“The fretful haggis”

A friend on Facebook put the attached photo and caption on his page, warning us that the haggis should be protected from the unwelcome attention by dogs.

Clearly this is a problem in some parts of Scotland, and probably has been for some time.

With that in mind, I decided that it was time that the haggis be celebrated in verse, so here we go:

The fretful haggis

Behold! the fretful haggis
Treads o'er the bonny braes
A-dreaming of fair haggis maids
Whose beauty always stays.

But if he canna find a mate
All draped aboot wi' neeps.
The haggis digs a wee dark cave
And in there rests and sleeps.

But O! the fretful haggis
Though sheltered, warm and dry.
Has great desire tae grow
Large wings, so he can fly.

Tae fly would be the haggis' dream
Above the peaty bogs
To soar wi' eagles and wi' gulls
And tantalise the dogs.

Alas! the fretful haggis
Will ne'er develop wings.
He'll end up on a dinner plate
With tatties, neeps and things.

Why is the earth flat (according to some)?

My take on flat earth and other “science” conspiracies:

These are similar to the “Nigerian bank director” or “Benin government minister” scams, where a badly spelled ungrammatical email message can gather the writer (or his bosses) thousands of pounds/dollars in income.

But how, you ask yourself, are people so stupid as to fall for this? And, strangely enough, though the rate of literacy in some developed countries is shockingly low, the kind of people falling for these scams includes some sophisticated educated people (my wife’s former boss was twice duped by these fraudsters, and was lucky to escape from Nigeria alive with the clothes he stood up in).

But typically, the poor spelling and grammar form a pons asinorum (a test of critical thinking). If you can accept that a government minister or lawyer or bank manager can write a message starting “Calvary greetings my dear!” then you may well accept the idea that he has a few million dollars in cash lying around which he is willing to share with a stranger. And from there, it all starts to go downhill (for the victim).

Flat earth, ice wall, and all the rest of it are so easily disproved, and have been for years. There never really has been a time in history when the educated classes have believed in a flat earth. So if it really is a conspiracy theory put about by the “elite”, then it’s a very long-lasting one. And to what purpose? It’s difficult on the face of it to know why the Illuminati/lizard people/NWO/whoever would want to do this. Of course, there are many on social media who make some sort of living by promoting nutcase theories and dragging others into their net (which may involve subscriptions or other sales).

However, there is one possible reason – by destroying trust in part of easily verifiable science, trust is easily destroyed in other areas. Wouldn’t it seem more plausible if there really was a conspiracy theory?

But the villains I propose are not Dr Evil or Blofeld, or even Bill Gates and the WEF – they are the enemies of free society, to be found in the Russian capital, and their goal is to disrupt the social patterns of the West. They have had two major successes so far – Trumpism and Brexit. I would be interested to know the proportion of flat earthers in Trump supporters vs others, and Leave voters vs others. It does seem to me that funding and supporting these anti-establishment unprovable conspiracies would be an excellent way to destabilise society. Of course, my conspiracy theory, like so many others, is also unprovable. Enjoy.

What have I been reading?

Like many people, I suppose, I have a pile of books by my bedside, one or two of which I am currently reading, some of which I have read, some I have part-read, and some I have the intention of reading some day.

This morning, I decided that I would take a look at the pile and make a list (in no particular order) of these books. Here we go (title capitalisation as on the spine where it is mixed or lower case):

From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (Vol 1) Arthur Marder
Redback Howard Jacobson
Blood on the Tracks Various (anthology)
Towards the End of the Morning Michael Frayn
Jonah and Co. Dornford Yates
The Smartest Guys in the Room Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind
Thomas Cromwell Tracy Borman
In cold blood Truman Capote
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke
what if? Randall Munroe
Cover Her Face P.D.James
The Rainmaker John Grisham
The Decameron (Vol I, Folio Society edition) Boccaccio
Henry VIII : King and Court Alison Weir
The Philosopher’s Pupil Iris Murdoch
Brit Wit Various
Picture Palace Paul Theroux
Clinging to the Wreckage John Mortimer
Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynne Truss
Strong Poison Dorothy L. Sayers
Play All (library loan) Clive James
Augustus Allan Massie
The Dunwich Horror and other stories H.P.Lovecraft
Little, Big John Crowley (this was a present – unreadable for me)
Oswald Mosley Robert Skidelsky
The Tailor of Panama John le Carré

And what have I been reading recently on my Kobo (my current read-in-progress)? American Caesar by William Manchester (a biography of Douglas MacArthur).

