run for it. The first bullet shattered the bone in the upper leg and embedded itself in the flesh. The second bullet caught me in the back of the head and travelled the length of the left side of my brain and exited through the front of my head. I was in hospital for over a month, undergoing one procedure after another. As a result of the first bullet, I walk with a limp. They are still not sure of the extent of the brain damage from the second bullet, but it was enough though for the grandees to retire me from the service as a security risk. My abductors have never been apprehended.

Amy returns from the digging. She says that there were dozens of others down there getting their vegetables in. It was like a community event.

‘One thing was a bit odd, though.’ she says. ‘There was a large typed notice on the notice board which just said, ‘You have less time than you think.’

‘That’s all it said. Nothing about who it was from or anything?’

‘No! That’s all it said. What do you think it could mean?’

Mysteries are multiplying, answers are absent in this windowless world. ‘It is best not to think about it,’ I tell her.

We have a quiet evening listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata interrupted only by Guy Bloke wanting to borrow our strimmer so that he can start tomorrow on his vegetable patch. During the final notes of Ashkenazy’s strident arpeggios, the power suddenly goes off. I have been half expecting this. After all, the electricity grid must be centrally controlled and need a computer system. We content ourselves with an early night. I read Sir George Solti’s biography by candlelight and Amy reads The Self Sufficiency Handbook.

In the morning, we find a flyer on the door mat. It just says cryptically, Time is Running Out. Over the next hour or so we discover that everyone has had exactly the same one pushed through their letterbox and no has seen anyone delivering them. Normally you might think this was a prank, or Jehovah’s Witnesses announcing the end of the world once again. Not given present circumstances. We gather once again on the street to share our concerns.

We get occasional reports from places within easy reach, but word from farther afield is thin on the ground. Herschel Fowey and Scotch Jim, two radio enthusiasts live locally. Unfortunately, both might be considered as questionable sources, what might be seen in literary circles as unreliable narrators.

Herschel Fowey is a retired naval radio officer. He lives at the end of our street. He is the one with the Union Flag in his front garden. Herschel is old school. He still has non digital transmitters and receivers and a shed full of car batteries. He delivers his news with a megaphone from his bedroom window. He tells us that both his man, Ho in China and Nehru in India have gone off the air, since this morning. He does not know what has happened, but their last messages were anxious ones. He is still in touch with Eli in Tel Aviv and Abdul in Baghdad. Both are reporting tension and unrest. Nothing is coming from Ivan in Moscow but is often the case, he says. We can only hope that no news is good news. In my opinion, Herschel Fowey does not have a clue what day it is, let alone what might be behind the global OS outage.

Scotch Jim is not really Scottish. He isn’t even called Jim. No-one is sure how he got his moniker. He dresses like a cold war spy, dark raincoat with the collar turned up and lots of pockets and oversized thick rimmed glasses. Addressing a gathering of locals, he tells us he picks up messages from agents in the field on his bank of shortwave sets. He is not a great speaker. Some are drifting away. He recognises me, we have passed the time of day on occasions. He comes over to talk to me.

‘You have experience of this sort of thing, don’t you?’ he says. ‘You used to work at the spy base. Now, I’ve got lots of receivers but only got one pair of ears. You speak German or Italian, I expect.’

‘A bit rusty on both, I’m afraid,’ I tell him. ‘My main source of both languages is centred around musical terms.’

‘Never mind, better than nothing.’

‘I don’t like to leave Amy alone in the house.’

‘It will do you good to get out for a bit,’ says Amy, who has been listening. ‘And anyway, Hermione and I will be down at the allotment. We’re going to put the runner beans and spinach in.’

I wonder if Amy is trying to distract herself because she is worried that there is no news about Justin and Emily, but I do not want to draw attention to this. Australia and Florida do seem further away with each day that passes. I give her a hug and say I will see her later.

I don’t particularly want to accompany Scotch Jim but I can’t think of any other excuses. I’ve got to finish reading Sir George Solti’s biography might seem a bit selfish.

Scotch Jim’s flat is an emporium of junk. It is as if he has spent his life at car boots and jumble sales with the odd afternoon raiding antique shops and recycling centres. The main room is given over entirely to radio gadgetry. Antennae hang out of both sash windows. Lining three walls, from floor to ceiling are stacks of 1950s style valve radio equipment. Amongst a sea of static, echoing voices chatter away in an atlas of different languages. For some reason with the whistles and hisses, a lot of them sound Scandinavian.

