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Wednesday 28 December 2022


 C.C. Humphreys’ 2005 prequel to Jack Absolute (2004) The Blooding of Jack Absolute is enlightening and as enjoyable as the first novel, which I read in its year of publication. I’m rather late in reading this next book, which has been on my shelf all this time! I’m glad I’ve finally got round to it.

The book begins in Cornwall in 1752, where young Jack is constantly subjected to beatings and whipping from his bullying cousin Craster and Crater’s father Duncan Absolute. Jack’s father and mother’s appearance turns on the fateful demise of Duncan and their unexpected good fortune, and so Jack is taken off to London to live with his once-impoverished parents, soldier and retired actress. We then leap to 1759 and Jack, when not drinking, carousing and gambling, is studying – including French with the beautiful Clothilde.

There’s plenty of humour to be had in the various situations Jack finds himself in: ‘As his mother said, these days every man styled himself a critic’ (p70). And Jack and his fellow students embark on a risky mission, availing themselves of the Whores’ Directory, Harris’s List of Ladies. On meeting Mr Harris, ‘Jack kept any distaste from his voice, ever the actress’s child’ (p89).

While Jack is in love with Clothilde, it is with Fanny Harper, the kept woman of Lord Melbury, that he indulges his sexual appetite. There’s an amusing scene where Jack is hiding beneath the hooped skirts of Fanny as Melbury unexpectedly enters the room; farce but with the promise of threat and danger to follow.

Throughout we’re entertained with acute descriptions. John Burgoyne, for example: His eyes were ‘deep-set, of a grey that pushed to blue, his hair a brown that stopped just short of black. It was exquisitely unostentatiously styled, making Jack wish to run his fingers through his own ill-laid hedgerow. Burgoyne's clothes were of an equally simple elegance, rich material precisely cut, brilliantly dyed… (he) was ancient, thirty-five if he was a day’ (p91).

In the previous book Jack fought a duel; he does so in this earlier escapade – but not with weapons but on the green baize of a snooker table!

For certain reasons, Jack is helped by Burgoyne to join the dragoons and is shipped off to Canada in 1759. Here he is involved in the assault on Quebec by scaling the heights of Abraham.

Jack is captured by Natives who do not look kindly upon him. ‘Suddenly, the little curiosities shop in Knaves Acre (London) came into his head. He could not understand why, until he remembered that it was full of body parts that he had ogled and pawed and wondered at. Now, in the way that they were looking at him, he felt he was about to become an exhibit himself’ (p230).

Here, too, he finally kills his first enemy – the ‘blooding’. If you’ve read the earlier book, you’ll be aware that he has a Native blood-brother, Até. Here it is explained how Até began as a foe and ended up fighting alongside Jack – and not least learning all of Hamlet and quoting from it often: ‘Até’s propensity for applying Hamlet to any and every situation was starting to annoy Jack’ (p282).  

Humphreys is adept at describing scenes of battle. But he is also good at describing flora, fauna – and the weather, for example when he wakes to find a fresh fall of snow: ‘… a rush of excitement, memories of childhood, waking like this not to sound but to its absence, to the silence of a world wrapped and muffled… Soft, separate flakes, huge as cherry petals, were still drifting down from a sky showing a hint of dawn’ (p233).

There is a third Jack Absolute book, Absolute Honour (2006); I won’t be taking so long to get round reading that one! And there’s a prequel short story (about 37 pages), only available on Kindle, The Birth of Jack Absolute, relating the adventures of Jack’s mother and father!

It would seem that Chris Humphreys is now resorting to self-publishing – Two Hats Creative Inc – which might show where publishing is going; if an accomplished, eloquent excellent page-turning author seeks this option, it does not bode well for other potential new authors.

Saturday 24 December 2022

Christmas story - 3 of 3

Over the years I’ve been asked to contribute a Christmas story to a variety of publications. In the next few days I’ll feature some of them. Here is  ‘The End is Nigh’ which was published in The Coastal Press magazine in Spain in 2007. It is one of 21 stories in Nourish a Blind Life, my second collection of stories, here.


All the churches in the world were full. And the synagogues. And the mosques.

As an atheist I wasn’t surprised that all this prayer wasn’t working. Unfortunately, nothing else was, either. Science had no explanation.

For five years now there hadn’t been a single baby born. Not one.

