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Another Brilliant Review for the Christmas Compendium!

I'm really pleased that people seem to like the new collection of seasonal stories 'A Christmas Cracker ' .  This latest 5 sta...

Monday, 28 March 2011

Booked Up!

This is the story of how Steady Past Your Granny's found its way into print, and eventually an e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)


I don't know if you remember the ill-fated offer by a certain daily newspaper to "Print Your Own Book" way back in the Autumn of 2005? The idea was that the readers could submit a manuscript of 20,000 words + and would get any number of copies printed up in a standard book format in return for a set of coupons from the newspaper and £5 per copy requested. I think they expected to get about 5,000 orders, they finished up with more than 10x that amount and a backlog of angry punters who had hoped to have their seminal novels in their hands in time for Christmas and were still asking where they were by the following Easter.

Anyone remember that? Did you take part?


It was a daily paper that spends most of its time annoying the British Middle Classes - any ideas ;-)


I had always wanted to publish a book but had never had the time or money to self-publish and had never sufficiently excited the attention of real publishers. Therefore, this newspaper offer seemed a good way to get some copies printed at a modest price. The best of it was that there was no minimum print run, you could have 1 or 100 if you so wished. The only stipulation was that your manuscript had to be 20,000 words or longer.  At that time, although I had been lucky enough to have a few articles printed by a local newspaper, I simply didn't have enough to fill a book and certainly not 20,000 words worth (perhaps I should have been a Lake poet?)




Continue the story at Booked Up Part 2

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 2)

In the last instalment, The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 1) I recounted how a neighbouring cat suddenly appeared one Sunday afternoon, proudly leading her new kindle of kittens to take up residence in his family’s coalhouse.  Despite our entreaties, Mum decreed that “those kittens were not to come into this house”.  Now read on…

Over the next few days, the antics of our new feline family took over from the television as the main source of entertainment for our household.  Frequently, during the course of the day, and particularly in the evening, the Mother Cat (MC) would appear through the hole in the coalhouse door and set off across the neighbourhood gardens, reappearing some time later with something she had scavenged from a dustbin somewhere or with an unfortunate mouse or small bird.  She clearly had her work cut out, feeding her growing brood.

As for the kittens, they would tend to appear in the late afternoon/early evening.   MC would keep a sharp look-out as they dashed wildly around a small area that covered the top of our two gardens and across our joined back yards (ours and Mrs. B’s).  Play fighting and what seemed like an endless game of ‘tick’ seemed to be their main pursuit but they also enjoyed stalking (unsuccessfully) the occasional insect and each other.  However at the first sign of anyone approaching, the whole family shot straight back into the coalhouse, with MC bringing up the rear.

In my mind’s eye, I felt sure that there were four kittens in all (and said so in the last instalment) but digging out some photographs for this post (and checking with my sister) I found that there were, in fact, only three.  In my defence, it seemed a lot more at the time!

As each day passed by, the weather continued to deteriorate.  It was certainly getting colder but we assumed they were keeping reasonably warm in the coalhouse (we didn’t dare open this in case we scared them away totally).  For the first few days the crisp autumn sunshine gave a spring-like quality to the daytime but there was no denying the sharp edge of winter on the keen breeze.  Then came a series of sudden squalls in which driving rain or, worse still, hail would lash across the yard.  Late Saturday morning a particularly vicious squall suddenly appeared out of nowhere and caught MC and her brood unawares as they played in the yard.  Standing at the window, I made a unilateral decision – they couldn’t be allowed to stay out there in this weather.

I raced out into the yard and, in the confusion of hail and high winds, I managed to catch the two long-haired kittens before they could leap back into the coalhouse.  MC and her smooth haired kitten eluded me and shot straight into their sanctuary.  I dashed back into the house with two cold and wet balls of fluff tucked under my arms.  Mum had just come down stairs.

“I couldn’t leave them out there in this” I said, nodding toward the hail now beating a tattoo on our living room window.

“Well, I suppose you had better put them in front of the fire” Mum said resignedly, but it seemed to me that she was secretly relieved that a difficult decision had been taken out of her hands.