‘Take a seat,’ he says. I can’t see a chair or anything, so I plonk myself down on an old box radio and survey the bank of receivers in front of me. The room is sweltering. I take off my jacket and unbutton my shirt.

‘It’s all the valves giving off the heat,’ says Jim. ‘You will get used to it.’ He still has his overcoat on.

It is difficult to describe what is taking place here. We monitor crackly voices coming out of the sets. The voices might be coming from another dimension or from the afterlife for all the sense they are making. Periodically Scotch Jim will say, ‘Sweden has gone’ or ‘I’ve just lost Helsinki’ or ‘are you getting anything from Rome?’ Rome says stiamo arrivando alla fine, or something. I have no idea what it means. I think fine might mean end.

The fumes from the generator beneath the window are making me feel nauseous. What on earth am I doing here? The guy is nuts.

One of the remaining shortwave transmissions is in German. I can’t make out anything that is being said. Fritz is probably not talking about classical music. Another is French. I could be wrong, but the French one seems to be talking about food. Le dernier repas, something about supper.

‘We are now left with just Germany and France,’ Jim says.

‘I think I’ve got that,’ I say, showing a little exasperation. ‘Why is this? What is happening?’

‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me, with your experience at the base and everything.’

Why is there this automatic assumption because I worked at the so-called spy base that I was some kind of secret agent? My job was to manage metadata. This involved me sitting in front of a screen making sure international internet traffic was mirrored properly and that there were no blockages in the pipe. While I am still subject to The Official Secrets Act, I can say that I never once got to see any of the data that was being gathered and I certainly did not take part in clandestine undercover work in the field or have a licence to kill.

‘I don’t think that I was in that particular section,’ I tell him, for simplicity.

I can’t help but bring to mind Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, where a group of people in Australia, maybe some of them cricketers, await the arrival of deadly radiation that is spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere.

‘Look! It’s getting late,’ I say. ‘I’m going to get back and see how Amy is.’

‘I think that we’ve just lost Germany,’ he says, as another transmission turns to static.

Amy says she is pleased with her work at the allotment, but I can sense something is wrong. She starts to talk about when Justin and Emily were little and we used to take them down round to grandpa’s piece of land where there was an old blue tractor and a rusty brown water pump. And a timber summer house full of chickens and cats. How they used to get excited by the runner beans growing up the canes and have snail races along the flagstones. There is a tear in her eye.

Suddenly, I cannot hear what she is saying, Her mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. I try to speak, but my utterances too are silent. Time is running out. I can no longer see outside. It is as if there are no windows. I glance at the clock. Its says 11:59. Is this it?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

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Marzipan Imbroglio

marzipanimbroglio

Marzipan Imbroglio by Chris Green

When I read the post on Facebook that striker, Gary Trevor has signed for Mars United FC for a record £300 million, my first reaction is, oh yeah, sure. I run it straight through the bullshit detector on my browser, expecting it to confirm it as a fake news story, like so many of the posts on Facebook these days. To my surprise, it doesn’t. Gary Trevor it seems really has signed for the interplanetary club. Admittedly, he has never shown Mensa potential but surely even for someone as thick as Gary, this move is nothing short of crazy. For one thing, he will he be likely to lose his match fitness during the long flight. For another, there will be no pitches suitable for a big fixture on the red planet, nor any teams except perhaps Mars Athletic for Mars United to play. And what will happen about Gary’s famously profligate private life?

To make sure everything is working correctly, I check out some old favourites. After all, you never know who might be moderating the news checking sites that seem to be springing up. Perhaps the one my browser uses may have been hacked. But, the results are pretty much what I would expect. The bs detector says there is only a two per cent chance that Elvis is still alive and a one per cent chance that the American president really is an alien. Yet, there is a hundred per cent chance that the news about Gary Trevor’s transfer to Mars United FC is correct. Higher even than the question as to whether the new Pope, Clive Christopher is a Catholic which comes in at ninety nine per cent.

‘There’s no point in going on social media any longer,’ Lenny says when I mention Gary’s bizarre move to him. ‘Every post you see is immediately contradicted by another.’

‘But bs detectors are supposed to have put an end to all that,’ I say. ‘They are meant to filter out misinformation.’

‘Yeah! Course!’ Lenny says. ‘But, it’s not just social media. The internet is littered with bogus information. You just have to suspend belief when you go online.’

