[Previously posted on Goodreads 2018-07-26.] The chances are that you’re reading this in a web browser. Perhaps it has a menu bar along the top with words like ‘Bookmarks’ or ‘History’, or perhaps it has a hamburger style menu that appears when you click on a button with three horizontal lines. However you interact with an application, the instructions are provided in words or pictures (or a combination). Commonly known icons, such as a floppy disk or printer, are easy to understand for those familiar with computers, but more complex actions, prompts, and warning or error messages need to be written in words.

For example, if you want to check your email, there might be a message that says ‘1 unread email(s)’ or ‘2 unread email(s)’. If the software is sophisticated, it might be able to say ‘1 unread email’ or ‘2 unread emails’. Naturally, you’ll want this kind of information to be in a language you can understand. Another user may be using the same application in, say, France or Germany, in which case they’ll probably want the messages in French or German.

An application that supports localisation is one that is designed to allow such textual information to be displayed in different languages, and (where necessary) to format certain elements, such as dates or currency, according to a particular region. This support is typically provided in a file that contains a list of all possible messages, each identified by a unique key. Adding a new language is simply a matter of finding someone who can translate those messages and creating a new file with the appropriate name.

The recommended way of identifying a particular language or region is with an ISO code. The ISO 639-1 two-letter code is the most commonly used code to identify root languages, such as ‘en’ for English, ‘fr’ for French and ‘de’ for German. (Languages can also be identified by three-letter codes or numeric codes.) The language code can be combined with an ISO 3166 country code. For example, ‘en-GB’ indicates British English (so a printer dialogue box might ask if you want the ‘colour’ setting), ‘en-US’ indicates US English (‘color’) and ‘fr-CA’ indicates French Canadian (‘couleur’).

On Friday 20th July 2018, Paulo Cereda presented the newly released version 4.0 of his arara tool at the TeX User Group (TUG) 2018 conference in Rio de Janeiro. For those of you who have read my LaTeX books, I mentioned arara in Using LaTeX to Write a PhD Thesis and provided further information in LaTeX for Administrative Work. This very useful tool for automating document builds has localisation support for English, German, Italian, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, and — Broad Norfolk.

Wait! What was that?

Broad Norfolk is the dialect spoken in the county of Norfolk in East Anglia. There’s a video of Paulo’s talk available. If you find it a bit too technical but are interested in the language support, skip to around time-frame 18:50. Below are some screenshots of arara in action. (It’s a command line application, so there’s no fancy point and click graphical interface.)

Here’s arara reporting a successful job (converting the file test.tex to test.pdf) with the language set to Broad Norfolk:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

Hold yew hard, ole partner, I'm gornta hev a look at 'test.tex'
(thass 693 bytes big, that is, and that was last chearnged on
07/26/2018 12:09:08 in case yew dunt remember).

(Bib2Gls) The Bib2Gls sof....... THASS A MASTERLY JOB, MY BEWTY

Wuh that took 1.14 seconds but if thass a slight longer than you
expected, dunt yew go mobbing me abowt it cors that ent my fault.
My grandf'ar dint have none of these pearks. He had to use a pen
and a bit o' pearper, but thass bin nice mardling wi' yew. Dew
yew keep a troshin'!

For comparison, the default English setting produces:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

Processing 'test.tex' (size: 693 bytes, last modified: 07/26/2018
12:09:08), please wait.

(PDFLaTeX) PDFLaTeX engine .............................. SUCCESS
(Bib2Gls) The Bib2Gls software .......................... SUCCESS
(PDFLaTeX) PDFLaTeX engine .............................. SUCCESS

Total: 1.18 seconds

For a bit of variety, I then introduced an error that causes the second task (Bib2Gls) to fail. Here’s the Broad Norfolk response:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

Hold yew hard, ole partner, I'm gornta hev a look at 'test.tex'
(thass 694 bytes big, that is, and that was last chearnged on
07/26/2018 12:23:42 in case yew dunt remember).

