Sideshow poems and portraits from the lost world of the british fairground
with stories and poems by john björling richard evans nora kirienko p.a. levy peter lingard nicky marsh conan mcmurtrie carolyn oulton a.h. sargeant ford p. waight derek ivan webster alexander zelenyj
£3.50 / €5.00 we love
summer & autumn
for issue six
Richard Adams the watership down author on tootsie roll poems and those most famous of rabbits
Editor’s letter W
elcome to issue six of our little magazine. It contains six short stories and 18 poems by seven authors, as well as illustrations, the start of a new regular column and an interview with the British novelist and writer Richard Adams. If you have read any previous editions of Structo you may notice that the cover this time around is a little busier than usual – a change which I thought merited a quick explanation. You see, as the previous issue was never meant to be sold in shops, only on-line, it had very little in the way of information on what might be contained within, only stating that it included short stories and poems (to say nothing of the interview). Since the publication of that issue however, the magazine has become available from several brick-and-mortar shops: four in the UK and one in Paris, and so we decided to make it a bit easier for the browsing public to see what kind of a magazine they would be letting themselves in for. The arresting image on the cover is taken from the Sideshow Stories exhibition, and we are very happy to be able to carry a selection of the portraits and poems from the show in this issue of the magazine. Like its namesake, the exhibition is touring festival grounds across the country this summer, no doubt attracting the same kind of crowds. Our thanks this issue go out to The Albion Beatnick’s Dennis Harrison for his support (and debilitatingly-good bookshop) and to Nina Hervé for her patient help with all aspects of the Sideshow Stories. And to you, the reader, for supporting this kind of thing. This issue is dedicated to the memory of Nora Kirienko. Euan Monaghan (Bucks. May 2011)
Credits & legal gubbins Editor/designer: Euan Monaghan Contributing editor: Keir Pratt Copy editor: Elaine Monaghan Editorial board: Matt Cook, Elaine Monaghan, Euan Monaghan & Keir Pratt ISSN: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (on-line) Stockists include: Rough Trade East, London; Cornerhouse, Manchester; The Albion Beatnik, Oxford; MK Gallery, Milton Keynes; Shakespeare & Co., Paris
structomagazine.co.uk email@example.com @structomagazine All text contained within the pages of this magazine are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence (except the poems and illustrations comprising Sideshow Stories which are © their respective creators, and the poems from Autumn Leaves, which are © the estate of Nora Kirienko). Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. The Structo logo and logotype are protected by the above Creative Commons licence. The Newspaper Club logo is © Newspaper Club. And that’s that.
Excerpts from Sideshow Stories by w i l l
bu r ns
ja son bu t l e r
n Sideshow Stories, a touring exhibition of portraits and poetry, collaborators Jason Butler and Will Burns open a window into the world of the fairgrounds and sideshows which were once such a common sight in the British landscape. Butler’s ink illustrations inspired Burns’ rich narrative verse, and together they spin us tales of the people who once inhabited this long-gone world of freaks and geeks. What is revealed is in equal parts uncomfortable, intimate and heartfelt, with many of the subjects ambivalently meeting the voyeuristic stares of the audience in both image and text. The first stop on Sideshow Stories’ jaunt around the country is the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall in July, after which it will appear as part of the LoCo ‘Week of Transformations’ at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall during the second week of August, from there to the End Of The Road art and music festival at the beginning of September, before finally ending up at Jersey’s Branchage Film Festival at the end of the month.
The Showman’s Prayer
The stench of harvested shellfish is more mussels and whelks here than scallops – the people did survive the cholera epidemic by eschewing water for beer.
Now we see the main man, the crowd conjurer, Uttering his incantations, his speech is strong Gathering the gawpers, the curious congregation.
An island full of foreigners regeneration is the latest arrival’s language; their mysterious religion, music and dance – all assimilation and pillage. Dionysus’ ritual, ecstatic carnival – spreading west across whole continents, wandering from Asia in wooden horse-drawn caravans and living in tents.
It is he who summons, the lines of the oglers, The wonder watchers, and takes from them their measure, With long-learned phrases, in exchange for entertainments. Within the wanderer’s words, his practised parley, Years of an ancient code, the trade’s tradition. And yet he speaks to all, and shushes the sundry. Toothless Mouth
Eventually, the World’s Strongest Man, attired in a leopard skin worn thin with age, supporting stoically the burden of a secret society and some older, pagan worship of the stage,
Bloated, the canvas bag just sits there, full of tools that are old and rusted. Hand turned screw drivers;
romantic, drinks wine and thinks about his childhood in Europe.
the mechanism locked up through lack of use, the gleaming metal once gun coloured and
One Hundred Horsepower In the village, we never knew or used his real name. We were children and we called him Hundred Horsepower. I had given the name to the others and heard it from my mother, who, describing him as a much younger man has told me of his ability to hurl the Waltzers round at an incredible speed. Then, years later, every time the Fair came through and set up on the manor waste, he walked along each morning, early, and did his day’s work into the evening. He still knew all the men, and his boys – who did not attend our school – knew all the boys. Boys who while the Fair was there, could have their pick tanned and topless and with dirty fingernails. But when the rides and engines had packed up, leaving behind only bleached shapes in the grass, and moved on, he and his boys shrank back into the margins of the town, and the little row of houses in which they lived. Pursued always by ugly whispers.
shiny, slicked and smelling of oil, now dulled reddish-brown. And hacksaw blades – bent like barbed wire, as perverted and useless as a toothless mouth. The sharpness fails and the lustre dims. The bag’s canvas bleached by the sunlight that pours through the window, stiffens and decays, becomes the bog itself; the body. Transformation They never think why or how it is propelled – any of it. The people pay their money to become one small part of a whole crowd – the locus of change. They come to see the engines, fuelled by coal, steam, electricity. Built to violate the evening’s dignified and calm truth. To propel the throng; Turning, wheeling, riding into entertainment. An industry of sheet metal, canvas, paint, sweet smells – subtle languages of commerce!
Move into the crowd. Enjoy the show.
While most of the portraits in the exhibition are not linked directly to any particular poem, the portrait above was the inspiration for the strongman known as ‘Hundred Horsepower’ – Ed.
Dying Days of Treasure Spiders Everywhere by a l e x a n d e r
he projects burned before them: children hung like listless simians from the rusted skeleton of the decrepit jungle gym; the black and white trash tenants of the townhouses haunted their porches languorously, drinking bottled beer and smoking cigarettes while watching the street with despondent eyes; the occasional car rattled past trailing exhaust and adding a chemical stink to the already pungent reek of late-staying June bugs which stippled the house fronts and streets and sidewalks. The familiar scene filled the boy’s chest with a thick kind of anxiety. He inhaled the awful air hungrily but felt as if something blocked its passage inside him. His grandfather’s voice was husky, as if from disuse, but the boy knew that this was only the natural sound of his old-man voice, the sound of sand granules crunching deep in the moist darkness of his throat. “How is your collection of spiders these torrid days of August, my boy? They’re well, I imagine? They’re used to the sultry weather, I’d say.” His grandfather always sounded as if he were reciting poetry from books, which always calmed the boy when he was upset about something in the same way that reading books made him feel better, too. Now, though, the boy only nodded mechanically. Eager to obey his grandfather’s wishes, though feeling physically depleted and as if any movement was beyond his capabilities just then, he leaned from the porch overlooking the dirt garden abutting the left side of the cement. He retrieved the large, sunwarmed glass marmalade jar embedded in the soil and held it aloft between his small hands for the old man to see. Squinting into the sun-flashing jar, his grandfather examined the creatures within. “Oh my, what colourful friends you keep, my boy. Vivid! Bright as flowers! What is his name?” and he cocked a trembling crooked finger towards the immense yellow banana spider owning the upper portion of the jar, its prodigious leg-span completely covering the breadth of the lid’s underside. “Sunny,” the boy answered. “Like the sun sunny.” “Ah,” and his grandfather was nodding, the hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “A fitting name, surely. He is a splendid specimen, that’s clear. Just look at him! The size of him! His grace hanging in his jar sky! His pride, evident in how he overlooks his glass kingdom.” And, turning to his grandson, he added, “You, my boy, are a daring child, to brave such a king and transplant him to this kingdom of your own making. I can’t imagine where you found friends such as these, in what high tree places you had to climb, and into what dense green brambles and bushes you had to crawl and search.” The boy, with some effort, succeeded in smiling for his grandfather. The old man, seated beside him with a glass of lemonade in his liver-spotted hand, saw clearly the strained nature suffusing the gesture, as well as his grandson’s overall discomfiture. He sipped from his lemonade, savouring the tang of its aftertaste on his lips, and murmured, “Remember this lesson, son, and for your sake remember it well: there will never be days like these again, no matter their good or bad ingredients. Live them like there’s no tomorrow and you’ll be making the most of what you have.” Of course, the boy, despite trying hard to take his grandfather’s wisdoms to heart (as he sought to take all of his advice to heart) was unable for his huge grief and only stood nodding his head falsely before him like a quietly respectful knight before his king. The porch was coloured with sunset’s burnt-orange fire, though a murky tinge hung in the air, too, as if heralding the arrival of inclement weather. The boy toed the concrete at the foot of his grandfather’s
tattered lawn chair, making sure to avoid crushing the lone ant winding its way across the burning concrete square. “I know, I know, my boy,” the old man murmured, wincing in the glare and scrutinizing the boy. “It’s a harsh lesson, in its way, and disheartening. But take heart in this, son: know that the lesson is also filled with huge joy, once you’ve grown to fully appreciate it, that is.” The boy cradled the jar in his arms. He examined each of his spiders carefully. The two small specimens skittering among the loose grass blades along the glass bottom like revellers among fallen confetti; a larger arachnid perched on the tip of the narrow oak branch, his body black with bright emerald markings; its twin hiding among the grass beneath, its design the same but its colour scheme one of black paired with blood-red; and of course the massive banana spider suspended over the rest like a ruler overseeing his subjects. After a time, the boy, frowning, said, “They must be too hot in there. I put holes in the lid but still I bet it’s too hot in there for them.” The old man said nothing, only continued watching his grandson carefully. The boy removed the jar’s lid and placed the container delicately on its side in the stubby lawn grass. He and the old man watched as the spiders within made their collective way cautiously to the jar’s rim, and convened briefly on the grass before its mouth as if jointly plotting their next move before making off in all directions, the sun finding their brilliant skins like reflections from a collection of marbles dropped into the grass. “The day thanks you, my boy,” the boy’s grandfather said, a proud glimmer in his eyes. “You’ve enriched its fabric plentifully.” A moment passed in silence between them. The old man sipped his lemonade, offered his glass to the boy who only shook his head and stared into the street and the sky while pacing the small expanse of the concrete patio. Eventually, he sat down upon the brick stoop protruding beneath the front door, not so much relishing the sun scalding his bare arms and legs as he usually did, but bearing its relentless touch. He wanted to shun this too-bright smoggy world and retreat indoors, to the safe blue shadows of his curtained bedroom, where he might immerse himself in comic books and the colourful tales they held. But he remained with his grandfather, because this is what they did each night after supper while the boy’s parents cleaned up inside, and to abandon the old man felt wrong, and in a world where incredibly wrongful things happened too often the thought of committing another such deed made the boy feel sick. So he shared the hot silence with his grandfather, following the determined progress of red and black ants wending their ways across the cement or among the grass, laden with leaf bits like backpackers on the march. He sent flashes of reflected sunlight bouncing from the glass watch-face on his wrist out across the street, to dance erratic patterns along the siding of the townhouses there. He picked at the scabs owning each of his knees with a cautious hand, relishing the stinging pain he awoke with his probing fingers. Finally, he sought interesting and wondrous pictures among the cumulus, but clouds were few and far between in the pure blue sky, and those that did float there were wispy and small and difficult to imagine with, which just left the boy with his own troubled reflections. The sun hung relentlessly overhead but its light seemed dimmed to the boy’s eyes, a waning circle, as if partially obscured by cumulus or swallowed by an eclipse; or else simply sinking in the near-dusk hour towards its temporary death beneath the horizon. The boy and his grandfather sat and sat in the baking silence.