Plants and flowers no longer bloomed. They didn’t die, they just never blossomed into flower, their leaves a dull grey. The fruit industry was moribund as the trees bore no fruit.

Some people said it was all caused by the massive leaching of hormones and chemicals into the water-table, some reckoned it was due to the many holes in the ozone layer, while others believed it was as a result of those three volcanoes exploding three Christmases back, their dark foreboding smoke obscuring the sun for over six months. International environmental terrorists didn’t help, either, blowing up all the oil refineries. Their smoke added to the nuclear winter of the volcanoes.

Most of the so-called civilised world relied on electricity and that was produced by burning finite resources such as oil and coal. Minor advances had been made with wind- and wave-power, but not nearly enough to support our vast cities.

In fact, all the big cities now had their own lugubrious characters walking the streets with sandwich boards proclaiming that ‘The End is nigh!’ Religious fanatics had a field day.

All this played havoc with my business. My name’s Ambrose King and I’d lived up to my name as I was now king of the airwaves, having established the biggest and best global media company in the world using solar-powered wireless technologies.

Whispers came to me via the Internet connections, when they worked. It had happened several times before. False alarms, hoaxes and rumours. The story about the boy crying wolf came to mind. Still, I was idle, rich and curious. I was one of the lucky people with a private aircraft and the fuel to keep it going.

As my private jet took off at night, the better to conceal my activities, I glimpsed a light through the over-arching murk that stained the heavens. Just a star in the sky. But it seemed brighter than Venus or Sirius and we weren’t due to be close to Mars again for many years yet. Probably a satellite – or a trick reflection caught in the thick glass of the window. I didn’t believe in UFOs.

It was dawn though the sky was a depressing grey, the sun barely penetrating the eerie miasma of dust and pollution in the air. As my jet flew over Palestine I glanced out the window. There were thousands of people clustered outside the small village and the streets were crammed. Television crews were trying to make their way through.

A few minutes later at the airport I paid a small ransom to hire a helicopter. When we got back, another aircraft was already hovering over the flat roof-tops of the village, its side emblazoned with GLBL-4 – my TV crew, I thought with pride. Just outside the village was an oasis of date palm trees, which looked sad and forlorn, the leaves grey.

The pilots acknowledged each other and slowly, as my chopper hovered, I was lowered in a cradle into the jostling crowd.

I’m a big chap, about six-foot-six and manage to keep in trim, yet I really feared for my life for a second as they pressed towards me. But they were just curious. I seemed to tower over most of them. I was surprised how calm everyone seemed. I’d never seen a crowd so serene before. They all seemed to be waiting.

Kidding themselves, I thought. This was bound to be another false alarm.

They were all facing the door to a ramshackle building – apparently, the place had been bombed and part-bulldozed by Israelis a matter of two weeks ago during yet another desperate expression of intifada from the deprived villagers. The Arabic word intifada has several meanings, such as the shaking off or shivering of fear or illness or waking from sleep, and I thought I had seen it all before in our news reports, but I was wrong today.

There was no anger or desperation in the eyes of the men and women gathered here. I made my way unmolested to the door.

On one side of the door was half an oil drum, filled with dry soil and drooping grey foliage.

A scarred one-eyed man in stained robes pressed his shoulder to the wooden door and opened it for me. I ducked under the adobe lintel.

A variety of smells assailed my nostrils. Not what I’d expected, though. There was incense, myrrh and something else I’d known only once before, when I visited a convent. An odour of sanctity. Fanciful, I know, but I couldn’t describe it any other way. The aroma permeated into my body, bathing me in a tingling sense of wellbeing.

The interior was Spartan yet quite clean, the earthen floor swept and hard. Colourful rugs had been spread and on these sat several women and two men garbed in richly embroidered robes. Behind them, a mouse-grey blanket hung down from the rafters; I could hear movement on the other side of it.

‘At last you have come, Mr King,’ said the Negro as he stood to greet me with a large pink outstretched hand. He was as big as me, with gentle shining eyes.

As I shook his hand I said, ‘You’re expecting me?’

He nodded. ‘News travels fast, even in these strange times.’ He grinned, showing huge white teeth. ‘Thanks to your global network, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I answered, bemused.

‘I am King Kassahun Ayele of Ethiopia,’ he said and gestured to the other man who rose to his feet. He was of Asian extraction, I reckoned. ‘This is the King of Thailand, Surakiat Chatusiphithak.’

‘Just call me Sura,’ the Thai king said, taking my hand.

Perhaps it should have clicked then, but it didn’t. I had little time to think, anyway, as we all turned our heads to the drab screen on hearing a baby’s wail rising out of the corner of the room.

It was like a storm washing over us. I felt my face suffuse with blood and for a fraction of a second the skin round my eyes and on my cheeks seemed to be pulled back as if I was facing into a harsh yet warm wind. Our clothes rustled and the dimness of our surroundings suddenly brightened. Colour assaulted our eyes.

Outside the faint murmuring changed into a prolonged almost physical gasp of awe.

The powers of recuperation of the baby’s mother were great, it seemed. She stepped out from behind the now golden screen, the baby’s pink cheek pressed to her left breast. She wore simple white robes and a deep blue scarf covered her head, casting a shadow over her features. Out of the shadow her eyes glowed luminous and I could see that the flesh under them was puffed with lack of sleep. Yet she looked radiant and happy. After all, she was the first woman in the world to give birth in five years.

King Sura unclasped his embroidered cloak and draped it over the mother’s shoulders as she walked slowly across the room to the front door. King Ayele joined them and helped support her.

My throat was constricted and my heart was hammering as I followed the mother and child and the two kings outside.

Everywhere I looked, people were kneeling. A powerful silence had descended on everyone.

Then I noticed the foliage in the oil-drum: it had regained a new lease of life, its shoots were green and it had already blossomed with the intricate beautiful star-shapes of blue and white passion flowers.

My heart pounded as I glanced towards the oasis and noticed the palm trees were shaking in a slight breeze, their fronds now bright green and vibrant. And there were clusters of dates under the fronds where none had been before.

The sky had cleared. It was a gorgeous cloudless blue.

The star I’d glimpsed on taking off was fully visible now, glinting.

And the sun glared bright and warm on this December morning.

A morning of promise for the future.

Maybe this time we might get it right. As I realised I was kneeling alongside the two kings, I knew that I was no longer an atheist. I prayed that this second coming would give us all a second chance.

Friday 23 December 2022

Christmas story 2 of 3


Over the years I’ve been asked to contribute a Christmas story to a variety of publications. In the next few days I’ll feature some of them. Here is ‘The Trilby Hat’ which was read on BBC Forces Radio Malta in 1975 and published in The Portsmouth Post magazine in 2003, after some judicious tinkering. It is one of 18 historical stories in Codename Gaby, my fourth collection of stories, here.


Portsmouth, England, 1995

It was a snow-laden Christmas Eve. Police Constable Paul Knight was approaching the end of his shift and glad of it as he rounded the corner of Fenchurch Street.

Then he saw them. Two youths. Faces partly covered by woollen scarves, they were leaning threateningly over an old man in a snow-heaped gutter. Paul broke into an unsteady run, careful lest he slipped on ice. It looked like Alfred Munro, the loner.

Wisps of breath gushing out of his mouth, Paul lifted the cold whistle to his blue lips.

The two muggers froze at the shrill noise.

‘The filth!’ one of them yelled.

Paul was barely yards from them when his boots slipped. Although he retained his balance, the few seconds delay gave the two thugs time to scurry off.

He was tempted to follow, but Alfred seemed in a bad way. There was no blood or obvious injury, but the old man was sobbing.

‘It's all right, Alfred,’ he said. ‘They've run off.’ He helped the frail old man up.

Alfred wiped his blood-shot eyes. ‘I - I'm all right,’ he wheezed, ‘But - it's my hat - they stole my trilby.’

Thinking back, Paul did recall one of the youths had worn a hat. They must have been baiting Alfred. He flushed hotly. ‘I'll see what I can do,’ Paul promised, not holding out much hope.

But Alfred didn't seem to hear. ‘Must get it back - You see, I've had it nigh on fifty-two years. Christmas...’


The war was in its fifth Christmas.

Alfred gazed at the 1943 calendar with its popular painted scene of skating on the Thames in the days of Queen Bess.

He thought about Liz, his wife, who died six years ago.

Thank God she missed this terrible war.

He looked around the cosy room: utility furniture, an embroidered pouf, a wicker basket sewing box and a well-placed chintz-covered suite that concealed the thread-bare carpet's many patches, whilst the dining table stood cluttered with the remains of their frugal evening meal.

The tiny coal fire flickered warmly in the tiled fire-place, its firelight reflected from the far corner where stood the proud Christmas tree, a battered fairy perched precariously on top; sparkling tinsel was draped over the branches. The tub, tightly packed with fresh black soil was wrapped with brown paper, which had been painted by Connie, his grand-daughter.

The other decorations were sparse, but for all that the festive season shone from wherever Alfred looked.

There was a gaiety, a family warmth, an atmosphere here that no war could possibly destroy.

Beyond the shielding hills of their small Hampshire town, air-raid sirens wailed.

Alan, his son-in-law stopped playing with Connie on the hearth-rug. ‘They seem closer tonight, Pop,’ he said.

Denise, his daughter, paused from her knitting and her troubled eyes sought Alfred.

He forced a smile of reassurance. ‘We've nothing worth bombing.’ Accepting this, they returned to their own amusements, whilst Alfred smiled contentedly to himself and looked at his daughter.

She's grown into a fine woman, he thought. Liz would have been proud of her. A full- no, a comely - figure, married so young, with her mother's auburn hair and hazel eyes aglow in the firelight. But she possessed his stubbornness.

And the memories flooded back. With an effort he blinked them away.

Yes, and Alan made a good husband. Denise was lucky to have Alan home, in a reserved occupation in the dockyard. Alan stood by her side, his thick spectacles reflecting the fairy lights.

He just had to look at young Connie there, the best of both of them already noticeable in her. Precocious, certainly, with a will of her own at times, but a little darling with it. He spoiled her unashamedly. And Denise scolded him, but she didn't mind, not really. Surely all grand-fathers are the same.

In a few more hours they would be opening their gifts. But he couldn't face that yet; it still sorely reminded him of Liz and how they used to dote over Denise... Perhaps next year the wound would have healed sufficiently, though of course never completely; he didn't want to forget her, just to deaden the hurt at times like this.

Reluctantly he rose from his comfortable chair. ‘Denise.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Denise, I think I'll be off now. It's getting late for me - and for you, Connie - Father Christmas will want to climb down the chimney soon...’

Connie giggled excitedly at mention of Santa.

Denise bundled her knitting into an embroidered bag. ‘As you wish, Dad.’ She helped him on with his great-coat.

‘Granda!’ Connie shouted, crushing herself against his legs. ‘You can't go yet. You haven't had your present.’

Alfred patted his coat-pockets, each filled with a package from Denise and Alan to open first thing tomorrow morning before his return here for lunch. ‘But I have. I wouldn't forget these.’

Connie shook her head vigorously. ‘No, Granda! No, you haven't had mine!’

Alfred noticed a puzzled look between Denise and Alan. Apparently, then, their daughter had kept her secret well.

Perhaps their neighbour had bought the present. With great ceremony his grand-daughter walked to the under-stairs cupboard and tossed out two gas-masks in cardboard boxes then handed over a large brown-paper parcel. It seemed to be a gift-wrapped boot-box.

‘Thank you, darling,’ he said and he leaned forward to kiss her.

But she backed away, lips pouted. ‘Aren't you going to open it now, Granda?’

‘But it isn't Christmas yet.’ He pointed to the mantel clock. ‘A few hours to midnight, you see?’

‘Please, Granda,’ she pleaded, face slightly pulled.

‘Well... all right, but only if you promise to stop making faces.’

She stopped almost at once, changing her grimace into a mischievous smile.

Slowly and carefully he unwrapped the gift.

‘Hurry, Granda.’

It was an old boot-box. He lifted the lid and the sight took his breath away. Nestling amidst a bed of tissue paper was a brown trilby hat, its brim slightly bent so it would fit into the confines of the box.

‘Put it on, Granda!’

He swallowed hard but the lump in his throat persisted. Alan and Denise smiled.

Removing the hat reverently from the box, he knelt in front of her. ‘No, you put it on for me, Connie.’

She almost knocked him over as she dashed to do just that.

As it finally sat snuggly, a perfect fit, he held Connie at arm's-length and asked if she thought it suited him.

‘Oh, yes! You look just like a Granda. Really important.’

And they all laughed.

Then he suddenly lifted her high, almost touching her head to the ceiling. Connie shrieked happily.

Presently, he lowered her and kissed her flushed cheeks.

‘Well, merry Christmas, everybody,’ he wished them as he walked to the door with Connie's small hand in his. He carefully wrapped his long woolly scarf round his neck, criss-crossed his chest then buttoned up his great-coat. ‘I must go now, Connie.’

Denise opened the front door.

The cold air made them all gasp. The snow still fell silently, lending a bright peaceful glow to the otherwise drab street.

‘I'll keep this hat always. I promise,’ he said.

Connie's little chest swelled and her smile seemed to fill the doorway. Alan held his daughter back. ‘Merry Christmas, Granda!’ she said.

Shivering in the cold air, Denise whispered, ‘Is the hat all right, Dad?’ He nodded. She then whispered, ‘It was a gift to Alan from his poor Mum, but he doesn't like hats... We didn't know Connie'd planned this - ‘

‘It's all right, love. It's a smashing present. Now, go back in, it's cold out here. I'll see you tomorrow for Christmas dinner...’

Quickly he stepped onto the crisp snow. Flakes wisped onto his shoulders and the brim of his new hat. He waved. ‘Merry Christmas!’ His voice echoed through the snow-filled night.

Far-off could be heard the crump of bombs and ack-ack, but not here.

At that moment a whistle shrilled. An ARP warden came running up the street. ‘Put that light out!’ he called.

Turning, Alfred noticed the hall light on and his family silhouetted in the doorway. Hurriedly waving, they closed the door and the house darkened.

Further over to the east he spotted searchlights. The snow was like dust in a light-beam. Tracer and ack-ack blossomed, more reminiscent of Guy Fawkes than Christmas Eve.

He then took off his hat and wiped the snow-deposits away. It was a beautiful hat. Really good quality and hard-wearing. Yes, it would last for years.

The sudden whistling alerted him first. A terrible coldness clutched his heart. The bomb cluster was close and there wasn't an air-raid shelter near.

He froze fearfully to the spot, panic weakening his limbs.

Seconds later, the explosion's impact reached him, blinding yellow and red, the shock waves throwing him painfully to the sludge on the road.

All around stark blasts deafened him. Flashes of light and flames sprouted everywhere. Black smoke mush-roomed into the wintry night sky.

Still giddy, he regained his feet. A sickly knowing feeling in the pit of his stomach gave strength to his ageing legs. Ignoring the dull ache of a bruised hip and shoulder, he rushed back to the ruin.

An ARP warden and a couple of neighbours were already sifting through the rubble, even though the dust cloud hadn't settled yet.

Mercifully the houses on either side had been spared, only their windows shattered, a few roof slates dislodged.

Alfred stood, unable to move, and his mouth felt very dry. Somewhere a fire bell clanged, and another.

A fractured water-main gushed high, sparkling in the torch-light.

Hardly aware of what he was doing, Alfred knelt by the debris where the front of the house had been. ‘Here!’ he cried out to the frantic helpers. ‘They were here!’ And he started heaving bricks to one side, gashing his knees and hands in his haste, heedless of the cold.

The ARP warden who shouted the warning earlier was soon panting by his side. ‘They won't have known what happened, mate. It will've been over quick. A direct hit, you see?’

Two hours later Alfred collapsed, exhausted, after they unearthed the battered Christmas tree. Miraculously, the fairy survived intact. The ARP carried him to the doorstep next door. There, a kindly neighbour gave him a chipped metal mug of sweet tea.

Now, shakily, he got to his feet and shuffled over to identify them. His whole family, wiped out. He would never forget the joyous look on little Connie's face, he thought, gripping his trilby hat tight.


Paul Knight was on his way home when he heard scuffling in the dark. He flashed the beam of his torch across the nearby waste-land and relaxed. It was only a fox.

Then he picked out the shape of a battered hat and he recalled the incident earlier with old Alfred. Could this be his trilby? It looked the same colour. But it was so timeworn, and crumpled.

The hat felt dry though cold and it was reasonably clean. It hadn't been lying here long, then. The label was faded but he could just make out GRANDA and LOVE. Might as well call round on my way home, he decided, and tucked it inside his overcoat.

The dawn light was streaming down the deserted street as Paul walked up to the door. A few curtains twitched in the neighbouring terraced houses even at this hour. He rang once, his eyes drawn to the flaking paintwork.

The door opened. A musty smell greeted him, of untended dust, of age. Alfred stood shivering in his worsted trousers, shirt sleeves and braces. In the weak hall light Paul noticed a bruise under the old man's left eye. ‘You all right?’

Alfred nodded, eyes questioning.

‘I think I recognised those louts,’ Paul continued. ‘Would you come to an identity parade?’

Alfred's three remaining teeth shone as he smiled. ‘Yes, it'll be a bloody great pleasure.’ He hesitated on the doorstep. ‘It was good of you to call. Erm, come in.’

‘No, I can't stop. I'm expected home,’ Paul explained. He rummaged inside his coat. ‘Is this yours?’ he asked awkwardly, handing over the aged trilby hat.

The expression on Alfred's face had Paul worried for a moment. Then the old man seemed to collect himself. ‘You've made me very happy, constable.’ Tears gathered around his weak grey eyes.

Feeling uncomfortable all of a sudden, Paul backed away and bid Alfred good-morning.

‘Merry Christmas!’ Alfred called after him. ‘Merry Christmas.’

Paul waved.

He couldn't understand it. It was as though he had bestowed some wondrous gift on Alfred. Then he remembered the label in the hat. Granda and Love.

Indeed, it was sometimes easy to forget in this material world, Christmas was not only a time for giving but also a time for remembering.

‘Merry Christmas!’ Paul replied.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Christmas story-1 of 3

Over the years I’ve been asked to contribute a Christmas story to a variety of publications. In the next few days I’ll feature some of them. Here is  ‘Outcast’ which was published in Outpost magazine in 1989. It is one of 21 stories in Nourish a Blind Life, my second collection of stories., here


She came out of the godforsaken planet’s seasonal mists, struggling under her immense weight. She wasn’t welcome.

Abraham Hertzog didn’t like company. That’s why he had settled in this inhospitable place, a last fuelling stop at the rim of the galaxy: a bleak station, where sand and dust vied with alien plants, neither succeeding for long to cling onto the barren rocky landscape. Planetary storms were too frequent. 

Which reminded him: he was due to telecast Headquarters. It was a full 3 months since he last ordered victuals.

His metal shack abutted onto the side of a towering ultramarine cliff. The rock was heavily pitted, from recent meteor showers and severe gales: he used the nearest caves for storage. But now stocks were running low.

He squinted out the porthole, past the thousand-meter landing pad, the fuelling depot and its attendant robot-mechanics.

As the green six-legged creature stumbled onto the tarmac, a robot wheeled solicitously toward her and helped her to large ungainly feet. Even from this distance, Abraham could detect the gratefulness in her protruding eyes. They were so damned trusting!

Perhaps that was why he didn’t want to see her?


Not a thousand kilometres to the west there had been a luxuriant mauve forest, sprouting from purple springy grass. Now there were just a few tree-stumps; the rest was overbuilt by settlers. When mankind seeded the stars, he also brought diseases, pollution, greed, prejudices and weapons... The aliens were decimated, the survivors now outcasts on their own planet.

The robot helped the creature to the door, which chimed.

‘Just a minute,’ Abraham called, ‘Oy veh!’

The airlock whispered and he stepped out of the air-conditioned atmosphere onto the metal veranda. The air was thick with dust, the ozone crackling. ‘What is it?’

But he needn’t ask. The pregnant creature was exhausted, and near term.

Against his better judgement, he directed the robot to bring her round the back and made room in the half-empty storage cave.

‘Stay here with her,’ he instructed the robot, ‘while I get some halvah.’

Later, as he dialled Headquarters about those victuals, he looked out the rear port.

The creature had managed a guttural approximation of English: her name was Yram; she had voraciously devoured his offered confection and now lay contented, watched by a number of mechanic and haulage robots. His attention was suddenly drawn to the green bundle of limbs swathed in sacking as the telecast speaker announced: ‘Merry Christmas, Abe!’

And he looked up at a star, twinkling overhead, brighter than any he’d seen on his journeys through the Milky Way.

‘Yes, of course. It would be, wouldn’t it?’ he mused and realised that perhaps this planet wasn’t God-forsaken after all.