Tag Archives: writing

How not to do things number 53: Parenting #badparent

It’s my mum’s birthday and today, so I’m not really here. To that end, here is a pre-prepared blog post; another gem from the school of things I’ve fucked up so you don’t have. Enjoy.

McMini has a two day gap in his school meals schedule where he dislikes the lunches offered and I have to send him in with a packed lunch. This is a bit of a pain but at the same time, he is a creature of few needs and so we have a boilerplate packed lunch which he his happy to eat repeatedly. This includes sandwiches made with a particular type of reconstituted chicken slice that he loves. A kind of chicken spam. Oh well. Each to their own.

So there we I am preparing his lunch for these two days in advance – oooh get me all organised. I lay out the bread and then I get the chicken slices from the fridge. At the sound of the fridge door opening, Harrison, the cat, miraculously appears and brrps a couple of times hoping I am going to be opening the cheese drawer. I tell him no. The chicken spam also elicits some interest from him and I tell him it is not for him. He is remarkably acquiescent – indeed, if I’d thought about it I’d have clocked that he was suspiciously acquiescent – disappearing off in the direction of the utility room.

As I lay out the chicken slices on the bread, McMini appears wanting batteries for the TV remote or some such and I foolishly turn away from the breadboard, with the sandwiches and chicken slices, to open the drawer where the batteries live. At which point McMini gasps and points.

I turn to see what he is pointing at and there is Harrison, on the counter top, fur fluffed with excitement, just starting to lick the nearest slice of chicken-luncheon-meat-spam-stuff. The shops are closed, this is all McMini will eat and there’s only one more slice in the fridge so it’s imperative I stop Harrison before he slubbers on the other slice.

‘Fuck off Harrison! You fucking bastard!’ I shout as I head aggressively towards the counter top to push him off.

He leaps off and piles out through the cat flap at speed. Good. Except. Shit. I’ve just sworn in front of my impressionable child. Jeez how will he be grow up to be anything less than a total potty mouth when he has me as a Mum.

McMini gasps, wide-eyed with shock and yet, wearing a huge smile – because there’s no better thing, for a kid, than seeing the adults fuck up. He says,

‘Mummy! You just sweared.’

Bloody bollocks! Didn’t I just? I think, as he stands there laughing at me. Hmm … what to say now? Oh I know.

‘Yes. I’m afraid I did. But, OK, listen, here’s the thing kiddo. Mummy is a fishwife but it doesn’t mean you should be. You never, EVER, heard that,’ I tell him as he begins to really guffaw. ‘Strike it all from your mental record. Those were terrible words and you should never use them.’ I add as I throw away the dodgy cat-spittle-laden chicken slice and replace it with a new one.

But McMini does not forget things like this. Especially as we both find it hilariously funny that I am such a ‘Bad Mother’ as James Brown put it, although I have an inkling he might not have been using that phrase in quite the same sense as McMini and I. These are the secrets we can’t tell McOther because he would be shocked, but McMini has has been taking the piss out of me about it all week. I suspect the main reason for this is that he gets to shout, ‘Fuck off Harrison! You fucking bastard!’ at the top of his lungs, and few things are more likely to get a laugh from McMini than doing stuff that is a bit cheeky, cheeky, especially if it’s likely to prick the bubble of the pompous and it’s stuff he’s not really meant to do. Pretty much the reason I swear.

A chip off the old block then.

Thanks son.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under General Wittering, Tall Family Tales

When it feels right but is … wrong. #writing #indiebooks

This week: you have another opportunity to benefit from the vast store of wisdom I have earned by royally fucking things up so that you don’t have to.  

It started like this.

Wednesday; visit the parents day, and this week I arrived in extremely dire need of a wee. It is fairly usual that the pint of water and two cups of coffee I need to kick start my day turn into about five pints by the time I’ve driven fifty miles or thereabouts and I drive the next ninety in some agitation. This Wednesday was no exception.

At Mum and Dad’s the downstairs loo is just off the lobby before you go into the house proper and I usually use it before I announce my presence, otherwise the ten minutes of hellos can be a bit excruciating for my poor bladder. Into the loo I rushed, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as what felt like about a gallon of wee went into the pan. Except that each of the lavs at Mum and Dad’s has a riser for people with dodgy hips, and if you sit on the riser in the downstairs loo wrong, the wee runs down the inside of it and despite being positioned over the bowl, the gravitational wonders of surface tension bend the wee round and under the edge of the riser and it then falls over the side of the pan onto the floor. Well, it came from a skip, still in its wrapping, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But yes, you guessed it. A significant portion of my wee deluge had missed the pan entirely and puddled on the floor.

Joy.

The original dribbly-wee loo riser of doom (centre) among other skip scored offerings.

There I was. I’d done the right thing, sat on loo, weed into hole but somehow, despite following the instructions it had all gone somewhat awry. I spent the next five minutes wiping it up with loo roll and anti bacterial floor spray. It’s not just me, the foibles of this particular loo riser are a known problem and I soon had it all ship shape again with no harm done. The point was, sometimes, even when you do things the right way it all goes horribly wrong.

So how does this tale of substandard urinary aim have any connection with writing?

Well, it’s like this.

There’s a quote that appears on something I use – my Kobo Writing Life dashboard, I think – that goes like this:

‘If you want to read a book that has not been written yet, you must write it.’

Way back in 2008 when I finally finished my first decent novel that is, exactly what I had done. But to be honest, while this is great advice, it only works if you are in touch with the popular Zeitgeist on some level. I sell my books on the internet which, to all intents and purposes, is American. It is devilishly hard to reach non Americans but back then it was even harder (except on Amazon at that point).

Therefore, I shot myself in the foot instantly by writing a very British book set, mostly, in a fantasy world but when it came here, it came to London. Yes Dr Who is like that but it was put on by the BBC and when they first did it, they had a captive audience comprising all of Britain. I wrote British because I was bored of books and films where the main protagonists are American and the setting America. I wanted to see some shizz go down in my own country. What I failed to grasp was that there is a reason the vast majority of books are about Americans in America. It’s to connect with Americans; the biggest and most easily reachable group of readers in the market place.

