Isn’t it our deference to religion that let the Taliban in?

Could it be that the Taliban’s greatest strength is not ruthlessness, lack of compassion, or their powerful external backers, but instead, their subservience to what they consider to be an unquestionable ideology? And surely then, the Western allies’ biggest mistake was their failure to challenge that ideology. Just when will our society wake up to the fact that questioning the voracity of religion is not just a basic human right; it’s a duty?

Even after Afghanistan was supposedly liberated by the West, Afghans (and especially Afghan women) continued to suffer the repression that is inherent in all societies that are largely based on religion. We should understand that, because our own history is one of repression and cruelty at the hands of the church.

Following a religion is fine, so long as you enter into it freely, and don’t try to impose it, or any associated moral decrees, on others. The assertion that the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is wrong was weak, and always doomed to failure. Afghan’s were always going to question the authority of Christian American and European leaders to tell them the correct version of Islam.

We wanted to give Afghans access to the same freedoms we enjoy; particularly with regard to a balanced education that allows people to think for themselves. But we failed to understand the limits of our own freedoms. We asked Afghans to consider that what god really wants from them is different from what they’ve been told. But we didn’t offer them the true freedom of thought to question whether this god character actually exists. Because after all, why should they have something we don’t?

The Taliban use religion in the same way it has been used by repressive regimes across the globe and throughout history, back to the Caesars and beyond – questioning what the regime tells you god wants from you is the same as questioning god him/her/itself, which is in turn unthinkable and subject to extreme (human) punishment. Questioning the idea that god (or gods) are real, is something we in the so-called developed world still don’t have full freedom to do. When did you last hear this kind of challenge on TV or radio, in a newspaper or magazine, or on a mainstream web site? Yet we’re subjected to a constant drip feed commentary, on all of these media, which starts from the assumption that the truth of religion has long been established (it hasn’t).

The blasphemy law in the UK may have gone (though watch out – if religious groups have their way it could soon be back) but questioning the validity of religions is still not accepted behaviour. The continuing spread and imposition of government financed religious schools across the country continues unabated. Many get away with teaching that evolution is a lie. This shows how little we really value freedom of thought, and the right to a balanced education.

For Western governments to stop the Taliban would have required them to question the religious doctrine that is its beating heart. But to do so would also have struck at the repressive power of the religious groups that hold our own countries in their iron grip. And as our own leaders are hand-in-glove with the church, they were never going to allow that to happen.

And so Afghanistan has once again fallen into the hands of bigoted despots intent on depriving its people of their humanity. And, after a respectful period of mourning, we will turn away, smug in the security of our own comparatively open, free and fair society. But beware. Sharia law is here in the UK as well – barely visible, but flourishing in closed communities across the country, and supported by a government that consistently, and inexplicable, fails to challenge it. In growing communities across the UK and Europe large numbers of people suffer similar restriction of their freedoms to the poor Afghans – the misogyny, the homophobia, and all the other irrational nonsense that makes up Sharia.

Increasingly, threats and aggression by fundamentalist Muslims are shutting down freedom of expression in wider society – witness the Batley Grammar school debacle, the murder of Samuel Paty and the Charlie Hebdo staff, as well as the de-platforming that is taking place in universities in the UK – establishments that are supposed to promote free-thinking and open debate. Other religious groups – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. gain encouragement from this, and are becoming bolder in their demands to impose their own perverse morality on the rest of us.

It’s often stated that we live in a global society. Our failure in Afghanistan, and the terrible events we are seeing there now, will send reverberations out across the globe. To many individuals, religion may be a joy. But to society as a whole, it remains a dangerous threat that we will never entirely banish unless we accept the right, and the need, to question, criticise, and even ridicule it.

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Seventy thousand words and counting…

At the risk of repeating myself, writing a novel involves a lot of work. Like setting up in business as a funeral director; it’s a big undertaking. Progress on my latest novel has been slow, and frequently been put on hold due to the pressures of life, but I think I might be getting there. The word count recently passed seventy thousand, which is almost a books worth.