(Bib2Gls) The Bib2Gls sof....... THAT ENT GORN RIGHT, OLE PARTNER

Wuh that took 0.91 seconds but if thass a slight longer than you
expected, dunt yew go mobbing me abowt it cors that ent my fault.
My grandf'ar dint have none of these pearks. He had to use a pen
and a bit o' pearper, but thass bin nice mardling wi' yew. Dew
yew keep a troshin'!

For comparison, the default English setting produces:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

Processing 'test.tex' (size: 694 bytes, last modified: 07/26/2018
12:23:42), please wait.

(PDFLaTeX) PDFLaTeX engine .............................. SUCCESS
(Bib2Gls) The Bib2Gls software .......................... FAILURE

Total: 0.91 seconds

Here’s the help message in Broad Norfolk:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

arara 4.0 (revision 1)
Copyright (c) 2012-2018, Paulo Roberto Massa Cereda
Orl them rights are reserved, ole partner

usage: arara [file [--dry-run] [--log] [--verbose | --silent] [--timeout
 N] [--max-loops N] [--language L] [ --preamble P ] [--header]
 | --help | --version]
 -h,--help          wuh, cor blast me, my bewty, but that'll tell
                    me to dew jist what I'm dewun rite now
 -H,--header        wuh, my bewty, that'll only peek at directives
                    what are in the file header
 -l,--log           that'll make a log file wi' orl my know dew
                    suffin go wrong
 -L,--language      that'll tell me what language to mardle in
 -m,--max-loops     wuh, yew dunt want me to run on forever, dew
                    you, so use this to say when you want me to
 -n,--dry-run       that'll look like I'm dewun suffin, but I ent
 -p,--preamble      dew yew git hold o' that preamble from the
                    configuration file
 -s,--silent        that'll make them system commands clam up and
                    not run on about what's dewin
 -t,--timeout       wuh, yew dunt want them system commands to run
                    on forever dew suffin' go wrong, dew you, so
                    use this to set the execution timeout (thass in
 -V,--version       dew yew use this dew you want my know abowt
                    this version
 -v,--verbose       thass dew you want ter system commands to hav'
                    a mardle wi'yew an'orl

For comparison, the default English setting produces:

Image of arara output (reproduced below).

For those who can’t see the image, the transcript is as follows:

arara 4.0 (revision 1)
Copyright (c) 2012-2018, Paulo Roberto Massa Cereda
All rights reserved

usage: arara [file [--dry-run] [--log] [--verbose | --silent] [--timeout
 N] [--max-loops N] [--language L] [ --preamble P ] [--header]
 | --help | --version]
 -h,--help          print the help message
 -H,--header        extract directives only in the file header
 -l,--log           generate a log output
 -L,--language      set the application language
 -m,--max-loops     set the maximum number of loops
 -n,--dry-run       go through all the motions of running a
                    command, but with no actual calls
 -p,--preamble      set the file preamble based on the
                    configuration file
 -s,--silent        hide the command output
 -t,--timeout       set the execution timeout (in milliseconds)
 -V,--version       print the application version
 -v,--verbose       print the command output

In case you’re wondering why Broad Norfolk was included, Paulo originally asked me if I could add a slang version of English as an Easter egg, but I decided to take advantage of this request and introduce Broad Norfolk to the international TeX community as it’s been sadly misrepresented in film and television, much to the annoyance of those who speak it. As far as we know, it’s the only application that includes Broad Norfolk localisation support. (If you know of any other, please say!)

Having decided to add Broad Norfolk, we needed to consider what code to use. The ISO 3166-1 set includes a sub-set of user-assigned codes provided for non-standard territories for in-house application use. These codes are AA, QM to QZ, XA to XZ, and ZZ. I chose ‘QN’ and decided it’s an abbreviation for Queen’s Norfolk, as the Queen has a home in Norfolk.

