Intermission – Holiday!! Part 8

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The real hero of the Sunday swims was Mick, the only SLSC swimmer who’d elected to swim the full 10k. In this he was competing with some extraordinary international swimmers, including Chelsea Colwill who won it easily in a time of two hours and fourteen minutes, only twenty minutes longer than it took me to swim half as far. I don’t know if Mick saw her on his six laps round the buoys; I certainly didn’t. Mick still did extraordinarily well given the blazing conditions, and came out after three hours and nineteen minutes with a sunburnt back and a huge smile on his face. The only clue as to how tough the race had been for him came at the very end….

Mick triumphant

The course was set up so that all the competitors started together just off the beach by the finish funnel, behind a line between two buoys. Once the start was over the seaward buoy was moved slightly back towards the beach so as to become one of the two buoys competitors had to swim between before entering the finish funnel. The shoreward buoy of the two also served as one of the buoys that swimmers had to round to complete a lap. 3.8k swimmers had to do two laps, 5k swimmers three, and the 10kers the full six.

Once they’d started, every swimmer had to swim outside every buoy, which, as we were swimming anticlockwise, meant keeping the buoys on your left shoulder. Simples! Except…. right at the end, to swim between the two buoys in front of the finish funnel, swimmers had to keep the last buoy, which previously had always been on their left shoulder, on their right shoulder instead, thus effectively swimming inside it and then making a sharp turn into the beach. Confused? I’m not surprised – we were too. See picture below….

More shortly…

Trying to understand what the heck the organiser just said about the course.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 7

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And then we had the Sunday swim – the big one! Most of us had signed up for the 5k swim, one for the 3.8k, and one hero, Mick, for the full ten. Saturday gave us a chance to practice, with a 1.5k fun swim and race setting off at the same time to swim round Carlisle Bay, off Bridgetown. On both days the swims started at 9am, a not unreasonable time to commence.

The first thing we learnt on Saturday is that Carlisle Bay gets hot – very hot. 9am might be early, but the temperature was already rising fast and there was no shade unless you wanted to pay £20 for a couple of sunbeds with a parasol, which we didn’t, as we weren’t planning to spend the day on the beach. Masses of suncream was the order of the day, plus drinking lots and lots of water and standing in the 24°C sea to “cool off”. This was fine on Saturday with only a short swim, but on Sunday most of us would be swimming for an hour or two, Mick for considerably more.

Now, when one is forcing oneself into the near-freezing waters of Tooting Bec Lido in midwinter, 24°C with a 35° air temperature seems like a lovely prospect, but in fact it’s grim swimming a long race in those conditions especially if you’re not used to them. The sun is relentless, whilst you’re not exactly boiling you’re certainly not cool, and you lose a surprising amount of fluid. It was tough for the 5K swimmers; for the 10kers, especially Mick, a cold water specialist, it was punishing. Fortunately the 10k guys had a feeding station where they could get water, gels and bananas, which must have been very welcome. On my three laps round the bay I passed it enviously each time, longing for a drink, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do six laps.

In fact I feel like a bit of a spoilt brat complaining that it was hard. The distance was well within my tolerance, there was no problem with cold, and on the second two laps I saw a turtle swimming easily far below me, plus in some areas there were lots of tropical fish to look at. On the other hand I was thirsty, a lot of it was just swimming over sand and sighting along a tourist beach, which isn’t very entertaining, and there were a number of competitors, mostly young American women, who seemed, from their total lack of ability to sight, to have been pool rather than outdoor swimmers.

One could recognise these girls by the fact that they were reasonably speedy but seemed hopelessly bemused by the lack of lane lines. One particular girl literally zig-zagged for about 750 yards; she would stop, look up and find the next buoy, start swimming furiously again, inevitably at 45° to the correct path, for about two minutes, when she’d stop and look up again. Finding herself way off course, she’d try to correct herself, invariably over-correct and swim back across the oncoming swimmers. The fourth or fifth time she swam into me within five minutes I grabbed her, stared directly into her eyes and said “Please look where you’re GOING!”, quite forcefully. I wouldn’t have been quite so annoyed if I hadn’t been strenously trying to avoid her for most of those five minutes and finding it impossible; she really was doing a great job of swimming perpendicularly to the actual course, and if there’d been a category for “best zig-zagger” she would definitely have medalled. I don’t know whether she did subsequently look where she was going a bit more frequently or whether I merely persuaded her to stay out of my way, but either way it worked because I never saw her again, which suited me just fine.