I’ve read advice from publishers and agents saying new writers should aim for no more than eighty thousand words (patronising bastards!) Books by established authors often exceed this hugely. The last novel I read, ‘Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters, was thick enough to be used as a doorstop. Mind you, it was overlong in my opinion, with a lot of repetition. My last novel was a little over one hundred thousand words, and I suspect this one will be a similar length. I’ve gone somewhat closer to the mainstream this time, in the hope of appealing to the somewhat limited imaginations of agents and publishers. The book is about a major terrorist attack. It’s got a ‘strong female lead’, which is, as far as I understand, ‘de rigueur’ at the moment (unless things have moved on without me noticing). There’s action and intrigue, but mostly it’s about the people involved, and how the attack affects them.

There’s quite a bit to pull together yet, hence me thinking the final word count might end up at around one hundred thousand, even if the editing stages involve a certain amount of rationalisation. As I said, I hope I can get a publisher interested this time, but even if that doesn’t happen, I’ve enjoyed writing it. By this time, the characters have really come alive for me. I’ve started thinking of them as real people (and even found myself adopting their way of speaking now and then), and I keep having to remind myself they’re just characters in a book, and one not yet completed, yet alone published. I suppose it would be all I might ever desire for it to be the same for anyone who gets to read my little (or not so little) masterpiece when it’s finally finished.

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They’ll be Burning Books next…

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and particularly important to us writers. But the government in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, is increasingly legislating to restrict this freedom.

It began with the idea of making offending someone a criminal offence. When the repressive and largely unenforced blasphemy law was finally abolished in 2008, after 140 years of campaigning by the National Secular Society, religious groups began looking for other laws to protect their organisations and ideologies from criticism. There are a number of ill-thought-out bills from modern times, such as Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which criminalise doing or saying anything that might offend someone. The rise of the use of ‘offence’ laws has seen a corresponding increase in the capacity of people to be offended by anything that doesn’t suit them (usually expressed in language that exactly matches that of the legislation – just in case the courts are in any doubt).

The Scottish government have just pushed through a law criminalising hate speech. They were warned by a number of prominent campaigning groups (including some religious organisations) that it will have a severe detrimental effect on freedom of expression. Under great pressure, they accepted some amendments. The new law does abolish the blasphemy law in Scotland, so that’s good. But despite the amendments, it still has the potential to restrict freedom of expression, and thereby exempt organisations and ideas from criticism.

And now, taking this assault on our freedoms still further, comes the planned law against misogyny. Defined in my OED as ‘hatred of women’ (and by feminist campaigners as ‘hatred of women by men’), I would hope we can all agree it isn’t conducive to the free and fair society most of us crave. But hatred is not an action, but a state of mind, and to criminalise a state of mind is both a very foolish, and at the same time, very dangerous thing to do. It’s an unnecessary law, because gender is already a protected characteristic under existing equality legislation, along with race and sexual orientation (with many other characteristics currently being considered for inclusion). The existing legislation protects us against harmful actions, rather than trying to criminalise the animosity of those who might wish to harm us.

Of course the proposed new law is by definition discriminatory – how can you legislate to protect people of a particular gender, but not other genders, without being so? But it also has frightening implications for freedom of expression. The old quote about hating someone’s opinion, but defending their right to express it, is highly relevant here. An obnoxious opinion expressed openly can be challenged openly. Criminalise that opinion and you push it underground where, hidden away like the roots of bindweed covered with plastic membrane, it will develop and multiply, ready to burst out into growth at some point in the future.

What will it mean for us writers; this proposed new law? If I write a misogynistic character into one of my stories, even though I might be portraying them as the bad guy, will I be breaking the law? And what about existing books that contain misogynistic ideas or characters? Will they run contrary to the law? In which case, we’ll have no choice but to burn them. I can’t help thinking that wasn’t what the millions of men who suffered and died in the last great war were fighting for…

text ©graham wright 2021
Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

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Not Enough Trees…

I moved to the country because I wanted peace,
I wanted quiet; I had specific needs.
The trouble with the country is there’s not enough trees.
Not enough leaves to rustle in the breeze,
And mask the sounds of the farm;
The roar of machinery, the reversing alarms.