Yes, I’d done kind of the right thing but … wrong.

The problem wasn’t even that I was writing a book that could well hold more appeal to British or Australasian readers. It was that I hadn’t researched my market – I thought I had but, no. That’s why I didn’t understand how hard to find they would be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would be unable to reach British readers without taking special measures. OK so that was 2008 but even now, in 2017, you have to work at finding international readers and even harder at finding readers who buy from sites other than Amazon.

Likewise, I’d read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy: the Narnia Books, The Five Children and It, The Incredible Mr Blenkinsop (I think that was its name) the Borrowers, the Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings. I’d seen films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, I’d read Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. In most of those books, the writer has invented a completely new world, or a new creature, or a new something. The point is, while they may have broad themes that are similar, good versus evil baddie, etc, each one takes place in its own fantasy world or hidden world within this one, often there are specific and new creatures created for purpose of the story. The notable exception is Terry Pratchett, who took the tropes other people used and poked gentle fun at them.

In the same way that I thought, at my parents, that rushing into the bog, sitting down on the ice cold, thigh freezing riser and letting it all out was enough, and discovered that oh it so wasn’t, I genuinely thought putting my book on sale and supporting my efforts with advertising on the big promo sites was all it would take to find readers. It wasn’t. I wrote weird books, that are funny and I had covers made expressly to say, ‘this book is like nothing you have ever read’ because when people saw my books, I wanted them to think, ‘Pratchett’. When I got reviews that said that, I quoted them. I wrote my book the old way. The E Nesbitt way. And I sold that as an asset … the wrong way.

When people talk about wanting ‘different’ I suspect that what they really mean is that they want the same old ware wolves and sparkly vampires but with … say … slightly different lighting.

That is where Sir Terry cleaned up. He kept to the standard tropes, and spun them differently. If you want to succeed financially, I think, possibly, the trick is to write something bang on genre that has a different angle; a standard, boilerplate, trope made interesting enough to you for you to be able to stand writing in it.

When it comes to making choices, I guess it’s wise to think through the ramifications, but with writing it’s hard to anticipate what they might be sometimes. If you like writing wacky but want to produce a well edited book with a professional cover, it’s worth looking at how much cash you have to throw at it and how long for. When I started this game, the estimate was that once you’d produced six books you’d reach tipping point; momentum would be easier to maintain and sales would rise.

‘Great!’  I thought, ‘I have budget for six novels.’

Now that I’m writing my sixth book, that magic tipping point number is more like twelve! Things change and move. How long can you sustain your business without making a profit? OK now double it. Hell, quadruple it to be safe.

Likewise, when you plan what you’re going to do to reach readers, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping as much of it under your control as you can. This is why so many writers ask readers to sign up to their mailing lists. I had an amazing three months back in 2014 when I optimised my book listings for UK readers and started getting a ton of downloads on Amazon and, even better, a really good read through rate – seriously it was massive, about 20% of the folks downloading the first book bought the others But then Amazon changed the algo – which they do around April or May each year, it seems. Overnight the downloads of the free book ceased. And that was that.

These days, however many author lists readers are signing up to, I still believe that if you can make your emails personal, fun and interesting enough they will stay with you. Just don’t make them too fun or your readers will sign up for the emails rather than your books or if they do, be prepared to monetise your blog posts, newsletter etc – either as non fiction books or paid content. The great thing about mailing lists is that if someone doesn’t get on with your books they can unsubscribe so you should end up with a list of folks who might, eventually, read your books! If you’re really lucky, some will part with cash for them.

Once you have some readers, it’s also worth listening to them. I always sold my books as fantasy and when asked to cite comparable writers I’d suggest Holt, Prachett, Rankin … When people started reviewing them, the bulk of them cited Douglas Adams. I now publish them in sci-fi. They don’t sell as well there as they did in the days when I could put them in fantasy and they’d be actually visible. But now that fantasy is kind of, ware wolves and shifters with a small corner for epic, my books definitely do better in sci-fi! Sci-fi seems a bit less rigid in the genre factors required, too, hence the next series, Space Dustmen, is going to be sci-fi with the odd planetary visit.

To sum up, what I am trying to say, I guess, is that now, more than ever, you need to think long and hard before you even start to write that book and you need to keep pretty nimble afterwards. So, if you’re thinking having a pop at writing or are working on your first book, maybe you should ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are you are writing for?
  2. Where you you find them?
  3. Can you find them easily and inexpensively?
  4. How often do the authors they read release new books?
  5. Can you keep up with book production rates for your genre? or to put it another way …
  6. How much time do you have? Even if you give up your job.
  7. What kind of writing career will fit with your life?
  8. How and where will you sell your books – it’s no good being wide if everyone in your genre whose books you like and who might like yours too and do mailing swaps or promos with you is in KU.
  9. How long before you need your books to start funding themselves to keep going?
  10. Are there other ways you can monetise your writing to support book production until such stage as your book business is self financing.
  11. How big is your social media following? Are you up to a kickstarter to fund book production?

The way I see it there are two broad choices about what you decide to write.

The first choice is to conform. You, write to market, so if it’s fantasy, you write about ware wolves or witches and yes you light them differently or whatever it takes and you write about six books (minimum) a year. And you thank your lucky stars you’re not in Romance where you have to write one a month!

Alternatively if you really can’t face the prospect of writing about creatures someone else has already invented or making your hero American, or 101 other must haves for the best selling book, accept that you are unlikely to earn diddly squat for a long, long time and just go for it writing the kind of stuff you love, that fulfils you as a reader and writer, stuff you want to read that hasn’t been written yet. But if you choose this route, you have to be extremely pragmatic about your chances of earning anything for many years and extremely lateral and original about what you do to earn from your books in other ways.

It’s quite good if you can avoid combining motherhood to a small child and trying to look after sick, elderly parents, at the same time as trying to have any sort of career, too.

This is where I am right now. But hey, my sixth book will be out next year and who knows, 2027 I may even have written twelve and if I market the hell out of them, well who knows, they might pay for the thirteenth book.

Mwahahahargh! I can dream.

11 Comments

Filed under General Wittering

Guest post: Touching the void #horror #books

This week to celebrate the release of his new horror novel, I’m delighted to have a sit down, put my feet up and hand over the blog to my esteemed author colleague and guest poster, Will Macmillan Jones. Take it away Will.


I’m primarily, at least in my own mind, a comedian. Certainly my ex, not noted for giving praise, was quite happy to describe me in that way. Mind you, she might not have meant it in the way I thought, so perhaps we had better move on.

Now one thing about comedians – we are all drawn to the Darkness that lies within. Anxiety, depression, alcoholism – these are all challenges that seem to line up with depressing (that again!) regularity for those of us who love making people laugh. The list of famous comedians who have succumbed to these ills is endless. So endless that the hidden tears behind the mask of a clown has become a cliché. That is in itself depressing, isn’t it?

But the Darkness need not always be a curse. Many of us find answers to it in unrelated activity, although I do think that taking up golf is a step too far. There should be a special hell designed for whoever invented that game. Simon Cowell; and anyone else who bears any responsibility for X Factor and/or the relentless stream of talentless wannabe boy bands and girl bands can join him or her there for eternity, in my view. Sorry, I digress.

I have seen and touched my darkness within, I’ll freely admit. So how is it that I am still here to bore you all rigid with my ramblings? Well, I embraced my Dark Soul. And turned to writing horror, or in my particular case novels that I class as Paranormal Mysteries. Yes, there are some purely dark short stories and poetic pieces around too:

Darkness drifts down the river of the night.
Not crashing like a Tsunami:
But sleek and silent as a Predator

Sorry about that, another digression.

Black humour is an old tradition, a quintessential British tradition in fact. Take an awful event or catastrophe, or especially a terrorist incident, and within minutes we are cracking gags about. In the best possible taste, of course, as the late Kenny Everett would say. Now, I like black humour and employ it in my horror as a counterpoint to the fear and dread to (hopefully) exacerbate those features, but it isn’t the point of the books. The point is to scare, to frighten, to provide that frisson of terror that will return every time to haunt a reader every time a storm rattles the windows with rain, or an unexpected shadow falls across a familiar wall, or the wind howls in the eaves and there are strange scratching sounds coming from a loft or a cellar…

Writing horror is just like writing humour, I have found. The intent is to draw from the reader an immediate reaction. When out performing, I have had as much satisfaction from seeing the audience nearly throw up at the end of a horror piece as I have from seeing them laugh at the punch line of a joke. It is no wonder to me that the word ‘gag’ has more than one meaning, and I like using both of them. In fact I am mildly surprised that more comedians do not end up writing horror: not least because it is so much fun!

I’ve discovered the joy now of having twin ambitions: one is to write a gag that makes someone fall off their chair. The other is to write a scene that makes someone actually gag in fear and horror.

Just as comedy has its dark side, so do writers of comedy – and I am having the time of my life letting it out to run free.

*See what I did there?

Will’s latest book, Demon’s Reach, has just been released. Here’s a little more about it:

Grab your copy here

Demon’s Reach, by Will Macmillan Jones

All families have secrets or skeletons in the cupboard, hidden away from view. Most of those secrets are better left undisturbed, for very good reasons. When Mister Jones agrees to deal with the Estate of a recently deceased cousin, he finds that the secrets hidden by his family are very dark indeed, and that the skeletons in this cupboard are very real – and not yet entirely dead.

Drawn once more by Fate into a world where magic and myth are all too real and danger lurks at every turn, Mister Jones confronts a past that seeks again to become the present, and to plunge his future into a rising Darkness.

Can he escape the Demon’s Reach?

When Mister Jones discovers that he has been asked to be executor of the Estate of a cousin he wasn’t aware he had, he thinks that the request is innocent, a family matter. But when he travels to his late cousin’s home, he finds that the local village is a dark place, full of mistrust of his family and with unsettling whispers of a dark past.

Indeed, his arrival is enough to spark of an attempt by the villagers to destroy part of his late cousin’s home – and the first death. The mystery deepens as another lost relative finds Mister Jones – but is she all that she seems?

His first visit to his late cousin’s house is almost his last, for Mister Jones finds first evidence of Black Magical Rituals among the effects in the house, and then discovers that a Demon still walks the grounds. The Demon makes herself known to more than just Mister Jones, and the body count rises. Joined by another relative stranger who reveals that she is his half sister, Mister Jones struggles to unravel the web of deceit and mystery and uncover the truth – only to discover that his half sister is more involved than he believed and that the plot centers around his presence, there in the house. He is to be a sacrificial victim, in a Ritual that will restore his long-lost father to life – at the expense of Mister Jones’.

Can Mister Jones’ half sister bring herself to sacrifice the brother she doesn’t know, for the father she fears?

About the author.

Will Macmillan Jones lives in Wales, a lovely green and verdant land with a rich cultural heritage.  He does his best to support this heritage by drinking the local beer and shouting loud encouragement whenever International Rugby is on the TV.  A lover of blues, rock, and jazz he has just fulfilled a lifetime ambition by filling an entire wall of his study with (already overfull) bookcases.  When not writing he is usually lost with the help of a satnav on top of a large hill in the middle of nowhere, looking for dragons. He hasn’t found one yet, but swears that it is only a matter of time. His writing credits include an occasional award, and a lot of more frequent near misses covering his chosen genres of Horror, Fantasy, Children’s, and Flash Fiction.

His major comic fantasy series, released by Red Kite Publishing, can be found at:
www.thebannedunderground.com

and information on his other work: horror and children’s books and poetry and stuff in general at:
www.willmacmillanjones.com

And Facebook https://www.facebook.com/william.macmillanjones

And Twitter  @macmillanjones

His next comedy, set in The Banned Underground collection of comic fantasy novels, and called A Teacher’s Lot will be out in the summer of 2018.

3 Comments

Filed under General Wittering

Excerpt from one of the W.I.P.s #amwriting #comedybooks

This week, another joyous example of the logic of children. The children in question being me and my brother. This is also another story that will be making it into my family stories book: Setting Tripwires for Granny (and other tall family tales). And yes, as per, neither my brother nor I is reflected in the best of lights. Anyway, enjoy.

No parking …

When he hit the age of eight, my parents made the difficult decision to send my brother to a nearby boarding school. According to Mum, he was beginning to strongly resent the amount of time Dad spent in the house and wasn’t enjoying living in a school. So off he went.  It sounds draconian but by the time the events in this story happened he’d been there some time and was thoroughly enjoying it.

Every Sunday, we picked him up and he came home for the day to have lunch with us. Four weekends each term he was allowed home for the night and these weekends were red letter occasions. At the end of each Sunday, my brother had to be back in school at around six pm. Meanwhile, the boys at Lancing who’d been out for the weekend, or the day, had to come back, too. Lancing operated with Saturday night out every other weekend and the boys (and the girls, there were girls in the sixth form at that point) had to return for evensong at six pm. This meant there was always a difficulty with us leaving when the tide of traffic up the drive was coming the other way.

The building we lived in fronted onto the car park for the next door house, Fields. We had a small fenced off terrace, but otherwise it was Fields House parking and then Fields House Lawn. Obviously, there were usually cars parked everywhere. There was one particularly tidy spot at the end of our terrace but if anyone parked there, the angle was such that you couldn’t get our car out of our garage. Usually Mum remembered to get the car out before the boys came back and then park it in a lay by a little further down the school drive so the family cars of the Fields House boys wouldn’t box it in.

However, on this occasion, our car was still in the garage. When Mum found out it was boxed in, we knew she would be all in a dither. She’d have to venture into the twilight zone that was Fields and find the owner. It was a job of sleuthing that always took ages and on one ghastly occasion the person was in chapel. Mum was not good company when she was all in a dither so as far as we kids were concerned, anyone who was inconsiderate enough to put her there was bad news.

One day, when my brother came home for the weekend it snowed. We were only a couple of miles from the sea so this was something of a rarity although it did tend to hang around slightly longer, on top of our hill, than it did in the valley. After a weekend of high jinx, snowman building and tobogganing it was nearly time for my brother to go back to school. With twenty minutes left, some parents turned up and buttonholed my Mum and Dad in the kitchen. My brother and I were upstairs, looking out of his bedroom window when we noticed that there was a car parked in The Spot; the one that blocked our garage. We knew two things about this car.

First, we knew that Mum had already asked the owners not to park there on other occasions, two, it was occupied. There was a woman sitting in it reading a book. We knew a third thing, too; Mum hadn’t moved our car yet, it was still in the garage.

My brother immediately had horrors about Mum failing to get the car out in good time and him being late back to school. I should point out here that, for him, being late to school involved missing a meal rather than missing evensong which was an altogether more disastrous outcome for a ten year old boy. And also there were plenty of other parking spaces, the car didn’t need to be parked there. As kids, it never occurred to us that Mum had probably seen it too, and seen the woman in there, so known she could just pop out and ask when the time came. No, all we saw was bad person parked in bad car.

We opened the window to get a better view and we looked at the car. It was something big, executive and expensive; a Merc or a Jag.

‘Let’s give it a couple of minutes,’ my brother said. ‘If it doesn’t move, I’ll tell Mum.’

It didn’t move and Mum was still busy with Dad and the parents in the kitchen.

Perhaps we could help Mum by making the car move ourselves?

We would ask but the lady was unlikely to pay any attention to our request because we were children. And anyway where’s the fun in that?

I think it was my idea to go downstairs, out of the door at the other side of the house, onto the upper quad, make a couple of snowballs and bring them back. One of the wonders of living in a school is the weirdness of the accommodation; a handful of rooms, miles of corridor and an astounding variety of exits, should the incumbent housemaster wish to escape from rampaging parents, or the kinds of talkative ones he couldn’t afford to let himself run into when he was late for lessons—housemasters pack a lot into their days so they are usually late for something.

Off we went, sneaking out quietly because we weren’t one hundred percent sure that our parents would approve of our actions, and into the upper quad where we made a couple of snowballs each. Back indoors we trundled, trying not to spill any tell-tale drips of melt water or giggle too loudly as we made our way back up the stairs to my brother’s room where we had opened the window, a fair bit but not too much. Standing well back so that we were indistinguishable to anyone looking up at the windows we lobbed the snowballs out. Our attempts to avoid being seen hampered our aim a bit as it took a fair bit of skill to get the snowball through the window on the right trajectory from a safely anonymous distance back. They landed near the car with a satisfactory splatting noise but not near enough to make an impression on the woman inside. We waited, just to see, but she didn’t react or move the car.

Back down we went through the house, out of the door, down another flight of concrete stairs into the cloisters and through the archway into the quad. We made another couple of snowballs each using the snow on the grass and retraced our steps to my brother’s room. This time one of our efforts skimmed past the wing mirror, sputtering the window with water droplets and the other landed on the roof with a hugely satisfying bonging noise. The woman inside was royally startled from her book and looked about her. We watched from well back as she tried to work out what had happened. Clearly deciding that a lump of snow must have fallen off the roof of our house and hit her vehicle in some freak episode, she settled back into her seat and carried on reading.

She didn’t move the car.

Foiled!