More shortly.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 6

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Of course, our early-morning swims were not the only swims of the holiday. Oh, dear me, no. Did I mention that we were on a swimming holiday? Not a full-on, organised, SwimTrek style holiday, but a holiday with lots of swimmers to take part in the Barbados Open Water Festival. This is the brainchild of a chap called Zary, who is a swimmer, bar owner, and organiser of BOWF, and it comprises pretty much a full week of wonderful swimming.

The Festival was organised so that you could sign up to one or more swims during the five days from Wednesday to Sunday. The first three days had guided fun swims in the afternoons followed by various entertainments. On the Saturday there was a 1.5k swim which you could either do as a competition or as a fun swim. Sunday was the big one; races of 3.3, 5 or 10k, with a number of local and international elite athletes taking part in the longer swims.

The guided swims on the first three days were just that; swims during which a number of swimmers of differing speeds and abilities would swim from a fixed point to another fixed point a kilometre away and then back again. We started at 4pm each day, each day on a different scenic beach, when the pod would set off behind Zary in his kayak on a route previously pointed out by him, shepherded by a number of other kayakers and paddle boarders.

The second of these swims was my favourite of the whole holiday for a couple of reasons. The first was that it led us across a tiny coral reef packed with tropical fish. In Mexico last year my favourite swims were in shallow water over coral and this was the same; swimming along close enough to see every detail, having to pick your way amongst the rocks, and looking down like a god or an angel on a perfect underwater world. It’s the closest I will ever come to flying, and I loved it.

That was on the way out. At the turning point we all bobbed around chatting and waiting for the latecomers. Kathrine and Chris, both faster than me, had been swimming together and when Zary set off to lead us back I let them go, planning a relaxed swim back. Then about two hundred metres into the swim I realised they were just ahead of me and that I could keep up… just.

That is, I could keep up if I drafted them aggressively. I’m not entirely proud of what happened next, but I decided to stay with them, which I could only do if I really hung onto their toes. This made for what I imagine was a pretty unpleasant swim for Chris in particular, as I bashed his feet, raked his calves and shoved in between him and Kathrine in my efforts to keep up. I could only hope he knew it was me, as it was certainly extremely impolite behaviour from a chum, never mind a complete stranger. Several times I thought “I just can’t do this” and dropped back, only to find myself realising I only had to put in a bit of extra effort to stay with them and catching up again. It wasn’t the most relaxed swim for any of us, but I did it, and when they popped up just short of then exit point I was still with them. I was hugely proud of myself, and Chris was kind enough to say that I hadn’t bothered him at all.

More shortly.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 5

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The main tootsie-related problem on our beach was one which I dare say affects a lot of beaches on the island, namely, coral. Fortunately it was not the type of coral we experienced in Mexico, which is sharp as razors and, if a tiny scrap breaks off under your skin, will grow inside you until it strangles your heart and you die (I exaggerate but only slightly). This coral was altogether more amenable, but it did start pretty much as soon as the sea did, and it was lumpy and pointy which is never great to walk on.

Fortunately the hotel owners had built a sort of artificial reef of rocks just off the beach which prevented the sand being washed off and created a swimming area within the sea where guests could bathe safely. It was shallow but large and we spent a happy twenty minutes on the first morning sculling around looking at all the tropical fish living on the tiny reef and in pots and globes half buried in the sand. The latter were clearly designed as fish hide-outs and had been placed within the swimming area to attract fish and to give snorkelling guests something to see.

After this, though, we got restless and wanted a proper swim. The only way to get one was to leave the sandy area and strike out across the coral, where the water was about two feet deep for quite a distance. This isn’t enough to swim, but it is sufficient to scull along, propelling oneself by fluid kicking. Good practice for the freestyle kick, since if you were bicycling or kicking from the knee rather than the hip, the lack of depth pretty soon found you out. Ruth and Kathrine showed how to do it, diving through incoming billows and surfing forwards on the backwash.

