Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Perfect Antedote

I have discovered how when I write, I get the most pleasure from juxtaposing the prevailing images, ideas or events in my head and expressing the outcome of this process in words. I suppose it's a just a way of making sense of things and hoping that it will produce something positive and entertaining.

I've always enjoyed the wonderful Sarah Salway's 50 Word Stories and having a go at these myself. The different responses elicited by the pictures are so varied and now I wonder how it might work when there are two images at work. I think that this is how I shall pass the time on this lovely snow day. If all else fails, we shall just light the fire and open a bottle of wine instead. A win-win situation. Writing and wine go together just perfectly.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Sample from My Grandfather's Letters

Here is one of the letters we have transcribed, written by my grandfather during the First World War to his mother:

1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Coy.

My dear Mother,

Yet another letter in typewriting, which really is the quickest and best method for me of letting you know how your Soldier Boy is getting on. Really my day is so full that I haven't got time to sneeze. I am in the Orderly Room working all day and very nearly half the night, and my tea time is occupied in attending an N.C.O's class at the Officer's Quarters. I can just manage to get a drink at about 9.20. prior to 9.20. roll, which I, of course, do not attend, but at which I have to hang round in case the Captain wants anything done.

To-day has been the day of days. Last night late a telephone message came through from Headquarters at Exeter to the affect that a big pot from the Staff would inspect the Company. Now a General's inspection is the only occasion on which the whole of the Orderly Room Staff turn out in full marching order. What was the consequence. After 10. p.m. I had to go back to billet get all my donkey's harness out on the deck and polish all the buttons and straps, roll my overcoat, put in a clean shift or underclothing, canvas shoes, towel, mess tin, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. I went to bed at 12. midnight, and was out at 6 a.m. to parade at 7.a.m. for the Platoon Commanders to inspect the Platoon to see if we were fit for the General. Home to breakfast at 8.15., and fall in again at 8.50.a.m. ready to march off to the Inspection ground at 10.a.m. Fortunately the rain kept off otherwise we should have had a wet shirt because out great coats were in our packs at the very bottom. Anyway we got over it. The old Gen. had a look at me, but my buckles were clean, my leather straps also, and I had a jolly good shave just before I paraded. My word, you would have laughed to see me folding my pack. This life is doing me a world of good, because if one's pack isn't properly squared what ho, out it comes on the floor and you get it across the neck, perhaps 3 days for being slovenly, and three day's pack drill isn't a picnic party.

Well, about my Billet. We came here on Saturday. I moved up in charge of the Sick in the train, and after reporting here was put in charge of the baggage guard. That is to say to look after the men guarding the kit bags as the waggons unloaded. I got one man in the Report for not bucking up. He is an old soldier, and tried to play the rotten on me because I am a young one, but as the Captain said, I would not stand any nonsense, and that is the man he wants. If you get a man in that way the Officers back you up fine.

When I got to my new billet, the Landlady had a nice warm dinner ready for me. I am with the young Canadian still, and we are in clover. They are young people, and only recently got married. He is an Artizan Attendant at the Exminster Asylum just across from here, and another such a man as Ern. In fact I can almost imagine it is Ern when he speaks. His very ways and sayings are the same. The grub is right up to dick, and the bed is comfortable enough for me to sleep like a top, and not wake until 8.a.m. I am too tired to bawl or walk. Besides the life is different.

I was going to keep the fact that I am in the N.C.O's Class from you until I knew the result, but I tell you now. I am penalised to a certain extent by being in the Office, because I am not learning my drills, but the Officers are very kind and appreciate the fact, and my knowledge of Company drill now is merely book knowledge. I have had a go at a squad once or twice, and can manage to make them hear. I didn't know I had a voice until now, and the harder you can shout, and the more sharp you get the words out the quicker the squad moves.

Topsham isn't a bad place. It is about the size of Ivybridge. There aren't many people and there are no amusements to go to, which doesn't affect me very much. I am too busy to go anywhere. I am, however, having a bit of fun with some Nurses at Exminster Asylum. Our Landlord said he could put us on to a few, so we wrote a note which he took over, which was to the effect that two lonely Soldiers wanted comforting, and they wrote back saying that they would be very pleased to have a try at it. Laugh, Mother, We are always laughing in billet.

Sergeant Major Dunn has had a very bad hand. Just before we left Exmouth he had to stop in bed for a day, and his hand was swollen up very bad. I wrote a card to Mrs Dunn for him, and I hope she got it. He could not possible handle anything with his fist. He sends his kind regards to all home, and his love to his Wife. I think he is of opinion that his Missus doesn't believe he has been bad, but don't for goodness sake say anything about it to her. We must not interfere with their affairs.

We are in the local Drill Hall here. It is something like the Mutley Barracks. There is a shooting range and everything for training purposes.

By the bye, did you get the photo of my Comrade?. I sent it from Exmouth. His people are shifting to Exeter this week, so I have a home to go to there. I am number one there I can tell you, and as we are only four miles from the City it is rather convenient. I have to go up to Headquarters to study the system of correspondence there, so I shall have a nice time with my friends. Go home there to meals, and probably to sleep. I know my way about.

Well, Mother, I am snatching this five minutes to write you, and you must excuse mistakes. I often think of home, and you and Dad and wish I could pop in to have a yarn with you all. But you will be pleased to see how I am looking. I feel different, and have got the military touch alright.

Has either Ern or Frank been attested for the Army yet?. Everbody is joining, and we had a batch of schoolmasters in last week. They are decent chaps, and it is quite a treat to yarn with them.

Please don't trouble about me, Mother dear, I wouldn't care two pennyworth of cold gin if I knew you were alright. I am serving my Country, and have the feeling that I am doing my bit to keep the roof over my parents heads, which is only a small repayment for the care and kindness shown to me ever since I came to town. I shall want a home Mother when I come back, and for that reason keep your pecker up.

Love to your dear self and Dad, and all,
Your loving Son Bert.

Please write me
109 ??? Mc Dermott
1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Co.
4. Victoria Road

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A Short, Short Story

Day to View

If you stood with your back to the door of what Shelley called her office but which actually had many uses, the first person sitting on your left would be a dentist. He had the first appointment of the day. It was always best to get him in really early because otherwise, he would inevitably find other people to squeeze in beforehand and then everyone would be running even more late for the rest of the day. She didn't dare to admit to herself, let alone anyone else, that she was nervous about this first appointment.

The waiting room was really Shelley's living room with her mismatched dining chairs lining the edges. However, if her day went smoothly (she was a stickler for planning) then there should only be two or three in there, looking nervous, avoiding each other's gazes and generally twiddling their thumbs, at any one time. She'd even put 'Please switch off all mobile phones' notices on two of the walls. Next to the door, in the spot on the wall not taken up by the bay window, the door from the hallway or the one with the fireplace, was a big noticeboard. The text on the pieces of paper, which flapped around in the stiflingly hot air as the office or hallway doors were passed through, was headed enticingly with bold print but followed by letters sufficiently small that they would have to squint to read on. No one liked to be reminded of their deteriorating eyesight, she knew that. Sometimes, they might get up on the pretext of stretching their legs, just to decode the juiciest bit of the notice only to find that they could be observed by others to be closely reading an invitation to a self-help group for people with sexual diseases. Or an invitation to learn to salsa.

Next in line was a young man clutching a clipboard. He'd brought someone with him, an older man who looked resigned to his fate at being there and uncomfortable in his suit. It was too tight. Borrowed maybe? No, Shelley thought. She reckoned it was his only one, probably from twenty years ago judging by its cut. Fallen on hard times, children to feed, wife wanting him out of the house. Shelley looked away quickly, reminding herself that she wasn't here to judge. But surely no one wants to sell energy supply for a living?

The man sitting on the other side of the waiting room, on the singular chair, he was a doctor. He'd been the hardest one to get to come. She'd more or less had to plead. He kept jumping up, trying to explain how he had other people to see. He really thought that he was important. More important than the poor chap opposite with the hungry kids and nagging wife? He would have to wait just like everyone else. Sure, they all had the same appointment time but wasn't that how it worked? He needn't worry, he'd get his seven and a half minutes. Eventually.

Meanwhile, Shelley looked down her day to view appointment diary. It would be a full day. The mortgage advisor, the customer service assistant from the refunds desk at the supermarket, the pharmacist, the post office clerk, the airline check-in agent ….. the list went on. An exhausting day it would be, indeed. She strolled out through the waiting room to make herself a cup of coffee. No one said anything although the air of anticipation was so tangible that it was almost clawing at her skirt and dragging her down. But she was made of stronger stuff. She was the one with the diary. They would have to wait.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Recipe for Disaster

Recipe for Disaster

I know I must be a real grown up now. It wasn't being old enough to vote (that was a long time ago) or the 4 children which gave it away but something else. I made chicken soup because I needed to. I've done chicken soup lots of times before, varying the recipe according to what's in the fridge or garden and whether it's a chicken carcass or lamb leg bone. Sometimes, I add rice, sometimes, lentils. Whatever's at hand. But recently, I've started slipping packets of frozen casserole vegetables into my shopping trolley, thinking about the future, almost as if I suspected what was coming and yet barely registering that I am doing it. So who's responsible for such inevitability? Is it an age thing? The economic climate?

I don't specifically remember being fed chicken soup when I was ill as a child although I do remember a lot of soup in general. As integral to everyday life as politics. But here, today, the urge for chicken soup slipped out from under the mat of my consciousness and I didn't brush it back. Feeling bad? Chicken soup to the rescue.

On this grey, damp September morning I boiled up the chicken bones and added my frozen vegetables. I was heartened by the first hint of it wafting up the stairs as it came to the boil and then the sound of the huge saucepan lid tinkling and under the pressure of steam. I was convinced that it would do good things for me. Except for one thing. I'd run out of chicken stock cubes. Impetuous as ever and wanting to feel better about everything immediately, I threw in two mystery stock cubes, escapees from their box. I watch the colour of the bubbling water turn brownish. Thinking I had ruined it, I began to feel worse. Vegetable cubes would be OK but beef in my chicken soup? What kind of creature shall I tell the everyone it's made from? A feathered cow? A mooing chicken? A coalition. I didn't choose that on purpose either.

Lost for Words

Let's try and get to grips with the scale of things. Just imagine that Dr Samuel Johnson was lying there in his coffin with a rubber and his dictionary. Naturally, I expect he'd need a torch in there too which in turn would need batteries and the whole thing's getting overly anachronistic but stay with me if you can. Say he rubs out the word 'writing' for example. All of a sudden, amongst widespread confusion over such a lexical absence, the whole English-speaking world has to think of a new one and agree upon it. Would the government step in? The Queen? After all, it's hers, isn't it? Perhaps she would stop writing letters. Maybe she'd reply to her correspondences by text. Or start phoning people out of the blue. You could be driving and, unable to resist picking up Her Majesty's call, you crash and afterwards, you couldn't even remember why.

We might find that the easiest solution would be to abandon all forms of proper writing. But there's a hidden danger here too and one we're already facing. Viruses. You know that computer keyboards are the dirtiest, germ-ridden items we touch regularly? Well, next time you switch on, be aware that brushing your fingertips across the keyboard is leaving you vulnerable to attack. You won't feel a thing, that's the clever part. The fingers are in on it already. Logging on to your computer without thinking about it? Touch typing? Then you know what I mean. It's only a matter of time.

One day, someone, somewhere will invent a virus and you'll be in the middle of a conversation - maybe with your work colleague – and you'll be offering them something to improve their sex life. Maybe you'll even do it with particularly bad syntax or lacking any grammatical structure whatsoever. Or worse. If you shook their hand that morning, you'll have already passed it on. The meeting you would have had then turns into utter filth and badly-spoken nonsense. The only way to deal with it will be to delete and reinstall the lot of you and no one wants that in these times of austerity, do they?

Be careful out there, won't you?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Bronze Age

Here's something I wrote the other week:

The Bronze Age

It wasn't Kerry's fault that she'd lost her job. It was crap anyway. Over the weeks, she shut out everything else too. Just at the point where she'd stopped even bothering to dress and begun eating her main meals in bed, the television lit a firework of inspiration. She could be that girl everyone talked about. Even if she was a little dumpy now, with all the money and attention, things would change. People would want to interview her, ask her opinion about fashion and make-up. Politics, even. That job she'd had, that wasn't the real her. She would show the nation, the world, the real Kerry. On TV.

Kerry was lucky that she got on the show when she did. Outside studios, queues of unemployed office girls and waitresses shoved each other, trying to edge their way forwards to the front of the line. Doors slammed in the faces of the disappointed millions. The rest of the nation sat at home, watching the select few. Widespread unemployment pushed up viewing figures for such shows as the one Kerry appeared in. The trouble was that the TV schedules had to be balanced. For some reason, some people wanted to watch news and documentaries about people dying in other countries. Budgets were at an all time low and so there was only one way to quench the thirst of the public for a reality outside of their own restricted, little lives. Repeats.

At first, Kerry blossomed. It didn't matter that she came across as an idiot, that she thought that Houston was in London or that there was a railway station called St Pancreas. The excitement caused her to lose weight. She got freebies from exclusive beauty salons, was sprayed bronze and her hair was tamed, smoothed and cut so that it swung and fell gracefully back into place. Kerry's introduction to the show made tabloid headlines, her gaffs endearing her and giving hope to others who saw themselves as much more likely to be successful had they only managed to get past the front of the queue that day.

Six months on, Kerry walked down the High Street. She only wanted to buy some cotton wool. She'd learned to park her Porsche in the darkest corner of the car park, well away from the footfall of window shoppers along the main thoroughfare. She couldn't sneak around to the back of the chemist's because knocking on the door itself would attract attention. It was pointless trying to disguise herself because she'd tried every combination of glasses, hats and big coats already. She'd have to tough it out.

Wealth did have some advantages. She could afford to educate herself. From home, of course. She was studying for a degree in archaeology. It was always interesting to know how people lived, even if it was in the past, wasn't it? The field trips weren't a problem because no one there watched the endless, daily repeats of the show featuring Kerry.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Writing and Things

I've been absent from here for a long time but here's a quick update.

Monty's still with us, deaf and incontinent. We now have a new kitten to add to our menagerie whose name is Hattie. Photos to follow!

At the moment, I'm writing a long, short story about a hotel and its guests. The novel I wrote last November is on the backburner until I have the time and space to revisit it. I feel that it has much potential and I'm looking forward to looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes. By the way, I've also had laser eye surgery which is rather nice as I now get to wear very cool sunglasses.

The building work on our house itself is finished but decorating, cleaning and tidying is work in progress, as are the school holidays. Not that I would wish the school holidays away or anything but once they are over and I have a more serene environment in which to write, I will be rethinking my blog. See you soon!

Saturday, 22 May 2010


This is the longest I've been away from here. Almost 2 months. Shocking. However, normality looms ahead with the alterations to our house nearing completion so my attention is turning back towards what I should be getting on with. Nearly a year has passed since I vowed to actually enter some writing competitions and this has yet to happen. It's not that I haven't been writing at all, more like just skimming the surface of creativity to keep the waters running clear underneath. The novel I wrote in November (on the bed, underneath the chimney being demolished) is somewhere underneath the rubble of chaos and I have written some pieces of flash fiction to share with my writing group.

Meanwhile, since the building work began last year, the children are still sleeping in bunk beds in the living room. That's the same living room occupied by our smelly old dog. The fireplace is filled with dusty boxes of toys, all jumbled up. The carpet is disgusting and I can't wait to throw it out, just as soon as we can get to it.

Our bedroom, soon to be Peter's, is something else. The bed emerges - when it can - from underneath a pile of paperwork and ironing. This morning, a heap of Where's Wally? books, the TV remote and old cheque books separate us. Luckily it's quite a big bed and even offers the illusion of space from floor to ceiling. Elsewhere in the room, every inch is taken up with boxes of bed linen, bags of clothes and the most recent addition is the top half of our large dresser from the kitchen. Handy if you need a saucepan in the middle of the night but not so much if you get lost on the way to the bathroom in the darkness. On second thoughts .... I'm guessing that not many people are woken up by their wife croaking, from the far corner of the bedroom, 'I'm lost'. I thought I was squeezing past the dresser top on my way out of the door. I was actually trying to get through a 6 inch space at the other end of the dresser and heading for the window. Only the diamond shapes of the leaded lights illuminated by the moon alerted me to the unreliability of my night time compass.

As a lifestyle, though, maybe it will catch on. Yesterday, in our small pond, there were 5 frogs crammed into one corner. For us, cramming things in will soon be a thing of the past. Hopefully, my writing will be pulled out of the creases in the bedclothes and instead, laid out to bask in the sun streaming through dust-free air in the conservatory. Hopefully.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Monty's Back

The irrepressible Monty is back blogging again. Forced out of retirement by the amount of activity going on in the house and the lack of my activity on the blog front, he's agreed to put in a few appearances.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

What's in the Box?

What's in the box, Mum?

It's your Uncle Mark, Kieran. He's having a good long, rest now. He'll be alright, I promise. Hold my hand.

Is he tired then?

No. Not any more. He won't ever be tired again. He won't ever hurt again. He's in peace.

Why are all those people here, Mum?

Because they know what a good man he was and they're sad. Like we are.

How come he knew so many people?

Well he didn't actually know them. Not like that. No one can know that many people. Even if you're famous. He was special, though, remember that. Let's be quiet now for a bit, shall we?


The procession moved forward and Heather tried to quieten her own mind. She wished that the flags and bowed heads weren't so distracting. Kieran had a point. They hadn't known Mark. They hadn't made dens at Grandma's house with him, argued over the cake mixing bowl or vied for first place in the queue for pocket money handout by Dad on Sundays.

Heather surveyed the passing lines of mourners, ten or so deep in some places, wanting to confront them in the same way that Kieran had done to her a few minutes ago. Some dabbed away at their eyes. Some stared straight ahead at an infinitely distant horizon and saluted, mouths stiff. They hadn't had the call, the visit, the gut-wrenching sobs threatening to strangle their necks. They had been summoned by a news report. Another one. But what of those who hadn't come today? Those whose sense of emotional disaster could be contained by the dimensions of their television screens?

It seemed ironic, Heather thought, that as technology became more compact, its power became immense, blurting out messages to larger numbers of people spread over wider areas, like microscopic bacteria travelling first class to feed off the world's open wounds. Heather understood the onlookers' dilemma well. She, too, had watched catastrophes unfold before her eyes on the television and momentarily been desperate to be involved, briefly overcome by guilt at the distance dimming the pain felt by those victims depicted in harrowing images. Thinking about it, her role here was clear-cut. Her brother, a hero, was being buried and her memories of him were neatly sealed in by the lid of a coffin. He had been a good man. He had been a good man fighting for a lot of people he didn't know. He was special but she hardly felt lucky. Everyone was special, wasn't that what she was always telling Kieran?

For the onlookers, the coffin contained anonymous, slippery, collective symbols of grief, loss and pain. Confusion of what they ought to have been feeling and reproach for being thankful for what they were not. Remembrance of past losses and imaginary future ones. Sadness projected onto a box had to be a very individual thing. Some people threw flowers as a symbol of something. But universally, no amount of nailing down was ever going to stop their tears from escaping through the gaps or from seeping through the wood. On the grand scale of things, their responses to television news reports could shrink dramatically and neatly to microscopic proportions but only because they were too big to even think about.

Turning back to herself, Heather's only solace was that at least Mark was safe. It was small comfort, of course, but at least she wasn't alone. She sat in the car, naked in her emotion and sobbed, comforted only by the blanket of compassion. She shivered in its warmth.


Friday, 8 January 2010


OK so it's all my fault. I said that we never have proper snow. I said I'd believe it when I saw it. I've seen it and it's proper. Three days of school closures and we're getting cabin fever. Supplies are running out and I'm not just talking about milk.

We're also counting down the days to the arrival of a plumber to install a new bathroom suite. Bad luck decreed that our toilet would stop flushing over Christmas. Maybe it was subjected to undue strain, who knows. The result is that we have to fill a bucket with water and throw it down the bowl instead of flushing it like normal people. So our days are occupied somewhat strangely, filling buckets, watching sparks fall like stars through the loft hatch as joints are cut and fixed into place and planning what our house might one day look like.

I'm just wondering whether there has been a huge surge of spending on the internet. If so, it can't all have been down to me, can it? You see, I have been a little frivolous in my boredom. Curtains for windows we don't have in non-existent rooms, that sort of thing. So, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas all over again as we wait for various mysterious deliveries to arrive against a backdrop of glistening, dusty snow.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Grab a Blanket

When I woke up this morning, a blanket of art had been draped over the garden. By art, of course, I mean snow. If the purpose of art is to make you look at things from a new perspective, to stimulate the creative instinct, then what fell out of the sky is today's artistic medium. Children want to create models of people, play anarchistic games of snowballs, invent a replacement for the wheel with makeshift sledges and adults cast off their hard-won routines of daily life. They take guilt-free days off from work, huddle unashamedly beneath their duvets hugging mugs of steaming tea or better still, engage in child-like, creative activities outside.

As a nation, we are not equipped to manage extreme weather conditions because most of the time, we don't have them. Some may be justified in mocking the British inability to cope. The thing is, though, that if you took away our weather changes, even the most minor, predicable ones, what would we talk about?

The best thing about living in Britain is the changing of the seasons so let's not pretend that we don't like the snow or any other random extremes of weather sent to surprise us. Where else could a group of people be stranded in a pub for days on end or go out to get the turkey and be stranded so long as to miss Christmas entirely? These events mark out our lives as noteworthy. They make us realise what normality is and not to take it for granted. They allow us to enjoy temporary exotic (or arctic) conditions we wouldn't normally experience without going on holiday. They allow us all to take a day off from our mundane lives. If nothing else, when it's over, we'll appreciate the usual rainy, grey misery we put up with the rest of the year. Now, I'm going to savour not having to rush to get the children ready for school, prepare for the builders' arrival and go and take some photos. Hell, I might even write something.

Happy snow day, everyone!