Turbot the Witch

[Previously posted on Goodreads 2018-04-29.] I had an interesting encounter with a couple of children as I was heading back into the village after walking around the muddy footpaths and byways around the area. (This is not only setting the scenic background detail, but also noting that I might’ve had a slightly dishevelled and windswept appearance as a result.) In general, I find it a bit awkward when unknown children want to strike up a conversation as on the one hand I don’t want to encourage them to talk to strangers, but on the other hand I don’t want to appear rude, so when they called out a friendly greeting, I gave a friendly acknowledgement without breaking my stride, but the girl called me back.

‘Hello, whoever you are. Who are you?’ she asked.

‘I live in the village,’ I replied, non-committally. Since she seemed to require more detail, I added: ‘My son used to go to the village school.’

‘Is he So-and-so?’ she asked.

(I don’t think I ought to disclose names in a public post, so let’s just stick with So-and-so.)

‘No,’ I said. ‘My son’s grown up and has left school now.’

‘Are you So-and-so’s granny?’


So-and-so’s granny is 68.’

‘I’m not that old,’ I said. ‘I’m not even 50.’

‘Are you 49?’ the boy asked.

I could see that this was going to lead to a guessing game, and he was only two off, so I decided to just cut straight in there with the answer.

‘No, I’m 47.’

‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this,’ the boy said, in a very polite tone of voice, ‘but you look much older.’

‘Are you a witch?’ the girl asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘but if I was a witch, I might not admit it.’

I’m not sure if they grasped the sub-text there: people aren’t always what they claim to be (or not be).

‘Do you know So-and-so?’ the girl asked, reverting the subject back to whoever he is, but apparently he’s a boy in their school.

‘No, I don’t know So-and-so, and I think you should be careful about talking to strangers.’

‘Are you a stranger? What’s your name?’

‘I have two names,’ I replied. ‘My real name is Nicola Cawley, but my writing name is Talbot.’


‘No, Talbot.’

Clearly, they haven’t yet heard of a local village author of children’s stories that are charmingly illustrated by a talented artist from nearby Poringland.

‘If you’re a witch,’ the girl said, ‘you could turn me into a dog.’

‘Witches don’t exist,’ the boy said.

‘Well, either I’m not a witch or I don’t exist,’ I replied.

All those years studying mathematics haven’t been wasted. I can still apply logical reasoning in a conversation with kids. As I finally walked away, a voice called after me:

‘Goodbye, Whatever-your-name-is Turbot.’

Sir Quackalot

So now I feel that Turbot the Witch has to appear in a story. Perhaps she should join Sir Quackalot, Dickie Duck, José Arara and friends. Sir Quackalot, for those of you who don’t know, started life in the TeX.SE chatroom in a little story containing TeX-related jokes to amuse my friend Paulo who likes ducks and is the creator of an application called arara, which means macaw in Portuguese. The story was called ‘Sir Quackalot and the Golden Arara.’ The image of Sir Quackalot on the left is created using the tikzducks package. The code is:



 (1,0.5) -- (0.2,0.5) -- (0, 0.55) -- (0.2,0.6) -- (1, 0.6) -- cycle;
 (0,1) .. controls (0.05, 0.57) and (0.23, 0.23) .. (0.5, 0)
 .. controls (0.77, 0.23) and (0.95, 0.57) .. (1, 1)
 .. controls (0.83, 0.9) and (0.67, 0.9) .. (0.5, 1)
 .. controls (0.33, 0.9) and (0.07, 0.9) .. cycle;
\node[orange,at={(0.5,0.5)}] {\bfseries\large Q};

Sir Quackalot next made an appearance in LaTeX for Administrative Work as the author of titles such as ‘The Adventures of Duck and Goose’, ‘The Return of Duck and Goose’ and ‘More Fun with Duck and Goose’ in one of the sample datasets that accompanies the textbook. The more adventurous reader can, in Exercise 12 (Chapter 4), try to programmatically fetch the titles from the database to typeset an invoice for José Arara’s book order.

