Saturday, 7 December 2019

Sunspot Literary Journal


Just a little shout out to Sunspot Literary Journal. I'm an advisory board member for this magazine, which publishes voices from around the world. They accept submissions of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, scripts, screenplays, photography and art. You can read more on their website and submit here. You can download previous editions here for a better idea of what they're looking for.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Happy Reading

Jean & Richard

It always amazes me to receive pictures of people reading my books. Please feel free to tweet or Facebook over a photo.


Val

Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Fever


Recently finished The Fever by Sonia Shah. I bought a paperback copy at Ikirezi Bookshop after my first bout of malaria in 2015, but then got distracted. After a hideous month in October where I was floored by it twice, I decided to revisit the topic. It's always interesting to know what's going on inside you, and malaria is a particularly nasty li'le critter. It crawls inside your red blood cells, feasts on your haemoglobin, then bursts out of them alien style, leaving your spleen to deal with the fall-out.

I posted this before, but Shah's TED talk is a really good summary of the book in a nutshell.


It's a fairly concise read, but I took so many notes. She's got a really easy style to read, turning something quite technical and medical into a story of primordial genetic battles and human cost. At times it turns quite graphic.

Every morning in Panama I would awaken with some unexpected swelling from the mosquitoes’ nighttime blood feasts: under my eye one day, on my eyelid the next, on the palm of my hand. Smashed mosquitoes, glued to the surface with their own internal juices, dotted the walls.

The book starts out with a really good quote:

Man ploughs the sea like a leviathan, he soars through the air like an eagle; his voice circles the world in a moment, his eyes pierce the heavens; he moves mountains, he makes the desert to bloom; he has planted his flag at the north pole and the south; yet millions of men each year are destroyed because they fail to outwit a mosquito.  — Paul F. Russell, 1931

I thought it was funny when she was talking about going to swot mosquitoes and deliberately - sort of - missing. From a Jain family (see the video) there was part of her averse to killing living things no matter how annoying they are. I was vegetarian until my early twenties and also have that dilemma of wanting the mosquito gone, but not wanting to be the one to make it go away. If they're inside my mosquito net, I'm afraid they're doomed nowadays, but if they're outside, it's about a fifty-fifty whether I actually hit them after lifting my hand.

A flimsy mosquito landed gently on my forearm. A familiar spike of rage rose as I watched, incredulous, as the insect prepared to puncture my skin with her proboscis. How dare she! Instinctively, my hand snapped up. Somewhere inside that cold-blooded, brittle body lurked entities whose exertions explained the making of rich and poor, sick and healthful. My hand came down a bit slower for the passing thought, and I brushed the mosquito away like a crumb. Its delicate legs snarled together, pitching the insect’s body forward at a steep angle. Mangled, it skittered off my arm awkwardly as I watched, my vestigial Jain sensibilities slightly horrified. Finally it reached the precipice, where it somehow took flight and vanished.

You might find this poem, Death of a Cockroach entertaining. One man's remorse over dispatching a household pest.

Naturally, I was engrossed in the early parts of the book which are all about how the disease spreads, breeds and takes over your internal organs. It really is a very complex disease, and it was fascinating to think of it working its way through my body. It also explained a specific pain that I had for a couple of weeks when the resurgence happened. I think it was my spleen, which I didn't realise was so involved in clearing out the dead blood cells. It's one of those organs I couldn't point to until I looked it up.

First, the sporozoites retreat to the liver, where they spend a few surreptitious days shifting, regenerating, dividing, and generating again, secretly transforming into an army of fifty thousand parasites in a new form capable of infecting red blood cells: the merozoite. In the next stage of the invasion, the merozoites pour into the bloodstream. They are cleverly disguised inside the liver cells they’ve gagged and murdered, but an epic battle ensues nevertheless, and the body’s immune fighters slaughter thousands. It isn’t a perfect victory. If a few stragglers in this marauding horde manage to escape, they latch onto red blood cells, and within moments penetrate the cells’ interior. There, they quietly feast on haemoglobin, and a new round of shifting, regenerating, dividing, and generating ensues. Some transform from tiny ring-shaped beings into fat, rounded creatures and unleash a wave of progeny. When nothing is left of the former oxygen-carrying cell besides a stream of waste and a bulge of fattened parasites, the parasites burst out of the cell and rush out to invade and consume a fresh crop of cells. Others quietly shape-shift into the male and female forms called gametocytes and lie in wait inside their hijacked blood cells. With any luck, they will be picked up by another bloodthirsty Anopheles mosquito.

*

Almost all of Plasmodium’s manoeuvres inside the body occur in utter secrecy. When it slips into the body, while it hides in the liver, and even after it emerges into the bloodstream and attacks blood cells, there is no itch, no rash, no sweaty forehead that belies the infestation roiling within. It is only after malaria parasites rupture out of their hijacked cells, well into the parasitic invasion, that the infected person feels sick. The waste from the parasite’s haemoglobin feast leaks out of the destroyed cells, and that tiny spike of poison triggers a round of detoxification, throwing the victim into a high fever, followed by chills and shivering. When the waste disperses, the fever passes, and for several days there might be no symptoms at all—until the parasite finishes gobbling up its next batch of haemoglobin and explodes again in search of more, triggering another attack of fever and chills. The parasite’s steady consumption of its victim’s blood drains him of vitality, making him easy pickings for other pathogens of various ilk. But while the parasite grows inside, aside from an enlarged abdomen — the spleen of the malaria-infected can swell to twenty times its normal weight while clearing the body of dead cells — its passage remains obscure. All the while, mosquitoes will bite, and imbibe the parasite roosting in the blood, and the cycle continues.