The wind blows cold out here;
Gathers speed over expansive fields chemically freed of weeds,
Jumps the butchered hedgerows like a thorough-bred steed,
Nothing to slow it because there’s not enough trees;
Stay outside too long and I’ll freeze,
So I hide away inside;
Watch through the window as it lacerates my nascent garden.
Is this global warming or just that there’s not enough trees?

I used to hear owls when I lived in the town,
Those lovely, ethereal sounds
Came down from the crowns of ashes and oaks,
Invoked wonder and joy, but out here, there’s nothing;
Have they all been destroyed?
Or have they deserted the land of too few trees?
All the old barns converted to expensive real estate
Leave them nowhere to live,
Because for the custodians of the countryside
It’s all take and no give;
The land wouldn’t be as productive
If there were more trees.

The forests have fallen,
The wildwoods are gone,
Slash and burn, baby; slash and burn;
No room for woodland when it doesn’t earn
Enough to keep the hedge fund managers sweet,
You’ll never turn a profit if your capital’s asleep,
Buried deep in ancient woodland,
Or marinating in peat.
There’s a killing to be made in shooting grouse,
So it’s slash and burn; then buy more land and repeat.
No surprise; there’s not enough trees.

Not enough trees to keep the air clean,
Red diesel doesn’t burn green,
We’re choking on carcinogens and the environment’s screwed,
Yet internal combustion still reigns supreme,
The time to choose has all but been and gone.
Between country and town there’s little distinction;
No escape from the coming extinction.
If only we’d realised there’s not enough trees.

Poem and image © Graham Wright 2021

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Don’t Expect Us To Mourn

A famous person has died (to quote Spitting Image). The Establishment is in mourning (to mis-quote Spitting Image). And we’re all expected to mourn too; expected to bow our heads in honour of our beloved leaders. So much for living in a democracy. We’re told the monarchy has no power; that we shouldn’t consider its existence to imply we are subservient and inferior – it’s nothing more than a bit of fun. But a member of the royal family dies, and the BBC decides to cancel all of its scheduled programmes, and devote its entire output, on both channels, to sycophantic programmes about the said royal. The media is doing its duty in putting the monarchy above all else, and we are being coerced into doing the same. Anyone switching on TV or radio to catch their favourite programmes will, since the death of you-know-who, have been disappointed.

On an average day, the lives of around two-thousand people end in the UK. The Duke lived a highly privileged life at our expense. He lived as long as he did because, unlike most of those others who died yesterday, he had access to the very best health care money can buy (at our expense). I’m sure he had his good points (as well as the bad ones). But I’m willing to bet that among the two-thousand there are people who lived better, more selfless, less privileged lives, and who are far more deserving of our grief. So forgive me if I complain about being made to miss ‘Gardeners’ World’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and the music on Radio Three (I know; I’m giving away a lot about myself here!) simply because someone who was born (not elected) into a position of power has died.

I see the royal family as a parasitic organism, feeding on the body politic; the idea that they have no power over us a lie; their continuing roles a celebration of privilege, elitism, and the with-holding of opportunity, equality, and consideration from the ordinary people. Isn’t it high time we purged our society of these vampires?

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The Antidote to International Womens’ Day

On a day when we are asked to consider the disadvantages of being female in the world today, would it be unreasonable of me to point out, for the sake of balance, that in the pandemic currently ravaging the world population, men are far more likely to suffer serious symptoms, and indeed death, than women?

You know, I almost wonder why we have IWD at all, when hardly a day goes by without the media banging on about how badly done by women are (perhaps I should stop reading the Guardian). I know that women do still suffer unfair treatment, ranging from minor disadvantage all the way up to extreme cruelty and death. Do the feminist elites that run our media have any conception that it works both ways? I could regale you of examples (many on a huge scale) of the unfair treatment dished out to men (ranging from minor disadvantage all the way up to extreme cruelty and death). But for today at least, perhaps I should restrict myself to my own field – writing.

