Wednesday, 28 December 2016


THE MYSTERY OF THE PINK PANTIES
 
(from Loved and Lost in Lewisham)

 
 
Abby was walking home from work under a grey sky. She was depressed. She went into the Tropicana wine bar in the hope of running into some friends who might cheer her up. If she didn’t, she’d have to rely on a vodka and orange to cheer her up. Twenty to six might seem a little early for a vodka and orange, but hey! She’d had a lousy day.
     She found Trish and Debbie seated around a glass table in a kind of clearing in the jungle vegetation.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘Hi-yaaaa,’ Trish and Debbie responded in perfect unison.
Trish and Debbie were depressed too. The three girls cheered themselves up by discussing what a crap day they’d all had and what total bastards all men are.
‘Doing anything tonight?’
Nah, I’m staying in and doing my nails.’
‘I’m staying in and doing my emails.’
‘I’m staying in and dying my hair.’
‘I can’t afford to go out anyway,’ Debbie sighed. ‘I can’t even afford this month’s rent. My landlord wants to take me out for a drink to discuss “alternatives.”’ She stabbed the air with the middle and index fingers of both hands to display the inverted commas graphically. ‘I know exactly what that means.’
‘My laptop’s packing up and I can’t afford to get it fixed or get a new one,’ Abby contributed to the general gloom. ‘The letter E doesn’t type, which is a real pain since E’s the mostly commonly used letter in the English language, isn’t it? Or is it A?’
‘I think it’s F,’ suggested Trish, and they all laughed and felt better.
‘Get Jeb to fix it.’
Jeb! You’re joking! Jeb can’t change a light bulb.’
‘Well, he spends all night on his computer, so he must know something about them.’
‘He doesn’t. He knows nothing about everything.’
‘Nothing about everything? That makes him sound really wise – in a Zen kind of way.’
‘Well he’s not. He’s a prat.’
Abby’s mobile rang. She fished it out of her bag and glanced at the display. Speak of the devil. She lifted it to her ear.
‘All right, Babe?’ said a voice.
He had this annoying habit of calling her ‘Babe’ all the time. And now he wanted her to fetch his laundry from the laundrette – it should have just about finished its cycle. He thought he put it in machine number 7 but he couldn’t be sure. And would she mind just slinging it in the dryer while she’s at it? He’d have done it himself but he’s really on a roll with his writing.
Abby’s jaw dropped. The cheek of the guy! It’s not even as though he was her boyfriend. He was just this guy who lived in the flat next to hers in Ravensbourne Court, who did shift-work in a packing factory and who fancied himself as a writer. But he’d never published anything. In fact, as far as she knew he’d never written anything. But he was doing a creative writing course so apparently that made him a writer. She ended the call.
Her friends were all looking at her expectantly. She drained her drink. ‘I have to go,’ she said mysteriously.
Installed in the laundrette, staring at Jeb’s clothes bouncing round and round in the dryer, Abby pondered her life. She was twenty-eight, single and worked in the accounts department of a company that manufactured reinforced rubber sprockets. She had so little interest in her work that she was not even entirely sure what reinforced rubber sprockets were, but they paid the rent – just. She’d recently made a solemn vow never to have anything to do with men ever again, ever. Experience had taught her that all relationships are cyclical – i.e. going nowhere. Just like life. Or like Jeb’s underwear – churning endlessly round and round and up and down and going nowhere. The cycle comprised about twenty phases and she’d been round it so many times she knew them by heart. Most recently it was with a guy called Craig. There were slight variations each time, of course, but it always followed the same pattern: You meet. You date. You kiss. You bonk. You bonk again. And again. And, yeah okay, again. He buys you flowers and a card on your birthday and uses the “L” word for the first time. Of course, he’s said nice stuff to you before like how you’re sweet and beautiful and have a fantastic body etc. etc. but that’s just mood music in the bedroom. With regard to the “L” word he’s keeping his powder dry because the “L” word suggests commitment. You find yourself using it back then feel bad because you’re not sure if you really mean it. He reckons it would make great economic sense for you to move in together – i.e. him to move in with you. But it’s okay – at first. He makes himself useful – puts out the rubbish, mends the shower head, installs loads of really cool illegal software on your laptop. Then you notice he’s left the top off your toothpaste, is shedding pubic hairs in your bed and has stopped apologising after farting. He loses his job, through no fault of his own (so he says) and you have to listen sympathetically while he drones on about the boss who shafted him, the mates who shafted him, the whole world which shafted him, plus you’re now supporting him financially. Sporting four days’ growth of beard, he shambles off down to the Job Centre but can’t find anything worthy of his extraordinary skills and talent. He decides to use his enforced leisure to realise his “dream” – like building his invention that’s going to make him a millionaire, or his website that’s going to make him a billionaire, or – worst of all – writing his “novel”. From a prostrate position in your bed he asks if you’d mind putting the rubbish out (even though you’re late for work) as he’s figuring out a very complex crisis at the end of chapter four. It’s your birthday again. He forgets it – not so much as a card – he’s too preoccupied with how the threads of his plot are drawing together for the dénouement. You snap. You tell him to leave, he tells you he has nowhere to go, you tell him you don’t fucking care, just go you egocentric bastard! He tells you you’re cold, selfish and unfeeling and a philistine for not appreciating his art. You tell him where he can shove his art and their relationship! He goes, leaving most of his stuff behind so he can come back and collect it bit by bit, just to annoy you and check on whether you’re seeing anyone else. You cry because he’s made you feel cold, selfish and unfeeling. Ha! Selfish! That’s a good one, coming from him! Oh yeah, and you’re a philistine, apparently, for not appreciating his crap novel. And now he’s made you feel guilty. He’s made you feel that for some reason it’s all your fault! Arsehole! You keep crying though you’re not sure why. It’s like crying at the funeral of some great aunt you couldn’t stand. But you still do it. Then you go out with your best mate and get totally hammered and while you’re staggering home at three in the morning trying to hold each other up, you make a solemn vow you’re giving up men for good.
And then you meet this lovely guy who’s (yeah, you guessed it)… different. And the cycle starts all over again.
The machine stopped and Jeb’s clothes all flopped to the bottom of the drum in a lifeless heap. Abby hauled herself out of her chair, opened the door and found they were still damp and had all turned pink – the culprit being one bright red sock which was part of a set she remembered his mother sending him for Christmas. She sighed, scratched around in her purse for some coins and set the machine in motion again. She resumed her seat.
And then there was Jeb. He was different all right, though not in quite the way she would have liked. He seemed to have fast-tracked his way into the cycle at about Stage 12. But what was he doing there? She didn’t love him. She didn’t even like him particularly. He hadn’t worked through the cycle like you’re supposed to do. He hadn’t put in the time. He hadn’t put in the effort. As far as she could remember he’d never even bought her a drink. She did allow him to snog her once, at Trisha’s party when everyone was blind drunk. Maybe that was what underlay this attitude of his. Maybe that was what made him think he’d got the right to come into the kitchen while she was making her supper, plonk a hand on her shoulder and peer into her saucepan with some remark like ‘What’s for tea, Babe?’ Or was it that she and Jeb – the tenants of the two cheapest flats in Ravensbourne Court (where she’d landed up after being fleeced by blokes like Craig) – were forced to share a kitchen? Was it that which gave him the illusion they were practically married? There was this deep spiritual bond between them (so he said) and apparently that gave him the right to help himself to her spaghetti. And to get her to go all the way round by Hither Geen Lane after a crap day at work to pick up his washing from the launderette and wait while it went through the dryer a second time. And the worst of it was, here she was doing it.