It was also interesting that the more people I started speaking to about malaria, the more have told me that fever didn't play a major role. A raging fever is certainly the norm, but not always, and malaria presenting without fever seems harder to diagnose early. Partly because the patient doesn't automatically think malaria, and partly because fever indicates more parasites releasing into the blood, making it easier to spot in a test. Apparently, tests are difficult to undertake and often come back clean when the person is actually infected - which is what happened to me. What I experienced is apparently quite common.

Other things that I learned included that the malaria strain p. vivax, which preceded p. falciparum in Africa and is now common in Asia and Latin America, was driven out of most of Africa by an evolution in local people's blood cells mutating so that it could no longer infect them. This defence was unfortunately then bypassed by a more deadly strain, p. falciparum, which recent studies believe we originally contracted from gorillas. Sickle cell anaemia is another form of mutation that developed as a resistance to malaria. The crescent shape of the cells can cause life-threatening illness and chronic pain, but can also provide immunity to malaria.

It's long been whispered among expats here that if you've lived in-country for many years, you'll build some resistance to malaria. I was never sure whether to believe this or not, but it turns out it's true. Like other diseases, your immune system can recognise and guard against forms of malaria that you get. So, having malaria a few times can make you resistant to future outbreaks, which is why children in Africa who get malaria a lot don't get it as much in adulthood. The bad news is that malaria mutates and evolves extremely rapidly, so if you leave the country for a few years and return, you might have lost your immunity because your body hasn't encountered the new strains that now exist.

This disease has thousands of years of experience in survival:

Ancient Greeks understood malaria as a seasonal scourge that arrived during harvest time. The physician  Hippocrates  described  it  as  a  disease  common  around  swamps,  while  the poet  Homer  referred  to  malaria  when  he  decried  Sirius  as  an  ‘evil  star’  that  was  the ‘harbinger of fevers’. The ancient Chinese called malaria the ‘mother of fevers,’ while in India thirty-five hundred years ago it became known as the ‘king of diseases,’ personified by the fever demon Takman.

Some ancient remedies included honeysuckle in wine, eating the liver of a seven-year-old mouse, wearing an abracadabra charm, or chowing down on bedbugs with eggs and wine, which was recommended in Roman times. You could also wake at dawn for three mornings in a row, facing a window which you were supposed to shut suddenly whilst reciting a prayer. For men, having sex with a woman who had just started menstruating was also recommended. Lucky woman. If you couldn't find a bleeding woman, 'energetic bloodletting' was also acceptable. Failing all else, go prostrate yourself at one of the three temples in Rome dedicated to the demon goddess of malaria, Febres.

It has since been found that cloves, cinnamon, basil, nutmeg and onion lessen the parasite's appetite so may slow its progress. There's also some evidence to suggest that coffee might be beneficial in resisting malaria, as coffee-drinking French colonists suffered less from it than tea-drinking English ones.

Another thing I found fascinating was how widespread malaria once was in America and the UK, with Kent and Essex being the most malarial counties in Britain.

It was known for centuries that the cinchona tree is an effective remedy against most forms of malaria, as the bark contains quinine. However, staunchly protestant Europeans refused to touch it because they considered it 'Jesuit powder,' the Jesuits being the ones to have discovered its beneficial properties. 

Hence, in an amusing turn of events, Oliver Cromwell, renouncing this Catholic witchcraft, proceeded to die of malaria.

The major breakthrough which has impacted my life was the discovery of artemisia annua, or Sweet Wormwood. Whilst looking for potential cures in the fight against quinine-resistant malaria, which falciparum is in my part of East Africa, Chinese researchers found a book titled Fifty-two Prescriptions dating back to 168 BC. It cropped up again in 340 AD as a 'bitter tea.' The Chinese decided to try it out and between 1980-90 slashed malaria rates from two million to ninety thousand. The west, however, fucked it all up by attempting to over-heat the compound, destroying its medical properties and declaring it useless. Because of this, it took decades to accept that the active ingredient, artemether, actually was a full-on cure for p. falciparum and bring it to market. Without it, I would never have been free of malaria. It is an absolute life saving treatment, extremely fast and efficient, but it wasn't until 2001 that WHO revised its guidance to make coartem a front line treatment. Before that, they still recommended ineffectual quinine-based products in resistant areas.

If a physician went to Burma and prescribed chloroquine, they would be negligent. When UNICEF does the same, it's called 'international aid'. Amir Attaran

For more on the trials and tribulations of UN aid agencies, check out Emergency Sex: True Stories From a War Zone.

There was so much more in this book on the history of malaria, the winding road to development of drugs, the problems faced by scientists and health professionals in the fight against malaria today. However, I will stop here, as I've already said quite a lot. I highly recommend this book if you're interested in  the subject. It's easy reading and full of anecdotes and interesting information.

I particularly sympathised with one sufferer who was mystified at her sudden craving for ice-cold orange Fanta. For me it was lemon Fanta citron. It is a strange disease, indeed.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Faces of the Past


This is fascinating. The face of a Stone Age Briton from around 5,500 years ago. It's part of a beautifully crafted reconstruction project, bringing the faces of ancient people back to life.

As a writer, I love looking at portraits for inspiration. I could spend hours in the National Portrait Gallery just thinking up stories for the people looking back. This is particularly intriguing because it stands our imagined history on its head: First modern Britons had dark skin and blue eyes. How many writers would have thought to create characters like that without the insight of science? It's a constant discovery, and makes the recent UK wave of anti-immigration nationalism look distinctly silly.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Sophie-sto-cated


When you try to make a sensible promotional post and cats happen. Sophie, modelling some of my titles. She was exactly the same as a kitten...

Sophie and Howl

Friday, 8 November 2019

Mogworld



Back in March, I picked up a book called Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw and fell in love with it. I read quite eclectically, so with the exception of authors like Terry Pratchett and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, there are very few whose releases I follow. I usually love a book I stumble upon rather than deliberately go out to buy the next in a series by someone I've already read. There are a lot of authors I admire, but it's just a matter of hours in the day. Faced with someone I've read and someone I've never read, I usually opt for something new.

