EU politics 101: what is the EU?

Guys, we need to talk. There’s this referendum on Britain’s EU membership coming and there’s a lot of people out there who basically don’t feel they know enough about what it is they’re being asked to vote on when they’re being asked to REMAIN or LEAVE. Some people are dead certain one way or another, but why? What is it they know?

I used to teach politics to adults who needed to know how government really  works. So, here’s the basics. I’ll probably add to this as we go on…

Is the UK actually in the EU?
Yes. The European Union is the current name for the political and trade bloc that dominates the European continent.

There are 28 countries in the EU:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

But we’re not in the Euro?
No. Not everyone does everything: 19 of the countries have a common currency, the Euro, and so are more closely integrated on monetary policy.
Also, some of the countries have a common border control area called Schengen… more of that later.

Why did we join in the first place?
Let’s step into history for a moment…
From about 1950, European countries started to work together to pool resources that they had previously used against each other to wage war, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, then establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
The UK joined the EEC in 1973, referred to as the Common Market (a mistranslation of the French term march common which is better translated as single market).
A Conservative government took the UK into the EEC, but negotiations for this started in the 1960s. UK membership was vetoed twice (by the French!) in 1963 and 1967 because General De Gaulle did not believe Britain was sufficiently committed to the project, having established the alternative European Free Trade Area (EFTA). When he resigned in 1969, the way was clear for the UK to join the EEC.
The UK joined because:
– it was losing its empire (India, Burma and Ceylon all became independent in the 1940s) and the Commonwealth was less economically important to the UK than the continent on its doorstep;
– in the Cold War world, as clearly demonstrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain had lost its great power status and could not rely upon its “special relationship” with the USA to assert its power internationally;
– the EEC’s economy was growing faster and more successfully than the UK had previously believed would happen.
Basically, it is not the case that the UK was doing fine before membership and was suckered in.
There was a referendum (a commitment by a Labour government) in 1975 – the UK voted to stay in. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in. The actual wording of the official pamphlet used by the government can be seen here. The EEC was described as having the following aims (from the Treaty of Rome):

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.
  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
  • To promote growth and boost world trade.
  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

So we joined an Economic Union, not a political one?
I’d say it was pretty clearly political. Commitments to bringing together the peoples of Europe and maintaining peace and freedom were pretty political as aims…
After the 1975 referendum, successive British governments – using their legitimate position though representative democracy – signed Treaties that changed the name and exact nature of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, introducing majority voting in the Council (ending the veto-all-areas).
Conservative Prime Minister John Major agreed the Maastricht Treaty which in 1992 introduced three policy “pillars” – Justice and Home Affairs, Common Foreign and Security policy and the single market bolstered by Economic and Monetary Union; as well as the name change to the European Union.
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the Amsterdam Treaty which sorted out a lot of the procedural difficulties that arose from Maastricht Treaty including identifying just one high representative for foreign and security policy, introduced EU-level labour market policy, integrated the Social Chapter, attached a range of fundamental rights for citizens and widened the role of the European Parliament as a co-decider of legislation (with the Council which represents the governments of Member States, not the Commission).
There was a lot of fuss in 2002-2004 about a second Treaty of Rome, a European Constitution, but although negotiated, it was never ratified, as several Member States voted No. Instead, the Reform Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. It gave more leadership of the EU to the Council, with a named President chosen by the Heads of State and Government, and to the European Parliament.
Although the Treaties govern EU law making across the Member States, there are various opt-outs and opt-ins for different countries, and the UK is the major beneficiary of this flexibility.

Next… What everyone knows about the EU…

Frozen Freedom (part 3)

Meanwhile, beyond Arendelle…

Chapter 5

“Three of them pretended I was invisible, for two years…” muttered Hans, shovelling horse dung into a cart. He wiped his brow with the back of a hand, leaving a streak of brown. “Yeah, well, I’m not so easy to ignore now, am I? You can smell me three rooms before you see me.”

“Hey! Horse boy!” Franz approached his little brother. “Hay – get it, hey’s like hay.”
“I appreciate your wit so much that you see me rolling on the floor with laughter,” said Hans, scooping up another spadeful of manure and flinging it onto the cart.
“But you’re not rolling on the floor,” said Franz, puzzled.
Hans smiled his most dazzling smile. “That should tell you all you need to know.”
There was a pause, and then Franz shoved his brother-face first towards the cart.
Hans caught the edge with his hands, avoiding a mud mask. “You’ll have to be faster that that.”
“Whatever. The King wants to see you.”
“It’s about time.” Hans pulled himself upright. “Ok, let’s go. Oh, and Franz? No hard feelings?”
His brother automatically took the proffered hand and shook it. A moment later, he recognised the squidge of manure but by then Hans had slipped his grip and was off and away towards his apartments for a bath.

