Overdoing it

depth photography of blue and white medication pill

This came to me in the wee small hours of this morning, almost fully-formed. We’ve just returned from a hotel holiday by the sea, and I’ve had a medical diagnosis which has been worrying. I think that many people when they are ill take advantage of their illness, consciously or not, and I wondered what it would be like if a naturally lazy and self-indulgent man became even more entrenched in his ways as a result of a vague medical condition.


“Shall we walk to Underdowne Sands today?” Jill said, taking another slice of toast and covering it with butter before sliding it under her fried egg, placing a rasher of bacon on top, and cutting off a less than delicate corner before conveying it to her mouth.
Her brother shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “How far is it? You know what the doctor said to me about overdoing things.” He stared resentfully at the untouched solitary poached egg that adorned his plate.
“I looked it up last night,” Jill said. “Three and a half miles along the cliff path. Or a little less if you go along the beach, and the beach would be flatter.”
“I’m sure that an hour’s walk wouldn’t be bad for you,” his wife, Lucy, told him. “I know Doctor Williams said that you shouldn’t overdo things, but he also said that you should get a bit of exercise. We’ll take it easy, and you can stop and take a rest whenever you need.”
“And there’s a café just outside Underdowne village which is meant to be really good,” Jill said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh, very well,” Jack said.
The fourth member of the party, Alice, sat silently, eating her grilled tomato and mushrooms. She never said much anyway, so it was difficult for the others to know what she was thinking. As the unmarried sister of Jill’s late husband, Bob, she was invariably included as part of Jack and Jill’s family events, but there always seemed to be more than a whiff of condescending charity about the invitations.
Jack attacked his egg. He’d had a bad scare when he’d visited the doctor a couple of months previously with a mysterious pain less than a year after retiring from his job in the insurance company. He’d been relieved when the tests had showed that it wasn’t cancer, but even so, it seemed that something strange was going on inside him, and as he often reminded the others, he’d been warned not to “overdo things”.
If truth be told, Jack rather enjoyed being treated as an invalid. Lucy had always spoiled him a little anyway, fussing over him, making sure he was comfortable and that everything was the way he wanted it to be. He wasn’t ungrateful about that – far from it – but the doctor’s diagnosis had brought a new level of solicitude and care into his life. There was even a thrill, if he admitted it to himself, of danger – living close to the edge – which had never been a part of his previous existence.
Added to his natural hypochondria, which had seen him take to his bed on more occasions than many would have considered necessary, this change to his medical condition suited him very well indeed, thank you.
He was lucky, he thought to himself, chasing the remains of the egg yolk around the plate with a corner of dry toast from which his wife had thoughtfully and wordlessly removed the crusts, with Lucy. And with Jill, as well. Some people seemed unable to appreciate their brothers and sisters, but Jill and he had always got on fine, and had been proud of the other’s achievements at school, college, and work, and had divided the chores associated with looking after their elderly parents equally between them. There was an unspoken agreement between James and Gillian (who had been “Jack” and “Jill” almost since they were born) that they were good for each other.