The sample data also includes a list of people, such as Dickie Duck, Polly Parrot, Mabel Canary and (to test UTF-8 support) José Arara of São Paulo. At various times in the textbook, they are customers (as in the above invoice exercise), letter recipients (Chapter 3, typesetting correspondence), job applicants (Chapter 5, typesetting a CV), and members of the Secret Lab of Experimental Stuff (and their co-researchers in the Department of Stripy Confectioners) who have to write memos, press releases, and minutes. They also have to redact classified information, use hierarchical numbering in their terms and conditions, prepare presentations, a z-fold leaflet advertising their highly classified projects, and collaborate on documents.

Dickie Duck also moonlights as the author of ‘Oh No! The Chickens have Escaped!’ illustrated by José Arara, whose paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to digitally manipulated photos of my mum’s chickens. In Chapter 10, they have to create a postcard and design an advance information sheet to advertise the book.

Sir Quackalot reappears in my testidx package, which is designed for testing indexing applications with LaTeX. My original plan was to use dummy text, but I’ve grown bored of lorem ipsum and I wanted the first few paragraphs to be informative. I also needed the index to cover the full Basic Latin letter groups A, …, Z as well as some extended Latin characters commonly used in European languages, such as Ð (eth), Þ (thorn) and Ø. After five pages of filler text, I discovered that some of the letter groups were still missing, so I added the story of ‘Sir Quackalot and the Golden Arara’, which provided an extra page of text and conveniently helped with the rather sparse Q letter group. The code to produce the document is quite simple:




For those who don’t have a TeX distribution, here’s a PDF I made earlier. That example only has the Basic Latin groups. There’s a fancier example with hyperlinks, extended letter groups, digraphs (IJ, Ll, etc) and a trigraph (Dzs): source code and the final PDF created from it (using XeLaTeX and bib2gls).

Turbot the Witch

So if you read my textbooks or manuals, watch out for a cameo from Turbot the Witch. What does she look like? I think tikzducks can supply the answer again:




© OpenStreetMap contributors. (View larger map.)


[Originally posted on Goodreads 2017-06-16.] The Private Enemy is set predominantly in Norfolk, mostly in and around the city of Norwich and in a fictional rural Fenland neighbourhood in the west of Norfolk. The story may be set in the future but, much like today, the people living there aren’t homogeneous. They vary according to their upbringing, social status, employment and surroundings. Norfolk inhabitants are so often unfairly stereotyped in the media as ignorant, Mummerset-speaking, inbred rustics that I thought it might be useful to give a brief overview of the real Norfolk and how the fictional Norfolk of the novel differs from it. (There may be mild spoilers below in terms of the back story, but most of it’s already in the book blurb.)

Norfolk is a largely rural county, and its culture has been influenced by its geography (amongst other things). Situated in the east of England, with the North Sea to the east, north, and north-west, it’s not really a place that travellers pass through on route to somewhere else. In the past, it was even more isolated before the Fens in the west were drained (although that was done a long time ago). The transport links have improved in recent years with a more frequent intercity train service and the duelling of the A11. On the other hand, the rural public transportation within the county has declined.

However, despite its apparent isolation, Norfolk’s culture and language have been shaped by incomers over the centuries: Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans have all left their mark. Later, and more peacefully, came the Strangers — refugees from the Low Countries. (The word ‘stranger’ originally meant not a native of that place, but the Strangers in Norfolk has come to mean those particular immigrants.) Their influence can be seen in Norfolk architecture, the language, names and even symbols, such as the canary.

The modern strangers are from further afield, such as Eastern Europe, but there are also incomers from other parts of the UK, include those retiring here, those who fell in love with the county when visiting it on holiday, and those who came here for work placements. (My husband falls into that last category. We moved here in the mid 1990s having both studied at the University of Essex where we met.)

Norfolk is a lovely county with deep roots, but the seeming idyll masks homelessness and poverty. The future Norfolk of The Private Enemy has this same mixture, but in addition it has urban gangsters openly engaging in territorial disputes (which thankfully the real Norfolk doesn’t have).