*

Jeb wasn’t ‘on a roll’ with his writing. He was staring at a blank Word document and waiting for inspiration. The topic for the week’s assignment was ‘Location, Location, Location.’ Not that naff telly programme where mega-rich thirty-somethings turn up their noses at nine bedroomed country mansions because they’re more than a mile from Bryony’s private prep school. Neil, the guy who ran the class, wanted them to explore the topic in depth: Where am I? Not just where am I? But where am I? Or indeed, where am I? I am here, facing a blank Word document, thinking about ‘location’. But where am I really? And Abby’s there, in the laundrette in Hither Green Lane, watching my Y-fronts bounce round and round and listening to the relentless churning of the dryer. But where is she really?’
He sighed. It wasn’t just lack of inspiration. His thoughts were fixated on something which had happened earlier that evening. A silly little thing but one which nonetheless had lodged in his mind, or in his soul or somewhere. As a writer he couldn’t help viewing his own life aesthetically and felt strongly the need to keep what had happened as an isolated incident, of not acting upon it or trying to develop it in any way, of preserving it as a single precious jewel set in the dull paste of everyday life. Hey! – ‘a single precious jewel set in the dull paste of everyday life’ – that wasn’t bad! He must remember to use that some time!

*

Abby surreptitiously glanced around at her fellow inmates of the laundrette. There was a tall, thin, grey man, probably in his late forties, wearing a shabby brown suit and a little pointy beard. He looked as though he had tried being a teacher but couldn’t hack it and now made a meagre living teaching people to play the piano badly. There was an old woman who appeared to be of Asian origin. And a girl who looked Slavic – possibly Russian. She was slender and would have been beautiful had not life’s hardships and disappointments  bestowed a pale, pinched, almost haunted air. Her bob of floppy hair was dyed nuclear red and she wore a stud in one nostril. She and Abby caught each other’s eye – just for a moment – then the girl looked away before any kind of contact was made. Here we all are, thought Abby with a sigh, the brotherhood – and sisterhood – of those who are too poor to own a washing machine. It was completely different in France. In France the laverie was the hub of the community where people from all social backgrounds gathered and mingled – even the word sounded cooler and sexier than laundrette. Old ladies aired the town gossip with their jaws in overdrive – who’d just had an illegitimate child and by whom, whose husband was clearly a closet gay, who was the Mayor’s mistress of the month. People laughed and helped each other fold their counterpanes. Here in England they just sat and stared at nothing, hypnotised by the drone of the machines and the sight of their undies bouncing round and round.
Jeb’s clothes stopped revolving again. Abby felt them thoroughly to check that this time they were nice and dry and warm. She loaded them into one of the plastic baskets provided and carried them to a counter where were strewn some prehistoric copies of Titbits and Weekend and the previous day’s edition of The Sun. She imagined Jeb just grabbing all his clothes and thrusting them anyhow into a bag, but there was something in her – possibly (oh God!) some maternal instinct – which compelled her to take each item, fold it neatly and place it in a pile. There was actually something quite pleasant and restful about the activity – like ironing or hoovering the carpet. Maybe it was because, being a totally disorganised person, these precise little tasks created the illusion that she was imposing some order on her chaotic universe. For a few moments she felt reassured, comforted, warm, safe. She laid both her palms on one of Jeb’s pink tee-shirts then slid them slowly apart, her head tilted, smiling with satisfaction. Next came a pair of his pink Y-fronts. She couldn’t believe Jeb was still wearing Y-fronts! Real men all wore boxers nowadays. She couldn’t even imagine where he had bought them – probably from some stall in the market. All his clothes looked so small and cheap. He was a little over average height but of slight build and his clothes looked like those of a teenage boy. As she folded them she suddenly imagined she was a mother folding up her children’s clothes for school. Then she noticed the girl with the nuclear red hair staring at her. She briskly resumed her task.
Jeb had overloaded the machine. His week’s wash went on and on. But then, just as she was getting to the end, she came upon something which made her gasp and her eyes widen in surprise. It was a pair of pants, pink like everything else, but definitely not Jeb’s. Because they weren’t even pants. They were knickers!
She frowned. How on earth did a pair of knickers get into Jeb’s laundry? She paused in her work to consider the question. The obvious explanation was that they belonged to someone he’d slept with. That he’d slept with? Jeb? But what girl sleeps with someone then leaves without putting their knickers back on? It was bizarre! Unless it was someone who lived close by, someone in the house, but even then it was pretty weird. Abby mentally went through all the female residents of the house who could possibly have slept with Jeb. Fiona? No, she had a boyfriend. Anna? She had a girlfriend. Mrs. Mayhew? She had a dog. Another explanation was that they belonged to someone from outside who was forced to leave in a hurry. But what forces someone to leave in that much of a hurry? The unexpected return of the girlfriend? Jeb didn’t have a girlfriend. At least, as far as she knew he didn’t. She shrugged and decided to put the matter out of her mind. But it was a real mystery just the same.
When she finally got home, Jeb asked, ‘What happened to that guy Craig or Dale or whatever his name was? I haven’t seen him around for a while.’
‘We broke up.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ he responded cheerfully.
‘I’m not.’
‘Anyway, thanks for picking up my laundry, Babe. I really appreciate it.’
‘So you should.’
Abby had trouble sleeping that night. It was crazy, she knew, but the mystery of those pink knickers just kept niggling at her. She couldn’t get them out of her mind. The theory that they were abandoned by a lover just didn’t ring true whatever scenario she played out in her imagination. Maybe he had a sister or an old friend to stay and they just left a pair of knickers behind. Yes, that had to be it! But Jeb had never talked about having a sister and, in all the time she’d known him, she couldn’t remember him ever having anyone to stay. Still, that had to be the answer. Unless… unless… there was another, rather tackier explanation. No, that couldn’t be it!
But that, she had to admit, was the most logical explanation so far. Jeb was seriously weird after all. Maybe, in the privacy of his room, he liked to parade around in a pair of knickers. Or even a bra – although Jeb was so skinny there wouldn’t be much to hold one up. Or maybe, maybe, he went the whole hog – tartan miniskirt, tights, stilettos, bracelets, necklace, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, wig! When she saw him boiling pasta in the kitchen that evening, she couldn’t help picturing him in a little black number and was horrified to discover that she rather preferred what she saw to the original. No! Jeb would never be able to afford designer labels, even from TK Maxx. But maybe she was doing him a terrible injustice. She couldn’t go around imagining he was a transvestite if he wasn’t! She had to know the truth!
That evening, when he was in the kitchen making himself something involving noodles (he seemed to live on noodles) she went in and asked, ‘Do you mind if I make a start on chopping some tomatoes?’
‘No, of course not, Babe.’
‘I mean, I know the arrangement is for one of us to wait until the other’s finished, but…’
‘It’s not a problem.’
As she was working, Abby remarked, with studied casualness, ‘I was reading this really fascinating article in the Daily Mail. It said that their research reveals that a staggering 22% of males have indulged in some form of tranvestitism during their lives.’
‘Really? That’s amazing.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Yeah, I’d never have had you down as a Mail reader.’
‘I’m not!’ she frowned. ‘It was just floating around the rest room at the office. But it’s an amazing statistic, don’t you think?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I thought it was amazing.’
‘Yet why is it…’ Jeb mused, pausing in his pasta-stirring and wagging his wooden spoon in the air, ‘that if men dress up in women’s clothes it’s regarded as weird and unhealthy whereas if women dress in men’s clothes it’s just a bit butch and eccentric?’
‘Personally I don’t think there’s anything weird and unhealthy about men dressing up in women’s clothes. I think it’s rather sweet. And it doesn’t hurt anyone, does it? It’s probably just their way of getting in touch with their feminine side. Or a way of feeling close to a loved one, to… the owner of a pair of knickers, for example. Or a bra. Or whatever…’
‘I don’t know,’ Jeb murmured, resuming his noodle-stirring. ‘I suppose that’s all true in theory but I still find, at gut level, that there’s something weird about it.’
Yeah, well you would say that, wouldn’t you? Abby thought. But she had to admit that, weird though Jeb was, he didn’t seem to be weird in that particular way. When she broached the subject there hadn’t been a hint of embarrassment or defensiveness in his reaction. Maybe this transvestite thing was a non-starter after all. So what was the explanation?
On the bus into work the next morning, she was exasperated to find she was still thinking about those knickers. Maybe he just liked to possess a pair of women’s pants without actually wearing them. A lot of men liked to possess something private and intimate of their girlfriend’s. Especially if they were far away from them. But then she returned to the inescapable fact that Jeb didn’t have a girlfriend. The only person he seemed to fancy – as he’d made crassly obvious on a number of occasions – was her.
Oh my God! Maybe they were her knickers! Maybe Jeb had sneaked into her room while she was out and pinched a pair as a keepsake. But she always locked her room when she went out. Although, come to think of it, she didn’t. Not always. She was actually quite lax about locking her door. She always locked it when she went to work or out for the evening but if she was just popping round the corner to post a letter or pick up some milk she often didn’t bother. And there was no way she could check whether she was short of a pair of knickers because she had absolutely no idea how many pairs she had in the first place!