The snowballs weren’t doing enough. Or maybe the rate of fire wasn’t fast enough? Yes, that was it, we decided. We needed more ammo for a sustained attack.

We got the old nappy bucket the lived under the sink in the bathroom and headed down to the quad, filled it with freshly made, if somewhat claggy, snowballs and returned to my brother’s room. Standing well back from the half open window we subjected the car to what I guess you might call a fusillade of snowball fire, culminating in a particularly slushy one, thrown by my brother, which landed with a massive splat right across the windscreen. The woman looked up at the anonymous windows of our house and scratched her head. She seemed thoughtful for a moment but then she did, finally, move the car.

She never parked there again.

PS, if you like the picture you can buy it as a greetings card from here: https://www.zazzle.co.uk/frosty_the_abominable_snowman_card-137112259617806813

4 Comments

Filed under About My Writing, General Wittering, Tall Family Tales

Real treasure isn’t always shiny #writing #metaldetecting

Opening a little window on the world of metal detecting today, and chatting about gold, not comedy gold, like last week but kind of tenuously linked gold … Oh, I’ll just get on with it shall I?

A few months back, the finds liaison bod who attends both the clubs I go to and asked us to bring in all the interesting things we’d found detecting. The local museum was mounting an exhibition of lost items and he wanted some of those lost items to be things which had later been found by local detectorists.

To my delight he chose two things from the pile of worthless shite I took along; a King Charles pipe tamper and a Limoges Mount.

It could be that I’ve banged on about them before but basically, they’re that glorious type of find which is not worth that much, so I get to keep it, but is incredibly rare, so it’s cool. The Limoges Mount was made in Limoges (I know there’s a shocker) between the 12th and 14th centuries. At the time a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella ran past the town and it was very popular. The good burgers Limoges, with their eye on the prize, started to make religious souvenirs to sell to the passing pilgrims. It’s probably an early one because it’s quite good. Close up there are hints of guilding, green and blue and I think there was some ochre coloured glaze as well, I can’t look right now because it’s in the museum, obviously. It’s bent which is a pity but it doesn’t really matter. It’s worth about £70 and when I tried to look it up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database there had been about six found in ten years, so it’s quite rare.

The King Charles pipe tamper is worth about £45 and took a fair bit of perseverance. I dug out three nails before I managed to find it and had practically reached Australia by the time it came up. It was about eighteen inches down. I love both these items, the mount because it’s so rare and so interesting, the pipe tamper because it is rare, too, but I also love that because it comes from a tumultuous time in my nation’s history.

England at this time was a police state, people were bullied, picked-on and even ruined over their political allegiances, or those of their forebears. Worse, these were decided on the word of someone in favour with the regime. You could, literally, be executed on the word of someone who claimed to have heard you saying something seditious in the pub if they were prepared to swear it in court. Despite the fear of lying after swearing on the bible, it must have been easy enough to denounce someone who stood in your way, especially as both sides were fighting on religious grounds so would, no doubt, be able to convince you that you were doing God’s work perjuring yourself, anyway. It sounds like a grim time. All the theatres were closed, there may even have been a curfew. The arts were dismissed as frivolity, some of the most beautiful religious artworks were wrecked cf every single statue in Ely Cathedral, where the New Model Army also stabled its horses.

Cromwell really was a fucking vandal.

And he was born just outside Ely so in the case of his town of origin he should really have known better.

Despite being three hundred years ago, the language of that era intrigues me, it sounds so modern, Lord Protector, New Model Army. It’s very now. And much of what we consider to be British traits today, the idea of even-handedness and fair play for example, actually come from Cromwell’s ideas. But for all the new dawn he wanted to achieve, it didn’t quite work. There was to be no music, not even in church and no dancing, very Myanmar under its previous dictatorial regime (as opposed to the current dictatorial regime). I believe there are some places where Christians still believe dancing is the devil’s work, mostly in areas Cromwell’s followers fled to when the monarchy was restored; sorry US and Canada, I’m looking at you again; would the Pilgrim Fathers please stand up.

My finds in a glass case, in a museum! Not something I ever thought I’d see.

But for all its horror, or possibly because of it, that time holds a kind of morbid fascination to me. Probably because as an ex stand-up comedienne, who writes comedy, I would be considered the devil incarnate by Cromwell’s regime. However, I also am fascinated at how bravely people stood, and fell, by what they believed. Would I? Could I?

Things I like, they got to wear really cool clothes; you know, big hats, frilly shirts and … swords … and thigh boots. Mmm Three Musketeers anyone? What’s not to like? Oh yes, the dying young, and being a public enemy for making jokes. Alright then, so it’s cool but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Back to the stuff. How did these things end up buried? Who knows? The mount came from just outside Lavenham and it probably fell off something holy as it was being paraded around the fields, to bless the harvest? To pray for newly planted crops? But it could just as easily have been torn off and thrown there by an over enthusiastic Parliamentarian. The pipe tamper would have been a highly political object. If it’s restoration, it’s a celebration of the return to ‘normality’ such as it was – in effect, it was little more than swapping despots. If it’s during the Protectorate, it’s a red hot political potato. The kind of object that would get you beheaded or hung – subject to your social status – if the wrong people saw you with it. Perhaps it was buried, perhaps a concerned wife lobbed it to keep her husband safe? Who knows. But basically, because of that, anything from the Commonwealth era and the years just before and just after it, are bucket list for me.

Which brings me to this:

Cromwell shilling with the sun on it so you can see what it actually is. It’s about an inch and a quarter across.

Woot.

This is a Commonwealth Shilling, from the time of Cromwell, and it belonged to someone who either a) hated the Commonwealth – perhaps it was the same guy whose pipe tamper I found a few hundred yards away in a field across the road or b) someone who was trying to use it afterwards, had missed the date to return it and be issued with new, Chaz II head-on-it legal tender and tried to scrub the picture off so possession of his cash – and it was a lot of cash in those days – wasn’t treasonable and therefore punishable by death.

This is the best picture I could get, angling it on sideways to the evening sun. If you look at it in normal daylight it’s little more than a silver disc. But the point it, it’s good enough for me to see what it is, but too knackered for it to be worth anything. Indeed, the dealer I showed it to reckoned it was worth about £35, which is brilliant because it means that since it’s worth Jack Shit to anyone other than me I get to keep it.

Sod finding a hoard.

That, my friends, is a result.

In case you’re worried that I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s a picture of the kind of thing I usually find.

A piece of aluminium – probably once an aircraft – which McMini and I found. Obviously, the eyes were applied later. It may look like a pug but we are going to call it Glorb.

So how does this link in with my books? Well, some days, when I’m really in the zone, I get impatient with Real Life. It feels as if it is little more than an annoying obstacle between me and the far more interesting places I make up in my head. Other days, usually when making up the interesting places in my head is going well and I know I won’t forget what I’m doing if I walk away from it, I enjoy the Real World as mightily as any made-up place I could concoct brain-side.

But over and above all, I guess it says that I cannot lock myself away, sit in a garret and write – well, I can but only for short bursts. Because if you want to get things out of your head you have to put stuff in. There has to be living between trips to the garret. According to my conscious mind, much of the stuff in K’Barth is informed by my skewed understanding of European history in the 1930s and 40s. But I never realised how thoroughly I rationalised it through my own national view and, unconsciously, though that period of history when England – but Britain also – underwent a similarly monumental upheaval.

Amazingly, it was only a few months after publishing the last K’Barthan book that I realised where I’d got Lord Vernon’s title, ‘Lord Protector’ from. I would have changed that if I’d cottoned on but at the same time, I guess that’s part of the joy of it all. That this shit goes in, my brain mangles it about for a while, warps it through the prism of weirdness and then something else comes out: Cromwellian Britain with multiple alien creatures and flying cars.

Mmm.

One of my current projects, Space Dustmen, features a truly disgusting – but very nutritious – food called Dagon Porridge. I’d got the Dagons down as being a very practical and sensible but utterly unimaginative bunch of aliens who are now extinct and have left the universe with little more than the benefits, if that’s the right word, of their perfectly balanced nutritional meal. The Dagons lacked the imagination to appreciate the joy of making nutrition interesting, of course, so they are roundly and regularly cursed by our protagonists. I now realise I got Dagon from church, it’s the god of the Philistines; Goliath’s god.

Hmm … to change it or not to change it? I might just have to call them Aygons instead, except then they’ll sound like a baby Toyota (Aygo). But it does go to show that there is so much hidden treasure in Real Life. All you have to do is listen, let your brain suck up the information, blend it and spit out the literary smoothie of your unique warped-eye view. At some point, every experience becomes useful.

Example: About twenty years ago, I remember sitting down on a bench just outside Riquwier, in the Alsace, waiting for my husband and our friends so we could go and see a vineyard somewhere. I was joined by a little old lady – rather glam, dressed in a silk shirt, smart skirt, nylons, heels, immaculate make up, jewellery but not too much, dyed brown hair and silk scarf tied into a type of turban (well smart though, not 1960s sit-com cleaner style). I wasn’t in much of a mood for conversation but she proceeded to chat to me, as old dears do. She turned out to be absolutely lovely and told me, from what I could understand with my rather rudimentary grasp of French, that she’d been one of Picasso’s models and a mistress in the 1950s and that she had a book of his sketches which she hoped her family would sell after she died – or possibly which they had sold already, I couldn’t be sure – to pay for her flat, where she lived, in the walls of the town. Obviously, as an art historian originally, I was really chuffed to meet her. So it just goes to show that however unassuming someone, or something looks, it’s worth paying attention, because it might turn out to be treasure.

3 Comments

Filed under General Wittering

Searching for the truth, at all costs #TallFamilyTales

As you will learn from reading this account, I was a perfectly horrible child in many respects and few stories reflect me in a poorer light than the one I am about to share. Sometimes the difference between genius and madness is failure. Other times, it’s a simple case of the idea being crap. This is the tale of an enquiring mind and a genuine desire to help turned bad. Very bad.

Gran-Gran, my dad’s mum, trained at the Royal Academy as a pianist. She used to play the piano at night when Dad and his brothers were frightened. The sound of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto drifting up from downstairs soothed him—still does. As a child, she, too was soothed by piano music drifting up from downstairs, but that was played by a friend of her parents; Chopin. I am ashamed at how little I remember of Gran-Gran, I know that at some point she had a nervous breakdown. After having a similar experience, but because of his Alzheimer’s rather than a breakdown, Dad told me how one morning Gran-Gran suddenly burst into tears at the breakfast table and couldn’t stop. He said it remains one of the most harrowing moments in his entire life. She went and lived in Bexhill for over six months with a companion. Then she was allowed to visit and finally, after over a year, I believe, she returned home.

When I was about eight or nine, I think, she got stomach cancer. Neither my brother nor I saw her for some time. Then she came to stay when she was officially recuperating from an operation to help it, although to be honest, I suspect it might have been classed as terminal by this time. She came to stay with us while ‘recovering’ I think to give Gin Gin, my grandfather, some respite from caring for her.

Before that point, I remember very little about Gran-Gran other than as a calm and benign presence—although I remembered more, then. She had dark hair—slate grey but it had been black, I think. She had a vein that stuck out a bit in the middle of her forehead, a joy which I have inherited, too. I can picture her sitting at the head of the dinner table in Byways, her and Gin Gin’s house, dishing out roast spuds and veg. She was a good cook, and I have the clock which hung on the wall beside her, a postman’s clock. Neither she, nor Gin Gin could ever persuade the number of dings, on the hour, to tie in with whatever number the hands were pointing to, at one point it even dinged thirteen times for one o’clock. I confess the dinger is in a chest, in pieces but I certainly intend to get it running at some point, although I’ll probably leave the bell side of it unwound. My husband and son did not grow up in a school so they are not able to sleep through anything quite the way I can.

What I do remember about Gran-Gran was that she was usually wearing the ghost of a smile and had a bit of a quiet twinkle around her eyes. She was also calm and lovely and clearly the glue holding everyone together.

However, after a two year absence being too ill to visit, when Gran-Gran came to stay with us, she didn’t seem to be the calm placid person that I remembered. Doubtless this was because she was ill, visually impaired and in a fair amount of pain but did that didn’t occur to young Einstein here? Oh no. Everyone else cottoned on but not me.

Gran-Gran’s blindness was caused by glaucoma. Everyone on both sides of my family has it. Basically, the blood pressure in your eyes gets too high for them and causes damage. There is no reversing this but if you get to it in time, it can be stopped. Gran-Gran would complain, often, that she couldn’t see although the evidence on many occasions suggested she could see a lot more than she thought—to my young eyes, at least. To be honest, I think it may have been less about not seeing and more about feeling a bit at sea, or perhaps it was a kind of shorthand complaint to sum up everything: that she was in pain and that she was, quite possibly, going to die of the disease she was fighting.

It must have been hard, staying with us; a draughty corridor-heavy house with a room at the top up about fifty stairs and the nearest bathroom down twenty six of them does not sound like an appealing place for an ill eighty year old. Unfamiliar surroundings, a strange and impenetrable heating and hot water system, a lavatory that would only flush if you pulled it just so … boys thundering around in adjacent rooms next door for most of the night, and the rats, of course, in the eves, behind the wall of our spare room, where she slept. The ones that scurried about above my bedroom. She must have heard those. And her Gin-Gin, my grandfather, who she loved, who tended to her at home, he wasn’t there—it was respite care, after all—and although she understood he needed a rest she must have felt very lost and lonely without him.

Now that I’m older, I realise she was pining for Gin-Gin and that she put up with a fair bit. But at the time it never occurred to me that our house was horrific by normal standards. Instead, I thought she complained a lot and I felt that was mean to Mum who was doing her utmost to make her stay with us as pleasurable and comfortable as possible. In my defence—though it isn’t much—I didn’t appreciate how ill she was. There were successes which I didn’t appreciate, too.

That stay, I believe, was the time when Mum discovered that Gran-Gran didn’t like burned toast but had it most breakfasts because one of her three sons, or Gin-Gin, my grandfather, would always burn and then spurn a slice of bread. Gran-Gran would eat it because she couldn’t bear to see it go to waste and eventually the myth was born that she liked her toast that way. At last, someone now realised that she didn’t like burned toast, after all. How happy she was to have a slice of normal toast that had not been purposely incinerated for her. She could have complained about the rats, too but she never once mentioned them, and she must have heard them. Mum and Dad were epic hosts, so doubtless she enjoyed the human part of the experience, or at least as much as she could through the trials of being ill and missing Gin-Gin. These are all things that were too subtle for me to see unless someone spelled them out in black and white, and that wasn’t the kind of thing you did in those days. All I could see was that Mum’s efforts seemed thankless and that Gran-Gran taking a great deal of my mother’s attention away from me and my brother. It was made worse by the fact that I was all at sea with this new grumpy Gran-Gran whom I felt I didn’t know. I wanted the old one back, without understanding that Gran-Gran no longer had the strength to be her.

With hindsight I know it was a difficult visit. Mum let slip just recently, that at the end of her life Gran-Gran kept bursting into tears, perhaps that was then. Perhaps that was the tension I picked up on. And of course, we had to respect Gran-Gran’s wishes at all times and they were wishes that weren’t always compatible with a lively eight and ten year old.

She would quite often ask Giles and I to keep the noise down or stop doing something or tell us we shouldn’t do something. We were told she wasn’t well and to keep out of the way so we did; as much as possible. That particular brief that was easier for Giles at boarding school than me at day school. She kept saying she couldn’t see but at the same time, it was amazing what she could see if it was a child licking a knife at the dinner table, playing corridor football or generally doing something they shouldn’t. She was not afraid to tell us off when Mum wasn’t around either which, we felt, was not her job. She would ask my Mum for help with certain things which we would then see her happily doing on her own when Mum was out of earshot or there was no-one adult around. What I now understand was her saving precious capacity and only using it when she had to, I thought was her blagging help to get attention when she didn’t need it. These days, I also understand that glaucoma comes and goes, so she would genuinely have had days where the light was more amenable and she was able to see way more than on others, and also, her reduced sight must have frustrated her terribly, but did I realise this then? Did I bollocks?

‘Mum, she can see,’ I said petulantly, one day while Gran-Gran was upstairs resting after a particularly difficult session. ‘She says she can’t but she can.’
‘No sweetheart, she can’t.’ My mum said.
Poor fool! I thought. She’s being hoodwinked! I must show her the truth.

And that is when I hit on a plan to prove to Mum and Dad that Gran-Gran could see. A plan so simple, so elegant, that would be easy to carry out. A test of her visual skills that, I believed, I could implement without harming anyone. A plan with the straightforward logic, intelligence of concept and validity of results you might obtain with … say … the ducking stool.

Yeh.

When my brother came home from school, I explained my plan to him. He was now old enough to have a least the beginnings of an understanding of subtlety and nuance in the emotional landscape.

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea kiddo,’ was all he said.

I thought about it a bit, decided he was wrong, it was a great idea, so I did it, anyway.

Carefully, I tied piece of cotton across the bottom of the stairs, stretching from the iron banister one side to the leg of a small chest in which we kept the shoe cleaning kit the other. I made sure I did granny knots rather than reef knots because if my quarry didn’t see the cotton I wanted her to just walk on through it without noticing or being hurt. At the top of the stairs to the middle floor I did the same but I had to tape one end of the cotton to the wall.

Yes, I’m afraid you read that right, I set a trip wire for my eighty year old grandmother at the top of a flight of carpeted, but concrete underneath, stairs and genuinely thought that was OK.

The rationale was simple, as I’d explained to my brother, Gran-Gran would either not see the cotton, in which case, my crap knots would untie as she walked through it and all would be well. If she did see the cotton and complained about it it would prove that she could see.

Having tied the cotton in place Gran-Gran failed to surface within a few nanoseconds so I got bored of waiting, wandered off and forgot about it. Some hours later, I gather Gran-Gran did see it, proving, conclusively that she could see. Except that, looking back on it, what I suspect she proved was that my granny knots were a lot less likely to slip easily undone than I thought.

I remember little about the aftermath. Apart from Gran-Gran being very cross with me and Mum coming and finding me and telling me to go and untie every single trip wire I’d set AT ONCE! Gran-Gran left soon after. Unsurprisingly she didn’t come to stay again. I hope I apologised to her, but I can’t remember so the last words I actually recall having with my paternal grandmother were a robust defence of what she saw as a sustained effort to murder her, and what I saw as a service to the community—in proving that her blindness was selective and reinforcing my belief that it was done to attention-seek. I am so sorry Gran-Gran, if you’re somewhere up there reading this.

As I believe I mentioned, I really was a vile child.

Looking back at it now, I realise how black and white things are to you when you are small. I feel the same, inside, as I did then but I am not the same person. The subtleties of what adults say, as opposed to what they actually mean, are no longer quite so lost on me. True, I am incredibly socially lumpy but at least I do understand that now. I am more tuned-in to my inability to see the world the way normal people do. I am aware of the grey, even if I cannot always find it or sometimes find too much. And I guess it’s these kinds of horrific blunders that taught me to be a bit more circumspect about what I do and say, about blurting out my first emotional response to whatever has happened. To double think, I guess, before I act.

Interestingly, I don’t remember my parents being angry after my Mum’s initial stern instruction to remove all the cotton, but I do remember the feeling of overwhelming sadness emanating from them as they explained that yes, they knew Gran-Gran could often see more than she pretended but that she was old, and ill and part of love is being tolerant of a person’s foibles now, for the sake of who they really are inside, and would be, had they not a burden of pain (and in this case, terminal cancer) to carry. I think I apologised when my parents explained. I hope to heaven I did. Doubtless Dad had got an earful from her, too, but I was the one who deserved it.

7 Comments

Filed under General Wittering

A surprise house guest.

Today, an experiment. This is a chunk of one of the many works in progress. This one allows me to write when my heart is too full of family stuff to do fictional things. Basically, it’s the folklore of my family, stories passed down, mostly by my Mum so far because they’re easiest to remember but I hope to get some more of my Dad’s, if not from him, then from my uncle. Some are about me and my brother, too. I thought it would make the blog fun but also, reading Dawn French’s biography, there might be some mileage in it as an ebook. If I can make it funny enough.

If …

The appeal is more in the characters involved than in what they actually did, I think, so a lot depends on how much I can bring their personalities out in what I write. At the moment, it tends to be just the bare bones of each story. The stories are officially true yet very possibly embroidered a little. Were we a tribe somewhere, these are the tales the shamen would tell. So this week, I thought I’d share a story about a hurricane we had in Britain. Here it is:

When I was at university, in 1987 there was a hurricane in Britain. They have happened on rare occasions and in this case the hurricane hit Sussex. Obviously, the trees and the houses of the Weald aren’t really designed to take this kind of punishment so there was a fair bit of damage both to houses and trees—half of Chanctonbury Ring disappeared and huge trees were blown down left right and centre, including one in my parents’ garden. Later the tree surgeon who came to fix it (a Mr Fish) said that on the morning of the hurricane it had taken him an hour and a half to drive five miles and he could only do that because he was driving a pick up with tree lifting equipment and a chainsaw in the back!

In the months afterwards, my Great Aunt, who had married a farmer, told me this story about one of the other farmer’s wives she knew.

The lady lived on a farm that had been in her husband’s family many hundreds of years and still occupied the original tudor famhouse. Like most of these, the house had a large chimney in the centre and the rooms were built around it so the chimney kept everything warm. As the winds began to rise, the lady decided that it was probably best to sleep downstairs so she got out a camp bed and bedded down next to the chimney in the central hall, which had the fewest windows. She reckoned it was also the most structurally strong part of the house and therefore the bit most likely to stay upright, and protect her, if the rest of it fell down. The power went off but she had a hurricane lamp and she sat and read for a while and then fell into a fitful sleep.

In the middle of the night she woke up, there was a massive bang and the sound of breaking glass. She guessed it came from the spare room, which was on the side of the house which was being most battered by the wind. She thought about going upstairs to investigate but decided that if the window had blown in there was little she could do other than get herself soaked for no reason and the door was closed, so the mess would be contained in the room, so she stayed put.
In the morning, she looked out of the window and could see bits of tree, garden furniture from the neighbouring farm and other detritus strewn about the lawn and farmyard. Taking her courage in both hands, she went upstairs to the spare room to see how bad the damage was. She opened the door and sure enough the window was smashed. However, the hole was a round hole and she surmised an object of some sort must have been blown through the glass. That’s when she took in the actual room and noticed what the object was. Standing implacably in the middle of the carpet, apparently unharmed, was a sheep.

What happened to the sheep? Well, believe it or not, it was fine. The lady discovered that it came from a field a couple of miles away and that it belonged to a nearby farmer. She had tracked him down and he’d come to fetch it by the end of the day—on foot, with a sheep dog I suspect since most roads were blocked with trees. It had been blown over two miles so it must have had a few stories to tell when it returned to its friends in the fold.

It’s Sean the sheep, it’s Sean the sheep … he even hangs around with those who … actually I’m not sure who he hangs out with to look like this. He was Meditarranean chicken.

11 Comments

Filed under General Wittering, Tall Family Tales