This deviation from reality is due to events in the back story. Thirty-two years before the start of the novel (at some point in our near future), a fuel crisis triggered global anarchy that lasted two years. Peace was restored and the concept of nationality was abolished. The purported reason for this is that nationalism can cause conflict. Instead the world is divided into numbered sectors with a new capital city (to avoid any associations with the past) in the middle of each region. Sector 1 is the overall administrative centre and is the effective global ruling body.

In reality, far from creating the continually advertised ‘one world united in peace and prosperity’, the sectors (which mostly correspond to the old boundaries) are more fractured than before. Since the story is set mostly in Norfolk, with a few scenes in the capital city for this sector (Sector 55), the focus is on the fractures in this particular region.

The enmity between the rural and urban areas is a result of city raiders invading farmland during the anarchy. The passage of time hasn’t softened the long-held grudges of those who had to defend their homes and families against attack. Within the urban areas, rival gangs emerged during the anarchy to compete for resources, and they still hold sway through corruption and force of arms. So the fictional future Norwich is divided up into neighbourhoods controlled by gangsters and the so-called ‘Neutral Territory’, controlled by financiers and politicians, which acts as a buffer zone.

There are also ideological divides. The ‘Anti-Technology League’ want curbs on technology, claiming that the unsustainable energy demands required by high levels of technology caused the anarchy. Other groups want technological growth (or regrowth). The Anti-Techs seem to get their way some of the time, but Sector 1 are rather selective as to which demands they apparently submit to. Computers are banned, except for government departments (since they’re needed for administrative purposes). This means no Internet, emails or other forms of global electronic communication. Most mobile phone masts were destroyed during the anarchy and haven’t been replaced. This just leaves landlines for instant communication. There are no televisions, but there are cinemas. Radios are back to being analogue, which means they’re subject to static (and if that static happens to interrupt news items, only the paranoid would consider that censorship). And just to show that the Anti-Techs aren’t an all-powerful lobby group, Sector 1 has refused to ban electronic billboards used for product advertising (interspersed with little messages from your friendly politicians).

The Anti-Tech’s message that our modern gadget-filled world caused the anarchy has fuelled nostalgia, and the mismatched retro fashions reflect the desired idylls. This is further back in time for the rural areas than for the city, and the labour-saving devices, such as washing machines, that still exist are used but kept out of sight and not discussed in polite conversation (more a case of keeping back with the Joneses rather than keeping up with them).

The most prominent gangster in future Norwich is Jack Preston. The anarchy broke out when he was eleven years old. A fan of film noirs from the 1930s and 1940s, his adoption of a gangster style image from that era was essentially a coping mechanism, but he becomes so powerful and influential that others copy him, and he now drives the fashion in this region. (Other regions fall back on other styles. The reduced global communications means that sectors start to diverge.)

The next most prominent gangster, and Jack’s rival, is Big Stan O’Brien. He doesn’t want to be seen to be copying Jack, so he taps into his Sector 53 ancestry and adopts a Godfather-like figure, but since this mash-up is from Jack’s preferred era, he’s still effectively mimicking Jack.

So how do people talk in future Norfolk? Much like today, there are a variety of accents. The native Broad Norfolk is still in use, but social status is also a factor. As in real life, there are some professionals who grew up with Broad Norfolk but softened it as they moved up the promotional ladder (for example, this is the case with Detective Inspector Charles Hadley). There are also professionals who don’t soften their accents (Detective Sergeant Sarah Fenning) as they view it as part of their identity. In the city there are those who have a Norwich accent, and then there are those who are trying to copy Jack or Stan’s affectations. There are also incomers with their own accents.

That’s the world of The Private Enemy, but the difficulty came in deciding how to represent these various accents. Writing guides frown on the use of funetik, and they have a point. It can be quite incomprehensible. The first 10,000 words of this novel formed the major part of my portfolio for my diploma in creative writing. The work has also been critiqued on other courses and writing groups, and at various times I’ve used various approaches, including following the much advocated advice to use dictionary spelling and allow the word choice and cadence to establish the voice. After all, if I’m spending all that time studying the art of creative writing, I ought to follow the laws laid down by the experts.

I dutifully corrected all the spelling and sent my first chapter round to my latest group. The result?

Is [Broad Norfolk character] American?

How did that happen? I’d used Norfolk syntax, so why did it sound American? (This wasn’t Jack’s hard-boiled affectation.)

Earlier, I mentioned immigrants to Norfolk, but I didn’t mention the emigrants. When you saw the word Norfolk in this blog’s title, did you immediately think of Norfolk, England (famous for its admiral) or Norfolk, Virginia (famous for its naval base)?

One of the earliest Englishmen to settle in the Virginia colony was Adam Thoroughgood from King’s Lynn, Norfolk (England). The early settlers undoubtedly brought their native accents with them, but over the generations the pronunciation of the sundered groups diverged as new immigrants from other areas arrived and the natural evolution of language occurred. However, despite this change, there are still a few elements common to Broad Norfolk and some parts of America that aren’t so common in the rest of the UK. For example, in Broad Norfolk ‘wholly’ is used in the sense of ‘very’, ‘yard’ can mean garden, and a person might address their friend as ‘ole partner’. So, while there are some very distinctive words and phrases in Broad Norfolk, there are a few cases that can superficially appear American if the pronunciation isn’t clarified.

Another bit of feedback from the group came in the form of corrections in a returned copy where the initial h’s from words in the dialogue were crossed out and replaced with apostrophes. Other dialects may drop their aitches but Norfolk doesn’t drop haitches. In addition, some of the dialect’s idiosyncrasies can look like typographical errors, such as the regularisation of the third person singular present tense (‘she do’, ‘he say’, ‘that look like rain’).

The problem with this creative writing rule is that it relies on the reader being familiar with the accent. Broad Norfolk is a little-known dialect that’s frequently misrepresented. There are so many times that I see this rule presented with some example dialogue followed by a statement that the reader will naturally hear such-and-such well-known accent when reading it.

The other advice to writers is to avoid dialects altogether and always use standard English, but the concept of standard English is a fallacy as English is a pluricentric language. (I’ve seen enough edit wars over the years to verify this.) There are standards within regions but even these can be disputed. Alice may believe that her public school accent is standard English and think that Bob sounds awfully common. Bob may believe his estuary accent is standard and think that Alice sounds a bit posh.

I could’ve saved myself a lot of headaches if I’d stuck with one specific textbook English for all the characters. Not only was the Broad Norfolk causing me problems, but also the hybrid accents for characters like Jack and Stan. However the drawback with standardizing the way everyone talks is that it suggests a lack of diversity, but the whole point of the setting was its fractured nature.

Incidentally, in case there’s any misunderstanding, I’m not a linguistic expert nor can I speak Broad Norfolk. My experience is limited to living in Norfolk for over twenty years and listening to people airing their views on the local radio, nattering on the bus, conversing with cashiers or checkout assistants, or chatting with friends and neighbours. (Any resident of Norfolk who claims that the dialect is extinct must be living in some kind of élite enclave.) I therefore decided to solicit the advice of Norfolk dialect expert Keith Skipper, which was just as well as it turned out that I’d unwittingly picked up some long-defunct words from an old book written by a late Norfolk author.

In the end, I decided on a small amount of spelling deviations. The feedback so far has included:

Didn’t like the dialect.
Really didn’t like the dialect.
Didn’t have a problem with the dialect.
Liked the dialect.
Would’ve liked more guide to the pronunciation.
Would’ve liked footnotes.
Haven’t got round to reading the story yet but really enjoyed reading the glossary of Norfolk terms at the back.

Which just goes to show that readers (like people in general) are diverse, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Incidentally, the second edition of The Private Enemy is due out on 30th September 2017. The font is smaller (10pt instead of 11pt) and the layout is more compact. This has reduced the page count and overall size and weight, which means a reduction in print and postage costs and this will be reflected in a reduction in the retail price. The revised first edition will continue to be available until the end of September [2017]. More news on the new edition to follow in the next month or so.

