Blog posts

Advance booking

A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution

© 2020, Hugh Ashton

You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.

“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.  Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?

And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.

And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.

But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.

Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.

“I want to book a funeral,” he said.

Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.

“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”

“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”

He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”

“But that’s only two days away.”

“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”

I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”

“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”

At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.

So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.

“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”

“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.

“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”

He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.

By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”

I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.

“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.

Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.

He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.

Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.

“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”

“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”

Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.

“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.

“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.

“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”

Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.

Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.

“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.

“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”

-oOo-

Comments welcome…

On this side of the sky…

Looking over some of my recent writing, I seem to be slightly obsessed with the idea of beings living in some sort of parallel world to us, with an assortment of powers which might be best described as
“magical”. When I say “obsessed”, I mean in a literary sense – as characters and plot drivers in the stories that I write. I don’t actually believe that we are surrounded by a crowd of mainly invisible beings which interact with us.

The picture of the children’s tea-party came from bluelilyevents on blogspot.com

So what do these things look like? Well, of course they are imaginary, so I am free to make them look like whatever I want in my stories.

One thing I am certain of is that they do NOT look like the sweet little children with butterfly wings that the Victorians loved to portray (and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sure that two little girls had seen and photographed).

Nor do I believe that they sit around on toadstools (though I had a very interesting conversation the other day with my friend Vicky about this, and the idea of hallucinogenic mushrooms being associated with these beings).

In many cultures, they are referred to by a euphemism, such as “The Good People” or “The Gentle People”, in order to placate these rather nasty and amoral creatures, with their tales of stealing, kidnaping, and general enmity towards the himan race.

For me, one of the most interesting views of Faerie is to be found in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book I have read several times, despite its length. It makes a very plausible read, describing a world in which these beings interact with us in limited and very specific ways, and as a race have a range of rather unpleasant characteristics.

Another story which has gripped my imagination ever since I first read about it, mentioned in a story by Borges, is the Chinese legend of the demons trapped behind mirrors (and mirrors also play a very important role in Strange & Norrell). The idea that behind the pieces of glass that hang on our walls, there is a race that is out to destroy us, and is only just kept in check is not a comforting one.

Are they waiting for us to make the first move?

Perhaps it is this work that has influenced my current work in progress (provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, but it’s also determined the direction of some of my other pieces, such as those in my Unknown Quantities collection.

Why the biscuits?

And with that in mind, I give you Gobblefinger, a short story in PDF format, which came to me out of nowhere. It was fun to write, and I hope it’s fun to read. “What’s it got to do with these biscuits?” you ask. Well, all you have to do is click here to download the story, and you can find out. If you like it, then come back here and leave a comment, or put something on Facebook or Twitter.

My first novel

I wrote my first novel, Beneath Gray Skies, about 12 years ago, back in the days of George W. Bush, where I described a Disunited States of America – a world where the Civil War was never fought, and a wire fence stretched across the plains and the prairies, dividing the Confederate States of America from the United States.

In this universe the Confederacy, where slavery still existed in the 1920s, was ruled by a hereditary dynasty, but Jefferson Davis III faced problems as the leader of a pariah state, despised and ignored by the rest of the world.

Enter a young German politician who needs help staging a coup in his own country to put his National Socialist party in power. The CSA has raw materials and manpower, the Germans have technology as yet unavailable to the South. Deal struck.

“Alternative history at its finest”

Amazon review
The Bismarck airship here is a fictional hybrid of the German Hindenburg and the British R100

Along the way, a British agent, described by a reviewer as “a 1920s James Bond”, attempts to stop the giant Zeppelin Bismarck from delivering its priceless historic cargo and the Nazi leaders to the Confederacy. Real historical characters and fictional characters mingle, plot and counter-plot, and struggle to determine the future of their nations.

“If author was any more of a flaming liberal with a political agenda, conservatives could hold a raffle to burn him in effigy and sell enough tickets to pay off the national debt!”

My favourite Amazon review of any of my books!

And yes, there are political messages in here. I’m against slavery, racial prejudice and hatred, and autocratic bullies who seize power, and I hope I make this clear in the story. Of course, if you like these things, you probably won’t like this book. But in any case, I set out to write a ripping yarn, not a sermon, and I think I succeeded.

Special offer

But if you do, somehow it seems appropriate at this time for me to promote the book. I am therefore making it available for £1 as an ebook on Kindle or Epub (almost everything else). Available here (Amazon may mark down the price when they know that I am making it available cheaply, but for now…).

Payment by PayPal or credit/debit card (through SendOwl and Stripe):

  • Kindle (see here for how to “sideload”):
  • EPUB (iPads, Kobos, Nooks, etc.):

And if you prefer a “real” book…

It’s also available in paperback – from Amazon, or can be ordered through bookshop.org, that way you keep your money out of Jeff Bezos’ pocket, and you also help to keep local bookshops alive.

The Other Side of the Sky

Having delivered La Lucia for production and pre-order, I am now busily engaged on something quite a bit longer.

This book, provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, is set in the Midlands (largely in Lichfield) in the 1770s. It is a time of great discoveries in many fields: what we now call chemistry, physics, geology, anatomy and medicine, zoology and botany. 

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Joseph Wright of Derby captures a moment of “philosophical discovery” and the reactions of various observers to a bird’s being deprived of air by means of an air-pump. The seated figure at right may represent Erasmus Darwin.

In addition, Birmingham and the surrounding villages were becoming industrialised, with such “manufactories” as Matthew Boulton’s employing many hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. In the north of Staffordshire, Josiah Wedgwood was transforming the traditional pottery business of the Stoke area.

And alongside this, in the liberal freethinking (often outright republican) world of the Lunar Society (so called because the members met at each others’ houses on the nights of the full moon – not for any esoteric or occult reasons, but because it was safer to travel at night when it was lighter) there lay some hidden beliefs – Doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), pictured above, believed in alchemy as a method of attaining wisdom, and it is more than likely that the members of the Society were interested in what we would now term the paranormal, as being part of the world in which they lived.

My story is looking at the interaction between the inhabitants of the land “on the other side of the sky”, home to a non-human race, and these people of the Enlightenment. I confess that my writing is at least partly inspired by Susanna Clark’s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it is not the same universe as hers. There is no Raven King in my history, and the laws of nature are closer to ours than in her world.

I am now about 10,000 words into what I hope will be a satisfying 70,000+ words. Wish me luck.

La Lucia

As all fans of E.F.Benson know, Mrs Emmeline Lucas, by a process of Italianisation, was universally known as “la Lucia” or simply “Lucia”.

I’ve previously written two short novellas featuring Lucia and her rival, Elizabeth Mapp, for the social leadership of Tilling, but I decided that it was time that some of her earlier adventures made their way into print.

Herewith, I present to you the introduction of La Lucia, which will be available in print and ebook formats from November 1 (make a note in your diaries).

Continue reading “La Lucia”

What have I been up to?

It’s been a long time since I posted, but I’ve been busy. Not only writing, but I re-discovered an old pastime – making up model aircraft kits.

I last did this nearly 50 years ago with Airfix kits in plastic bags. Lots of glue over everything, paints (which you didn’t always use) were Humbrol enamel in little tinlets that dried up and needed cleaning. and the transfers (decals) were few, and pretty hit and miss. The kits themselves were quite crude. You might get a pilot as part of your kit, and there might be something for him to sit on. Engines? Invisible.

Now, all kits come in boxes, and are much more expensive. Many come from Poland or Czechoslovakia, or even Russia. The quality and detail are incredible. Every dial on the instrument panels is moulded. Not only does the pilot have a seat to sit on which is more than just a moulded blob – but they have seat belts (even more important if the seat is to be left unfilled), and the cockpit, even at 1/72 scale, is a masterpiece of miniature engineering demanding exquisite hand/eye coordination to assemble and paint. Paints are acrylic, airbrushed for large areas, and varnishes are applied before and after the decals (many of them, often 2mm or 3mm square) go on.

Then there is weathering, and also aftermarket parts – resin or photo-etched metal. So it’s a far cry from the days when you built a Spitfire in an afternoon.

But it’s a great lockdown hobby. You need all your concentration, there are always new things to learn, and it keeps you busy for a long time. I guess knitting, or indeed, any handicraft, will give you the same result, but I happen to like aircraft, and that’s what I am doing right now.

