Friday, 30 September 2011

Ouse Bridge, about 1928

By Laetitia Marion Hamilton (1878 – 1964)
I was always waiting at my end of the bridge over this river. That's where we'd meet, Me and Alfred that is. We went out two or three times a week and he was always one for being late. Yet again, that night, he was late.

We'd been going together for almost three years then; it was three, I counted. So I was thinking we should move on in our relationship; you know, as you're supposed. Move on somewhere, not sure where, but move on. I had tried mentioning other boys, but, alas, nothing could provoke him into being jealous, not Alfred.

To try and force something out of him, that night, I was going to suggest a trial separation. Didn't like the idea, but I couldn't think of anything better, not when dealing with Alfred. If he did not respond then this was going nowhere. Better to move on and find someone else. I loved him, but you simply have to be practical.

When, at last, he arrived we went into a nearby pub, just along the waterfront, where we usually go. Just the few regulars in the room.

Later in the evening I managed to get the idea out; I suggested the separation. Having made my announcement we sat there in silence. He always did that when he didn't like something. Alfred just calmly drank his beer. He was never one to waste good beer. Then he got up and left; walked out just like that. It was then I started to cry, head in hands crying, others looking on, it was not the outcome I wanted.

Now, whenever I see this bridge, I wonder if I did the right thing. We never did see each other again.

The Volunteers, 1860

By Frederick Daniel Hardy (1826 – 1911)
See these children, take them, take them outside, strip them, strip them all. Then take them, drag them, to the open field with the canons prepared, lined up, ready. Shackle them to the barrels, make the ropes tight, their fate is preordained. There will be no entreaties, no pleas for mercy.

Call the drummer to strike up and to his beat light the fuses; one-by-one. Now watch their little bodies be blown to bits in a cloud of bloody smoke. All that will be left is their arms and legs, their blackened heads falling to the ground with a resounding thud. And the air filled with smoke, dust and a mist of blood; listen to the unholy echo, fading.

Of course I would not do this to these particular children, to my children, to these little darlings playing here. But I did it, not so long ago, to young men not that much older; men with brown skins and smelling foreign. Such an act might have been in the newspapers had it been performed in this country. But it was not; no such act is noteworthy when performed far away in India. Out of sight of civilisation and as revenge for a mutiny.

I remember long ago marching behind a similar drum as a child, dreaming of the intransigence of empire and of service to God and country; of the noble deed and valour in the face of the heathen. As we youngsters played the rest of the family gaily watching on; cheering. Later, of growing up, so quickly growing up, and that joyful moment of enlistment, and the tears when I first walked off, so proudly, to the railway station.

My father, here, standing behind me, was also a military man, but he never hinted at the miserable reality, not then in this our bright playroom. But I, also, am too ashamed to speak.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Book Review – Some Books on Writing

I've been reading a few books on the craft of writing recently. And if I've learnt one thing it is that mostly you're be better off spending the equivalent time reading and thinking about classic novels. Now don't get me wrong; most of these books contain reasonable advice. What they say is mostly true; and despite the claims on the cover to some unique insight they all contain pretty much the same advice; just each book gives it a minor twist in its presentation. However most this reading is a yawn; how come writing about writing is so boring? And mostly it somehow misses the point.

There seems to be a pattern to the kind of author who writes these books. (With only a few notable exceptions like Stephen King.) Obviously each author started out with a love of writing and wanting to earn their living from their craft. Each has achieved a modicum of success, enough to produce a CV that looks impressive, until you realise you've never heard of anything they've written. In order to expand their income they've taken to editing or acting as a writing consultant or taken on teaching. And then they spent most of their time running workshops on writing or trapped in some more or less formal classroom. From then on most of their time has been spent in such ancillary writing tasks. What has ground to a halt is their first love: any kind of original creative writing.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Book Review – The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The first thing that catches the eye is what appears to be a sticker on the book's cover; the same sticker, in a variety of colours, appears on the cover of other books by Nesbo. On closer inspection, and to my disappointment, the 'sticker' is printed and could not be pealed off.

The 'sticker' makes a bold claim. It reads: 'THE NEXT STIEG LARSSON' INDEPENDENT. A claim that invites comparison; and such comparisons may not always be flattering.

By way of investigation lets take what, at first, seems a wild detour. Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti (1801 – 1878) was a nineteenth century classical guitarist and composed many likeable works for his instrument. (Simon Wynberg provides a useful biography of this musician.) Zani de Ferranti knew the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini and made use of this association. He was one of a number of guitarist – and other instrumentalist who did a similar thing – who labelled himself as a sort of Paganini of the guitar. Zani de Ferranti had more claim than many to this title having a testimonial from Paganini himself.