A nearly imperceptible cracking disturbed the gargantuan stillness. The distant song of cicadas buzzing from the trees ceased, as if grown hushed at the small but great noise, too. The jungle gym children ceased their chattering in the hazy distance, possibly likewise awed by the startling, somehow unearthly disturbance. The boy and his grandfather, startled from their pensive somnolence, followed the direction of the noise, looking to the concrete floor of the porch. Directly between them, a small fissure had appeared, and peeking forth from the aperture was a narrow green stalk, as of a flower. Peering closer they saw its bulbous tip, where fragile petals grew upwards and came together into a teardropshaped bud. Holding ensconced within its embrace some hidden beauty – its flower, of course – with the potential to brighten the milky-aired, dusking day. “Perhaps the world of old is at last come to reclaim itself from us,” said the old man, sounding especially wise to the boy. “Perhaps our little green friend is repayment for your gift to the day.” And here he nodded out towards the lawn before them, with its hidden arachnid jewels, and concluded “Perhaps there’s a lesson in this, too.” The boy looked to his grandfather, awed, and again to the fragile-looking but mighty green stalk. He stared at it for a minute, imagining or actually perceiving its subtle perfume of peaches on the muggy air. He returned his gaze to his grandfather when the old man grew suddenly rigid in his chair. He’d left the lemonade glass lifted midway towards his waiting mouth, his eyes straining into the distance. A moment passed and he lowered the glass to his bony knee and exhaled deeply, sounding to the boy’s ears as if he’d just returned from a very long and wearying journey. Then, his voice hushed, “Look, son. Over there and up there. In the trees in the park, past the projects shimmering in the haze of the east. There’s something there. Something strange and special. I can sense it but I can no longer see it. That’s your special gift, while you have your good and young age, and eyes less clouded than mine. For now, for these lucky days of your huge fortune, you’re able to see it among those sun-fired branches, while some of us can only feel it. Look, look.” The boy looked. He stood from the stoop and drifted to the edge of the patio, the tips of his sneakers hanging past its concrete lip and making him feel distantly as if he was a sailor, a captain of a ship and standing in its prow while searching the water horizon stretching endlessly before him. He cocked his head one side to the other, squinting in the burnt air. He sought to conjure something wondrous and happy among the sun-limned trees but saw only his grandmother as he’d last seen her: heaped like a collection of bones in the hospital bed underneath the stark sterile lights, more a skeleton than the plump woman she’d been, the roses vanished from her cheeks, gaunt and deflated from their former roundness like shrivelled apples gone bad. It had been weeks since that terrible and endless morning in the cemetery – the sad look of everyone dressed in black, making their faces appear more pale than he knew them to be; the charged air, as if the day itself was in mourning like everyone gathered among the headstones beneath the milky sky; the dull, hollow clamour of dirt clods being shovelled overtop the casket embedded inside the gaping earth following him into his dreams that night and most subsequent nights, too, a terrible percussion that awakened him with heart thundering and breathing ragged and tears never very far behind the well of his wakening eyes. “I know, son,” the grandfather said, crumpling further into his ragged chair and soothing the boy a little merely with his reliable ability to read his
murky thoughts. “I know it, too: it’s hard. A very hard thing, to truly, truly bury those things passed away from us.” And he wept, long agonized sobs that made the boy fidget and scan the house fronts on the opposite side of the streets with increased determination, as if he were seeking some very particular thing among the blank tarnished facades; only to find dejected-looking project denizens like himself, unmoving in the meagre shade of their porches, sleepy from the heat or weary from the strange, indefinable darkness hidden in the deceiving bright air. The old man stabbed the sky with his quivering finger. “I feel it now, son, more than ever. Oh, it’s a strong feeling, and one worth investigating for a boy with the eyes for it.” Following the gesture, heart thumping, the boy looked from the house fronts and with renewed determination to the trees of the park abutting the nearby parking lot. Something took form from the oven air. A vague shape coalesced among the emerald leaves and tiny crab apples like sapphires decorating the trees in a holiday celebration of the summer. He watched it materialize, details embellishing themselves and growing more pronounced with each passing second that he held it within his steadfast gaze. The boy smiled. He laughed a moment later, laughter free and hearty, the laughter his grandfather had once owned before he’d grown old and confined to creaking thrones unfit to bear his bent but regal frame. The boy looked avidly now among the leaves of the trees. He turned his attention then with an earnest enthusiasm into the air over the trees. He looked where the dropping sun – bright and blazing now and freed suddenly from its stifling eclipse – limned the crumbling projects in fire. And he saw. He saw. “Do you see?” his grandfather asked the boy, eagerness infusing his voice, desperate and brimming with a hopeful joy. “Do you see her? You do, don’t you? You do.” The boy nodded. His grandfather smiled, and wiped at the tears suddenly returned in his eyes.
“Good, my boy,” he murmured. “Very, very good. The young colt hasn’t grown into a new skin and run away on me just yet.” And his large weathered hand patted a gentle melody of camaraderie and thanks on his grandson’s back. From the lawn before them a jewel flashed, and then another and then another: brilliant yellow and emerald lights reflecting the sun’s final moments of that day as it sank and sank beyond the houses, freed monarchs reclaiming their kingdom among the grass and trees. In the distance, laughter sounded, free and joyous and drifting like a song on the humid air. A car horn barked somewhere like a cry of celebration or fanfare documenting the scene. The boy continued nodding, seeing all of these things, examining the world as he knew it – faltering, tenuous, yet filled with the potential for secret worlds gathering their strength beneath the streets and of familiar floating faces among the summer leaves – through his stinging, clearing eyes.
by p e t e r
l i nga r d
when acoustics are great when no one remains I travel late to sing on the trains when no one remains I seize my chance to sing on the trains and sometimes to dance I seize my chance to serenade ghosts and sometimes to dance for unearthly hosts to serenade ghosts I give all I’ve got for unearthly hosts I take my best shot I give all I’ve got I travel late I take my best shot when acoustics are great
The Ballad of Mugsborough Pier † & The Properties of Timber by r i c h a r d
e va n s
Don’t tell me it’s tragic that the pier burnt. It’s tragic that it’s no surprise. We all know the boys that did it. The hollow look in the eyes. That punch-drunk, from the womb-drunk expression that can’t be disguised. Something is festering in my town. A stench in its hidden parts that no London lay-off knows about, no tourist of the arts. They call it an ‘uncommon place’ and well, they’re right, in part – I’ll talk the place up if you like, love, the kids outside The Crown, waiting for mum to finish up or score a little brown, bleached out by the sun of my yes-talk; sure, that’ll turn things around. And it’ll turn things around if I keep mum about the way men walk in the street, like there’s cracked pebbles filling their trainers instead of their fucking feet – ‘It’s got hope now, this town,’ they tell me. Hope just looks a lot like defeat. Oh, a corpse in the basement gives character, and arson a wonderful light. People piss on your doorstep in every town; who doesn’t like a good bottle fight then to scream blue-murder at the children, though, of course, we know it’s not right? Yes, I’ll talk the town up if you like, love. I’ll stick plasters over your eyes. I’ll sing you a song of promises. A ballad of half-truths. Lies. But the shell of the pier tells another story. And I tell you, it’s no surprise.
After ‘Water’ by George Szirtes No one can dispute the properties of timber. Timber itself will do as it’s told, it will stay where it’s put, it will hold out the rain, it will float, it will weather as well as you wish; varnish will seal it, wax make it shine, it will vanish in smoke. It is pliable, it is willing to follow the rules – and so, you are able to split it in two with the tap of an axe, to lay it in planks across the length of a pier. It won’t purposely crack at the sound of a boot. But the properties of timber are not so obedient. Never nailed to the spot, or carved into shape. Hard. Clear. Not to be swayed by tears or prayer or a sudden change of heart. That timber must burn. That timber betrays. These are the immutable properties of timber.
k . j . p r at t
Why I stopped reading Anna Karenina
here are those books which we would all love to read but never get around to, those thick tomes which sit on our shelves declaring how well read and literary we are, but whose pages are un-dogeared, the ink still pristine, the binding unfurled. We all have them; mine is Proust. Anna Karenina is a popular unread masterpiece; it’s so thick that I once tried, unsuccessfully, to knock a nail in with it. But rather than being unread, there is a train ticket sticking out of it, about two-thirds of the way through; a train ticket which has been there for nearly two years. So many say it’s the best book ever written, and maybe it is. Hundreds of authors reference its characters and situations in one way or another, especially the dramatic ending. But I stopped at the two-thirds juncture because I was fed up. Not by the central story – the affair, the illegitimate child, the controlling husband – all these were expected and, unsurprisingly, amazingly executed. But to get through the thousand or so pages a reader must be able to engage and sympathise with the titular character. And this is where I fell down. I had no idea I was a feminist, but Anna is so drippy and useless that I just couldn’t get behind her. If anything I was wishing I’d taken train-driving lessons just so I could speed up her inevitable ending. But this has always been my problem with the classics. Women are portrayed (often by men, it’s fair to say) as totally useless. I’m sure that during the time these books were written, this was a true account of women’s place in society, of their worries and how impossibly difficult it must have been to get out of a situation which today’s modern woman would laugh off… perhaps by simply visiting a clinic of some sort. But the crux of any book – Tolstoy or not – is entertainment. Even Brontë’s Jane Eyre, who you might expect to have evolved at least a modicum of backbone, having being written by a woman, still finds herself wandering aimlessly across England feeling sorry for herself and searching for a man who is an even bigger waste of space than she is. I have read that Tolstoy’s creation was quite a beacon of feminism during the period in which it was written. According to some useful Spark Notes, “At the time, as the narrator hints, it was almost scandalous for a grown woman to ride on horseback. Tolstoy thus purposely portrays Anna in a radically unconventional pose.” Although it also says, “Some readers feel that Tolstoy demonstrates an old-fashioned sexism in insisting that an independent woman automatically becomes both infertile and a bad mother.” My annoyance was sparked a lot earlier than this though. Okay, so her husband, Karenin, is a little controlling and a little ambivalent of Anna’s existence, but even today, if someone decided to essentially abandon their children because of a man in a shiny uniform – what would you say? Screw the time-frame. Oh, but the romance! Romance, sh-romance. Don’t be so selfish. Her husband wasn’t that bad, until he found out she was cheating on him, and even then he dealt with it better than I probably would. I felt sorry for Karenin really. I’m not the only one who has struggled with Anna Karenina, everyone’s issue may differ – from the sheer length, to the sometimes complex weaving of characters – there is even a “reading Anna Karenina” support group on the Internet. Not all the classics suffer from this inherent sexism which in today’s world seems rather stale. One of the few who seems to give woman at least a little credit is Thomas Hardy. The eponymous character For which this piece contains spoilers – Ed.
from Tess of the D’Urbervilles might moan a bit, but at least she has a good reason, and finds her own way in the world for a hell of a long time before some bloke arrives to fuck it up… again. She gets on with it, screw society. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, despite being a bit of a bitch, at least has an aim and goes for it, letting nothing get in her way. But the aim of this column is not to provide literary criticism – I am neither qualified nor well read enough to deliver anything but a reader’s opinion. I suppose, being only two-thirds of the way through, I can make no judgement on whether Anna Karenina is the best book ever written either, but I think I can make a fair judgement about Anna the character. To me, Anna seems to be on a path of purposeful self-destruction. Perhaps this is the point I am missing. But what’s worse is that she seems determined to take everyone down with her, whining all the time as she does it. She chooses her path, all the way to the end.
But now, thinking about it consciously, obsession can make you crazy, obviously. And if you’re already a bit cuckoo, god knows what could happen; just point me to the train station. So perhaps, with this new bent, I can revisit Anna. I’m only two-thirds of the way through and have quite a bit of home improvement to do first. So, if my copy survives its brutal substitution as a hammer and those last three hundred pages are finally consumed, maybe a future column will have the title: “Why I finished reading Anna Karenina”. Maybe.
‘It’s so thick that I once tried, unsuccessfully, to knock a nail in with it.’ In the first draft the diatribe finished here. Slightly disgusted with myself, I sent it to his editor-in-chiefdom with an apologetic note about how unresolved my argument was. Then like many writers, good and bad, I turned to drink. To be fair, I had a good excuse, it was stag party. I was standing outside a pub somewhere in the City, looking on as my soon-to-be-married friend sang a song whose words I could not discern, and started talking to one of the other guests. There was a certain amount of camaraderie between us already, as we were both drinking gin while surrounded by beer-drinkers, and despite a stag party being an unlikely event to generate literary conversation, we started talking about Structo and then my column. I proceeded to deliver the speech that I have just given you, almost to the letter, desperately it should be said, to prove to myself that I had a good enough reason to stop reading. I was after all under the gaze of one who had finished it. He listened intently, nodded here and there, and even gave his own example to my viewpoint, but then said simply (and I apologise if this is not a direct quote, I had been drinking after all), “Well, Anna is hysterical.” Now if someone had asked me, “Is Anna Karenina hysterical?” I would have said yes, of course she is. You can guess that without reading the book if you’re aware of the famous ending. But as a counter to my initial argument, it’s rather good isn’t it? Madness covers such a multitude of sins. Taking into account Tolstoy’s own life and having read The Confession where Tolstoy tells the true story of his own life crisis, Anna immediately takes on a new spin. Although this in itself is perhaps the root of sexism in the classics, that women are often shown as hysterical, off their gourd etc.; leading to aimless wandering of countryside or ending up with terrible men, sometimes there is good reason. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t mention Wuthering Heights and the destructive relationship between Cathy and Heathcliffe which makes them both crazier than a badger in June. Perhaps also why I failed to mention Austen, whose women – often neurotic to the point of satire – are more akin to those in modern chicklit than we might care to admit. I knew she was crazy, but perhaps unconsciously I didn’t think she had a good enough reason for it.
