Wednesday, 10 April 2019


One of the joys of allotment gardening is that it forces miserable, anti-social old sods like me to emerge from their shell and connect with other miserable, anti-social old sods. The fruits of this reluctant intercourse, I’ve discovered, is a wealth of wisdom and practical advice, not to mention free plants and, as the seasons roll by, some firm friendships. Sometimes – for a coy and quivering veggie-virgin like me – one of them might become a kind of mentor and a role model.

Such a one, for me, is Bob – Bob Wheel. We have so much in common, Bob and I – we’re both short, old and ugly with bad backs, although Bob, despite his shortness, is built like an outside convenience of brick construction with hands like JCB shovels. He always wears a cap or woolly hat with faded camouflage fatigues and his slow, thoughtful conversation is punctuated by repeated attempts to light an inch of bedraggled roll-up dangling from his lips. He speaks a dialect of Hastings more ancient than Basque, and our early encounters were fraught with a number of communication hiccups. Opening up about his life, he told me he had once been an ‘odd carrier’. What on earth, I wondered, is an ‘odd carrier’? Someone, presumably, who works in close conjunction with an even carrier. I twigged when he added, ‘Some o’ them odds weighed over a hundredweight. Buggered my back.’ On another occasion he advised me to improve my land in winter by digging in a bit of ‘arse shit’. While I was wondering what other kind of shit there is (apart from the obvious) he added, ‘or kay shit’.

His allotment is a joy to behold – the soil rich and dark and fine, his veg obscenely robust and plentiful, his paths fitted with black matting covered in woodchips and not a weed in sight. And where I have but one composter, this cheeky bastard has five. On seeing his plot, I instantly lost all desire to become as great a writer as Marques or as great a painter as Picasso, my one aspiration being to make my allotment look like Bob’s.

I felt so flattered that he took me under him wing – probably because he felt sorry for me – offering me boxes of plants that he’d raised at home as well as copious quantities of veg that I hadn’t dared to attempt – like sweetcorn and beetroot. That first summer, truth be told, we ate almost as much of Bob’s produce as my own. It was in June, however, that he showed his true colours. Since I can’t use a strimmer because of my back, I have to rely on hand weeding, and things got out of control, the couch and nettles and hogweed on my paths and borders were running wild to a point that I was being threatened with THE LETTER.  The Letter – or the formal notification from the Parish Council to give it it’s full title – is the one thing (apart from pigeons, caterpillars, clubroot, slugs and blackfly) that strikes dread into the heart of every allotmenteer, the formal warning to shape up or ship out, basically. I went into denial, hiding my head in the sand but, after a few days away in Dorset, I wandered over to my allotment dreading what ravages nature might have wrought, only to find that the weeds had all been strimmed and raked away. I knew the phantom strimmer had to be Bob and when I challenged him about it, he told me to fuck off, which confirmed me in my suspicions.

Imagine my concern then when my guardian angel, who’d practically lived on his allotment over the summer, suddenly disappeared with the swallows in autumn. Of course, there’s obviously less to do on a plot in winter than in summer, so people do tend to disappear. What concerned me, though, was that Bob had left his leeks, beans and sweetcorn unharvested, his beanpole trellis had collapsed into a heap and weeds were reclaiming his perfect tilth. It seemed so out of character to allow this to happen and, since he’s the same vintage as me, I was terrified he might have fallen ill or even – I hardly dared think it – returned to the great compost heap from whence we all came. I asked round the town to try to find out what had happened to him but since he lives in Ore – a world away – the news was scant. Someone claimed to have seen him drunk outside the Carlisle pub in Hastings but I knew that couldn’t be Bob – it wasn’t his style.

Then, one gloomy afternoon in early March, I was bent over my digging when I heard the words, ‘You’re doing that wrong, you old fucker,’ and looked up to see a beaming Bob – large as life and twice as ugly – standing outside my gate. I felt so relieved to see him and deeply touched to be greeted in such an affectionate way. I was sure Sir Michael McCauley-Smith CBE – another allotment neighbour who uses his plot as a place to smoke cigars in peace – had never been called an ‘old fucker’ in his life – at least, not like that.

Bob flung open the gate and lumbered over, scooped up and handful of soil in his JCB shovel hand and held it up to his nose. ‘It smells good,’ he proclaimed, chucking it back on the bed, ‘You’ve done well, Pete.’ I needed no greater accolade than that.

I didn’t ask him what had happened to him over the winter and he didn’t tell me. All that mattered was that he was alive and well and back on his land.


I’m afraid this blogpost hasn’t dispensed any useful horticultural wisdom but hey, you can get all you need of that from Monty Don, when he isn't gazing adoringly in the mirror. The only message is to value one’s fellow allotment-holders and not be a miserable old sod.
A peaceful, rural scene or a candidate for THE LETTER?

Thursday, 4 April 2019



With the gardening year progressing, I’ve decided to share some of my horticultural ignorance in a few blogposts loosely based around my allotment. This one was supposed to have been posted in early March so it’s probably a bit irrelevant now.   

 It’s been a funny old year on the allotment. January was mostly warm and wet in this part of Sussex but February sent a heatwave that had us all believing we’d time-travelled forward into July. Everyone was out on their plots in tee-shirts and colourful sunhats, digging, hoeing and lovingly raking their tilthings and feeling frustrated that, despite the heat, it was only February, winter could still throw some nasty surprises at us and the orgasm of sowing that the weather seemed to inspire was probably best resisted.

One thing I did take a chance with was broad beans. Love them or hate them, broad beans are tough old buggers and, if you can find  a spell when the ground’s not too sodden to get them in, they don’t mind taking their chances with the vagaries of the English spring. I have to say that broad beans aren’t my favourite vegetable, being one of that generation that was put off them (and most other vegetables, especially cabbage) by our darling mums who, despite their genius with roasties and Yorkshire pud, would boil the veg to within an inch of its life as though afraid it might jump up out of the pot and attack them. Not to mention School Dinners care of the School Meals Service – a kind of Meals on Wheels for Children and a hangover from the war. Their piece de résitance was spam fritters (or spum fluppers as we used to call them) though they did do quite a nice high-density chocolate pudding with pink custard. What has all this to do with broad beans? I hear you ask and the answer is nothing. The purpose of school in the fifties, it seemed to me, was to systematically destroy any budding passion for anything – nature, classical music, Shakespeare – and vegetables. it’s taken me most of my life to discover that cabbage, for instance, doesn’t have to be a slimy green sludge but – lightly cooked with a little butter and a pinch of sugar – a delicious and nutritious vegetable. The same is true, to some extent, of broad beans. The trick is to pick them young before they turn into leathery old pouches and not overcook them. Also, if you lightly boil them then put them through the fart machine (as we’ve affectionately dubbed our ageing blender) you can make them into quite a presentable dip – a bit like guacamole and even less appetising.

First Germination!
Another advantage of getting broad beans in early is that you avoid them being decimated (to some extent) by slugs and caterpillars and their flowers being covered in that horrible blackfly shit. Although this doesn’t seem to affect the yield too much, it does looks unsightly when you’re showing people around your patch and trying to impress them – which I do all the time, mostly unsuccessfully. Broad beans are also copious croppers – a couple of rows should be more than enough to get the average family up to that ‘Oh God, not broad beans again’ threshold although any exess can be frozen. Also, since they’re early, you can get them done and dusted by July when there’s still time to use the ground for something else. The variety I’ve sown is “Masterpiece Green Longpod” but, quite frankly, they all taste the same to me. A broad bean is a broad bean is a broad bean, after all – unless it makes a drastic career move and becomes a Mexican Jumping Bean. The geezer writing on the back of the packet – clearly a frustrated poet – says “harvest when pods become swollen with succulent, tasty young beans!” Yeah, okay.

Of course there are all sorts of fun things you can do off the allotment at this time of year, like sowing French beans, leeks, courgettes and all sorts of other things indoors in pots or seed trays then annoying your partner by filling up every available inch of windowsill with them. Alternatively, you can just sit in a rocking chair, drinking a cup of tea and mumbling wise old rustic remarks like ‘Get a root of Glossop-weed in your tilthing and he’ll be there till Wythantide.’
In my next blogpost, I shall describe my sod.

My office is doubling as a greenhouse!





Friday, 20 April 2018

 “It held my attention from the very first page to the last.”
“I gave up a night’s sleep to get to the end.”
In February of this year, my novel Fraud was published by Signal Books of Oxford. The action is set in the present day and follows the fortunes of four principle characters – a beautiful, troubled Hollywood actress, a young editor who is also an aspiring writer, a middle-aged unsuccessful author and his solicitor wife. It extends over six years and it is suggested at the outset that the star – Nicola Carson – has some dark secret in her past that is contributing to her ‘troubled’ mental condition. This is the pivot around which the plot revolves.  
In early April, on a warm, sunny evening rare in this dark and inclement spring, Fraud was launched from The Rye Bookshop in Rye, East Sussex, at a gathering of friends and family which brought joy to my heart since I was the centre of attention and received lots of compliments about my book. I was especially fortunate in having my brother-in-law, Nick Snelgar – himself a published author – give a short speech. In it, he invoked the image of the campfire in prehistoric times, with primitive, pre-literate people hanging on the storyteller’s every word. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve become more than ever convinced that the story – and the power and beauty of the words in which it is delivered – is the most important aspect of any work of fiction. Of course you have to have vital, well-rounded characters, a sharply-drawn setting and possibly some profound, universal observation about life, but without an arresting story – that constant stimulation of the need to know what happens next – the attention of the audience wanders, whether they be modern readers or hunter-gatherers, and dissatisfaction ensues. The storyteller would not be given supper by the tribe – in fact, he or she might very well become their supper. I was thus delighted to notice, among the numerous readers’ reviews on Amazon, the frequent recurrence of expressions like “page-turner”, “gripping read” and “riveting”. “It held my attention from the very first page to the last,” said one. “I gave up a night’s sleep to get to the end,” said another. That is the highest praise I could have hoped for.
When it comes to characters, I’ve always felt drawn to those who are flawed, whose lives are not easy and whose situations are often determined by misguided decisions or circumstances beyond their control. I am less interested in people who are super-successful and seem to have everything sorted, though I suspect there are far fewer such people around than one might imagine. Scratch beneath the surface of the most super-duper people and you generally find some dark secret or some flaw or failing they’d rather you didn’t know about. Even Nicola Carson, who appears to have everything – beauty, talent, wealth and adulation – is a mess inside.
I’d like to think that, in the course of what is hopefully an arresting, amusing and entertaining story, some ironic observations are made about the nature of modern life – indeed, all life – or, at least, some questions asked. My main concern, however, is that reading Fraud should be an enjoyable and uplifting experience – not a chore or a challenge. There are already enough of those in life!    

Monday, 10 July 2017

The buzzard's cry, cry
of emptiness. On soaring skies
sunborn specks unseen
Raising roots of spuds,
white orbs merging from the soil,
quiet happiness
In the glowing tent
of the laburnum tree, a trembling
of bees


Sudden flash of gold
through evening trees, the kestrel
hovers, vanishes


In the churchyard, here
behind the hedge, lie flowers
for the dead, dying


Raising roots of spuds,
pale orbs looming from the soil.
Quiet happiness


Sudden swathe of swifts
above my head, go screaming
high on summer skies

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

(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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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





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.