So make of all these what you will.

Why don’t I watch films (or TV series)?

It’s true, I don’t really watch films very often. Name a film that “everybody” has seen, and the odds will be that I haven’t seen it, and I have no wish to see it. Same with TV series – I have never seen any episodes of many series that “everyone” has seen – Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, etc.

I was asked why this was, when I read books (and write them as well!). I didn’t have an obvious answer at the time, but I think I have some answers now.

On-screen dialogue is often weaker than written

This often refers to the “film of the book”. A book can use more dialogue with a more complex structure than a film. Written dialogue in a novel is often more complex and less true to the way in which people actually talk than film or TV dialogue. This (a) provides a much deeper understanding of the character, and (b) the reader is able to revisit the conversation later on in the story to determine exactly what was meant by a character’s words.

I can put a book down and come back to it

I can’t do the same with films. Once a film has started, I become emotionally invested in it, and stopping or pausing breaks the flow. There aren’t many occasions when I have a couple of uninterrupted hours to lose myself in a film – but occasionally my wife and I will agree on something that we both want to watch all the way through. Not many of them, though.

I lose interest in films or series

With a few exceptions, series don’t hold my attention past four or five episodes. This may just be me, of course. Recently there have been a few exceptions – mostly catch-up on series I missed while I was out of the UK (I’ve subscribed to Britbox to pick up some references, though): the first series of Line of Duty; all of The Thick of It that I could find; and a lot of the first three series of Hustle. I loved the characters and the plotting of Hustle, Line of Duty because of great acting and plotting (though I’ve felt no wish to see any further series), and The Thick of It because I sort of identify with Malcolm Tucker, and I love this sort of politics. The US House of Cards and Veep didn’t do it for me, though and Borgen lost me after about two series.

There are a few others that I saw all the way through, but they tended to be based on real life situations: Inventing Anna, and Queen’s Gambit come to mind. Some time I will get round to the UK House of Cards, but I don’t really feel an urgent need to do so. And this brings me to another reason why I don’t watch films.

Films now are crap

I have zero or less than zero interest in Marvel or DC franchise films. I’ve seen two on plane journeys. That’s two too many (and one was Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange). This seems to be half of the recent Hollywood releases. The other half are remakes of older films or “movies of the book” (see below). There are exceptions to this, of course, but they’re not subjects that appeal to me from their description, though I might actually enjoy them if I was dragged in to watch them.

I can watch a series of documentaries on the SAS, but the recent fictionalisation on BBC is basically military porn. Forget it, and the majority of formulaic crime series. And I really can’t be bothered to get into 30 years of missed backstory of Doctor Who, excellent though it may be.

The BBC SHERLOCK? Loved the first series, liked the second a lot, thought the third was crap and never bothered with the fourth.

The film of the book

“If you can sit and read a book, how is that different from watching a film of the book?” There’s no comparison. Part of the joy of reading a book for me is imagining the scenes and the characters. Even if they are minutely described in the book, they never match the film versions exactly. Description is part of a book’s appeal. There is no description in a film – the scene is handed to you on a plate, and there’s no room for imagination. Dialogue (see above) is often dumbed down, and the witty lines made in passing are highlighted so that you won’t miss them.

Two exceptions to screen versions of books: The McEwan/Scales/Hawthorne Mapp and Lucia. It’s not accurate in plotting, but the characterisation is lovely, and; the Granada/Brett Sherlock Holmes, which again fools with the plots, but the characterisation is wonderful. So perhaps it’s the lack of characterisation or the lack of fidelity to the written characters on screen versions that turns me off.

Interesting exception – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – the TV series took a few liberties with the plot (how could it not?) but at the same time, actually expanded the character of Mr Norrell, and made Jonathan Strange a more rounded figure in many ways. However, the Gentleman failed to impress, and of course, the whole business of the Raven King and the massive footnotes that make the book such a joy for me were necessarily lost. Also Good Omens (see my review here).

So… I’m not stretched enough by screen adaptations, with very few exceptions. Reading a book for me is an active experience – films and TV are passive. Is this Marshall McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool” media? I think so.

Summing up

A lot of (most?) people will disagree with me on most or even all of what I am saying. However, when I say I haven’t seen such-and-such a film or TV show, there are reasons that I believe to be valid why I haven’t done so. It’s not a value judgement on the production, or even on the medium, but a personal choice.

Comments welcome.

25% off all books! (opening sale)

Lello bookstore, Portugal

Well, I’m a few months late to the party, but it  seems that Amazon has finally admitted that there is a life outside Kindle!

It’s now apparently possible to load EPUBs onto your Kindle through Amazon’s discomobulator which turns them into Amazon’s proprietary format. In fact, the Amazon ebook publishing service gave up accepting DOCs and DOCXs some time ago, and now only accepts EPUBs. I’m guessing that technology has now made it over to the consumer side of Amazon, having had the suppliers as beta testers to iron out the bugs. Here’s how you do it!

What this means for readers is that there is a vast sea of public-domain and other titles out there which are now available for reading on Amazon devices.

And for me and other authors who do their own production and sales, it means that there’s only one file that needs to go up on ebook sales pages.

So now having set up a shiny new shop, courtesy of Payhip, where my books were neatly arranged as both EPUB and MOBI, I find I really needn’t have bothered. [UPDATE – I simplified everyone’s life by only offering the EPUB]

Anyway, take a look at the store, poke around, kick the tyres, buy something if you want something to read, and get a 25% discount on everything using the coupon code 1B57WFAEZI (valid until 17 September 2022). And give me some feedback on things you liked, and things you didn’t like about it.

Another Mapp and Lucia fan

We’ve recently had a Waterstones bookshop open in our “city of philosophers” (Lichfield), and they kicked off what we all hope is going to be a series of book events with a signing by the Reverend Richard Coles of his mystery novel Murder Before Evensong.

Since he had been on Celebrity Mastermind with a specialist subject of the Mapp and Lucia novels, which had also been my Mastermind specialist subject in the first round, it seemed we might have something in common (we’d both played in bands in our more youthful days, though he is a much better musician than me, and had far greater success with The Communards than I did with Ersatz..

So I decided to take along two of my own Mapp and Lucia pastiches, Mapp at Fifty, and the very exclusive Captain Puffin Comes to Tilling (not available on Amazon – special edition printed for the Gathering of the Friends of Tilling last year).

Also a copy of On the Other Side of the Sky for his bedside reading.

As it happened, there were far more people at the event than I had expected. At 12:32 (start of event scheduled for 12:30) the shop had sold out of Murder Before Evensong, so I bought a couple of the Rev Coles’s non-fictions, and joined the 40–50-strong queue.

When my time came, we actually managed to have a little chat, and I’d pre-signed one of his books with Major Benjy’s favourite shout of “Quai Hai!” and he did the same for me.

So a good time was had by all.

The Reverend Richard Coles and me at Waterstones Lichfield, with some of my books.

The Bomber Mafia – Malcom Gladwell — REVIEW

I read a lot of history for fun. I’m interested in how we fight – what we fight with, and how we use these weapons, even though I am really a pacifist at heart. I’m especially interested in aeroplanes (airplanes to some of the world), and have been even more so since I took up scale modelling again during lockdown (current build is a 1/48 MiG-21MF (“Fishbed”) in Bundeswehr livery following German reunification).

So, when I saw Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” offered for sale, I actually bought a copy (we have a Waterstones in Lichfield at last!). I was disappointed. I’m not an expert in bombing tactics or strategy, but I flatter myself that I know more than the average bear.

So to read a book about “the bomber will always get through” without a mention of Douhet or Balbo and only a passing reference to Billy Mitchell seemed to me to be extraordinary. Instead, emphasis is placed on a small group of US Army aviators who are reported to have a belief in the ability of a small force of aircraft (even single plane) to perform precision bombing on a logistical Schwerpunkt such as a ball-bearing factory, thereby saving the lives of thousands by a surgical strike.

In this, the aviators would be aided by the Norden bombsight, designed by an eccentric monomaniac, described in loving detail in this book, which in theory would allow the placement of a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In practice, of course, this proved completely unworkable. Winds, vibration, the difficulty of mass-producing a precision device, and human factors made it impossible to achieve this laudable goal (laudable because it would reduce the number of casualties needed to achieve a definitive war-winning result.

