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Friday, 30 September 2016

The Parmenides Paradox: a conclusion in waiting

Parmenides once ‘proved that if Achilles gave a tortoise a hundred-metre start  he’d never be able to catch up to the tortoise. In similar vein: if Homer wishes to walk to the end of the path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before travelling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one sixteenth; and so on.

Such paradoxes come to mind as I reach the final chapters of the last book in my trilogy – ‘The Gift’. The close I come to the conclusion, the slower I am and the more it recedes.

I have to finish it because I think it’s my best work, and it’s dominated three years of my life. It also has a USP. No, me neither, until I looked it up: Unique selling point. The agent, John Jarrold told me that, intrigued by how a cosy family saga is fairly soon subsumed by the occult.

The first book, ‘The Gift,’ takes us from an Edwardian Liverpool slum to the high society of 1927. Its heroine is Elizabeth McBride, and through her eyes we experience Aleister Crowley, the Morgans of Tredegar and a young Adolf Hitler. Halfway through the book we realise the enormity of her gift.

The second book, ‘Bloodline,’ traces the kidnapping of her sister, Elsie McBride, her incarceration in a soviet prison, and her subsequent corruption by powerful Satanists. The stage is set for a duel to the death—or worse, between the two sisters.

The final book, ‘Bloodfall,’ has proved the trickiest. Whereas before it’s been immense fun, weaving in historical characters, and making sure they’re placed where they should be and at the right time—inserting fiction in the gaps, the challenge this time has proved far harder and complex.

Writers are often divided between ‘plotters’ and those who ‘write by the seat of their pants.’ Most, I suspect, fall somewhere in between. I usually know up to three chapters ahead what I’m doing. Beyond that it’s ‘here be dragons’ territory, where  I have to sit down and map what comes next. Sometimes I’m stuck and have recourse to the Raymond Chandler strategy: ‘When in doubt have a man with a gun come into the room. In my case it’s demons.

So, the final book—Checklist:
Period setting  — Check
Evocative?        — Check
Plot                    — Check
Tension             — Hmm. Needs more work. It’s a bit ‘stretchy’ at the moment, like bread dough before the final bake. Assuming I succeed where Achilles and Homer failed—in my case reach the bloody conclusion— it’s just a matter of editing: cutting the flab . . . and perhaps introducing demons with guns. Downton Abbey, perversion, Nazis and Satanists—what’s not to like?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Comfortable isolation

No great chunks of prose this week. Instead, a thought and a question.The first two pictures show the houses that I grew up amidst. The first one was taken in the 1960s, the second in 1974. Most have been knocked down now, I mean we're talking about the C21st, though a surprising number remain.

The question is what has replaced them and would you like to live in them? It's a tricky question because it involves conflicting perspectives. The modern equivalents are eco -friendly and well insulated boxes. The old ladies, though not perhaps the girl playing football would likely prefer them to the cold, draughty houses behind them.

On the other hand my sense of loss with regard to these old terraces may well reflect self-indulgent nostalgia. Notwithstanding that, for me, the one represents community and character, the other comfortable isolation.

Is there a right answer?

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Black Vaughan

Just down the road from where we used to live was an abandoned building where many years before a man had been brutally murdered. Though boarded up, it was the natural place for small boys to wander through, access being gained through a small gap in the back. We convinced ourselves a ghost lurked behind every door, in the shadows at the top of the stairs, immediately behind our backs waiting to pounce; and we never stayed very long. There were exceptions: ‘the smokers.’ They congregated in a loose circle sharing one or two cigarettes between them like small Indian war pipes. These were the ‘tribal elders,’ the shamans in communion with shadows that might at any moment take form. And they came back with stories that made the house even more terrifying—and attractive.
Along the ghost-ridden Monmouthshire-Herefordshire borderlands ghosts are real whether you like them or not. A case in point is Black Vaughan of Hergest  Court. In the late 1980s John Williams, a tenant farmer, talked of the ‘prickly feeling’ that went up his back on hearing the pattering of huge paws in an upstairs room and a little later saw hound-like shadow passing by him enroute to the inner hall.
There are still people in Kington who refuse to go down the lane to Hergest after dark. And with good reason.
During World War II a cyclist passing Hergest Hall saw: ‘ this enormous hound which he’d never seen before and never saw again. The hound had huge eyes…and he had the feeling that there just wasn’t something real about it. (Bob Jenkins, local historian) and psychic disturbances continue to manifest in Hergest Court.
The cause of all this is reputed to be a C15th ancestor of the Vaughan family, who fought in the War of the Roses and whose headless body was brought back to Kington to be buried next to his wife Ellen Gethin (‘the terrible’) 

Some accounts suggest that Thomas Vaughan was both a warlock and tyrant, but whatever the case soon after his death the ‘disturbances’ began. A ghostly bull rampaged through Kington disrupting church services and over throwing carts during Market Day. It grew so bad an exorcism involving twelve priests was enacted. During the ceremony Vaughan appeared in demon form and was imprisoned in a snuff box and buried under a stone at the bottom of a pond that fronts Hergest Hall.
But the hound remained terrifying residents and acting as a harbinger of death in the Vaughan family. It’s not surprising perhaps that the last residing Vaughan – the Reverend Silvanus Vaughan—died in 1706.
In 1987, a particularly brave Vaughan—Jenny Vaughan, a Midlands’ business woman—came to Kington to mug up on her family history. She didn’t see the hound – which would have heralded her death— but she did see the bull in the church it had once haunted. In her own words: ‘The inside of his nostrils…were very, very red, like a racehorse when it has just stopped running. And it was wet. It was dripping moisture or something on the ground…I’m a hard-headed business person but I can’t deny it. I’ve seen it.’
And as for the snuff box…A few years ago the pond’s water level dropped significantly. A large stone was glimpsed in the mud beneath. Some tried to persuade local farmers to dig it out in search of the snuff box.

No one volunteered.

From the sublime to the ridiculous in a small Lanarkshire house we have the story of a levitating chihuahua. Read it here 

I recommend buying Merrily's Border by Phil Rickman, which is full of such stories 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

It’s only Rock and Roll. (Or it was)

A champagne king with his own island in the Thames estuary is hosting a rock and roll event in early September, though the tickets - £445 – are pricey. But then bear in mind what you get for your money: gourmet food like cod loins, ox cheeks and foie gras prepared by Michael O’Hare, a Michelin trained chef. Moreover, with certain ‘acts’ concertgoers are to be served oysters and champagne.
And we’re not talking Budgens Champagne.

Mr Krug has thought long and hard over which champagne would best accompany the music, even bringing an Oxford professor into the equation. Professor Charles Spence is an expert on ‘the interplay between taste and sound receptors in the brain.’ In his own words ‘savouring a masterfully crafted champagne while listening to a piece of music allows one to travel down direct pathways to the emotions.”

The question arises as to what champagne might best accompany this?

The clip is not chosen at random and not a drop of champagne was involved. Now, however, Mick Jones of the Clash is trying to re-engage with his roots. He is one of the headline acts at the Krug Festival and waxes lyrical about what concertgoers will get for their money.

They will, for example, get close to real rock stars: “at Krug Island you will be right there, meeting the artists, talking with them, partying with them, singing along.” He waxes on: “Good wine, good food, good music, rock stars and a private island sounds all right to me.” Rock and Roll, Mick.
Here just about sums it up.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Australians are discussing whether wild dogs should be exported to China and korea for food, whilst others believe Kangaroos should be farmed in preference to cattle because they emit less green house gases. Tactful word, emit. I imagine foie gras and champagne will cause some emissions.

Post script:
Really an excuse to play more clips: The Stones 1971 at the Marquee intimate even without oysters and champagne
The Beatles at the Cavern, reeking intimacy but again no champagne.
And to finish, a rare Stones I remember seeing at the time. Crisps and beer but no champagne.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Tis the season to be jammy

I’ve been tip-toeing around the damson trees, speaking in the same hushed tones as those about to take their cat to the vets—to be put down or spayed— in this case pruned. Seriously pruned. I’ve managed to delay it until next Spring but sentence has been pronounced, and there’s no getting away from it.

As though suspecting our intent this year’s crop has been spectacular. I’m up to my ears in damsons. My hands are brown in damson juice, and I have bags upon bags of stoned damsons occupying every inch of freezer space. It’s why you rarely hear from me between August 19th to August 23rd. Our damson trees are akin to Swiss cuckoo clocks, fruiting the same time every year. And I’m as predictable as a Swiss cuckoo clock, making mountains of jam and gallons of wine…and blocking the freezer. Squirrel Nutkin on speed.

But there’s no getting away from it. Our trees are rumbustious bullies crowding out other plants and throwing much of the garden in perpetual shade. One branch has almost reached a bedroom window. Give it a year and it will be plopping ripe fruit in my mouth while I sleep.

So this year I was brutal in collecting the damsons I normally wouldn’t reach. Extendable lopping shears cut through the higher branches, bringing them down in a flurry of fruit. That’s the other weird thing about damsons. Other trees you’re advised to prune only in winter. Not so with Damsons – spring to autumn being the best time to prune. Despite the brutality, the trees continue to dominate. I suspect they know and are extending their hold, like Hitler before Stalingrad. 

I give them a consoling pat.

Next year it is likely I’ll have less fruit but far more time. Here’s hoping it extends the life of two old trees and jam production resumes in 2018

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Clark Gable's butler

In 1940, a ‘furtive delicate man, with a pencil moustache and darting grey eyes’* was arrested in Jersey for a minor fraud. Unfortunately for him, Jersey then was under German occupation and an anti German leaflet was found in his possession. A further month was added to his six-month sentence. The unlucky man was Charles, Anthony Faramus, former hairdresser and dishwasher and barely twenty years old. In Ben Macintyre’s words: ‘…tall and slender, he looked as though a puff of wind might blow him away.’*

His luck took a turn for the worse when, in prison, he hooked up with one  Eddy Chapman, a wily adventurer and crook. Chapman persuaded Faramus that the best, indeed only way to escape German occupied Jersey was to offer themselves as ‘spies’ for the Germans. A letter was duly sent to the German governor of Jersey and apparently ignored, until one night there was a thunderous knocking on their door in the small hours of the morning. The Gestapo, more suspicious than impressed, arrested them and whisked them to France. Eventually the Germans decided that a tough and resourceful crook would, with the right training might prove a useful agent. They had no use for a shy hairdresser and and Faramus was left in his cell to rot.

Before seeing him for what may have been for the last time, Chapman urged Faramus to trust him, and that whatever happened he would somehow protect his friend from further harm.

They were empty words. Chapman might well have thought he could negotiate Faramus’s safety in exchange for what he was offering the Germans. The Germans saw things differently. Faramus would be a  pawn for Chapman’s good behaviour – a fictitious pawn for—unknown to Chapman, Faramus was promptly removed to Buchenwald concentration camp, where things went from bad to worse. Failing to see an approaching Warrant Officer and removing his cap in time, he was sent to Mathausen-Gusen, a concentration camp for the ‘incorrigible.’ There, inmates were worked until they dropped dead.

Somehow this delicate man with the pencil thin moustache survived, but only just. In May 1945 the 41st U.S. Cavalry liberated Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp and found, amongst an army of ‘emaciated ghosts,’ Anthony Faramus, his body traumatised by diphtheria, scarlet fever, gangrene and dysentery. He’d lost seven ribs and one of his lungs, which he eventually lost, was riddled with TB.

Faramus was nursed in an RAF hospital and released with £16 and a weekly stipend of £2. But Anthony Faramus was not yet done with life. He  became a film extra, and with exquisite irony, played minor roles in war films such as Colditz and King Rat. Then he emigrated to America and became a butler — to Clark Gable.
Faramus eventually returned to Britain where, despite having only lung he became an active hunt saboteur, eventually dying in 1990 aged seventy.

What happened to the even more remarkable Eddy Chapman? I suggest you read Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre,* which I strongly recommend.