Zani de Ferranti was a good performer and composer; there's no doubt about this; his music deserves a place in the repertoire. And, in fact, it deserves to be performed more often than it is currently. But will his music ever replace more established classics? No; definitely not. The comparison with Paganini tells us something: Zani de Ferranti was good, even very good, he's well worth listening to. But he was never as good as Paganini. Given a choice Paganini wins every time. There never was a time when Paganini would have been called: the Zani de Ferranti of the violin.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Still Life of Fruit, Flowers and a Bird's Nest on a Marble Ledge

By Jan Van Os (1744 – 1808)
You wouldn't think our little village show would engender such bitterness. But it does; so it does. You see, every year me and Myra would enter the floral competition down at the village hall. It's not much of a show, not much of a competition; and not much of a prize. Just some printed out certificate from the vicars PC and a supermarket gift voucher. I won't mention the name of the supermarket; it's something so down market, I never go there myself – though Myra did. I swear she, Myra that is, she was too friendly with the judges, there was something going on there, sure there was. She was like that; Myra that is. She had always been a bit too chummy with those on the parish council; there was gossip there was, don't take my word for it.

So this floral competition: for years now, she would get first prize and I would get second; like I said, she was too chummy with the judges. That's always niggled me. Just once in my life I'd like to be first. Then, this year, she passed away, didn't go to the funeral, wasn't invited. So I thought: my turn. At last my turn has come. So I pulled out all the stops. Spent weeks designing this; looks too much like an oil painting in this picture; but it was good, really good, even though I say so myself. And what happens? Third. Blooming third; those judges again.

I've been criticised for making my displays look too old fashioned. Well they are old fashioned; I'm getting on a bit now; so I am old fashioned in every possible way. What do they expect?

The judges complained that putting a doll in there looked a bit sinister. But I never thought of it that way. It was just my memory of my former rival; a little joke you see; Myra looking out from the grave; but they didn't like my little joke.

Look at her, this new winner she's behaving like some third rate Prima Donna. I can't be doing with that. And she ain't been in the village more than a year. She moved into Myra's old bungalow; some lawyer or something, it would be wouldn't it. And she's already well in with the parish council; well she would be. At least me and Myra had some dignity. We were always polite, didn't go lording it about over everyone. Look at her now; swanning about; it's a disgrace.

So Myra still beat me from beyond the grave. This is the last time for me. I doubt I'll see another year out. That's it for me; I'll die a looser.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book Review – The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) is one of those books that has been on my 'must read' list for something like twenty years. It's a well known classic, at least on the left, though more 'well known' when I first heard about it than today. A book with a reputation like this can often disappoint. The myths created in your mind dissipate when you finally get round to opening the volume. That is, when the historical turmoil that made it essential reading have long since passed. Fortunately this book did not disappoint.

We are living in times when the subject of this book is very apt; more apt than when I purchased this volume; a whole £2.95. There seems to be a significant parallel between the events described and those of today. In both cases liberal values are threatened as society tumbles into crisis – both political and economic. Today's British ConDem coalition government only proves that when it comes to political practice, what politicians actually do when in office is nothing remotely like the values they espouse when trying to gain election.

The whole book is filled with a brilliant mixture of nostalgia and cynicism for an age that was dying. A more establishment historian would have concentrated on the nostalgia and produced a phony tomb detailing parliamentary debates and the exultant deeds of so called great men. He/she would have missed the social context and the real forces at work shaping those ideas. And above all missed the deep hypocrisy of the establishment figures involved. A more socialist writer then the liberal Dangerfield would have concentrated more on the cynicism. While this alternative may have been factually truer with Dangerfield the cynicism is all the more biting coming from a believer. (Just like some of the most vengeful critiques of religion come from those once hoodwinked into believing.)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Dovecot, 2007

Ceramic by Paul Young
We hardly speak now. Live in the same house, hear him snore every night, but he rarely says a word; not to me anyway. Now he's retired he spends most of his time out back; out there; out in his shed, horrible, draughty wooden thing it is. Out there he is, with his miserable birds; dam pidgins. I hate the things, mess all over the place; vermin I say; flying rats.

