Out Now!

Friday, 26 November 2021

St. Catherine's Chapel

Yesterday was St Catherine’s Day—St Catherine of Alexandria that is—she of the Catherine Wheel and virgins seeking husbands. It seems only fitting to celebrate the fact by sharing our experience of a visit to one of her many chapels scattered across Europe. This one was the closest to hand at Abbotsbury in Dorset. 

St Catherine’s Chapel is one of those magical places that once seen, stays in the mind.  The portraits idealise her though she was quite a lady and a cult figure in Medieval Europe. Protesting against the persecution of Christians, she was tortured and broken on a wheel ringed with swords on the order of the Emperor Maxentius I. Subsequently she was carried to Mount Sinai by angels—and why not? — and became the patron saint of spinsters and virgins—especially those looking for husbands. A common prayer right up to the C19th was:

‘A husband, St Catherine

A handsome one, St Catherine,

A rich one, St Catherine,

And soon, St Catherine.’

In local dialect, the prayer ended ‘Am-a-one’s better than Narn-a-one’.

The Chapel was built in the C14th by Benedictine monks as a place of private prayer and retreat. 

Their monastery can still be seen in the village below albeit in ruins after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The Chapel however was spared, not because the King had a place in his heart for fireworks, virgins and spinsters, but because the chapel served as a ready-made lighthouse. The view is breath taking but our pilgrimage was over. I was thinking of the pint with my name on it down in the village in The Ilchester Arms. 

The story, in pictures is below


Chesil Beach with the sea to our right

 And to the left peeping over the hills, St Catherine's Chapel

It's glimpsed again like a pale ghost in Abbotsbury Tropical Gardens,
though it was not a very tropical day

And now we are at its base, our target ahead and dark against the sun.

Behind us at the base of the mount is the village of Abbotsbury

I took several pictures climbing up mainly as an excuse to stop and breathe.

And here it is, more like a war-lord's lair than a place of worship and prayer.

Seen from the side

And now with the sun on it, my  back to the sea.

Inside, 700 years ago, it would have been like standing in a jewel-box. Stained glass windows flooded the small interior in colour.

And 700 years ago young virgins prayed for a husband, like a more stylish Tinder but not Grindr dating site.

Messages are still left for St Catherine though not apparently asking for husbands.

The sea view that illustrates its use as a primitive lighthouse

And some quick views of the surrounding countryside, though by this time I was getting thirsty.

And to end with a song about St Catherine's Chapel

Thursday, 18 November 2021


This is so true, though stretching a point, I was twelve when I first read The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson. It totally captured me and decades later, though much of the plot was forgotten, the flavour of the book remained strong, along with certain indelible images. The outlaws' semi-underground den created from the roots of a huge fallen oak was the template for every underground den I made as a boy.

How to describe it? Robert Louis Stevenson referred to it as ‘tushery’ especially in relation to his use of archaic English dialogue, and it puzzles me now how a twelve-year old boy dealt with it. Much the same as a man several decades older, I suppose. The story carries you through, allows you to slip below the surface of the language and enter a deeply coloured world.  

But back to Stevenson and his affectionate self-mockery of the book. ‘Tushery, by the mass! Ay, friend, a whole tale of tushery. And every tusher tushes me so free, that may I be tushed if the whole thing is worth a tush. The Black Arrow: A Tale of Tunstall Forest is his name: Tush! A poor thing.’ Mind you, to put this self-criticism into perspective, Stevenson was equally disparaging about, what some see as his masterpiece, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.'

Re-reading a book you loved as a child has its dangers. The disappointment of an adult might not just tarnish a memory but destroy something golden. In this case, mercifully, CS Lewis hit the nail on the head. The twelve-year old Keyton was blown away by a fast moving plot and evocative imagery that stayed in the mind. The much older Keyton saw things he hadn’t before: the subtleties of character. The villainous Sir Daniel Brackley has his merits, charisma and courage, a certain fine recklessness; the future Richard III though not deviating from Shakespeare’s ‘villain’ is also bold and decisive, a natural leader of men. Minor characters like Benett Hatch and his wife Goody Hatch, though working for the villainous Sir Daniel are rounded characters, so that you grieve for their fate. And the young Richard Shelton, the hero of the book is reckless and na├»ve, only later recognising and accepting the guilt of destroying other people’s lives in derring-do.  

Women may cavil at the heroine Joanne, for she is very much the Victorian stereotype: feisty but push-come-to-shove, dependent on men in a swoony kind of way. 

In short, summing up The Black Arrow, think The Eve of St Agnes, meets The Famous Five with a Pre-Raphaelite gloss. Not something a twelve-year old boy would have thought of but true all the same. 

PS Another book I’d like to re-read is ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper, though that doesn’t quite fall into the CS Lewis category, since I was enjoying that in my twenties. 

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Out Now!

Dark Fire was my first publication, and you can imagine my excitement when the contract came through from Red Sage. It did though have an interesting genesis. Dark Fire, a novella at 40k words, began as a piece of speculative fiction centred around past life regression and played with the rich language of the C17th. The problem was, I couldn’t find a publisher. Then a friend suggested it needed sex, her exact words being ‘sex it up a bit’. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound and so I followed her advice, inserting four or five highly erotic sex scenes. And Red Sage, which specialised in erotica for the American market, snapped it up. Success—but with a drawback; being a greenhorn, I signed a contract that gave them full rights in perpetuity. I’d lost ownership of my story. 

But now it's back!

In Tales From the Murenger II

I remember doing a small dance, not a pretty sight, when some six years later Red Sage returned the rights to their various authors, so allowing me to republish Dark Fire. What else can I say about it? The novella begins in C13th France and ends up in Llanthewy Road, Newport. Dark Fire, for a time out of print, and now back in all its glory. ‘A legend in its time’ as us marketing men say. 

The other four stories: Yellow Window, Raw, Your Mother Will Come to You, and Serpent dreaming involve psychopaths, body horror, mad men and serpentsAll are based in or around Newport, the latter albeit tenuously.

At £3 for the eBook and £6 for the paper back – one pint or two pints respectively – it’s a bargain I tell you!. 

Friday, 5 November 2021

Tales from the Murenger II

There’s a fair bit that goes into a book cover, but when it’s done, you feel a great sense of relief.  The previous: Tales from the Murenger involved an original photo* of Newport’s iconic Murenger and enough smoke and mist to create a sense of nowhere in particular. The back cover necessitated similar wizardry turning an already mysterious alley into something more sinister. 

But what about this new book:  Tales from the Murenger II ?

I thought it made sense to make it much the same as the first but with a different shade. A series perhaps with the possibility of a future Tales from the Murenger III coloured blue. I'll draw the line at rose-pink.

In this case, however, I wanted a different back-cover and found it in a photograph from Stephen Pocock on the Facebook ‘We Grew Up In Newport’ site. Not only is he a brilliant photographer, he very generously allowed me to use his photo.

Below is the original photo with its sharpness and clarity. The bad news was that however hard I tried to persuade myself otherwise, it jarred with the more mysterious soft focus of the front. The good news is that precisely because of its sharpness, the photo could be softened and dimmed sacrificing clarity for mystery— the essence of Newport. 

So, the cover for your approval or otherwise. (barcode to come.)

The book is already on Amazon, the tales as dark as they get. 

* Front photo Monty Dart

Back photo Stephen Pocock.

Cover design Maria Zannini one of the the best in the business.

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Thought for the day

Who wouldn't want to read about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.

And from the brilliant and tawdry to the outskirts of Monmouth  as seen coming down from

Offas Dyke. The photos are with the kind permission of  Bernadette. I was aching, lacking joie de vivre, and just in need of a beer. 

Friday, 22 October 2021

Two days in Shropshire, Mad Jack, and Hedgehogs

Shropshire began under water and, during the carboniferous period, 360 million years ago, drifted northwards from the equator before rising roughly in its present position. It is also the birthplace of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (1892) All very interesting, but no eccentricity—not until Mad Jack Mytton burst upon the scene.

The mad bad English squire  often crops up in Victorian literature, but few match the reality of Mad Jack Mytton, born in Shrewsbury in 1790. 

Mad Jack rode and hunted in these hills—as well as his drawing room—in that particular instance riding a bear. He burst into the room in full hunting dress employing spurs on the bear, understandably annoying said bear, which turned and bit through Jack’s leg. How they laughed.

 Mad Jack had the constitution of an ox, thinking nothing of hunting in thin clothing in deepest winter, or on other occasions chasing ducks over ice wearing no clothes at all. When bored, he would dress as a highwayman and frighten his friends.

His drinking habit included eight bottles of port a day followed by brandy, and he once killed his horse after forcing it to join in the fun with a bottle of port.

He spent lavishly on clothes, alcohol, and hunting—importing huge amounts of game to hunt, never mind being master of two packs of foxhounds and up to 20 horses at a time for breeding. His attitude to women was much the same. His first wife died shortly after giving birth, so he moved on to wife number two who gave him five children.

By his late thirties, Jack Mytton was death-on-legs and incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. His friend and biographer described him ‘a tottering old-young man, bloated by drink. . . a body as well as a mind in ruins. Shropshire survived.

Hedgehogs and Mad Jack notwithstanding, this landscape will still be here (in one form or other and
perhaps somewhere else) when we have long gone from the scene.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Fact and fiction overlap

Books have hidden consequences. Intrigued by a fine biography of Dennis Wheatley I made the mistake of reading his Gregory Sallust series. By book six (5 more to go) decided I didn’t like Gregory Sallust very much. He’s tireless, like the Duracell bunny, forever evading capture, getting caught, escaping, getting caught, and this goes on until the very last chapter. Exhausting stuff. The writing is competent but pedestrian with Sallust having to explain his thought processes in-between drinking champagne and eating fine food, occasionally with a woman in his arms. 

Despite obvious shortcomings, what made Wheatley the best seller was his ability to pile crisis upon crisis and never letting go, a template known and followed by contemporary best-selling thriller writers. An unashamed fan of Wheatley is Neil Gaimain. 

 On another level, the Sallust series are compulsive reading for any who’d like to savour and slip into mindset of the recent past. They are set in World War II and are pure propaganda, the Nazis possessed of a cheap glamour but essentially subhuman and led by psychopaths.

 Sallust is the kind of old fashioned ‘no nonsense’ right winger common amongst the British establishment at the time, his mindset not so far away as the fascists he fought. There is throughout a sense that there could be a rapport with ‘sensible’ Nazis like Goering, a view likely shared by others amongst whom Wheatley circulated, likely by Wheatley himself. Certainly, he has the ability to get in the mind of those who saw Bolshevism as a more profound menace to civilisation. 

In Sallust, Wheatley is following the old dictum of ‘write what you know.’ His hero very much shadows Wheatley’s own life, surviving the rigours of naval training in HMS Worcester and finding in ‘Sir Pellinore Gwayne Cust’ the idealised father figure Wheatley himself lacked. The books are replete with British war time strategy and breathe Wheatley’s own experience as a ‘Wing Commander’ in the war office. In ‘The Black Baroness’ Sallust is posted there, too, following the same route and with the same title as Wheatley.  


One of the less obvious pleasures of the series are insights and references to long forgotten places, such as the Hungaria Club. Throughout, Wheatley writes about what he knows, and you enter his world and, with google, an infinite number of rabbit holes. The Hungaria for example.

The Hungaria was founded by Joseph Vecchi, and hotels ran through his veins (an unfortunate image, I’m sorry) Vecchi was a friend of Wheatley, so of course he and the Hungaria appear in his novels. 

Joseph Vecchi

Vecchi's  career began in Claridges before moving on to the Grand Hotel in St Petersburg, where he was restaurant manager; soon after, he established a restaurant of his own in Kiev. After the Bolsheviks confiscated what he’d built up, Vecchi fought with the White Russians in the civil war, and finally walked 200 miles to Murmansk, where he was rescued by the British navy. After a short period of unemployment in London, he found work at the Hotel Piccadilly and crowned his career by opening the Hungaria Club, his lasting achievement—in legend though alas no longer a reality.

 There he told scandalous tales of Rasputin, whom he’d entertained along with up to twenty Russian aristocrats, all of them women. Here, too, Wheatley would entertain the likes of Aleister Crowley, tapping him for ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and other satanic novels. Gregory Sallust, too, dines at the Hungaria in a world where fact and fiction overlap