I enjoyed Differently Morphous so much though, that I thought I'd try out Crowshaw's first novel, Mogworld

In a world full to bursting with would-be heroes, Jim couldn't be less interested in saving the day. His fireballs fizzle. He's awfully grumpy. Plus, he's been dead for about sixty years. When a renegade necromancer wrenches him from eternal slumber and into a world gone terribly, bizarrely wrong, all Jim wants is to find a way to die properly, once and for all.

On his side, he's got a few shambling corpses, an inept thief, and a powerful death wish. But he's up against tough odds: angry mobs of adventurers, a body falling apart at the seams and a team of programmers racing a deadline to hammer out the last few bugs in their AI.

I was not disappointed. It was a crackingly clever idea for a book and anyone who grew up playing RPGs, MUDs, MOOs and adventure games will get it instantly. I can't really say much more without giving stuff away, but once you realise what's going on it's very funny. Brought back a lot of gaming memories of maniacal mods and recurring resurrections. All delivered with Croshaw's trademark cynicism:

The rumbling was turning into a roar, the stairs were starting to shift beneath my hands and feet, and small bits of rock were raining down upon us constantly. A much larger bit of rock decided to join in the fun and thundered down the steps, but it flew over me and collided with someone I hadn't had time to care about.

---

When I was a child, my dad used to take us out badger watching sometimes; we'd sit in a wooden box staring at a hole in the ground, in the hope of catching a glimps of nature's most boring animal. All buggering night. But dad's twisted idea of a good time could finally prove useful. 

---

"The same corruption of life that powers the- that powers James and Meryl, may be spreading to whatever magetechnology exists within the sphere."

"I don't really like 'corruption', it implies there's something wrong with them."

He smacked himself in the face in irritation, his signet ring clattered loudly against his mask. "They've both been dead for six decades and they're walking around. That strikes me as pretty damn wrong."

From the Jungles of Anorexia to the blade of the enchanted sword Killbastard, it's a very entertaining read. I really like his inventiveness when it comes to characters. Each book there's someone memorable. In this case, I think the award goes to Slippery John, a dreadful thief who always refers to himself in third person and shows a touching (ahem) amount of care towards a corpse warrior. There's also an evangelical priest who 'looks like he's been sucking vinegar from a stinging nettle,' and a fascinating character at the very beginning called Dreadgrave, who possesses some striking similarities - and wardrobe choices - to Doctor Diablerie.

It was also somewhat educational, introducing me to Quantum Suicide Theory, and the fact that computers have been passing the Turing test for years. I'm still trying to work out exactly when (comment if you know), as the BBC released an article reporting that the first computer passed the Turing test in 2014, but Mogworld was released in 2008 and says they'd already been doing it for years by then. It seems to have been ELIZA in 1966? Interesting stuff.

Anyway, enjoyed it and added a couple more Croshaw titles to my TBR.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Bloodsucker



The past month has been a pretty tough one for me. I had recurring malaria, meaning I got it once but the medication didn't clear it up, so it came back. Twice in one month had me pretty low, and when it came back the second time, it didn't show up in blood tests for almost two weeks. That was brutal, because I knew I was sick but I didn't know what was wrong.

Anyway, all better now, but during that dark stint, I wrote two posts on the subject:


Hopefully they're of use to someone in the future.

There's also a book by journalist Sonia Shah about malaria. It's called The Fever. I started reading it a while back but got distracted. I've just downloaded it from Audible now because it's a subject I feel a personal connection with and would really like to know more about. I'll put up a review once I've finished. Meanwhile, here's Shah giving a talk on the subject.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Old Man and the Sea


Recently, a friend had me watch Into the Wild, which tells the story of a real-life young man, Christopher McCandless, who went off into the wild to escape civilisation and eventually starved to death. The literature he reads is a running theme throughout the film, and not surprisingly, Hemingway makes an appearance. He crops up in many of-an-era road trip films and memoirs. 

I got to thinking that I'd never actually read Hemingway, and that I should probably change that. After all, he's held up as an icon of clean prose and something to aspire to in writing. If you want to get technical about it, there's an excellent article on What Makes Hemingway Hemingway?

The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics. - Hemingway

Not a quote I'm entirely sure I agree with, but the article certainly presents Hemingway's immutable laws in a way we can all understand.

So, the next question was where to start? I checked into a couple of forums and the two titles that kept coming up for newbies were The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises. I went with the former, partly because it was shorter, partly because it was read by Donald Sutherland, and partly because I was curious how you could make an entire novella out of trying to hunt a fish... a whale, maybe, but a fish?

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal, a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Here Hemingway recasts, in strikingly contemporary style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss.

Written in 1952, this hugely successful novella confirmed Hemingway's power and presence in the literary world and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I know getting it as an audiobook seems counterproductive to understanding Hemingway's style of writing, but when you read enough books and write enough books, you can actually see the punctuation float past most of the time. He definitely had a unique style. 

As with most classic literature, some of it doesn't translate brilliantly for a modern female reader living in Africa...

He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.


*

He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. 

*

"Fish," he said, "I love you and respect you very much, but I will kill you dead before this day ends."

*

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

The last bit sort of reminded me about The Most Dangerous Game, at the beginning where they're talking about how the lion, or whatever it is they're hunting, lives for the hunt and wants to be hunted. A way of thinking that still exists for some today, but is growing further towards the minority of popular thinking. 

It is deceptive the way that he writes. Because the prose are simplistic, and the plot is a very straightforward one, you occasionally get ambushed by rather graphic moments, such as the sound a Portuguese man o' war makes when you pop it with the horny sole of your foot on the beach.

I've mentioned before that I like graphic stuff, but that I sometimes struggle when it's directed at animals, so this probably wasn't the best book of all for me to choose, as it's all about hunting down a giant fish.

Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too. 