Cats are pretty pragmatic and these two clearly quickly weighed up the pros and cons of life in the coalhouse versus a roaring fire and soft carpet and decided that it was no contest.  After a little mewing and pacing about, they settled down in front of the fire to wash and bask.  Meanwhile, MC and the smooth haired escapee stayed put in their coalhouse.

A few more days passed by and our life with the now semi-detached cat family continued.  We found a box and some old blankets for our two refugees to sleep on and made some toys out of ribbons and cotton reels.  Mum was concerned about how we could cope with setting up a litter tray (the family budget not being able to stretch to any further expense whatsoever) but, after a little research, she discovered that common or garden (mostly garden in our case) soil would be fine, provided that it had been sterilised by baking.  From then onwards our kitchen was frequently filled with the rather unusual smell of freshly-baked earth, roasting in a biscuit tin.

MC and her sole remaining kitten carried on pretty much as before.  Playing together when the sun shone (which was becoming more infrequent) and hunkering down in the coalhouse at all other times.  Inevitably the weather worsened further and when snow started to fall and the temperature plummeted, Anne and I finally set up a pincer movement in which one of us guarded the coalhouse door whilst the other chased the kitten, cornered it and managed to haul him, hissing and kicking, into the house. 



With all her kittens now inside, MC decided that she might as well take a look at what was on offer and gingerly made her way in, with our encouragement.  Soon the whole family had taken pride of place in front of the fire and no-one would have ever known that they had not been used to this lifestyle from the start.

Of course, Mum’s dire warnings about the amount of hard work involved in kitten rearing were absolutely correct.  For the next few weeks it was by no means unusual to find kittens climbing up the curtains or chasing furiously up and down the furniture, aided by their razor sharp crampon-like claws.  MC seemed to be completely at ease with divesting her responsibilities onto Mum and took to curling up on any available lap at every opportunity, as did the kittens, in an orderly row, once they had exhausted themselves in one of their “mad half-hours” as Mum called them.



The kittens were christened as Fluff (long haired, all white kitten with a splash of black on both ears and a penchant for laps and creature comforts), Scamp (short haired, all white with a splash of black on his right ear, a rugged individualist) and Fred (long haired, white and tricolour and a born comedian).  Fred had to be rechristened Freda when it became clear that she was a little girl cat (which shows how far she would go to get a laugh).

It was a struggle financially and logistically to manage our new-found brood but we managed.  Well, Mum did, to be fair, although how she coped with keeping our house clean and tidy when she had kittens traipsing soil through the kitchen and wreaking havoc on the furniture, I’ll never know. What with the cat, kittens, our Cocker Spaniel, Jane a budgie (Dinkie, they were all called that, don’t ask me why!) and some goldfish, we had a pretty full house.



The kittens grew rapidly and it was obvious that our small house would never be able to house all of these cats for ever.  Once again we were very fortunate.  Our friendly local vet heard of our plight and recommended a number of people to come and see us.  One by one, our kittens found very good homes indeed and we heard how they were doing in the cards and letters that followed.

Mum decided that MC really needed a quiet house in which to bask in front of the fire and tried to rehome her with a little old lady who had lost her cat and lived just a few streets away, but this was doomed to failure as MC had clearly decided which home she fancied and she reappeared at our door a couple of days after her ‘rehoming’.  She took up residence, as if this had all been an unfortunate aberration, and remained with us for the rest of her life.

Strangely enough, the coalhouse didn’t seem to appeal anymore!


You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks 

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Cat in the Coalhouse - Part 1

I think that, for everyone who has ever acquired a pet, there must be at least ten others who have found themselves acquired by a pet.  There have been quite a number of cats in my life over the years and not once have I ever gone out to purchase or choose a cat, they have always chosen me.  All animals are capable of tugging at the heartstrings, as a visit to any animal sanctuary will quickly confirm, but cats have it down to a fine art.

I can picture a particular example of this phenomenon as clearly as if it happened yesterday, and yet it goes back to the late 1970s.

It was a crisp, cool, Sunday afternoon in autumn.  I was halfway down the garden of our terraced house, keeping an eye on our rabbit as she lolloped around the rough patch of grass that we laughingly called a lawn.  We didn’t have a run for the rabbit, she was pretty well behaved and tended to stay on the lawn provided that we kept a careful eye on her.  This was largely because there was nothing remotely interesting to eat in our garden.  However, if your attention drifted for a second, she would instantly be on the next door garden, chomping cheerfully on Mrs. B.’s young vegetables and plants.

On this occasion, my attention did drift because of the unexpected arrival of the cat from the gardens that backed on to ours.  She was a lovely natured cat, mostly white with tri-coloured patches and it had been some weeks since we had last seen her.  She had appeared from time to time in the past and always seemed happy to have a bit of fuss and and occasionally to potter in and lie in front of our fire.  We had never fed her or actively encouraged her as we assumed that she was somebody in the next street’s pet.  As usual, she came and rubbed around my legs, purring loudly and I reached down and stroked her head.  It was nice to see her again after all this time, I had begun to wonder if she had fallen victim to the heavy traffic in the streets around our neighbourhood, a common fate of many of the local felines.  Our mutual admiration society continued for a few minutes and then she walked away a few yards, stopped and looked back at me.

There has been some debate in the media recently about whether animals can think.  I doubt that there would be much debate amongst pet owners on this subject, I’m pretty sure that they would agree that their animals not only think but can run rings around their owners whenever they feel like it.  Anyone who had any doubts about the thought processes of animals really needed to be with me in the garden on that autumn afternoon.  Without a doubt, this cat was thinking carefully about something.

After a minute or two, she headed off back to the gardens at the rear of our house and I went to retrieve our rabbit from a line of our neighbour’s hopeful winter greens.  As the light was fading and chasing a black rabbit in the twilight tends to be an overrated pastime, I caught her (with no little difficulty) and returned her kicking and grumbling (the rabbit, not me) to her newly-cleaned hutch.  I was just latching the hutch door when my eye was attracted by some movement at the bottom of the garden.  To my surprise, the cat was back, but she wasn’t alone.  Trailing behind her, in a perfect line as she trotted proudly up the garden path, were three tiny kittens.  I stood there in a state of absolute astonishment as this unexpected feline family swept past me and headed toward our back yard.  Each kitten was a miniature replica of its mother, mostly white (completely white in one case) but with some tricolour or grey patches.  Two were long-haired, little balls of fluff and one was sleek and short-haired, just like his mum.

I suppose that our house was a pretty standard design for a terraced house built in the late 19th Century.  The ground floor consisted of a front room (rarely used except for high days and holidays), an under-the-stairs cupboard, a living room (in which much of our life was spent) with a window that looked out onto our half of the yard and the gardens beyond, a long thin kitchen (again with a window looking out onto the yard) with a pantry at the end.  Sharing that end of the kitchen, with an access from the yard only, was the coalhouse or ‘coal hole’ as it was colloquially known.

Our coalhouse was no longer filled with ‘nutty slack’ but tended to be a repository for all of those things that ‘might come in useful one day’.   There were various gardening implements, items for use on the beach (bucket, spade, ball etc.), an occasional small bag of coal and various other items in the dark recesses that were probably there before we arrived and would, no doubt, still be there long after we had gone.  The wooden coalhouse door had seen better days and chunks of it were missing at the bottom where wear and tear and rot had taken their toll.

The cat, and her new family, made a bee-line for the coalhouse.  I watched as she slipped swiftly through the hole in the door, closely followed by each of her charges in turn.  I suppose that the whole episode had only taken a few minutes at most, but to me, as I stood there rooted to the spot, it seemed to have all happened in slow motion.  Now that the drama had unfolded, I simply had to tell someone about it (and I guessed that the rabbit wouldn’t be all that interested).  I rushed into our house in a state of high excitement.  Mum and my sister, Anne were engrossed in the Sunday afternoon film.  Dad was slumped in the chair with his eyes shut, ‘thinking’ as he put it (which always seemed to involve a good deal of snoring).  All were oblivious to the scene that I had just witnessed.  I rattled out my story and we congregated (those of us that were awake anyway) at the living room window.  There was no sign of cat or kittens.

Anne (who was only about eight at the time) was desperate to see the kittens but Mum insisted that we should leave them alone in their new-found home.  More importantly, she issued an edict that ‘those kittens were not to come into this house”.  I don’t think I have ever known anyone as soft about animals as my mum and it was unusual for her to take such a hard line but I’m sure she realised the havoc that kittens can cause (and that she would have to deal with).  In addition, we were going through one of our periodic ‘times of economic difficulty’ and, with a dog, rabbit and budgie to feed, she felt that the household budget was already stretched to breaking point.