Modern Communication

[Previously posted on Facebook 2015-06-07.] During February 2013, thieves stole the phone cables that ran underground between Saxlingham Nethergate and Hempnall. This left the village without landline or Internet for about a week. We have again been without landline and Internet for nearly two weeks [June 2015], but this time it was due to a fault somewhere on the network. Thankfully it finally seems to have been fixed. I sometimes read cries of “we’re in the twenty-first century!” in a variety of contexts from responses to requests for plain text alternatives to HTML through to creative writing guides that ridicule the idea of any character in a modern novel being without some form of modern communication.

So what’s the problem? Doesn’t everyone have a mobile phone these days? Well, yes, most of us do, but the problem with mobile phones is that they require a signal to operate and that signal is unfortunately mostly absent in our village. I can sometimes get one bar from our upstairs windows. There’s sometimes a blip of reception around three o’clock in the morning and any text messages sent to me that day will finally reach my phone and alert me of their arrival. I’m told that it’s sometimes possible to get a signal from the village hall car park. I expect it might be possible to get reception from the top of the church tower, although I don’t know of anyone who’s tried and I don’t fancy volunteering. One of our neighbours apparently has one of those gadgets that can boost the signal to his mobile phone, but it requires the phone cable to be present and operational.

This means that if we lose the landline, we’re without any practical form of electronic communication. How much of a problem is this in our technologically advanced twenty-first century? For me it means I have to close my on-line book store, because without an Internet [connection] I can’t find out when a customer has placed an order and so I can’t process it. (Which means driving somewhere where I can access the Internet in order to close the store.) For others, it means they can’t do any on-line shopping. We have no shops in the village. Anyone who doesn’t have a car is reliant on the two-hourly bus service to do their shopping if they can’t get it delivered. But that’s a mere inconvenience compared to other problems.

We share a GP with Newton Flotman, but the Saxlingham Nethergate surgery closed down a few years ago, so we now either have to travel to the Newton Flotman surgery or register with a surgery in another village further away. When we used to have a surgery, the non-housebound with repeat prescriptions could walk to it when they needed to request new medication. Now you either have to drive to the surgery or phone. There’s no scheduled bus service that goes between Saxlingham Nethergate and Newton Flotman. You can, however, use the dial-a-ride Borderhoppa to transport you. You might perhaps be able to guess from the name how you go about booking it. The energetic amongst you might suggest walking. It’s about a mile and a half along a country lane with blind corners and little to no verges and no pavement until you reached the A140. It’s mostly national speed limit along that lane. If you like the adrenalin rush of extreme sports, you might enjoy walking along it. What type of people mostly need the surgery? The infirm, the sick, pregnant women who need regular check-ups, babies who need regular check-ups. But if they don’t have a car, maybe they can find a volunteer in the village to take them. Unfortunately for the housebound, their only method of asking their neighbours for help may be the telephone.

The biggest problem is what happens if there’s an emergency? How do we dial 999 without a working telephone? The village has a defibrillator but it requires a phone call to the ambulance service to access it. What happens if someone has a stroke, a heart attack, falls off a ladder, etc? We have to run around the village waving our mobile phones in the air or jump in the car and drive until we can find a signal. The ambulance service usually requires you to be near the patient so they can give advice on immediate aid or ask questions about the patient’s state. This can’t be done if you’re dangling out of an upstairs window or have had to drive several miles away.

We’re only eight miles from Norwich. We’re not off the map where there be dragons (or perhaps we are, sat navs certainly can’t seem to find us) but sometimes we’re without phones and Internet, and sometimes we’re without electricity. Forty or fifty years ago, villages didn’t have life-saving devices like defibrillators, but villagers generally knew who to run to in the event of an accident. Back then a village would typically have had a doctor or a nurse or a constable, and there would’ve been a general store where people could buy groceries. We do have some backup plans. We have a storm kettle and one of our wood burners has a flat top on which we were able to heat a pan of beans during a power cut. Power cuts seemed a fact of life in my childhood growing up in a seaside town during the seventies. The problem with the twenty-first century is that when technology fails we can be in a worse state than we might’ve been in when that technology didn’t exist or only existed in a primitive state.