From bloggers to publishers, from awards, to resources for authors, I see mostly women’s faces. It’s acknowledged that there are far more women writing than men, but where are the incentives to correct this imbalance – the mentorships, the gender-specific awards, and so on? In fact, all of those resources are available to women, even though they already have the upper hand. I’ve followed a number of female writers, through their blogs, from obscurity to being successfully published (and been happy for them). But no men.

Dare I suggest the reason there are so many more women writing than men is that, contrary to the picture painted by the media of women being over-burdened with work/child-care/housekeeping responsibilities, in many cases they’ve got more time on their hands? I still remember one blogger’s statement that the one thing she did have, as a ‘stay at home Mom’, was plenty of time. Perhaps most men are too busy working overtime to make ends meet to find the time to write? The women controlling the industry seem happy to write (pardon the pun) it off as simply down to a difference in character, and to ignore it as irrelevant. How do we think it would play out if it was the other way around?

But back to Covid. We know it’s having a disproportionate effect on ethnic minorities too. The media is making quite a fuss about that (though perhaps not as much as they should be). But the imbalance between the genders gets different treatment. It’s barely mentioned, and when it is, it’s reported as a simple statement of fact; among the reasons given, the bald statement that men are less robust than women (their immune systems aren’t as good, apparently; something to do with that missing chromosome). Oh, and they smoke more, apparently, which means they’re more likely to have an underlying respiratory illness. No mention of the fact that men are far more likely to spend their whole lives working in dangerous environments, where they get to breath in harmful substances all day. Think of all those miners dying of emphysema. The next time you hear a builder coughing their guts up, and catch sight of them through a cloud of concrete/brick/plaster dust, take note of their gender.

So there you go. Rant over. Happy International Womens’ Day ;¬]

Text © Graham Wright 2021
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

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Covid – The Writers’ Dilemma

The not-so-brave new world of pandemic pandemonium we’ve been living through for the last nine months poses a specific problem for those of us writing cotemporaneous novels. What do we do with the new, very restricted ways of living people have been obliged to adopt?

Many of us will have begun our current Work-in-Progress when no-one had even heard of Covid. Do we re-write what we’ve done so far, plunging our characters into the tedium of mask-wearing and not going out (well we’ve had to put up with it – why shouldn’t they)? Or do we carry on, as if nothing had changed? Neither option is without its problems.

Setting your novel in a world free from C-19 might actually prove to be the more difficult path; more of a work-out for the imagination. I don’t know about you, but those times seem so long ago I can hardly remember what they were like. Imagine being able to go out whenever you want, without having to cover your face. Imagine having physical contact with other human beings – touching an arm, shaking a hand; spontaneously sharing a hug. It’s hard to recall what it was like not to be constantly worrying about maintaining a distance between yourself and other people. I can’t help thinking of the line in the Smiths song ‘Hand in Glove’ – ‘everything depends upon how near you stand to me‘.

But even if you are able to faithfully re-create the way we lived then, will your novel read as if it’s set in the past, in a parallel universe, or the near future, rather than the present? And if you decide to go for gritty realism and immerse your characters into Covid-world; what then? How many plots will be made untenable by the current (and let’s hope they are only current) restrictions? How do you make your story worth reading when its players are so limited in what they can do, and the extent to which they can interact with the world? You could see it as an opportunity – to create a new kind of story within the limits we’re experiencing. Is that a positive thing though, or simply allowing this damned pandemic to take over your writing in much the same way it’s taken over every other aspect of our lives?

I started my latest novel before C-19 struck. I won’t say how long before. Writing a novel takes time even when you’ve got all day and every day to do it. When you have a busy life and are writing in the meagre time that’s left over, it takes longer still. Each of my previous two novels took me around fours years to write, and I’d say I’m on course for a similar experience with this one. I’ve just passed fifty-thousand words, which puts me more than half way through. It’s set in the present – the present effectively being when I release it.

There’s always the chance events in the real world might impact a novel you’re writing (though I don’t think any of us would have expected something that would have had such an impact). On my current trajectory, there is a also a chance that by the time my latest book is finished, the pandemic will be over, and so I won’t need to worry about having ignored it. On the other hand, I think this pandemic will have changed all of our lives for a long time to come, so any novel that doesn’t include at least some sort of pandemic-legacy elements won’t be fully in the real world.