One time, I thought, I'd show an interest; you know, see what all fuss was about. Couples are supposed to have something to talk about; something to share. So I spotted this thing; down high street it was; little shop sells ornaments and bits; nice stuff but a but pricey for likes of us. Wasn't cheep; not cheep at all. Had to save up for it. Put a few pennies aside out of the bit of housekeeping he gives me. Anyway, weeks later popped in for it; snooty woman behind counter looked down on me like; but I'm as good as any one and I gets it. Pleased with myself I was.

See it's an ornamental dovecot, birds and everything. Wrapped it all up; all nice like; made a fuss of it. Only he laughed at me; laughs at me he did. There's a first time for everything, never heard him laugh since, never did it much before either.

I keep it here, right on top of the telly. Right here where he'll see it every night. Right when he's having his dinner. Just to annoy him. I can see he don't like it; it's not authentic enough; so I make sure he has to look at it.

He's out there now; with his birds; he talks to them.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Six Jugs, 2007

Ceramic by Philip Eglin
“Look what I've found,” said a boy excitedly to his brother. They had been digging in this disused quarry looking for fossils. That morning they had not found much. Until now.

“Look here's another one. Another jug,” said the brother, prodding the ground with some stick used as a makeshift spade.

“How many do you think there are?”

The brother shrugged and examined what he'd just ripped from the ground. “Do you think they're old? They look old.”

“If they're old we could be rich.”

“If mum's rich dad will have to come back.”

“Keep digging.”

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Half a cup, please, 2006

Ceramic by Penelope Batley
“This is nice... lots of sugar, nice and sweet... just the way I like it, you know the way I like it... nice and sweet... nothing like a good cup of tea, that's what I always say... it's good we can let bygones be bygones... talk again... just like the old days... before the divorce and all that... now that wasn't a happy time for either of us... but lets not talk about that... surprised you phoned... even more surprised you wanted to see me... yeah, that did surprise me... nice here... never been here before... had a bit of trouble finding it... it's a bit out of the way... nice though... on the phone you said you're emigrating... that's nice, glad to see you're moving on... got to let go of the past sometime... me and... all right, I wont talk about her... you didn't say where you're going... surprised you wanted to talk, I can say... after what you said last time... still, that's all in the past... best forgotten... we can still be friends... I always said we could be friends... for the sake of the kids... they're grown up now... though Katie will still not talk to me... she'll come round in the end... you'll see... good we can sit here and chat... you're not saying much... it was always you that did the talking... we did have some good times, at the beginning anyway... I could do with another half cup, my throat still feels dry... you look a bit apprehensive... anything wrong... no need to cry... it'll be all right... mind you I feel a bit of indigestion coming on myself... must be something I ate...”

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Wave, 1898

By Roderick O'Conor (1860 – 1940)
I often come and look out there; to stand on this desolate embankment and look out over the sea; hoping to view The Wanderer on the horizon. A dim dot disappearing and revealing itself, growing larger, and yes it really is. But I know it will never happen, not after all this time. He's out there somewhere.

We were never happy, had to marry him. They said 'you'll have to pay for your fun,' but I never had any fun. Not up against the back wall; him drunk forceful.

Most of the time he was out there. But I paid the price when he came back, yes I paid the price.

He was jealous, for a long time I never knew what about. I never had any time to make him jealous, what with all the young'uns he forced on me. Nothing I did could please him, no nothing. So I decided to give him something to be jealous about. That's when I fell in love for the first time. Not some pretty lad for sure; he was older; set in his ways; and kind. The bast I was going to get.

I was going to divorce him when he came back. We were going to go somewhere, anywhere, away from the sea, start a new life, in a town. And there are not many who will take on another man's children.

But he never came back. The only time I wanted him back he never came back. What could I do? I was still married and no one will wait forever, not round here.

He's out there somewhere. He left me but I never got rid of him. It's too late now; all I can do is look out there.

Thursday, 8 September 2011


I never did understand how I got into this mess; of where they all came from; of how the fight started.

Albert was one of the 'in' crowd, everyone knew him, who he was, and those he despised steered clear. Unkempt, scruffy, he lived somewhere on the council estate. The estate I had to walk through on the way home from school. I wasn't part of his clique; I most definitely wasn't.

All the other kids in the playground seemed to surround us; forming a tight circle; a barrier through which there was no escape. No teacher came to the rescue; they never did.

Really it was no contest. Albert was tougher; he knew it; he was known for being a bully, took pride in his fighting prowess; and, most of all, enjoyed it. I was there to be beaten; the weak unpopular one who deserved it. All the other kids where there to watch the inevitable. This circus show could have only one conclusion; all were rooting for Albert.

One kid, I little knew, held my blazer with embarrassment; folding it tightly over his arm. A pack swarmed around Albert's blazer, cheering and laughing; their blazer the victors prize. Much as I wanted to run there was no option but to fight. As best I could I kept aiming to the side of his face.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Book Review – Vathek by William Beckford

I'm something of a lefty, a revolutionary socialist, a Marxist. Then there's William Beckford late Eighteenth Century elitist spendthrift; reputed the richest commoner of his age; and, for a time, a Conservative MP for a rotten borough. So what should someone like me make of a novel written by such a person? What would political correctness demand? In fact things are far more complex than crude political diatribes would allow; this is a far better novel than might be expected.

William Thomas Beckford was an extraordinary man. His money came from daddy, also confusingly called William Beckford. Along with eyewatering amounts of cash came land and several Jamaica sugar plantations. The few biographers I have read seem a little vague on details. But surely this is just another way of saying his money came from slave labour; from black bodies worked to death. Even today, it seems, biographers disgracefully want to cover up for the slave trade; literally to whitewash history.

And could William Thomas Beckford spend? He managed to fritter away his fortune in a way that makes modern celebrities look positively frugal. When you see the gaudy gold plated crap that passes for style these days at least Beckford had taste. He managed to buy up some of the greatest artworks from his age.

Just as extraordinary is Beckford's Gothic novel Vathek. First published, in French, in 1786 and influenced by The Arabian Nights it presented itself as a contemporary translation of an ancient text. I don't think modern scholars would have been fooled; though a non-expert, like myself, could have easily been taken in.

This is the part of a book review where I'm supposed to give a you a long winded précis of story. So when you finally get round to reading the book you get annoyed because I've given away the plot. So lets just pretend I've done my duty here and fake it. After all Vathek masquerades as something of a fake.

I read two other smiler works recently. These being the more well known Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson and The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. All three cover broadly similar themes of fantasy and the leadership role of kings. Also Rasselas is set roughly in the same region. Personally I think Vathek is a best of the three; there's more substance to the plot. Otherwise writing skills are about evenly matched; the rival works being well worth reading.

The edition I read contains copious footnotes and, be warned, not all editions appear to reproduce them. These footnotes, I assume, are by Beckford himself and an essential part of the text. As the work presents itself as an ancient text, having been translated, the footnotes apparently being added by an editor, they give the novel an air of being a scholarly work. I like them, they show the experimental nature of the late eighteenth century novel; it's something later novelists could learn from.

I could see this novel making a great film. It could become a blockbuster mainstream movie; something in the manner of Lord of the Rings, and if the produce/director was really creative something actually interesting. Beckford writing is very pictorial; many of the scenes would prove expensive to stage – but not more costly then many lesser works. However any movie would be one where you lamented: read the book it's better.

The First, The Only One, 1859

By John William Haynes, active 1852 – 1882
Am I to end my days here in this little room. Not what I'm used to; but better than I deserve.

Our families had known each other for years and I got on well enough with George. We grew up; played together during the school holidays; at first he was like a brother. He looked well enough and everyone said I must be pleased with the prospect of such an auspicious match. But I sensed an anxiety and restlessness within him; I wondered - should I.

Despite little recompense of love our families expected us to marry and set great faith on our union. I did my duty; I did what I had to do to keep him. But it was all to no avail. It was far easier for him to escape the demands of society than I could ever have hoped for myself.

For months I had no idea I was in disgrace. The very sentiment filled me with fear. What could I do? I reached for all sorts of potions to try and save a yet more disgrace. But none were effective and only served to heighten my melancholy.

I had taken to wearing ever more extravagant dresses to hide my growing expanse. And had almost starved myself to try and deny my predicament. But when it was far too late there was no denying the unsightly truth.

Little was said; but looks could shame. It was then that I was sent here. To have the child out of the gaze of enquiring eyes. I blame my abstinence for a week and sickly darling. They don't expect it to have long to live. Society will have its revenge on me.

I cannot let myself get too attached to the little fellow. But I cannot help praying for its survival. All I can accomplish now is to watch with anxiety. I cry when they say it's for the best.

The consequence is I'm unlikely to ever have another child again. Something I have spent my whole life desiring and planning. It's the only task I have been brought up to accomplish. I'm damaged goods and no one will endure me.

So my life is forever over. I can see what beholds me, to die a sad spinster, passed from one resentful relation to another, ever dependent on their goodwill, ever looked on in unspoken shame. And never to speak of this pain again.

Many would, no doubt, condemn me if they knew the truth. But none could torment me more than I do myself.

Monday, 5 September 2011

George Goes Home

It was closing time and George had been there since finishing work some hours ago. He was not drunk, it took a lot to get George drunk, but he was certainly merry.

Picking up his large best coat he said, “I know, let's go for a meal. Famished I am. I know this place where-”

“No, had enough,” said the last remaining of his colleagues, also buttoning his coat. “The wife, you understand. See you.” And this colleague hastily made his getaway into the pub car park.

It had been some celebration. George had at last become salesman of the year after being runner up for the previous four years. It had been a hard slog and George had made an extra special effort to be even more genial than usual. Twenty years as the office joker and what had he to show for it?

On stepping outside he found everyone gone. The promised lift had evaporated and a cold wind cut into him. George shuffled to the bus stop and was just in time for the last bus home. On the long meandering journey George huddled as best he could in the corner. Winter was early this year.

It was pitiably dark as George struggled up the steps outside the Victorian terrace where he lived. On the bare floorboards inside he looked upon the hall table; no mail. Huffing and puffing he made his way up to the third story. In the dim light and out of breath he slid his key into his flats door.

Inside his bedsit he put on a single bar of the electric fire. Keeping his coat on he slumped in an uncomfortable threadbare chair. He reached for the whiskey bottle but there was not enough remaining to get a man of George's size or experience tolerably drunk.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Return

The upstairs flat was strangely quiet and had been all that Sunday evening. Such bliss, such solitude meant I had taken advantage and read, read, read, and then been surprised to find it was nearing midnight; that, sad to say, was way past my normal bedtime. It was then I heard that fateful sound that I knew would disturb this unusual and welcome solitude.

The buzzer for the upstairs flat emitted its nauseating screech; and I knew what that harsh, incessant rasp meant almost as soon as it shuddered down my spine. I rose and crept into my own hallway and turned off the intercom for my downstairs flat in this two story block. The buzzer continued its metallic cacophony and would annoy the entire block, and probably most of the street. No sound came from the upstairs flat this hateful sound was aimed at. I inched towards a window that looked out onto the blocks main doorway then drew back fearing I should be seen. Was it a him or a her?

Ten or more minutes had elapsed as the buzzer rasped with only the occasional momentary relief. Also there had been the occasional loud 'hic' as the insistent, would be, visitor appeared to have the hiccups. Then the pattern of previous nights followed, one that I had diligently prepared for; the person at the doorway began to ring the buzzers of the other flats. I was most definitely not in, asleep, or otherwise engaged; intrigued as I was, I was not getting involved. Still no one dared answered.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book Review – The wings of Icarus by Laurence Alma-Tademe

This is a curious novel from the last years of nineteenth century by Laurence Alma-Tadema (1865–1940). She seems best remembered today for some fairly conventional poetry and while this short novel may not be the best ever written it is certainly worth reading.

The full title is the grandiose: THE WINGS OF ICARUS: BEING THE LIFE OF ONE EMILIA FLETCHER AS REVEALED BY HERSELF IN 1. Thirty-five letters, Written to Constance Norris between July 18th, 188-, and March 26th of the following year; 2. A Fragmentary Journal; 3. A Postscript. Gosh: such a long title for so short a work.

At first it seems a conventional love story. Though you wonder, at the start, who Emilia is in love with; at least when reading with a modern sensibility. Could it be the young, attractive and defiantly female Constance Norris herself? Could this be a lesbian novel that dare not state its intent? And did the author realise what she was writing? Alma-Tadema never married herself; but the little reading I have done from web based biographies reveal no other woman in her life. But who knows?

Then the novel's male love interest enters; dull convention restores itself. But only to a limited extent and the moral question arises of should a marriage be about love or duty? To say more would ruin the story.

The novels structure is unusual. Starting with a series of letters from Emilia to Constance. Incidentally these letters show an interesting use of the second person point of view and show this can have its uses. The novel then moves to a change of scene and a diary section. Finally there is a postscript which I first though was going to be a suicide note; but this turned out to be... well, you'll just have to find out for yourself. I think this structure is interesting and inventive.

There is a theme throughout the novel of the role of women within marriage. While this holds back from completely endorsing feminism you do get some notion of the swirl of ideas that resulted in the Suffragettes. Also there are doubts cast on the church and religion; again Alma-Tadema holds back from outright atheism but goes further than might be expected.

A novel that may not be top of your reading list but it's short and interesting enough to dig out when you have a little time to spare.