And that, of course, is the basis of post-apocalyptic dystopian stories.


[Previously published on Facebook 2015-09-25.] Trundling along an unknown narrow country lane where you don’t know what’s round the next corner isn’t being lost: it’s exploring. I’ve been doing some exploring this week. I discovered a level crossing in the middle of nowhere where I had to wait for two intercity trains to pass (which was jolly exciting). I stopped to ask a dog walker for directions only to recognise him as a parent of kids who used to go to my son’s primary school way back when. I came across a bus stop like the Foxhole one that has a “no services currently operate in this area” sign. (This has added to my growing suspicion that one of Norfolk’s quaint and endearing peculiarities is to put up bus stop signs in lanes where you wouldn’t possibly expect a bus to fit and then announce that no buses stop there.) A pessimist might claim that my quest was a failure, since I didn’t actually find what I was looking for, but my knowledge of the area around Tasburgh, Hapton, Flordon and Newton Flotman has been enhanced and the scenery was lovely.

No Services Stop Here

[Originally posted on Facebook 2015-05-02.] There are some interesting little curiosities in our village and the surrounding area, such as the Foxhole bus stop at the end of Long Lane that has “No bus services currently operate in this area” displayed on it. I’ve never known of a bus service that went down that narrow country lane, but I’ve only lived in the area for ten years. The nearest bus stop from our home is actually only a short walk away, but it’s cunningly disguised as a reminder speed limit sign. The only thing that gave it away was the board with a bus timetable fixed to it, but when the bus company decided to change from the one-hourly morning service to two-hourly, they removed the timetable, so the 9:20 now arrives at 9:55 (or thereabouts) and the 10:20 has gone to meet its maker (or, perhaps, just gone to Long Stratton instead).

Some of the old folk who were bred and born here have acquired a sixth sense through a lifetime of close contact with nature (or, possibly, frequent trips to Norwich) and they have divined the secret locations where the bus stops and can sense the times when the bus is due. And so it might happen, that one of these fey folk might come upon on a soggy mawther standing up in the rain and say, “if you’re waiting for the 10:20, that ent coming til 11:55”.

However, the bus company have spared us the anguish of sleepless nights, wondering when they’ll get around to replacing the old timetable with the new one, as they’ve removed the board it used to be fixed to, and so the bus stop’s disguise is now complete. No passer-by could ever mistake it for anything but a speed limit sign, thanks to its masterly camouflage.

No doubt the bus company is at ease with the knowledge that we live in the modern age with information at our fingertips, but that strange creature commonly known as “a signal” is a city-lover that delights in the frenetic urban high life and fears to venture down the winding country lanes where the pace is slower cos there ent no point tearing round the corner as they’ll only be a tractor there and you ent never going to pass that for the next five miles.

But the Foxhole bus stop with no service still remains like a phantom from the past and seems to say, “who remember that ole bus that useter stop here?”

Update 2019-10-05: eventually my curiosity overcame me and I asked some elderly locals who had lived in the village all their life what bus service used to go that way. I was either greeted with a puzzled “what bus stop?” or I was reliably informed that “there ent never been no bus that go that way.” The general consensus was that no bus could possibly get down that route because the lane is far too narrow. So why then, I persisted, is there a sign that says no services stop there? The reply was simply “there ent no bus that go that way.”

Sometime later I happened to be driving down a narrow lane further south of the village on the other side of the A140. (I don’t like to say that I was lost. I was confident that I hadn’t wandered across the border into Suffolk, and I was pretty sure that eventually I would find a sign pointing to somewhere I recognised. I was just temporarily misplaced.) I came to a junction with another equally narrow, twisty lane and, while looking around trying to determine which way to go, I saw another one of those “no services currently operate in this area” signs.

I’m not complaining about these redundant signs. It’s just one of those interesting oddities that piques a writer’s curiosity, but since my original post the sign has been removed, and there’s now no trace of the mysterious Foxhole bus stop that was apparently never on any bus route.