‘You used to be able to see the internet as a means to correct all the lies you read in the daily newspapers,’ I say.

‘Not anymore,’ Lenny says. ‘What about this, Stan? I came upon a story about Chick Strangler on Google just now. Chick’s always been a heavy rocker. Right?’

‘The heaviest,’ I say. ‘Famous for his destructive stage act and ……. er, uncompromising lifestyle.’

‘Quite!’

‘Who could forget the hotel trashings and the wild orgies that set the tabloid press alight?’

‘Or his prodigious drug use?’ Lenny says ‘And all that stuff with reptiles? Anyway, I’ve just read that he’s recording an album of country classics. Chick Strangler. Country classics. Think about it. But, this too checks out on newscheck.com. To add credibility to the story, there is his new version of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, if anything a watered down version of the original. Lies Or Not even shows the album cover.’

‘You’re saying it’s not really Chick?’

‘What do you think? It’s difficult to tell the Daily Mail site from the Daily Mash.’

‘But it always has been, Lenny,’ I say.

Patti is not interested in the exploits of Gary Trevor or Chick Strangler. In the battle of the sexes, it may not always be reported this way around but Patti feels that women have more important things to think about.

‘I know you and Lenny go for all of this celebrity chit chat,’ she says. ‘You blokes put celebrity before substance. But it’s the serious stuff that worries me. Is Asteroid Kardashian going to hit us and are we really at war with North Vesuvia? In fact, is North Vesuvia really a country? Ain’t It The Truth says it is a country in Asia and FactFinder says it doesn’t exist.’

I suggest that perhaps we are both making the same point. Patti feels we are not. She maintains there is a big difference between the trivial and the afflictive.

‘What about the Shropshire famine, Stan?’ Patti says. ‘Thousands are dying in Ludlow and Oswestry.’

I don’t mention the woolly mammoth sightings that are all over the internet in case she thinks they might come under trivial.

Perhaps all the fake news is tied in with our fascination with fiction. Perhaps we have allowed fiction to spill over into reality. Reality? There’s a slippery customer. Albert Einstein maintained that reality was merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. If I looked up Albert Einstein on Whosthat now, I would probably find he was married to Queen Victoria and built a large concert hall in the middle of London to stage rock operas.

If we could only return to those days of honest no-nonsense reporting of the facts. To the time when there was universal truth. In the not too distant past, there was no such thing as fake news. There was no need for authenticity checks on everything you came across. Back then, you could believe what you read. There might have been reports of virgin births and people coming back from the dead, but you knew these were from a reliable source. If you read about someone walking on water or living inside a whale, you knew it was right. It was a golden age of honesty and trust. Nowadays, you just don’t know what to believe.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

(NOT) BEING DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH

notbeingdmitrishostakovich

(NOT) BEING DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH by Chris Green

The knock on the door at 3 am comes as a shock. This is the type of thing I associate with Soviet Russia. Unlike Dmitri Shostakovich, who famously kept a suitcase and a toothbrush beside him ready for the knock, in case he should be whisked off at a moment’s notice and interrogated, I am unprepared for such an eventuality. So far as I know, I have done nothing seditious or subversive. I am an English teacher, for Heaven’s sake. Teaching teenagers how to get the best out of D. H. Lawrence and Julian Barnes. Introducing them to the use of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. In a Community College. In a small town in the south west of England.

I am not given time to put shoes on, let alone think about a suitcase and needless to say, I don’t know where I’m going.

‘What’s this all about?’ I keep asking, as stifling my partner, Hannah’s protests, two thugs in dark fatigues bundle me roughly into the back of a waiting black van.

‘We can’t tell you that, fella,’ says the tall one with the neck tattoos and the bad breath. ‘So just shut the fuck up.’

‘We are just here to deliver you safely to the interrogation centre,’ says the blubbery one with the cropped hair and the facial scar. ‘Now keep still, while I put this blindfold on.’

Bound, blindfolded and gagged, I am bumped around in the back of the van for about an hour before we arrive at our destination, which, from the acoustics, I take to be a large concrete building, perhaps a disused warehouse or something. Here I am tied to a steel chair and left on my own to contemplate my fate. I am subjected to a dissonant recording of trombone playing, which runs for about and hour then plays all over again. Popular songs like Fly Me to the Moon and What a Wonderful World are murdered over and over by a tone deaf trombone player with, to maintain the Soviet comparisons, the disdain you might expect from a dispossessed Menshevik. At first, I feel this is a strange way for security service professionals to behave if indeed they are security professionals and not just common or garden kidnappers. There again, why would anyone kidnap me? An English teacher with a twenty five year mortgage and a maxed-out Barclaycard. The idea is absurd.

As the hours pass by, I begin to see the wisdom of spooks using such a method. It is, in all probability, a tried and tested technique to break down a suspect’s resolve. It is far less labour intensive than the strenuous forms of interrogation you see in films. Clearly, after a few hours of this, if I did have anything to talk about, I would be likely to spill the beans. If they left it long enough, I would be ready to confess to anything, however outrageous the allegation, when my interrogators finally arrived. And more besides. If I thought it would get me out of there, I would probably invent some malefaction. But I keep coming back to the question, why me? Why have I been brought here? Who are they? What have I done?

It is difficult to see outside of my own desperate situation but in a few calmer, more lucid moments when I am able to shut the musical torment out, I wonder what is happening outside of my confines. What have they done with Hannah? Surely if she has been free to do so, she will have gone to the police or taken some appropriate action on my behalf and they will eventually find me.

It is in such a moment of contemplation that my interrogators arrive. Once again there are two of them. They turn off the recording and take off my blindfold. This pair are better turned out than the two thugs from earlier, if not any the less threatening. The dark uniform and dark glasses they are both wearing, though, make it difficult to tell them apart. They are both built like shot putters.

It is the one with the fuller figure and the tighter skirt who speaks first. Something about her reminds me of my old Economics teacher, Miss Stover. Miss Stover didn’t usually carry a gun, though.

‘You know why you are here,’ she barks. It is both a question and a statement.

‘I am briefly tempted to say, ‘Well, it probably isn’t speed dating.’ But, my bravado deserts me.’ Instead, I manage a non-committal guttural sound.

The one who has not spoken yet takes off her sunglasses to reveal a stare like barbed wire. ‘We have your laptop here, Mr Exe,’ she spits, taking a device out of the large shoulder bag she is carrying. ‘Perhaps you would like to comment on a few things that we have found.’

As she places the laptop on the table where both of then can see it, I recognise the scuff mark on the lid where the Dell logo has rubbed off at the bottom of the D. It is indeed my laptop. It occurs to me now what might be happening. In which case, what is playing out here is probably down to a huge misunderstanding.

A week or two ago, Hannah’s son, Geoff was writing an assignment on the Dark Internet for his Criminology course and she asked me if I would look it over. Not that I knew anything about the Dark Internet but being and English teacher, I was good at grammar and punctuation. It was Geoff’s first year at Coventry so it seemed only right that I give him a helping hand to set him on his way. I realised how difficult those initial assignments could be when all you really wanted to do was enjoy the social life and the wild entertainment on offer in a new city.

As a precaution, I saved Geoff’s attachment as dae5h.docx. In retrospect, perhaps this was injudicious but it was meant as a joke. It was an old personalised number plate I used to have, my name being Douglas Alan Exe.

Geoff’s essay introduced me to the workings of the Dark Web, The Onion Router, Bitcoin and the like. A clandestine new world had apparently opened up without me being aware of it. I was shocked by some of the things that went on in cyberspace, the drug dealing, the child pornography, the terrorist recruitment, the people trafficking. It seemed there was a web of corruption available with just a few keystrokes. The essay also suggested that the Dark Web was difficult to police with law enforcement agencies and security services always being one step behind.

Academic essays in the social sciences can be a bit verbose, weighed down by interminable sentences with successions of long words. Each field of study introduces a staggering lexicon of new terminology to obfuscate the lay-reader. Readability can be further hampered by having to accommodate quotes by international academics with a poor command of English. To help make Geoff’s essay more readable, I shortened some of the sentences, made a few changes to the wording and tidied up the grammar a bit. I suggested he reworked the conclusion to make it a little stronger.

‘Are you having trouble with the question?’ says Miss Stover. ‘Perhaps we’d better do something to help you remember.’

All I have to do is to find a way to explain to this pair of titans that my intentions were good. But how? I remember back then a little nagging thought coming into my head about the security services. I was aware that under monitoring by organisations like GCHQ and NSA, certain keywords and expressions used on social media could trigger an algorithm that rendered you a suspect to be investigated. I had also read that security services checked up to three hops from anyone who became a target of interest, one hop being Facebook friends, two hops being friends of friends, with the third hop dragging in their friends too. If GCHQ or NSA decided I was a target of interest, for example, that could drag in 240 Facebook friends, 43,120 friends of friends, and 6.6 million of their friends. Geoff’s profile might well generate similarly humongous numbers.