The following evening, Jeb was cooking and she was chopping a pepper this time. He didn’t seem to think there was anything suspicious about it.
‘Jeb… what do you think about the idea of a wife or girlfriend giving something to their husband or boyfriend if they’re away from them? Something to remind them of them and make them think of them?’
‘You mean, a present?’
‘Well, no, I mean something of their own… like a hair clip, or maybe… something a bit more intimate… something which carries the scent and body odour of that person.’
‘Yeah, I think that’s a lovely idea. If you ever went away I’d like you to give me a pair of your knickers. Unwashed.’
She gasped. ‘Jeb, that’s disgusting!’
‘Well you brought it up.’
Abby suddenly snapped. She couldn’t stand it a moment longer! Still clutching her knife, she turned to confront him. ‘Jeb, that laundry you made me pick up the other day. There was a pair of knickers in it.’
He was a picture of vagueness and innocence. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really! I know it’s none of my business, but since you made me go miles out of my way to collect it and hang around while it dried, even though I was exhausted after a crap day at work, I’m making it my business! I want to know how they got there! It’s driving me crazy!’
Jeb just carried on looking vague, then shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea how they got there.’
‘You must have some idea! Think!’
He obediently looked thoughtful for a while. ‘Nope. Sorry.’
‘And that’s all you’ve got to say on the subject?’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘I want you to tell me what they were doing there! I can’t stand it another minute!’
‘I’ve just told you, I don’t know what they were doing there. Why’s it such a big deal, anyway?’
‘It’s not. It’s just… a mystery. And I don’t like mysteries. They infuriate me.’
‘Did you think they might belong to my girlfriend?’
‘You haven’t got a girlfriend.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I don’t, but…’
‘And… would it bother you if they did belong to my girlfriend?’
‘No, of course not! Why should it?'
Jeb was smiling at her in a really irritating way. ‘Oh I get it,’ he exclaimed suddenly.
‘What?’
‘All that talk about men wearing women’s clothes. You were trying to find out if I’m a transvestite.’
‘Of course I wasn’t! I never thought for a moment you were a transvestite! I was just… eliminating possibilities.’
‘Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.’
The matter was dropped. They worked on in silence, rather awkwardly, preparing their respective suppers. Then Jeb suddenly said, ‘Come to think of it, I do remember how they got there. It’s just come back to me.’
Well?’
‘There was this girl. Really pretty but a bit punk – her hair was dyed red and she had a stud in her nose and a few other piercings. And she had this really thick accent – Croatian or Romanian or something. Maybe even Russian.’
‘Yes?’
‘And she… well, she was filling up the machine next to mine and we got chatting. Nothing heavy – just chit-chat. Then she set her machine off and said goodbye, and just after she’d gone I noticed she’d dropped a pair of pants on the floor. So I picked them up and wondered what to do with them. I thought of going after her but she’d already disappeared. So in the end I just thought – Ah well, I’ll bung them in with my wash – I reckoned our cycles would finish around the same time, so I could give them back to her then.’
Abby was staring at him. ‘You picked up a pair of dirty knickers belonging to a total stranger and put them in your wash?’
‘Yeah. What of it?’
‘Jeb, that’s the most feeble, pathetic and improbable explanation I’ve ever heard!’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but it happens to be true.’
She was shaking her head. ‘I don’t believe even you would do something like that! Didn’t it occur to you how embarrassed she’d be?’
‘Well… no, not really. She seemed really laid back. And I figured... a girl like that… she’s probably around guys all the time. She’s probably got hundreds of brothers. And she probably comes from a really tough background out there in some Siberian village. Some people just aren’t used to the sort of niceties you and I take for granted.’
‘I don’t care whether she comes from the North Pole, there’s no girl in the world who wouldn’t be sick with embarrassment at the idea of a totally strange man picking up her dirty knickers and putting them in with his wash!’
‘They weren’t that dirty. And I thought maybe she... dropped them on purpose.’
Abby frowned. ‘You mean, you think it was her way of coming on to you?’
‘Well... yeah. Maybe.’
‘Jeb, I’ve seen people come on to people in some weird ways, but that would have taken the prize!’
‘Well… some people might find a pair of dirty knickers a bit of a turn-on. And she was being quite flirtatious. Or maybe she was lonely. Maybe she was just… reaching out to a fellow human being… with her pants.’
‘You’re living in a fantasy world,’ Abby pronounced finally. ‘She dropped them by accident. But if, by some extraordinary stretch of the imagination, she was interested in you, I’m afraid I’ve messed it all up.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I spotted that girl. She kept looking daggers at me and now I know why. When she saw me neatly folding your clothes she must have assumed I was your girlfriend.’
‘Oh. Right. Which you’re not, are you?’
‘No. I’m not.’

 

Monday, 24 October 2016

 
 
 

OUR CHARACTERS - WHERE DO THEY COME FROM AND WHERE ARE THEY GOING?

 

 
 

One of the joys of writing is that it gives us a chance to play God. It allows us to shut ourselves up in our cosy little room with a cup of coffee and create a world which we (almost) entirely control while the ‘real’ world spins alarmingly out of control all around us. I say ‘almost’ because even our imaginary worlds sometimes run amok.
One of our most vital functions as God is to give birth to our characters. Fortunately we are spared the mess and pain of actual childbirth, for our characters just pop up fully formed and fully clothed (unless you’re E. L. James) and going about the business of enacting our story. But where do they come from?
Most writers will answer that they somehow emerge from the very fabric of the conception, like living organisms miraculously forming out of the primordial soup. Speaking as one who prefers writing realist fiction set in the contemporary world, the seeds of most of my novels and stories have come from events in my own life or the lives of people I know. It is generally true to say, therefore, that the characters have been loosely based on the protagonists in those dramas, but only very loosely. For once he or she has been born, a character tends to take on a life of their own and often ends up unrecognizable as the real-life person who inspired them, their characteristics often redirecting the plot.
Authors of science fiction, historical or fantasy novels may find their characters emerge in a different way. Historical novels often contain real historical figures who have been fictionalised – something which is possible since, however great the body of learning surrounding them, it is usually contradictory and they can thus be safely remodelled by the novelist. But whatever genre the author works in, I’m sure they would find (if they’re honest with themselves) a person, or people, they know - or a combination of people - at the root of their character. Scratch beneath the surface of your witch or vampire and you’ll probably find your parents in law.  
Then comes the task of naming our babies. My wife’s cousin has two teenage boys called James and Sam, whose names I always confuse (to everyone’s acute annoyance) since, to me, Sam looks exactly like a James and James like a Sam. It is bizarre how certain names seem to suit certain people, and I am not sure how far this is subjective or objective. In our novels, of course, we are free to call our characters what we like and if they look like a Sam we can call them Sam or we might call them something entirely different to make them less predictable and more memorable. Sometimes the character seems to be born with a name attached and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it isn’t. I certainly find that my characters acquire their names very early on in the process – seemingly out of nowhere – and then I’m stuck with them. To change a character’s name two months into writing a first draft seems almost impossible. You’ve got to know them intimately by then and to change their name would be like changing your child’s name when it’s five years old just because you’ve got bored with it.
This is also true of the character’s physical appearance, although I usually find that the images I have in my head are rather vague and I like to keep my descriptions equally vague – apart from some precise but sparing pointers. To state that a male character has, for instance, ‘wide, hazel eyes with bushy eyebrows, a long straight nose and full sensuous lips’ is, I think, a mistake, partly because it’s hard for readers to retain all those details in their mind’s eye and partly because those features may remind them of someone they dislike.
Which brings us to another vital aspect of character-creation – the role of the reader. For a character is not wholly a creation of the writer, after all, but a collaboration between the writer’s and the reader’s imaginations. If the writer says nothing about a male character’s height, for example, the reader will tend to supply a man of average height – or a bit taller if they happen to like tall men. If the writer only mentions a character’s eye or hair colour, the reader will tend to extrapolate physical attractiveness since – let’s face it – most of us like our characters to be easy on the mind’s eye. And it is the reader’s experience, after all, which ultimately matters.
I think this is why problems arise when books are made into films. It’s not simply that the character the reader has formed and grown to love in their imagination may not look anything like Angelina Jolie or Johnny Depp or Sir Ian McKellan  but that these celluloid creations have a different essence, a different constituency to literary characters. This is also true when a writer introduces a ‘real’ person into the narrative as a cameo (Tony Blair, the Queen for example) because the glaring reality of these people in our minds eye throws the literary creation out of focus.
Any writers who are kind enough to read this post will probably say I’m just stating the obvious, but I thought I would state it anyway. The great characters of literature – Jane Eyre, Mr Darcy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, James Bond to name just a few among thousands – have become so much part of our cultural consciousness that we sometimes forget that they don’t exist, that they’re just figments of someone’s imagination. Yet the workings of those imaginations – and those of all writers – remains endlessly fascinating and one of the great mysteries and miracles of human creativity.      