In the throne room, King Uwe waited impatiently, avoiding the eyes of his courtiers in case he accidentally ordered an execution. That tended to happen when he got irritated. It was thirty minutes since he had sent for Hans. Was there anything that his youngest brother would ever be able to do competently?
The ornate white and gold doors were opened at last.
“You sent for me, big bro?” There was Hans, handsome and insolent as always. The punishments were not working to humiliate him as intended, it seemed he only had to bathe to return to his apparently charming self.
It was time, Uwe decided, for a different approach. “Everyone out. I need to talk to my brother alone.”

When the room had emptied, Hans closed the double doors, strode across the floor and trotted up the dais steps. He hissed at the cat that dozed on the queen’s throne – which fled – then leapt into its place, swinging his legs over the arms of the throne. “What’s up?”
“I am the King, you know,” Uwe reproached him.
“What’s up, your maj?”
Uwe smiled, or at least showed a lot of his teeth. “You’re getting nothing at all from all that shovelling?”
Hans mirrored his brother’s expression. “Biceps like tree trunks and the ability to cut through cr-”
“Exactly,” said Uwe. “So you do get it. I had to do something with you. International protocol demands it. You confessed to plotting to murder a Head of State, Hans. If you had only kept your mouth shut, if you’d kept that ego in check for just a few months longer, you could have been a king yourself.”
Hans opened his mouth, but Uwe waved a finger.
“No. No second chances in Arendelle for you. I heard today that your Princess is now a mother.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “She married the ice cutter oaf?”
“She did. There seemed no point telling you, it’s not like you really cared, is it?”
Hans frowned for a moment, but shook his head.
“But now I have a mission for you,” said Uwe. “You should understand that I should be executing you and that this is your last chance. As you right royally screwed up in Arendelle, I really ought to get your brother, any one of them, to do this instead. But I hate to say it, you’re the one with the looks.”
Hans smoothed back a wing of his hair. Uwe grimaced – seeing his brother was like looking in a distortion mirror that stripped away the years, the extra pounds and restored a full head of hair. It was painful.
“Another marriage plan?” asked Hans.
“You wrecked my plans to ally with Arendelle, but you know that the Southern Isles is nothing without trade,” his brother continued. “We must have a partnership and our only choice is Weselton.”
“He’s not my type.”
“Not the Duke, you fool, his daughter. Jane.”
“I see.” Hans paused for a moment. “Is she beautiful?”
“Certainly.” Uwe crossed his fingers behind his back. “Her maternal grandmother was even known as Beauty.”
“Let’s hope she takes after her and not her ratty little father,” said Hans. “But it won’t matter for long.” He stretched lazily like a cat.
“As King, I cannot possibly condone any plans you may have beyond making a strategically important marriage,” said Uwe, standing. He paused for a moment, until Hans remembered himself and stood too.
“That’s why I’m not telling you my plan. I’ve learned my lesson on that at least,” said Hans. Without a further word, he strode across the throne room and flung open the doors at the end for a dramatic exit. If he had been in Arendelle, he would definitely have sung a song about it.

Chapter 6

Olaf bustled around, delivering burp cloths, new diapers and food for Anna. He danced as he went, singing jazzy little lullabies. There was no doubt that he was an inspired if unusual nursery nurse.
Anna opened one eye. She barely felt like the same woman who had once slept so deeply that she had nearly missed her sister’s coronation. Now, four weeks after the birth, she slept more lightly the her children and had a kind of sixth sense for danger.
“Olaf! Please, we can’t use your nose as a pacifier.”
Olaf removed the carrot from baby Sven’s mouth and popped it back into his own face with a thocking sound. “Sorry Anna, he just loves it so much. Who’s an itty bitty baby then, yes you are, yes you are!”
“He loves it and he loves you, Olaf, but please, it could choke him.”
Olaf drooped. “Oh, ok. I guess he’s just taking after Sven. Baby Sven takes after Old Sven, huh?”
For a moment, it was as if a grey cloud had settled over the nursery.
“I miss him too,” said Anna, getting up of the bed and giving Olaf a hug.
“Me too,” said Olaf. “It won’t be the same at the christening without him.”
“The christening!” said Anna. “It’s Christening Day!”
This simple fact lightened her mood so much that she and Olaf skipped around singing while they got the babies ready, and when Kristoff joined them he found he automatically knew how to harmonise the chorus. (This sort of thing seemed to happen a lot in Arendelle. Whether it was an extension of Elsa’s powers, no one knew.)