Half an hour later, the party of four assembled on the steps of the hotel, with the three women wearing sensible shoes and thin sweaters. Jack was dressed as if for an assault on an Antarctic mountain.
Jill laughed at the sight. “Jack! You’re going to roast in that lot. We’re going for a stroll along the beach in England in July, not hunting polar bears or penguins or something.”
“I told him,” Lucy said to her. “But he wouldn’t listen.” But there was no malice in the words, almost a quiet pride in Jack’s stubbornness.
“I can always take something off,” Jack answered her. “And if any of you ladies get cold, as I’m sure you will, that’s exactly what I’ll end up doing, lending you my coat and sweater.”
“Oh, don’t be so silly,” his sister told him. “Off we go.”
She strode off, swinging the Alpine walking sticks that Jack and Lucy had given her for her birthday some years ago. The others followed in her wake.
They reached the beach to discover that the tide was in and they would have to find a path through the rocks and boulders above the high water mark, rather than on the firm sand that would have been exposed at low tide.
“This isn’t easy,” Lucy said, after a few minutes.
“It’s not,” Jack agreed. “I think this comes into the category of overdoing it.”
“Wait for poor Alice,” Lucy said. Her sister-in-law was some hundred yards behind them, making slow progress as she picked her way between the rocks. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Jack perched on the edge of a large rock and caught his breath. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” he said.
“Well, there’s always the cliff path,” Jill replied, pointing upwards.
Jack groaned. “I’m not sure I can make it up there.”
“Of course you can. You lead and set the pace, then we’ll be sure we won’t be going too fast for you. Here, have one of my sticks.”
As she passed the stick over to him, Lucy and Alice joined them.
“Sorry,” said Alice. “I was looking at some of the plants growing on the rocks back there.” She was looking flushed and was breathing quite heavily.
“I didn’t mean to rush you, Alice,” Lucy said to her. “Sorry if I made you catch up a bit fast.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Just not very used to walking on stones like this. It’s a bit different from Edgbaston, isn’t it?”
“Will you be all right if we go up the cliff path?” Jill asked her. “It will be a bit longer, but I think the views will be lovely once we get up there. Jack will lead, so we don’t go too fast for him.”
“I think I can manage that,” Alice told her. “I’m ready to go on. Sorry, everybody.”
Jack strode off. Not too fast, he told himself. Remember what the doctor said about not overdoing things. With the staff in his hand, and the three women following him, he felt almost mythic. A sort of tribal leader, guiding his people. So, his body might be weak, but he had a mighty spirit, didn’t he? He breathed in the sea air as he started to climb the cliff path. It wasn’t too bad, actually. The path was clearly marked and quite smooth. There were even handrails in places. He strode on, the staff digging into the chalky soil as he climbed.
He started to hum wordlessly to himself, and suddenly recognised the tune. “Onward Christian Soldiers” – now where had that come from? He hadn’t been in a church since… since his brother-in-law Bob’s funeral, and he couldn’t remember that they’d sung that then.
“Are you all right?” Lucy’s voice came from behind him. “Need to rest?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stopping, “but it might be nice to have a bit of a breather. Did you bring the water bottle? I’m a bit dry.”
“Take off that thick jacket, then,” suggested Lucy. “I’ll carry it for you.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged his way out of the expensive insulated breathable windproof waterproof jacket that he’d bought specially for this trip.
“What a view!” Jill exclaimed, looking out over the bay. It really was wonderful, Jack had to agree. The sun was starting to burn through the mist, and the windows of the town below were shining in the sun.
“Where’s Alice?” Lucy asked.
“Here I am,” came a small voice from the path below them. “Sorry again, everybody.” Alice’s little round red face appeared from behind a gorse bush. “I just had to catch my breath a bit.”
“Oh dear, are you all right?”
“I’m fine now.”
“Do you want to rest a little more before we set off again?”
“I’m OK, really.”
Jack felt a little aggrieved. After all, it was he who had been told to not overdo things and to watch his health.
Almost angrily, he set off up the track with deliberate strides, going a little faster than before. By the time he had reached the top of the cliff, he was blowing hard, and felt the need to sit down.
Lucy caught up with him a minute or so later. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked, with obvious concern in her voice.
“I’ll be okay,” he replied in a martyred tone. “Just a bit winded, that’s all. Did you remember to bring those pink pills with you?”
“I’ve got all your medicines with me in my bag,” his wife told him. “I know you never remember to bring them with you when we go out. Here you are.”
“Water,” he demanded, putting the tablet in his mouth.
“Here.”
“Thank you.” He might be unwell, but that was no reason to be ungracious, he said to himself.
Alice and Jill appeared at the top after a while.
“The view’s even better from up here,” Alice said, looking around. To Jack’s relief, she seemed to have recovered completely from whatever it was which had affected her earlier.
“You’re looking better,” Lucy told her.
“Second wind,” Alice said. “Anyone want a bit?” holding out a bar of Kendal mint cake.
“Lovely, thank you,” said Jill, taking a piece.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Jill.
“I’d better not,” said Jack, “after what the doctor told me about eating too much sugar. Especially if we’re going to have a cake or something when we get to that café you were talking about.” Time for him to reassert his place as the invalid of the party now that Alice seemed to have recovered. “Just give me a couple more minutes before we set off again.”
“Take as long as you need,” Alice said to him.
The cheek of it! After waiting for her to catch up, three times now, she was the one who was telling him to rest. “Perhaps you’d like to go in front?” he suggested, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“No, it’s best if you lead,” she said.
At least there was that. He heaved himself to his feet, with Lucy giving him a hand, and set off along the cliff path. The sun was shining now, and even without his jacket, which Lucy was carrying for him, he was still too warm, but he decided to say nothing, although the sweat was now running down his face.
“You’re looking very hot, dear,” Lucy said to him when he paused and looked back at his followers. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. How much further?” he asked Jill, who was looking at the map on her phone.
“Another mile or so to the village. The café’s a few hundred yards inland from the rest of the village. Perhaps another thirty minutes. Can you manage?”
“Of course I can,” he replied indignantly. But despite the indignation, it was nice, he told himself, to be treated as the member of the party who needed the care and attention of the others. This was the compensation for being an invalid. Almost made it worthwhile.
He started to hum to himself again, and to his surprise heard Alice’s voice singing along.
“Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.”

“Where did you learn that, Alice?” Jill asked, laughing.
“At the Diocesan Synod,” Alice said. “From one of the assistant bishops, actually.”
“I never knew bishops had that sort of sense of humour.”
“You’d be surprised,” Alice told her.
They reached the village. A bowl of muesli with plain yoghurt, one poached egg and a slice of dry toast seemed a long time ago, and a cup of decent coffee and a slice of cake sounded like a wonderful idea.
The café, which was only a few hundred yards up the road from the village, was appropriately Olde Worlde. There was a table in the garden, pleasantly shaded by a fig tree, and the waitress took their orders for two lattes (Jill and Alice), a cappuccino (Lucy), and an americano (Jack, reluctantly) and cakes.
While they were waiting for their order, “Just look at those roses,” Lucy said, admiringly. She had a passion for roses. The flowerbeds in the garden at home were filled with them. She got up, and Jill joined her as they walked over to the flowerbed.
“I’ll stay here and wait for them to bring the order,” Alice said. “Don’t be too long, or the coffee will get cold.”
Jack said nothing, but closed his eyes. He felt weary. He seemed to become tired and want to sleep more than he ever had done before the diagnosis. Slowing down, he told himself. Perfectly natural. But it was very nice to be able to do nothing, and for the illness, whatever it might be, to take responsibility for it.
A slight clinking of china and silverware told him that the drinks had arrived, and he heard Alice’s voice explaining which coffee and which cake went where. No need for him to open his eyes. He drifted away, listening to the sound of the bees in the lavender, a pigeon cooing somewhere close by, and a tractor somewhere in the distance… Thanks to the tablets he’d taken earlier in the day, he felt no pain…