This turned out to be huge fun, and once one was out in deeper water it was wonderfully relaxing to bob around in the warm waves, being gently lifted and dropped by the incoming rollers, and idly chatting in between popping one’s head below the water to see what interesting fish might be swimming below. And when we got restless we had the joy of striking out to swim a little way up the coast and back, watching the beach gradually creep by and coral passing underneath, riding the waves.

It was the first time I’d really swum in such large waves and I genuinely enjoyed it, especially as it was warm, shallow and safe enough not to feel threatened at all. The only downside was that bane of swimmers’ lives, jetskis. Enterprising young men would race up to the beach on them and hire them out for fifteen minutes to tourists. This meant that there was a danger not just from the owners, whizzing into view and swooping showily around just off the beach to attract the attention of potential customers, but also from inexperienced drivers who had them on hire. This made swimming during the day less inviting; fortunately they didn’t appear until later, so we could enjoy our early-morning swims in peace.

More shortly.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 4

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Of course, the other thing I did on my holidays was – swimming! And I have to say that the swimming in Barbados is FAN-TAS-TIC dahling! The variety! And the quality! And, oh my goodness, the bathwater temperature of the water, which at 28° was a whole 20° higher than the current temperature of our own dear Lido. In fact that it was even a bit too hot at times, about which more later.

But to start with, the swimming on the beach at our hotel. We were on the south side of the island near Bridgetown, where the beaches slope very gradually, creating long flat slopes up which the Caribbean rollers ride gently to curl and foam upon the sugar sand. Add palm-trees, sunshine, cloudless blue sky to taste.

This ought to make them ideal for swimming, but the problem which bedevils outdoor swimmers everywhere also applies here, namely, tootsies. Feet, in other words, which in humans are singularly ill-adapted to walking over rocks, stones, pebbles, coral, seaweed, molluscs, sea-life, broken glass and all the other stuff one finds underfoot when getting into a heavenly-looking swimspot in the Great Outdoors, where there are neither ladders nor lovely smooth tiles to ease the passage from dry land to cushiony billow and vice-versa.

Hence the notorious Swimmers’ Straddle, which occurs when swimmers try to exit or enter the water via an invisible underwater minefield. Essentially the swimmer will try to compensate for the lack of firm or indeed any footing by adopting a brace-kneed legs akimbo posture akin to John Wayne without the horse, butt stuck out, whilst simultaneously flapping the arms in an attempt to balance and occasionally lurching forward, arms outstretched, in a sort of Downwards Dog posture, in the hope that a temporary return to a more traditional four-limbed mode of locomotion may be of assistance.*

More shortly

*Yes, of course one could wear those little rubber or plastic booties specifically designed to protect the feet against rocks and so forth, but where’s the fun in that? Throwing Crocs or similar to the beach/the exiting swimmer is permissable, however.

A fine example of Swimmers’ Straddle, with Crocs in flight.

Intermission – Holiday!! Part 3

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So…I’m back from my holidays, and in time-honoured tradition, it’s time to write the essay “What I did on my holidays”. And the two main things I did were 1. Swim (no surprises there) and 2. Swim with turtles! Oh yeah!

First, swimming with turtles. I’ve seen turtles before, in Greece and Mexico, flippering along at a distance, shadowy majestic shapes deep below me. I’ve never seen turtles as I did here, up close and personal. As already reported, we started out by watching, and helping, hatching turtles to make it to the sea. Awesome! The next day we swam with turtles in the surf off our beach. And then, a few days later, we took a catamaran trip to swim with turtles.

I have to say that this was turtley turtley awesome. Yes, it was because the turtles are more or less trained to come close to moored boats from which people are swimming, since the boat operators feed them. So we weren’t exactly swimming with turtles in their wild state – that would be the experiences I had in Greece and Mexico, where they stayed well away from us. I had a similar sighting during one of the Barbados swims: a green turtle far below me, rowing itself unhurriedly around the seafloor far beneath me. And that was wonderful. But this was better.

Adrian, one of the boat operators, got into the water with a bag of fish bits and paddled around with us until a green turtle came up to see what was on offer. She flippered amongst us, unworried by the number of people treading water to stare at her; she was too focused on Adrian and his fish-strips. He held them out and she came to him to take them either from the water or from his hand. I took a floating piece of fish and held it out to her and she took it gently from me, brushing my fingers with her mouth as she did so. It was an extraordinary experience, to be so close to an animal so entirely different to me and to watch it interact intelligently with me with no fear.

And amazingly the next experience was even better. At the next swim stop there were no more fish bits left, but even so two turtles came up to inspect us. One was a stately Hawksbill, grey with a yellowy head and eyes and a look which seemed ages old. The second was another green turtle, which swam around and in between us.

I was treading water next to her when she came up for air; she surfaced just next to me, her whole head out of the water as she breathed, facing me just a foot or two away. I whispered “Hello!” in pure delight. Then, as we submerged, she sank below me and when I turned to follow her, gazing down at her through my goggles, swam slowly upwards in front of me until we were face to face. She stared mildly and inquisitively at me, for all the world like my cats approaching me for some food, a treat or a snuggle. When I failed to deliver, again just like my cats she ducked her head and stroked herself against me as she dived beneath me, her shell sliding first against my outstretched hands and then against my legs in a brief underwater caress. Swimming with turtles. It doesn’t get better than this.

https://goo.gl/images/ajFL9Z

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Intermission – Holiday!!, part 2

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BIRDS OF BARBADOS

A short account of some of the birds I have seen on my holidays.

1. Bajan Bastard Blackbird. Like a normal blackbird, but shoutier and more profane. Hangs around tourists yelling “Arsetrumpet!” and “Eat my feathery spunk trousers!”*. Has mad staring yellow eyes which look as though it is thinking of all the ways it would kill you if it were still a dinosaur.

2. Pink throated sexydove. Frequents bars and restaurants scavenging leftovers and having sex in the eyeline of unsuspecting tourists. Exhibitionist.

3. Bananaquit. Addicted to bananas, but in recovery. Mainlines fruit juice. Winner of Wackiest Bird Name of the Caribbean Award for three straight years since 2014 (against, I should point out, some pretty strong competition).

4. (Non, je ne) Egret Rien. Also known as the Piaf Bird. Stands around in cornfields singing mournful French songs in four part harmony.

5. Magnificent Frigate Bird. Distinguished, amongst other things, by actually being called the Magnificent Frigate Bird. Spectacular, but a little bit full of itself to be honest. Swoops around looking effortlessly impressive in a manner which is not quite uncalculated enough to be entirely artless, a bit like Justin Trudeau.

6. Tiny Anonymous Wader Bird. Highly skilled at looking extraordinarily photogenic, exactly like a small wind-up toy, whilst simultaneously avoiding being filmed as assiduously as the Barclay Brothers, the irritating little camera-shy bastard.

*Acknowledgments, as ever, to Tom Cox and the immortal Shipley.

Intermission – Holiday!!

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Dear diary

So… Here I am in Barbados! How exciting! The cat nanny is installed at home, the cats have been counselled for the approximately 0.3 seconds of trauma they suffered when realising that a different human would be feeding them and providing them with stroking opportunities for the next few days, and I am off on my holidays. Yippee!

I won’t trouble you with pictures of azulean seas, silver strands, palm trees and rum punches, although these are all here in abundance, as you can find these easily on Google should you so wish. No, instead, a picture which references the things which have already made this a turtley awesome holiday – turtles! (Do you see what I did there?). Yep, we haven’t even been here a day and we’ve already seen baby hawksbill turtles hatching.

And not just seen them, but handled them, picked them up by the handful and helped them into the sea. And, in my case, been bitten by one. Extraordinary experience!!! So what happened?

Last night, when we had been here barely four hours, we were sitting at the beach bar at our hotel enjoying a pre-dinner drink. A couple of our group moved off a little for a cigarette and I joined them for a paddle and to look at the sea sparkling in the starlight. And then a hotel employee came up to show us something – a tiny, just-hatched hawksbill turtle which he had found on the beach. We cooed over it, delighted, held it in our cupped hands and then watched as he placed it gently at the water’s edge. Off it swam, zigzagging through the waves exactly like a tiny clockwork toy.

And then, amazingly, we looked over and saw more. Our friend and another man were by a concrete hut at the back of the beach and by the light coming from the hotel we could see half a dozen, a dozen, twenty, dozens of tiny turtles all crawling jerkily across the sand. And not all in the direction of the sea, either – the majority were coming out by the side of the hut and were trying to crawl up the walls and into a pile of palm fronds stacked by the hut. The second man seemed to be a turtle expert; he had a bucket and we joined the two of them picking up the tiny turtles and putting them all into the bucket. One felt threatened after I’d gently wiggled him out from a palm frond; he sank his tiny beak into my finger and held on. It was surprisingly painful, although he didn’t break the skin.

There were so many turtle babies you had to be careful where you put your feet. I gathered several at a time and they piled up in the bucket, which bothered the turtle expert not at all. He was seriously worried about crabs, though, which apparently eat the tiny turtles, and we were encouraged to find all the babies as quickly as possible, including those which were hidden amongst the palm fronds.

Once he was satisfied we had all of them we followed him to the water’s edge, where he gently tipped out the bucket so all the babies could head oceanwards. Not that all of them were that keen to head out to sea – quite a few needed to be turned around, some of them several times before they got the idea. In the end the turtle expert got one of our number to stand in the surf shining a light on the water for the tiny turtles to make towards.

And as if seeing a couple of hundred baby hawksbill turtles hatching were not sufficient wonder, today at lunchtime one of my friends came up to say there were turtles just off the beach. We rushed to the spot and waded into the water. Swimming slowly through the surf I was rewarded by three turtles slowly flippering along, one swimming so close to me for a minute or so that I could have reached out and touched her. Her antediluvian eye regarded me dispassionately before she turned frostily and oared away from me like a dowager duchess bored by the need to talk politely to one of the lower orders.

And this is only the first day! Truly, this is a turtley amazing place.

More shortly

Pictures of a mural near our hotel.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test, as reimagined by me, part 7

So…. Where were we, before I so rudely interrupted. Ah, yes. Battlestar Galactica, the opening series, in which a rag-tag bunch of humans flee across the universe, pursued by their own rebellious creations, the Cylons.

We are swiftly introduced to the leading characters: Admiral William Adama, in command of the fleet, President Roslin, erstwhile Secretary of Education, now elevated to the position of leader of humanity by virtue of being the only surviving member of the cabinet. Dr Balthar, a genius scientist. Lee Adama, William Adama’s son, leader of the fleet’s aerial fighter wing. Colonel Tigh, Adama’s second-in-command. Starbuck, a brilliant but reckless and rebellious pilot, and Helo and Boomer, also pilots. Number 6, a Cylon who seems somehow to be in telepathic communication with Dr Balthar. Chief Tyrol, in charge of the fleet’s engineering section. And so on.

The characters are excellently drawn and all without exception go on enormous personal journeys during the series. The premise is brilliant, the writing high-quality, the underlying theme, that those we think of as our bitterest enemies may in fact be more like us than we think, is profound and rewarding. But the best, the most striking thing about it, for me, is that so many of the leading characters are female.

Now, let’s not get carried away. It’s still not fifty-fifty. There are still more males than females. But compared to most films, TV programmes and books, Battlestar Galactica is absolutely stuffed with women. The President is a woman. Starbuck is a woman. Boomer is a woman (well, spoiler alert – a female). So is Number 6, and so is Athena, another iteration of Boomer (you’ll need to watch the series for an explanation). So are others of the Cylons, and Admiral Cain, the hard-assed captain of another Battlestar that appears unexpectedly halfway through the series.

And, wonder of wonders, these women are not there as the romantic foil for the hero, or in order to deliver the plot-critical line “Come to bed, honey, it’s late”. Nor are they there in supporting roles which showcase “female” traits, a sci-fi trope so common that Galaxy Quest made it into a rather excellent joke. (The aliens who used Galaxy Quest as a template to build a space travel civilisation, designed the computer so that it would only respond to the Communications Officer. Thus, when any other member of the crew wants to know something, they have to go through Sigourney Weaver as the only female cast member, who then repeats “Computer, how many dilithium crystals do we have left?”, or whatever. When the Captain mildly wonders whether it would be possible for Sigourney to ask the computer to respond to him directly, she bites his head off with the words “Look, I may only have one job on this ship, and it’s a stupid job, but it’s all I’ve got and I’m going to do it!!” Kerr-ching.)

Nope, the women in Battlestar Galactica have proper big roles doing proper big things and doing them bigly. Fighting. Governing. Adventuring. Espionage. Flying. Sabotage. Murder. Genocide. And a big sackload of gambling, drinking and shagging thrown in. In pretty much every respect the women are no different to the men. They’re as bold as the men, as brave as the men, as violent as the men and as ruthless as the men, but they do it without becoming bitch-caricatures. They are fully recognisable and believable people doing their jobs and their best in unthinkable circumstances. Nor is it their job to nurture their fellows, or to care for them, or to be their conscience, or to provide them with hot sex or love interest or reassurance or waffles or anything else, except in exactly the same way as the men do. They are the men’s equals in everything, and it’s wonderful to see.

So in short Battlestar Galactica is a pretty spiffy show from a feminist point of view. And from every other point of view too; it’s a cracking good story whichever way you cut it, brilliantly told. And as a final bonus it has the wonderful underlying theme that those who we believe to be so different to us as to be entirely alien may in fact be so similar that in the end we may not even be able tell which us and which is them. Now there’s a feminist ideal 😎

Next up, Aliens!!! More Sigourney! Shortly 😊.

I’m back

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I’m back!! Oh, little blog, I’ve missed you. Did you miss me? Like a lot of relationship breakdowns, I never really intended things to get so distant between us. Stuff happened, as stuff always does – a holiday, a course of early swim sessions, the need to spend tube journeys after swimming in doing my makeup and putting on jewellery rather than blogging.

And of course, there was the freedom! Like many people who’ve been in a long-term relationship and have got through those first thrilling and intoxicated months to a more quotidian domesticity, the effort required to keep going suddenly seemed to outweigh the rewards. How charming to spend my mornings reading others’ writing in The Guardian rather than laboriously pecking at an uncooperative WordPress app on a sticky old Android! How exciting to engage in instant keyboard-to-keyboard conflict with real people on Facebook instead of clambering deep into my own subconscious via the act of writing for a conversation with myself which might or might not yield anything which made any sense at all. How delightful not to have to work at it!

And yet. And yet. There were the days when you stubbornly refused to engage with me, yes, when writing a morning post felt like swimming through treacle. There were the posts which flopped out and slumped lifelessly for all my best efforts to breathe life into them. But there were also the times, so many times, when we were GREAT together! Days spent with friends, on holiday, swimming, or just watching tv. The times we laughed ourselves sick over nothing. Long involved passionate debates on everything from politics to cycling. And those “No-one exists but the two of us” conversations that lasted for weeks and deepened understanding with every post.

I miss those times. I just can’t have those conversations, or those laughs, on my own. And it turns out they were worth the times when your predictive text annoyingly pretended that you’d never heard of the word “domesticity” (or “predictive”, apparently, come to that). Facebook became less satisfying. No matter how many times I told people that they were wrong, they’d still be irritatingly wrong again the next day. I started to fear that if I left it any longer, we’d actually drift so far apart that you’d become one of those “Whatever happened to old So-and-so” past acquaintances, those of whom one says “Haven’t heard from him in years. I wonder why? Funny, we used to be quite close.”

And above all I missed – you. The space you afforded me. The opportunity, over weeks and months, to explore ideas, to develop my thinking on a subject by writing about it. The access you gave me to myself. The simple act of writing, of getting words from my head onto a page (or, in your case, a screen), and the weird inexplicable alchemy that happens so that I find myself writing things which I personally would never be able to write, things which seem to have been written by the much better writer who lives inside my head but who won’t talk directly to me, only to you. And so….. I’m back! I missed you. Did you miss me?

PS. I had no intention of writing this post this morning. I was going to finally write a post, yes, but it was going to be a continuation of “Intermission – The Bechdel Wallace Test (As Reimagined By Me)”, which I last wrote in April before the Guildford 2Swim4Life. But as soon as I opened the WordPress app, my subconscious upped and bipped me on the head with this. So, thank you, subconscious. Point taken.

PPS. If you can’t remember anything about The Bechdel Wallace Test (As Reimagined By Me, and god knows I can’t, the last post is here.

More, at long last, tomorrow.