Thicker Than Flan by d e r e k
i va n w e b s t e r
here was no more devoted craft salesman than Bill. He wore his bright red vest, buttons polished to an immaculate gleam, with genuine pride. No one took the time to smile to more customers than Bill. He even washed his hands before leaving the lavatory, every time. Yes, Bill was a paragon of dependability, a rock of consistency and customer care upon which the Joli Roget arts and crafts supply store based a significant portion of its impressive success. Unfortunately, Bill was out sick on the day the Joli Roget needed him most. In his stead, fresh from soccer practice, little Davey Buince reported for duty. Little Davey was the nephew of the store’s manager. He was fifteen and a runt for his age; he had yet to find a belt that could serviceably keep his pants above his waist. The bright red vest looked like a poncho when Davey wore it and half of his buttons had been broken or misplaced. Davey never found much reason to smile while working at the store and to date no one had seen him use the Joli Roget’s pristine lavatory. For all his many failings Davey was almost always available at short notice. It was this singular attribute that kept him employed and brought him to the store at 11 am on a Sunday morning. “We’re in big trouble,” Henri shook his head as he ushered Davey up the disposables and inflatables aisle. “What is it, Mr Manager?” asked Davey. Henri was an uncle on his mother’s side. There was a tacit understanding between them that on no occasion was Davey to mention this relationship at the store. It is unclear whether this exclusion was intended to prevent accusations of nepotism on the uncle’s part or was simply a symptom of the man’s unwillingness to advertise a genetic connection to the boy. Whatever the motivation, within the Joli Roget and its environs there was to be no Uncle Henri, only Mr Manager. “Do you have any idea what tomorrow is?” “Monday,” Davey shrugged. “Do you have any idea what Monday is?” Davey remained silent, confident that he had sufficiently covered his lack of knowledge on the subject. “Tomorrow is National Gingerbread Day.” “Really? That sounds sort of random.” The two emerged from the disposables and inflatables aisle and into the back corner of the store. This section was devoted exclusively to specialty cooking crafts; from floor to ceiling stood rack upon rack of neatly sorted baking, confectioning and all-round culinary esoterica. From glazed copper hand-whisks to the most obscure brand of New Guinea tree gum, before them lay a true testament to all things gastronomic and artful. “Random is holding the Olympics every four years,” Henri halted Davey, allowing them both the chance to take in the grandeur of the store’s offerings. “Random is half-price sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Calling yourself Charles II instead of Charles, Jr – that is random. Let me assure you, my boy, that there is absolutely nothing random about National Gingerbread Day.” He led the bewildered youth past an eye-straining spectrum of bottled food dye; they continued through an arched display of floating, sinking, digital and manual candy thermometers; and at last they emerged upon this day’s pièce de résistance. “What is that?” asked Davey, faltering before a massive tower that reached from buffed tile to the open beams of the warehouse roof. It was composed entirely of shiny 8-oz cylinders. “Read the label,” smirked Henri. “Is that French? It looks like some kind of powder. Is it confectioners’ sugar?” Davey guessed. “As we’ve discussed, tomorrow is National Gin-
gerbread Day, a fact that will not have escaped the serious connoisseurs that frequent our store. Comprehend?” Davey nodded. “The majority of our gingerbread aficionados cannot help but plan out elaborate constructions for the display of their creative efforts. Still following?” Another nod. “An unavoidable component in any halfway-ambitious gingerbread architecture is the royal icing necessary to glue the pieces together. Agreed?” Davey refused to nod again. Henri didn’t notice. “And the most important catalyzing agent in any good royal icing?” “Almond paste?” Davey winced out another guess. “No, David, not marzipan,” Henri shook his head in annoyance. It could not be said that Henri spent a great deal of time attempting to tutor his nephew in the ways of the Joli Roget. Still, he tended to take Davey’s continual ignorance on such subjects personally. “It is meringue powder. The very finest in the world.” He stared down at the boy, expecting some mark of recognition, receiving nothing. “Tomorrow our incomparable patrons plan to bake and cut and assemble a forest’s worth of gingerbread lumber. This morning they are already out looking for their necessary ingredients. At this very moment they are at their local supermarket, baskets filled with ginger and sugar, even cream of tartar. But there is one ingredient they will not find at the local Shop-Rite.” A short pause. “Meringue powder,” ventured Davey. “And finally we see the synapse begin to fire,” Henri patted him on the back. “They must come here for their precious meringue. To get to the meringue they must navigate our store, each step fraught with temptations specially designed to please and bother exactly the sort of patron who keeps National Gingerbread Day circled on her calendar.” Davey nodded slightly. He supposed the strategy made some sort of sense, but he couldn’t hide a streak of confusion that lingered about his eyes. “I thought you were with me,” frowned Henri. “I am, I am. It’s just…” “Just what? Spit it out boy, we’re running out of time.” “That’s just it. This all sounds good, Mr Manager, but you said we were in trouble.” “We are. Of course we are.” The sudden shadow that crossed Henri’s face suggested that, caught up in that wonder that was National Gingerbread Day, he had himself lost sight of the danger. “Bill is sick. We’re a man down, and not just any man. With Bill watching stock I could count on every customer that entered to pick up meringue leaving with a cart full of collateral purchase. With Bill this was a red banner day for us. But I don’t have Bill. I have you.” Henri’s eyes again returned to his diminutive employee. Davey could only defend himself with a weak smile. “And what do you have to say about that?” “I’ll do my best, sir?” It was unmistakably a question. Henri sighed heavily and then immediately shook his head free of the melancholy. He was not a man to stay dejected long. “I’ll work the register. We’ll have no repeat of the last time you handled cash for the store.” An angry squint of his eye caused Davey to redden. “I’ll send as many customers as I can back in this direction. Your job is to make sure they notice something else while they’re looking for the meringue.” “How do I do that?”
“Talk to them. Ask them questions. Find out what else they’re interested in. Get them thinking about any and every hobby that doesn’t involve gingerbread.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.” Davey smiled. That didn’t sound so bad. He might actually be able to do this. With a final squeeze of the shoulder Henri abandoned Davey to the field of conflict. The boy walked slowly around the majestic tower, making a full circuit of the resources he would soon need to call upon. He tried to make a mental inventory as he went, but the attempt was complicated by his inability to pronounce half the items on display. Those labels that weren’t explicitly written in French, Italian or Dutch were steeped in so many circumflexes, accents grave, diphthongs and triphthongs that Davey almost brought on a nose bleed just trying to mouth around the errant vowel combinations. Even the more obvious choices had a way of defying his easy description. He recognized a sterling silver set of measuring cups; as far as he could tell they disdained both ounce and liter, preferring a measurement scale more closely associated with hieroglyphics. The hefty brown bricks that first glance had taken for cooking chocolate were printed with an unmistakable green frowny face in one corner: a symbol that Davey had associated with poison warnings since before he could walk. In sum, after a lap around the premises Davey’s confidence in comprehending – let alone selling – such an inventory was shaken quite beyond repair. “Hello, young man,” the brittle voice crept upon him from the general direction of the candy thermometer archway. “I was hoping you could point me to the meringue powder.” “Hi there,” Davey called out before he’d spun around entirely. It took him a moment to locate the inquisitor. Lowering his gaze by degrees, he finally came upon the tiny owner of the voice. “Meringue powder,” continued the elderly lady. She was dressed in a neatly stitched calico dress, with an embroidered shawl pinning back her gray hair. “Please tell me you have some. I’ve just come from Shop-Rite, and they didn’t even know what I was talking about.” “Gingerbread?” Davey was barely able to breathe out through the pressure of his mounting anxiety. “Why, yes! A gingerbread castle. How did you guess?” Davey froze from the inside out. He had been noticed by his natural predator; now the slightest false move could inspire an attack. He forced each word out through carefully clenched teeth: “National… Gingerbread… Day…” The woman’s pinched-up eyes went wide and her face fairly exploded into a warm and appreciative smile. “Oh, I knew I had come to the right place!” “Yes, well,” Davey swallowed the bile that had been simmering at the back of his throat. His mind was reeling with half-seen and wholly misunderstood images. He tried to seize on one thing, anything, that could guide him through this fast toppling moment. “Have you seen our hand-crafted Egyptian measuring utensils?” “Why no,” mused the lady, her eyes still beaming with delight, “but now that you mention it I have a Coptic snickerdoodle recipe I have been meaning to try for ages.” The woman hurried over to the rack of sterling silver measuring cups and chirped in delight. Before he could take a cleansing breath, the next customer was upon him. They came in an unending line after that, sometimes in groups, sometimes forming a patient queue. They represented every demographic and nationality; they ran the full range of personality type and disposition; some spoke English, some
did not. One commonality they all brought to the table: each had just come from Shop-Rite and was hoping to find a body that knew its way around meringue powder. Davey stood tall; he tripped and fell; he pulled himself up and re-girded his loins. Through it all he gave the ladies, as well as the occasional gentleman, something very much like what they wanted. “Ah, yes, you should try our chocolate flavored oven cleaner,” he heard himself saying. “I’m no expert, but I believe the Scandinavians are greatly respected for their marigold extractions,” he nodded sagely. “No, the glazing acts as a non-stick agent for caramelized sugar,” he let loose with the daring precision of a bowshot. “If it worked for the ancient Gaels, who are we to argue?” he smiled with twinkling confidence. The small amount Davey knew was soon stretched out in a wide net and pulled finer than gold filigree. Each time he learned a new tidbit from one particularly knowledgeable customer he would immediately adapt the trivia for the edification of his next patron. Soon enough the world of information he did not possess was entirely subsumed by a mist of squinting phantasmagoria, made all the more charming for its absolute removal from reality. Davey listened and he talked; he guessed and he nodded with genuine interest. Again and again, more than anything else, Davey smiled. The Joli Roget was to close at 7 pm. By 6:30 the swarm had begun to dissipate and the queue lost its regularity. Henri’s voice crackled over the public address, reminding all listeners that the closing hour had come. Davey sent his last few stragglers away with random and impossibly ambitious promises. “Yes, yes, come back tomorrow, we’re expecting a shipment of pickled reindeer tongue from Greenland.” “Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ll be sure to add your name to the tweedlebug backorder.” Once the store had closed Henri found his employee restacking the dozen or so loose meringue tins that remained. All around him the shelves were disordered and bare. The entire back corner of the store, that section allocated for the specialty cooking crafts, had been transformed by an isolated tornado
of activity. The place had been devoured from the inside out. “It never slowed down at the register. I knew we were moving merchandise, but this…” Henri spoke low and slow, taking in the conquered inventory with a careful, calculating sort of awe. “Ce n’est pas possible.” Davey put the finishing touch to the knee-high pyramid of meringue canisters and turned a worn but warm smile on his boss. “Not too shabby, huh Mr Manager?” Henri returned the smile; he took Davey by the shoulder and led him out and away from the carnage of commercial success. “Don’t you want me to clean up this mess?” “Oh, I’ve got a part-time kid that can worry about that in the morning.” “But that’s me, sir. I’m the one you call to clean up in the morning.” “Hush, David, you’ve had a long day and you should rest your voice.” They walked along in silence, Henri still leading his employee by the shoulder. Davey could almost hear the thoughts churning in his boss’s head, but Henri didn’t speak until they had reached the yarn and kitsch aisle. “Do you know what next Monday is, my boy?” Davey shook his head. “The International Call to Divinity,” Henri nodded with a mysterious import. “Is that some sort of religious holiday?” Henri chuckled. What a charming sense of humor. How had he never noticed such wit before? He had always liked this boy, hadn’t he? “How would you like to come in next Sunday and man the confectioneries’ booth?” “Well, I don’t know,” Davey frowned slightly. “I do have soccer practice in the morning.” He paused, trying to work his way around something uncomfortable. “And, well, you know… after all…” “Yes, after all?” “It’s just that… Isn’t Sunday supposed to be Bill’s day? I mean, really, I’m not even on the schedule.” “Pooh, pooh!” laughed Henri. “Who makes the schedule anyway?” “Well, you do, Mr Manager.”
“And that’s another thing, David, stop calling me by that silly title. I have no idea how you got into such a habit.” “Then what should I call you, sir?” asked Davey. “Call me Uncle Henri, of course!” They had made it to the employees’ exit at the back of the store. Davey started to take his bright red vest off but Henri stopped him with some ceremony. “No, you keep that, David. You’ve more than earned your uniform.” Davey shrugged and put his arm back through the vest. “And we’ll see you next Sunday? As soon as your football practice is over?” “Soccer practice, yeah,” Davey nodded, still somewhat troubled. “And you’re sure Bill will be cool with this?” “Let me take care of that,” Henri smiled, and ushered Davey out. That night Henri called the bedridden Bill to break the news. Bill couldn’t understand what had happened, but perhaps the lingering fever was clouding his judgment. “It doesn’t make any sense, Henri. I thought I was your guy?” he asked between heavy sniffs. “You’re still my guy,” Henri assured him, and spent the next half-hour doing his best to placate the man’s ego. Over the years Bill had acquired a clientele of familiars: a stable of regulars who would follow him to whatever day of the week Henri carved out in a reworked schedule. Bill was not a commodity that Henri had any interest in losing. And yet Henri’s thoughts kept drifting back to that mountain of meringue powder transformed so quickly into a memory. His eyes flashed with images of dusty packages, oddities whose names he had not been able to pronounce when he first procured them for the store, moving across his cash register one at a time in an unceasing chain of impossibility. Wonders they were, and all of it accomplished by a scrawny fifteen-year-old who could barely keep his pants above his waist. Yes, Bill was a devoted salesman, and that was important. It could no longer be denied, however, that Davey Buince was family.
Plane Passing by c a ro ly n
ou lt o n
And suddenly the sky is ripped, fired white while birds are cluttering in deep-leaved branches; dandelion clocks clustering and bobbing, suddenly airborne, engines of summer. Everything is moving only a little, under blue; the sturdier branches not even rippling when the sky tears white, rips and fuzzes and closes again.