What would you do? Would you ignore Covid, or re-write your story accommodate it?

Text & graphic ©graham wright 2021

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Why you should consider joining the National Secular Society

On Saturday, for the first time, I attended the AGM of the National Secular society. It isn’t easy for me to get down to London, where they ‘re normally held, but this year, because of the pandemic, it was held on-line. I’ve been a member of the NSS for some years now, and I’m very proud of that. Why? Well, the aim of the NSS is to challenge the right of religious groups to interfere in both the state, and the lives of individuals – countering religious privilege.

The NSS doesn’t campaign for atheism. In fact it supports the right to hold religious beliefs, as well as the right not to – freedom of belief, as well as freedom from belief. It has worked alongside religious organisations on campaigns where there is common ground, such as the campaign to get the Scottish government to amend its hate speech bill, which has been so badly thought through and worded that it will severely restrict freedom of speech.

Why should we want to restrict the influence and privilege of religious groups? Well, we supposedly live in a democracy, and yet we are one of only two states (the other being Iran) that reserves places in the legislature for religious representatives without the need to be elected (I’m talking of course about the twenty-six bishops who sit, by right, in the house of Lords). The NSS is working hard to persuade government to abolish the bishops’ bench. The bishops have repeatedly worked against the interests of the general population; for instance, they have been instrumental in blocking attempts to legalise assisted dying (something eighty percent of the population think we should have a right to).

One of the two vice-presidents of the NSS is a human rights lawyer, and in his election address he talked about how he has represented victims of child abuse in cases involving all of the main religions in the UK. A recent report by the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse said that the catholic church repeatedly put its reputation before the interests of child abuse survivors. The Vatican is continuing to refuse to co-operate with the inquiry. Religious representatives continue to be given access to children without appropriate safeguards – the state wrongly assumes they can be trusted in situations the non-religious would not be allowed to go into.

Across the world, blasphemy laws restrict criticism of religion. In many countries, saying anything against the established religion can result in a death sentence. The term ‘blasphemy’ has no place in a free and fair society – we have to be free to criticise and even ridicule religion, without fear of imprisonment or death. We’ve got the NSS to thank for the abolition of the blasphemy laws here in the UK. But as we’ve seen in France particularly, some religious groups will stop at nothing to silence critics. The NSS is working hard to ensure governments maintain our right to freedom of speech, and don’t give in to the unreasonable demands of religious groups.

Successive governments, as a result of lobbying by the churches, have allowed the creation of more and more religious schools, to the point where increasing numbers of parents now have no other option for their children but a religious school. Even the most moderate of church schools teach religion as if it were fact, and subject their charges to enforced worship. Surely our kids deserve to be shown both sides of the argument, to be taught to think for themselves, rather than be indoctrinated into a particular ideology? That would allow them to develop their own world view, rather than have someone else’s imposed on them.

That’s before you even get to the many religious schools that have been found to be censoring text books, teaching creationism (the idea that the world is only six thousand years old, and that evolution is a lie!), illegally segregating boys and girls, and allocating virtually all of the time to RE, so that there’s little time left for other subjects. All of this paid for from our taxes (because religious schools are paid for by us, rather than by the religious groups themselves!)

The NSS, of course, are campaigning hard to bring the injustices of the education system to light, and to roll back the expansion of religious schools in the UK.

I could go on and on, but I’ll save you that. Across the world, wherever religious organisations have privilege and power, they use it to suppress the human rights of their citizens. That’s why we need organisations such as the National Secular Society – to ensure we are all free to believe in and practice religion if we wish to, but to stop religion from taking away the rights of those who don’t believe.

The good people of the NSS are a capable and committed bunch, fighting for a just cause, but they are few in number, and face very powerful enemies. They need all the support they can get, so why not join them?

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Book Review – ‘You Beneath Your Skin’ by Damyanti Biswas

I first came across Damyanti Biswas through her blog Damyanti Writes, which is full of useful information for aspiring authors, mostly in the form of interviews with industry insiders and published authors. I’ve been following this blog for a few years now, and it’s obvious Damyanti has a dedication both to the craft of writing, and to creating an online community to support other writers.