With winter just around the corner, Anne and I stared glumly at our back yard and wondered just how long it would be before mum’s resolve would crack.


To find out if it did, see The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 2)

You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Three for the Flea Pit (Part 2)

Continuing the story that began in Three for the Flea Pit (Part 1)


The second visit to the Pictures that sticks in my memory was in late 1961.  It was the day of my Nanny Appleby’s funeral and, at 6 years old, I was deemed to be too young to attend.  Much to the annoyance of my two female cousins, who were a few years older than me (and, therefore, considerably more sophisticated), they were detailed to take me to the cinema whilst the grown-ups attended the funeral etc.  I don’t think I really understood the significance of the day, or that I wouldn’t be seeing my beloved Nanny again, but I was aware of the intense pall of sadness that had descended on everyone around me.  On the other hand, we were going to see One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the new Walt Disney film that had just been released, so every cloud had a silver lining (when you’re 6 years old you have a limited capacity for grief but an insatiable appetite for cartoons) and, as my birthday was just two weeks away, this was sold to me as an early birthday treat.

I don’t know if you remember the 1961 version of One Hundred and One Dalmatians but, to my mind, it marked the beginning of the end of Walt Disney’s cinematic dominance of the cartoon feature film from the heyday of the 1940s and 1950s.  The film featured a much more angular style of drawing and the human characters lacked any real warmth.  Another problem was that it was an American film, set in Britain, which is always a recipe for disaster (consider Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins – need I say more?).  Therefore, the main characters spoke with very strange versions of English accents whereas (and this never occurred to me until I started writing this) the puppies all spoke with American accents.  Nevertheless, it still had the ability to pull at the heartstrings and I remember a tear or two running down my cheek when one of the puppies said “I’m hungry mother” as they were escaping from the evil Cruella De Ville.  That probably doesn’t sound like a good reason for tears but I think that Nanny was at the back of my mind.

I’m not easily moved to tears (I don’t know who I think I’m kidding) but there are certain films that do it every time.  As a consequence, I have imposed a lifetime ban on myself from ever attempting to watch Bambi, Dumbo, Carousel and, for some reason, A Kid for Two Farthings.  There are a few others that can sneak up on me but those four are absolutely out of the question.

So, by the time I was 7, and by the simple expedient of being forced onto people who didn’t want to take me, I had acquired a real taste for the Pictures.  As soon as I was old enough, I frequently took myself off to one of the two cinemas in Burton.  My favourite was the one in Curzon Street, because I liked the fact that it was off the beaten track and tended not to get the big releases that the cinema in Guild Street always had (I’ve always had a tendency to support the underdog).  Both cinemas had that wonderful classic art deco styling and triumphant architecture that harked back to the glory days of cinema.  I know that one was the Gaumont and the other was the Odeon and that, at some point, they switched names but I can’t remember which was which (if you remember, we would love to hear from you).  I went back to take a picture of the Curzon Street building for this article, only to find that it was now replaced by an apartment block (clearly of huge importance to Burton).  I can’t remember there being a huge outcry when this was demolished, in contrast to the eyesore in Guild Street (see picture) which has been saved for posterity.  Still, like most people of my age in Burton, I recall queuing back, along the side of the cinema, into George Street, in the rain and the snow, never knowing if there was really any chance of getting in even if I did reach the front of the queue.

My third memorable visit was not in Burton but in Belper.  I was staying with my Aunt in Holbrook for a couple of weeks in the summer holidays.  Auntie Mabel was the mother of the two cousins who had been lumbered with taking me to One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  This was 1964 and my cousins were absolute fans of that new beat combo, The Beatles.  To be awkward, I decided that I couldn’t stand The Beatles and affected a fondness for The Rolling Stones instead.  In the midst of all this fanaticism (the LP With The Beatles was being worn to smoothness on my cousins’ Dansette), my cousins had tickets for the new film, A Hard Day’s Night.  Once again, to their absolute horror, I was added to the party (again, I suspect, as a birthday treat for my 10th birthday).  I remember queuing for ages to get into the cinema and then trotting to the front of the Stalls.  The whole place seemed to be packed with hundreds of young girls…and me.  I sat glumly with my cousins as the B film dragged on to silence from the auditorium.  Then the British Board of Film Censors certificate appeared for the main film, and the screaming started, and went on, and on, and on.  You have never heard a noise like it.  In fact, I wondered if I would ever hear anything ever again!  I’m quite sure that my cousins would have loved to have joined in with the general mania but they had this boring cousin from Burton to look after so they sat and watched in silence.  I can honestly say that, despite being only feet away from the main speakers, I never heard a word of that film.  In fact, it is only in recent years when it has been on TV that I gleaned an idea of what the plot was all about.

Despite my love of the Pictures, I haven’t been to a film at the cinema since 1988 when my future wife and I went to see Big at the, now dilapidated, cinema in Guild Street.  My wife doesn’t have the patience to endure films of any length, as she would be the first to admit, so toward the end of the film she was beginning to get distinctly fidgety.  We reached the key romantic point of the film, when Tom Hanks is saying goodbye to the girl who could have been his girlfriend (if he hadn’t been a child in a grown-up’s body – you need to see the film really), it is quite a poignant moment and I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house.  Hilary leant over to me and I guessed that the poignancy of the moment had got to her, until she whispered in my ear “Do you think this place is infested?  I haven’t stopped itching for ages.”  You don’t get that sort of romance in the cinema anymore, do you?


You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Three for the Flea Pit (Part 1)

Been to the Pictures lately?  No, not one of those multi-screen, blockbuster churners that double for cinemas these days, nor do I mean watching a high-definition DVD on your child’s game player.  I mean the Pictures, that incredible experience of watching a film displayed on the big screen, in the presence of hundreds of like-minded people and being utterly engrossed in the action in front of you (by which I don’t mean that couple, apparently engaged in all-in wrestling, who clearly have no interest in the plot at all).

I don’t know if you remember your first experience of the cinema as it used to be?  Go on, cast your mind back, what was the first film you ever saw at the Pictures?  Clearly the answer is going to differ quite a lot from generation to generation, from those whose first experience included someone bashing seven bells out of a piano whilst a train hurtled silently toward the heroine, to those who were first entranced by the innovative special effects in such films as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  My first experience is somewhere between the two (and I don’t mean that someone accompanied Flash Gordon on the Piano Accordion).

Obviously I had seen loads of films in my childhood, on the television on a Sunday afternoon which, in the 1950s, usually involved constant re-runs of World War II, with John Mills, Kenneth Moore or David Niven single-handedly sorting out the bad guys (if it was a British film) or John Wayne, Burt Lancaster or Humphrey Bogart doing the same for the Americans.  But this was in black and white, in very poor definition (remember 405 lines?), on a very small screen.  As interesting as these were on a rainy Sunday afternoon, they were only marginally better than the rest of my childhood TV entertainment (which, to be fair, only ranged from Watch with Mother to Tonight with Cliff Michelmore).

My first experience of the cinema proper was more or less by accident.  My Nanna Whiteland decreed that I should accompany my youngest uncle, Ken, and his girlfriend (now his wife) to the cinema.  Whether this was in the capacity of unwitting chaperone or to give Ken and Pauline a taste of what it was like to have a youngster dogging their heels or whether she just wanted to get rid of me for the evening, I really don’t know.  Anyway, we went to the Pictures to see April Love starring Pat Boone and Shirley Jones.  I remember sitting in the right-hand side of the Stalls and being hugely impressed with the sheer size of the place.  I was less impressed with the action of the moquette seating on the backs of my knees (a constant problem when you wore short trousers and your feet didn’t touch the floor when seated).  I think the B film (remember when you still had those?) was in black and white and therefore wasn’t particularly surprising, but then came the main feature in glorious Technicolor.  I was completely stunned by the sheer spectacle of all this colour and sound and became an immediate fan of the Pictures and all their work.  I also developed a devotion to Shirley Jones that was still going strong even when she was bashing a tambourine in the Partridge Family in the 1970s.  April Love was released in 1957 so I guess I would only be about 4 or 5 years old when it finally turned up in downtown Burton upon Trent but I can still remember the impact it had on me over 50 years later.


You can continue the story at Three for the Flea Pit (Part 2) and...


You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com