The British, of course, under “Bomber” Harris, scoffed at this utopian vision of warfare, and carpet-bombed German cities at night, when precision bombing was impossible. They looked at the American Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids which cost the USAAF over 60 planes and 500 men, while having results which were less than conclusive at best and wondered what the “Yanks” were playing at.

Curtis LeMay, a less than idealistic USAAF general, once he had been transferred to the Pacific theatre from Europe, decided that the best way to use the US military’s latest and most expensive project, the B-29 Superfortress, was to bomb the inflammable wood, straw and paper Japanese civilian cities with the newly invented napalm incendiaries which spilled sticky liquid fire over everything and everyone. They even built Japanese style urban dwellings to test the effectiveness of napalm.

Eventually, thanks to the discovery of the jet stream at the projected operating altitude of the B-29, these massive aircraft were sent night after night at low level to burn Japanese cities – and thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians – indiscriminately to the ground.

But ultimately, the book somewhat underplays the horror of these mass killings, other than to describe them in American terms. The planes were so filled with the stench of burned human beings that they had to be disinfected after the missions.

And yet they continued, even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a professor of history recently said in a conversation with me about this book, one problem is “the pigheaded belief that if it was Americans committing the atrocities, that somehow meant they weren’t “atrocities””. Actually, LeMay is reported to have said that if the Allies lost the war against Japan, he would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. He was fully aware of the fact that he was burning thousands to death, and however much the Japanese were depersonalised as “yellow monkeys” and the like, he was aware of the crimes he was committing. No wonder he was satirised in Dr Strangelove as General Jack D. Ripper.

To me, the book started with a reasonable idea – the story of the precision bombing, but it was full of facts which are disputable (for example, in 1936, were variable-pitch airscrews really standard? Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t get them until 1941). And the emphasis was on the wrong people in my opinion: Norden and Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) as examples. Not a recommended book if you know anything about WWII air power and strategy.

Where does your detective work?

photo of vintage furnitures

I’ve been recently encouraged to write a story featuring G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Though both are British detectives, and can be seen as occupying almost the same space and time (England, especially London, in the early 20th century), there is a marked difference in their surroundings.

Sherlock Holmes’s London is one of mean streets, when it is not one of high society. We can imagine ourselves alongside Holmes as he treads through the dark stinking alleys of the East End, or examines the fibres of a bell-pull in a drawing-room.

G.K.Chesterton’s London (and indeed his England) has more of a fantastical quality to it. These are to passages which have stuck in my memory since I first read them. First, London.

The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate.

The Invisible Man

And here we are in the Norfolk Broads of Father Brown:

They pushed slowly up the brightening river; the glowing violet of the sky and the pale gold of the moon grew fainter and fainter, and faded into that vast colourless cosmos that precedes the colours of the dawn. When the first faint stripes of red and gold and grey split the horizon from end to end they were broken by the black bulk of a town or village which sat on the river just ahead of them. It was already an easy twilight, in which all things were visible, when they came under the hanging roofs and bridges of this riverside hamlet. The houses, with their long, low, stooping roofs, seemed to come down to drink at the river, like huge grey and red cattle. The broadening and whitening dawn had already turned to working daylight before they saw any living creature on the wharves and bridges of that silent town.

The Sins of Prince Saradine

I have chosen to attempt to place my story immediately following the Great War. We may assume that Holmes, though considerably older than the man who wrestled with Professor Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls, is still active as a detective, and that his faithful Watson, greying, if not grey, is still with him. The London I have chosen is closer to G.K.Chesterton’s, because I am writing my story in a Chestertonian style. Even though Father Brown is indeed a parish priest, close to his East London flock and their very human privations, his surroundings are never coloured in with the gritty realism that permeates Holmes’s London.

I like this period of the early 1920s, because I feel it is a time of great change, socially, and indeed morally. The chaos that resulted from the double whammy of the Great War and the flu pandemic is a very fruitful ground for a psychological drama. Here’s how I have begun the story:

It was in that period immediately following the Great War that the events related here took place – that time of moral doubt and uncertainty that followed the great bloodletting of the nations, itself succeeded by a virulent plague that rivalled those experienced by Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Men’s souls and consciences were sorely tried, and ancient beliefs and practices that had remained dormant stirred once again, and rose to the surface to challenge the beliefs that had been held for so long.

from my forthcoming Father Brown Confronts the Devil

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).