He was woken by Lucy shaking him and shouting at him, “Wake up, you lazy lump!” There was a hysterical scream which he recognised as Jill’s voice.
Lazy? Him? Lazy? Why, he’d led them on this morning’s trek, hadn’t he? Lucy never used that sort of language to him. He opened his eyes. Lucy was standing in front of him.
“What’s the matter? If the coffee’s gone cold, we could get another one.”
“Look!” Jill shrieked at him. Lucy moved to one side. He could now see the waitress who had taken their order, bending over Alice, who was slumped over the table, her face half-buried in the slice of chocolate cake in front of her. “She’s dying, you fat fool!” his sister said. “And you just sat there and did nothing!”
“I… I…” He stopped. “Dying?”
“There’s a very weak irregular pulse, said the waitress. “I was a nurse, and I know what I’m looking for. I’m so sorry. I’ve called 999 but God only knows how long it will take for them to get here from the town. I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“Did you really not notice anything?” his sister asked Jack. “You really are bloody useless, aren’t you?”
“I was asleep, I suppose. You know how easily I get tired with this condition and all.”
He felt a strong resentment against Alice. He had been supposed to be the invalid, not her. With a sudden stab of self-knowledge, he realised he’d never be able to rely on Lucy, or Jill for that matter, to sympathise with him again.
“Sorry,” he said, but if his apology was heard, it went un-noted.
There was a hostile silence as the women raised Alice back in her chair. The waitress disappeared and returned with a bowl and a damp cloth which she used to wipe Alice’s face gently. The bees still hummed, and the pigeon still cooed, but the sound of the tractor had been replaced by the distant sound of an approaching ambulance siren. Other than that, the brittle silence prevailed.
At length, the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics skilfully bundled Alice onto the stretcher. “We’ll give her oxygen,” one of them told Jill. “There’s an excellent chance of her survival, I’d say.”
“We’re going to the hospital,” Lucy told Jack, “Jill and me.”
“And me?”
“You’re going back to the hotel.”
“Walking? In my cond—” He broke off. His trump card had been out-trumped.
“Yes. Walking. Here’s your coat. And your bloody pills. And your water bottle. And all of your other crap I’ve been carrying for you.”
And with that, they were off in the ambulance.
And just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse…
“I know you didn’t drink your coffees and eat the cakes, and of course I’m terribly sorry about what happened to your friend, but I really do have to ask you to pay for them.”
It was the last straw. Lucy was the one who carried their money. He tried to explain, and ended up breaking down. Life was just so unfair.


Sadly, I do recognise some of myself in Jack – but I’m not that bad. Honestly.

Nostalgia – a British disease?

There seems to have been a lot of this sort of thing recently on Twitter, etc.

You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at 6 o’clock and clean the newspaper, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.

“The Four Yorkshiremen” sketch – Monty Python

We have a cost-of-living crisis in this country. Energy (gas and electricity) prices have soared to unimaginable levels. Food in the shops has become more expensive. Petrol prices have gone up, meaning that everything costs more. Many now have the choice between eating and heating – it’s not possible to afford both.

And yet, there are still those on Twitter who are saying that living in an unheated house with inadequate sanitation etc. “never did me any harm”. Actually, while it may not have done the writers of these tweets any harm, the average life expectancy has gone up by about 10 years. If the standard of living had been as high then as it is now, they might have enjoyed their grandparents’ or parents’ company for ten years more. The “good old days” were not all good. But let’s not argue about the causes and remedies of this present disaster. This is a symptom of a more general condition – instant nostalgia, and in many cases, I think it’s a peculiarly British phenomenon.

I recently went into a Waterstones nearby (The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, if you want to know) to promote my latest, On the Other Side of the Sky, and see if they would (a) take a copy or two, and (b) agree to a book event.

As it turned out, I ended up talking to a very sympathetic and friendly man, and we ended up talking “local authors”. Apparently, the most popular local author genre is “the hard times I experienced while I was growing up”. The French call this nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for mud) as exemplified in the four Yorkshiremen above. This is apparently what fills the shelves marked “Local Author”.

As a footnote, he did order one copy of On the Other Side of the Sky and said that he would order more if there seemed to be a demand. If anyone reading this is from Sutton or the neighbourhood, and feels that they need something different in the way of reading material, please feel free to pop into Waterstones and ask for a copy.

But I digress… When the first effects of Brexit started to strike (empty supermarket shelves, etc.) social media was full of people talking about “Blitz spirit” and so on. Most of these people were born long after the 1939-45 conflict, and had no idea what actually went on. Even today, it’s hard to find unromanticised accounts of the British reaction to the German air-raids. There was a class divide – the rich stayed safely underground in wine cellars of their clubs and hotels, the poor huddled under corrugated iron sheets with a few spadefuls of earth on top. That is, until there were riots demanding that the Underground stations be opened as shelters.

And even then, life wasn’t exactly all “White Cliffs of Dover” happy singsongs.

…there was widespread looting during the war. In 1940 there 4,584 cases of looting in London alone. People would come back to their bombed out houses to find their belongings stripped from the rooms. The black market in stolen goods and ration coupons was so widespread that the ‘spivs’ who operated it became a national obsession.

https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/14482-the-real-blitz-spirit

The happy days of evacuee children leading an idyllic existence in the countryside, far from the falling bombs and the dirt and grime of the big cities? Quite a few were abused, or used as virtual slaves by their “hosts” – it wasn’t all roses.

And of course, the grinding hunger and cold. The misery of blackouts (and how many crimes went unnoticed and unreported in the dark?).

Of course, it wasn’t all misery, but it seems to me that there is a hunger which is especially British for a past that was actually pretty crappy, but we have chosen to hang Union Jacks over the mouldy patches on the wall and glorify the days of WWII, the Thatcher/Falklands years, and no doubt in 20 years’ time, those who are children now will look back with nostalgia on the days when “we had to huddle in blankets and eat cold baked beans because we couldn’t afford the gas bill. We had it tough, not like the kids today”.

As far as I can tell, such a nostalgia is particularly endemic to Britain (or possibly even to England). Yes, other countries may regret the passing of older, simpler times, but I don’t think they glorify ice-topped toilets over central heating, or mouldy carrots over the range of vegetables that were available pre-Brexit (the range has been reduced). This seems to be a particularly British form of masochistic fantasy. I’ll be interested to hear others’ comments.

Anyway, I shall continue my own forms of nostalgia, for times and places that never were, and were never intended to be, outside the pages of my writing.

Alchemy and Rosicrucians

Here’s another for my reading list – Cabala, Spiegel Der Kunst Und Natur, In Alchymia (that is, if I can find a copy anywhere and then make my way through old German). It incorporates some of my favourite subjects: mirrors, Kabbala, alchemy, and general Rosicrucian mysticism.