Monday, 10 October 2016


 

HARVEST FESTIVAL - WINCHELSEA STYLE

 

(Warning - this blog post is rather sanctimonious)

 
To me, harvest festival is one of the most beautiful events in the church calendar. This is not just because it occurs in autumn, when the earth is resplendent with shades of gold and russet and the air suffused with the scent of wood smoke, but because it evokes such powerful memories of my childhood growing up on a farm and of our little village church which was always crammed to the rafters with every sort of produce imaginable – from local farmers, from local fruit growers, from gardeners, from retired gentlemen with just a greenhouse and elderly widows with just a flowerpot. It was the time of year when the ladies of the parish went to town creating ingenious corn dolly swags and upside-down flower arrangements and everybody joined in the task of making the church look spectacular for the harvest festival service. Whether one believed that nature’s bounty was endowed by God or some other deity or simply by some unnameable force, one couldn’t help but be amazed by its sheer energy and profusion, by its colour and beauty and variety. The festival brought together the entire community in celebration of something very profound – an awareness that, however far technology has brought us from our Neolithic forbears who first tilled the soil, we are still creatures who need to eat, who rejoice in growing things and who should be grateful that, unlike so many of our fellow humans, we are not going hungry.

Now, in extreme old age, I have the good fortune to have pitched up in Winchelsea, East Sussex - England’s smallest and arguably most beautiful town. Yet this is a community very different from the one I grew up in. Its residents – to put it politely – live a very long way from the source of production or any notion of material need. When I mentioned to a neighbour who’s a big noise in the church that I always love Harvest Festival, she informed me that they were not going for huge displays of fruit and vegetables this year but for a more ‘streamlined’ approach. When I asked why, she explained that nobody knew what to do with ‘all that stuff’ afterwards. EXCUSE ME? You don’t know what to DO with a cornucopia of fresh, delicious, locally-grown produce? Talk about a First World problem! It is yet another homage to the God of Tidiness, the inertia of rule by petty, parochial committee, the triumph of convenience over conviction. It’s the same attitude that condemned an unhappy friend of ours who drank herself to death to have her ashes strewn at the farthest limits of consecrated ground, next to the compost heap, and which decreed that the epitaph on Spike Milligan’s grave – ‘I told you I was ill’ – should be written in Gaelic as it was thought unseemly that a joke which anyone can understand should be placed on a headstone.  I don’t mean to target Winchelsea exclusively in this criticism – I’m sure it’s an attitude which prevails in country villages throughout the land. 
 
 
A 'streamlined approach' - the harvest festival display in Winchelsea Church. The oranges, lemons and bananas are, of course, locally grown. Sussex is noted for its banana production.
 

My three and a half followers may remember that I wrote a blog post back in March about the allotment we had taken on. I can now report that, having battled with rabbits, slugs, mice, caterpillars and other assorted pests, we have managed to wrest a few vegetables from this barren parcel of land. It has been a rewarding, if sometimes frustrating, experience, but I have often found myself thinking, while working, of the millions of poor farmers and smallholders throughout the world who have to support themselves and their families from similar patches of land and for whom the discovery that all their seedlings have been decimated by pests is a disaster of life-threatening proportions, not just a minor annoyance.

So I would suggest, in conclusion, that our parochial worthies with their ‘streamlined’ approach should dwell on this thought and adopt a more generous, appreciative and open-hearted attitude to this thanksgiving festival – even if it means a little inconvenience. 
 
 
Some of the produce from our allotment - maybe not shapely enough for Waitrose but delicious nonetheless
 
 
 
One of my monsters. I offered a similar one to the harvest festival but it was rejected on the grounds that it might distract the ladies of Winchelsea from their worship
 
  

Sunday, 10 July 2016

 
 
 

Allotment Gardening!

 
(or, one man's journey to hell and back)
 
 
A few weeks ago I jumped on the bandwagon which everyone seems to be jumping on – allotment gardening. For the benefit of my thousands of overseas followers (well, one) let me explain that an allotment is a small plot of land on a publicly-owned site, usually on the outskirts of a town, where – for a peppercorn rent – a cloth-capped factory worker can supplement his meagre wages by growing some veg for his family. Or it was. That notion is now well and truly out of date – the cloth-capped worker’s allotment, like his terraced house in Osney or Islington, having been nabbed by up-and-coming young doctors and barristers and execs wishing to 're-establish their primordial bond with the earth' etc. etc.  and similarly transformed. Nowadays the talk over the Prosecco and pistachios is not of the new extension to the Tate Modern or Mark Rylance’s latest Lear at the Globe but of rhubarb and rocket and asparagus and all the fun and nutritious things that can be done with them once you have the mandatory juicer and are ‘au fait’ with all the right recipes!
When I say I jumped, I was actually pushed. By my son, Joe. He’s been home from his adopted China for a few months and, clearly dismayed at finding his middle-aged parents in such a shameful state of inertia, announced one morning that he had rented us an allotment for a year. It only cost £20, he added breezily, and there was no hurry about paying him back.
Initially I was furious though careful not to show it, so pathetically excited was he by his initiative. He took us to see it – whereupon I was even more furious. This patch of land may have been officially an allotment but in reality it was a wasteland, not having felt the prick of a gardener’s tyne in years. One end was a mountain of compost sprouting shoulder-high nettles, the other a jungle of brambles and couch grass. And it was already April. If we did ever manage to wrest any produce from this wilderness, it would be in about the year 2022 by which time we’d almost certainly be dead. Joe informed me - with rather sheepish optimism - that the presence of nettles indicates a high nitrogen content in the soil.
I considered hiring a rotovator but decided that would be economically counter-productive. We’re British, after all, so if we were going to do this thing, we were going to do it the British way – i.e. the most difficult way possible, in true stiff-upper-lip style. So we set to work, swinging off every day with our scythes and spades and mattocks slung over our shoulders like the Seven Dwarves.  It was back-breaking work – we suffered, we despaired, we wept, we became addicted to Co-Codomol and Voltarol, we heaved and turned the sodden sod only for the sun to beat down on our sod and turn it to concrete. As we hacked at the rock-hard lumps of earth with our hoes and mattocks in an attempt to break them down, we felt we should be chained at the ankle and wailing some rhythmic lament about the agony of our lot and our hope of a brighter future in the next world.
Then I saw the light! The light in question being the simple realisation that allotment gardening has sod all (pardon the pun) to do with growing vegetables. Well it has, obviously, but it comes pretty low on the list of priorities. The main priority is to give the impression of growing vegetables. This can easily be achieved by accumulating loads of ‘gardeny’ clutter – stacks of flower-pots, sheathes of beanpoles, a wheelbarrow, a hosepipe, a composter and, of course, lots of seedpackets and little sticks to stick them on. And the pièce de résistance – an erection comprising steel hoops and polythene which may be providing shelter for tender seedlings but probably isn’t. And, most important of all, some picnic chairs and a table. For the real purpose of an allotment – I’ve now discovered – is to have somewhere to escape to. That cheery cry, ‘I’m just off to the allotment for a couple of hours!’ translates as ‘I’m just off to spend two hours doing absolutely f*** all while drinking tea and gazing at the landscape and occasionally mumbling some gem of spurious rustic wisdom in a West Country accent such as, ‘That east wind will dry out the tilthings nicely,’ or ‘If you can see the tower of Icklesham Church by lunchtime, he’ll be raining come eventide.’ In short, an allotment is a place to establish a private empire.
Ironically, I found my new “fuck it” approach to allotment gardening so liberating that I actually reached a point one day of thinking, ‘What the hell, I may as well plant something.’ I began with potatoes – ‘spuds are a good way to break up virgin land’ – another of my gems of rustic wisdom. I planted some courgette plants –which were promptly enjoyed by the local slug population; and some peas and summer cabbages which were promptly enjoyed by the local pigeon population. Then, one balmy Sunday, I went mad and, in a kind of orgasm of optimism, sowed French beans, dwarf beans and carrots and planted out leeks and rhubarb. One bean broke the surface about two weeks later and I haven’t been so excited since I became a father. It’s now been eaten by something.
So, to sum up: we have potatoes, potatoes and… er, potatoes. And some leeks. And some splendid courgette plants with no courgettes on them. I may celebrate with another blog post if anything else comes up but, then again, I may not. You’ll have to excuse me now – I’m going to fill my thermos, make myself a sandwich and go and do a couple of hours on the allotment!
Watch this space (or rather, this barren patch of weed-infested wilderness) for updates!
 


This is how our allotment looked when we took it on
 
 
Our allotment now!
 
 
Courgettes and spuds!
 
 
The height of allotment chic. My neighbour Peter uses his plot for growing vines, asparagus and globe artichokes. This is the standard I aspire to (not)
 
 
 
At least we have a nice view
 
 
 

 


 

Monday, 20 June 2016


Positively the Last Word on Brexit


As the day of the great referendum approaches, Britain finds itself baffled, bamboozled and bored to buggery. For what now seems an eternity we have been assaulted by so-called experts warning us of the terrible consequences of leaving the EU and by so-called experts warning us of the dire consequences of staying in. Immigration, jobs, trade, recession, house prices and public services are the main topics that are being whacked about like wildly wayward tennis balls. These are all massively complex issues which have been massively over-simplified and ‘emotionalised’ in the debates. I’m not going to go into them in detail yet again because everybody’s heard enough of them already. Suffice it to say that the British electorate are not so naïve as not to realise there’s a lot more going on here than our membership of the EU. Poor old Cameron is wetting his political panties while that nasty, dangerous lunatic Boris Johnson and his bunch of gruesome cronies are jockeying for power. If we vote to leave, a general election could be in the offing – so yet more of the same. Please God, no!
As to the most emotive issue – immigration – let me just say this. I don’t approve of it. Not at all. Okay, my mother was part-Welsh, part-Irish, part Hugenot. My father was part Jerseyman, part French. My wife’s Australian. Her Polish-Jewish grandparents fled to England to escape Nazism, were welcomed and built a new life here. Her father came here on the Kinder Transport, was welcomed and built a new life here. Our children are a jumble of racial genes – as are most of the British nation – but I still don’t approve of immigration. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I feel strongly that we should have denied entry to the Iberians, the Celts, the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, the Vikings, the Normans, the Hugenots, the Hanoverians and the citizens of our former colonies, leaving Britain to its rightful owners – the homo erecti who invented afternoon tea and cricket. Oh no, hang on, they walked here from France when the Chanel was a land bridge. Damn! We should’ve built an immigration-proof wall from Kent to Cornwall! And we should send our Royal Family back to Germany.   

In that wonderful comedy series ‘Frasier’, Frasier’s dad – a jaded, retired policeman – tell his son he needs “a bite of reality sandwich.” I think that’s what this debate urgently needs. The reality: Our very existence as a species is threatened by global warming and depletion of the planet’s resources. Consumerism is running riot in the wealthiest nations while the Third World sinks deeper and deeper into poverty and deprivation. The gap between rich and poor is ever widening even in the First World. Multinational corporations are becoming wealthier and more powerful than nations – a process intensified by TTIP. The West’s arrogant mishandling of the Middle East since the end of World War One is coming home to roost in ways which are unimaginably horrible – both for the Arab nations themselves and for the rest of us. Over vast parts of the planet, half the human race – women – are being denied education, dignity and their rightful place in society. The most powerful job in the world – President of the United States – is in danger of being occupied by a raving lunatic who makes even Boris Johnson look sane. China – a vast totalitarian state that has never known democracy – is now a world power. Since the thawing of the Cold War, the world has become a powder keg which could ignite at any moment. Meanwhile Britain clings pathetically to its mezzotint memory of Empire, as evidenced, for example, by the squandering of precious billions on our very own nuclear weapon which even military experts agree has no strategic purpose whatsoever.
The LEAVE campaign speak cosily of “wanting our country back” and “making our own laws for ourselves.” We don’t make our own laws for ourselves anyway – our laws are made for us by an elitist government which most of us didn’t want (due to our archaic electoral system) and which has one agenda: to dismantle the NHS – our most precious possession – to bleed our cultural life and public services dry by “necessary” spending cuts and recreate a world in which the ‘Haves’ can lord it over the ‘Have Nots’ for all eternity. Our parliamentarians of all parties - as proven by the expenses scandal – are every bit as corrupt as anything you can find in Brussels. While individuals cling heroically to their beliefs and values, our society as a whole has lost its moral compass. What we – and the world – desperately needs is leaders of real moral courage and moral vision but instead we are governed by lightweight amateurs whose vision does not extend beyond the next election. In what kind of crazy world is our health service run by a man with absolutely no medical training or our education system by someone who has never known the hell of teaching Shakespeare to a class of thirty fifteen-year-olds?   

What, I hear you ask, has all this got to do with our leaving the EU? Well, not much really, I suppose. Just this: Given all that we’re facing, given all the challenges, would it not be better to maintain unity and co-operation where it exists, to try to work towards a better world from within a large body of nations than from a position of isolation? Of course there are faults and problems with the EU but in our inter-connected world it is naïve to imagine those problems won’t affect us even if we leave. It’s just that we won’t be able to do anything about them because we will have put ourselves in a position of powerlessness. It’s argued that we can’t do anything about them anyway but that’s actually not true. Much is made by the LEAVE campaign of our powerlessness within the EU as though we’re somehow helpless victims of our European oppressors. A lot is also made of the threat that, by remaining, we will someday lose our national identity and become absorbed into some vast, featureless federal Europe but that seems to me nonsense. Countries like France, Germany, Spain and Italy maintain intimate ties with one another and are not even separated by seas, yet they all maintain a distinct and individual national character.
You will probably have gathered by now that I am going to vote to Remain in next week’s referendum. I wouldn’t presume to try to persuade anyone else to do the same. Everyone will vote as they see fit. We’re still a democracy, after all. More or less. Let me just leave you with one sobering thought – one that will strike terror into the heart of even the most ardent LEAVE campaigner. If we give up our membership of the EU, we may not be allowed to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest!