The Admirable Jim Webster Presents…

I am delighted to host a guest post from Jim Webster today, since he…well, perhaps I’ll let him explain.

photo of Jim Oct 2015

Hi everybody, Mick kindly allowed me to drop in as part of a ‘blog tour.’
Given that Mick discovered my writing at Tallis Steelyard’s blog, I thought
I’d let Tallis, poet and raconteur from the city of Port Naain, tell you why
I’m here. Over to you Tallis.

I assume you are aware of the situation. You are summoned to the office of
some petty functionary and on arriving you find you are expected to join the
queue.
Or you need to visit a physician or tooth puller and arrive to discover that
even the city’s most glamorous courtesans cannot hope to find themselves as
sort after as the practitioners of these professions.
To be trapped in a queue is one thing, but in all these places where one has
to wait in line, they employ one whose task is to act as guardian of the
queue. These people are the ones who, with attitudes of supreme disinterest,
ignore the fact that you have an appointment for a certain hour and merely
gesture to the back of the line. So there you sit, secure in the knowledge
that to the minor functionary in charge, your time is of no value. They sit
there, blithely apathetic to the fact that there are people you need to see,
places you have to go, work that has to be done.
So what to do? How do I, Tallis Steelyard, cope?
It is an interesting question. I have tried using the time profitably.
Unfortunately the troll lurking behind the reception desk took umbrage at me
spreading my papers across her desk and borrowing her ink to make a fine
copy of some of my poems. I felt this was extremely petty of her. After all,
not only had she not paid for the ink herself, but I could not see why she
could not merely glare contemptuously at us from a different chair. There
was nothing that she was doing which demanded her sole unrestricted access
to the desk.
On the other hand, one of my finest hours came when I was faced with a room
full of dour and miserable people for whom time appeared to have stopped,
leaving us trapped in some grim limbo from which there was no escape. I
recalled a comic tale that had amused me when I heard it and decided to tell
it. I stood up, faced my audience, and started to recount it to the best of
my ability. I gave a fine performance. Any of my patrons would have
considered that Tallis was pulling his weight to get their party going with
a swing. I was especially pleased when one man at the head of the queue
voluntarily gave up his place to another, so that he could catch the ending.
The monster in charge of us was most put out. She tutted audibly, she even
tried to interrupt with the words, “Really Master Steelyard.” To my delight
she was shushed into silence by a young woman nursing a baby.
But normally, in all candour, I just take a good book with me. I take my
place without protest, make myself comfortable and start to read. Between
ourselves I feel that bursting into spontaneous laughter as you read is well
worth doing. It cuts your tormentor to the quick, forcing them to admit to
themselves that they are no longer in charge. They can no longer deny you
life’s pleasures.
To be really successful, you have to adopt the correct mental attitude. It
is rare that one has a legitimate reason for sitting and reading during the
working day. Far too often you are left feeling that you are indulging
yourself in a guilty pleasure. But in a queue you can indulge to your hearts
desire.
So remember, when you take your seat, wear that expression which tells the
world that you are not some put-upon victim, trapped against your will. This
is not an imposition, it is a window of liberty to be seized and enjoyed to
the full.
Trusting you all keep well.
Tallis

Ah well, Jim here. That went as well as can be expected I suppose.
Basically, what Tallis was supposed to tell you but somehow forgot was that
I have just published the sixth in the Port Naain Intelligencer collection.
(They’re a collection because you can read them in any order.) This one is
called ‘Keeping body and soul together,’ These novellas chronicle the antics
of Benor the Cartographer when he was staying in Port Naain. They do feature
Tallis, just not perhaps as much as he’d like.

Cover Keeping Body and Soul together

Rescuing random strangers on a whim may be the good deed for the day, but
will Benor survive the blood feud he has unwittingly become part of. More
importantly can he buy back the victim’s soul?

And me? I’m married with a wife and three daughters, dabbling in farming,
writing and journalism. I lead a quiet life in the north of England.
My blog is at

https://jandbvwebster.wordpress.com/

The blog of Tallis Steelyard can be seen at

https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/

I am on Facebook at  https://www.facebook.com/jim.webster.10297

And there is even a facebook page for the books!

https://www.facebook.com/Land-of-the-Three-Seas-426394067386022/

If the few kind words Tallis did write have stirred your compassion and you
feel the urge to support a starving artist, (me not him) then a quick look
at Amazon will let you see what I’ve written

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jim-Webster/e/B009UT450I/

There is a lot of it, all reasonably priced.

Oh yes, and the book,
It’s at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XRKQBLQ/

The Christmas Story! 3rd and Final Part.

They could see at once that something was very wrong.

There was no movement from the child in the bed of course, since they were within TimeShift, but the agonised rictus on his face, the distorted jaw and neck, and the twisted body lying half in and half out of the bed, immediately made them freeze and stare in horror.