But there were also some moments of introspection that were very touching.

"Age is my alarm clock," the old man said. "Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?"

*

He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.

That last one was interesting, because it's a superstition still held to by so many today, such as when you make a birthday wish or you hope you'll get a job, but you don't tell people you've applied or what the wish was because you fear that by speaking it, you'll jinx it. 

The story was less than two-and-a-half hours long, but I made a surprising number of notes. 

I now appreciate Hemingway's style and what people see in it. Most of what he said is what I teach both in creative and technical writing, where I place a lot of emphasis on economic use of language - shorter sentences, fewer words. Though it's interesting to see from the article above that short sentences became less important to Hemingway as his career progressed. I think this is true for most of my students, too. Once you've got the basics pegged, and you know how to form clear, concise sentences, then you can play with them. Then you get poetic, you create more complex sentences. Hemingway's style is very recognisable, but so are other writers like Divakaruni, Marlon James and Ann Radcliffe. People have written best sellers and award-winning novels in many styles, long before and long after Hemingway. I like his style, but I wouldn't want it to be the only thing I ever read. Simplicity is refreshing and easy to follow, but sometimes you want to be swept away on a full-colour panorama of a sentence. 

More interesting than I expected it to be, and a story with a lot to consider. I couldn't help thinking, due to the ending, that it probably wouldn't have been published today. Not in mainstream circles. Not a crowd pleaser. That's why I do enjoy classic literature. It can really knock you out of your day-to-day headspace, and Donald Sutherland was the perfect voice to bring it to life. 

If you enjoyed the breakdown of Hemingway's writing style in the article, you might also like this artwork made from analysing punctuation.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Bonfire Bonanza


Big thank you to my friend Jo for hosting a lovely bonfire party last night for around sixty people. A night full of sticky toffee pudding, mulled wine, marshmallows and cheer.

 


    Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder Treason
    Should ever be forgot.
    Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
    To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
    Three-score barrels of powder below
    To prove old England's overthrow;
    By God's providence he was catch'd
    With a dark lantern and burning match.
    Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
    Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
    And what should we do with him? Burn him!  





A really good night, and nice to be surrounded by friends. More fun for us than Guy, I guess.


Thursday, 31 October 2019

Samhain Shivers


Happy New Year (Samhain) to any Pagan followers. Thought I'd share a little box of shivers this year.

First up is the film I mentioned in my Zodiac review. Said to have influenced the serial killer. The Most Dangerous Game from 1932. No blood or gruesome special effects. Just a creepy concept.



Whilst looking for that, I also found one of my favourite dated horrors, Theatre of Blood, from 1973, starring Vincent Price. A thoroughly Shakespearean tale of revenge and murder.



If you're looking for more modern thrills, I suggest The Haunting of Hill House and Typewriter on Netflix. There's also David Farrier's travel documentary, Dark Tourist.

For reading, lovers of horror might like to turn their attention to Peter Laws's book, The Frighteners, exploring why we love to get goosebumps.


Or pick up a classic work of Gothic fiction from my suggested reading list.

You can also check out one of my three dark stories. If you like paranormal spookiness, try Creeper's Cottage (UK/US). If you prefer murderous historical fiction, perhaps Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran (UK/US), if something more contemporary and dreamlike, Lucid (UK/US).

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Code Name Verity


With the exception of Birdsong, which was extraordinary, I read very little fiction set in the two world wars. I'm not really much of a spy thriller or romance fan, and that's what most of it tends to be about. However, I found myself on an Audible sales binge and needed to make up the basket number. I thought the premise of this one sounded good, so added it to the cart:

Code Name Verity is a compelling, emotionally rich story with universal themes of friendship and loyalty, heroism and bravery. Two young women from totally different backgrounds are thrown together during World War II: one a working-class girl from Manchester, the other a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a wireless operator. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted friends. But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in Verity's own words, as she writes her account for her captors.

I found the first half dragged me in, but the second half, where it changed perspective, was a bit of a slow burn - up until the climax, which was rather unexpected and extremely memorable. I was listening on Audible, and had set it to turn off at the end of the chapter. When it did, I lay there in stunned silence, waiting for the next sentence, which of course didn't come. Ten out of ten for setting that up and knocking it down. Very good storytelling. 

Please forgive any errors below as I'm transcribing from audio clips, one annoying issue with reviewing audiobooks, as you can't check the original text.

There were some insightful moments:

People are complicated. There's so much more to everybody than you realise. You see someone in school every day, or at work in the canteen, and you share a cigarette or a coffee with them, and you talk about the weather or last night's air raid, but you don't talk so much about what was the nastiest thing you said to your mother, or how you pretended to be David Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, for the whole of the year when you were thirteen, or what you imagine yourself doing with the pilot who looks like Leslie Howard if you were alone in his bunk after a dance.

Some funny ones:

[The ATA] fly without radio or navigation aids. They do have maps, but they're not allowed to mark balloons or new airfields on them in case they lose the maps and you lot pick them up. Maddie did a training course when she joined, early in 1941, and she had one instructor who told her, "You don't need a map, just fly this heading for as long as it takes to smoke two cigarettes. Then turn, and fly the next heading for another cigarette... FDF - Fag Direction Finding.

Some very interesting factual ones:

Since 1940, we have not come off daylight saving at all, and in summer it is double, which means for a whole month it doesn't get dark till nearly midnight.
---
I wonder where that is right now, the safest place in the world? Even the neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, are surrounded. Ireland's stuck with being divided. They have to mark the neutral bit IRELAND in big letters made of whitewashed stones, hoping the Germans won't drop bombs there thinking it's the UK side of the northern border. I've seen it from the air.

And the occasional literary sparkler:
But a part of me lies buried in lace and roses, on a riverbank in France. A part of me has broken off forever. A part of me will always be unflyable.

---

The Official Secrets Act is of little consequence in a house which absorbs secrets like damp. 