Elsa paced the floor of the chapel. She had to admit, the Prime Minister had done an excellent job. The decorations were brightly coloured but tasteful, stars, snowflakes, diamonds and triangles forming tiny crowns and sceptres. She had herself had added tiny mirrored ice jewels that floated in the air and created an ice sculpture, formed of the names Sven and Iduna, which stood in the courtyard outside. The guests from the neighbouring kingdoms were yet again converging on Arendelle for a royal occasion. Anna loved a party, but for Elsa they were always a source of stress, everything needed to be perfect and not just because it was important to be a good host.
The truth was that Elsa did listen to her Prime Minister’s briefing meetings. She knew what Anna would never understand, defeating Hans’ coup had cost Arendelle dearly, both in terms economic and reputational. Sending a royal Prince back to his home as a convicted criminal had ended Arendelle’s diplomatic relations with the Southern Isles.
Equally, the Duke of Weselton might have been odious, but losing the major trading partner for Arendelle’s wood, kitch Nordic knitted blankets and glogg was a major blow.
She very much needed to charm everyone today, but she couldn’t help but notice at Anna and Kristoff’s wedding that, even though the Arendelleans cheered for her, many visitors seemed afraid of her. That wicked sorceress rumour started by the Duke of Welseton had hurt, and that so many seemed to be able to believe it hurt more.

Elsa slipped out of the chapel and climbed into the carriage that awaited her. As Anna had hoped, Elsa used her powers to transform the outside of the carriages into iced swans. The crowds waved and cheered, they seemed happy with their ice queen and ecstatic about the next generation of Arendelle’s royal family. Would they be so happy if they knew that Iduna would also be continuing the family tradition of magical powers? She didn’t dare think about it.

All seemed to go well until the moment that the Officiant attempted to scoop water over the head of the babies. Iduna, as royal heir, was first. As the water poured over her, the Officiant named her Iduna after her grandmother and Viola for the flowers that Elsa had conjured up in honour of her birth. She giggled and cooed. Her proud mother took her into her arms for a cuddle, then passed her over to her aunt. Elsa pressed her cheek against her baby niece’s soft cheek. Iduna turned her head and planted an open wet mouth against Elsa,which made her aunt feel both proud and sad at the same moment.

Then it was Sven’s turn. Named for a reindeer and given the middle name Agnarr after his grandfather, Sven was a lot less at ease with the water than his sister. His scream of fear as the water touched him startled his sister. she jumped in her aunt’s arms and Elsa watched with horror as her niece shot a bolt of ice into the air. As if in slow motion, she watched the blue-white missile fly towards her nephew. Just as she realised that there was no way that this bolt would hit her nephew, it ricocheted off one of Elsa’s floating ice jewels and headed straight for her nephew’s face.
Anna and Kristoff both dived forward, but to no avail. Everyone watched in open mouthed horror as the bolt of ice entered Sven’s eye and the baby boy’s scream of fear became one of pain.

Frozen Freedom (Part 2)

After my eight year old loved my Frozen fanfic first two chapters, I now present chapters 3 and 4…