Note that the links here are to both nature, as you would expect from a science, but also to art. Alchemy was much more than simply attempting to turn metals into gold, or even seeking the philosopher’s stone. It’s a way of reconciling the heavens and the earth (all the astrological and alchemical equivalences).

But much more than this, there is a link with spirituality. The quest is a spiritual perfection, or gold, to be created through the transformation of vulgar matter – the human condition, or lead. To see this (astrology) as merely “what are the stars telling us?” or (alchemy) as a get-rich scheme (though there were certainly frauds and hucksters who played on this) is to miss the point.

Links between the two proto-sciences

I call these (alchemy and astrology) “proto-sciences” because in many ways they operated in the same way as modern scientific methods. There was meticulous measurement, an insistence on replication, and a theoretical underpinning (mistaken, but complex) guiding the processes.

The links can be clearly seen in the diagram here. We have the different alchemical processes linked not only to the signs of the zodiac, but also to the “planets“ and the “elements”. As you can see from the chart below, though, there is not always a consistency in the symbols used (the same discrepancies sometimes exist in modern science).

However, note the importance of the four Paracelsian “elements” in both charts: fire, water, earth, and air, which of course are represented by the Elementals: Salamanders, Undines, Gnomes, and Sylphs. All of these, of course, come into On the Other Side of the Sky as key plot ingredients as well as adding to the general ambience of the story..

Of course, both of these disciplines, alchemy and astrology, were starting from mistaken premises regarding the fundamental nature of things, but the idea of influence at a distance, which formed part of the astrological foundation, and also found expression in the idea of the Powder of Sympathy, and “weapon salve” was in some way responsible for Newton (a passionate alchemist) developing his appreciation of gravity and the laws governing it.

Mirrors – always a subject of fascination to me. Susanna Clarke uses mirrors most effectively in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as gateways to Faerie. I also use a bowl of water, acting as a magical “mirror” orscrying glass – and I am constantly fascinated by what lies on the other side of mirrors (as was Lewis Carroll, of course).

It’s clear that this worldview (the synthesis of astrology and alchemy) is holistic – taking into account the physical and the spiritual aspects of this world, and also the heavens. It’s not a “simple” or primitive model of the universe, even if it doesn’t correspond to what we now know, but it all comes together to create a system which is far from being nonsense, and it continues to hold my interest as a psychological view of the world (an interest also shared by Jung, of course).

Parents

a pastor standing beside a coffin conducting a funeral service

Our writing group (Lichfield Writers) gave us a prompt as follows:

The happy couple living next door have died in a horrific accident. When their parents show up for the funeral, you find out why the couple always changed the subject when you asked them about their families.

“Who was that?” Marianne asked Peter as he slumped into a chair and carefully put the phone on the kitchen table in front of him.

“The police. It’s about next door. Colin and Caroline.”

“Oh dear. Has their house been broken into? I didn’t hear anything. You went in yesterday to feed the cat and pick up their post while they’re on holiday. There wasn’t anything the matter then, was there?”

He sighed. “Sit down. It’s rather shocking, really. I mean, these things happen, but not to people you know. They’re both dead.”

Marianne turned pale. “Oh, the poor dears. What happened?”

“Accident on the M5. The one which was on the news last night.”

“Oh my God. Dead?”

He nodded. “For what it’s worth, the police say that death must have been instantaneous. They wouldn’t have suffered.” He thought about what an instantaneous death in a car crash would mean, and all he could think of was gory impalings or decapitations, or… He swallowed, fighting his nausea.

“I suppose I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should, but it’s a mercy there are no children, isn’t it?” She made a face. “Oh, the poor dears,” she repeated. “Poor things. So young and so alive, and so devoted to each other.” She pulled out a handkerchief and started to cry. “Why did the police call you, anyway?”

“They had our name and phone number written on a card I gave them in case they ever needed to call us. The police wanted to know if we were next of kin.”

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’re not, are we? Who are, I wonder?”

Peter scratched his head. “I suppose his parents, or hers. The police asked me, and I said I didn’t know. I suppose they have their ways of finding out.”

“They never talk about their family or their parents, do they?”

“No, they never do– did, did they? Always seemed to want to talk about something else if the subject ever came up. Never went away at Christmas to see them. Or had them to visit.” It was going to be strange, thinking of them in the past tense. As Marianne had said, they had seemed so alive. They’d been good neighbours, helping out when Marianne had had to go into hospital, always ready with an invitation to share their barbecues, or New Year’s parties, and excellent company whenever they came round for a meal or just for a cup of coffee and a friendly chat. In a way, Peter and Marianne felt they’d become their neighbours’ parents. He’d worked it out once; Colin and Caroline were literally young enough to be his children. Or was it that he was old enough to be their father? Anyway…

“Perhaps they don’t have parents,” Marianne suggested.

“That’s silly, everyone has parents.”

“Not if their parents have died,” she pointed out. “Or maybe they were fostered, and they never knew their parents.”

“I suppose so.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee, added milk and sugar, and sipped. “I suppose we’re going to the funeral?”

“How will we know? Who’s going to tell us?”

“Maybe it will be in the local paper.”


A few days later, there was a short paragraph in the weekly Chronicle describing the crash, with the last paragraph informing the reader that there would be a committal and cremation at the municipal crematorium on the following Friday.

Peter dug out his black suit, which he hadn’t worn since… He couldn’t remember. “Have I even got a white shirt that still fits me?” he called downstairs from the bedroom.

“Are you going to wear black and white?” Marianne called back. “That’s so old-fashioned. People wear all sorts of colours to funerals now. They put what they expect you to wear in the notice.”

“Well, maybe I am old-fashioned, then. And there’s nothing in the paper asking me to wear a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt.”