Looking back, despite the anguish and frustrations she alludes to in her blog, suffered as she tried to gain traction in her writing career, it was perhaps inevitable that Damyanti would one day make it. It looks like You Beneath Your Skin is the novel with which she has finally found the success she’s been striving for (and I think she deserves). It’s published by Simon & Schuster India, but is available worldwide, and I understand the sales figures are very healthy.

I should probably warn you that this book is not a comfortable read. The streets of New Delhi are a dark, unsettling backdrop to a story that covers very disturbing issues. As a crime thriller, it falls outside of my usual reading matter (although as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have much time to read novels these days; so I’m not sure I have any ‘usual’ reading matter!) But it’s good to try something different. It’s a book that gave me sleepless nights; both because of the subject matter, and because by the time I put it down at night it was generally a lot later than I realised or had intended. It’s quite addictive, albeit rather scary. I found the setting interesting. Damyanti creates a vivid impression of New Delhi, a place I haven’t visited (and after reading this, I’m not sure I ever want to!) She’s also created an interesting set of very individual, rather complex characters. It’s a fairly fast-moving story, but there’s a great deal of depth – it’s a very thoughtful exploration of how the characters are affected by what they experience, and despite the darkness, there is hope in there too.

The kind of books I normally read don’t tend to have a plot twist at the end. This one does (well, with any detective story you have to keep your readers in suspense, don’t you?). But it’s by no means obvious – it kept me guessing until close to the end, when the truth was revealed. I have to admit to having had a little difficulty working out who was who some of the time. Various names and ways of addressing the characters were employed, including (I think) Hindi words for mother, brother, son, etc. Different naming protocols, in a different culture – just something you have to learn. And you know what most Brits are like when it comes to languages! But I like to be challenged when I’m reading, and in this case it was all part of the process of having a different culture brought to life for me.

I know Damyanti has been involved with charities that help people who have suffered from the issues dealt with in the novel; particularly survivors of acid attacks. One more reason to buy the book is that she is donating her proceeds from it to these charities.

It can be difficult reading a book by someone you know (albeit only through their online presence). There’s always the fear that the book might not be up to much. But in this case, having seen some shorter examples of Damyanti’s writing, I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed. And I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed; I’m very happy to recommend You Beneath Your Skin.

text & photo © Graham Wright 2020

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Work in Progress…

Writing a novel takes time – lots of time.

For me, one of the most difficult things about the lockdown has been hearing about how much time everyone has on their hands. The media (social and otherwise) has been full of people describing how they’ve used all that time to learn Sanskrit, gain a fast-track degree in psychology, or build a one-in-five scale model of Canterbury Cathedral out of matchsticks. Or in some cases, all three. So why is it that even during the lockdown I still don’t have enough time to write?

I’m making progress with my latest WIP, but only by grabbing what little time I can from a busy schedule. At the end of last year I moved from South Wales to Shropshire, and between designing and building a new (quite large) garden, working on the house (which, being Victorian, will happily swallow as much time (and money) as I can throw at it), and my part-time studies (Post Graduate Diploma in Garden Design – nearly done now), I’ve been kept rather busy. Add in the diminished energy levels that I presume to be a combination of age, and my on-going battle with sinusitis, and it feels like I’m swimming against the tide. I’m not a strong swimmer. You may have noticed a lack of posts on this blog recently.

I’ve written about 35,000 words of novel number three (so about a third of the way through) and I’m at a critical stage. Now, more than ever, it’s important to work on the draft regularly. Even if I don’t have long to spend each time, I find it’s better to write little and often; that way I can keep the thing in my head, and even if I’m not getting many words down on the page, I’m still developing the story and the characters in my mind. If I go more than a few days between writing sessions then it all starts to slip away, so that when I next get a chance to write, I waste a lot of time re-familiarising myself with what’s already written, and trying to recall what I’d intended. I wonder, is this just me; or do all you other writers out there find the same..?


text & image ©Graham Wright 2020

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments