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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Review



My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars


I can’t remember when I last read a book that I devoured so avidly – especially a book that’s not a genre thriller or whodunit (at least not in the classical sense). Borrowed from the library, started and finished in the space of a few hours.

It’s a book that mystifies, explains, uplifts and depresses, all at the same time. Told through the eyes of someone who is clearly not in the same world (physically and mentally) as the rest of humanity, it’s obvious that there is something very strange happening.

As “Piranesi” (not his real name) finds out more about his reality, we readers realise that what appeared to be errors in the continuity and credibility of the narration are in fact clues to the situation which we should have picked up, but we are so caught up in the wonder of Piranesi’s world and of his mind that we don’t bother questioning them as deeply as we might.

Not the overpowering tour de force that was Strange and Norrell, but a masterpiece on a far more constrained and miniature scale.

View all my reviews

How do I write pastiches?

Pastiches? Homages? Rip-offs? Or simply imitations (“the sincerest form of flattery” according to Oscar Wilde)?
I’ve written quite a few of these, taking on the mantle of four authors in my time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), William Hope Hodgson (Carnacki the Ghost-Finder), G.K.Chesterton (Father Brown), and latterly E.F.Benson (Mapp and Lucia). All of these have been well-received.

In these stories, I have always tried to maintain the style of the original authors as far as possible. This is more than a matter of recycling stock phrases (“You know my methods, Watson”, “tarsome”, etc.). Each of these authors has an individual style, even though in many cases their periods of activity overlapped with each other – there is much more to this pastiche business than simply copying the mannerisms of a bygone age’s language.

“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 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.

From my “Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey”

However well I think I have done with the style, though, when I look back at examples of the originals, I find that I have invariably missed something – at least to my eyes. There is always some element of subtlety that I seem to miss out when writing my pastiches. Even so, the majority of readers seem to think that I have captured the spirit of the originals. I like to think that no one could ever use Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral as architectural blueprints, but they are unmistakably paintings of that particular building, in the same way that my writing is an impression of the writer whose work I am imitating. Incidentally, the hardest style of all to imitate has been Chesterton’s – he loves his little paradoxes and slices of religion to be slipped in. Very difficult to do.

“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 time as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

From my “The Persian Dagger”

Characters are another matter. How far does one take liberties with the character? I like to think (and many critics have agreed with me) that my Holmes and Watson expand on the originals without changing their basic characteristics. I am not, for instance, going to make Holmes and Watson jump into bed with each other, but at the same time, I feel free to make more of the genuine affection that they feel for each other. The same applies to Mapp and Lucia and the inhabitants of Tilling. The characters are loved because of who they are, and any fundamental change to them would make them different people. They may grow and develop, but any outright change to their personalities would turn them into different people. I loved writing Mrs Weston in Riseholme – her streams of consciousness are a delight to write:

“Well, I really don’t know,” she said, after inspecting Georgie’s pieces of glass and invited to guess where he had found them. “I do declare that is just like the handle of a jug that Mr Weston used to have, which he inherited from his aunt, the one who used to live in Hastings and who married the man who invented a new kind of safety-valve to go on railway engines, and which he broke one afternoon after he came in from playing golf with the Vicar. I remember that he went round in 83 strokes, and the Vicar went round in 82, but he said the Vicar had cheated by moving his ball out of a bunker when he thought no one was looking.” She inspected Georgie’s treasure trove a little more closely. “I was just talking about this last week with Colonel Boucher when he was coming out of Rush’s and he had ordered half a pound of currants because Rush said he had no raisins, and why he had no raisins I couldn’t say if you begged me to tell you because he had some two weeks ago and Cook made a very nice pudding out of them. I couldn’t eat it all, and Cook and Elizabeth said they were the best raisins they had ever eaten in a pudding. And the Colonel said he had played golf and lost by one stroke and that put me in mind of that day and it was also the day the German Emperor made a speech about something which annoyed the Prime Minister and that was the very same day that Mr Weston broke the jug.” She paused for breath. “And how you ever got hold of that handle I don’t know, because I remember giving it to Elizabeth to throw away. ‘Wrap it up well,’ I said to her, ‘because someone might cut their hand on it and die of blood-poisoning like old Mr Marlowe who cut his thumb when he was raking the flowerbed in his front garden and he got blood-poisoning and died two– no, three weeks later, and then we’d get the blame.’ So what she did with it, I couldn’t tell you, but I haven’t seen it from that day to this when you showed it to me just now and I really have no idea where you might have found it.”

From my “La Lucia”

And then there are plots and settings. When you are writing a pastiche, you are writing for fans of the originals. If I slip up and put Mr Twistevant behind the counter of the fish-shop, or have Holmes and Watson take the London Underground Victoria Line, I would be rightly laughed out of court. Research and reference to the originals for facts and settings. And plots cannot be too outrageous (though in all the instances I have mentioned, the plots are pretty outrageous to start with) – they must be in scale with the settings of the piece. It is not impossible that the Prince of Wales, for example, sits on Mallards doorstep and smokes a cigarette. It is, however, most unlikely that he would ring dear Liblib’s belly-pelly and ask to be invited in for a cup of tea.

So, the brief answer to “how do I write pastiches” is, “I write stories that the original author didn’t have time to write”. I like to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well have written:

As a doctor, I am sworn to protect the life of others. As a human being, I am obviously anxious to protect my own life. And as a friend of Sherlock Holmes, I was never more determined to protect his well-being than at that moment. I fired my revolver, and the wretch dropped his weapon, clutching at his arm with a sharp cry.

From my “The Adventure of the Vatican Cameos”

Cover up!

I enjoy mocking up covers for my stories, even before the stories themselves are ready for publication. Sometimes the covers help to crystallise my thoughts on how the story needs to be refined, and help me focus on key elements that I highlight in the cover.

I’m no artist, but I flatter myself that I know my type and have a reasonable grasp of the Adobe tools.

In this case, the aspects I want to emphasise are:

  • the protagonist, Jane, who is a little weird
  • the wild countryside of the north Midlands
  • the looming presence of those from the other side of the sky
  • and some hints that it is not contemporary
This one came closest after a preliminary search.

There are other elements in the story, but I don’t think they would catch the eye to the same extent. I wanted a face and a figure. People respond to faces on book covers. Looking through royalty-free photos, I found nothing I really felt was suitable.

But the problem is that it was too modern. That’s not an 18th-century face. It stares at you and grabs you, but doesn’t go with the long subtitle.

The single eye seems a bit odd to me as well. So I went searching.

LeBrun self-portrait

So, Wikipedia has a lot of her paintings, including this delightful self-portrait:

And also this:

Unnamed young girl

And this is what I came up with:

I made the image monochrome other than the eyes, which I made very saturated green, and placed it to one side, with a good deal of transparency.

But it still didn’t look right to me, so I moved the title and increased the font size.

Probably not the final version

Almost certainly it will not be the final cover, but it does give me inspiration to continue and get the book out. Here’s a little bit of what the book is about:

Done (but not dusted)!

I’ve now finished the first draft of my next book. Provisional title: On the Other Side of the Sky.

Current length: 103,000 words. That’s a lot of words.

Date started: 20 August 2020 (I have written and published a couple of shorter books in the meantime)

Setting: 18th century Europe

Protagonist: A girl with a strange parentage

Antagonist: Her father – who is from the other side of the sky

Other characters: Some members of the Lunar Society including England’s greatest doctor, Erasmus Darwin, assorted alchemists, mesmerists, mountebanks, rabbis, and German Landgraves. A sprinkling of the English aristocracy and some revolutionary sans-culottes.

Supporting cast: Some beings from the other side of the sky, and some Rosicrucian-type Elementals (Sylphs, Gnomes, Undines and Salamanders).

Genre: Historical paranormal. Similar in its way to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Method of writing: Seat of the pants. Watch and listen to the characters and write down what they do and say.

Research and sources: 17th and 18th century books on alchemy, Jewish legends, serious scholarly work on Kabbala, biographies of some of the Lunar Men and of that period.

It’s been a wild ride through lots of Jungian landscapes. It’s either a complete load of self-indulgent crap, or it’s a very good book indeed. I’m not sure I can tell the difference at this stage.

Now comes the hard part – editing.

If anyone reading this is or knows an agent or publisher who might be interested, please let me know.

Isaac Newton – a question

It’s generally accepted that Isaac Newton was at least as interested in alchemy as he was in mathematics – indeed, he may well have regarded one as an extension of the other.

However, in my reading about alchemy, I have discovered that the making of gold and the philosopher’s stone were regarded by many of the more hermetic and serious alchemists as being metaphors for spiritual enlightenment. Newton was hardly unaware of the theological and spiritual sides of life.

My question is why he continued expensive and arduous experimentation in his laboratory at Trinity College, Cambridge – apparently purely physical alchemy, refining mercury to produce the “spiritual quicksilver” (known by a variety of other names) necessary to achieve the ultimate physical alchemical goals, when he was presumably aware that the crucibles, slow heating, distillations, etc. of the alchemists were regarded by many merely as symbols of one’s spiritual growth.

Was this a compulsion to see, touch, test and record (the horrendous account of his poking a needle into his eye comes to mind)? Or was this an obsession with gold and money, which came to the fore in his offices at the Mint?

Can someone who knows more about Sir Isaac than I do please shed some light on this?

A rich source of new material

I’m coming to the end of The Other Side of the Sky (at least the first draft), and it’s proving to be a voyage of discovery for me. I’m 90,000 words into the story and there are probably another 10,000 to go.

There’s a lot of mysticism in parts of this book – of the 18th century kind. I have been reading a lot of alchemical texts, and have been surprised by what I have discovered. I had, like many of us, I suppose, always considered alchemy to be concerned with turning base metals into gold, and perhaps discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (the picture is by Joseph Wright of Derby, who appears as a character in my book, and is a detail of his painting of an alchemist, sometimes known as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone), which would grant eternal life or something to its possessor. Instead, I’ve discovered a mass of rich analogies, many of them confusing, if not outright contradictory, and all of them obscure, referring to a path towards spiritual perfection.

It’s impossible to separate these aims, and much of the imagery, from the Rosicrucians, who likewise expressed their secret doctrines in striking and colourful imagery. and from there, I suppose I could carry forward to the best-known 18th-century secret society, the Freemasons. However, I’ve decided not to go there.

Instead, I’ve chosen to go backwards, to an even earlier source of mystical spiritual growth, Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Now, Kabbalah is far from being a simple subject. It speaks in analogies, and has many forms, but the underlying concepts are those of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, as far as I can make out. So I’m not speaking as an expert but as an outsider looking into a new world.

One view of the Sefirot

The Sefirot

This is a part of Kabbalah which has really attracted my attention, the Sefirot (there are many alternative transliterations), the ten energies (actually, there’s an eleventh “shadow” energy at the intersection of Keter, Binah and Chokhmah).

By moving from the source at Keter to Malkhut, one attains a realisation. It’s also possible to travel upwards, it seems, through to a union with the divine.

The links between these energies are typically associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and even with cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack (this is a retroactive association, and was never made by Kabbalists, it appears).

But it also seems possible to link the Sefirot in other ways – paths which are in some way considered diabolical by many.

Here’s another view of the Sefirot which includes the letters associated with the links between the energies, and also includes Da’at, the intersection of Bina and Chockmah.

This diagram is sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is the subject of a lot of commentary and discussion. Even though there is a fair amount of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered from this tree by the non-adept, it would be possible, I am sure, to spend years studying it, with all the associations that have been made (many of them probably spurious or irrelevant). I’ve just come across a wonderfully paranoid conspiracy theory version which includes the Templars (of course), Akenahten, Freemansons, Jesuits, and puts the USA in the place of Malkhut!

As well as all of this, there is a rich corpus of Jewish legends, many of which have a bearing on this aspect of Kabbalah. One I have just been reading tells of the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet all clamouring to God that they be allowed to be first in the alphabet. The one which ends up being the first (Aleph) is the one which did not shout for a place. Maybe Jesus was aware of this story when he said “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

Bringing this up to date

There are many more modern interpretations that can be made here. I mentioned that conspiracy theory just now, but there are other ways of viewing these subjects, and it’s also possible to trace the gradation from alchemy to chemistry.

It’s also possible (and it has been done several times) to place a psychoanalytic interpretation on both alchemy and Kabbalah. Carl Jung, in particular, was particularly fascinated by both as windows into archetypes and into the collective unconscious. Whether or not you believe in the more mystical elements of Jungian thought, there is much to consider.

All in all, I’ve gone on an interesting journey with this research. While I cannot accept all the elements of the alchemists of Kabbalists, I have discovered more than just plot elements – and the existence and details of aspects of Jewish mysticism have been a real eye-opener to me.

Now to finish the book…

New gadget – Kobo Elipsa

I’ve been looking for some time at the reMarkable tablet – a sort of note-taking device. However, there are two or three things about it which did not attract me to it, despite the rave reviews and the attractive appearance of the thing.

  • It’s basically a one-trick pony – you can write and sketch on it – and to a certain extent you can read ebooks on it, but it’s not an ebook reader
  • The synchronisation between gadget and computer seems to be rather clumsy
  • Price: this is not a cheap option

I’ve owned a Kobo of one kind or another for some time now (I think this that I’m describing here is my fourth – the first broke about 10 years ago and was replaced free of charge by Rakuten, and then I bought another one five years ago for my wife so she could download books in Japanese here in the UK, but she didn’t like it, so I took it over to replace my aged one whose non-replaceable battery was dying.

So when Kobo introduced a larger ebook reader with the ability to accept handwriting and diagrams, etc., as well as the ability to read and mark up PDFs, I decided to splash out. The cost (£350) includes pen and smart cover, which is considerably less than the reMarkable’s price.

What you get in the box

The stylus is proprietary – you can’t use anything else. Happily, the stylus, which uses an AAAA battery (first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing) is nicely made, and the cover comes with a clip to hold it firmly. It’s pressure-sensitive, and you can use it as a brush, ballpoint, fountain, or calligraphic pen, with five (not fifty) shades of grey. There is also a highlighter and erase button on the barrel of the stylus.

And, when you come to use handwriting in the advanced notebook, you can convert handwriting to text with a double-tap of your finger.

Even works with diagrams and equations:

Export over USB or Dropbox as an image, HTML, or Word docx.

And for PDFs, it’s great. You can’t type comments, but you can scribble and handwrite (no conversion there as yet, but I expect it to come). Sync via a dedicated Dropbox folder. I’ve used this for proofing and editing already. It’s one of the reasons I bought this thing, and I’m happy that it does what it says on the tin, very effectively. Sync over USB or WiFi through Dropbox.

There’s a link to Pocket, which allows you to read longer Web articles offline. I’ve used that quite a bit already (there is also a very rudimentary Web browser, which I haven’t used. Also a few games, which I’ve looked at.

The thing goes to sleep after a time or when you put the cover on, and you can add a PIN to prevent others from looking at your work – I intend using this for meeting agendas and so on, as well as editing other people’s work, so even this elementary security is useful.

As an ebook reader, it’s great. The size of the page allows a decent amount of text per page, at a reasonable size for reading (as with all Kobos, you can load your own fonts via USB connection. And you can scribble over the page, drag to make a highlight from which you can add a note – and you can browse through all your annotations, listed with a preview. It’s about as heavy and bulky as a thin hardback book. You can read in bed with it, or sit in a chair and read comfortably. Built-in light, and a dark mode, which makes the text white on black. Haven’t used that yet. Press and hold a word for a dictionary definition.

WiFi is fast and reliable in my experience. Syncing is sometimes done for you, as when an edited PDF is closed, sending the edited file to Dropbox, where it can be read, with annotations, on a computer. There were a few freezes when I first got the thing, but there’s been a software update since I bought it, and I expect there to be more, adding features that I think are missing right now. Purchasing off the Kobo store, and moving books to and from the cloud (either Kobo, or Dropbox for non-Kobo ebooks is simple).

Well worth the experiment, IMHO. Already it’s been used for real live work and will continue to be used.

Oh, and one more thing. I’m not enriching Jeff Bezos with this thing.

Add questions as comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Food in Tilling and Riseholme

“The Gambits of Conversation Derived from Food”

In the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, the members quite often discuss the different foods and drink that make appearances in the stories about Tilling and Riseholme. Without these being “foodie” books, it is interesting to note how many times food gets mentioned very specifically, often to make a plot point, or to highlight some aspect of a character.

Not only do we have the famous Lobster à la Riseholme, the secrets of which are never fully revealed, but we also learn about dear Diva’s sardine tartlets and her pastry-fingers, and Susan Leg’s cream-wafers. And then there are those little chocolate cakes, of so cloying and substantial a nature, Diva’s passion for nougat, and then eggs and chestnut ice, both à la Capri. Captain Puffin sadly drowns in his soup – but not just any soup. “Lungs full of ox-tail”. Even quaint Irene is spotted with a lobster in her marketing-basket.

Of course, there’s always that “wretched supper, consisting largely of tomato-salad” – rather out of character for Lucia to treat her guests so meanly.

And who can forget Elizabeth’s store-cupboard, storing food against the possibility of a coal-strike (remember that a coal-strike would have paralysed the railways at that time, and therefore food distribution would have ground to a halt).

And then we have Elizabeth and Benjy-boy entertaining Rudolph da Vinci to dinner. Described witheringly by Diva as:

Tomato soup, middle-cut of Salmon sent over from Hornbridge [note: is this because Elizabeth no longer buys from Hopkins, or what?], a brace of grouse from Rice’s, Melba peaches, but only bottled with custard instead of cream, and tinned caviar.

I could continue with the foods produced and eaten in Tilling, but let’s stop there.

In Riseholme, not only does the Guru produce some delicious little curries for Daisy and Robert, but we get a good idea of how Lucia entertains from the provisions she orders for her smart London guests when she hosts a house-party.

…several pounds of salmon, dozens (“Literally dozens,” said Mrs Boucher, “for I saw the basket”) of eggs, two chickens, a leg of lamb, as well as countless other provisions unidentified…

Then there is Mrs Weston who feeds Colonel Boucher a dinner consisting of brill (a fish we don’t see much these days] “for they hadn’t got an ounce of turbot”, a partridge, a bit of cold ham and a savoury.

Lucia often eats “macaroni” (but it seems from the description that some other kind of pasta is meant here, probably spaghetti) in tribute to her Italian leanings.

Again, these are only a few of the times in which food makes its appearance in these stories.

Some middle-cut salmon

So..?

Can we draw anything from all of these? I think that the frequent mention of food helps us realise several important points about the inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling:

  • The principal characters are quite clearly well-off by most standards. The presence of game and salmon on the menus, as well as the quantity of courses, indicate this. Of course, all practice economy on the quiet, but in public, a little showiness is called for.
  • Remember, these people didn’t prepare their own food (unless it was Lucia playing at being a cook in the final preparation of her (in)famous lobster dish. Servants did all the hard work of preparation – and washing up afterwards (the picture comes from Downton Abbey, but you can imagine similar scenes in the kitchens of Mallards and Grebe)!
  • They enjoyed their food. Even Robert Quantock, who throws his food about a bit when he doesn’t like it. With very few exceptions, none of them have jobs. Gossip and food are among their principal joys in life. And as many of us trapped in lockdown here in the UK are aware, meals and food take on a new importance at such times (to the detriment of some waistlines!).
  • We should remember that when these books, especially the early ones, Britain had just escaped by the skin of its teeth from starvation caused by the U-boat blockade. Benson was writing escapism, and the escapism includes food, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers provided Lord Peter Wimsey with a fast car and luxurious meals when she was commuting on crowded buses and living off poached eggs on toast.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on food in the Mapp and Lucia books. I’m fascinated to know what others’ favourite foods are in these stories. Please leave comments below.

I’ve been away from here for some time

It’s been quite a hard time for us all. It really didn’t feel like Christmas, probably the most un-Christmassy I have ever felt in my life, even when I was living in Japan and had to work on Christmas day. Yes, we went to my sister’s and ate a socially-distanced meal together and exchanged gifts, but even so, it was a strange time, with the windows wide open, no hugs or physical contact, no helping together in the kitchen, and for my sister and me, no mother, who had died at the beginning of August (it wasn’t from COVID, and my wife and I were able to be with her when she died).

And then New Year – I had deliberately been avoiding building up the excitement that 2021 would be better. If nothing else, we had Brexit looming over us, and it would seem obvious to almost anyone that a last-minute deal consisting of well over 1,000 pages, and unscrutinised by Parliament would be a disaster. And so it has proved to be.

Nor did I expect COVID to go away. Decisions which were made at the last minute (again) meant that the Christmas period was a super-spreader event, and the resulting lockdown has proved to be much less enjoyable than the others (not that they were that enjoyable to start with).

The good news is that the COVID vaccine is now available in some quantity, and is being distributed. I have been volunteering at Lichfield Cathedral which has become a vaccination centre, with hundreds of people vaccinated each day that it has been open. Not that I have been sticking needles into people, you understand, but helping with the queues and so on.

I don’t see it as being a particularly brave thing to do – most of the people coming in have been isolating for some time, and are unlikely to be suffering from COVID. We’re all wearing PPE, keeping our distance, and there are gallons of hand sanitiser, etc. around the place. But I do feel I’m doing something useful and it is wonderful to see people’s faces and their sense of relief.

Oh yes, and then I had a birthday early in January. Doesn’t matter which one, but there are some benefits for me being as old as I am now. Don’t feel that old, though.


Waiting for patients in Lichfield Cathedral.

Models

But… on the plus side. I have taken up building model aircraft again. Plastic kits, after 50 years away. The techniques, and indeed the kits, are unrecognisable compared to what I used to build. I rapidly discovered that my eyes and my skills weren’t up to 1/72 to any appreciable level, but 1/

is (a) an affordable scale and (b) more suitable to older modellers. Here’s my latest, a de Havilland Vampire in 1/48 as made by Trumpeter:

Books

And I’ve written four books since COVID started. Based on the Mapp and Lucia novels by E.F.Benson, they have been extremely well received. The ebook editions may be bought from Ye Signe of Ye Daffodil (the last one will be available from everywhere on March 1, so this is a chance to get in early.

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.