I also learned that Aberdeen's dialect is called Doric (you can hear a sample here), that Hitler had a real downer on smoking and it appears women weren't allowed to buy cigarettes in some places, and a fascinating bit about the invention of the ballpoint pen, originally known as Etta Pens. The author explained this at the end of the book, 'as paper and ink are the fabric of this novel.'

So I thought I ought to check to make sure ballpoint pens existed in 1943. It turns out they did, but only just. The ballpoint pen was invented my László Bíró, a Hungarian journalist who fled to Argentina to escape the German occupation of Europe. In 1943 he licensed his invention to the RAF, and the first ballpoint pens were manufactured in Reading, England, by the Miles Aircraft manufacturer to supply pilots with a lasting ink supply.

Which brings me to an issue I'm still making my mind up about audiobooks. This one reminded me a bit of Before We Were Yours, partly because they both had characters called Queenie, and also because, at the end, the authors added an explanation of some of the details in their books.

I enjoyed Wingate's supplementary in Before We Were Yours, because I was extremely curious to know the real-life events the book was based on. I went off and had a good Google afterwards. However, a lot of the time it can be quite intrusive. With a print edition, you can read the last sentence, close the book, lie back and absorb what you've just read. But with an audiobook, it ploughs on regardless, and before you know it, you've got an author who starts to explain the reasoning behind plot decisions, points out and tries to explain any inaccuracies and stretches of the imagination, and offers up extra titbits from their research. This can really break the spell. And it's not the author's fault, a lot of what they're saying is interesting, but it's a fault with audiobooks that you don't get a chance to decide whether to finish at the end of the story or the end of the book. Plus, this edition also had a really pushy book advert at the end which just left me thinking bugger off

That aside though, it was a good story. I'm glad I bought it. Memorable.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

TEDx Luxembourg II




A year ago, I gave my TEDx talk at the University of Luxembourg. This year, they held the event for a second time. It will be a while before the professionally edited versions go live, but here's the link to the three livestream sessions on the University of Luxembourg's Facebook Page:


As with all TEDx events, they include a couple of previous TED videos. The one at the top was really funny, the one below is really poignant.


Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Black Biscuit Baker


Long-term readers will know my affiliation with Hookland (@HooklandGuide), a mythical county in England where folklore lives and breathes. I set a previous novel there, Creeper's Cottage (UK/US).


Some years back, there was talk of a Hookland anthology, but it went wandering out across the misty moors and never returned. That happens a lot in Hookland, so here's a little story I wrote for it. If you make it to the end, there's a picture of some real funeral biscuits my mum made using the recipe at the beginning. She said they tasted 'gritty'.




The Black Biscuit Baker
or Skulls and Hourglesses


8 lbs. of flour
1½ lbs. of butter
1¼ lbs. of sugar
¾ lbs. of charcoal powder
½ pint of eggs
Milk as required

That is how you bake death.

Like my mother and her mother before her, it has been my duty to keep alive the tradition of funeral biscuits. Each is embossed with a sigil. In the east of the county, they are baked with a skull. In the west, with an hourglass.

Here at Panhurst Drift, we do things proper: one of each.
 
A skull to remind us that we are going to die.
 
An hourglass to remind us that we still have time.
 
You cannot see time, you cannot hear it or taste it, but when there is none left, you know about it.
 
Come, take my hand. I will show you how to make them.
 
Funeral biscuits are an ancient custom, baked black with charcoal. 

In the depths of night on the new moon, I walk the ancient corpse road from Panhurst Drift to the village down the valley. You may choose to light a lanthorn if you wish, but I have walked this path my entire life, and need no such guide.
 
It is only in the dark that you can hear the voices of those who have walked this route before. On late summer eves they whisper to themselves amongst the trees, babbling through the brook and laughing as their spirits chase one another across the marshy morass. See there, those little balls of light which seem to know one another, and move away as we approach?
 
In winter come the angry ones. The olden spirits who died in battle, aggrieved by foes, calling out the names of all their deeds left yet undone. Their voices scream up from Devil’s Scar, intent on stripping flesh from bone. You’d do well to pull your shawl about you tight and make for hearth and home.
 
It is not my place to follow the playful dead, nor fear the vengeful. 

I serve Death, and in so doing, he leaves me be.
 
Follow, a little faster now. Pick up your feet where the road grows rocky.
 
I’ll take you with me on this journey, yet when we arrive hold all complaint. You asked to come, and I am willing, though I shall not have you act surprised, nor listen to you opine upon my methods. The dish I cook has filled the stomachs of those five hundred years dead. It is not for a new-born to curl up their nose at the food of their ancestors, for it will be your food, and the food of your young, and for many a generation left to come.
 
Watch. Take note if you must. But do so in silence.
 
See down there in the valley – the lights of Panhurst.
 
When I was a child, I used to look upon those glowing bulbs as stars. See how dark it is about, as though we step through space itself. Minor gods glancing down upon a galaxy. That bright one there, the glowing sun of John Maudlin School, around which all other planets circle, drawn by the weight of intellect.
 
We will not reach that far tonight.
 
Under the Myrtle bush we roam, thrice together and thrice alone. O’er the moor and up the hills, through the crags and down the rills. When grandma calls you home for tea, go to her or follow me.

That’s a song my mother used to sing as we walked. She sang so that I would never wander further than her voice, lest I lose myself in the dark. My throat is sore from age, so I trust you will stay close behind the sweep of my cloak.
 
There in the dark, that crooked finger pointing to the sky. That is the shadow of the church. When we arrive you’ll see a well before the gate. We each must throw a penny in to pay our way, though you will never hear it hit the bottom.
 
And now that we have paid, the dead will let us pass.
 
So many names here. People I have known in legend and in life.
 
There’s the grave of Mary Bay with weeping angels at her brow. She was the first I ever baked for. Three days in labour for a still-born son. She wept three days more before walking out into the snow and lying down to numb her grief. In some counties they would not allow her a burial on consecrated ground, but here our land belongs to those who sweat and suffer. God may visit if He pleases.
 
There, beneath the yew is the body of Brown Man Muirs. The stone that marks his place is worn by weather, yet some say he walks the valley as a black fox with a silver-tipped tail. Poachers beware on the full moon, for he moves the traps and tricks the hunter into hunting himself.
 
Up there by the porch is a plaque to Lady Eleanor Mordant, see the eyes carved beneath the inscription? She watches all who walk beneath, trusting none. For they say it was poison what took her, administered by the hand of her own husband who caught her once with a stablehand.
 
And there, over by the wall, a twisting cross of ivy for the resting place of Marjory Blue. She was a healer in my great grandmother’s time, walking the woods and the moors, collecting all manner of herbs. She mended bones and calmed the cough of infants and the elderly. They call her Blue because the whole summer through, a bright ring of forget-me-nots flower about her grave.
 
Enough now, we have work to do.
 
Follow me to the back of the bone hall, and mind you step on no one’s grave. The dead consider that an insult and your dreams will be disturbed for a month.
 
To make this dish, we must make charcoal. Only the wood of the weeping willow will do, and here is an ancient one. Take my slicer with the bog oak hilt, that wood is five thousand years if it’s a day. Burry the blade in the earth, kiss it, and repeat these words:
 
I come to you mother of sorrows, to take from you a branch or two. You, whose roots lift the shrouds of the dead, whose friends, the worm and grub, will be my friends too someday. I take no more than I need. What I take will comfort the grieving. Within three days I will return your kindness with flesh to strengthen your bow.

Mother Welig, Sallow Sue, she never minds a branch or two.
 
When women have their monthlies, or a young buck breaks a bone, I make a tea of willow bark to ease their pain, though I never take from a tree in the old bone hall for that.
 
So, now we have what we came for, it’s a slow steady march back to the Drift. You’re thirsty. I can tell, but don’t let food nor drink pass your lips in this place. Let’s get beyond the wailing rock, there’s a stream there with water fresh from the hills.
 
They call this the wailing rock because they say it’s the furthest point that mourners’ heartbreak can be heard. When they inter the dead, when mothers cry for their daughters and fathers their sons, their laments echo up the valley. Yet grief must have its end, beyond which life continues its merry jaunt. Here is that point.
 
Sip from my cupped hands and quench your thirst.
 
Always drink from the fast-flow, never the eddies, for it is in the silent pools that fay folk dip their feet and enchant the water.
 
Here, now, as we enter the Drift, keep your quiet. The folks round here know that I hold my own hours, but it does no one good to remind them. If you should meet someone on the path, hold your breath and bow your head. Come morning, they will have forgotten they ever saw you.
 
Come, wipe your feet upon the mat. I do not want bone hall soil across my floor. Stoke the fire and let us take some bread and cheese before we set to work. We have journeyed far and not every footfall met with solid earth. We must bring ourselves back to this world before we go further.
 
Throw your crumbs into the fire. These flames helped to cook that bread, and now must reap their reward.
 
Yes, please. A little cheese for Sula, for she protects the house when her mistress goes out walking. There has always been a cat at this cottage, black as the biscuits we bake. She welcomes guests, as you can see.
 
You are warm and your belly full, so let’s begin before you grow tired. Stoop your head, for the back door is low. People were shorter once upon a time, when this house was built. Its stones have absorbed many ouches and buggers from people who were not wary.
 
Can you smell the lavender and the rosemary? That is bergamot over there, it flowers flame-red at summer’s end. And here, lemon thyme. Rub your fingers through it to improve your mood. There is sage, and fennel, and over by the wall a shaded patch of jack-in-the-hedge, which smells of garlic and garnishes leafy salads.
 
Bring logs from the wood stock and help me place them in this pit. We’ll build a fire high, and let it burn low. Once the embers rest and sigh, we’ll strip the willow of her bark and place her in the dottie pot.
 
Pass me a branch and watch how I do it. First you pull away the leaves. Put them in a pile, we’ll compost later. Take your slicer and cut it gently just behind the brown. Hold the bark to the blade with your thumb and pull, peeling it down top to tail. If it snags, slice and pull again. All the way around until the stem is green.
 
My thumb is hardened from years of this, but if you start to sore, I have a plaster you can wrap about. We’ll need maybe twenty of these to make enough for baking. Five for you, fifteen for me, it’ll only take a little while.
 
Now cut the stems three inches each and put them in the dottie pot. This one here’s the oldest. A gift to my grandmother of buttered shortcake. That was a true luxury in those days. This one here you might recognise, an old tin of Quality Street, the memory of a long-ago Christmas past, all the colours burnt black.
 
Hold the tin up to the fire and you’ll see the dots. Eight little holes through the lid to allow the spirit of the wood to escape. Pack your strips of willow tight, and pop the lid on tighter. Now place it across these two sticks and I’ll lower it into the embers.
 
See now, as it starts to smoke? That’s Mother Welig breathing out. It’ll take an hour or more for all her breath to leave her. Pass me that stick there and I’ll poke it in the ashes till it catches, then set light to the vapours. That’s how you know it is done. When you light the dotties and nothing burns, that’s when the dragon sleeps.
 
Let’s you and I refresh ourselves whilst we wait. I have dandelion coffee on the shelf. Baked the roots myself and ground them down to powder, a little honey to sweeten.
 
Raise your cup to the sky and keep your eyes wide for falling stars. We see them often round these parts. Christ folks say it’s God casting another angel out of Heaven, but stars have been falling long before angels walked on earth, so perhaps it is simply the Infinite waving hello.
 
Tonight we bake for the dead, but many’s the living I’ve bake for, too.
 
We call the biscuits titch cobs, little lumps. If a woman be wanting a brood and all her huffing and puffing beneath the blankets yields her none, then she comes to me for a red cob, baked of her monthly blood and carmine. A lover’s cob, with a dash of a man’s seed or a woman’s slick excitement, means the one who consumes it will never leave. Bake a briny cob, mashed with spit, and ill fortune will afflict the one who eats.
 
Folks round here pretend they’re above it, but every moon I have a dozen customers or more.
 
Though it doesn’t always work the way they’d like. When I was still a cub myself, I baked a lover’s cob for Anabel Clark. She’d had her eye on Duncan Polter, as had all the girls. Duncan worked the fields beside his father, sleeves rolled up, muscles slick with sweat. What a fine sight he was. All the women, maiden, mother and crone, would find an excuse to pass by the field when Duncan was hoeing.
 
She paid me handsome with coin and pheasant. We mixed the batter together, cinnamon and sugar, baked until the butter crumbled to the touch. She placed the biscuits in a little box, tied it up with a green ribbon, and left them by his door.
 
The young man came home hot from the sun, washed himself down in the trough and ate the entire lot in one sitting.
 
When he awoke, all he could think of was Anabel Clark. She weren’t the most attractive girl in the Drift, nor the plainest neither. Yet something about her sparkled. A little voice whispered to him that she was special, and that he would be a fool not to seek her out and propose before the day was done.
 
That night she went passing by his place and he happened to be awake, fondling thoughts of her, as you might well imagine. He looked out his window to see Anabel there, lit up by the swollen moon.
 
That night he took her to bed, next month they were wed.
 
A happy story, you might think. Two young’ns in love.
 
Three years they were happy, two sons they had. Duncan was still a handsome man. Briding hadn’t turned him to wine, nor stuffed his belly fat with oats and stew. He continued in the field, working that extra weight into muscle. Many women tried their luck, but he refused them all. Faithful to the core, was Duncan Polter.
 
Then, come harvest, a terrible misfortune befell.
 
Duncan, his father, and his men were out loading hay onto the cart, when a flock of birds took wing, spooking the horse. It shied and reared, twisting in its harness. Duncan’s father ran to calm it, but all too late, for the cart came over, right on top of poor Duncan.
 
There was naught to be done, for it crushed his legs completely. They brought him to Old Shrewdie, who patched him up proper. She kept the rot out, splinted him straight with wood and clay. He lay like that for months. Anabel was by his side every day until they lifted him into the chair. She broke her back pushing him up that hill to home, for she wouldn’t let another do it.
 

Yet, as the days went by and the seasons changed, her feelings towards him waned with the harvest. No longer working, the oats and stew began to fill him out, and the wine pitcher lay empty. Her children kept her busy all the hours long, yet when night falls, a woman needs her husband’s warmth.
 
Duncan would not die, and he could not leave. The spell she’d cast in youth had aged into a burden. He would weep whenever she left his side, and cling to her skirts like a babe. Three children she had to wash, not two. Three to feed, three to dress, three pots to empty every morn.
 
Eventually she found the warmth that she’d been missing. A farmhand called John Under, who had no qualm in sharing her bed whilst her husband slept by the hearth.
 
John wanted Anabel to wife, and she was desperate to accept. So, one night they conspired beside the flames, to press poor Duncan’s pillow about his face until his broken heart gave out.
 
How many biscuits do you think I had to bake that month?
 
Three batches.
 
One for Duncan, and two for those who had put him in the earth.
They said Anabel and John had died of grief for their wicked sin, found swinging from the ash in Ploughman’s Copse. Yet round these parts, there are those who hold to justice tight. Those who come for others in the late hour of the night, to remind them of their wrongs.
 
You may well ask why I still bake, when my own flour-dusted hands played a part in their sad story. Well, baking is my business, and fate is theirs. Of more than twenty-dozen lovers’ cobs I’ve mixed, that was the only tragic end as I recall. Every baker’s batch turns out one duff cob now and then.
 
Speaking of which, look there, you see? The dottie pots have ceased to squeal, the flames have tapered out. Help me lift them from the fire, we’ll place damp cloths atop them and then we’ll head to bed. We’ve worked the night away, and soon dawn will grey the horizon. We’ll wake late and I’ll crisp bacon on the pan until the sides turn brown. We’ll eat it with goose eggs and a steaming pot of coffee, then set upon our next task.

*

Rested, let us pop the lids.
 
Have you ever known such black velvet in your life? Take a piece and break it, see how it crumbles, leaving your fingers sooty and smooth as silk. Artists down in Panhurst bring thicker branches for me to turn to vine. They sell it in the shops in Hook, to Bohemians and students who like to draw in old-fashioned ways.
 
This is destined for the pestle, though. Come, bring your pot to the kitchen and we’ll lay down paper to catch the black. One small handful at a time, we’ll add it to the mortar and grind it into powder so fine it feels like flour.
 
Now for the dough. Measure out the white flour along with the charcoal, we’ll sieve it together to remove the crumbs. Mother’s earthenware bowl is large enough. Add the butter, fresh churned from Greenfeather Farm. Get your fingers in there, nice and sticky, rub between your tips until it starts to bind.
 
Pass me the wooden spoon right there. We’ll make a well in the middle to crack in the eggs. We have a hundred biscuits to make, so you take five and I’ll take five and we’ll take turns to break them. Leave a couple of shells on the ground, Sula likes to lick them.
 
Now to add the sweetness. Roll up your sleeves and beat that batter hard with the spoon. Try not to think of angry thoughts or lustful ones. They’ll help you beat the batter harder, but a baker’s thoughts flow into the mix and will haunt the dreams of all who eat. Fix your eyes upon a single spot and whip and whip until your arm aches. If you must think on something, think on that ache. Enjoy it, for it means you are working hard.
 