Chapter 3
The agitated reindeer was the first sign that all was not well.
“Bernd, what’s wrong buddy?” Kristoff gathered up the small corvine that was now anxiously butting his knee with its tiny horn buds.
Elsa swept ahead, keen to get to her sister.
Opening the door of the Royal Birthing Suite, previously the Green Bedroom, she was greeted by the sight of a troll cuddling one baby while Anna frantically rubbed the back of another.
“Elsa! She’s stopped breathing.”
Kristoff ran to his wife. He put the reindeer on the ground and lifted his baby from Anna’s shoulder, scared at the floppiness. He put his daughter gently on the bed. He placed his mouth over her tiny nose and mouth and breathed gently, while pressing her chest with his fingertips. Nothing happened. He tried again. Then Anna tried, then Kristoff again.
Elsa felt a tug at her sleeve. A short, grey troll in a green dress stood at her elbow, the little prince swaddled securely and fast asleep on her shoulder.
“It won’t work,” said Bulda, nodding at the frantic parents. “She’s almost gone.”
“But, she can’t just die?” asked Elsa.
“Everything dies,” said the troll, calmly. “But it doesn’t always have to be so soon.”
“You can change this? Then why aren’t you doing it?” demanded the Queen.
“It’s not me that can change this,” said Bulda, with a pointed look. “I cannot create life.”
“Wait -what? I don’t understand. I can’t create life.”
Olaf bustled into the room, carrying a large pile of towels and a tiny bucket of warm water. “I got these, Anna said last week that they might be important,” he said.
Elsa stared at Olaf. “Oh. Maybe,” she said. She looked at her hands, and as she did so, a simple snowflake formed, growing to the size of an Arendelle penny and twisting, turning, spinning in her palm. Its fractals were easier to see as it grew, and yet still linked to the progressively smaller versions of itself repeating on into unseeable infinity.
“Oh good,” said Olaf. “I don’t like to go on wild goose chases. I’ve been on those and they’re all hissy and flappy, which is ok if you like that sort of thing, but I’d rather spend time with my best buddy reindeer -” He paused. “That’s you now, Bernd,” he said to the reindeer that sat forlornly in front of the bedroom fireplace.
Bernd rapped a hoof on the floor in acknowledgement.
“Yeah, thanks,” said Elsa. “But you’re wrong -”
“Bulda,” supplied the troll, twisting a large ruby necklace.
“Bulda. I hit Anna with my powers, twice. She nearly died, twice. My powers and humans don’t mix.”
“Don’t they?” said Bulda. “Then why are you still wearing that fabulous dress? I’d love to have that in my wardrobe.” She held out her arms.
Elsa looked down at the violet silk. As if reflecting her mood, the flowers looked shrivelled and frost bitten. “I can make dresses just by picturing the design,” she said.
“A potentially lucrative sideline,” said the troll. “What else?”
“I can control the weather and water. I can create living ice creatures which can live indefinitely.”
“You can do all that, and you still don’t believe you can save your niece?”
“What do I do?”
“A jolt of your powers to her heart will restart it. But Elsa, there will be a price.”
“What do you want?” asked the Queen. “I can give you jewels, gold, cloth, and anything else that my Prime Minister tells me is an asset of my kingdom.” The troll tilted her head as if picking up on the bitter edge to the final words, but Elsa’s desperation shone through and she smiled. “It is not a price payable to me, but it falls to me to tell you of it.
“Long ago, Grand Pabbie Troll asked your father if you were born with your powers or cursed with them. He answered born – and it was a lie. It always is. None of you has ever been born with these powers, but you might as well have been because it is at these moment that your lives begin. You died, Elsa, moments after your birth, just as your niece is doing now. Your father faced an impossible choice. He knew of your mother’s powers, of course. She tried to save the Bjorgmans when they were trapped in the frozen lake, but you know this…”
Elsa’s mouth had dropped open.
“You did not know this,” said the troll.
Elsa shook her head. “I never knew. My mother had powers? Why did she never tell me? And the Bjorgmans? Kristoff’s parents? She tried to save them? This is all too much.” She put her hands to her head.
“But all that is of little matter now. What matters is your choice. Help your niece, and she will live, but she will have your powers. You know what it is to live in fear of them. You will need to raise her, and in so doing your sister will fear that you are stealing her daughter. You may save your niece but lose your sister. And your love for your sister is what has made you ‘you’, as you are today.”
Elsa looked anguished. Then she set her jaw. “Then there is no choice to be made. If the price of saving my niece is me, then it is a price worth paying.”
“Your mother could not live with the price she had agreed”. The troll’s ruby earrings glinted as she turned her head. “They knew there was danger in sailing the winter’s ocean, but they knew it was the only option for their youngest child to survive even if they did not.”
“Wait,” said Elsa. “My mother knew they would die on that voyage? But they went anyway.”
“Oh yes. She had no choice. Any longer and she would have given birth here at the palace, and that would have been impossible. No third child could have survived and the heartbreak would have killed her anyway.”
“Third child?”
Bulda patted her hand. “Your brother. He was born on born the ship. Grand Pabbie can feel that he has survived.”
Elsa got to her feet. “I have to do this. I have to save her. But then, I need to know. I need to know where these powers come from, and I need to know about my brother.”

Chapter 4
Anna was feeding her daughter, while her son dozed in the twin crib at the side of the bed. She felt hazy after thirty six hours awake, and she knew she wasn’t going to be at her most rational.

Something had happened. She had no idea that Elsa even knew how to do first aid, but when her sister had pulled Kristoff aside and then as he had come to put his arms around her, Elsa had picked up her niece.
Miracles existed. She was sure of it now. Her daughter had wriggled in her aunt’s arms the moment that Elsa had placed an ungloved finger over that tiny little heart. It must have been the right sort of cardiac massage or something.
There had been tears and gratitude, promises that Elsa’s debt for the past was more than paid, if indeed anything had ever been owed. Anna had never believed in keeping score on these things, but she knew that Elsa felt it strongly.
Iduna was tiring now, her sucks intermittent and little snuffly snores becoming more frequent. Anna knew she should rock her daughter to sleep and place her in the crib, she knew she should get some sleep so that she was not too tired to feed Sven when he woke. She still wasn’t totally sure that they should have named their son after a reindeer, but it seemed to matter to her husband.
At that moment Iduna opened her eyes, and her mother was sucked deep into the deep blue.  The hypnotic stare of the newborn baby, absorbing love from her mother like a little swaddled sponge, might have lasted moments or a hundred hours. Anna had no idea how time passed. Eventually the beautiful  eyes closed and she reluctantly put her daughter down into the crib next to her brother. Anna turned onto her side, attempting to sleep. It was funny, she thought as she started to drift off, all babies were said to start with dark blue eyes, but she could have sworn that her children had both had turquoise eyes when she first saw them.

Elsewhere in the palace, Elsa wondered a corridor, her head full of storms, shipwrecks and mysterious surviving babies.
“Your majesty?”
Elsa recognised the voice and gritted her teeth. “Prime Minister.”
“Are you ready to release a statement to the public?”
“A statement?” Elsa was momentarily confused. Should she announce to the world that she had a brother?
“The royal birth. The baby? The succession?”
“Oh.” Elsa smiled proudly. “Yes, I’m ready. In fact, I think I’d like to do it personally. Would you like to accompany me to the balcony?”

When the Queen stepped out onto the balcony, the cheer was so loud that it must surely have woken the royal babies.
“Good people of Arendelle, this is a great day. Today, the Princess Royal has given birth to twins.”
She waited for the gasps and coos to subside, and then continued. “Twins, a girl and a boy. And let it be known that the Princess was born first, followed shortly by her brother. As the customs and traditions of Arendelle dictate, we will therefore be welcoming my heir, the future queen of Arendelle at the royal christening in four weeks time.”
As she withdrew from the balcony to cheers and applause, the Prime Minister placed a hand on her arm. Elsa bristled at this breech of protocol, but the Prime Minister did not remove his hand. “It might have been wise, your Majesty, to inform me of the twins before the announcement. Provision will need to be made.”
“I do not see the problem,” said Elsa, coldly. “We will not require two christenings, so there is no added administrative burden to your staff, and all the new babies’ needs are being met out of the Royal List which I believe I can allocate as I wish.”
She turned, forcing the Prime Minister to either remove his hand or to execute a martial arts move. He chose the former.
“You should have informed me nonetheless. As for that little speech, this child may be born first, but she remains heir presumptive.”
“I was clear,” said the Queen, with icicles practically forming the words in the air, “that my niece was firstborn. She will be queen.”
“I did not disbelieve you,” said the Prime Minister, equally frostily. “I merely intended you to understand that, in the case of your marriage and procreation, your own child would take the place of your niece as heir apparent.”
Elsa moved to leave the room, but stopped with her back to the doors. “The only thing apparent here is that you are far overstepping your place, Prime Minister. My head may be on the coins but my private life is my own.”
She spun on her heel, flicking her plait over her shoulder and whisking her purple shawl around her shoulders  so that, as the door slammed behind her, the Prime Minister was left with the impression of a galaxy of icy, twinkling stars.

 

Frozen Freedom (Part 1)

As my toddler watches Frozen for about the 120th time, I present a fanfic sequel, tying up some of the loose ends… as with all fanfic, the characters are not my property…

Chapter 1
A tiny reindeer calf nudged its way through the market place, crossed the bridge and pushed through the crowd at the palace gate. The guards uncrossed their halberds to let it through, then crossed them again as the crowds surged forward.
As it emerged in the palace hallway, the reindeer munched a bunch of flowers that a lady at the gate would soon discover was now missing.
It clattered up the stairs, took a right along a red carpeted hallway and stopped at a door. A short snowman with a crooked carrot nose was bobbing up and down, attempting to peek through the keyhole.
“Did you find Elsa?” asked Olaf.
The reindeer shrugged.
“Oh, that’s ok, Bernd. I could really have used an icicle, they make great spy glasses. I guess it won’t be long now.”
He leaned forward to peek again, and nearly toppled over as the door swung open and Kristoff ran out.
“It’s twins!” he yelled, pushing his sweaty blond fringe out of his face. As Olaf tried to shove past him, Kristoff slammed the door and wiped his face and then high-fived a surprised Olaf so hard that his middle section separated and he dropped to pieces. As Olaf’s middle tried to catch his escaping legs, Kristoff caught up the reindeer calf in his arms for a hug. He was rewarded with a big slurpy lick on the cheek.
“She did it! We did it! I mean – woah.” His legs gave out and he slumped to the floor, leaning his head back against the blue and white painted door. “What am I going to do now?”
Bernd looked at him with tender concern.
“You’re going back into there to be a father,” it said, using Kristoff’s voice. (Everyone always thought that Kristoff was a poor ventriloquist talking to himself. They didn’t realise that his reindeers used him as a conduit for communication.)
“I know little buddy, I know. I wish I could have done more for your daddy. He was my best friend.”
The reindeer licked him again.”Don’t live in the past. You have to look after the Queen.”
“The Queen?” said Kristoff. “The Queen! I have to go tell her!”
He dashed away.
After a moment or two, Olaf tried the door handle, found it would open and slipped inside to visit the royal babies.

Chapter 2
“So, your Majesty, what I mean to say is…” The Prime Minister paused, and adjusted his collar.
Elsa had her elbow on the tabletop, gloved hand under her chin. Her other glove lay discarded on the floor. She flicked her flingers and little translucent, blue-white skaters appeared in a spray of snow flakes and skated about on the polished table surface. Eventually she noticed that the Prime Minister had stopped talking. “I’m sorry. I am listening, really.”
The little figures pirouetted. The female figure bent and, with a graceful swooping motion, lifted the male figure above her head.
“Your Majesty, this is most unorthodox.”
“I know,” sighed Elsa. “Of course you would expect the male dancer to be stronger and to perform the lift, but with my tiny dancers the skirts seem to lend the females added oomph.”
“Not your ‘tiny dancers’, your Majesty. This briefing.”
“We have to do it. I’m the Queen.”
“You are indeed, your Majesty. And I need not remind you that Arendelle is a representative democracy with you as the Head of State.”
“You didn’t need to, but you did it anyway.” Elsa pointed and the dancers executed a perfect figure of eight.
“Indeed. We kept the show on the road after your father’s death, until you came of age, and now we have reverted to his method of government. What I am suggesting, your Majesty, is that we might try something a little more in keeping with your modern approach to monarchy?”
Elsa looked the Prime Minister in the eye. She saw nothing but honesty radiating off the man. “Are you suggesting that you take control?”
“Only of the small, day-to-day matters, your Majesty. I would of course revert to you for big decisions, matters of state, that sort of thing…”
A tinkly whooshing blizzard like ten thousand tiny arrows cut across his words. The table top was now surrounded by a jagged ice perimeter wall and the tiny dancers were saved from plummeting to the carpet.
“Prime Minister,” said the Queen, “how long have you been working for the Duke of Weselton?”
“I don’t know what you mean, your – ”
Elsa stood. She reached forward and snapped off one point of the table’s ice wall. She turned the flat icicle over in her hands.
It was definitely not a dagger, thought the Prime Minister, and the Queen was not threatening him. And yet, something unspoken hung between them. This fragile-looking, wide-eyed woman could create weaponry from thin air.
This was not the only peculiar thing. The royal tailor was going crazy trying to discover the maker of the clothes and shoes that the Queen and the Princess Royal were now sporting. The Prime Minister had his suspicions. He remembered a pair of ice skates that appeared on his feet out of nowhere at the end of what was now only referred to as the Hansean Attempted Coup. But he couldn’t prove anything. That was what was most frustrating thing.
He bowed low. “With your permission, your Majesty, I shall retire-”
“Well that is good news, I didn’t expect you to agree so easily-” Elsa began, but the Prime Minister raised his hand and continued.
“Your Majesty, I shall retire to my offices and permit my aides to draw up a constitutional settlement to allow best use to be made of Arendelle’s assets, which of course includes the person of your Majesty.”
“My – my person?” said Elsa, uncertainly.
“Yes, your Majesty. As an unmarried monarch without issue, you are of course an asset of the State of Arendelle. It may be that it is imperative that you marry.”
His exit wasn’t exactly undignified haste, but if he had tried to leave any faster, he wouldn’t have had time to get the door open.
Elsa gathered herself up to her full height, prepared to deliver the perfect retort, but sagged realising the moment had gone. “I should’ve just frozen the lock shut,” she muttered.
The door was flung open, and there was her brother in law, Duke Kristoff of the North Mountain. He hadn’t wanted the title and didn’t like it, but protocol demanded that the Princess should marry a man with a title and Royal Ice Master and Deliverer didn’t cut it. She smiled to herself. Cut it. Ice.
“What’s happened to Anna?”  One look at Kristoff’s red cheeks and generally panicked demeanour convinced her that she should have been in the room with her sister. Something must have gone wrong.
“You’re a father!” he blurted out. “Wait. What? No, I’m a father, you’re an aunt!”
“And Anna?” asked Elsa, an icy hand of fear clutching at her heart.
“She’s good, really good,” Kristoff reassured her. “Tired, you know, but Bulda says that’s normal for human females…” He trailed off in the face of Elsa’s ice cold stare.
Human females?” she asked.
“Yeah, uh, Elsa? There’s something I should probably tell you about my family. They’re -”
“Trolls,” said Elsa. “I should’ve guess when they all showed up like that for your wedding. I thought they were just being friendly to me, y’know, one magical creature to another…” She stopped. “Oh my. So you knew, you knew about what happened when Anna and I were little?”
Kristoff nodded. “I watched. That was the night they adopted me. And Sven.”  A small black thundercloud seemed to hover over his head. Elsa waved a hand and it vanished.
“Let’s not dwell on the past, brother of mine. Let’s go and celebrate your baby, give the royal seal of approval.”
They stepped out into the corridor and walked briskly towards Anna’s chambers. Elsa sent a spray of ice magic over herself, creating a vibrant purple dress, decorated with sprays of pansies and violets.
Kristoff smiled. He was not big on fashion, but he appreciated the way Elsa’s magic incorporated living flowers into the clothes that she and Anna often wore. Pink flowered clematis wove itself into her plait.
“So what have I got, niece or nephew?”
“Um, both, actually.”
In the State Room, the tiny ice dancers climbed down a table leg and ran to the window. Scaling the sill, they reached a latch, and opened the window. Then they were out, outside, leaping and drifting down to the ground where they skated off at high speed to the lake on the north mountain which would be their home. They were born knowing this, just like all the tiny dancers before them, created by the Queen during her meetings with the Prime Minister.

 

#pitmad for Jake’s Ghost

The quest for an agent continues…

 I’m trying #pitmad, a Twitter pitching event. Three tweets allowed over 12 hours. I’m trying three variants: one that focuses on plot, one citing comparator books and one that will be styled after whatever tweets I see get hearted after the first six hours…

A comedian dies- the women who loved him find out about each other. Saffron – Jake’s secret daughter – sets out to find out who he really was and what happened, in a tale that swoops from student’s Union bars to Parisian garrets, from tropical islands and a lot of kitchens… 

Basically, Jake’s Ghost is what happens if you mix Jilly Cooper wealth and sexiness with Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, sprinkle with diverse characters (in the broadest sense) and a feminist twist.

Somewhere out there is an agent who will love 120k of mystery with strong female protagonists and an antihero who the book club that read Jake’s a Ghost described themselves as falling in love with, even though Kake Goodman is a bad man… Could it be you?

Easy Hollandaise for diets

So I am trying to lose some weight. This time, my husband is trying too so it is feeling a bit easier, I feel more supported.

It’s a bit low GI, a bit low carb, quite a lot of portion control. I can’t fast, so 5:2 was just not going to happen. My husband won’t have anything to do with things he thinks are faddy. He won’t do Harcombe, the diet which some have my family have yes successfully because he doesn’t want to separate carbs and protein-rich meals. I am happy doing that, but actually I think the rule may be less about the science of protein v carbs and more about making sure making sure you definitely make a minimum five fruit and veg by swapping out carbs.

Sunday lunch. I made gammon. Baked aubergine slices for me, four tiny boiled potatoes for my husband. Carrots. But how to tie it all together?

Hollandaise. I was a bit nervous, but having read several “easy” recipes I thought, why not? I’ve got a couple of egg yolks kicking around from the number of egg whites required in diet recipes.

Here’s mine… Annotated.

Easy hollandaise

2 egg yolks and the equivalent amount of olive oil, six tablespoons of butter, pinch of cayenne/ hot paprika, salt, juice of one lemon.

I stuck the lot into the blender. It didn’t look right. I suddenly realised I should have melted the butter first. I transferred the whole lumpy lot to a small saucepan and put the heat in for about thirty seconds while using the hand blender. Apparently the blade friction combined with the heat of the melted butter cooks the egg yolks, so the heat is kind of important! After blending it smooth, I put the gas back on for another minute and blended a little longer. It started foaming and turned into fantastic orangey-coloured (as I used hot paprika for the kick!) lemony flavoured hollandaise!

It’s high fat, obviously, but carb free and I would say the amount this recipe delivers is fine for four dieters portions.

Bon app!

Easy Banana Cake

Ok, I should probably confess that this amazing recipe came about by accident. My son came home from school with a week’s worth of fruit in the front pocket of his backpack. The apples were salvageable for another day, but the bananas and pears were definitely turning a bit brown.

“Yuck,” said my toddler, after demanding ‘nana for about ten minutes before I remembered where they were likely to be (my son had put them next to the fruit bowl, obviously, not in it where I’d have spotted them in a few seconds). My husband has a pathological hatred of wasting food, so I decided to use up the fruit in a cake.

While my son got his school shoes on, I skimmed the internet for banana cake recipes. There were “ultimate” banana cakes, and “best ever” banana cakes. The method for both of these seemed to involve putting the cooked cake (in the pyrex dish you would obviously naturally bake a cake in) into the freezer for a rapid image1chill. Who has space like that in their freezer? Ours is crammed with chips, ice lollies, ice cream, frozen herbs, frozen peas, fish fingers and assorted meats and fish that we buy and suddenly realise we can’t plan a meal around before the use by date.

I decided “really good” banana cake would do, and eventually settled for “easy” banana cake with cream cheese frosting from an Australian website. I love Australian food websites, they are often no-nonsense and have the temperature in celsius and the measures in both metric and cups. Also, I’d got a pot of quark in the fridge that outlasted the blackberries it was supposed to join on top of a flan case, so the icing sounded a great idea for really using things up.  After delivering my son to school, I popped into the shop for eggs, the only real missing item…

Once I started, I realised I’d misread, and I only has two squashy bananas not four, and not enough icing sugar so I had to make chocolate cream cheese icing (it works, think about the Dairy Milk and Philadelphia cream cheese you can buy!).
The end result is so delicious for an improvised recipe, it deserves to be recorded for posterity, so here goes:

Stick the oven on at 180c and butter a 20cm/8 inch silicone cake tin, which needs to stand on a baking tray.

2 eggs
125g (half a block) butter
315g (1.5 cups) golden sugar
2 mashed bananas
2 mashed pears
1 tspn vanilla essence
buttermilk made with juice of 1 lemon and 100ml milk

Mix these all together. I used a turn-the-handle hand whisk but you can probably use a food processor.

Then fold in:
1 tsp baking powder
220g (1.5 cups) self-raising flour

Pour carefully into silicone tin. Bake for 1 hour. Check it’s cooked by sticking in a skewer or narrow blade knife. Leave it for ten minutes, then turn it out onto a rack.