Since June, this is what I have built:

DH Vampire (Revell 1/72)

Photo in b/w to hide the terrible mistakes    A very early British jet fighter, constructed at least partially out of wood!

Mikoyan-Gurevich 17 (MiG-17 “Fresco”) (Airfix 1/72)

   

Though there were Vietnamese markings for the MiG, I didn’t feel my painting skills were up to the task of doing that camouflage, so it went in as a Soviet fighter, sprayed from an aerosol.

Junkers Ju-87 (“Stuka”) (Airfix 1/72)

A famous (or infamous) plane – quite a lot of delicate parts – air brakes, slats, etc. And a rather complex dazzle/splinter camo scheme. My first try at masking and at spray painting. A few pieces got lost – some broke and had to be scratch-built.  Even so, I was quite pleased with the result. Ground crew once again from Zvezda.

Beriev Be-6 (“Madge”) (Playfix 1/72)

A brute of a thing. An East German kit from 1986, picked up for very little money on eBay. I wanted to make a fantasy colour scheme, and I ended up with a Republic of Scotland Air Force model, complete with tartan fin flashes and the like. Along the way I scratchbuilt three crew areas, including making an instrument panel and fitting resin aftermarket seats, and designing and printing my own decals. I documented the process on my SmugMug page here.

Gloster Javelin (Mister Craft 1/72)

  

One of my favourite jet fighters – but a rather horrible kit to make (Polish, and dirt cheap). It also joined the Scottish Air Force. There was less need for scratch-building, but I added a couple of resin bang seats, and had to make my own decals again. Rather a nice camo scheme, though I say it myself. Again, the process was documented on SmugMug.

Republic P-47M Thunderbolt (Revell 1/72)

 

Made out of the box, with a few photo-etched parts here and there (mainly invisible), scratch-built seat belts and with quite a lot of work on the painting. Basically, quite pleased with this. All decals went on fine, and the carpet monster went hungry. The b/w photo is my model in front of a stock photo of a USAAF airfield. More photos here.

And for my next trick…

Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu Type 11 (“Rex”) (Tamiya 1/48)

My first Tamiya for a very long time, and my first 1/48 ever. Wish me luck.

 

Open for business…

I’ve been writing Mapp and Lucia pastiches as part of my lockdown busy-ness. Both have been turned into ebooks and paperbacks.

The first, Mapp at Fifty, is available from Amazon, and other purveyors of fine literature, and the second, Mapp’s Return, will be available publicly from July 1.

However, both are available (in ebook and signed paperback formats) NOW, from here. And there is an audiobook version of Mapp at Fifty – and all prices are less than the Amazon prices.

Mapp Returns

The proof of Mapp’s Return has now been accepted, and paperback copies should be available for sale soon. In the meantime, the ebook editions are available for download.

If you have a discount code, use it at checkout.

Kindles

If you have a Kindle, then you should select the MOBI edition. You may need to “sideload” the book onto your device, following one of the methods here (I don’t own a Kindle, so cannot tell you which is the best method).

Others

Typically, you can drag and drop the downloaded EPUB file into your Kobo, Nook or other device. iPad and iPhone users may have to use iTunes to transfer the book.


Stuff happens. Tarsome. If it does, please contact me and I’ll try to sort it out.


Thoughts on being locked down

Typically, I try to avoid this sort of thing on my blog – I try to keep it to topics connected to writing, but maybe it’s time for a bit of a break from my just writing about writing, and to talk about myself a little. If anything here strikes a chord, and/or inspires you to write about your lockdown, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

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Lichfield Cathedral, taken from the east end – a path running round Stowe Pool, literally 5 minutes’ walk from where we live.

First off, for someone who’s self-employed and typically works on their own, even if it is for other people, a lockdown isn’t that much of a change. I can usually start work when I like, and finish when I like, and there is no reason to change that way of working.

Even so, there are changes to our lifestyle and the way we are living our lives, so here are a few things that have affected us (my wife Yoshiko and me).

Life generally

In many ways, the combination of staying in and good weather has helped produce a sort of timeless feeling. Someone described this lockdown status as being like a permanent time between Christmas and New Year – everything is in suspended animation, and time really is almost irrelevant. What day is it? Hardly matters, except that my sister and I are working a rota to visit my mother for a few days each week, and we participate in the cathedral’s Sunday services.

Facebook has been a great way to keep in touch with people, and the Internet generally is my way of keeping in touch with the world – TV news is slow and repetitive. I can make my way through the main stories of the “qualities” in much less time than I can tolerate sitting listening to talking heads repeating platitudinous lies.

In common with quite a number of people, it seems, I have also started having some very vivid dreams recently. Not nightmares, but not unpleasant, either. Last night I opened a bottle of champagne and presented a glass to Yoshiko together with a bowl of cashew nuts (in my dream, anyway).

City Council meetings are due to start again in Zoom format, starting next month. I look forward to seeing how this will work out – it won’t be the same as the “real” meetings, of course, but I am glad we can do something to keep going.

Out and about

There are sometimes days when I will speak to no-one except Yoshiko face to face, but when we go out together for our daily ration of exercise, we are almost guaranteed to meet someone we know, and we can stop and have our two-metre distanced chat with them.

These are the really good things about living in this little city – it’s small enough for us to be able to walk from side to side in much less than an hour, and meet people we know who are out doing the same thing, but it’s big enough for us to be able to find lots of different places for us to walk and discover somewhere or something that we haven’t seen before.

Church

In normal times, we are regular worshippers at the cathedral – and the services and sense of community there are things that we are missing. However, the clergy and team at the cathedral have risen magnificently to the challenge, with services being put out on Facebook and YouTube three times a day.

Although it is not possible to receive the Sacrament physically, the Church of England prayer book does allow for Spiritual Communion, and indeed, even when watching the live-streamed services on YouTube, celebrated by one of the priests in his or her home, there is still a sense of communion.

Shopping

Tesco-Extra-Lichfield-cbias-700x522-1We live only a few minutes’ walk away from a very large Tesco. We used to go every day, doing a daily shop of necessities (there’s also an Aldi close by which we prefer for several things). We’ve changed – not that we ever went in for filling up a trolley with three packets of 24 toilet rolls and all the tinned tomatoes off the shelves. However, we shop only once every two or three days now, rather than every day, and I think we are buying slightly more expensive foods (the price has gone up as well) than before, maybe as a compensation for not going out.

The supermarkets have responded to the lockdowns quite professionally, after a shaky start. Though Tesco is trying to enforce a one-way system around its aisles, people don’t seem to notice the one-way arrows on the floor, but they do manage to keep to the two-metre rule. The “discount corner” where food close to its sell-by date is sold at a reduced price often resembles a good-natured non-violent rugger scrum, but now people are keeping a respectful distance from each other.

There are a few restaurants in the city operating home delivery/takeaway services (Italian, Thai, Indian) but we haven’t used them yet.

Making bread

IMG_6133
A successful loaf – kneaded. 100g starter, 300g water, 450g wheat, 50g rye, 10g salt.

Like the supermarket shelves in so much of the rest of the country, our supermarket shelves are flour-free. However, Our local baker is taking orders for 1.5kg bags of strong bread flour (white and wholemeal), though it is expensive. Just before lockdown started, I learned how to make sourdough bread (coincidence in timing, really) – and very happy I am that I did. Bread making is therapeutic as well – there’s a sense that you are actually doing something, and with sourdough there’s a sense of magic that s1omething that is only flour, water, and salt can produce something that ends up being so wonderful.

My basic recipe is based around this page – but I use less water than suggested here, and I’ve started kneading for ten minutes, rather than the no-knead folding she suggests. On a good day, this works out really well. On a bad day, it sticks to the banneton and I end up with a semi-risen very flat loaf.

I’ve also done a fair bit of other cooking (I don’t eat meat, which ends up being a bit of a challenge at times) which I enjoy. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not.

Reading

I got a stack of books out of the local library before lockdown (they generously allowed us to take out as many books as we wanted, and no overdue fines) and I am still making my way through them. The last one of these I finished was a biography of Cranmer, and I am still in Tudor England with a Shardlake clone.

TV

Yes, I’ve watched a bit Even started King Tiger, but got bored after about three episodes. Didn’t see where it was going, even though I like true crime stories. Enjoyed Quiz and Hatton Garden, though. And we have been watching Mastermind (for obvious reasons) and University Challenge, among others.

Building model aircraft

IMG_6151Well, I haven’t actually started yet, but I have ordered a kit (a Revell DH Vampire MkIII if you’re interested) and some of the paints, tools, varnishes, primers, etc. that one needs to make these things to at least a decent standard.

It seems that these kits have become much more complex than the last one I built, getting on for fifty years ago (and the prices also reflect this!). Looking forward to getting all the stuff together and starting, but I feel that a level 4 may be too much for me. We will see.

Music

I’m also trying to improve my Hammond organ technique (using a Studiologic Compact Numa 2X as my keyboard) and continuing to doodle using hardware synths for the first time ever. Unfortunately, something on my computer means that the automatic fan speed system is bypassed with a 3rd-party hard disk, and the software meant to cure the problem seems to freeze the computer. Not too happy about the noise from the fans at full speed – rather like trying to concentrate while standing on a runway at Heathrow. Maybe I will put some music here in the future. Or maybe not.

…and writing

AutumnfrontI have already produced one novella in lockdown, written a large part of the next, based around the characters from E.F.Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. As well as it being available as a paperback and ebook from all the usual places, I have recorded the book, and it is available as a (paid) download from this site.

I am also about to start editing a friend’s book, due out soon. Jim McGrath (check him out on Amazon) has written the fourth book in his Collins and Clark series – what he calls “police non-procedurals”, featuring two Birmingham policemen solving crimes in the 1960s. The books tend to be a little violent and explicit at times, and the characters have a good line in Black Country repartee.

The covers for all of these books have been painted by Dave Brown, a local artist and former police officer.

And so that’s me for the moment…

 

Signed copies now available

I now have a few paperback copies of Mapp at Fifty.  If anyone would like a signed copy, this can be arranged easily. Simply click the button here, and fill in the form, including the “Dedication”. In other words, how do you want me to sign the book?

The price of a signed copy from here is £5.99, as opposed to the recommended price of £7.49. Pay with PayPal or credit card.

But wait, there’s more…

If you would also like a copy of my collection of slightly weird tales, Unknown Quantities (more details on the Amazon page), I have a few copies here. They are going for £3.99 (Amazon £5.99).

Postage is calculated as a Large Letter (non-trackable) and may (depending on where you live) end up being as much as the book(s). Sorry. I have no control over postage rates. With the current Covid-19 pandemic, shipping times will be longer than usual. I would estimate (and this is only an estimate) that UK delivery will be about a week from posting, and European and North American about two weeks. Australia and NZ, perhaps a little longer. So please have patience. I will try to get the package in the mail the same day that I receive an order.

The postage for your order is automatically calculated for the following countries:

  • Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, UK, USA

However, if you live in a country which is not on this list, don’t order just yet. Check on the map here or use this link to check your zone. If you are in World Zone 2, then there is a default “worldwide” setting. Otherwise, please let me know through the contact form before you order, I’ll add your country to the automated pricing system and then let you know.

Screenshot_2020-04-20 Country sending guides Royal Mail

New audiobook – only available here (Mapp At Fifty)

Mapp At Fifty, my pastiche of E.F.Benson’s wonderful world of Mapp and Lucia.

Print and e-book

It’s available on Amazon etc. as a paperback and an ebook, and can also be ordered through your local bookstore, of course. Actually, I’d really like that

  • Paperback: 126 pages
  • Publisher: j-views Publishing (9 April 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191260566X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1912605668

Audiobook

However, for those who like to listen rather than read (it’s a lot safer when you’re driving, after all), I have read the whole thing  (twice – I wasn’t satisfied with the first reading), and it is now available exclusively from here in audiobook format.

It’s two hours and thirteen minutes long, and the price is eight guineas (the same amount as the price charged by Georgie for his services). Loaded onto an iPhone/iPad, it appears divided into chapters, and can be listened to using the Books app that comes with the iPhone. It is also possible to listen to it with iTunes on Mac and Windows computers, and possibly on other devices such as video players, if you load it on a USB stick.

If you have an Android phone, you may find this link to be useful (there is no copy-protection or DRM on this file, by the way).

Anyway, here is a brief sample (the second chapter). You may recognise the link music between chapters – and I artificially aged it to sound like a 78 from one of those horrid gramophone things.

The whole thing weighs in at just under two and a quarter hours, and the file is just over 100MB in size.

And the price? Following Georgie’s example in the book, I am pricing this at eight guineas – which is £8.40 in today’s money. Payment by PayPal or credit card, with the payment processed through Stripe and with the 100MB file delivered by SendOwl. When you pay, you will receive an email with a unique link allowing you to download the file.

Questions? Comments?

On Being an Imitator

The Mapp and Lucia novels by E.F.Benson have been a part of my life since college days when I discovered them as rather camp amusing little tales, but without a full understanding of the protagonists, or the inter-war middle-class world in which they lived. Much of the subtlety and wit went over my head, but as I read and re-read them I discovered new depths in the characters and their doings.

In fact, these books became so much a part of my life that I could feel I was coming home to well-loved friends whenever I dipped into them, and they became my specialist subject for the first round of the BBC quiz series Mastermind in the 2019/20 series. Nor was my confidence misplaced. Lucia and Georgie, together with the other inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling, after a ridiculously incorrect first answer, carried me through to the next round.

SmallMapp-at-Fifty-Kindle copyWhat more natural, then, when I came into contact with the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, that I should try to expand the canonical reach of these characters? The result was Mapp at Fifty – a novella (20,000 words) which attempts to reproduce and possibly expand, but always within the limits of the originals, Benson’s wonderful characters. I was slightly worried about whether I could manage Benson’s rather idiosyncratic (and definitely dated) style, with its little barbs and sarcasms, but I did find the characters’ speeches easy to manage, and that in turn led me to what I felt was an authentic style to describe their actions.

And my intuition was proved correct. A few relatively minor (and justified) criticisms on matters of detail from other Luciaphils, but overall, it can be counted as a success. I am pretty certain a sequel will follow. Many thanks to all who read, criticised, and suggested.

Benson’s books are not so much plotted novels, as slices of the characters’ lives, in which events occur which are linked, not so much by plot, as by the effect they have on their characters’ lives. To take one example in the Benson originals, Lucia invests successfully in the stock market, and Mapp follows her lead, but fails to read the small print. As a result, Lucia manages to unload her position at a profit, but Mapp is stuck with a set of underperforming shares which don’t even pay dividends typing up her capital. This leads to Mapp having to sell her house (which Lucia has been coveting for some time).

In the same way, even in 20,000 words, I managed to incorporate Mapp’s plans for her party, her desire for a particular gift to be presented by her husband, and a previously unknown character with a spectacular past arriving in Tilling. But there is no “plot” in the traditional sense, though I think the episodes hang together nicely.

Sidenote: At the time of writing (8 April 2020), Amazon seem to have rather messed things up – I wanted the print and ebook editions to be made available for pre-order from 9 April, but deliveries to start on 1 May.

UPDATE (13:30 April 8): Kindle now due on 11 April!! Paperback may well appear days before??

Being an Imitator

My first books were originals – the two alternative history titles featuring Brian Finch-Malloy, and my Tokyo-based thriller At the Sharpe End. So was the book that landed me a publishing contract with Inknbeans Press (RIP), Tales of Old Japanese .

But then I got started on writing Sherlock Holmes stories – I’d previously written semi-pastiches for advertisements in English-language Tokyo-based publications, and I’d always loved the style and phrasing of the prose – somewhat archaic, and sometimes with the power to surprise and even uplift at times.

At first, I was rather offended by the term “pastiche” – but it seems there is little pejorative about the term as used by fans of the original Sherlock Holmes. For whatever it’s worth, Wikipedia writes:

In literature usage, the term denotes a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another’s style; although jocular, it is usually respectful. The word implies a lack of originality or coherence, an imitative jumble, but with the advent of postmodernism pastiche has become positively constructed as deliberate, witty homage or playful imitation. For example, many stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, originally penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, have been written as pastiches since the author’s time.

There can, of course, be bad pastiches – ones which fail to capture the spirit or the character of the originals, but for better or worse, I discovered that I was writing pastiches.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It seems I succeeded – the Sherlockian community approved of my efforts, and some claimed that I had nailed it – “it” being the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Maybe… anyway, it’s a style that I like, and I am very happy to write in. Sometimes I write a few lines which seem to me to be more than mere pastiche. For example, in my current Sherlockian work in progress:

“Watson, I wish your honest opinion,” he said to me when I had likewise ensconced myself beside the fire.

“Always,” I replied.

“Is it your opinion that I should return to France tomorrow?”

I was dumbfounded, and it took me a little time before I replied. “As your friend, I would advise against it. You will place yourself in danger. As a doctor, I would strongly protest against your doing so. Your health would not support such an action. And as an Englishman, I see that you have little choice but to do so, given the peril before the nation. That is, on one condition.”

Holmes raised his eyebrows. “That condition being?”

“That I accompany you.”

The problem with my Holmes stories now (I haven’t published a new one for some time) is not that I am bored with Holmes and Watson, but that I am running out of interesting crimes. My current Sherlockian project is, to my dismay, turning more into a RDJ-type “Sherlock Holmes” – but I am still attempting to maintain the true characters of the protagonists, even if the plot is somewhat non-Canonical.

However, I have been inspired to try other styles in addition to ACD and Benson.

G.K.Chesterton

For example, I wrote a Father Brown pastiche, The Persian Dagger, with plotting assistance from my then editor, the late Jo Lowe. This was tricky – Chesterton’s style is somewhat baroque and full of little paradoxes and word tricks. I tried to get this style, and some of the spirituality that runs through Father Brown, into this little story:

“He is not a Catholic, then?”

She sighed. “He is nothing,” she said. “That is to say, he claims that he cannot prove that God exists, or that He does not. Therefore, he mocks both those with faith, and those who deny faith. Though he is a most efficient and useful addition to the household, and of great assistance in Uncle Archie’s work, I – we – feared that my uncle would give him his notice if he were to continue in this fashion. It upset my uncle considerably.”

“And yet you tell me that you love him?” asked Father Brown kindly.

“I do. I have faith – faith that I can bring him to belief and into the bosom of the Church. I pray every night for him to believe.”

This interesting conversation (interesting, that is, to the young lady at least, since Father Brown had heard that story, or one very similar to it, many times in his role as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

William Hope Hodgson

And then there’s William Hope Hodgson, creator of many wonderful weird stories and also of Carnacki, the ghost-finder. And if you don’t know Thomas Carnacki, it’s time you did. I managed to put together a pastiche of Carnacki, described by one person as “pitch perfect” and which appears in Unknown Quantities.

Carnacki stories have their own mythos and world-picture, and I reproduced that, I think, fairly faithfully:

“After the initial chalk circle and pentacle, strengthened with garlic, the Electric Pentacle was obviously the first line of my defences to be established, and I welcomed the glow from its wards once I had assembled it. I performed the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual at each vertex, though if matters were as I suspected, and that the beings reportedly described in the lost Heptatrych of Laskaria were involved, the Ritual would have little or no effect. My faith lay in the Pentacle, along with the linen-wrapped bread placed in the ‘Points’ and the water placed in the ‘Vales’, and I determined to spend the night inside that, provided, that is, that there was no clear natural cause for any untoward event.

But Carnacki is also human, and there is more to producing a convincing Carnacki pastiche than simply reproducing these words, just as in another universe, simply repeating a stock list of names and phrases (Cthulhu, The Old Ones, Necronomicon, and The Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred) is not enough to create a true Lovecraftian pastiche (something I have yet to attempt, by the way). So Carnacki tells his listeners:

“I cannot say that I feel any regret over the arrest of Kirkwind, who behaved as no man should and will, if there is any justice, hang. Nor can I shed tears over James Offley. But I failed miserably and wretchedly when it came to the protection of Sir William Offley, and the memory of my failure will remain with me to my death.”

He ceased to speak, and there was silence for a few minutes, broken only by the rattle of coals in the grate, and a faint shuffle as one of us moved in a chair.

At length the silence was broken by Carnacki himself.

“Out you go!” he commanded us, invoking the usual formula.

I attempted to get into Carnacki’s mind – and here I was lucky, because I once knew a man who, had he lived some 100 years earlier, might well have served as a model for Carnacki.

And next…?

I don’t know. The important thing is for me, that I can identify with at least one of the characters in the story to such an extent that the story almost writes itself. But I enjoyed my visit to Tilling and especially my time with Georgie and Irene, and I think that’s where my next pastiche will come from.