When the spoon gets stuck, lay it aside and get your hands back in there. Knead with your knuckles, get your full weight behind it. Don’t worry if your sweat drips, the salt will mix with the tears of the mourners. Pummel and punch, roll and raise.
Bring it over to the table here. I’ll dust it with flour and we’ll roll it out the full length.
 
Over there in the wall beside the fire, you see that iron door? Put on the oven mitts and pull it open. We’ll stoke the hearth and that will heat the box. That’s how everyone used to cook in the old days. You can do a fine roast in that, chicken with sage stuffing and skin that melts on your tongue. A nice leg of mutton with rosemary and plum sauce.
 
It’s small, though. We’ll have to bake the biscuits in lots. I’ll cut the dough into quarters and we’ll likely work through until midnight. Another late night, but you’re not tired, are you?
 
That’s it. Roll it out nice and thin, then take the glass, hold it upside down, and cut those circles close together.
 
Remember what I said about the sigils?
 
Well, I’m going to show you a family heirloom. Rosewood handles, solid silver stamps. See how they’ve tarnished through time. My mother held these, and her mother, and her mother before. Ancient, these are. Tonight I will allow you the honour of holding them, for all the help you’ve given an old woman at her work.
 
We’ll do one batch of skulls and one of hourglasses. They’ll go in separate baskets. Each guest is offered one of each.
 
Now, onto the tray and into the oven with them.
 
It will rain tonight, I can smell it in the air, and the pine cone by the window has closed.
 
They say it is good luck to have rain before a funeral. It means the sky is weeping, and it only weeps for those who have lived a good life. People buried in dry earth are forgotten quickly, but those buried in the damp bloom memories in the minds of others for years to come.
 
I like the smell of rain. It reminds me of the night I gave birth to my own daughter. She was small and pale, and did not last the night. Yet when I pressed her to me and smelled her forehead, it felt as though the world were at peace.  The rain hammered against the window so hard I thought a hundred souls had risen from the bone hall to come look through the glass and love her.
 
When eventually they took her from my arms, I set about baking straight away. The whole of the Drift came, and half the inhabitants of Panhurst. I did not cry, for although she would never live, I knew that she had been born whole, complete.
 
Those stamps there will go to the grave with me. Once I am gone there will be no black baker left in these parts. Some may remember the tradition and try to copy, but baking titch cobs is a lifelong calling. It is not simply something one does, but something one is. Few would give up their modern lives for the dedication it demands. Why walk to a graveyard and grind your own charcoal when you can simply order it online? Why take the time to learn the names of the trees, and their courtesies, when lumber yards in Coreham split the logs and deliver to your door?
 
It is not only people who die, but traditions also.
 
Come, let us not think on sad things this evening. I can taste the charcoal on my tongue, that batch is close to baked. Let’s ready the next so that the heat of the oven won’t be lost.

*

And so all the cobs are crisp and cooling.
 
We have worked hard these past two nights, and now it is time to rest. In the morning we will pack them into Oval Eddies, tuck them in with blankets, and take them down to Greenfeather Farm. Elmen keeps an ice house down on his land. That’s where we store the dead until it’s time for them to go along the corpse road to the church.
 
Old Man Merriton will be tuning up his flute, and little Arthur Arnot has been practising his drum all week. He plays in the cadet band in Coreham, and can keep a marching beat well enough for a ten-year-old.
 
So, to bed with you. We must wake early, for the procession starts at sunrise.

*

Were your dreams pleasant?
 
I find that mine are often far-reaching the night before a day like this.
 
Sometimes I feel as though I leave my flesh beneath the quilt, whilst I head out across the moors. I swoop and reel like a kestrel at its prey. The wind sweeps me high across the burnt landscape, the marsh lights and the mist weaving a shroud below until I barely feel I know my way home.
 
You still have sleep in your eyes, but the sky is starting to lighten and we must leave if we are to do our duty well.
 
Take your waterproofs. The dew on the grass will seep through your soles, soaking your socks. My father taught me from the war, that the most important thing a person possesses is a dry pair of feet.
 
Come now, leave Sula in her basket. Her paws are twitching, she’s off across the field chasing phantom mice.
 
I can hear the call of Merriton’s flute already. His fingers never miss a hole, though when he practises I do not know, for he only ever plays in public for funerals and births.
 
When we get down to the farm, you mind your footing. The cows walk the track twice a day to the milking parlour, and they’re none too mindful where they spread their dung. It’s slippy along the path, and there’s no dignity in turning up to a funeral covered in ripe.
 
There’s more people here than I’d expected.
 
Make your way over to that corner there. I’ll take an Eddie of skulls and glasses, whilst you watch the stock. Mrs. Witburn already has her eye on me. She knows I’m needed, but she’s one of those Christ lovers who dislikes reminders of the old ways. I’d best go give her a smile and a cob.
 
My basket’s empty already.
 
Here, let me take the second round.
 
You just stay and watch. 

*
 
That’s it. All our hard work handed out. A sombre breakfast for a sullen crowd. Only Old Man Merriton seems to be enjoying himself, and little Arthur Arnot. His mother is so proud he’s leading the march, and he’s so proud that she’s so proud.
 
The procession is lining up outside and the pallbearers taking their places.
 
Here is where I must leave you.
 
I’ve never been much for the pew. The bone hall calls me down at night, but come daylight I prefer to give worship to the hills and the rivers. They birthed me, and when the time comes, they’ll claim me.
 
But you go with them now. They’re all good folks, they’ll see you right.
 
And when they put you in the ground and cast that first fistful of earth upon you, do not be afraid. Remember these two nights we’ve shared, and know that where I roam I will remember.
 
You will not be forgot.
 
And know that though you leave us, others will come to take your hand. Mary Bay and Eleanor Mordant, and Marjory Blue with her delicate wreath of forget-me-nots.
 
We are none of us ever alone.
 
Where they’ve been, you shall go, and I will follow after.