In a bowl, mix:
half a cup cocoa
2 cups icing sugar
1 pot quark (I guess other cream cheese would work too)

This blends nicely to a nice bitter chocolate creamy icing and a quantity that will spread right over the top of the cake and down the sides in one thick layer. You could probably split the cake horizontally and put some in the middle if you want, but it doesn’t need it.

Yum.

Putting it out there: book group

Last night was an amazing experience. Hair raising, heart pounding at times, but invaluable to me…

One of my friends had set up a book group ago. When I joined last year, we met a couple of times, but with new babies, back to work and general life all getting in the way, School for Scandal needed a reboot… So my friend – who is herself a published author – asked if the group could read my unpublished novel, Jake’s Ghost.

I feel like I should say it was a difficult decision, that I hesitated. Could I subject my baby to criticism, see it ripped apart? Whether it was ego on my part (I think it’s well written), stupidity, or simply that I recognise that criticism is part of putting a work that you have created out there, I agreed.

So last night, over a Chinese takeaway, I met with ten women (most of whom I didn’t know) who had read some or all of a book I had written.

Oh my goodness.

They liked it, they enjoyed it, they called it “a real page turner”. They found it uplifting, empathised with my characters, fell for the bad boy. They though the sex scenes were spot on, and that was a relief.

The book covers many themes including identity, trust, domestic violence and abuse. The group identified the key ones as misconception, sexuality, bad boys and pick up artists, self esteem, religion, forgiveness, mortality and life. 

There was much debate over whether Jake redeems himself or whether his actions are too little too late. There was disagreement over whether Saffron should get together with someone, and whether it should be Tom or Miles. Some felt elements should be drawn out longer – how Jake dies, whether Saffron slept with Jake. Should Jake narrate his own moment of revelation? I have to admit I took notes.

No one thought it was too long (amazing at 130,000 words) and everyone said it was easy to read.

The best reviews of the night?

“It’s like Jilly Cooper without horses.”

“It’s like Cecelia Ahern, but better!”

I’ll take those.

It was an amazing privilege to have my story read and treated as a proper book by a group of its target audience, and to find they really did want to read it and loved it was a fantastic gift. Thank you Tara, and School for Scandal Deluxe. Now to find an agent and get published…

Putting it out there with steak?

I’m an author. I’m allowed to say that now, as this week my first story to be published is being launched on Thursday 24 September!

  

    

“Steak While We Wait” is a short story that won the Kindred Agency’s competition for marketing and media types on the subject of difficult conversations. The book it features in, along with the other eighteen fabulous stories, is called “We Need To Talk”, and is available through Amazon and via Foyles book shops. Please do buy it, not just because it will be a great read, but because the money from sales goes to an amazing charity called The Eve Appeal that researches women’s cancers. 

   
 

A Question of Character

My son and I are creating characters for his story. So that we have nice, rounded characters that feel real, these are the questions we have asked ourselves:

1) what is your character called?

2) how old are they?

3) are they male/ female/ neither, are they human, and if not, what are they?

4) do they run away from danger, or run towards it?

5) if somebody is hurt, does the character stay to help, go and get help, or run away?

6) would they rather look after a small child, or fix a machine?

7) which characteristic is dominant (there are two words to describe similar but slightly different attributes): 

– bravery/glory hunting,  

– wisdom/seeking knowledge, 

– ambition/ seeking power or 

– kindness/loyalty?

8) would the character prefer to solve a problem alone, or with their friends?

9) does the character trust people immediately, or are they suspicious of others?

Thinking about these elements gives great opportunity to set up conflict, which is essential for any story. For example Maisie is an eleven year old, she doesn’t like dangerous situations, and would prefer to run and get help than fix a broken ankle by herself. She is clever enough to know what she is good at,  she’d rather help a person than rebuild a machine, and would always rather be with her friends, sharing knowledge to solve a problem. 

Therefore, Maisie’s conflict situation would separate her from her friends, make her rely on only herself to help someone and possibly mean she has to make something rather than use her knowledge to solve the problem. Voila, instant plot developed through character!

Turning to my own novel, which is complete but could alway use another edit, my main character is a twenty year old called Saffron. She has a comfortable, safe life (boarding school education, rich parents, nice friends, enjoying studying) and she doesn’t challenge herself much. When this is undermined (she finds out who her real father is), her sense of self is shaken too. She discovers that she runs towards danger – she has to know who he was and what he did even though knowing will upset her and others. Her quest is for knowledge, and she seeks it alone, closing herself off from friends. However, to do so she has to rely on others to tell her, and they are not always willing to share, in order to gain an advantage, or to protect her or themselves. She also needs help to get a crucial piece of evidence that will help her help someone she immediately cares for. Learning to trust and feel a positive connection with others again will help her develop on her journey.

A few years ago, I wrote a character who I felt I knew well, and I decided to put him through a Myers-Briggs test to see if I knew how he would react in different situations. I did, and he felt like a real person. I guess the above is a simplified version of that.