I had reasoned that security services would need thousands of employees to go through that lot and anyway, we were not even talking about an inflammatory social media post. We were talking about an attachment to an email. However, for my own peace of mind, I had taken the precaution to save the file again under a different name before I emailed it to Geoff. Thinking back now, the original file, the dae5h one had somehow mysteriously disappeared from the computer but I had decided to think no more of it. These things sometimes happened.

I am still trying to think of a response to Miss Stover’s remark that might settle it, when I remember Geoff and I had had a brief exchange of private messaging about the essay, more specifically I had commented that our government was probably secretly selling weapons to DAESH over the dark web. This might not sit so well with them. But, private messaging was private, wasn’t it? The idea of an investigation by listening centres on such a flimsy premise was preposterous. Unless of course, Geoff was already under investigation. This seemed even more unlikely. Perhaps then, someone else on his Criminology course was up to something nefarious and had drawn Geoff in. When on home visits, Geoff had spoken about his friend, Tariq, he had sounded like a suspicious character, someone who could conceivably have underworld connections. But I reassured myself that it was being fanciful to think that anything subversive was going on at a respectable institution like Coventry University. Nothing untoward could possibly happen under the noses of qualified criminologists.

Have the spooks taken Geoff in for interrogation too, I’m wondering? Are they now treating him to the same regime of torture in another location? Geoff would find it much harder than me to cope with hours of tuneless trombone playing. He only listens to dance music and dubstep.

‘I am beginning to lose patience, Mr Exe?’ says Miss Stover, now taking out a sinister looking electrical device. ‘Perhaps your memory needs a jolt.’

She is coming towards me. Where is she planning on putting those electrodes?

‘OK. I’ll co-operate,’ I say, my natural cowardice coming to my rescue. I begin to tell her about the Dark Internet essay and explain that she has got the wrong end of the stick. That it was all a huge misunderstanding.

‘Is that really why you think we have brought you here?’ Miss Barbed Wire says, interrupting me before I have finished. ‘You cannot be serious. We don’t care about any of that stuff.’

I struggle to think of another reason why they might go to so much trouble. Whatever it is, it seems to revolve around my laptop, but what else could be there?

‘Tell us about your emails, SMS’s and Skype calls to Yulia Kuznetsova, Mr Exe,’ Miss Stover says.

‘You mean Julie. ….. Julie is an admin assistant at the school,’ I say.

‘That’s as maybe. But, she is more than that, isn’t she?’ Miss Barbed Wire says. ‘You have been sleeping with Yulia Kuznetsova and making dissident plans.’

I had not thought this brief extra-marital fling would come to light or be of any interest to anyone other than the two of us. Well, of course, there was Hannah. It might have been of interest to Hannah. But, Hannah had not found out and this was the main thing. Dissident plans, though. What are they talking about?

‘We want to know what you mean by, I think I have a way to get rid of Putin,‘ Miss Stover says. Meanwhile, she appears to be adjusting some controls on the electronic device.

‘Putin. ……. That’s our nickname for the head,’ I say. ‘We call him that because of his dictatorial style. …… Plus, his name is Puttman. Quite similar, I think you’ll agree. Julie started using the name as a joke and I just went along with it.’

‘A likely story.’

‘And, he does look a little like the Russian President.’

‘What about the trip to Moscow, you mention?’

‘This was just a fantasy we had. We both like Russian music, you see. Julie said that although her family came from the land of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, she’d never been there. It was a spur of the moment comment. I wasn’t serious.’

‘That’s not how it sounds here. It says ‘We’ll have Putin at close range in Moscow. This time for real. Real, Mr Exe. You are the English teacher. Tell me what does real mean?’

‘You’ve got this all wrong.’

‘What about, I’ll fire the first shot if you like?

‘Sometimes Julie’s English is not so good. What she means is ……..’

‘What about your English, Mr Exe? We have here, Putin will be dead in the water.

‘It’s just an expression. It means …..’

‘I know what it means, Mr Exe.

‘And here you have, We could finish him off next month, we’ll have more ammunition by then,Miss Barbed Wire says. Perhaps you could try and explain that.’