A snapshot…a cruel statue…tiny hands caught in time, clawing desperately at a heaving chest…bulging eyes…

Henderson actually thought he could hear a terrified scream, somewhere in the air in that suddenly awful room.

‘Shee-it!’ Said Edwards, softly and slowly.

Nobody moved.

315a

After a minute or so, as if by comment consent, they opened the door and slowly went out to the landing, each of them reluctant to leave the child – it felt like they were abandoning him.

‘Try that door.’

Lesley was the nearest. Raising his fist he began to tap gently at the door, then realised what he was doing and shrugged, pushing the door slowly open.

They faced a woman frozen in the act of throwing a dressing gown around her shoulders as she stepped towards them, the dressing gown caught billowing like a hero’s cape, although her face was frightened and staring. Instinctively, they all took a step back.

‘She’s heard him,’ muttered Edwards. ‘She’ll make sure he’s okay.’

But none of them believed it.

‘She’ll get an ambulance, for sure.’

‘But what about all that fucking snow? How will they get through that?’

‘What can we do?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Seems blindingly obvious,’ said Edwards, after a couple of moments. ‘We just pop him in the sleigh and take him to hospital ourselves.’ Henderson looked grim.

‘It’s really not that easy, I’m afraid. We’re in TimeShift, but he’s not.’

‘So? Just bung him in the sleigh anyway, and off we go.’

‘No, we can’t. When you’re inside TimeShift you can’t move any other bodies that are outside. It’s impossible. And even if we could, what about his mum? She’d just find him gone.’

‘So to get him to the hospital, we have to do it outside of this TimeShift thing?’

‘I think we’ll have to do everything outside of that. First we need to find out what’s wrong, which means we have to get outside of TimeShift straight away. Talk to his mother….’

‘…won’t she sort of just freak out when she sees us?’

‘We can’t worry about that. We just need to work out how to do it.’

‘Don’t you know, then?’

‘Er, no. When it happened last time, I don’t know how it worked.’

‘Can you call the office and ask them?’

‘Only in real time. But there is one way I can think of. One or both of you will need to stay here, whilst I take the sleigh and come back in…what, one minute? Will that give you long enough to speak to her and find out what’s happening?’ They both looked doubtful.

‘I’m not sure that the sight of us appearing in her house at the dead of night will really help. Ain’t there any way you can stay here? At least she’ll know who you are.’

‘I don’t think so. Neither of you know how to operate it.’

‘No, we don’t. Okay, come back in a minute or two, and we’ll tell you how we’re getting on.’

***

There were four figures on the landing when he returned.

Lesley and Edwards were standing either side of the woman they had seen in the bedroom, who had her hands to her mouth in shock, whilst the fourth was a man in pyjamas who was lying stretched out on the floor A cricket bat was lying a short distance from his outstretched right arm.

‘What the…

‘Sorry, I had to biff ‘im.’

‘Why?’

‘He was attacking us.’

‘Oh, for…

‘But the boy’s having a fit, and needs to get to hospital. And, shit, that was weird.’

‘What was?’

‘The way she stopped moving the moment you appeared.’ Henderson looked at him, and then went back into the child’s bedroom. He was still lying in that awful, contorted, position, but now there was just a hint of dark blue in his lips. He returned to the landing.

‘I think he’s dying. We don’t have much time.’

‘Have you got a plan, then?’

‘Just to get him to hospital as fast as possible. If I go and get that programmed into the SatNav, then we just have to come out of TimeShift and get him on board as quickly as we can and…’

‘Oh, bugger it! It’s obvious!’ shrieked Lesley suddenly.

‘Eh? What are you talking about?’

‘Well, instead of pratting about here, why don’t we just go and get a doctor and bring ‘im here? We can stay inside this TimeShift bastard thing until the last moment, then.’

‘Yeeess…that might be the answer. It’d probably be quicker. Although, we might have a problem if they don’t believe us. We can’t afford to spend too long trying to persuade them; the boy mightn’t last that long.’ Edwards narrowed his eyes.

‘Don’t you worry about that. The doc’ll come with us!’

***

Finding the hospital proved to be the easy part.

It was a small hospital, and at that time of night there were a mixture of sleeping and wakeful patients, nurses doing rounds and writing in folders and dealing with a number of minor crises, but it seemed impossible to find a doctor. They stood at a doorway staring into a restroom where a nurse was sitting with a half empty mug of something and a pile of papers. She looked tired.

‘Don’t they have doctors here at night?’ asked Edwards.

‘I suppose they must have, but I don’t know where we’ll find them.’ They looked at each other.

‘Well, why don’t we just take a nurse?’

‘Well, why not? Come on.’

They hurried back to the sleigh, and as soon as they were aboard, Henderson switched off the TimeShift.

‘Right! Let’s go!’

They ran through the entrance and down the corridor, ignoring the shout from the desk porter, and burst into the restroom.

‘We’ve got a boy dying out there!’

‘What? Who are you? Where?’

‘I don’t know the address; you just need to come with us. He’s having a fit.’

‘I can’t just go…’ Her voice faded away as she took a proper look at the elves.

‘You’ll come with us,’ said Lesley, in a voice that said very clearly that she was going with them. ‘You need to bring anything?’

‘Er, yes…a couple of things…I’ll need a hand.’

‘Right, come on. We’re in a hurry!’

There was plenty of room on the sleigh, with most of the sacks now lying empty on the floor at the back. It took a couple of seconds to deploy the new ramp and push the trolley of equipment on board, and then they were up in the sky again, the nurse in the front seat beside Henderson. As soon as the reindeer started up and they were back in TimeShift, he felt himself relax.

‘Right. Sorry about this, but there’s a boy having a fit, and the ambulance would never get through this snow.’ She nodded.

‘Okay, I get that. I understand that you’re Santa Claus…I suppose. But,’ she lowered her voice and jerked her thumb backwards, ‘who on earth are they?

‘Elves.’

‘They look a bit rough for elves!’

‘I’ve had worse.’

‘You want a beer, love?’

‘What? I…’

‘We’re here!’ said Henderson, hurriedly. This time he managed to bring the sleigh down in the road, squeezing in between a couple of parked cars.

‘Let’s get the trolley off first.’

They pushed it through the snow up to the front door, and then Henderson switched off the TimeShift.

‘Okay. Hurry!’

They hammered on the front door.

***

It was two hours later.

At least, in some ways it was, but just at that moment it was really a hundred and eighty-nine and a bit years earlier.

‘And you’re sure the little feller’s alright, now?’

‘The nurse said he’ll be fine. And we’ve only got two more drops, then we can go home.’

‘Right, I think we need some more beers, then.’

‘Hey, these are good ones!’ Henderson said in surprise. Edwards looked hurt.

‘What was wrong with my lagers? You seemed happy enough with them earlier.’

‘Oh, nothing. No, they were great. I mean, these are pretty expensive ones. Where on Earth did they come from?’

‘Oh, they were in the lounge in that house. I’m sure no one will mind.’

‘No,’ Henderson agreed, ‘under the circumstances, I’m sure they won’t.’

***

If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories:

First one

Second one

Third one

Fourth one

The Christmas Story! Part 2

‘Right,’ said Henderson, ‘here we go.’ He pressed the big green button and the reindeer burst into life. Less than ten seconds later, they were cruising through the sky just below the clouds. The TimeShift had kicked in, and, looking down, they could see they were passing over what appeared to be a small town, nearly every chimney of every house belching smoke, and the few roads between them devoid of traffic. Then the air around them crackled slightly, and instantly they landed on a rooftop in a modern day housing development. It was night time.

307a

Henderson glanced at the elves and nodded. ‘Okay?’

‘Nah, you’re the Big S. Best you do it.’

‘You know the rules!’ he said, in a passable imitation of Nicol’s voice. To his surprise, they looked at each other, grinned, and then got out.

They all stepped forward together, and found themselves in the middle of a darkened room, although each of them was able to see as clearly as if it were daytime. There was a single bed on either side of the room, each containing a sleeping child. On the end of each bed lay a large bag shaped like a sock, made from red material and embroidered in white with ‘Merry Christmas.’ A card table had been set up at the foot of one of the beds, covered with a small white cloth on which there was a small glass of sherry, and a plate with two mince pies and a carrot. He popped the mince pies and carrot into a small bag he was carrying, and poured the sherry into a flask. While he did that, the ‘elves’ put the regulation number of presents into each bag.

‘Dunnit.’ Said one of them. Henderson nodded, put a tick against the first name on his list, did that thing with his fingers he had to do, and then they were back in the sleigh. He turned around and put the bag and the flask on the floor behind the seat, and pressed the button.

‘Mind if we have these?’ said a voice behind him.

‘Go ahead.’

‘Cheers. Saves on lunch, anyway.’ He paused. ‘They don’t mind you eating one or two, do they?’

‘No, eat as much as you want. They don’t much care what happens to them anyway.’

‘What do they do with them when we get back, then? Do they just throw them away?’

‘They used to, but it goes to a food bank, now.’

‘What about the carrot? Can I give it to the reindeer?’

‘No, these ones can’t eat carrots. Don’t try it, whatever you do.’

‘Oh. Right.’ There was silence for a moment, then he heard a fsshh followed rapidly by two others, and then a hand suddenly appeared over his shoulder holding a tin of lager.

‘There you go, Big S. There’s a spot of Christmas cheer. It’s a bloody long day, this.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ he said in surprise. He took a sip, and then shivered slightly. It tasted pretty strong. ‘Better than that bloody sherry, anyday. Cheers!’

‘What happens to that?’

‘The sherry? Biofuel. That’s all it’s good for.’

A couple of hours into the shift, Henderson found he was beginning to relax. He was beginning to relax quite a lot, actually. He took his hands off the controls and turned around, leaning one elbow on the back of his seat.

‘I know one of you guys is called Edwards,’ he said, conversationally, ‘what about the other?’

‘It’s Lesley,’ the bigger of the two said grimly, clenching his fists belligerently. Henderson smiled.

‘Oh, right. Lesley, then, pass me another of those tins, would you?’

He reckoned they must be about halfway through the shift. It was always difficult to tell, what with their bobbing backwards and forwards randomly through the last two hundred years or more, and because of that it seemed somehow ridiculous to start worrying about whether it was two o’clock or three o’clock.

And at the moment, it didn’t seem to matter anyway.

But gradually they were working their way through the list; each name was ticked off in order, and the sacks that held the presents in the back of the sleigh were slowly emptying.

He thought he’d drunk three of those lagers, although there was a little voice somewhere inside him insisting it was four, and was just thinking it was a jolly good job that he didn’t actually have to drive the sleigh, when…

Crunch! Sssssssccccrrrrrsssshhhhhhh! Whump!

It took a lot to get reindeer to crash, but it seemed he’d managed it.

‘Where are we?’ Henderson slowly wriggled up from the foot well and got back onto his seat. He pulled his list out from his pocket and stared down at it.

‘Err, just outside Huddersfield. Probably.’ They had landed, but for some reason instead of coming down gently onto the roof of the house they were to visit, the sleigh had rushed down through the falling snow until it had collided with a hedge of conifers. The impetus had taken them through the trees, although they seemed to have a fair amount of snow and twigs over them and on the floor of the sleigh, then they had bounced a couple of times on the ground and come to rest against a low stone wall that formed part of the rear boundary of quite a large house.

He felt a little shaken, but nothing worse than that. He looked round at the others.

‘There’s a fair bit o’ the white stuff here, ain’t there?’ said Edwards, rubbing the back of his head,

‘Yes. Are you both okay?’

‘Yeah. Let’s get on with it.’ They all stood up, and Lesley picked up one of the sacks.

‘Right.’ They stepped forwards, but all that happened was that they found themselves standing ankle deep in fresh snow. ‘Oh.’

‘That’s not meant to happen,’ put in Lesley.

‘No,’ Henderson looked up into the sky, where the clouds were continuing to release a fair amount of snow, ‘and nor is that.’

‘What?’

‘Somehow, we’re in real time. Get back in the sleigh.’ They jumped in, and Henderson sat staring at the SatNav with its large red over-ride button, wondering what he should do now. He had a feeling that he’d been told about this the previous year, but the alcohol had made his thoughts rather woolly. As he hesitated, though, he heard a shout and looked up to see a couple of figures running towards them.

‘Oh, shit!’ Quickly he pressed the start button, and the reindeer roared into life. Seconds later they were up in the clouds again, and then they were down and sitting on a snow-covered roof. He looked at his list, then looked suspiciously at the co-ordinates showing on the SatNav. It seemed the program had reset itself automatically and they were now at the correct house.

Inside, he checked the list again. One child, boy, aged eight. Name of Dylan. On top of a chest of drawers was a hand-written note beside a mince pie and a couple of chocolates that read ‘For Santa, love from Dylan.’

That seemed okay then. He put a tick next to the name and they returned to the sleigh.

It was another short hop to the next call; the sleigh had barely risen to the clouds before it was down on a roof again. This time, the snow was seriously thick, and the flakes hanging silently around them were very big and very fluffy. It was remarkable, he thought, that the reindeer didn’t feel the cold.

But they wouldn’t, of course. Not these ones.

‘Right, come on. Only a few more to do, now.’ They stepped forward into the snow and materialised in a small bedroom.

And froze in horror at what they saw.

***

If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories:

First one

Second one

Third one

Fourth one

The Christmas Story!

 

Well, it’s now December, so I suppose it can’t be too long before we begin to see the first of the Christmas decorations going up in the shops, and then, ooh, another week or so and we’ll start seeing some Christmas adverts on TV.

I said I definitely would not do another Christmas short story this year, so here it is. Part one of three. Probably.

In a way, this continues on from last year’s Christmas stories; I’ve put the links to them at the bottom of the page if you’d like to refresh your memories!

358a

It was almost the end of another tough year, another year of scrimping and scraping and just getting by. It didn’t seem right, somehow, that Santa should be on the breadline for most of the year, for that was how Henderson thought of himself now; Santa.

He didn’t really think they would take him on again this year, though. Not after what had happened the previous year, that is. But to his surprise, Nicol had smiled at him and said ‘Yes, it’ll be great to have you back on board again,’ without the slightest trace of sarcasm in his voice.

‘How have you been?’

‘Well, my back’s a bit stiffer than it was last year.’

‘You’ll welcome the new changes, then,’ he said, bitterly.

‘Changes?’

‘Yes. I’m afraid the government has taken an interest in us this year. That could spell real trouble in the future – if you come back next year, I expect you’ll find we’ve been privatised. They’re already making noises about cutting the number of presents.

‘It started last year. The Equality Commission visited us with a long list of what they called ‘positive changes’ that we needed to make.

‘Every single household with children needs to be visited, they said.

‘We do that already.

Each child needs to receive gifts of equal value, so that no one can think themselves disadvantaged.

‘We do. We always have done.

And you need to log each visit.

‘We do, it’s computerised. Has been for years. We have records going back to Victorian times.

‘And more crap like that. It feels like the writings on the wall, now.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, this year they were back again. So if your back’s a problem, you’ll be pleased to know that all the sleighs are wheelchair accessible now; or they will be,’ he corrected himself, ‘just as soon as we finish making the changes.

‘It was sprung on us at the end of November. Some twat with a clipboard and one of those stupid plastic ID cards hanging on a chain around his neck turned up unannounced in the office. He had come to find out whether our employment record reflected the government’s ‘investment in diversity’ – whatever the frick that means. Had we heard that a shopping mall in the USA had a black Santa this year? Yes, I said, we had. And over the years we’ve had sled-loads of black Santas. And brown ones. Pink ones. One year we even had a yellow Santa. Real yellow, I mean. Jaundice, it turned out to be.’ He sighed. ‘That one didn’t turn out well.

That’s good, he said, and ticked something on his clipboard. Then: What about disabled? You’re Joking, I said. How’s a disabled Santa going to get up and down chimneys?’

‘But I didn’t have to…’ Henderson began.

‘Yes, but he wasn’t to know that. That’s for you to facilitate was his reply, though. Bloody hell, can’t these jerks even speak English? Oh, well, that won’t be a problem, I told him, I’ll just put ramps and a ladder in each sleigh.’ Nicol ground his teeth together and looked really angry. ‘I was trying to wind him up, but the bloody idiot just smiled and said oh, well done. I’ll tick that one off too, then.’

‘If I haven’t met that bloke, I’ve certainly met one or two like him.’

‘Oh, there’s more. I’ll need to come and take a look at your sleighs, now. He said. And I should have seen what was coming, then.

‘What?’

‘Now they’ve all had to go back to the workshops to be made wheelchair accessible. We’ve only got two available at the moment, which means things are a bit hectic.’

‘Does that mean you really have to take on Santas who are…well…in wheelchairs?’

‘Fortunately, not.’

‘I’ll bet that’s a relief.’

‘Just elves.’

‘Elves?’

‘Uh-huh. Elves.’ He shrugged. ‘No reason why not, I guess. You know how it works, it’s just a bit slower than usual. It means I put in a requisition for two more sleighs and teams to cover the timings. Probably the biggest pain is the changes to the delivery program.

‘Anyway, that doesn’t affect your team. Here’s your schedule.’

 

They were both rather thickly built, unshaven men. One was smoking a roll-up.

‘They don’t look much like elves’

‘You don’t look much Santa Claus.’

‘I look more like Santa Claus than they look like elves, though.’

‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s your team. They are fully trained and know what they’re doing.’

‘Are these guys from the same agency as me?’

‘No, they’re long-term unemployed. From the Job Centre. Another government stipulation, I’m afraid. Forty-two percent of our intake this year have to be candidates who have been out of work for a year or more. But they’re okay. I did a trial shift with these two yesterday and they were, er, just fine.’ Henderson stared at him. His experience with elves the previous year had made the subject a rather sensitive one. Then he looked at the elves, who stared back at him in what seemed a rather unfriendly manner.

‘No need to gawp,’ said one. ‘Ain’t you never seen a bloke in a pixy hat before?’

‘Not for a while,’ he conceded. ‘I’m Henderson, by the way.’

‘Come on then, Henderson, let’s get in,’ said the other. ‘Let’s get this crap over with, so we can go home.’

‘Put that cigarette out first, Edwards,’ said Nicol, sharply. ‘You know the rules!’ Edwards glared at him, then threw the cigarette across the yard.

‘Bastard!’ he muttered, under his breath. Henderson took his seat at the front of the sleigh and waited for the ‘elves’ to get in.

‘This will be fun,’ he thought, gloomily.

***

If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories:

First one

Second one

Third one

Fourth one

I have some news!

I have some news.

I’m sure some of you (especially the writers) will remember that I reported here a week or two back the disturbing news that fictitious characters now have the legal right to sue their creators for defamation of character, or any other hurt (real or perceived) caused through those said creators’ thoughtless and heartless actions.

imgp2288

In case you want to have a look, the link is below.

https://mickcanning.co/2016/10/22/sue-me-and-ill-have-you-killed/

Well, news reaches me this morning of a new grouping of characters, namely sidekicks in detective stories, who have come together under the name of Sidekicks Of Detectives (or ‘Sods’) to challenge their positions as The Most Stupid Person In A Detective Story.

Initially, the group was to have been organised by Captain Hastings, sidekick to the famous Poirot, but after some heated discussion it was agreed that, actually, he couldn’t organise his way out of his own front door without help, and the task was then delegated to Doctor Watson, who arranged a meeting at a coffee shop, one of a well-known chain, in Central London. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention either which branch it was, or the time of the meeting, and so there has only been limited progress on that front, so far.

But, further cases have already come to court.

A number of characters from ‘Three men in a boat’, by Jerome K Jerome, Bertie Wooster and others created by P G Wodehouse, and various characters from books by Spike Milligan began a collective case, but were laughed out of court.

Dan Brown is being sued by every single character he invented.

And there is some confusion in America, where Donald Trump has apparently filed a case against himself on the grounds that he has irreversibly blackened his own character.

I’m told he is confident of winning the case, since the stories he has spread about himself are scarcely believable, and that it is generally held that he must be a fictitious character, since the majority of observers and commentators say they ‘can’t believe this guy is for real!’

The trouble is, all this is symptomatic of our legislative culture. It was the retrospective case brought by Big Ears and Mr Plod against the estate of Enid Blyton that, I think, I found most distressing. By all accounts, they cooked it up over an evening of heavy drinking, after being taunted by the Tubby Bear family, and it is strongly suspected (although it cannot be proved) that much of the impetus came from a third character – possibly one of the Fluffy Cats, since they are known to be bad through and through (it’s okay, I can say that. It was proved in a recent court case of character assassination that the Fluffy Cats brought, and lost, against the estate).

But Big Ears and Mr Plod did win their case, and now not only is it a legal requirement that in future they both be referred to as intelligent, but Big Ears must henceforth be renamed as ‘Graham’. And his ears are officially ‘of normal dimensions’. Or else.

Which brings me to my own characters.

I have decided that I am not going to be dictated to, or browbeaten by, some miserable little…hang on, there’s someone at the door. I’d better just get that. Hello? What? A writ? about what? Oh…

I’m sorry, I have to stop there.

Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

Well, yes, right…or write…

The clocks have gone back, and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier, but there is still a blackbird singing in the garden, although there is also the smell of wood smoke in the air – from a bonfire, I would guess – and a definite chill in the air. The autumn leaves have been exceptionally beautiful this year, seeming to have an extra couple of tones of red and orange. And there are still plenty of late flowers out. I may be a summer person, but it is  decidedly beautiful at the moment..

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I said I’d take part in NaNoWriMo this year, didn’t I? What on earth could I have been thinking of?

Did I really commit to writing over a thousand words a day all through the month?

Oh, for goodness sake! I’ve not even had time to look at anyone’s posts for the last five days, let alone write anything.

I quit. November 2nd, and I quit. Just like that. I’m sure no one else has ever backed out of it that early. Can I claim some sort of record?

But, as some sort of penance, I’m going to put up a short fiction piece for today’s post. I wrote it last week, so that’s almost November…

Light Years

It appears now both ridiculously arrogant and incredibly stupid, but after a mere few thousand years of development we seemed to think that we had arrived at a stage of development that we should consider to be an advanced civilisation. For a handful of years we had been capable of a rather limited space travel. We were beginning to probe the makeup of the universe and were on our way to some understanding of its complexities. And out of all of these thousands of years of development, we had had machines only for a few hundred years. We had had electric light for less than two hundred years. Computers for less than a hundred. We reached the moon one year, and two generations later we were probing the edges of the Solar System. And in those two generations, the life expectancy of almost everyone on the planet increased dramatically. We invented mobile phones and within one generation they were tiny computers that virtually controlled our lives.

In short, the pace of our technological progress increased exponentially.

But we had had wars and cruelty and genocide all of this time. We never solved that problem, we only invented crueller and more effective killing machines.

And should we ever make contact with another civilisation – that’s civilisation, mark you, not just life form – then the odds were that it might be several millions of years old.

No one seemed to realise the rather obvious implications.

And, despite warnings from a few of our more eminent and talented thinkers, we continued to recklessly send signals out into this huge unknown, advertising both our presence and our level of development.

Science fiction in popular culture would have aliens suddenly visiting our planet, swooping through the skies in huge flying saucers with deadly heat rays as weapons. The visitors would be recognisably bipedal – large headed, of course, since their brains would be more developed than ours – but with a limited range of facial expressions (why limited, I always wondered? Surely they would have developed more subtle ones? But perhaps they no longer needed them). The world would be in a panic; world leaders would meet, and attempt to make contact with the visitors. There would be an ill-advised attempt to engage them in battle, which would turn out very badly, but they would finally be forced to leave, or leave of their own accord, and in the end we would be the wiser for it.

But it wasn’t like that at all.

No one seemed to know what they saw, and many seemed unaware even that they had seen anything at all. There was light, but not the lights of UFOs buzzing through the skies at night, and not the stabbing beams of destruction envisioned by the writers and film-makers. For several days, it seemed to me that the light was a rather odd colour, and at times a little misty, or…hard. Others noticed that the light would move around, almost in blocks. It sounds ridiculous, but there you go.

That was about the time that I noticed a slight throbbing in my head and my brother complained of a ringing in his ears. No more than that, although it did seem that there was more shouting and arguing from some of the families in the neighbourhood, but this wasn’t particularly unusual and I thought nothing of it then.

It was the following day, which was yesterday, that everything seemed to go quiet. The arguing had stopped, for which I was grateful, but so had the background noise of traffic. I walked down to the ground floor and pushed open the door, and with that the throbbing in my head seemed to get worse. There were one or two people in the street outside, but no one seemed to be in a particular rush. All of them appeared to be strolling or standing around aimlessly and when I began to walk towards one of them, I found it quite difficult to move my legs; they felt very, very tired. I stopped and looked at the man I had been approaching, but when I caught his eye he began crying. It seemed shocking, and I wanted to cry too, although I did manage to stop myself. In the end, I turned around and went back home. I thought I’d see if there was anything on the news, but the TV no longer worked, and nor did my laptop. There was power, since the power lights came on, and I filled the electric kettle and made a cup of tea, but that tasted awful – perhaps the milk was off –  and I poured it away.

My head was still throbbing, but I thought I ought to see how my brother was this morning. I tapped on his door, then went in, but he wasn’t in his room and the bed looked as though it hadn’t been slept in. He had gone out the previous evening, and it seemed obvious that he had stayed out all night. It didn’t seem to matter.

I still felt tired, and now I did start to cry. It only lasted a moment, though, and then I thought I should have some breakfast. I put a couple of slices of bread into the toaster and put a pan on the cooker. I was going to fry a couple of eggs, but the oil in the bottle seemed to have turned a greenish colour and set solid overnight. I pushed the lever down on the toaster anyway, and for about a second the whole thing glowed with a bright orange light that hurt my eyes, and then just faded away. There was no smell of burning, and the toaster looked unharmed. I unplugged it from the wall, and lifted the lever. The bread was still white.

All of this should have worried me more than it did, but the truth was that I felt that I didn’t care. For the next hour or so I sat at the window, watching the few people outside trudging slowly along or standing and crying. A couple of them were lying motionless in the road. With an effort, I lifted my head and looked up to see that there were bands of thick colour across the sky; not clouds, because they were too transparent to be clouds, and they were the wrong colour anyway. I don’t know what colour they were, but it was wrong.

When I looked down again, the street was empty, apart from the colours.

It is possible that what we saw was no more than a trick of the light, or perhaps they were machines. Possibly, they were even the creatures that had sent them. Who knows, maybe they were both at once.

Light. Yes, light. It keeps coming back to light.

I don’t even know whether this is the end.

But I think it is.

Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

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I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.

Wow, What a Book! #1

I thought that I would pick out what might be the 10 books that have most influenced my life. Well, I say 10 books, but I may tire of this long before I reach 10, so let’s just see what happens.

You see, these are not really reviews, although it is necessary to give some idea of the plot of each book, it is more about how they have influenced me, and I may decide after a while that I’m just giving away too much about myself.

Or that I’m just going over and over the same ground.

Okay, then. Let’s get on with it. The rules:

Firstly, I must have read the book more than 5 years ago. I know this is an arbitrary figure, but any book that I have read recently is likely to be clearer in my mind, and so appear a little more important to me than it really is. It needs time to settle.

Secondly, I need to be able to demonstrate to myself exactly how it is that the book has influenced me. Just to say ‘it was important to me’ will not be enough. That would be little better than just saying ‘I like it’. Perfectly valid, but hardly the stuff of a blog post. This is another reason to impose the 5 year rule – there must have been enough time elapsed to see the influence.

So I’ll start today with Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

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Sometimes, you get the feeling that some people have just been born into the wrong century. Not that they would prefer dressing in cravats or crinolines, although they might anyway, or that they have a hankering after a little piracy or bubonic plague, but rather you can see that they don’t fit in with the pace of modern life, or much like the ethos of the times.

There must be quite a few people like that, which must partly explain the immense popularity of Steppenwolf both when it was released, and then especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was the second book by Hesse that I had read, after cutting my teeth on ‘The Journey to the East’ as a teenager, and I was a little unprepared for its message.

Whereas ‘The Journey to the East’ felt like a bit of drug-induced fantasy, although a very clever and readable one, without any obvious message beyond ‘free yourself from the conventions of society, man’, Steppenwolf clearly had a more serious message to convey.

It begins with the protagonist, Harry, contemplating taking his own life, because he sees himself as a serious writer both at odds with the world that he lives in (Germany, post WWI), whose values, especially the bourgeois ones, he despises, but also with his inner alter ego, the very opposite of the sophisticated artist that he sees himself, which he calls the Steppenwolf – or the wolf of the steppes. He hates and fears this alter ego, who he feels he cannot control, and who sneers at everything that Harry holds dear.

It is whilst Harry is contemplating suicide, that he comes across a booklet entitled ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ and as he reads it, he discovers that it is about himself. the booklet talks about Harry and his alter ego, but also explains that there are many, many more of these other sides to his character.

Through the rest of the book, Harry learns how to reconcile these many sides of himself and, more importantly, how he can manage to live in this world that up until then, he sees no value in.

When I read the part of the book that consisted of the treatise on the various different natures that made up the protagonist of the novel, it was the first indication to me that we really do have these different sides to our characters; sides that do not need to be in conflict with each other, but can coexist quite peaceably. As a typical young man, I knew that there were parts of me that yearned for safety, parts that simply wanted to rebel. Parts that enjoyed home life and parts that wanted nothing more than to wander the world with my possessions in a rucksack. There was the aesthete and there was the lover. The artist and the fighter.

Until then, the rebel in me had sneered at the home lover, and the artist seemed to be in perpetual conflict with the fighter. I had felt embarrassed by parts of my character and, just as did the hero of Steppenwolf, rather tried to repress them.

What this book did was to show me that it was natural to feel like that, and that the secret was to accept all of these sides of me, and allow them to all have their moments of dominance, and their moments of passivity. They did not need to be in conflict.

It completely changed my outlook on life.

Sue me and I’ll have you killed!

…slowly, he inched his way along the ledge, his heart in his mouth. It was too late to even contemplate turning back now. The sun was sinking rapidly in the pale sky in front of him, dropping towards the distant plains that were almost hidden in the desert haze. It would be completely dark within the hour. For the first time, he knew real fear. He could never survive a night on this thin, narrow ledge – God knows, there was barely enough room to stand and almost nothing to hold on to. It was inevitable that he would slip off at some point. Even now, there was a thin skin of ice on much of the surface, and the terrible cold would descend as soon as the sun disappeared.

Gritting his teeth, he edged towards what looked like a slightly better foothold, and cried out in sudden terror as his foot slid into space, the momentum taking him over the edge and falling…

Hell, I can’t do that! Stop! Phew, that was close.

As writers, we have to be so careful, because nowadays even our characters have rights, did you know that? And we can’t just be doing this and that to them, just as we please. Only the other day, a lawyer claiming to be acting for a character in a well-known children’s series attempted to take the author to court and sue her for, literally, defamation of character.

This character claimed that the author had totally misrepresented his actions, and applied motives to them that could only be described as evil.

And she said he had no nose, which was just spiteful.

He has claimed damages running into millions of dollars.

If this character is successful, then it is difficult to know where we will see this ending.

The fact that the author has created said character is no defence in law. Really, they are like our children. And whereas a few hundred years or more ago, parents had absolute authority over their children, and, short of killing them, could do whatever they so willed with them, nowadays they have more rights than their parents. And I’m afraid that it may come to that with our characters, too.

‘Why should I be killed off?’ They cry. ‘What right have you…?’ And so they will challenge it.

It has even been mooted in some quarters that these characters should perhaps be able to resort to the legal process appropriate for the time and world that they have been created for. Thus, a dragon in a tale set in ancient times, peeved because the author claimed it ate virgins and had bad breath (not sure if the two are connected…) might very well demand that it meet the author in Trial by Combat, a trial that the author would probably be rather ill-prepared to face.

Upset a Tudor monarch or a Viking chieftain, and I wouldn’t give much for your chances.

And any authors writing tales set in the future, who had unwisely failed to specify what sort of legal process was in existence at this time, might find the lawyers, or even their characters, being given the right to specify this. And that might get very nasty indeed.

But there may still be one remedy open to us. If our characters hold the threat of litigation over us, we might, just might, be able to retaliate by threatening to make their next incarnation even more horrible than the one that they are prosecuting us over. Threaten to sue me for creating you with a flatulence problem? Go ahead, and see what problems you have in my next novel! Don’t forget I’m writing a series! You had quite a decent time in the last one, it’ll be the torture chamber for you next!

It might work, but I’m still nervous about it.

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So what am I going to do? I’m just going to write nice stories about pussy cats, from now on, that’s what.

Authors, you have been warned!