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

Monday, 24 December 2012

The King Thing

Bit of a first draft this!  Still, it's timely:



It had been a long and arduous journey.  Long, because any journey, when you're not really sure where you're going, is bound to be perceived as long.  Arduous because they were travelling on camels, and there is nothing more arduous than a camel, especially when you are not really used to camels…or travelling for that matter.  But now, they dared to hope that their journey was almost completed.  The star that they had been 'following', hung brightly before them and seemed to indicate, as far as a star could indicate anything, that the location they were searching for was just below them.

From the rear of the party, there came a timeless and familiar cry.

"Are we there yet?"

"No, we are not, Melchior, and that is the three hundred and fourteenth time you have asked me that since we set out" Balthazar fumed.

"Alright, alright, keep your crown on dear, just asking" Melchior muttered.

"There's some men walking on the road ahead" Caspar pointed out, "perhaps they might know where we can find him?"

"Ah yes, honest shepherds" Balthazar noted with satisfaction, "just the chaps to have the local knowledge we're looking for.  Leave this to me."  As his camel drew level with the shepherds, he drew himself up to his full height and leaned forward (which is not easy to do on a camel).  Adopting his best 'talking to foreign peasants' accent, he thundered "LO!"

The first shepherd jumped a couple of feet in the air, and the second quickly hid behind him.  Rapidly recovering his composure, the first shepherd looked up at the richly dressed man looming above him, crown sparkling in the starlight.  He looked back at his companion, jerking his head in the direction of the king, in the time-honoured fashion that has meant "We've got a right one here" down the ages.

"Of course we're 'low' to you, comrade, sitting up there, lording it over us on your camel, whilst we honest artisans are down here with the sheep"

"What did he say?" asked Melchior

"Something about lard, sheep… and I think he's called Honest Artie Sans" Caspar hazarded a guess based on his limited knowledge of foreign tongues.

"Ah, a bookmaker!" Melchior noted with satisfaction, "See what odds he's offering on the sex of the baby will you Balthy?"

Balthazar, whose knowledge of the local language was somewhat better than his compatriots, ignored their babble and bent to his task.

"WE SEARCH FOR A KING" He bellowed

"W..W..What did he say?" asked the second shepherd.  The whole unsettling experience had brought back his childhood stutter.

"He said they're searching for aching" the first shepherd said with an air of authority

"Sh..Sh..Sh" The first shepherd waited for his companion to finish with a degree of trepidation, "Shouldn't think they would need to search far, on the back of those things" the second shepherd noted, finally, "I doubt they'll be able to sit down for a fortnight"

"What do you want from us?" the first shepherd reasonably asked

"WE NEED TO KNOW, oh the hell with this, I'll come down"  Balthazar gave a shouted command to his camel, which duly ignored him, but Melchior's promptly sank to its knees, depositing him unceremoniously on the ground.

"You git, Balthazar!" He yelled as he dusted the sand from his raiment, "that's the third time you've played that trick"

"Sorry about that, old chap" Balthazar apologised, "it's just a matter of getting the inflection right."  He tried again, and this time his camel sank to its knees.  Regrettably, Melchior's simultaneously sprang up, just as he was about to remount, causing him to tumble backwards onto a pile of sheep droppings.

"Now then, as I was saying" Balthazar said to the first shepherd "we are searching for a child"

"We?  How many are you?" the first shepherd asked.  He had been trying to work this out since their first encounter.  Each time he looked, it seemed as if there were a different number of camels and riders.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.

"Ah, that is indefinite" Balthazar said enigmatically

"Indefinite?  What do you mean, 'indefinite'?  You must know how many there are of you?"

"Not at all." Balthazar insisted, "It is not written in The Book, therefore, we are indefinite."

"Have you tried c…c…counting?" the second shepherd asked. 

"We can't" Balthazar said smugly "we think it's quantum"

"Quantum? What the hell's quantum when it's at home?" asked the first shepherd.

"Ah well," Balthazar smoothed his beard in a manner that was intended to denote great wisdom, but which only succeeded in adding a good number of camel hairs to his own collection, "in this case, quantum means a situation in which the action of observing something affects the outcome."

"Getaway!" the first shepherd said, with considerable disbelief.

"Pull the other one, it's got bells on it" the second shepherd averred with enthusiasm

"What's got bells on it?" the first shepherd enquired

"I dunno" the second shepherd was forced to admit, "It was something my old mum used to say."

"And did hers have bells on it?"

"Oh yes, she was a belly dancer."

None of this exchange had meant anything at all to Balthazar, but he felt he should try to educate these peasants before he went on his way.  Noblesse oblige and all that.

"Look, it's like you and your sheep.  When you count them, does it always come to the same number?"

"Well, no." the first shepherd admitted, "then again, I fall asleep more often than not when I'm counting and lose track."

"There you are then, that's quantum." Balthazar said with some satisfaction, "you have an indefinite number of sheep"

"I do not have an indefinite number of sheep!"  The first shepherd shouted, with feeling "I have 356 sheep, I'll have you know.  It just doesn't always work out to that number when I count them."

"Quantum!" Balthazar said triumphantly

"Is that the s..s..same as the w..w..wolf having them?" The second shepherd asked.

"Must be." The first shepherd agreed, "Wouldn't have thought they would have been bold enough to scoff a few kings though"

"To return to my original point" Balthazar said firmly, "Do you know where the royal child is to be found?"

"You reckon there's a royal kid around here somewhere?"

"Pull the other one…"the second shepherd began, and then thought better of it

"Doesn't really seem very likely, does it squire?" the first shepherd pointed out, "All there is here is sheep as far as the eye can see, and that bit of a town.  Granted, there's a kid screaming blue murder down there, but it stands to reason it ain't gonna be royalty don't it?  Have you tried Herod?"

"What is 'Herod'?" Balthazar asked, half expecting to be told it was a type of embrocation, which, on reflection, he thought, wouldn't be a bad thing.

"Roman bastard" the second shepherd said with feeling, "Oh, begging Your Grace's pardon" he went to tug a forelock but realised he didn't know what one was.

"Don't be abasing yourself in front of him, brother" the first shepherd said swiftly, "Just 'cause he's turned up with an indefinite number of mates riding camels, doesn't make him no better than you and me"

"Balthy, sweetheart, are we there yet?"  Melchior pleaded

"Belt up, Melchior, or I'll make your camel go down on you again" Balthazar snapped.

"Ooh, saucy!" Melchior pouted, "See, I told you he was doing it deliberately" He muttered to Caspar.

"Now," said Balthazar with more patience than he was actually feeling, "what is 'Herod'?"

"Reckons he's King around here" the first shepherd admitted, "I didn't vote for him though.  Would have thought he was past it for knocking out nippers, but you never know."

"Then he must be our goal." Balthazar argued confidently, "Where shall we find him?"

"A few miles that way." the first shepherd pointed to the West," Ruddy great palace, you can't miss it"

"That way?  Are you sure?  Only the horoscope we drew up distinctly said…"

"Oh, horoscope is it?" the first shepherd asked with interest, "What did it say about him then?"

"The child?" Balthazar asked distractedly, "Well, he's a Capricorn"

"S..s..same as me!" The second shepherd said excitedly

"Can you do mine?" The first shepherd asked

"Yes," said Balthazar, climbing unsteadily onto his camel, "You're in for a big surprise."

"Same old tripe they always come up with" the first shepherd muttered disappointedly as an indeterminate number of camels and kings loped into the distance, "you an' all!" he shouted after them.

"Wer..Wer..What do you mean by that?"

"Werl, I can't see Herod being too chuffed when a load of foreign types turn up at his gaff asking to see a new king, can you?"

They walked on, chuckling to themselves.

"You don't think…" the second shepherd began, hesitantly

"What's that, comrade?"

"You don't think this baby down here could be…?"

"This king you mean?" The first shepherd reflected for a moment, "who knows?  Got as much right as anyone else, I guess."

"I was just thinking, you know…a lamb!  Doesn't seem much does it?"

"Don't look at me, brother.  All I've got is 2 shekels and a packet of fag papers.  You should have tapped that lot up for a tip if you wanted to bring anything else"

"Lamb it is then!  Two shekels eh?  We could stop for a pint before we pop in"

"Oh, go on then.  It is Christmas, after all!"

THE END








Saturday, 22 December 2012

A Merry Christmas to All My Readers

In the time-honoured fashion, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has read any of my blog posts or books in 2012.  It has given me a great deal of simple pleasure to check my sales reports on a daily basis (or, obsessively, as my wife has it) and find that someone, somewhere, has bought one of my books.  I'm sure that he or she must be sick of the whole process by now, but he/she has my eternal gratitude.  I just hope he/she has enough money left to fund a pleasant Christmas.

Have a good one, wherever you are!

You can find all of my books at My Amazon Author Page

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Hitting the Woodwork


You've heard of professional footballers managing to miss the yards of open goal and 'hitting the woodwork' instead?  Well, this story is about the woodwork hitting me (or very nearly).

In Crime and Punishment I was talking about punishment in schools when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  I must admit that I mostly avoided any serious chastisement, largely because I was so invisible that most teachers would have been hard pressed to tell you my name.  School reports, particularly for P.E., used to feature such remarks as "Philip tries hard", which could be interpreted as "We're not really sure who he is, but we're pretty sure he hasn't done anything wrong, yet."

Corporal punishment was still a feature of my schooldays, and the slipper, cane and hurled blackboard rubber were daily occurrences.  Of course, the same gang of Great Uncles and the like, who used to come up with the infinitely depressing "you should treasure your schooldays, Philip, they're the best years of your life" would also trot out the old favourite "I used to get the cane regularly when I was at school, and it never did me any harm".  Whether it did them any good was, of course, not explored. 

The futility of corporal punishment, certainly in the habitual way it was doled out in my day, should have been immediately obvious to anyone walking past the Headmaster's office after Assembly, where you would have seen the same group of people lined up for the cane, day in and day out.  If this was the educational equivalent of the ultimate deterrent, then it clearly wasn't working.

I did get the occasional clip with a slipper whenever the class was selected for mass punishment for some unforgivable collective crime or other.  I also had to complete x amount of lines or 'Kings and Queens of England' (our History teacher's favourite punishment), which were always symbolically torn up when you delivered them.

The only time when I did get myself into serious hot water, was in my Woodwork class.  I'm afraid that my Woodwork teacher, Mr. W., and I didn't exactly hit it off. 

Sitting on the woodwork benches in our first ever class, all garbed in our brand new, clean white aprons, Mr. W. worked his way along the class distributing our pristine exercise books.  The doling out of exercise books and text books was a familiar ritual at the start of each school year.  Do you remember the chore of having to cover these precious objects in order to protect them?  Usually, this involved the use of any spare bits of wallpaper that hadn't been pressed into service as drawer liners.  This could result in your books sporting some rather garish floral designs, which did nothing for your street credibility.

Anyway, he reached me and I dutifully said "Thank you, sir" but, being quietly spoken, he didn't hear me and clouted me over the head with said book whilst bellowing "THANK YOU, SIR!"  Things went downhill from there.

I was fundamentally useless at woodwork, a situation which was not helped by living in fear and trembling of the teacher.  We also had Mr. W. for Technical Drawing, which occupied another large chunk of the week, so I was doubly blessed because I was rubbish at that, too.

Our first piece of woodwork was a sort of crude toy boat that we had to chisel and saw into shape.  When everyone else had finished theirs and taken it home proudly for display, I was still chiselling and sawing away at an increasingly unrecognisable chunk of wood.  In despair, Mr. W. told me to put the result in the storage space in my bench, "to be completed later", and move on to the next piece of work.  This became a regular feature of my Woodwork lessons such that, after two years of effort, working on increasingly more difficult projects, I had a bench full of incomplete and butchered lengths of timber.  In fact, the boat was the only thing I ever came anywhere near to completing.

How all this led to corporal punishment, I'll tell you in a little while.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Crime and Punishment


In It Might As Well Rain Until September, I was bemoaning the fact that the Uncles in my family (and it was always the Uncles for some reason) used to say to me "You should enjoy your school years, Philip, they're the happiest days of your life", which left me feeling positively suicidal. 

My views on school didn't really change dramatically from when I was five, and they were pretty dismal then.  About three weeks into my formal education, I apparently decided that I didn't want to participate any more.  I can actually remember something about this and I think the problem was that I suddenly realised I was stuck at school until I was at least fifteen.  As this seemed like a double life sentence, with no chance of remission, I determined that they could stick this idea where the sun didn't shine. 

It wasn't school per se that I didn't like.  I quite enjoyed learning new things and being creative.  I just wasn't all that keen on other children, particularly in any number.  Therefore, my poor Mother found herself dragging me every inch of the way from our house in Anglesey Road to Uxbridge Infants School, one Monday, with me screaming "I don't want to go to school, I don't mind being a dunce".  This was in a vain attempt to refute Mother's dire warning of what would happen if I didn't attend school.  As the idea of anyone 'making a scene' in public would have mortified her, I'm quite sure she would have hated this.  Apparently she delivered me to the Reception class teacher saying "He's been a very naughty boy" and the teacher held her hand out to me and said "Oh, he's not been naughty, have you Philip?" and I took her hand, smiled winsomely and trotted into school as if nothing had happened.

As you may have gathered from that little scene, I was something of a 'goody goody' at school.  Therefore, on the very few occasions when I was on the receiving end of some punishment or other, it was always to the delight of my much chastised schoolmates and to my absolute horror. 

The first occasion that I can clearly remember was when one of my Junior School teachers, asked me how many three-ha'pences there were in a shilling.  I know that this will sound like a MENSA question to anyone who didn't spend their childhood trying to make sense of a currency system that had twelve as the basic unit, instead of ten.  Therefore, to translate, she was asking me how many one and a half old pence there were in a shilling (which contained 12 old pence).  If you could answer that conundrum today in Junior School you would probably be awarded a Degree.  Unfortunately, my infant brain had interpreted "three-ha'pence" as "threepence" (they sounded quite similar), so I answered that there were four.  When she told me I was wrong and asked me to try again, I couldn't see how it could be anything different, so gave the same answer.  She clearly thought I was being an stubborn little tyke, told me off for sticking to my answer, and punished me by keeping me in at play time so that I could consider my response and repent my evil ways. 

Of course, the fact that I wasn't at all happy being in a maelstrom of children, meant that missing play time was no big deal at all.  In fact it was a blessed relief.  The main problem was that, even in the quietness of the deserted classroom, I still couldn't see how my answer was wrong and had therefore worked myself up into a right state by the time that the rest of the class came back, smirking at my fate.  Fortunately, the teacher must have calmed down after a cup of coffee and a No.6 Tipped in the Staff Room (it was always a permanent fog in there), and actually sat down with me to go through the sum once more, whereupon my misunderstanding came to light. 

At the time, it was the injustice of it all that really smarted, and it would again in later years, as we'll see next time.

This story, and a host of others, will appear in the new collection "A Kick at the Pantry Door" due to be published on Kindle in March, 2013.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Good, Sports! - Part 2


Continuing the 'nostalgedy' tale from Crutches for Ducks begun in Good, Sports! - Part 1

My memories of football at both Junior and Secondary schools are not particularly fond, as you may have gathered.  A bunch of us who “weren’t much good” would be sent off to some distant pitch on the outskirts of either Anglesey Road Rec. (“The Wreck”) or the Anglesey School playing fields.  Once gathered there, the two most able footballers would decree themselves to be the team captains and would choose their team, one player at a time, from the dishevelled and miserable ranks before them.  I used to regard it as a major triumph if, by some quirk of fate, I was not the last one to be picked, which didn’t happen very often.  Having picked their teams, the captains would then assign positions.  They (and their best mates) would obviously be in charge of the attack and mid-field (I’m trying to make it sound as if I know what I’m talking about here), whilst the rest would be given some vague defensive role (“stay back there and keep away from the ball”) and the mandatory “fat kid” would inevitably be consigned to goal-keeping duties.

I’m sure there is scope for some interesting research to be done into the psychology of children at that time, and their penchant for always consigning the dangerously obese to a role between the goalposts.  It always happened.  In fact, the pudgy one would usually start to trudge forlornly toward goal without being told to.  No-one, to my knowledge, ever questioned the logic of this.  I can only think that the idea was that sheer bulk would reduce the amount of available space between the goalposts and that this would counter the inevitable lack of athleticism.  If this was the theory, the evidence of our continuing defeats ought to have inspired a re-think.  I had a great deal of sympathy for our overweight goalkeeper and would frequently hang around the goalmouth, chatting with him while the rest of the team yelled and kicked seven bells out of each other at the opposite end of the pitch.

Defending wasn’t really a problem for me as I was rarely allowed anywhere near the ball.  If the opposition attacked they would be met with our entire team running frantically back to the goalmouth in a desperate attempt to keep me and the “fat kid” out of the action.  From my point of view, a game of football was rather like it must have been for villagers caught up in those 19th Century wars that Sean Bean did so well – surrounded by brief periods of noise and mayhem all around and then long periods of quiet and tedium.  The only down-side was if, by some catastrophe (like the whole team falling down dead), I gained control of the ball.  This was an accident waiting to happen.  I would immediately be besieged by shouts from all sides, telling me to get rid of it (which suited me just fine).  The problem was that I couldn’t kick straight to save my life and had no idea where to kick it anyway.  Such was my ineptitude that I was quite capable of tackling myself.  If I didn’t actually fall over the ball, or have it whipped away by some smart-alec from the opposing team, then I had no choice but to kick it – usually anywhere in the general direction of ‘away’.  Wherever it went, it was always accompanied by a sort of prolonged groan from my team and howls of delight from the opposition.

All of which brings me to my moment of glory, my triumph on the ‘field of dreams’.  I think it was in Junior school.  We had finally developed beyond the ‘flying wedge’ system of football (one person actually kicking the ball and the rest of the team running immediately behind him) and now occupied assigned positions.  For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, I was playing on the left wing in a forward position (perhaps someone with actual talent had been fatally injured or something and I was the only one left?)  We were mounting an attack, of sorts, on the opposition’s goal.  Our Centre-Forward was surrounded by opposition players and was desperate to get rid of the ball.  Unfortunately, the only player, unmarked and within reasonable proximity, was me.  Like a fool, I had been shouting for the ball, not because I wanted it or had any idea what to do with it, but because that was what everyone else did and I wanted to fit in.  Bereft of any real alternatives, he passed the ball forward to me.  Miraculously, I managed to trap it, without falling over or tying my legs in knots.  Not knowing what else to do, I began to dribble it toward their goal.  It was like a moment from “Chariots of Fire” (only with footballs, if you see what I mean).  The opposition seemed to be frozen in time and space.  As I ran toward the goal, no-one moved a muscle.  My heart pounded and all around me seemed suddenly quiet and still.  With only the goalkeeper to beat, I struck the ball as hard as I could and watched, in amazement, as it found the back of the goal.  I had done it!  For the first and only time in my life, I had scored a goal!

My triumph was short-lived.  As the more astute amongst you may have guessed, there was a very good reason for the opposition and goalkeeper appearing to be frozen in time and space.  Deafened by my pounding heart, I had not heard the referee blow for offside when our Centre-Forward had passed the ball to me.  It wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway as I had no concept of the offside rule and still haven’t (something else that we were never taught but were expected to know).  One or two of the more sympathetic souls muttered something about “bad luck” but most of the rest of the team just thought it was unbelievably hilarious.

So, clearly Thomas Hood and I have similar feelings about this time of the year, but for very different reasons:

No mud, no boots, no rain without cease,
No comfortable feel…and probably no member!
No freezing wind, no blue and blotchy knees,
No kicks, no fouls, no dribbling, no howls,
November!

(Whiteland after Hood, 2008)

Both collections of Philip's stories, Steady Past Your Granny's and Crutches for Ducks are available as Kindle e-books at all Amazon sites,  or in paperback at Steady Past Your Granny's (paperback version). There's also his first foray into humorous fiction, Jambalaya



Saturday, 24 November 2012

Good, Sports! - Part 1


Another 'nostlgedy' tale from Crutches for Ducks 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!
(Extract from November by Thomas Hood, 1799-1845)

To which might usefully be added “No chance of getting off sports due to rain, fog, sleet or snow”. 

I used to have great hopes of November.  I must have been one of the few children who would get up on a school day and look out of the window in the vain hope of finding particularly inclement weather.  I was usually disappointed.  This wasn’t because I loved sloshing to school in sleet or snow or fumbling around in fog.  It was purely to do with outdoor sports.  In fact, on any other day, my heart was gladdened by the autumn sunshine.  It was just on those days when we were due to be out on the sports field that I irrationally hoped for freak weather.

I have mentioned before that I was not one of life’s keen sportsmen in my schooldays.  This is not to say that I disliked all sports.  I didn’t mind basketball much and I could quite tolerate badminton.  Even five-a-side football was just about acceptable, provided it was in the warm, dry environment of the gymnasium and not the wet, cold, muddy grimness of the playing field.  To enjoy mauling around in mud you really need to really enjoy the game you are playing and I really didn’t enjoy football.  Thinking about it, I didn’t really care for cricket either, but that’s another story.

I learned, fairly early on in my school life, that there are those to whom sporting prowess comes naturally and there are those who are not really safe to be let out on their own.  I fell into the latter category.  If you threw a ball to me, I would instantly be caught in a dilemma – should I catch it, and risk hurting myself in the process, or should I stay still and leave well alone?  Unfortunately, my infant brain usually tried to do both things at once and the end result would be that of someone in an advanced state of rigor mortis trying to shuffle a pack of cards.  I was all fingers and thumbs and attempting to be there, but not be there, if you know what I mean (which explains my antipathy toward cricket).  Therefore, in the pecking order of sporting ability, at the top would be those who were playing in the school team and their acolytes, and these would have the bulk of the P.E. Teacher’s attention.  In the middle would be those who were able but not particularly skilful, who still enjoyed a kick-about and who might reasonably hope to play for the team someday.  And then, at the bottom, there was us.  By ‘us’ I mean those who were too fat, too inept, too bone-idle or too crippled by some chronic condition, to ever play football to a level that would not be regarded as laughable by right-thinking men and women.

Considering this, it occurred to me that the term ‘P.E. Teacher’ was something of a misnomer in my day.  You see, thinking about it, I cannot recall actually being taught anything by the series of people who held this post.  I can remember being humiliated and ridiculed, I can remember being shouted and yelled at, I can remember a figure in the far distance displaying his own prowess against ‘the boys in the team’, but I cannot remember being taught anything in all my years of what was laughingly called Physical Education (not that I’m bitter in any way, of course).  I suppose, if I’m going to be fair, we must have been taught how to carry out neck-springs and so on in the gym or else we would all have been in wheelchairs by now, but when it came to football etc., I can’t remember ever being shown any techniques, strategies or even rules!  The assumption always seemed to be that these were somehow automatically passed on to every male (and it was just males in those far-off days) via mother’s milk.  Indeed, it often seemed that way, as all of my friends seemed to instinctively know the rules of football and cricket and so on without any input from the P.E. Teacher.

You can find Part 2 of this story here - Good Sports! - Part 2

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Jambalaya - another excerpt that I said I wasn't going to do!

The story so far:  Max Vobiscus, a local ne'erdowell and Riverboat gambler, has decided to sate his passion at a nearby house of ill repute.  He meets up with Jay 'Zoot' Alors, a pimp, asks about the new girls he has heard were arriving, and the following conversation ensues:


“There’s been kind of a hitch there,” Zoot admitted, “seems they were travelling down, saw a welcoming light, stopped to rest for the night and then there was dancing and so on...”
“Yes, and….”
“Well, I hear they decided they liked each other more than they liked the paying guests, if you get my drift, so they’ve set up some sort of a commune.  I’ve got a girl from Kalamazoo.”
“Is she good?”
"Well, I don't mean to boast but I know she's the toast of Kalamazoo"
"Alright, she'll do."
"You'll have to wait, there's three other guys before you."
"Forget it, I've gone off the idea.”  Max snapped.  “Do I take it you are a little, how shall I put it, light on stock at the moment?"
"Damn right,” Zoot sighed, “if things don't pick up soon I'm going to have to start wearing lipstick and calling myself Priscilla......again.  I recall another friend of mine, Titus..."
"Titus?"
"Yeah, as in tight as a duck's…."
"Oh, I see,” Max groaned, “go on."
"Thanks, I was going to anyway.  Well, Titus, he started a brothel with no girls at all, just him, in the pitch dark, doing wonders with a sink plunger.  Man, he was something.  He would have done fine if this plumber hadn't visited him one night.  Last I heard there was a team of doctors working on him and they said even if they got the plunger back there ain’t no way they could ever use it again."
"You have some strange friends."
"You think so?”  Zoot said with surprise, “you should see my enemies.  So friend, what brings your parts to these parts?"
"Frustration, Zoot.  Can I call you Zoot?"
"Sure, here's my number, give me a call" Zoot handed Max a card.
"It's all dots and dashes!"
"What else, it's Morse Code, there ain't no telephones yet, wire me!"
"That's what I keep asking, why me?”  Max muttered despondently.  “Why should I fall in love with a girl who is promised to another?"
"Beats me!”  Zoot shook his head, “Now a girl who promises you another, that's somethin' else.  Tell you what, boy, if you buy me a drink I'll tell you all about my fascinating life.  Make it two and there might even be some truth in it."
Zoot steered Max over to a beer soaked table in the corner of the bar.  A waiter shuffled over to them.
“I’ll have a shot of bourbon, what are you having, son?”
“I’ll have two fingers of red-eye.”  Max said, with a view to impressing the cowboys.
“I really don’t think you should have...” Zoot started to say.
The waiter giggled manically and poked both of Max’s eyes.
“....ordered that.” Zoot continued, “guess I should have warned you, he’s the house maniac.  You know how every bar has this mad, violent, guy that everyone avoids?”
“Yeah.”  Max choked.
“Well, Nancy figured if you’ve got to have a fruitcake you might as well get some use out of him, so she employed hers.”
Zoot looked with concern at his drinking companion who was still wiping his eyes and trying to focus.
"Are you okay, boy?"
"I'll live."
"Now don't go making promises you can't keep.  Not round here anyway.”  He turned to the waiter, “bring a bottle of Rye and two glasses and cut the smart stuff, o.k.?”
The waiter flounced away.
“You're not from these parts are you?"  Zoot attempted to restart the conversation.
"Just down the valley a piece, I'm over Wilbur's Rise."
"I wish my Dora was,” Zoot said sadly, “that's what ruined our marriage and started me on this life of sin and debauchery.....”  he brightened, “guess I should thank him really."
"You were married?"
"Sure, I ain't been a pimp, sorry 'leisure negotiator', all my life.  Hell, I used to raise chickens."
"Down on the farm?"
"Nah, up to the second storey of MacDonald's Provisions store.  I used to work the hoist.  It was an up and coming job.  ‘Cept what I didn’t know was that while I was doing the upping, Dora was......doing something else entirely with Wilbur Macdonald.”  Zoot lit a cheap cigar and puffed on it reflectively.  “He was the eldest son of the family and stood to make a packet from his Pa’s seed corn fortune one day.”
“That’s too bad.  About Dora, I mean.”  Max commented as he wiped away the tears caused by the combined effects of violence and cheap cigar smoke, from his eyes.
“Damn right, but you couldn’t blame her really, the money turned her head.”  Zoot explained, “Wilbur stood there with his wallet bulging in his pants and she damned near ricked her neck.  When they said they'd made provision for him in their will, they weren't kidding.  Old Macdonald had a firm that was worth a pretty penny.”
“Did you know what was going on?”
“No sir!  When the Macdonald’s died, tragically, ‘cos of an unfortunate accident with the hoist, I thought me and Dora could buy the store up cheap and clean up.”
“Neat plan.”  Max agreed, without conviction.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Shame of it was, Wilbur wasn’t with his Ma & Pa when the hoist fell.  Seems he was with Dora.  Suddenly I find myself there in charge of a Provisions store with no wife, no hoist and a Sheriff holding a frayed piece of rope and a suspicious expression."
"Did they try you?"
"Nah, they seemed pretty certain so they went straight ahead and hung me.  Like they said, even if it wasn't me this time, it would be sooner or later, so it would save effort in the long run."
"Maybe I'm missing something but, you're still alive aren't you?"
"Sure takes a good 'un to get past you don't it.”  Zoot chuckled, “well, you see, the fact of the matter was that the local hangman also happened to be the guy who fixed the hoist at Macdonalds.”
Max took a wild guess “So, the rope broke?”
“You got it!  I sets off running and don't stop till I gets to Beanstown."
"The Windy City."
"Yeah, it seemed kinda appropriate.”  

You can find Jambalaya in its full silliness at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com amongst other places.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Fireworks in Store

Another 'nostalgedy' story, taken from Crutches for Ducks





So, did you have a good Un-Bonfire Night?

It was last night, in case you missed it. Or, alternatively, it could be tomorrow night. The only night it couldn’t possibly be is the 5th November. You see, if Lewis Carroll could have 364 Un-Birthdays in each year, then I don’t see why I can’t have the same amount of Un-Bonfire Nights.

Actually, I’m a bit behind the times with this concept because, of late, the British have taken to the idea of igniting fireworks at every possible juncture, as if we had all been drafted into The Royal Artillery when we weren’t looking. Nowadays any spurious reason for celebration is seen as a good excuse to chuck a couple of tons of ordnance into the air.

It never used to be like this. In my childhood, fireworks were reserved for 5th November (remember?) and were usually not very impressive. Do you recall those little ‘family selection’ boxes that usually contained one Catherine Wheel, two or three Roman Candles, a couple of Jumping Jacks, a Banger or two and a Rocket with some improbable and wildly optimistic name like GIANT STARCHASER. The whole thing would cost about half a week’s pay and would be over and done with inside five minutes. If I sound cynical, I do apologise but I was never a fan of fireworks as a child. I couldn’t stand loud bangs and I tended to think that standing around in the cold, damp, November night waiting for something that cost a fortune to NOT go off (more often than not), was something of a pointless exercise.

Can you imagine the reaction of the Health and Safety gurus if you suggested selling something as monumentally dangerous as a Jumping Jack today? “Well, we thought we would have this firework that, when you ignite it, jumps unpredictably around the feet of the children, making loud bangs at each bounce. The kiddies will love it!” And what about rockets tilting precariously in yesterday’s milk bottle? Or the Catherine Wheel nailed hopefully to next door’s wooden fence, with predictable results (irate neighbour, badly-burnt fence and the attention of the Fire Brigade)?

The most memorable firework display that I can recall, takes me back to 1967. My Aunt and Uncle owned a successful corner shop in Walker Street, Burton, and had just decided to expand by buying the shop that Mr. and Mrs. Rawlings had run for years in Uxbridge Street. My Mum had been given a part-time job serving at this shop and she had to sort out the stock remaining after years of the Rawlings’ tenure. In the midst of all this, she found a box of very ancient fireworks that she gave to me (I can hear the Health and Safety mob’s sharp intake of breath from here!) It was mid-summer and, as we were living at my Grandparents’ house at the time, I guessed that they would not be too happy about an impromptu firework display. Quite what made me take them up to my Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim’s house in Burton Road, I don’t know, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I turned up at Auntie Vera’s clutching a paper bag full of odd and unusual fireworks, probably dating from the Dawn of Time. I didn’t have much hope that we would do anything with them because Auntie Vera was a great one for doing things by the rules and, it clearly was not Bonfire Night. Therefore, I was amazed when, as dusk fell, she said “Are we going to try those fireworks then?” Neither of us knew whether any of them would work, or whether they would explode in a shower of dust and debris. Surprisingly, most (they were of the Roman Candle/Golden Rain type) worked really well and we had quite a show.

As I stood there with Auntie Vera watching these ancient fireworks on a warm summer’s evening, both of us studiously not looking to see what the neighbours thought of our antics, I relished our mini-rebellion and celebrated my first Un-Bonfire Night.

There are three collections of Philip's stories, 'Steady Past Your Granny's' and 'Crutches for Ducks'  and 'A Kick at the Pantry Doorare available as Kindle e-books at all Amazon sites, along with his first foray into humorous fiction, 'Jambalaya'.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

And things that go bump in the night!


Photo: Not bad considering ive not done one of these in nearly 15 years! Flynn insisted :-)



As the nights draw in and we reach the end of October, we will once again be able to enjoy that newly-imported pastime of ‘trick or treat’ which, at any other time of the year, would be more accurately termed ‘demanding money with menaces’. 

I know this instantly brands me as an old curmudgeon, desperately out of touch with the times, but I think it’s a shame that we seem to have embraced the U.S. version of Hallowe’en, with its practical jokes, slapstick horror and fancy dress, in place of the U.K. version that I remember which was much more subtle and considerably more sinister.

Hallowe’en, in my childhood, was not something to celebrate so much as to endure.  It was a time, we were told, when witches were abroad (well, the price of package holidays had come down a lot) and the long, dark, autumn night could easily hide “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties”.  Autumn in the 1950s and early 1960s was not so much a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as a season of swirling fogs and choking yellow smogs.  When we wax lyrical about the ‘good old days’ we tend to forget just how much certain things have improved and the effect of the Clean Air Act on the atmosphere must certainly rank pretty high on the list of improvements.  The point is that, in those swirling fogs and smogs, it was very easy to conjure up (in the fevered imagination of childhood) sinister beings that lurked just out of sight but never out of mind.

I must admit that I had a fairly active imagination as a child and, being of a rather nervous disposition, could easily conjure up ‘nameless dreads’ lurking in every corner.  In a previous article (“When I was a child, I thought like a child…”. Steady Past Your Granny’s,  Doveridge Publications, 2005) I referred to an odd idea that I developed, after watching some silly cartoon, in which I came to the conclusion that there was some awful nemesis lurking in our upstairs toilet and that, only by getting downstairs before the toilet had finished flushing could I be truly safe.  This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem had I been able to navigate the stairs in the usual manner but, due to my pathological fear of heights, I was reduced to coming down stairs one step at a time on my bottom.  Trying to do this in a blind panic merely replicates the Cresta Run and puts considerable doubt on your future parenting abilities.  As I said in the article, “It’s funny how, as a child, you never share these nameless dreads with your parents.  Somehow you and this mystical fear are in cahoots against the adult world”.  Maybe this is less so these days, where children are encouraged to be open and talk through any problems (and rightly so).  When I was growing up, the stiff upper lip was the order of the day and any fears and trepidations were to be rammed down deep into the subconscious along with any other odd ideas that the juvenile mind might generate.

As an example of the extent of my impressionability in those days, we were due to go on holiday to Cornwall, a place that my mum and her sister (my Auntie Vera) had been to a number of times before and really loved.  Auntie Vera had a number of mementoes from her previous visits around the house; brass Cornish piskies, a brass depiction of the Widdecombe Fair story (“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce lend me your grey mare” etc.) and a collection of Folk Tales from Devon and Cornwall.  I was a voracious reader and ploughed my way through these tales, whilst all the time taking in the brass images of sly, sharp-featured, elfin creatures who could trick you just as easily as bring you good luck (now largely found in the House of Commons) as well as the image of a skeletal horse being ridden by an unfeasible amount of drunken men (yep, House of Commons again).  Now old folk tales (by which I mean ancient fairy tales, not tales about old folk) were designed to be scary rather than whimsical (the Brothers Grimm weren’t called that for nothing you know) and this, combined with my active imagination, meant that I approached the holiday with more than a degree of trepidation.

On the way down we made one of our frequent stops (we had a hired Ford Prefect that used oil in the ratio of 1 pint to every 2 gallons of petrol – we might as well have had a two-stroke!) at Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor.  With tales of piskies, ghosts and smugglers swirling around my mind, I spent the whole time there clutching the wooden bench as hard as I could, sure in my own mind that if I wasn’t spirited away by the supernatural (and being grabbed by the ghoulies is not to be recommended – sorry, it all went a bit “Two Ronnies” there for a moment) then I was sure to be bludgeoned by rough men carrying sacks or barrels because I had failed to “watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by” (Kipling, “A Smugglers Song”).  As adults, we pride ourselves on having a clear divide between that which is real and that which is imaginary.  What we forget is how tenuous that divide is in the childhood mind.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday and still recall it with fondness, I could never quite shake the conviction that something slightly unsettling lurked under every stone bridge or at the bottom of every wishing well.  I have been back to Cornwall many times since and have to say that the only unsettling things I’ve encountered have tended to be Cornish Pasties rather than Cornish Piskies.

Encounters with the paranormal in my childhood were mercifully restricted to works of fiction and my imagination… except on two occasions.

When I was 10 we moved into a pub.  It had been long-held ambition of my Dad’s to run his own pub and this was his big chance.  Although I had seen the pub’s public areas on a number of occasions (usually being parked in a corner of the passage with a bottle of pop and packet of crisps), I had never seen ‘behind the scenes’ as it were and it came as a bit of a shock.  I remember that I left our house in Anglesey Road, where I had spent my entire life until then, in the morning to go to school.  Spent most of the morning at the Little Theatre in Guild Street listening to a children’s author (Henry Treece) talking about his books, and then caught the No. 12 bus back to Anglesey Road at lunch time, and for the first time, walked into the kitchen of the New Talbot Hotel.  Whereas before, when I came home, Mum would be waiting for me with my lunch at the ready, on this occasion I walked into pandemonium.  Mum and my Nana were in the kitchen frantically buttering (well, marging actually, if that’s a proper word) cobs and sandwiches for the lunchtime clientele whilst my Dad was the other side of the living room’s frosted glass door into the bar, getting the hang of the pumps and till whilst trying to serve a room full of inquisitive customers (nothing quite like a change of management to ginger up trade).

However, the shock was not just that I had walked into a totally alien environment.  There was also the not inconsiderable question of the domestic fixtures and fittings, which made it seem as if I had somehow jumped through a time-warp into the 19th Century.  The sink in the kitchen was a huge, ceramic Belfast sink (which would be quite fashionable now) and, to one side of it, was a cobweb covered green and red hand-operated water pump (I think it might be called a pitcher pump?).  In the living room, a roaring fire was contained in a large, black-leaded range that featured an oven to one side, hooks for hanging various implements, and a trivet for boiling your kettle (which I later discovered was absolutely brilliant for roasting chestnuts).  If Mr. Bumble the Beadle (and I don’t mean Jeremy) from Oliver Twist had strode in and asked why I wanted more, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

That night, I tried to settle down to sleep but things did seem rather strange.  My few pieces of bedroom furniture, which had filled my small bedroom back at our previous house, were now cast to the four corners of my new vast bedroom in the pub.  But what really preyed on my mind was that we now had an attic.  Well, rather more than an attic really.

The New Talbot Hotel had been a true hotel decades before we took over and, as such, it featured what had been 6 guest bedrooms on the third floor of the building.  These were accessed by means of a further flight of stairs that ran up to the third floor from the end of the landing on the second floor, just by the bathroom and opposite the door to the clubroom (of which more in a future article).  These stairs, like much of the upstairs flooring, were linoleum covered and were separated from the rest of the pub by a latched gate.  Nobody had used the rooms for years and they were mostly empty apart from one or two which were used for storage.  Therefore it was somewhat surprising that, as I lay in my bed trying to get to sleep, with the sounds of merriment from the bar below me ringing in my ears, I could distinctly hear the steady footsteps of someone moving around in the bedrooms above and the tap, tap, tap of claws on linoleum as what I took to be a dog made its way down the stairs from the attic.  Naturally, I did what any intrepid child of 10 would do in those days – I hid under the bedclothes and hoped it would all go away (it’s not much of a strategy but it’s served me well over the years).

For the next two and a half years, the footsteps marching around the rooms above and the tap, tap, tap of the non-existent dog’s footsteps down the stairs, became a regular feature of my night-time pre-sleep routine.  After a while, I came to the conclusion that, whatever was going on up there clearly wasn’t going to interfere with me down below and I became rather nonchalant about it all.  Having said that, no power on this earth would have got me up in those attics after dark, either then or now.  The strange thing is that I never mentioned any of this to my parents at the time or for years afterwards and I don’t recall mentioning it to my friends either.  When I did tell my parents, many years later, they were shocked to learn that I had endured this nightly experience without ever confiding in them.  As I said earlier, it seems that children and nameless dreads are often locked in some sort of conspiracy against the adult world.