‘I didn’t mean literally and anyway ….’

‘But, there’s more, Mr Exe. You are not going to get out of this one, so you may as well come clean.’

The English language, it seems, is littered with pitfalls, made up as it is by expressions with multiple meanings. Metaphors, puns and double-entendres are so much a part of our everyday parlance. You have to be really careful with your language, especially on the Internet where there is a record of everything, endlessly scrutinised by listening centres the world over. Clearly the Onion Router and the Dark Internet have been set up so you can evade this scrutiny. By not using TOR, Julie and I were remiss. It occurs to me that Julie might be undergoing a similarly vigorous interrogation somewhere.

Perhaps things would not have been so dire had the attempt on the Russian president’s life last week not come to light. A case of bad timing, really. I imagine this is what it must have been like all the time for Dmitri Shostakovich. Under Stalin, he must have constantly lived with the threat of the knock at 3 am and the subsequent interrogation in a remote location regarding something he knew nothing about. Attempts on Stalin’s life were weekly. But who would have expected the knock at 3 am here in the south west of England? Oh well! There’s probably no point in holding out. If I manage to survive the electric shocks and the kneecapping, they probably have plans to subject me to songs from the shows on the euphonium or the tuba. I might as well own up now, tell them it was me. I was plotting to kill Putin. In this post-truth climate, where black is white and right and wrong are interchangeable, my confession will seem no more unlikely than the other improbable things that are happening in the world.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Real History Of The Internet

therealhistoryoftheinternet2

The Real History Of The Internet by Chris Green

The Internet was invented by Pablo Gonzales in 1492. There are competing claims to the technology behind it, but Pablo was the one who established the Internet protocol suite (IPS). You may have seen pictures of the early personal computers but in case you have not, they were the size of the average drawing room. The prohibitive cost of them, not to mention the expense of early MODEMs meant that few could afford the technology. As a result of this, the internet spread slowly.

Internet connections too were slow. Using the original Columbus browser, it could take two to three hours to bring up the Catholic Church’s home page and up to four and a half weeks to download a full sized pdf document with pictures. Power cuts were frequent back then and this meant you would often lose your work and have to start again from scratch. Booting the computer alone could take several hours. By 1520, there were only about thirty internet users worldwide.

Bit by bit, new technology was put in place. Faster processors came on to the market, some delivering speeds as fast as a kilohertz. Email named after its pioneer, Viscount E was introduced in 1532. Henry the Eighth’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell sent the very first email: to The Pope. In this, he said that unless His Holiness granted Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the English Church would sever its links with the Church of Rome. Unfortunately, Pope Clement did not get to see it, as it went into Trash.

Around this time, Donald Face came up with the idea of online internet chat and social media and by the end of Henry’s reign, everyone who had a computer was posting on Facebook and putting their idle thoughts down on twitter. The Columbus browser was by now a little clunky but with timely intervention, the celebrated mathematician, Max Google came up with a new faster web browser.

The shortcomings of dial-up were also becoming apparent. The rise in pornography in Shakespearean times brought with it a demand for a faster service, something that could handle multiple images and video streaming. Miles and miles of fibre optic cables were put in the ground of the streets of towns and cities to facilitate a new service, which became known as broadband. A race ensued between rival entrepreneurs, John Virgin and Grayson Sky to roll out broadband to the masses. In the first half of the seventeenth century about half the western world’s labour force were employed as diggers or cablers. Armies of vans with the increasingly familiar Virgin and Sky logos emblazoned on them roamed the streets and persistent salespeople knocked on doors to sell their product.

Users became more and more dependant on the new technology. As they began to see new uses for it and to develop new tastes, they became dissatisfied with the service they were getting, especially in rural areas. People wanted to stream television programmes and watch music videos. Gaming, in particular, needed higher specification PCs and faster broadband to deliver the high definition 3D graphics. Virgin and Sky began to see competition as other providers entered the market to satisfy the need for speed.

The English Civil War was the first war to actually be fought as a computer game. As the reader will know, wars ever since have been fought using CGI. Thanks to continued developments, the French Revolution and The American Civil War were spectacles enjoyed by millions. As CGI technology improved so did the scale of the conflict, with creators becoming ever more ambitious. Dozens of books have been written on how realistic The Second World War was, and the CGI used to stage the second Iraq war was so elaborate that it cost a figure with nineteen zeros on the end. The current race is to see which company will win the prestigious end of the world franchise.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved