Smallpox, Vaccinations, and my Ancestors in Essex

One branch of my family came from Essex. In the eighteen hundreds they lived in the Ashen area, in Ashen, Ovington, Clare, and, I expect, other nearby villages. Extended families all living within a few minutes walk of each other as was the way then, both in urban and rural areas. They were all farm labourers making more or less of a living and I would imagine they found life quite a struggle. Most did.

Yesterday I made a systematic search through the parish records for the Ashen area, looking at every page between 1800-odd and 1890-odd. The pages up to approximately 1815 are water-stained and virtually indecipherable, and they finish around 1890. This branch of the family were named Hickford and I decided to extract every entry of that name to help me piece together the relationships. These records are of Births and burials and, before 1837, marriages. After this date the marriage records were held in London.

I don’t propose to bore you with any details of the family, but I was particularly struck by the following entry:

Mary Hickford was only thirty five when she died on June 16th, 1839. What is interesting is the note appended to her burial record by the rector. And it was the only such record I noticed, although I might have overlooked one for another family. It reads:

She died of the small-pox between 3 and 4 o’clock on Sunday the 16th and buried a little after midnight. I read the burial service over her grave at 10 o’clock this same morning. L Squire, Rector of Ashen.

So much haste! No sooner is she dead than she is buried – in the small hours of the morning, no less. The gravediggers must have started work almost as soon as she had breathed her last. It illustrates how terrified people would have been of catching the disease.

We have forgotten how virulent and frightening smallpox was, since it was finally eradicated by vaccination in 1979. Up until the 1800’s it killed thousands of people, and disfigured many more than that. Attempts to protect people from it by vaccination go back much further than Edmund Jenner famously inoculating a boy with ‘cow pox’, essential a milder form of the same virus, to produce antibodies that would protect against smallpox. He had learned that country folk had noticed that milkmaids who worked with cattle all the time might develop cowpox, but rarely caught smallpox, and would occasionally inoculate themselves with cowpox to ward of smallpox.

A thousand years ago in China, healthy people inhaled a powder made from smallpox scabs which provided some protection against the disease. Another method was to scratch the surface of the skin and introduce the powder into the body that way. Versions of this circulated around Asia and Africa until stories reached the west in the 1700’s.

Since the disease killed so many, especially children, parents were keen to have their children inoculated. But naturally there were scare stories. There was an anti-vaccine movement ridiculed in this well-known cartoon by the then prominent cartoonist Gilray, in which patients are seen developing cow-like pustules as soon as they are innoculated.

These, of course, were the nineteenth century version of today’s anti-vaxxers protesting with no proof whatsoever that the vaccine is a way of inserting microchips to monitor and control the population, of ignorance rejecting science. And just as true.

The Christmas Post

For my Christmas Post this year I’m going to do the environmentally correct thing and recycle a post from a four years ago.

The First Christmas Present

The old fellow with the white beard and the red jacket leaned queasily over the side of the sleigh, watching the snow-covered fields passing below. For a while, the moon was peering out between the clouds and he travelled over a scene of sparkling silver, although the sight did nothing to cheer him up.

He hated heights.

He hated elves, now, too. He’d never met one before today, but he knew now that he hated them. The smug little tossers sat right at the back of the sleigh, eating the mince pies that had been left out for him, and tittering whenever he took a wrong turning.

And he hated children. He especially hated children.

Ever since they took away his benefits and told him he would now be better off, he had struggled for money. Now it was November, and he had decided he had to get a Christmas job. Not that he was looking forward to long nights at the sorting office, or lugging a bloody great bag of Christmas cards from door to door. But it seemed he’d left it rather late, and there was nothing left. At least, nothing for someone of his age. Eventually, he found himself in a tiny little room on the second floor of a run-down office building in a backstreet, the home of an agency that he’d never heard of and with a staff, it appeared, consisting of one gentleman who he initially took to be a caretaker and who introduced himself as Mr Nicol.

‘You’ll do nicely,’ he said. With time-shift, it meant that there was no need to cram all the deliveries into a single night; they could be spread out over the whole year. In fact, they tended to use two of them, these days.

‘Two of what?’ His mind reeled.

‘Why, Santas, of course. But even then,’ Mr Nicol went on, ‘it’s difficult when one goes sick for two weeks. And so this is where you come in. What is a problem,’ he explained, ‘is E.U. Working Time Directive number seven. This rules out night work for anyone over the age of fifty. So you’ll have to do the deliveries during the day. Still, time-shift takes care of that.’

He still didn’t entirely understand, but he took the job.

The SatNav was crap. It took twice as long. The first time he tried it, he was terrified to find the sleigh suddenly hurtling between buildings that seemed to be no more than a couple of feet apart, at what must have been close on three hundred miles an hour. It then banked and turned in a tiny back garden, subjecting him to a force of about a hundred g, and then shot back down the same terrible alleyway. It then parked itself on the rooftop next to the one that he had just left.

The elves tittered into their hands.

He quickly found it better to just leave it to the reindeer to sort out. They obviously knew what they were doing.

And then it was impossible to tell how much time had gone past. If he noticed the time in any of the houses they visited, it never made any sense. One clock said ten fifteen. Some while later, he noticed one that said nine forty two. The next said four thirty. For a while, be began to check the time at each house, but quickly gave up when the times appeared to be completely random. He shrugged. More of this time-shift stuff, he supposed. It made it very hard to decide when he should be on lunch break, and he made a mental note to speak to a union rep. at some point.

Another house. Impossible to know how many he had visited. After the thing with the clocks, he was even wondering whether he still had to visit some of the ones he’d already visited.

No, that was too confusing. He shrugged again, and stepped out of the sleigh. The elves followed him with their sacks, and then they all stepped forward, and next thing they were standing in a hallway, just inside the closed front door. Yes, that was weird, too. The elves obviously knew where they were going; he followed them into a darkened front room where a little glass of liquid stood on the table beside a plate with two mince pies. There was a little note that said ‘For Santa, love Benjy’.

He dropped the mince pies into the bag that he wore around his waist for the purpose, and poured the sherry into the flask. He hated sherry, anyway, so the little tossers were welcome to that. With luck, they’d fall out of the sleigh at some point.

The elves trooped noisily out of the room and up the stairs, reached the landing and opened the first door on the right. Inside, a child was asleep in the bed, a large pillow case draped across the duvet.

‘Greedy little bastard,’ he thought. He picked up the pillow case and held it open, while one of the elves seemingly poured in presents randomly from his sack. And then he froze. There was someone coming up the stairs; that wasn’t supposed to happen! All this time-shift stuff was meant to mean that everyone would be asleep from the moment he entered the house until he left again. It all happened in less than a fraction of a nanosecond, in any case.

The footsteps came nearer, and then stopped. A small child appeared at the doorway, but all that he noticed were her sad eyes. She did not seem surprised to see him, nor did she appear overjoyed.

‘You never come to me,’ she said in a quiet, flat voice.

‘I visit all the children!’ he replied, struggling to sound jovial.

‘No. You never come to me. You never have.’ He felt himself squirming under her steady gaze.

‘What’s your name?’ he said at last.

‘Mary. I live with my mother. In one of those flats over there.’ She pointed out of the window towards a few yellow lights that seemed to randomly puncture the darkness.

He glanced at the elves, who shrugged unconcernedly, then sighed and pulled a list from his back pocket and put his reading glasses on.

‘I’m sure we, I mean I, do. What’s the address?’ She stepped towards him and gently took the list from his hand, looked at it for a minute and then pointed.

‘There. But you don’t go to our flat; number three.’

He ran his eyes down the list, clicked his tongue irritably, and then looked a second time, certain he must have missed her name. But no, it definitely wasn’t there. He looked up, to meet her gaze again. Oh, hell. He could take one present from, say, three or four others. They would never miss them, and no one would know.

‘We’d know!’ The first elf glowered at him.

‘You can’t do that!’ the other one pouted. He looked from one to the other, and then back to the little girl, and came to a decision. He reached into Benjy’s pillowcase, picked out a couple of presents and held them out to her. She did not move for a moment, but then she gently smiled, reached out, and took the nearest one. Then she turned and left the room, and he heard her footsteps going down the stairs. He darted out to the landing, but already she had vanished.

‘You’ll be in big trouble,’ a spiteful little voice behind him said happily. He said nothing but did the thing with his fingers he had been taught, and they were back in the sleigh again.

It had been their last call. Now he was watching the elves smirking and whispering to each other, as the reindeer ran smoothly through the clouds. Casually, his hand strayed towards the SatNav, and he pressed the ‘over-ride’ button. The sleigh stopped immediately, and spun round a hundred and eighty degrees, catching the elves completely by surprise and throwing them out of the sleigh and into the night sky.

He hated elves.

Suffer the Little Children…

 

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The other night there was a piece on the TV news in which a child psychologist bemoaned the fact that children were being frightened by news about the Climate Emergency, suggesting that we should tone it down and perhaps not mention it in schools – I don’t remember the precise details – to which I said ‘Good! Children need to be frightened by it!’

That didn’t go down too well with my wife, who naturally felt that children shouldn’t be frightened.

And usually I would agree with that, but as unfeeling as it might sound I think it is right that they should be frightened by what is happening. It is their future which is inevitably going to be impacted by the actions we do or do not take in the next few years. Their future which our inaction will damage or destroy. And at the moment, that future looks none too promising.

If they are frightened they are likely to raise the issue with their parents, and the resulting conversation may result in more adults learning how imperative it is we take action, and perhaps beginning to add their voices to the demands for action.

And they will be far more frightened if their homes and schools are flooded, or their neighbourhood catches fire, or armed conflict breaks out, all of which look increasingly likely unless we really DO SOMETHING!

It is the actions taken by concerned and frightened children which have become school strikes, and which have led to the formation of Extinction Rebellion, and which may ultimately lead to a people-led drive to finally take meaningful action to try to prevent catastrophe.

So, sad as it seems, they need to be frightened.

We all need to be frightened.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

Pathetic!

On the back of the climate change protesters in London this month, inspirational Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg yesterday addressed MPs at the UK Parliament. And she scathingly shredded our responses to the crisis.

The UK has, admittedly, done a little more to tackle the issue than many other countries, but compared to what is needed our response has been, quite frankly, pathetic.

There is still no political will to tackle climate change. Politicians would rather the protesters just disappeared and everything could go back to business as usual. But, no matter what they would like to think, unless there is drastic change, one day it won’t be business as usual any longer. Not for any of us. Their response to the protests? This is bad. People are being inconvenienced.

Inconvenienced?

I’ll tell you what the end of the world isn’t, it isn’t people tutting because their bus is a bit late because of protesters. It isn’t people getting angry because other people who care passionately about the world and its future are telling them uncomfortable truths. It isn’t people being ‘inconvenienced’. And it isn’t some already rich and privileged people having to pay themselves less to ensure that millions of ordinary people aren’t made homeless and destitute by rising sea levels, devastating weather patterns and disappearing farmland.

Inconvenienced?

I cannot tell you how angry that makes me!

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‘One day, my boy, all this will be yours’

As Greta Thunberg said, climate change is not a matter of opinion, it’s real. It’s a fact. It’s science.

And it’s not someone else’s problem – it’s your problem and it’s my problem. Every one of us needs to do more:

  • Turn down the heating. Maybe wear something warmer.
  • Switch off lights you aren’t using.
  • Don’t leave taps running.
  • Use recyclable bags rather than plastic. Re-use ones you already have.
  • Plant a tree in your garden. Two if you have space.
  • Refill containers rather than buy new ones.
  • DON’T buy bottled water!
  • Avoid plastics wherever possible.

And badger politicians and manufacturers to do more:

  • Go on protests such as Extinction Rebellion. Help to raise the profile of this issue.
  • Use public transport wherever possible. There are bonuses – here in the UK it’s often cheaper to buy long distance train tickets in advance than it is to drive, and you get the bonus of being able to relax and read or listen to music or whatever floats your boat rather than sit in a ten mile tailback on the M1.
  • Sign petitions – politicians are more likely to act when they know they are being scrutinised.
  • Fossil fuels will destroy the world. Let no politician tell you that renewables are not viable, because they are. And they are already economically viable, too. Only vested interests pretend otherwise.
  • Badger manufacturers to do the right thing – write to them and tell them you will no longer buy their products unless they are environmentally / ethically sound. If enough people do that, even those who really do not care will be forced to act.
  • And look at the Food Miles when you shop. Don’t buy food that has been transported halfway across the globe – buy a local alternative. And if that means you have to do without a particular food you fancy, well, is that so important? There are so many alternatives available.

Even if you don’t do this for yourself, do it for your children, and for their children.

Let nobody fool themselves. If we do not seriously tackle the issue now – as in NOW – then the consequences will be spreading deserts, rising sea levels flooding large areas of land, more devastating forest fires, wars over water and food supplies, and possibly other consequences too terrible to contemplate.

Now that’s what I call inconvenient.

World Book Day

World Book Day, celebrated today, 7th March, has the declared aim: Our mission is to give every child and young person a book of their own.

It is celebrated in the UK, although I have no idea whether this is an idea that has been taken up elsewhere, and would be interested to find out.

Schools, in particular, seem to have embraced the idea, with children encouraged to attend classes dressed as their favourite book or literary character. Thus hundreds of Harry Potters and Willy Wonkas and Very Hungry Caterpillars march into schools across the country once each year.

A splendid thought!

Which brings me to a marvellous project aimed at schools across the country.

Growing, in a way, out of Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant book Landmarks is The Lost Words, a collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. I can do no better than to quote Jackie Morris on the reasons: It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone… These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

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So The Lost Words is aimed towards children, to encourage them, through the words and paintings of the book, to discover the natural world that so many of them know nothing of.

So many grow up today without any meaningful contact with the natural world, and this book aims to encourage them to know and to love and protect it.

And the project – the campaign, really, in a very ad hoc way, is to raise money where necessary to place a copy of the book in every school in Britain. It has already been achieved in Scotland, I understand, and hopefully, it will soon be achieved in every other school in Britain.

Review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

A year ago I read The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and decided it was so good I would have to read all of the others. And so recently I finished her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In this, Anuradha Roy tells the story of three generations of a family who have moved from Calcutta to live in a huge, rambling mansion in Songarh, a small town in the hills of Bengal.

Amulya’s wife, Kananbala, hates the isolation of the town, with its lack of fashionable shops and social life, and longs to return to Calcutta. Their oldest son, Kamal, longs for children, and his youngest, Nirmal, is widowed and longs for his unmarried cousin.

Everyone appears to long for something that proves unattainable, and at the centre of the story are two children, thrown together by chance circumstance and then separated by the cultural fears of adults, but who have formed an unbreakable bond that endures through years of separation.

Mukunda is an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family, and his only companion is Bakul, daughter of Nirmal. They pass their time playing in the grounds of their home or in the woods and fields around the town.

As Bakul and Mukunda grow towards adulthood, their friendship slowly begins to become something more, and Mukunda is sent away to Calcutta by the family, suddenly fearful of the consequences of this.

As the years pass, Mukunda graduates from college and becomes prosperous, even through the years of Partition, without ever returning to see the family who raised him, although he thinks frequently of Bakul. But then chance sends him to Songarh, and he realises he must find out what has happened to her.

The pace of this book is deceptively languid, but this enables Roy to paint the characters and settings in exquisite detail, and for the plot to unfold at an easily assimilable rate.

I feel you always gain more from re-reading a book, and I am longing to do this, to immerse myself again in the rich landscape and characters Roy has created.

Most definitely a five star read.

Happy Christmas

Wishing you a peaceful (or crazy, if that’s what you prefer) Christmas.

And thank you all for being part of this journey!

I usually write a special post for Christmas, either having a dig at consumerism or a humorous short story. At least, I try to make them humorous. This year, I’m going to re-post the first one I wrote for this site, three years ago.

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The First Christmas Present

The old fellow with the white beard and the red jacket leaned queasily over the side of the sleigh, watching the snow covered fields passing below. For a while, the moon was peering out between the clouds and he travelled over a scene of sparkling silver, although the sight did nothing to cheer him up.

He hated heights.

He hated elves, now, too. He’d never met one before today, but he knew now that he hated them. The smug little tossers sat right at the back of the sleigh, eating the mince pies that had been left out for him, and tittering whenever he took a wrong turning.

And he hated children. He especially hated children.

Ever since they took away his benefits and told him he would now be better off, he had struggled for money. Now it was November, and he had decided he had to get a Christmas job. Not that he was looking forward to long nights at the sorting office, or lugging a bloody great bag of Christmas cards from door to door. But it seemed he’d left it rather late, and there was nothing left. At least, nothing for someone of his age. Eventually, he found himself in a tiny little room on the second floor of a run-down office building in a backstreet, the home of an agency that he’d never heard of and with a staff, it appeared, consisting of one gentleman who he initially took to be a caretaker and who introduced himself as Mr Nicol.

‘You’ll do nicely.’ He said. With time-shift, it meant that there was no need to cram all of the deliveries into a single night; they could be spread out over the whole year. In fact, they tended to use two of them, these days.

‘Two of what?’ His mind reeled.

‘Why, Santas, of course. But even then,’ Mr Nicol went on, ‘it’s difficult when one goes sick for two weeks. And so this is where you come in. What is a problem,’ he explained, ‘is E.U. Working Time Directive no.7. This rules out night work for anyone over the age of fifty. So you’ll have to do the deliveries during the day. Still, time-shift takes care of that.’

He still didn’t entirely understand, but he took the job.

The SatNav was crap. It took twice as long. The first time he tried it, he was terrified to find the sleigh suddenly hurtling between buildings that seemed to be no more than a couple of feet apart, at what must have been close on three hundred miles an hour. It then banked and turned in a tiny back garden, subjecting him to a force of about a hundred g, and then shot back down the same terrible alleyway. It then parked itself on the rooftop next to the one that he had just left.

The elves tittered into their hands.

He quickly found it better to just leave it to the reindeer to sort out. They obviously knew what they were doing.

And then it was impossible to tell how much time had gone past. If he noticed the time in any of the houses they visited, it never made any sense. One clock said ten fifteen. Some while later, he noticed one that said nine forty two. The next said four thirty. For a while be began to check the time at each house, but quickly gave up when the times appeared to be completely random. He shrugged. More of this time-shift stuff, he supposed. It made it very hard to decide when he should be on lunch break, and he made a mental note to speak to a union rep. at some point.

Another house. Impossible to know how many he had visited. After the thing with the clocks, he was even wondering whether he still had to visit some of the ones he’d already visited.

No, that was too confusing. He shrugged again, and stepped out of the sleigh. The elves followed him with their sacks, and then they all stepped forward, and next thing they were standing in a hallway, just inside the closed front door. Yes, that was weird, too. The elves obviously knew where they were going; he followed them into a darkened front room where a little glass of liquid stood on the table beside a plate with two mince pies. There was a little note that said ‘For Santa, love Benjy’.

He dropped the mince pies into the bag that he wore around his waist for the purpose, and poured the sherry into the flask. He hated sherry, anyway, so the little tossers were welcome to that. With luck, they’d fall out of the sleigh at some point.

The elves trooped noisily out of the room and up the stairs, reached the landing and opened the first door on the right. Inside, a child was asleep in the bed, a large pillow case draped across the duvet.

‘Greedy little bastard.’ He thought. He picked up the pillow case and held it open, whilst one of the elves seemingly poured in presents randomly from his sack. And then he froze. There was someone coming up the stairs; that wasn’t supposed to happen! All this time-shift stuff was meant to mean that everyone would be asleep from the moment he entered the house until he left again. It all happened in less than a fraction of a nanosecond, in any case.

The footsteps came nearer, and then stopped. A small child appeared at the doorway, but all that he noticed were her sad eyes. She did not seem surprised to see him, nor did she appear overjoyed.

‘You never come to me.’ She said in a quiet, flat voice.

‘I visit all the children!’ He replied, struggling to present himself as jovial.

‘No. You never come to me. You never have.’ He felt himself squirming under her steady gaze.

‘What’s your name?’ He said at last.

‘Mary. I live with my mother. In one of those flats over there.’ She pointed out of the window towards a few yellow lights that seemed to randomly puncture the darkness.

He glanced at the elves, who shrugged unconcernedly, then sighed and pulled a list from his back pocket and put his reading glasses on.

‘I’m sure we, I mean I, do. What’s the address?’ She stepped towards him and gently took the list from his hand, looked at it for a minute and then pointed.

‘There. But you don’t go to our flat; number three.’

He ran his eyes down the list, clicked his tongue irritably, and then looked a second time, certain he must have missed her name. But no, it definitely wasn’t there. He looked up, to meet her gaze again. Oh, hell. He could take one present from, say, three or four others. They would never miss them, and no one would know.

‘We’d know!’ The first elf glowered at him.

‘You can’t do that!’ The other one pouted. He looked from one to the other, and then back to the little girl, and came to a decision. He reached into Benjy’s pillowcase, picked out a couple of presents and held them out to her. She did not move for a moment, but then she gently smiled, reached out, and took the nearest one. Then she turned and left the room, and he heard her footsteps going down the stairs. He darted out to the landing, but already she had vanished.

‘You’ll be in big trouble.’ A spiteful little voice behind him said happily. He said nothing but did the thing with his fingers he had been taught, and they were back in the sleigh again.

It had been their last call. Now he was watching the elves smirking and whispering to each other, as the reindeer ran smoothly through the clouds. Casually, his hand strayed towards the SatNav, and he pressed the ‘over-ride’ button. The sleigh stopped immediately, and spun round a hundred and eighty degrees, catching the elves completely by surprise and throwing them out of the sleigh and into the night sky.

He hated elves.

A Tax on Sugar

In a surprise move yesterday, the British Chancellor announced in the Budget that there would be a sugar tax introduced on soft drinks that carry a large amount of that substance.

The shock that the public, and indeed many of his own political party, received from this announcement was as nothing compared to the shock received by those in the industry.

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A nice cup of tea with no sugar in it and an apple that doesn’t have a great deal either.

In an interview earlier this morning, I was privileged to speak to the anonymous CEO of a major soft drinks company, Mr Satan Moneyglutton. Weeping copiously, he explained to me:

‘For long years we have been told that what people want are chemical compounds devoid of any nutritional merit, packed full of sugar, and now I feel that we have been stabbed in the back.

‘On the best advice from the governments of the day, we undertook our duty, I would almost say our mission, which we take very seriously indeed, to create a nation of fat people with poor health and rotten teeth.

‘And now the accumulated wisdom of years is being ignored. If these drinks are now said to be so bad, then why are they so effective at causing children to lose concentration and run up the walls of classrooms and become disruptive?

‘If they are so bad, then how come we manage to get such a large proportion of the public addicted to them? Our products are industrial success writ large.

‘This is nothing more than an attack on enterprise and the free market. Why no tax on water? Or tea or juices? I suppose the Chancellor prefers fine teas to a nice bottle of ChemoSludge *TM.

‘And it is socially divisive! This will hit the poor the hardest, since this is where we make most of our profits. We know that the poorer the family, the less likely they are to be well educated, and then the more likely they are to purchase our elixirs. This is where this horribly unfair tax will hit.

‘We were given no warning, no sign of this change of mood. Where will it all end? First they try to destroy the reputation of our lovely healthy tobacco industry, and now this. Honestly, I fear that the government’s next target might even be our ObeseBurgers *TM.’

At this point, the line to the Cayman Islands went dead.