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Friday, 27 May 2016

How not to waste time

I visit a number of old people on a regular basis, one in a carehome surrounded by others even older than her. It’s a salutary reminder of a common destiny, unless death strikes us first, and each visit reminds me to enjoy everything I can before the walls eventually close in.

How can you sit watching soaps (and I confess this is a temptation I find hard to resist) when one day, that is all you will be able to do—whether you want to or not. In many carehomes the TV dominates the room and is perpetually on.

For me the message is simple, enjoy life; push yourself because you can and avoid the ‘easy’ which is akin to the pap you may eventually eat. This is what motivates me, not so much a fear of the future—you can’t do anything about that—but a fear of wasting the now.

I have a few pictures to illustrate the point and what I think of when talking to the very old. They are the same people you see in the photos and, though it may look like it, they are not wasting time.

A Coronation Party

Umm, my favourite pastime. Once. I reckon I could still do it. If no one was watching.

I had a fine collection of gas masks and helmets. They mysteriously disappeared.

The May Procession - a rural tradition that remained powerful in Liverpool streets. The girls dressed as slum debutantes, the boys as cowboys and pirates with blackened cork moustaches and beards. 

Before there were gyms

The wonderful Guy Fawkes bonfire. Wood collection would begin in October each pile jealously guarded from rival gangs and rival streets. (Liverpool Cathedral in background)

 Safe streets

The noble art of conkers

Cultural appropriation 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Villages, Children and Books

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes almost as many to write and sell a book. A friend of mine who made it big with Harper Collins brought it home to me how much a major publisher does when nurturing a potential golden egg. Editing, polishing, cover design, marketing and distribution, arranging appearances on television, or major conventions, web-design; she even had her own minder/gate-keeper who filtered her mail. 

The advantage for her, other than the experience, is that she sells many books. Hype in over-drive works. The drawback was that, like many early rockstars, she earned only a very small percentage of each book sold. A small percentage of a very large cake is not to be sniffed at. Neither is a huge percentage of a very small cake.

My first book ‘Dark Fire’ was traditionally published and it made me a modest amount, though not as much as my second book Clay Cross, which was indie published, and brings us back to that old proverb about villages and children.

Clay Cross and the new book Cheyney, Behave are very much the product of a village, in this case a number of highly talented and generous friends. The whole process put me in mind of the old west, when ‘barn raising’ was a vital communal activity, and ended with everyone getting drunk on moonshine and fiddle music. I wish I could pay Maria Zannini, Vero Sicoe, Adrian Sensicle, Sam Waters, and Henry Lutman in similar manner. To see them dance on moonshine and fiddle music would be a marvel to behold.

And here is the reward for reading this far. They are all western barn dances, One is a classic, but stiff with everyone impossibly groomed. The other two though are . . . different.  Which is your favourite?

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Peter Cheyney: A Darker World

I came across Peter Cheyney when I was somewhere between twelve and thirteen. A church bazzar or second hand bookshop, the memory is blurred. What remains clear is that being basically stupid and already with the propensity to read what I wanted to read, I assumed at first the book was a western ‘Peter Cheyenne’ being some kind of cowboy. When it became clear that it wasn’t a western I put the book down convinced Peter Cheyenne was an American thriller writer.

I forgot all about him (well almost, the name having some kind of magic) for almost forty years. And this ‘forgetting’ is key to the whole story. Peter Cheyney was the most popular and prolific British author of his day. He was also the most highly paid. His curse perhaps is that he undoubtedly influenced Ian Fleming for Bond is nothing more than a glamorous composite of the Cheyney ‘hero’. Cheyney created the template that Fleming developed, and the rest is history. Bond got Chubby Broccoli and celluloid fame,  Peter Cheyney obscurity.

And yet during the dark years of World War II and the austerity that followed, Cheyney’s novels were taken into battlefields, were exchanged for ten cigarettes in POW camps, and at a time when fabric was rationed, women fantasised about the glamorous Cheyney femme fatales in their satin and silks, sheer stockings, ruffles and bows. Read Cheyney and you’re reading violence and brutality set in a fashion catalogue.

When I realised no book had been written about him since 1954, I decided to make amends for my earlier ignorance and immersed myself in his books. I found him ‘childish’ in the good sense, an overgrown schoolboy craving excitement, danger and romance. And like an overgrown schoolboy, he had strange ideas about women, and saw most things in black and white.

In his books you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism, and at its core a deep vulnerability. In terms of market forces they reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behave and judge for yourself.

Friday, 29 April 2016

A Most Talented Stomach

I was sitting down when the gurgling began, not that of a child in a pram. The gurgling came from my stomach. It’s something I’ve become accustomed, too. As the body ages it becomes more determined—desperate even— to show how hard it’s working. My stomach is a case in point, and this evening it gave me everything but fireworks and lights.

I must confess it had something to work on, namely lentil dahl, Roquefort cheese and a handful of grapes, but I wasn’t expecting this.

It began with a whiny sort of noise, more like a creaky door—or a conductor calling an orchestra to order. A long hollow noise followed, an intestinal aria as other parts of the stomach raised their instruments and waited their turn.

When it came, it was like duelling banjos, a Prokofiev and Shostakovich showdown in the guts and coming from every direction. The gurgles varied from the full bodied and fruity to the muted trumpet solo, but wh really surprised me was its duration. It went on, and on, and on.

For a while I panicked, thinking of those unfortunate souls who hiccupped for years on end. Would I be an embarrassment, to left at home with the TV on full volume? A fourteenth century mystic cried for over two decades thinking on the wounds of Christ. Where was my stomach going with this?

There would be lulls followed by a whole series of noises, like a roaring of termites in the lower intestine; and then a brief silence heralding the long plaintive sound of a whale in song. It was the colonic version of the dawn chorus, but where as in bed you can stagger out to shut the windows, with the stomach there is no escape. 

So I sat, a quiet pride gradually replacing fear, but relieved there was nobody else in the room. When it ended I experienced a perverse disappointment, like a concert had ended; perhaps a little Vaughan Williams next time around. Broccoli might do it.  

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Nine Witches of Garway

On a downcast Saturday afternoon we drove to Garway, a village fifteen miles or so away. It was something we’d planned to do for some time. I mean, who could resist a little known Knights Templar Church, stories of ghosts, and nine witches? 

The Nine Witches of Garway are quite an item. It is said ‘There’ll be nine witches from the bottom of Orcop to the end of Garway Hill as long as water flows.’ But it is difficult to find anything more. It was difficult enough to find the Church, never mind witches. We ended up asking directions from an elderly man with interesting eyes. His directions were good, involving a lane and a walk across fields. And as we walked the weather improved.

The Church is tucked in obscurity, and yet it remains in use and has all the bric a brac you associate with small country churches: hymn books, parish notices and drawings from a local primary school.
These homely touches are beguiling, even deceptive. An experienced dowser who helped in research for the book English Magic 2008 reported experiencing a ‘shattering sense of evil’ in the area of the piscina, where the communion chalice was once washed. This sense of evil—or something—has been detected by others, most notably by that master of the supernatural story, M. R. James.

After a visit to Garway in 1917, he wrote to one of his hosts, Gwendoline:
‘We must have offended somebody or something at Garway, I think. Probably we took it too much for granted, in speaking of it, that we should be able to do exactly as we pleased. Next time we shall know better. There is no doubt that it is a very rum place and needs careful handling.’

To my knowledge, Dan Brown has yet to visit Garway, but it has everything from a sacred well to a dovecote with 666 holes. It also suffered the full force of the Papal war against the Knights Templar. Clement the Humane had already connived with the King of France, Philip the Fair, to launch a full-scale attack on the Templars. The Order was accused of witchcraft. They may have been guilty of witchcraft, or they may have had more wealth  than both king and pope thought they deserved. A small hiccup in the form of Edward II  emerged, when the pope tried to extend the persecution to England.

For all his faults, Edward II was reluctant to comply. Eventually he allowed the papal inquisition but banned torture, insisting that all arrested Templars be treated with kindness.

This resulted in a stern rebuke from the Pope: ‘We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of your land…I command you at once to submit these men to torture.’

Edward remained reluctant but submitted when  money was given to him. Even kings have their price. 

Torture may not guarantee honest confessions, but in this case they guaranteed the  confessions the establishment desired, and the Knights Templar were extinguished, leaving only rumour and conjecture, and small mysterious churches like Garway.

You might enjoy a photo of what may be a ghoul or shadow on a window. You decide. The link is here, but you'll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page.