Second book in the Gift Trilogy

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The Gift

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Friday, 14 June 2019

Noir doodles and kickstarts

I’ve never experienced writer's block, sometimes I’m lethargic, other times I’m content to write rubbish. The important thing is to keep the tap running. Recently I’ve returned to Clay Cross in a series of short stories, three written—ten more to go. And I’ve discovered a new trick, new to me at least.

It involved using pinterest noir/and pulp covers. I stare at the picture and let my mind wander, but ultimately describe what I see. It focuses the mind, gets the keyboard going and five minutes later I have a workable paragraph, some of which immediately suggest a short story in that vein.

I’ve included a few examples, illustration of the method rather than anything profound. As I said from the start, I’m quite happy to write rubbish. These are mere doodles.

They danced slowly and I watched mesmerised, the woman in her ivory silk dress covered in large red roses, the man guiding her with his hand on her back like a brown malevolent crab. A hot crab that sweated.

She sat on top of an open piano, legs crossed and in a short black dress. There was sheet music, and the guy was playing, but his gaze remained fixed on where her thighs almost crossed. There was a smile on his face, like he couldn’t believe his luck, and ever so often he puffed as though remembering the cigarette in his mouth.

It gave me a view of the street and the alley in which the punk stood. He looked like a cheap imitation of a hard man, a P I on top of his game. He looked like a cheap imitation of me, except the cigarette in his mouth was unlit and worn like an accessory to the dark Italian suit, black shirt and sharp-knotted tie. The hat, too, looked new and was a little too small for his head. Still,  he had a rod in his pocket,  and he was looking at the same thing as me: a brightly lit window over the bar, framing in amber a woman slowly getting undressed.

She sat on the sidewalk wearing only a shirt and breathing in rain

Light slanted in from two tall windows, cutting through the bar but doing little to dispel the gloom that heaved in light and shadow. Men hunched around tables, in trench coats, fedoras, some wearing cloth caps. Others stood, looking on as though wondering what they were doing there, or where they were going to next.

The air was thick in mist and snow, given a warm sepia tint by a hint of street lighting on the hard-packed slush. But my eyes were focused on something else, something that had no place being there: a woman who by all accounts was dead, and a small black and white dog. Both were staring at the other in quiet understanding or a battle of will that would end in one of their deaths. In that, the dame had the advantage seeing she was already dead, or so people told me.

And if I was going to write something historical, this picture is crying out for words. Those at the front appear quite relaxed, but what are they talking about? Is the preacher thinking of his sermon or perhaps why his wife is so damned miserable?  Why is the girl nervous? She's seen or heard something. The men at the back are definitely alarmed. What's going to happen next?

Pilgrims Going To Church by George Henry Boughton. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

For those not born yet

Recently we went to Tate Britain to see their exhibition of Van Gogh and Britain. The first section focuses on Van Gogh’s fairly miserable life in Britain and on the writers and painters that influenced him. The second section focuses, in turn, on the British artists who were  later influenced by him, their paintings hung in close proximity to his.  One critic was fairly sniffy about it, but I loved the fact that it was relatively uncrowded and you could get to within nose touching distance of each painting. I also loved the fact that it introduced you to paintings I had never seen before, even if their influence on Van Gogh is open to debate.

I had never seen Constable’s Valley Farm before.

 For Van Gogh, it is one  of the very few ‘autumnal’ paintings to be found amongst the ‘old masters’. But the one that really caught his eye, and mine, was Millais’ Chill October. I read afterwards that resonated with the then melancholic Van Gogh suffering from the solitude of his London boarding house, his unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter, and alienation from his employer and family.

But, standing in front of it, the scene seemed more than alive, as though you could step into it. A reviewer for the Illustrated News explained why when he wrote about it being ‘deeply saturated . . . with the sad and cold, lonely foreboding sentiment of Autumn.’ He pointed out the ‘tactile rendering of swaying grasses’ that sweep the eye into the depth, the diminishing layers water, trees and distant birds to a far horizon. He pointed out the ‘dull earthy palette’ adding to the sombre tone and how the water illuminated the dying day. I wished, I’d read that at the time, as I said, I just felt I could step into it.  

A week or so after our visit to the Tate, we saw the magnificent ‘At Eternity's Gate’ starring the equally wonderful Willem Dafoe, an actor I first came across in Mississippi Burning in 1988 playing an earnest FBI agent.  In At Eternity's Gate’   Dafoe brings Van Gogh alive. It’s a mesmerising performance, reinforced by superb casting and intuitive camera work – though critics disagree on that last point. There is a lovely portrayal of Paul Gauguin, the perfect foil to Van Gogh, and my ears pricked up when I heard this:

“The painters I like all paint fast in one clear stroke,” Van Gogh says.

Gauguin responds. “You paint fast and then you over paint – the surface looks like its made out of clay. It’s more like sculpture than painting.”

Two great talents with diverging views, and it struck home after seeing Van Gogh and Britain.  

We were able to get so close to the pictures and understand Gauguin’s observation, and the truth that no one is wholly right in art.
And no one has emerald streaks on their faces, but it works for Van Gogh

In a later, poignant remark to Mads Mikkelson playing a well meaning but stupid priest, Van Gogh sums it up. When the priest holds up one of his paintings in puzzled disgust, Van Gogh considers and then responds: ‘Maybe I’m a painter for those not born yet.’

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Special One.

Jose Mourinho, move over! Before his recent eclipse, the ex manager of Chelsea and then Manchester United was termed ‘The Special One.’ Now there’s a new kid in town.


The symptoms came suddenly and out of the blue, an upper right arm that hurt like hell, increasingly stiff and difficult to move. Put it this way, for the first time in my life I realise the advantages of the bidet. Worse, I have similar symptoms in my right thigh, which makes it difficult to bend and put on a sock. I’m contemplating some kind of Heath Robinson invention that will do the job for me, but, for the moment, I’m reduced to making a glove from said sock by half-turning it inside out, placing it carefully on a chair—cavern-side grinning up at me—raising my leg as far as it will go and guiding my toes in, sometimes successfully.

My wife at last lost patience and, a little crestfallen, I went to the doctors. “Frozen shoulder,” she said and handed me a leaflet. She was less forthcoming about the thigh but advised me to see a physiotherapist. “Eight weeks waiting list. I advise you to go private. Ask around.”

It was only at home, I realised how special I am. The leaflet gravely informed me of all the reasons I really shouldn’t be dealing with this: Frozen Shoulder affects only 3% of adults; it is most common between the ages of 40 – 65; it is more common in women, and more common in people who have diabetes and/or overactive thyroid disease. I fail every one of these benchmarks. But bear with me. I’m even more special.  Either shoulder can be affected, but most commonly it is the non-dominant shoulder. And yes, you’ve got it. Mine is in my bloody right shoulder. 

I felt like kneeling on the spot (right thigh allowing) and raising my eyes to heaven. ‘Why me, O, Lord? Why me?' And knowing the answer: ‘Because.’ In the end I decided against bothering the Lord for fear of retribution. In one in five cases the condition develops in the other shoulder two or so years later. I have no wish to be even more special.                      

Friday, 17 May 2019

Sex and Demons, corpses galore and magical fish

I was at a quiz, just outside of London and introduced to a severe looking couple, part of our team. When a question was asked ie how many books are there in the Old Testament, I did a quick count and came up with a number different to that of  Mrs Severe. I listed them, but when I came to Tobit, she hissed at me. ‘Tobit is not in the Old Testament!’
‘He is,’ I hissed back. I knew he was. Tobit and his son Tobias are the stuff of legend—sci fi and ‘The Arabian Nights’ rolled into one. I loved the story as a child, and read it still every now and again.

On reaching home, the mystery was solved—summed up in two words: Damned Protestants.

Tobit was included in the Old Testament by the Council of Rome (382 A D) The Council of Hippo (393 AD) The Council of Carthage (397 AD) The Council of Florence (1453 A D) and finally the Council of Trent (1546)

The Church of England was far more sniffy, relegating it to the Apocrypha, something dubious, something best left alone, and as for Judaism—good news. Moves are afoot to restore it to the canon. (Why it wasn’t in the first place is due to some weird rabbinical law involving who exactly signed Tobias and Sarah’s marriage certificate. (Don’t ask)

But the story!

Tobit is one of those wonderful characters, too good to be true. He shared all he had with his people, he buried those without graves, and when the Babylonian Sennacherib slaughtered a large number of Jews, Tobit buried them, too, at his own expense and to the fury of Sennacherib.
But Tobit wasn’t done with burying the dead. It seems to have occupied his every waking hour, scouring the country, burying people willy-nilly.  During one feast, he heard that a Jew had been found with his throat cut in a nearby street. Tobit, the one-man funeral parlour, the mortician of Nineveh leapt to his feet, located and then buried the corpse. More corpses were found the next day, and the indefatigable Tobit buried them too. One wonders how many sick people staggered to their feet rather than being mistakenly buried by Tobit. On this last occasion, however, the exhausted Tobit fell asleep before reaching home and God struck. Warm bird droppings fell on the good man’s eyes, blinding him on the spot. Tobit’s faith in God remained strong, his prayers stronger still.

Meanwhile, in the city of Rages, Sarah the daughter of Raguel was in deep trouble. Possessed by the demon Asmodeus, she had been given to seven husbands, each one of which was killed by the demon on their wedding nights. More than a little perturbed, Sarah locked herself away and fasted and prayed. Her prayers joined with Tobit's, and the angel Raphael was sent to sort things out.

The first step was taken when Tobit sent his son Tobias on a mission to Rages to collect an old debt, ten talents of silver. As the map shows, it's a long and wearisome journey from Nineveh to Rages.
A guide will be needed.

Tobias hires one, a mysterious stranger lurking outside his house—the angel—Raphael’s first paying job.
Tobias saying farewell to his blind father. (Tobit's wife is weeping in the background. All she ever
seems to do in the story)

On the banks of the Tigris, Tobias is attacked by a giant fish but drags it to shore by its gills. Raphael exhorts him to extract the gall, which will cure blindness, along with the liver and heart for a reason only Raphael knows.

During their fish supper, Raphael tells Tobias he is to marry Sarah the daughter of Raguel. Tobias is not best pleased, aware that the marriage will be little more than a one night stand.
But Raphael has a cunning plan. On that first night Tobias is not to touch Sarah but instead burn the fish’s liver and heart. The fumes will drive the demon away and Raphael will bind it in Upper Egypt. (I love the specificity)  On the second night it will be all systems go, and on the third night they will be blessed with child.
Tobias and Sarah and the Angel makes three.

Great happiness ensues; Tobias gains a beautiful wife and large dowry and returns home to a father no doubt relieved he doesn’t have to bury his son. You can have too much of a good thing. Tobit’s joy is increased even more when Tobias instructs him to rub the fish gall into his eyes and his sight is immediately restored. (For those into 'Specsavers' or ophthalmology in general )

This story has everything, sex and demons, corpses galore and magical fish. In Pilate’s words: ‘Truth? What is truth?’