The crematorium chapel was empty when Peter and Marianne arrived about ten minutes before the funeral was due to start. The two coffins were sitting at the front. There were no flowers. The chapel was cold, and the winter sunlight barely pierced the gloom. Almost as soon as they took their places near the back, a dozen or so people entered the chapel – mainly in couples – with nameless faces Peter and Marianne recognised from Colin and Caroline’s barbecues. Peter seemed to be the only one wearing a black tie. The front rows remained unoccupied.

“We’re the oldest ones here,” Peter nudged Marianne and whispered. “By a generation.”

“No parents?” Marianne whispered back.

“No relations at all, by the look of it.”

As he spoke, two men about Peter’s age entered, hand in hand, and made their way to the front row where they sat, almost ostentatious in their black suits.

“Who are they?” Marianne whispered. “What are they doing? Are they hers or his or what?”
Peter shrugged as the minister entered.

The service, if you could call it that, was a flat affair, devoid of all emotion, sentiment, or religious feeling.

“And that’s that,” Peter said as the second coffin slid out of sight and the curtains closed. “No pale ale and pork pies afterwards. Not that anyone’s said anything about, anyway.”

The two men who had been sitting at the front left their seats first, walking up the aisle between the rows of mourners, hands linked. Both held handkerchiefs with their free hands with which they dabbed at their tear-streaked faces.

Peter looked around, but it seemed that no one seemed to recognise the pair, or be recognised by them. The chapel emptied, with Peter and Marianne being the last to leave.

The two older men were still standing outside, alone, weeping openly. One of them looked Peter in the eye in a way that it was impossible to ignore, and held out a hand.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I take it you are Peter and Marianne?”

Peter, surprised, shook the offered hand. “Yes, we are.”

“So glad to have met you at last. Colin and Caroline told Paul and me about you when we spoke on the phone with them. How good you were to them when they first moved into the house, and how you continued to make them feel welcome.”

The other man, presumably Paul, offered his hand in turn, and Peter and Marianne offered suitable vague words of sympathy.

“Excuse me asking,” Peter said, unable to contain his curiosity much longer, “but who…?”

“Who are we?” the other answered. “I’m Neil and this is Paul.” There was a silent pause of a few seconds. “Colin and Caroline never mentioned us to you?”

Peter shook his head.

“Oh, I see, I know that they did feel a bit embarrassed about us. You see, we are Colin’s and Caroline’s fathers.”

“You are Colin’s father?”

“Not really. I’m his stepfather.”

“And Paul is his father? I don’t think I really get what’s going on here.”

“Of course.” He smiled. “Let me help you understand. I was married, and my wife and I had a baby girl, Caroline. Sadly, my wife died as a result of complications in her second pregnancy a few years later. The baby also did not survive. So I was left with Caroline.”

“As for me,” broke in Paul, “my wife ran off with another man a year or so after she’d presented me with Colin. Left me with a baby boy to look after.” He shrugged. “I got a divorce, of course.”

“And we met each other,” Neil taking up the story, “at a group for single dads. There are quite a few of us. You might be surprised. Anyway, Paul and I hit it off together, and we both discovered that we, not to put too fine a point on it, fancied each other. Hadn’t really crossed my mind before then that I might go in that direction, but there you go. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

“Same with me,” said Paul. “I just knew somehow that Neil was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with. So we moved in together, and just like we had, my Colin and his Caroline got on really well with each other. All the way through primary school, secondary school, and then college. Never really had eyes for anyone else, did they, Neil?”

Neil shook his head sadly. “Match made in heaven, it was.”

“And they got married?” Peter asked. “Is that legal?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” Paul answered. “Neil and I are married now. We weren’t when the two Cs – that’s what we called them – got married. But why shouldn’t they get married? They knew each other much better than most couples do when they tie the knot, and they were very happy about the idea.

“And so were we.”

“But they never mentioned you,” Marianne said. “You never visited them. And as far as we know, they never visited you.”

“Oh, they loved their fathers all right. But it was a case of what would the neighbours say – no offence to you as neighbours. It seems that you understand us. Colin was working with some quite sensitive stuff at the Home Office, and despite all the recent changes that have taken place in society, their rather unusual setup might have raised a few eyebrows in Whitehall. And Caroline, of course, was an infant teacher. Again, if it had come out that her husband was her stepbrother, and that her parents were two men…”

“I see,” said Peter. He looked at Marianne. “You will come back with us and have at least a cup of tea, won’t you? Spend the night at our house if it’s too far to get back tonight?”

“Actually,” said Paul, looking at Neil, “we were planning to spend the night next door to you, in Colin and Caroline’s house. We might even move in there some time in the near future, since we inherit the place as next of kin. This town is a much nicer place to live than Lambeth, believe me. We’re both retired, and it seems like a good opportunity to make a break in our lives. But we accept your invitation to a cup of tea with pleasure.”

“Make that supper,” said Peter. “And we look forward to having you as our neighbours in the near future.”

Book promotions

business plan schedule written on the notebook

If you have written a book, or several books, you are likely to get quite a few messages offering to promote your book, putting your title and your name in front of several tens of thousands of Twitter followers, likers of Instagram accounts, etc. I get one or two of these each day.

Once in a while I go for the cheapest option on the offerings of these people (typically there are Silver, Gold and Platinum options, sometimes worded differently), and the Twitter feeds appear together with a link.

And the results? Almost nothing. In fact, I ran a week’s worth of these Twitter ads with a link, not to a direct sales outlet, but to my book page here. I can check where clicks to this page come from – and none, repeat none, came from the 300,000 (or whatever the number was) followers of this Twitter account, Instagram or Facebook entity.

So I look at another one which promises to do more – they will actually write reviews, promote a book as “Book of the Month” or even “Book of the Year”. All for a fee, of course, but on the face of it, quite a good deal. So, just for fun, I checked the Amazon sales rankings of a recent Book of the Month. In both the UK and the USA, they were actually lower than On the Other Side of the Sky. The book actually had quite an interesting premise, the cover was a far cry from the topless over-muscled male torso that seems to find its way onto the cover of so many titles now. The Look Inside feature showed me that the style was at the very least competent, if a little wooden and pedestrian (in my opinion, of course; others might like it).

So what had this author got from paying a reasonable sum for a review and the chance to become Book of the Month? Perhaps half a dozen sales? I don’t believe this is untypical of these sites.

Now there are more reputable sites around, BookBub being one of the largest (reviews/ratings very welcome, please), and Reedsy now offering a Discovery programme, in which On the Other Side of the Sky was featured by a reviewer who picked up both the good and the less good points of the story, ending up with four stars (read it here). There’s also Kirkus, where you can pay for a review, but is that really going to get you anywhere?

So… are these smaller autotweeting book promotion sites simply an extension of the vanity press industry? You have to wonder sometimes. But if anyone knows a good cost-effective way of getting your titles noticed by purchasers, I’m very happy to listen to what you have to say.

Should I have written this book?

After reading accounts of what the subprime crisis had meant to ordinary people, I was tempted, or perhaps even inspired to write a story about it.

I imagined someone who’d been abroad on military service, with little knowledge of what was actually happening in his home country (the USA), coming home and discovering what had happened to his family and friends, and taking revenge. Since the subprime crisis largely affected people of colour, I decided that the protagonist should be African-American and the family should come from suburban Ohio. [note: although the book is written using US spellings such as ‘color‘, this article uses UK spellings; ‘colour‘.]

For an opposite number, out to stop the revenge killings, I chose a financial journalist working in New York City. And they would be female and gay.

Now, I had saddled myself with a lot of what is often terms “cultural appropriation” there:

  • I am not American – I have never even lived in America for more than a couple of weeks at a time
  • I am not a person of colour
  • I have never served in the USMC, or any branch of any military, other than as an RAF cadet at school
  • I’ve never been to Ohio
  • I’ve only been in NYC for an afternoon
  • I am not female
  • I am not gay
  • And though I do have experience of working with large news organisations, I’ve never been employed by one

But even so, I wanted to write this book. I do have friends, both in the USA and also from the USA living in Japan, whose brains I could pick, and use to check dialogue and general flavour (and American spellings). One of those who provided the most assistance was Bev Thomas, a Facebook friend, who also wrote a short guide to assist those who are in danger of losing their homes, which I included in the book as an appendix.

STOP PRESS!

I’ve just dropped the price of the ebook to $0.99 or local equivalent worldwide. Get it from Amazon, or other booksellers.

Balance of Powers features an African-American Afghan vet, Major Henry Powers, USMC, who comes home to find his sister’s house repossessed by the bank which sold her the mortgage, and his sister and her children out on the streets – somewhere. While searching for them, he meets Jeanine and her children, who have likewise been made homeless. What he finds sends him into a killing rage, and bodies pile up in his wake as he discovers the corruption and sleaze that surrounds the whole business, from mortgage salesmen up to traders in international financial houses.

Meanwhile in New York, Kendra Hampton, financial journalist, finds out more about the Wall Street murders that have spooked the trading floors. She finds herself on a collision course with Powers, which ends dramatically in New York City.

Now all of this is quite a feat of imagination, when you’re writing from Japan. I was somewhat nervous when I first put it out with an American publisher, but judging from the reviews, no one seems to have noticed my British accent.

The book also includes some relatively explicit sex scenes and sexual references, a lot of four-letter words, and quite a lot of violence – way out of my usual comfort zone. Against which, I think I produced at least three well-rounded characters:

  • Major Henry Gillette Powers: ex-USMC Afghan vet. An intelligent compassionate man moved to acts of extreme violence by what he sees around him.
  • Jeanine (other name unknown): mother of three children, now single, and made homeless through the repossession of her house.
  • Kendra Hampton: financial journalist living and working in NYC. Partner with Liz.

And some dialogue that I enjoyed writing:

“Hey! Where are you going? Downtown’s the other way.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh-oh. Every time a man says that, it means he’s thinking of dumping you.”
“Not exactly, but…”
“And that’s another one that means the same thing. Been nice knowing you, Henry. Stop the car now, so’s I can get out? Pop the trunk, let me get my things? Okay?”
“It’s not that.”

Balance of Powers: Ch 11

And also some writing of interactions that I feel pleased with:

He was more than a little intimidating – a tall, well-built black man in a beautifully-cut suit and a military air about him. He introduced himself only as “Henry”, without a last name. She noticed a Marine Corps ring on one hand, but refrained from asking any questions about it.
“Did you know Mr. Reichman?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Very cool and correct, not giving away more than he had to.
There was something vaguely familiar about his face. “Have we met?”
“I’m sure I would remember you, ma’am.” A smile which ickered briey and then vanished as if it had never been.
“Strange,” she mused. “Pardon my curiosity, but may I ask how you met Mr. Reichman?”
“We met at a social event.” This guy wasn’t going to give anything away. Something told her that uttering her eyelashes at him and using her feminine charms was going to have as much effect on him as it would do on the coffee machine in the corner.

Balance of Powers Ch 22

So all in all, it’s a book I’m pleased with. It has good characters, a decent plot, a message that doesn’t beat you over the head, and a style that perhaps disguises the origin of its author.

Was it really 14 years ago?

airport bank board business

I’m referring to the large financial disaster, which brought about the demise of some of the largest financial institutions in the world, and affected the lives of many. At the time I was living in Japan, where the crisis caused by the securitisation of bad loans was known as “The Lehman Shock”, Lehman Brothers being one of the most prominent casualties of this seismic event.

I was working on the fringes of the financial world, having worked in two major non-Japanese financial institutions, and working for a Japanese bank at the time, but I was minimally affected, though I lost out on a contract to pre-edit Bear Stearns’ investor prospectus prior to the issue of a Japanese version.

However, several of my friends within the financial services industry were affected, and I came to learn of the hardship caused by the dishonest practices of the lenders who took advantage of their clients to earn a fast buck. Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is an excellent introduction to all this (the movie, not so much, in my opinion). In any event, it spurred me into writing two books. Here’s something about the first one.

At the Sharpe End

This was my lecture at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, of which I subsequently became a member, where I introduced the book to a number of people, both Japanese and foreign residents of Japan. It’s quite long, but I think it’s worth watching.

I started to write this some time before the 2008 crash. It was based loosely around what I knew of the financial industry from my own experience, and the experiences of my friends.

It concerns a freelance consultant living in Tokyo (I always say that the protagonist, Kenneth Sharpe, is not me, but I could not have created him without my experiences) who finds himself in possession of a secret technology that allows him to make money in large quantities (technologies very similar to this technology actually exist now – fiction prefiguring fact).

(You can find the book for sale here)

Anyway, for the plot to be interesting, the hero can’t just waltz off into the sunset with his pockets bulging with cash – there must be something to hold the reader’s interest. In this case, I really wanted an external catastrophe that prevented the technology from doing its thing, and so guess what I chose? I was living in Japan, a country with frequent earthquakes and a reliance on nuclear power for much of its energy needs.

March 11, 2011

Yes, I chose an earthquake which wrecked a nuclear power station. This was in 2007/early 2008, several years before the Fukushima disaster. I don’t claim enormous credit for predicting this. I’m not a prophet. The Hamaoka power station, which was the one I described as being wrecked, is situated on the junction of three fault lines. In my opinion, a bloody stupid place to build a fault line. I also did not take account of tsunami action. Incidentally, I was convinced at one point that my wife and I, along with thousands more, were going to die from radiation poisoning. We were lucky that was not the case, though I probably have absorbed more radiation than if I had been living in the UK at the time.

However, after writing this section, along came the Lehman Shock, which made my earthquake rather redundant. I therefore had to change the story a bit, and also, given the time of the year, had to change some of the details in the story to reflect this (heaters went off, air-conditioners went on, etc.). I also incorporated some of the conversations that I’d had with my financial friends in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where I launched the book (always nice to talk about your book in the places featured in the book – happened to me twice now).

The first edition didn’t incorporate the quake, but used the Lehman shock but when I republished with Inknbeans Press in 2012 (post-Fukushima), I added the parts that I had originally written, and the current editions also have .

Anyway, a lot of readers have found it to be a very convincing and authentic look at life in Japan for non-Japanese, as well as being a well-written thriller with lots of twists and turns, and some interesting characters.

Next, I’ll be writing about my other book that came out of the subprime crisis – Balance of Powers.

Jack and the Beans

green vegetable on white surface

Our local writers’ group gave as an exercise a re-placement of a fairy-tale character in a novel situation. However, I decided to be a little different (surprise, surprise) and ended up writing a slightly surreal piece of nonsense loosely based on what I could remember of Jack and the Beanstalk.


Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack who lived with his mother in a small cottage hallway between the towns of Nowhere and Nothing. They were so poor that they used to beg for crumbs from the church mice who sometimes came to visit, but their sole possession, other than a 42” plasma TV, was a cow called Eric. The television had never worked, chiefly because there was no electricity in the cottage, but it was very useful for stopping the draft from the broken window.

“Why is our cow called Eric, Mother?” Jack would ask on long winter evenings. Sometimes he asked the same question on short summer evenings, but not so often, because the evenings were shorter.

He always forgot the answer that his mother gave him, and his mother always forgot that he had asked the same question twenty times already that month. So they were both perfectly happy with that evening’s entertainment.

“Who needs Netflix,” they would ask each other, “when you have a cow called Eric?”

But neither of them knew the answer to that question.

There came a time when even the church mice stopped coming, pleading pressure of work, and a disturbing trend in atheism.

“We must sell Eric,” said Jack’s mother. “You must go to the market in Nowhere and sell her, so that we can eat.”

So, one day, Jack set off for the market of Nowhere, leading Eric on a piece of string. His mother waved farewell to them with her last clean paper tissue, which she had been saving for Sunday best, but she had brought it out in honour of the occasion.

In six hours, Eric returned, leading Jack on the same piece of string.

Jack’s mother was about to ask Eric what had happened, when she stopped, realising that she had forgotten to put her false teeth in, and that Eric wouldn’t be able to understand her. She turned to Jack.

“I’m sorry, mother,” said Jack. “I tried to sell Eric so that we could feed ourselves, but no one wanted to give me anything to eat. All they wanted to give me in exchange was money. And you can’t eat it. I tried, and it tasted horrible.”

“Oh, you silly boy! Trying to eat money like that!” said his mother impatiently. “Surely you know that you can’t eat it raw. It has to be cooked. Tomorrow you must go to the market at Nothing, and sell Eric there.”

So, the next day, Eric and Jack set off for Nothing.

Jack’s mother was surprised to see Jack return alone a couple of hours later, holding a piece of string.

“Where’s Eric?” she asked.

“Sold her,” Jack said, with an air of pride.

“How?” said his mother. “I remembered just after you’d gone that it was Sunday, and there wouldn’t be a market. Still, I said to myself, the exercise will do you both good. It’s only five miles each way. So… how much did you get for Eric?”

Jack opened his hand to display five beans. “The man who bought Eric told me that these were really good if you cooked them in tomato sauce and put them on buttered toast.”

Jack’s mother sighed. “I don’t know how you can be so stupid. There are five beans there, and two of us. How are we going to manage to divide them fairly?” And she angrily snatched the beans out of Jack’s hand, and threw them out of the window (the one which wasn’t blocked by the 42” plasma TV), where they were snatched up by a passing squirrel and eaten.

Overnight, the beans sprouted and grew and grew. Which wasn’t so nice for the squirrel. But that’s another story. And not one for bedtime.

Eric grew to a ripe old age, and took second prize at the Miss Nowhere beauty contest two years after she had been sold for five beans.

Jack’s mother reluctantly dug up the box of £20 notes that she had been saving for a rainy day, although the forecast only said scattered showers, and went to Tesco, where she bought a Warburton’s sliced loaf, a pack of Lurpak spreadable butter which was almost past its expiry date, and three tins of baked beans on special offer. Jack and his mother lived, but not very happily, and not ever after.


I worry about me sometimes.

Bad blurb?

I’ve just received a list of the nominees for an award. The blurb below is for one of these, and it’s written by an established author, and published by an established firm. On Amazon, it has over 4,000 ratings, averaging four stars. This is clearly a book that people enjoy, but with this blurb, I don’t really understand why people are interested in it (names redacted).


A****, F****, E*****, and S**** are still young — but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

OK, so young people are aware of time passing. And they have sex and worry about it. And yes, young people are not perfect, and their relationships (sexual and other) ebb and flow. And they worry about all these things.

Why should I wish to read about these people? What makes them interesting or different? Is this the aim of this pedestrian blurb? To make me want to see why 4,000 Amazon readers think this is such a good book? I’m sure that a better blurb would sell more copies.

“Standing in the last lighted room before the darkness” – it’s a beautiful phrase, and one that many people will relate to. I think many generations feel that they’re the last hope of humanity, whether it be battling the evil Hun in the Great War, or the Nazis in the continuation of that conflict, or marching and protesting with CND about nuclear weapons, or even superglueing themselves to the M25 to raise awareness of climate change. So why are these four young people different? I’m not interested.

A book’s blurb blurb needs to show us why this book is so different from so many other books on the market (Amazon carries over 10,000,000 titles). This prose above just makes my heart sink, and excites me as much as a half-finished bowl of cornflakes.

https://i0.wp.com/freebie.photography/office/pen_notebook.jpg?resize=561%2C373
Time to start again with a blank sheet

Oops! False start…

Apologies.

I uploaded the EPUB version of On the Other Side of the Sky to the Amazon Kindle convertor and all seemed to be OK. No error message, EPUB looked great on my Kobo. I don’t own a Kindle and none of the pieces of emulation software seem to do their job on my computer.

However, when I could finally see the preview on screen following the release of the book (KDP offers an on-screen preview, but never seems to allow you to see the results of your latest upload, taking you straight to the pricing page once you’ve uploaded the new version) – all my fancy fonts had been stripped out (with no warning – thank you, Amazon) and so the nice little squiggly doodles that I’d carefully inserted came out as M and u.

In addition, it seemed that the InDesign TOC creation process had fouled up, putting Part headers at the end of the preceding chapter. Even going into the source code with Calibre, and cutting and pasting (and editing TOC files and the CSS files) didn’t seem to fix it.

So… start again with Vellum. A pain, but it works. Export from InDesign to RTF, open in Word, save as DOCX and import into Vellum, tidying up all the chapter and section divisions as I go. So as of today (December 1) the new edition is with Amazon having passed the initial checks. With luck you’ll be able to get it tomorrow. Same with Smashwords (Kobo, Apple, B&N, etc.).

On the Other Side of the Sky

A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane


How big should a book be?

I don’t mean “how many pages?”, but “how tall and wide should a book be?”. One problem that I’ve seen with a lot of books recently, especially self-published books, is that they’re too big to fit comfortably into a pocket or a bag.

Sometimes, this seems to be done in order to reduce the number of pages in a book, and therefore bring down the cost (the people who do this are probably the ones who use as small a typeface as possible in order to save space, and who also take the print right to the edge of the paper).

The printers I use for my books, Ingram Spark, happily have a wide range of trim sizes (the technical term for the page size of a book. Not every kind of paper is available in every size (there’s a choice between white, creme, and now something called “groundwood” which I’ve used for my latest, which has come out really nicely, and most of these sizes are paperback only, a few with hard covers and dust jackets. KDP, Amazon’s self-publishing service, offers a subset of these trim sizes.

Now, the cost to me of a hard cover is twice that of a paperback, even before I’ve paid the setup costs, and by the time I’ve factored in the very hefty discount that retailers demand, there’s really no incentive other than vanity for producing a hardcover for adult titles (but see below with regard to children’s books).

However, since I can choose the trim size, I’ve avoided the almost ubiquitous 6″ x 9″ and 5″ x 8″ options (sorry, since Ingram is an American company, they work in antique units for the most part) format which seems to be common to many books. I also, for the most part, tend to avoid the DIN A series of paper formats (1:1.41 ratio) which are OK for paper sheets, but don’t, IMHO, work for books.

When I started to produce On the Other Side of the Sky (at the top of this page) I decided to make it as close as possible to a “standard” or “classic” paperback size, whatever that might be. So I carefully measured up a Penguin, and designed around that. One thing about Ingram Spark is that they ask for a margin of 36pt (3p or 0.5″) on each side of the text block, so if you make your trim size small, remember to knock 72pt (6p or 1″) off each dimension for the text block.

Even so there are two of my titles where I felt that it was a good idea to make a minibook: Unknown Quantities, and my two Untime stories bound together in one volume:

And the reaction has been really positive. The people who have seen and handled the two above seem to love the small size – “a book you can take with you”. And for On the Other Side of the Sky, those who have seen advance copies have said about the paperback that it is a “real book, isn’t it? I can read it in bed”. Perhaps slightly insulting to an author who took many months to produce it, but flattering to the designer who took the words and set them in print. Very gratifying to have these decisions endorsed by readers.

But sometimes it’s a good idea to go slightly odd. For the hardcover of the anthology of our Sherlock Ferret series (hardcover comes into its own for children’s titles (the purchaser the reader is not always the reader and children’s books get a lot of wear and tear), I decided that a square page format would be eye-catching and practical, given Andy’s wonderful illustrations which need to be shown off to their best advantage, rather than being tucked away in a corner.