Now, of course, it is entirely up to you as to whether you believe the above or not.  You may say that there was a perfectly rational explanation for it all, and I would have to agree that there may well be.  You may say it was just the product of an overactive childhood imagination, and I would agree that you might think that, but I can assure you that it wasn’t.

And my second encounter with the paranormal?  Ah well, if you found it hard to believe the story above, you would really struggle with the other tale.  Let’s leave it as another story for another day…for now.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Taken from Crutches for Ducks, the second book in the 'nostalgedy' collection

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Price Bashing!

We seem to adopt some very aggressive language when we talk about prices.  They can be cut, slashed, hammered, dropped, squeezed, chopped and murdered.

Well, after the free weekend for Jambalaya, it seemed only right to take my prices down a side alley and give them a good seeing to.  So, from  now until the end of October, you can buy this bumper helping of outright silliness for:

Amazon.co.uk = £0.77

Amazon.com = $0.99

Not quite free, but as near as makes no odds (as they say in my neck of the woods)

Are you prepared to risk 77p/99c on an unknown book by an obscure author, with one 2 star review and lousy sales rankings? Go on, take a walk on the wild side!


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Free at last!

My thanks to the 102 people who took advantage of this limited offer.  If you missed out on  your chance of a free copy, hang on in there - more news coming soon!


My very silly book has decided to let itself loose upon an unsuspecting world for FREE just for the weekend of 13th and 14th October.  So, if you fancy a paddle in the slightly stupid shallows of my imagination, now might be the time to do it!  See you there :-)

Amazon.co.uk = Jambalaya Free Weekend

Amazon.com = Jambalaya Free Weekend


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

In the beginning...

From the First (and, as it turned out, only) Book of Ernest:

In the beginning was the void, which contained all that there was and all that there would ever be.  And from the void came a voice which sayeth "Erm!"  And all that there was, and all that there would ever be responded with a mighty and harmonious "ERM!"

Then from the void came the voice and it sayeth "Hang on" and all that there was, and all that there would ever be, hung on grimly.  Parts of it clenched.

Then came the voice again, saying "Wait a minute!"* and all that there was, and all that there would ever be, waited.

*  This gave rise to the Church of Perpetual Expectation, whose adherents are still waiting.  Their contention is that, as only the supreme being can define how long a 'minute' is, and no-one has told them to stop waiting, therefore the instruction still stands.  Members of the Church can be found in large numbers in most of the public services.  They are particularly evident in transport, such as railways and airports, and their churches are designed to resemble bus shelters.  The higher echelons of the Church aspire to become Doctor's Receptionists.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

It Might As Well Rain Until September


This is the article that appeared in September for the Derby Telegraph:

On the whole, I've come to realise that there are pros and cons to having your birthday at the end of August.

On the positive side, back in my school days it meant that I had the day free from school and could do some fun things.  It also meant that I avoided the dreaded birthday 'bumps'.  Do you remember those?  I don't know if it was a fairly widespread tradition or just a form of sadism peculiar to Anglesey Secondary Modern?  The concept was that the birthday boy (I very much doubt that girls ever inflicted this on each other, they had too much sense) would be grabbed hand and foot by his compatriots (often including  a fair sprinkling of enemies) and then would be bounced vigorously up and down by his arms and legs.  In a perfect world, this would not include frequent collisions between the lower back and the tarmacadamed playground, but it often did.

On the minus side would have to be the inescapable fact that the arrival of my birthday also presaged the imminent end of the school summer holidays, with all of the horrors that foretold.  It also meant that I was the youngest in my class, which was a mixed blessing.

Time operated on a wholly different scale when you were a child, didn't it?  On the last day of term, the summer holidays seemed to stretch out for centuries ahead, with the return to school distant and, thankfully, forgettable.  Hopelessly impracticable and wildly ambitious plans were made and the potential of all of those weeks seemed enormous.  If the sun was shining and everything was fine, the days zipped past like an old-fashioned silent movie.  When the days were grey or rain-sodden, every minute seemed interminable and you would drive your Mother mad with the time-honoured wail of "I'm bored!"

My birthday was, therefore, a double-edged sword.  On one hand, I inevitably looked forward to the cards and presents I would receive but, I was acutely aware that the act of looking forward to it also meant that I was willing the end of the summer holidays to come.  This is quite a dilemma for any child and no amount of clandestine deals with whatever deity deals with schoolchildren's wishes (usually of the nature of "Yes, please hurry up with my birthday but can you postpone the end of the summer holidays indefinitely"), ever changed the simple fact that the arrival of one meant the inexorable end of the other.

I often think that my childhood depression would have been even worse if I was at school now (apart from the fact that they would doubtless be a bit dubious about having a 58 year old in their class).   Why? Because no sooner have the summer holidays commenced than all of the clothing and stationery stores are holding 'Back to School' sales.  I would have hated that.  It was bad enough being dragged off to Fox's or Curzon's in Uxbridge Street to get replacements for any items of school uniform that I had either outgrown or worn out.  A shopping trip that invariably resulted in me being buried beneath a dark grey blazer, with the consistency and fashionable appeal of corrugated cardboard, and the assistant assuring my parents that I would grow into it.

I used to look, with amazement and horror, at those parents who would say to my Mum, "Is he looking forward to going back to school?" which was always followed by something like "Sarah is, aren't you Sarah?" (Sarah would smile and nod winningly).  This caused me to give Sarah the evil eye and generally regard her as a traitor and a quisling.  This however, was as nothing to those Uncles who would tell me, in all seriousness apparently, that "you should make the most of your school days, Philip; they're the best years of your life".  Anything more calculated to send me into a fit of depression, I can't imagine.  If these really were the best days of my life, what the heck was the rest of it going to be like?

Much better was the answer, as it turned out.