Structo interviews Richard Adams by e ua n
m o n ag h a n
‘I thought to myself, well, I think it deserves a modest edition in hardback, I’m not looking any further than that. Little did I know…’ R
ichard Adams lives in paradise. If you imagine the quintessential English market town – beautiful ancient architecture, a lazy river running through, a churchyard with rabbits hopping about – well, that’s where Adams lives. It would be a parody if it wasn’t so pleasant. At ninety Adams is ostensibly retired, but is still very much on form, and happy to talk about his life. He is of course most famous for the worldwide phenomenon that is Watership Down, his first novel, which was published in November 1972. It remains Penguin’s bestselling book of all time.
[The interview below contains spoilers for Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs.]
What kind of books did you read as a
Well that’s very interesting. I shall cast my mind back… Well certainly Beatrix Potter, my mother used to read me Beatrix Potter, and there’s a great deal of stuff there you know: 19 major works of Beatrix Potter, and four minor works. That’s a very considerable output, and it covers 20 years of her life. When I had my bath and supper, and had everything ready for bed, I used to sit on my mother’s knee and so that shows I must have been quite small: three years, four, five maybe? Not more. She read Beatrix Potter aloud to me, and it was the ideal way of getting it really, because sitting on her knee, you know, you could see the pictures. When I got a bit older I could sometimes puzzle out a word or two from what she was reading. I enjoyed those bedtime sessions of Beatrix Potter very much. There was a very popular book when I was little, I don’t know whether you have come across it yourself: Little Black Sambo. structo: Yes, I’ve heard of it. adams: And you know that Little Black Sambo has – ridiculous, absurd really – has come under a ban from certain people, because he’s black. Silly I call it, and I have taken every opportunity of saying so. There was a companion one too: Little Black Quibba, came under the same trouble. I remember both of them very well. Then when I got a bit older, there was Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh had a tremendous vogue you know. When We Were Very Young, you know the verses? That was very, very popular, in fact you could converse with people assuming that they did know the most popular items. ‘Changing guard at Buckingham Palace’, ‘The Three Foxes’… Winnie-the-Pooh is stories of course. I’m a bit critical of Winnie-the-Pooh because – it had a tremendous vogue, sold thousands and thousands of copies since 1925 or somewhere around that time. And When We Were Very Young which was followed two or three years later by Now We Are Six. Now We Are Six doesn’t have the same quality of childish-like verse of When We Were Very Young. structo: What was the first adult that you picked up? Did you like detective books, or… adams: No, I never cared for detective stories. Never could get interested in them at all. I preferred fantasy: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know old I was, I might have been five when that was read to me first. But the thing I remember most of in my childhood was Doctor Dolittle, and it has always struck me as odd that Doctor Dolittle
hasn’t got a wider… well it is fairly well known, but I would expect Doctor Dolittle to sweep the board pretty well, but that is not so. structo: And why did you choose to study history? adams: Well the system at Bradfield [College] was like this: you did seven subjects until you got to taking School Certificate. I think School Certificate has been superseded by something else now hasn’t it? structo: By gcses and A-Levels, although it’s probably changed since I left! adams: Well when you were at secondary school, or public school as I prefer to call it, when you’re a new boy, and for upwards of two years, your sights were set on School Certificate, and the syllabus for the subjects you were taught were all done with the School Certificate in mind. It was my first academic success actually; I was put up for seven subjects for School Certificate, and got seven credits. I’ll try and remember what they were… Well there was English, History, Geography, French, Latin, Physics and Chemistry. I did seven subjects and got seven credits, and this was considered something of an achievement. Although I didn’t feel it so, I found the School Certificate papers quite straightforward. structo: But it was History that stood out? adams: Yes, well, English Literature as a subject for specialisation had only just come in and I thought it was not what I wanted to do because I reckoned I could do all the English Literature I wanted or needed in my spare time. It was what I enjoyed reading, and then it occurred to me that History would be a very helpful subject as a top-up to English Literature. [Brief pause for tea] structo: We were speaking of your love of history. adams: Ah yes, Our Island Story! You know the book? structo: I do. adams: Well my mother used to read me that when I was quite little, I must have been five years old! You might have thought that would be too young for Our Island Story, but if you’ve got a kind and intelligent parent who is prepared to help you – and it is very good Our Island Story, I reread it recently and was surprised at how good it was, it must have set thousands of people off on a love of history. My mother was not a really well-educated woman, I don’t know if I’ve told you this – I don’t want to disparage my mother, she was a darling, I loved her very much – but my father was as I think I told you a doctor, a surgeon, an FRCS he was, and a damn good surgeon too – they thought the world of him at the Newbury Hospital – but anyway, what was I
trying to say… structo: About reading Our Island Story. adams: Oh yes. Well my father of course was educated to become a doctor. Whereas other people would go to Oxford or Cambridge, my father went to Bart’s Hospital, and there he did very well and he set up in business as a doctor and surgeon. My father was a very shy, reticent man, and he’d had very little experience of girls at all when he was in his twenties and thirties, and I think I may have mentioned before, he had an old lady patient – of course they were all private patients in those days, paying patients as you know – and he had an old lady patient and he thought she would be the better for a resident nurse. So he rang up the hospital in Bath and asked them to send down a nurse. The nurse they sent down was a certain Lillian Button – and I don’t know much about this because my father and mother were very reticent about it – but they got engaged and then got married. I’m trying to remember in what year that would have been… 1910 I think would have been right because my sister was the first-born – Catherine – she was born in 1911, well that would mean their marriage in 1910, wouldn’t it. And then my brother followed in 1913, my brother John, the second child. Well then there was a third boy who died and this was never talked about… I’m trying to remember his name – Robert! Poor Robert. This made a gap: Robert’s birth, infancy and death. He was two when he died. My father felt it very deeply I know. I said to him once – I don’t remember how old I was – I said, ‘but of course daddy I’ve never seen anyone die’. I remember this very well, my daddy said, ‘No. I’ve seen all sorts of people die. And I’ve seen my little son die.’ I realised he was speaking under great emotional pressure, then he said, ‘and I’ve never seen anyone go easy yet.’ I think he modified this a little later. It was so long ago, but I do remember that: ‘I’ve seen all sorts of people die. And I’ve seen my little son die.’ That was poor Robert. structo: Do you think that has anything to do with the way that in your writing you don’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth of things like death? adams: You think so do you? structo: You do have a way of telling it honestly. Is that deliberate or does it just come through from the way you were brought up? adams: Both I should think. Certainly I was brought up in a family that didn’t shirk nasty bits, nasty stories. I suppose I got used to it, being in a doctor’s family. Distressing things were not ducked
or dodged. From quite an early age I knew what it was to weep for someone else’s death. structo: So you finished your history degree, and you entered the Civil Service… adams: Yes… I was 18 in 1938 and I can remember the so-called Munich crisis very well – when Hitler demanded the return of Germany’s colonies which had been taken from her as a result of the First World War. This was when we, everyone in Europe, was afraid of Hitler. Hitler would say: if you don’t give me what I’m demanding I shall declare war and my troops will march on Friday week. Or words to that effect. And there was no doubt he meant it. Years later when I had a German friend, I asked him, ‘you were there, would he really have sent his troops in if he hadn’t got what he wanted?’ And this chap answered plainly, he said, ‘yes, we were all quite sure that he would, we were getting ready for war, we were afraid there was going to be a war.’ I can remember this crisis very well and I think there was no doubt at all that Hitler would have started a war over the so-called Munich Crisis. It was called the Munich Crisis because Mr Chamberlin flew to Munich to see Hitler and Hitler told him lies really, that this was his last territorial demand. What he was asking for was the Sudeten areas around Czechoslovakia and he swore blind that this was his last territorial demand, and we all believed him because we hadn’t had much to do with him up until that time. Then of course six months later the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and took the whole thing over, and this was quite unexpected, and it was from that time on that we all became certain that sooner or later there was going to be a war, and that the next time Hitler demanded anything we were going to refuse him, and if there was a war then there was a war. Well the next thing he did, as you probably remember, was going into Poland. I remember this very well, it was the long vacation and I was living at home with my mother and father and I remember going down into the town on my bicycle to buy some gramophone records. I was very friendly with the manager of the music shop and he had the telephone off the hook to listen to whatever was coming through, and he told me that fighting has begun; the Germans were fighting the Poles on the border. I took my bike home again quickly and told my mother that war must have broken out, but it wasn’t confirmed until later in the day that Mr Chamberlin came on the wireless and said that he, well he delivered an ultimatum to Hitler and said that if he hadn’t heard anything from him by 12 o’clock that he would have no alternative but to declare war. He hadn’t heard anything by 12 o’clock and consequently, as he said on the wireless, we are now at war with Germany. I remember my sister clicking her tongue and casting her eyes up. She knew more clearly than I did what this was going to mean; how terrible the war would be. It was the end of the world that existed between 1918 and 1939, the world in which I grew up. It remains very vividly in my memory. structo: With your books it always seems like you’ve done a lot of research, there’s a lot of knowledge behind the text, even when it’s in something like Shardik. The research may have been done in your head, but a lot of world-building has gone on. adams: Shardik is a world of history really, only I’ve made up the history. It reads like a historical account, or at least it’s meant to. Although there’s a lot besides in Shardik. Shardik is about the growth of a religion. I always thought it was my best book, but no one else ever thought so. After Watership Down everything fell rather flat. Watership Down had a tremendous reception of course, and the public were all expecting something that would follow on logically from Watership Down, well what they got was Shardik and they didn’t like it. I don’t know that I blame them really although I think there’s a lot of merit in Shardik and I still do. structo: Was it a deliberate choice on your part to write a very different book? adams: Oh yes, I wanted to write something different. I simply let Shardik occur to me really. I didn’t go out searching for a subject at all. I don’t know what the source – probably something in my unconscious mind, I don’t know what the birth
pangs of Shardik were, I just knew I wanted… I had all the other buggers… [Laughter] I duly turned up the initial picture of the great bear dying, full of on the Thursday – we met at the bar – and I was maggots, in a pit in the forest; the hunter coming determined that I was not going to be the chap who upon it and recognising this as a fulfilment of a raised the subject of the book. We had a gin and prophecy. The idea of an incarnate god. I didn’t tonic, and then went to help ourselves off the cold want my incarnate god to be a human being collation table and as soon as we had sat down and because he’d get all mixed up with Jesus, and I spread our napkins, Rex Collings said, ‘I liked your didn’t want to get all mixed up with Jesus so it had book, and I’d like to publish it.’ I was so affected to be an animal. But what sort of an animal? Well I could hardly eat my lunch. [Laughter] Anyway it’s not hard to think of a bear, the bear is a very we became very friendly. I was able to work closely appropriate animal. They’re funny things bears, you with Rex Collings over the publication of the book. know that they have quiescent periods when people [He] altered bits and pieces, but not the actual thing. can go up to the bear and talk to them, pat them. Well, you know the rest. I was bowled over by rave Did you know this? reviews. And then it went to America. In a way it structo: I didn’t, no. came into England from America. It had success adams: Well that is the case. That’s why bears in England, but not wide sales, and then it went have always been popular in circuses. It’s possible to America where it had huge sales. They had ten for human beings to fraternise with bears. I’ve times the reading public for a start. It came back to always thought Shardik was a damn good book, but England from America which was rather ironical, they didn’t like it did they? They were expecting rather amusing. If it hadn’t been for the American Watership Down and they didn’t get it. edition I doubt whether it would have taken on structo: Speaking of Watership Down, I suppose quite so widely as it did in England. we rather glossed over that. We should probably go structo: And so then you travelled for a while. I back and talk about a couple of things. You were believe you were a writer-in-residence at universities, telling the story to your daughters on a car journey? is that right? adams: Yes. adams: Yes that’s right. I was a writer-in-residence structo: And how different was the telling to the at two universities, one was the University of writing? How different was the story? Florida at a town called Gainsville in the north of adams: Oh, very different, is the answer. The story Florida, and I enjoyed being a writer-in-residence was more or less improvised, although I did think very much; you felt like Jesus and the Disciples. about it actually during the day before it was going [Laughter] I had a group of students, male and to be told, but it wasn’t shaped or fashioned. A great female, who loved me and loved the work, the book. deal of it was ad-libbed as they say. I realised that I I thought, well this is fun, I’ll do it again, so I went was going to have to tell them another bit in the car to Hollins, which is a university in Virginia. Really going to the school, and I would prepare that in my you know to be quite honest, Hollins is a bit of a mind, but I didn’t have any idea what was coming finishing school for wealthy girls. They were all after that, and this developed bit by bit. Then of wealthy girls, my disciples. I had a class of about course it was Juliet who said, ‘you oughtn’t to waste twelve that I used to lecture on appreciation of that daddy, it’s too good to waste; you should write English poetry. I used to take them through things it down.’ At last I agreed to write it down, and I like Lycidas and Gray’s Elegy; the poems that have would come home from the Civil Service and see really belonged to the English public for the last few the children bathed and put to bed – they were hundred years. They enjoyed this. I had another quite little then – and then I would have supper and thing that I invented called the Tootsie Roll poem. then after that I would sit down and write another I don’t know if you know this, but a Tootsie Roll is chunk of Watership Down. When it was finished Juliet a little bit of toffee or something, something that a said, ‘you ought to get it published.’ I thought to father brings home to give to his boys and girls. Well myself, well, I think it deserves a modest edition in the Tootsie Roll poem was a poem of my choice hardback, I’m not looking any further than that. that was read every morning before the proper structo: Little did you know. lecture began. I used this to make them accustomed adams: Little did I know… It was rejected seven to things like ‘To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars’: times by four publishers and three firms of authors’ ‘Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind, / That from the agents, and they all said the same thing: they said nunnery’ or Gray’s Elegy, or… well, there are plenty grown-up people wouldn’t like it because it’s about of popular poems: ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod’, rabbits – which they would regard as babyish of that’s a poem all right, even though people think it course – and children wouldn’t like it because isn’t. I used to give them a Tootsie Roll poem and you’ve written it in a very difficult adult style. I said, read it to them and explain it a bit. My object is to ‘well yes, I never write down to children. I write get you to like poetry, I didn’t care about anything straight. They can either take it or leave it.’ Then else. I had a very good duplicating chap who helped
The public were all expecting something that would follow on logically from Watership Down. Well what they got was Shardik and they didn’t like it’ the seventh chap I took it to was Rex Collings. Rex Collings, I saw in The Spectator, had republished a book which had first been published in 1881 and had not been noticed since then [Wood Magic by Richard Jefferies]. It was a book closely concerned with nature. I thought that maybe the person who thought fit to resurrect this book from 1881 might care for my book – I wonder who he is. I ran him down and discovered it was someone called Rex Collings, who didn’t appear to be very well known. I found out a bit about Rex Collings; he was a bit of a one-man-band, although he had a faithful secretary. I submitted it to him and I had to go away on work for the Civil Service I remember, I had to go away for about four days in the North, and when I came back Elizabeth said to me, ‘I hope I’ve done the right thing. That Mr Rex… whatshisname… Collings has been in touch and I’ve arranged for you to lunch with him at the Reform on Thursday.’ I thought to myself, well this doesn’t sound quite like
me, he would duplicate the Tootsie Roll poem or anything else I wanted duplicated, and by the end of the term they would have a little collection of something like 12 or 15 Tootsie Roll poems which they enjoyed very much. I’m trying to think of some of the others there were, ‘John Gilpin was a citizen. / Of credit and renown’ – I remember that one – ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod’… anyway, they were the poems that you or I would have heard and enjoyed when we were little. structo: Moving on to what is probably my favourite work of yours: The Plague Dogs. I’m from Cumbria, from Lakeland, and it resonates with me for many reasons. adams: Well topographically it’s OK. structo: Absolutely. Partially because you had Wainwright on board! What was your relationship with Alfred Wainwright on this book? adams: I never met him. It’s a great disappointment to me, but I never met him. He
‘I’ve never pretended to be grinding some great axe. I’m an entertainer’
had a job you know, he was borough surveyor to some local authority up there. This mountaineering started off as a hobby, and then he produced these little guides, and they were in his manuscript before they were printed. Little by little the Lake District took over, and he dropped his work for the local authority; although he kept it on for a very long time. I wish very much that I’d met him. He only achieved this fame little by little, and it was only gradually that I came to see how important Wainwright is. And his books. structo: Did you do much hill walking yourself ? adams: Oh yes I was a hell of a hill walker. I once did 40 miles, and it nearly killed me, it taught me better. I never tried that nonsense again. The walk was from Goring-on-Thames along the Downs to the White Horse, and back. Twenty miles and twenty miles. I had a friend with me called John Aps; a great friend of mine. He was a sort of East End boy that I rescued – I’m speaking stupidly of course – but I took him on and used to read to him. He had an astonishing ability, I read him Great Expectations and he loved it. He was only about twelve at the time, he had an amazing attention span. Anyway, John Aps came with me on that walk to the White Horse and back, and it was half way back that I knew I was buggered. I was limping, I was wondering if I was going to make it, and I think if it hadn’t have been for John Aps I wouldn’t have made it. We limped back into Goring, and we had told them in the pub the night before that we were going to do this and that we’d come in as soon as we’d finished the walk and advertise the fact. John Aps got me down to the pub and I managed to stagger in there. We fulfilled what we said we’d do, but I have curious memories of that time when I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but still, I did do it. structo: Had you done much walking in the Central Fells [in Cumbria] before you wrote The Plague Dogs? adams: Yes. I reckoned I knew the fells as well as anyone could. structo: What triggered that book? Was it seeing one of the research stations? adams: That was one of the things that made me cross yes, animal experimentation. Still makes me cross, but there was something else as well. I had another motivation, perhaps it will occur to me as we go on. I can’t remember now just what it was, but certainly anger at animal experimentation was one thing. Is there not a parody of the popular press? structo: Oh yes, yes there is. adams: Yes – I wanted to make fun of the tabloids, of the tabloid press. I rather enjoyed that. structo: With The Plague Dogs, you almost get into the mind of the animal when you’re trying to describe things humans do from an outside perspective. There’s a bit at the start of the book when the caretaker comes in and he ‘makes the gesture that makes the light come’. It’s moments like that which really make you think about the way animals must perceive things that are happening to them. It happens in Watership Down too, but it’s most noticeable in The Plague Dogs. adams: I remember one bit, I don’t know whether it was left in the book or taken out, I think the publisher wanted it taken out… It’s when they are escaping from the place down this tunnel, and they’re struggling to get through, ‘and their progress became like a turd from a heathy arsehole’. structo: Yes, that’s still in there. adams: Oh, lovely! They wanted it taken out, but I wouldn’t have it. structo: Well, you won that argument! While we’re on the subject of changes, the first edition of The Plague Dogs ends when they’re swimming out to the island. In subsequent editions they are picked up in the boat. Whose decision was that? adams: I wanted them to have a happy ending. To
have them just swimming out was almost a tragic ending, you felt that perhaps they might not do it. Didn’t they say, ‘I can’t go on Rowf, I can’t go on.’ Snitter says, ‘I can’t go on.’ I think that’s about the last thing [in the first edition]. Well, I wanted a happier ending. I can’t remember why I didn’t put it in to begin with… Well, never mind, but it was under pressure from various fans and supporters that I decided in the end to have a happy ending, and it struck me as a very nice idea to have them rescued by Sir Peter Scott. Did you like that? Well, my wife didn’t like that so much; she thought it would be good if they were rescued by a group of children who were having a little run out to amuse themselves. That would have been OK, but I’m quite content with it being Sir Peter Scott. I didn’t ask Sir Peter Scott before I did it, and somebody told him, and he said, ‘ah, and how many girls do I sleep with?’ [Laughter] Later on I met Sir Peter Scott – great chap of course, splendid chap, as everybody knows. structo: They made an animated film of The Plague Dogs as well as Watership Down. adams: They did. structo: And they kept the original ending for the film. Was that a decision on the part of the filmmakers, or did they make that as the book was released? adams: It was entirely them and not me. I would have put in the happy ending. I don’t know why they didn’t, they never told me. Each way it made quite an effective ending I think, it depended how you wanted to look at the thing. I was very keen on The Plague Dogs, keener on that than of any other thing other than Watership Down. The idea behind The Plague Dogs took hold of me very powerfully, so that I was meditating it wherever I went. It was on my mind all the time; I carried a little book to make notes for the book. structo: Do you keep in with any of the antianimal testing groups? adams: Yes, I have my contacts, but my quarrel is still the same: they’re not active enough. They ought to amalgamate of course, instead of being about six different groups, usually local and under the control of some particular hero or heroine. If they amalgamated they’d be much more powerful. I don’t think enough campaigning is done for animal rights in this country, and I’d like to think that you had heard of me in that connection. structo: You yourself were president of the rspca at one time, is that right? adams: Yes I was, and I left them because they wouldn’t do what I wanted. The rspca, I always thought, ought to be a campaigning body. Well it isn’t, it’s doggywogs and pussycats really isn’t it? They won’t even go abroad for things like tigers. I tried in vain to get the rspca to go for the tigers. I can’t remember what I finally fell out with the council on, but the basic point was that they would not campaign, and my patience was exhausted. structo: In terms of interpretations of your work, obviously we’ve had the films – what did you think of the film version of Watership Down by the way? adams: I’m afraid I didn’t like it. structo: It must be difficult to view someone else’s interpretation of your work. adams: They’re not my rabbits. I suppose it would have been a miracle if they were, but there could have been a greater effort to equate to my rabbits than they achieved, I don’t think they were really trying. Before it started I said don’t alter the story, and they said, ‘oh no, we won’t alter the story Richard, oh no.’ Actually it’s a completely different story. I couldn’t like it because it bore no relationship to my original work at all. structo: More recently there was a story that appeared in an anthology for the Born Free Foundation. Was this something you wrote especially for that book? adams: Yes. They asked me to do something, and
they offered quite a nice bit of money, so I took it on. I thought if I was going to write a story about an animal I would attack it in a completely different way, and as you know, what it does is to get inside the animal and describe its sensations and feelings. I thought perhaps I would have difficulty in getting it accepted, but no, everyone seemed to like it very much. structo: So would you call yourself retired at this point? adams: Yes. structo: Did you call yourself retired before you were asked to do this last story though? adams: [Laughter] Well I didn’t say I wouldn’t be open to another request or offer, if something came up that pleased me. structo: But as well as the novels, of which you’ve written a fair few, there have been various short stories such as the Tales from Watership Down. Was that bowing to everyone who was clamouring for more, or was that you just wanting to tell more stories from that world? adams: No, they were clamouring for more, and they wanted me to write a full-length book like Watership Down, which would have been an effort that I don’t think I could have managed. Writing is hard work, as you probably know yourself, and didn’t think I would be up to the tremendous effort required to write a full-length book. Short stories was a concession, I agreed to do that. I don’t know whether I shall publish any more. You can’t help feeling a bit old, when you’re ninety. It’s easy enough to talk to you, in a pleasant way, but the idea of taking on something that’s going to take weeks of hard work is… in a way I’d like to do it, but I don’t think I could. structo: It’s a nice mix. We hear more from the does, which is nice. adams: I came in for a lot of criticism you know, about not having does in Watership Down, and I said that if I wrote any more about it I would try to give the does – I could only agree [with the criticism], when I wrote Watership Down I wasn’t really thinking about public reaction at all, I just wrote the story, but I had to accept the criticism that the does got precious little of the floodlight. I agreed to give them more of it next time. structo: They certainly do in the short stories. adams: Whether it’s any better for that I rather doubt. Well you couldn’t repeat Watership Down could you? It couldn’t be done. structo: It must be such a temptation though, to revisit – especially in the world of Shardik when you’ve got this huge world – although you do have the sequel to that in Maia. If you have this enormous world it must be so tempting to just investigate the stories within it, like a lot of fantasy authors do. They just stay within these invented worlds whereas you have written lots of different things. adams: In Maia I wanted to write a book that would simply be a page-turner. No wonderful religious ideas or poetic notions, just, ‘and then she’, ‘and then she’. It took four years to write Maia, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d be the first person to admit that it’s not a blockbuster, it’s just a straightforward tale: ‘and then she’, ‘and then she’. It’s surprising how many people have read it though. structo: That’s one of the joys of books you enjoy isn’t it? If you have a long book you enjoy, then all the better. adams: And it had plenty of sex of course. [Laughter] structo: Well, that’s always a bonus. That reminds me of The Girl in a Swing; it almost seems like it was written by another person. adams: I always try to vary the stories. structo: Which is perhaps why people who have only read Watership Down might be surprised that the rest of your books are so different? adams: I’ve never pretended to be grinding some great axe. I’m an entertainer, and that’s what I try to be as an entertainer: a storyteller. The stories are different, and I’m not trying to grind any particular axe; it’s just for amusement really. I’ve always made it quite clear that in the rabbit’s story there is no allegory or parable, it’s simply a story about rabbits. If people try and read into it, then that’s from them. Not from me.
Selected poems from Autumn Leaves by n o r a
k i r i e n ko
arried during the Second World War to a Russian fighting for the Czech army, Nora Mahala Kirienko and her husband Vasili farmed in Czechoslovakia after the war, before returning with their young daughter to the uk; to what was to become their perfect retreat in the beautiful North Wales countryside. After years of hardship and anxiety – particularly for Vasili, who had had to flee from persecution across many borders, starting his life anew each time – the peace and stability they found must have been profoundly affecting. A practical woman – and one would be, having led oxen at the plough and reaped corn by hand – Nora’s poems reveal a deep connection with the landscape and the natural beauty around her. Nora died in the summer of 2010, leaving behind a collection of poems, entitled Autumn Leaves, from which the following selection is taken.
Solitude on the Moors
Great sweep of moorland in afternoon sun, Waiting so calmly till daytime be done. What has passed over you? What have you seen? The wind which has rustled you, where has it been? Birds must have flown across during the day, Some will have rested, then gone on their way. Foxes perhaps, though the cover be slight, Then they would slink away into the night. The moon will arise and the scene will be still, The call of the owls will rise over the hill. And all will be quiet till the herald of dawning Appears in the east with the advent of morning.
Soft toed, he walked along the river’s side, Watching the fishes leap in mellow depths. The city’s turmoil hummed around his brain. The man was tired. Restful it was, there, by the sun-gold water, With the ragged-edged clouds fleecing in the sky; The peace of it entered the man’s soul And gave him thought. The thoughts stayed long, Whirling and eddying around his spirit, Cooling his senses in a myriad ways, And breathing calm.
Dreams Our waking hours compare not with our dreams. Reality, with hardened face, awaits us At the door of sleep; and the bare bones of day Stripped of the fleshy tints of night’s imaginings, Stare at us gaunt-lipped from through the open mind. Day walks behind us, prodding with cold facts Our tempted fantasies, which, lured as if by drug Tend to slip back again to sleep. And the blue starlight of our eyes weeps For what is not.
Buswards he turned his steps, His feelings healed, Ready to join the workers of the town And the day’s toil.
Untitled How alone we are, Our lives individually travelling From birth to death. Uncertainty, the milestone of our journey, Insecurity, the knowledge which we carry, From start to finish. Our emotions hamper us at every move. Love, so precarious a state, waits Where ’tis least expected, And we are powerless against its thrust. Hate or dislike subside and are forgotten. Love will endure through time, by love begotten. The Pup It was cold today, and the wind was sere. ’Twas too cold to go out with the dog. So we sat by the fire, and to give more cheer I threw on another log. I read my book but the dog grew bored As he lay at my feet with a bone, And after a time, when the day had thawed, He said he would go out alone. I said: “Oh no!” and he said: “Oh yes!” And a battle of wits ensued. In the end he got up, reprisals to take – ’Twas my very best boots he chewed.
The Cage by j o h n
björ l i ng
aving suffered through yet another night of insomnia, Edward Gamble decided to wait for the morning in his study, while smoking and reading. This was common practice for Edward, who had almost come to appreciate the quiet nights of solitude in the study more than the heavy sleep under the eiderdown. His library was constantly being replenished with new books but he never had the patience to read during the daytime, so it fit him perfectly to sit with a pipe full of Brenner’s Blend, reading another volume on magick and the arcane. His mind having slowly fallen into an almost sleep-like stupor, Edward came to with the sound of footsteps out in the hallway. A quiet knock came at the door. ‘Come in,’ he said, and was not surprised to see his valet, Fredric, in his usual work attire and with an energetic look on his face. ‘Would you care for some breakfast, sir?’ Fredric asked. ‘Or at least some green tea?’ ‘I wouldn’t mind some tea,’ Edward said and closed the book, resting the pipe on the desk. ‘And some toast while you’re at it. Thank you, Fredric. I shall take a bath in the meantime.’ Bathed and dressed, Edward enjoyed his breakfast in the drawing room while Fredric carried out his usual morning routine in the flat. Edward browsed through the morning paper and was depressed by the lack of exciting news. He cast the newspaper aside and instead concentrated entirely on the meal. With his thoughts elsewhere, he barely heard the doorbell ringing, but Fredric was fast to answer the call. After a short, muffled discussion at the door, the valet returned to the drawing room. ‘There is a visitor, sir,’ he said. ‘A Lady Marnes who seeks your services.’ ‘Ah,’ Edward exclaimed and jumped up from the chair. ‘Send her in! And please remove the breakfast. We wouldn’t want to disturb her with this dreadful scenery, even though it was delicious as usual.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ Fredric said, taking the tray with him as he exited to the hallway. Although Edward had dabbled in magick for many years, it was only recently that he had decided to put his knowledge to use. It had started with a proposal from one of his friends at the Archibald Society who had urged him to counsel those in need. With too much time at his disposal, Edward had concluded that it couldn’t hurt. He put an advertisement in the paper the next day, promising aid for ‘all things mystical and occult’. It had been a great source of strange experiences and adventures, some of which had proven a little too dangerous for comfort. But this never prevented Edward from seeing additional clients. Lady Marnes proved to be an aged woman with a strong air of aristocracy about her. Although she tried her best to appear composed, Edward could see that she was distressed and nervous, and not just by the notion of visiting a young bachelor. ‘Good morning, madam,’ Edward said as kindly as he could, as he approached her. ‘Lady Marnes, I believe?’ ‘Indeed,’ she said and took Edward’s hand, ‘and I take it you are Mr Gamble?’ ‘Right,’ he said, noticing that she seemed a bit on the frail side. ‘Would you like to have a seat?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ Lady Marnes sighed. ‘Thank you.’ Edward seated the lady in his best chair and took a seat on the opposite end of the table. She seemed to be calming down. ‘So tell me,’ Edward said. ‘How can I help you?’ ‘Well,’ Lady Marnes said with some reservation, ‘tell me, Mr Gamble, do you know anything about sleep problems?’ ‘I’m afraid I do,’ Edward said, amused by the question’s relevance to his own preoccupation. ‘I
have a terrible time falling asleep most nights. My doctor says I’m too active and that I never allow my brain to rest. He reckons I should take up regular drinking.’ ‘Well, I suppose that is one type of problem,’ Lady Marnes said, ‘but I am afraid my husband is suffering from quite the opposite condition. He has been asleep for nearly two weeks.’ ‘Really?’ Edward said, intrigued. ‘Do you mean he’s fallen into a coma?’ ‘No,’ Lady Marnes said. ‘The physicians say that he is in some form of prolonged state of sleep that they cannot explain. He simply will not wake up.’ ‘That sounds odd, to say the least,’ Edward mused. ‘Where is he now?’ ‘In his bed on the estate. A nurse is taking care of him and making sure that he is at least fed regularly, but I am afraid that I am at a loss of what to do. The doctors say that they cannot do anything but observe.’ ‘And so you come to me,’ Edward said. ‘You did a good thing! I shall be happy to accompany you back home and see your husband in person. If you will allow me a moment to prepare I shall be ready to leave shortly.’ Edward scoured his study for anything on the subject of sleep. His memory was in constant battle with the growth of the library, but he had recently organized a number of books under the subject of personal health. There he found a thick volume on sleep and magick, and the many ways the two correlate. He decided it would come in handy, even though the pages were tattered and the margins were filled with his notes that corrected some of the mistakes the writer had made. Equipped with his bag of regular tools and books, Edward put on his coat and hat and joined Lady Marnes in the car outside. Her driver took them south, to Crawley, where they took off to the east and approached the estate at Kingscote. It had been a long time since Edward had left the city, and the countryside landscape had a relaxing effect on him. Marnes House was remarkable, with two large wings in the German gothic style and a modest garden that seemed to shy away from the impressive architecture. As they drove up to the main entrance, Edward felt such awe that he hardly remembered stepping out of the car and into the great hall. It was the echoes from their steps and the quiet murmur from the staff that finally brought him back to reality. ‘It’s a most impressive house, madam,’ Edward said, and Lady Marnes smiled. ‘It has belonged to my husband’s family for eight generations,’ she said. ‘Although we only moved here after my husband’s brother, Leopold, died six months ago.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Edward said. ‘Don’t be,’ Lady Marnes said. ‘He was a silly old man with strange hobbies and who never married, so it was probably for the best that the house fell into my husband’s care.’ Edward followed Lady Marnes upstairs, trailed by two sombre servants who seemed to find no joy in their new visitor. On the second floor they approached the master bedroom, whose large open windows drowned the entire room with light. As they entered the room, a young nurse leapt to her feet and then immediately looked at the man in the bed. He was completely motionless, lying in his nightshirt on top of the cover. ‘I do wish you could have met under more decent circumstances,’ Lady Marnes said, ‘but here is my husband, Lord Marnes.’ Edward put his bag on the floor, approached the man and studied his face. It was completely still except for the unsteady twitching of the eyes underneath their lids, a strong indication that he was in
fact dreaming. He was breathing both steadily and heavily, a soft wheeze coming through his moustache. Satisfied with these observations, Edward turned to the room and looked at the walls and the ceiling. It was a large room but austerely furnished, with the bed and the nurse’s chair being the only pieces of furniture. He approached the bed and closely surveyed the bedposts and sheets, and even felt the composition of the mattress. ‘Is there a specific reason why the room is so empty?’ Edward asked, and Lady Marnes seemed surprised by the question. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it has always been this way.’ ‘Hmm,’ Edward hummed and turned to the doors, both the one leading into the hallway as well as the one leading to the next bedroom. He turned the handles and looked at both sides of the doors and stole a glance at the other bedroom. Finally, he shut the doors and turned yet again to Lady Marnes. ‘What rooms are directly above this room and below it?’ he asked. ‘I believe it is another bedroom above,’ she said, ‘and I am fairly certain that it is the dining hall below.’ ‘And does anyone use the bedroom above?’ Edward asked. ‘No,’ Lady Marnes said, ‘although we do keep Leopold’s blackbird in that room. One of many things he left for us to attend.’ ‘A blackbird,’ Edward mused. ‘As I said, he was a very strange man with strange ideas.’ Edward looked once again at the sleeping man and saw no difference in expression or state. As far as they knew, he was still fast asleep, dreaming whatever one can dream for two consecutive weeks. At last, Edward fell to his knees and took a look under the bed, scanning the floor and the mattress with the limited light he could get. ‘Madam, I’m afraid I’m going to make a strange request,’ Edward said and stood up once again. ’But I assure you that it is entirely to the benefit of your husband.’ ‘Oh?’ Lady Marnes said. ‘I would like to stay for the night and sleep in this very bed with your husband still in it. I believe that only then could I have a chance at understanding the strange situation that we have here.’ Although she thought it quite unorthodox, Lady Marnes did not object and had her servants supply Edward with sleeping attire. After sharing an evening meal with Lady Marnes, and reading through some of his books, Edward finally withdrew to the bedroom. Lady Marnes and her butler followed him and both appeared anxious to see the outcome of Edward’s experiment. ‘I shall speak to you in the morning,’ Edward said, ‘and perhaps then we shall know more about this.’ Lying in the bed beside Lord Marnes, Edward felt oddly relaxed, more than he had been for several days. Perhaps, he thought, he should invest in a better bed, because by comparison a night in his London bed was like sleeping on crates. The lord’s steady breathing next to him calmed him even further and before he knew it, Edward’s thoughts became softer and paler until they shrouded everything. He found he was walking in a hallway and feeling the doorknobs on a series of doors when he suddenly realized that he hadn’t closed the door behind him. He turned around and saw that all the doors behind him were open and he didn’t know which one he had come from. He was frozen for a moment until he heard the sharp staccato melodies of a violin somewhere down the hallway. He pursued the source of the sound, looking in through all the
doorways, but was met with nothing but empty rooms in different colours. Finally he came up to the door where the sound was loudest and saw a man in a tuxedo standing in the middle of the room with his back towards the door, holding a violin against his right shoulder. The man stopped playing at once. ‘Hello?’ Edward said. The man put the violin down and turned around. He had a pale and rather sickly complexion, with eyes and hair that were dark, almost black. His tuxedo was also black, but with a slight blue shimmer that made it look like feathers or scales. ‘May I come in?’ Edward asked, still standing in the hallway. The man gestured flamboyantly but silently for Edward to come in, and he stepped into the room. Edward’s eyes were fixed on him, and the man returned his gaze with equal intensity. ‘Who are you?’ Edward asked. The man said nothing in reply. Turning round, Edward noticed that the door behind him was now shut. To his right he saw another door that was also closed. Behind the silent man were windows, but upon closer inspection he could see that they were painted onto the wall. Edward studied the rest of the room and found that it was oddly constructed, as if by someone who did not fully understand the meaning of rooms. It was just a space with no purpose. ‘Where am I?’ Edward asked. The man said nothing but his eyes seemed to shift focus while still staring at him. Edward now recognized the room as Lord Marnes’s bedroom, but the bed was nowhere to be seen. It was as the room might look if it was emptied and prepared for a long winter. It reminded him of why he was there. ‘Can you tell me where I can find Lord Marnes?’ Edward asked, but the man said nothing and motioned with his bow towards the other door. Edward continued looking at the man but followed his bow towards the door, and eventually opened it. Inside was another large empty room with another door at the other end. The man continued to stare at him and Edward stepped inside and walked to the other door. As he came closer he realized that it was painted on the wall, just as the windows in the bedroom had been. Walking back it seemed that the silent man had left. Edward approached the hallway door, seeking his elusive companion. He could hear distant noises from what seemed to be a dinner party on the other side, but as soon as he opened the door he was met by an empty, silent dining room. The hallway was nowhere to be seen. ‘One could go insane walking in this house,’ Edward said to himself. ‘Lord Marnes could be anywhere.’ He closed the door and looked back at the door behind him, which was still ajar. He approached it slowly and peered around, only to find yet another new room on the other side, this time an empty drawing room. ‘I’m trapped,’ Edward said, ‘and the man seems to want me here. Trapped in a cage.’ Like a caged bird. With nothing else to do, Edward decided to investigate the boundaries of his prison. He removed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves until they almost cramped his arms. He then walked up to the wall with the painted windows and felt its texture, following the lines carefully with his fingers. Nothing seemed to stick out. He knocked carefully at the wall and thought he heard some sort of hollowness, as if everything was made of thick paper instead of wood and stone. ‘Did you make this house yourself, little bird?’ Edward said, and smiled. He continued to knock, now with some force, and each time the wall seemed to bend a little more. He spread his punches around evenly until he finally landed one heavy hit near the centre of his radius. At this point, the wall crumbled. And Edward fell down. He woke up covered in sweat and with aching hands, the sleeves of his nightshirt rolled up. Lady Marnes stood by the bed and looked at him worriedly. ‘You slept for nearly thirteen hours,’ Lady
Marnes said. ‘Yet now you are awake.’ Edward looked at the sleeping husband and then back at Lady Marnes. ‘Tell me, madam,’ he said. ‘How attached are you to that blackbird you told me about?’ They walked upstairs and entered the upstairs bedroom, which was an exact replica of the master bedroom with the sole exception of a birdcage in the middle of the room. It was a large, cubic black cage with a single blackbird sitting inside, who whistled quietly as if not wanting to be heard. It stopped singing as soon as Edward came in. ‘Now where did such a little bird learn such amazing tricks?’ he said and tapped softly on the cage. He carried it outside while the servants prepared the way for him, Lady Marnes following him with curiosity. Once outside in the gardens he lifted up the cage and took a close look at the bird. It sat still and tentatively moved its head around. Edward smiled at the bird and opened the cage door. It waited for a moment but then approached the cage door cautiously before launching itself out and flying off into the open air. It soared across the sky as if it couldn’t get far enough away from the ground, each beat of the wings stronger than the last. They stood in silence as the bird flew into the park and disappeared. Soon enough the quietness was interrupted by hurried footsteps from the stairs behind them. ‘Madam,’ a servant cried, running down the stairs, ‘Madam, he’s woken up! Lord Marnes is awake!’ Lady Marnes turned around in surprise and hastened up the stairs to the servant, who then grasped the lady’s hands and escorted her upstairs. Edward watched as they disappeared into the house to what must be a most joyous, if unexpected, reunion. Edward picked up the cage and held it before him with both hands, looking at the house through its metal grid. Then everything suddenly aligned. The cage was a miniature of the house, with each metal string equivalent to a certain line of the house’s facade, their corresponding doors resting in the middle of the multitude of lines. Edward smiled and thought for a moment that he would very much have liked to have met Lord Marnes’s odd brother. He went inside the house again, carrying the cage with great care, even though he knew that it would never again hold another bird.
The Squid Killer by n i c k y
m a r sh
he sea tasted salt-dirty and he hawked and spat, hawked and spat, salty phlegm clogging his throat like vomit, like bile. Floating, hawking, he was shock-smashed by another wave; submerged, that same filthy salt drink poured down his throat, burned his belly like whiskey. It stung his screwedup eyes, pressure-clogged his ears; a high-pitched, faraway tone pierced his head until he surfaced and shook it loose. His legs and arms kicked and flailed. He began, doggedly, to swim. His weak strokes barely rippled that undulating chaos, limbs aching from their ineffective attack. He pulled and kicked, pulled and kicked and spat more saltwater. Fierce heat reflected off the rough surface, red-singeing his pale cheeks. Eyes scrunched shut, panting, tossed like driftwood, he stopped. He opened his eyes and squinted towards the beach, seeking his belongings. The progress they indicated was negative. Smacking the water in defeat he began, in laborious breaststroke, to swim towards shore. He gave in to the waves, letting them boost his fatigued body. He avoided looking down, nervy always at the sight of his own shadow on the seabed, mistaking it for ominous rocks or lurking sea demons. Still he periodically recoiled as a piece of seaweed or errant leaf brushed him, causing electric adrenaline to surge through him as he thrashed gracelessly to evade it. When he neared shore, when the water lost its deep chill and began to warmly coddle him, he steeled his pedalling feet, fearing sharp, skin-shredding rock or disturbed jellyfish sting. He imagined a six-inch anemone spine spiking his foot, piercing the tender, fleshy sole and jutting out the instep, jagged as an arrow, a watery red cloud spreading outwards as he yowled with pain. (And then come the sharks, he thought morosely and with no little terror.) But his feet met with nothing more than wet mulch, and he rose and waded in, peering through the swirling murk for dark forms. He slogged up the beach, wet grit oozing between his toes before it yielded to damp, hardpacked sand and finally the hot, dry stuff that coated his wet feet and flicked up his ankles and calves, where it clung and itched. The sun sucked moisture from his skin as he trudged to his towel. He did not register the darkly blurred, cantaloupesized mass on the sand until he had passed it. It was a squid. A washed-up squid, stretched out on damp sand, a series of shallow-grooved tributaries connecting it to the sea. He squatted at a safe distance. He could not tell if it was alive or dead. It lay with head upslope, tentacles arced left. It skin was opalescent and in places a leathery brown. Its back was crusted with sand. Its eyes were open, eyes that were yin-yanged, half black and half white. He edged closer. Dozens of tiny flies were crawling over the squid, crawling over its skin, its gills, its eyes. He noticed that a patch of skin near its head was missing, and here flies clustered thickly, infesting its flesh. The squid was dead. It was a sight that both repulsed and fascinated him. He circled the squid. He watched his shadow pass over it, his hanging head clouding its body. When he moved the flies swarmed up in clouds before resettling on its skin, on its flesh, in its eyes. He was transfixed by its eyes. They seemed so alive. The left eye stared straight out at the beach, but the right eye was downcast, seeming ashamed by this final humiliation, this final degradation. To be eaten by flies, to have flies lay their eggs in one’s eyes, to have those eggs hatch and grow into obscene, squirming maggots. To have those eyes devoured, hollowed out, becoming holes, becoming infinite black voids. Help me, called the left eye. I’m sorry, said the right. I’m sorry, and I’m ashamed to be the cause of this horror. Please go away and leave me to my shameful fate. Unaware of his fire-seared body, he stared at the
squid for a long time. Stared at its downcast right eye in particular. He could feel the squid’s shame as if he, too, were being defiled by flies. He grew angry, tried to wave the invaders away. But they could not be dissuaded; merely hovered and landed, hovered and landed with every frenzied swat. He decided then that he would restore the squid’s final dignity. He would not allow those foul flies to defile it any longer. He would give it a proper burial. He rose, knees creaking, and stepped his shadow from the squid. He bent down and scooped a handful of damp sand. It was gritty-coarse and stuck to the sweat of his palm. He carried the sand to the squid. He wanted to say a few words, something solemn and true. But he felt selfconscious, silly, bereft of the requisite depth. As he dropped that wet handful onto the squid’s back, all he could think to say was, “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Sand to sand.” And then, feeling inadequate, he added, “Safe journey, squid.” His voice trembled. He felt frustratingly unable to express the emotion that burned his belly and throat like that dirty saltwater, and so he commenced to the burial. Using both hands he hollowed out a deep hole as he buried the squid, body first, leaving the head and tentacles exposed until he could put it off no longer. As he sprinkled sand on the squid’s head, he thought he saw the tentacles flex. Panic coursed through him. He squatted, stared at the squid. It wasn’t moving. Pulse throbbing he scooped more sand, let it fall on the squid’s head. Again the tentacles flexed. He agonised, thoughts crashing like saltdirty waves, clogging his ears. Could the squid be alive still? Was he sure? Could it not have been waiting for the tide to wash it back into the sea, alive, alive, oh god was it possible? Sand covered the squid now. He became certain then that it was alive, that at that very moment it was being suffocated by the sand which clogged its gills, its face, its eyes. He raced up the beach, cursing the burning sand which trapped his feet and slowed his progress. Rummaging through his backpack he grabbed his water bottle and stumbled back down. Aiming at the place he knew the squid’s head to be he squeezed the bottle. The sand became semi-liquid but clung stubbornly to the squid. The bottle emptied; he sprinted to the sea, submerging it, squeezing its sides to force in more water. When it was full he ran back. The saltwater washed the sand from the squid’s buried head. It was no longer moving. Its eyes still stared out in the same directions: one at the beach, one at the sand. It tormented him, this conviction that the squid was still alive, that he had buried it alive, that it was at this moment succumbing to a slow and painful suffocation because of him. He crouched over the squid’s head. Hating himself, he poked its head with his water bottle. Nothing, no movement. He poked it again, further back. Nothing. The squid did not move, the tentacles did not flex. He stared at the half-buried squid. He wondered if he had imagined the movement, if it had been some kind of post-mortem muscle twitch. (Still this voice in his head, so clear in the swirling dread: this squid was alive, and now it’s dead, because you killed it.) After a while he had no choice but to finish the burial. Already flies were beginning to land in the squid’s eyes, on its uncovered face. (Would flies settle on a living squid? He thought of flies on cattle, flies on a horse, being flicked away by long bovine lashes or wiry tail.) Grimfaced, tearfaced, he scooped another double handful of sand and proceeded to re-cover its head. When it was layered thick enough to stave off the flies he patted it, smoothed it with hitchbreathed dignity. Then he smoothed the sand in front of the mound, erasing his scuffed, sunken footprints. In the smooth sand, taking care over every letter (as though the care he
took now would erase his anguish over burying the squid alive, erase it as easily as he had erased his footprints from the sand) he carved great grooves with hooked finger: r.i.p. squid He was careful to sweep away all the excess sand; this he shunted with cupped hand into the hole he had created. It was beginning to fill with water, a shallow pool, even though the sea was not close. He marvelled at the hidden water beneath his feet, beneath the barely damp sand. This secret lagoon. This underground ocean, black and cramped, pushing up through the sand, up towards the light. He wondered how far back, how deep it went. He thought about standing on water, walking on water. About the squid floating in water, swept out by the high tide like a sailor being buried at sea, his sandy coffin dissolving, being returned to the place from which he had come. He felt glad that he had at least saved the squid from the flies, which now were buzzing listlessly around the tightly-packed mound. He felt glad that he was returning the squid to his home whole and unsullied, with his eyes intact. Those pleading, shame-filled eyes. The image of those eyes, that blackwhite swirl, was burned into his brain. Eventually he tore himself away from the grave, pulling free his damply sunken knees. He returned to his towel, red skin tight over stiff limbs, and gathered up his possessions. He walked up the beach, leaving the squid to be consumed by the sea.
That night in his hut he could not sleep. The fan stirred the air overhead; still he felt the heat like the devil’s breath. Naked, sheet balled at his feet, he lay on his back, shifting his sore body first to one side then the other. But sleep would not come. He felt suffocated under the mosquito net which enveloped his body, which enclosed him like a coffin, like thicklayered sand. In this hut, in this net, in this heat he could not breathe. As he looked up at the fan it became the squid’s eye, the right one, the downcast one. But this time it was looking down at him, and now he knew it was not the flies which had brought the shame onto the squid. It was him. The one who had ended the squid’s life. “You killed me,” said the eye. “You took my life, took my breath. From this day on you will be known only as Squid Killer.” “Squid Killer!” called the sea. “Squid Killer!” called the sand. “Squid Killer!” called the flies. “Let us all stand as witnesses to your crime,” they cried as mourning-masked chorus. “Today you killed a squid. Today a Squid Killer was born.” He sat up in bed. The eye stared unblinkingly at him from above. The unified voices of the sea and the sand and the flies assaulted his ears. In his hot coffin he suffocated, like the squid in its sandy grave. He tore back the mosquito net. Naked, he flung open the door. Naked, he ran down to the beach, feet sinking into the warm, dry sand, twigs and leaves poking his toes. Oblivious, he ran. The beach was coffin-black. The stars had retreated in shame. Scowling down at him from their hiding places, blinking at him in choreographed unison, they too called to him. “Squid Killer! We accuse you!” “Squid Killer! We accuse you!” echoed the others, the echo becoming a chant; repeating, rising, closing in. The mingled voices danced around him, circled him. He stumbled blindly, tripping and sinking, to the water’s edge. The water was high, near the tree-line. There was no wet sand, no damp sand bordering the water. Just dry sand and a line of debris, of seaweed and leaves and washed-up litter.
The tide was almost at its highest point. The squid was long gone, had been washed into the sea, its infinite resting place; it had floated out into that black infinity, tentacles rippling, one eye downcast still. The voices quieted. The squid called out to him from its watery grave. “You killed me! Let this water, this sand, this night be my witness! May you be branded Squid Killer, may my right eye follow you for ever more! May you be devoured by flies for your sins, Squid Killer! May maggots eat out your eyes, may your dignity be stripped, may you grow black hollows where your eyes once were so that all may know your crime! You killed me! You are the Squid Killer!” Now he grew calm. Now he knew he must repent; he knew how he must repent. In the narrow strip of sand between the trees and the sea, calling to the stars and the sea and the sand as his witnesses, squinting through the dark he used his hooked finger to carve out his confession. i am the squid killer
He implored the tide to advance, to wash away
his confession, and with that cleansing to grant him absolution. The tide, in response, spoke its solemn judgement. Working quickly, he pawed the sand at his feet. He grabbed great double handfuls, scooped them out to make a hole. He wondered if he would hit water, that black underground ocean; if the hole would begin to fill with hidden water as it rose from the earth. The hole grew long and wide, and when it was long enough and wide enough he lay down in it. He lay down beside the litter and the seaweed and the leaves and began to bury himself. He began at his lower end, like he had with the squid, using his arm to sweep sand over his feet, over his legs and stomach and chest and neck. Once he got to his upper body he couldn’t pack the sand as tightly, but he didn’t think it mattered. He took a shaking handful of sand and dropped it onto his face. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, sand to sand. The sand filled his mouth and nostrils and eyes. He felt it was particularly important to fill his eyes. He didn’t want those flies eating his eyes, laying eggs in his eyes. He breathed in sand; he felt sand clog his airways; he began to choke and suffocate. Water began to rise
up from beneath him, to claim him. Water from above would soon spill its absolution onto him. The voices of the sea and the sand and the stars and the flies were all silent now, and he sensed the right eye of the squid turning upwards in satisfaction as it floated out to sea in peace, no longer burdened by shame. As it floated out and waited for him to join it, so that they could float forever, eyes intact, in that infinite black void.
On Visiting Scenes of Childhood † & A Word for It
by a . h .
s a rg e a n t
How this world has shrunk since I was a boy: the shout betwixt my friend’s house and my own would but a whisper be were we to meet and speak across our mutual neighbour’s plot, that was an unbridged chasm once. The houses now are bright with paint and changed beyond belief with casement fronts, and walls are built where privet hedges grew. The width of road that was our playing field has cars along its edge, and boys no longer football in the street. And the way to school, that was in turn a burning desert, an arctic waste, or else a journey to the moon, is but a pace or two of pavement dull and drab when viewed from man’s estate.
When Robin drew his bow of yew, I wonder, did he ever have a clue to what we might have called him now? Or as he sat ’neath greenwood bough how did he deem himself – his plight? Bowman? Archer? These and more, but surely not toxophilite? That gay gallant of old, Don Juan, could he name the game he chose upon? A bold lover he – though on the sly, for he would never do or die! But all the ladies he could twist around his finger – great success he knew, this philogynist. Or Bleriot, with wild delight at making that first Channel flight, perhaps he dreamed a wondrous term that justified his epic germ. An aero-minded, streamlined thought: Skyman? At least an aero-something – but not an aeronaut! And still today a name is given to ‘Uncle’ (blessed saint of heaven), who, standing ’neath three balls of brass calls us inside, (when we would pass!) and with a kind and generous proffer would loan us half of what we thought; but we accept the usurer’s offer. The tousle-headed schoolboy with a passion to collect stamps in great profusion; no one would e’er suspect might one day fly to Rome and back for a single Penny Black! Funny story? Well, here’s the comic twist – he’s not a stamp-collector now – he’s a philatelist! And I? A simple word is all I crave, a common term to mark my grave and show the world when I am dust I wrote in rhyme to earn my crust. Rhymer perhaps, or if you insist, poet – but please, not lexicologist.
This Book Belongs To… by f o r d p.
wa i g h t
e used to collect Rupert Bear annuals. He had all of them from 1936 to the present, mostly in mint condition and unclipped, with just a few of them bearing the inscription of the previous owner. His collection currently resided on two mahogany bookcases up in the temperature-controlled loft, along with a vintage Hornby train set-up and a collection of Airfix fighter planes. His Rupert collection, he estimated, given its excellent condition, was worth a fair bit of money. The only one that had evaded him was the famous 1973 ‘brownie’ version, with Rupert depicted sitting in a tree with a brown face. The annual had originally been produced with an incorrect white face, much to the anger of the artist, Alfred Bestall. To appease him, the publishers had several copies reprinted that showed the correct brown face. It’s widely believed that there are only around twelve of these editions in existence. Sometimes, at night, he’d dream about finding a precious ‘brownie’. For many years he kept a keen and hopeful eye open for this elusive copy; scouring bookshops and charity shops, car boot sales and jumble sales, and eBay. But of course he knew he’d never find one. He resigned himself to having completed his collection, and was perfectly content to stand back and admire his work. He felt at peace with his accomplishment. But soon after, a dark hole began to develop in his ‘collecting’ heart. And this was the thing about collecting… once you’d completed a collection it soon became redundant, the excitement quickly withering away after photos had been taken and shared with collecting clubs and online forums. A collection was only interesting so long as there was something new to add to it. Each year, at Christmas time, he’d treat himself to the current Rupert annual. But there was no real excitement in this, nor any challenge. One evening, while he is walking down the High Street, his scarf wrapped tightly around his chin to protect against a biting winter chill, he stops and stares into the window of an Oxfam shop. Inside the window, next to some Dandys and Beanos, is a Rupert Bear annual. The 1973 edition. Looks in decent condition too, he thinks. But then he looks closer. His heart begins to thump. He gulps for some air. He rubs his eyes. Dear Lord. It’s the ‘brown face’ edition! For a long moment he just stares at the annual, his brain frantically trying to recall the exact variation: white face incorrect but common… brown face correct but rare… Rupert’s face is always brown on the cover but white inside… was it 1973… or 1974? No. Yes. No. Yes! Was his mind playing tricks on him? His eyes deceiving him in the harsh winter light of street-lamps and shop-window reflections? No, you fool. You bloody fool! That’s it… that’s the famous Rupert brownie! His heart begins to pound. For some bizarre reason he tries the handle of the door – but of course it is locked. He looks around the street. He wants desperately for someone to be walking along who knows about this sort of thing; and he’d shake them by their lapels and beg them to confirm that he wasn’t going out of his mind with delusion. The sign on the door says: Opening hours Mon – Sat 10am to 4pm. He looks at his watch. He looks at the book again. He loosens his scarf because he’s hot now. Reluctantly he turns away, and almost sprints to the bus stop. When he arrives home he switches on his computer and boils a kettle. He makes a search of the 1973 annual and consults his reference books. Yes. It was the brown face all right. Of course, he knew this all along. But he had to be sure. And this brown face, one of only a dozen perhaps, just so hap-
pened to be sitting in his local Oxfam shop window. He sips some tea. Online, he finds the telephone number of the shop. He calls the number. Perhaps there’ll be an answer machine? A diverted number? But the line just rings. He hangs up. He sips some more tea and thinks. He takes out a pen and notepad from the drawer. On the pad he writes: Dear Sir/Madam. Please can you take the copy of the Rupert Bear annual in your window and save this for me until I can come into the shop first thing? I’ve been looking for a copy of this book for my collection for years! I don’t know how much you are asking for said book, but I enclose a twentypound note which I hope will suffice as a deposit. He signs the letter and puts it inside an envelope along with a twenty-pound note. He seals it and writes on the front: URGENT! PLEASE OPEN IMMEDIATELY! He looks at the clock in his study. It’s nine pm. He picks up his digital camera and checks that it’s fully charged. He puts his coat and scarf back on, switches off the computer and goes back out into the cold. He arrives back outside the shop and presses his face against the window. The book’s still there. Thank God. And it’s still the brown face version. Thank God! He takes his letter and pops it through the letterbox at the bottom of the door. He rubs his hands both in anticipation and to keep them warm, all the while staring at the book; imagining in the morning the obliging shop volunteer, probably a Doris or a Mary or a Betty, reading his request over a warm cup of tea, smiling and then safely tucking the precious little book away in the back of the shop, with a sign on it saying sold. He takes out his camera and tries to get some shots of the book, but this is difficult because of all the reflections. He notices three youths walking up the high street. They’re watching him taking photographs at the window. Thick curls of smoke escape from their mouths in the cold night air. They remind him of snorting bulls. He ignores them and continues to snap away. One of the youths shouts over to him, “Hey, granddad!” “I beg your pardon?” he says, turning to face them. “What you taking pictures of the spastic shop for?” “It’s not a spastic shop,” he corrects him. “It’s an Oxford famine-relief shop. Oxfam.” “Let’s have a look at the camera.” the youth says. “No, it’s mine. And I need it. Get your own camera.” “Giving us some lip, granddad?” “Ah, leave him alone,” one of the other youths says. “He’s just an old boy. Hey, granddad, got any fags?” “Son, I don’t smoke.” “Go fuck yourself then,” replies the youth. “Look,” he says. “I don’t want any trouble here. I just want this Rupert book!” And a perverse thought suddenly enters his mind… he should dare these little bastards to smash the window for him… just one brick would do it… and he could reach in and take the book! But no… Good heavens! What was he thinking? “Look, lads,” he says. “I must warn you this High Street has CCTV cameras in operation.” “Bollocks to the cameras,” one of the youths replies. “Come on,” says another. “It’s freezing. Let’s go.” “See ya granddad!” The three youths walk off. He breathes a sigh of relief and takes some more photos. He stares at his watch: ten pm. Twelve hours remain until opening. He would return tomorrow morning. And the wonderful little book will be there waiting for him. He
smiles at the book; at Rupert’s jolly little brown face. Jolly Rupert… sitting in the tree… with his chums gazing up at him. Back home he makes himself a cup of tea and switches the computer on. He logs on to one of his collecting forums and posts a brief message: Think I’ve just made the discovery of my lifetime!!! Will report back in approx 12 hours! Wish me luck! He sips his tea and re-reads the history of the 1973 ‘brownie’. He uploads his photographs. They’re mostly poor with nasty reflections from the window. But there are a couple of decent shots, he thinks. He prints one and allows it to dry. He looks at the clock: eleven thirty. He really should be getting off to bed. But how could he possibly sleep? How? When he was this excited! Perhaps just a little nip of whiskey, he thinks. Why not? Why not, indeed! It’s not often you find something like this… a holy grail of collecting! He marches out to the kitchen for a glass, and as he pours himself a whiskey – that’s much more generous than he’d intended – he imagines all sorts of excitement: the newspaper and TV reports; the calls from booksellers and auction houses; the kudos he’ll receive from the online community. It was all going to be bloody champion it was! He treats himself to another whiskey, his mind racing with thoughts and ideas: what would he actually do with the book? Would he sell it at auction? Or keep it? Probably keep it. But imagine the money if he sold it: Ah… all the things he could buy! The last copy had been sold for more than twentyfive thousand pounds! But think of the prestige of actually owning a ‘brownie’… Keep it! No. Auction it. No… Don’t be a fool. Yes… no… hmmm… Time passes. He stares at the clock. It’s two in the morning. He’s had three or four more whiskeys and admits he’s as pissed as a fart. This makes him laugh, and he staggers from the kitchen, with one last whiskey, he promises himself, and flops into his chair in front of the computer. He attempts to login to his eBay account… but in seconds he’s nodded off and fallen into a deep sleep. He awakes the next morning with a start. It takes him only seconds to realise that he’s overslept. His head is pounding. He stares at the clock: nine thirty. “Oh good Lord in heaven!” he groans. He scrambles from the chair and rushes over to the phone. On his desk on a scrap of paper is the number for the shop. He dials it. “Please be in,” he says, as the line tries to connect. “Please, somebody… Doris, Mary, Betty… please be in!” The phone continues to ring, each tone pulsating in his ear and reverberating in his thumping head. He hangs up. He looks at the clock again. Barely twenty minutes to make it for opening time. Christ, if anyone else sees that book… He calls a taxi. “How long?” he asks. “About ten minutes,” the operator replies. “Can’t you send one sooner? I’m in a hurry!” “Actually, ten minutes is very good,” comes the curt reply. “You can always try another firm.” “No… no… I’ll take it. Thank you.” The taxi arrives fifteen minutes later. He was already waiting impatiently outside. He hadn’t even bothered washing or tidying himself up. “High Street,” he tells the driver. “Just drop me outside the Oxfam shop please.” The taxi driver pulls away and immediately makes conversation: the weather; the forecast of impending snow; the sports results; the price of fuel. He answers the driver with impatient grunts, constantly checking his watch and the clock on the taxi’s dashboard. Nine fifty... nine fifty-five… They hit traffic. Every light seems to be on red; road works… learner drivers. Ten o’clock… five past ten… “Can’t you hurry?” he says to the driver.
“I’m going as fast as what’s legal,” the driver says, giving his passenger a sideways glance, and noticing his dishevelled appearance and the smell of whiskey emanating from him. He opens his window a little. Ten past ten… quarter past ten… twenty minutes past ten… The taxi eventually pulls up outside the Oxfam shop. He pays the driver and rushes over to the shop window. His heart immediately sinks. The Rupert book is no longer there. There are no books in the window at all. Everything has been replaced with a selection of ladies’ shoes, and with a matching dinner service. His heart sinks further. He marches in and goes straight to the counter where an elderly lady volunteer – a Doris or a Mary or a Betty – says cheerfully, “Good morning.” “That Rupert book that was in the window… do you still have it?” The volunteer shakes her head. “I’m sorry, sir. A gentleman came in first thing and bought all the books that we had in the window. We have some Postman Pat books if you’re interested?” He feels his legs becoming weak. He leans on the counter and takes deep breaths. “Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure the Rupert annual has gone?” “Certain. I sold them to him myself. Nice man he was.” “I mean, it’s not out in the back? Reserved? I’ll pay you extra for that book… I’ve been looking for that book for years…” “Sir,” she says. “The Rupert book, and all the other books that were in the window, have all been sold. “But, didn’t you read my letter?” he protests. “I posted it last night. It had ‘urgent’ written on it.” “Oh, yes. We had a pile of letters on the doormat when we opened up this morning. But all letters go out in the back for when Mary, the manager, comes in after lunch.” “But it said ‘urgent! Please open immediately’… didn’t you stop to think, just for one moment, that that actually meant something? And there was twenty bloody quid inside as well!”
She leans back away from the counter and regards his appearance: his uncombed hair; his unshaven face; his untidy clothes; the reek of whiskey coming from his breath. “Sir, I’m afraid I’ll have to call the police if you continue with this threatening behaviour.” And she points to a notice on the wall behind her that reads: Our staff will not tolerate any form of abuse. Please be respectful! “Stuff it then,” he growls, turning and walking away. “And you can keep the bloody twenty pounds… put it in the bloody collection box… bloody keep it yourself for all I care! Bloody put it towards your next eye-test since you can’t bloody read!” He storms out of the shop, slamming the door behind him so hard that it causes an umbrella stand to topple over. He steps out onto the pavement and takes a big gulp of air. He feels dizzy. His head is pounding even worse than before. He sees a postbox nearby and goes over and leans on it. Pedestrians and traffic pass him by. No one takes a scrap of notice of him. No one knows. No one has any idea of what has just slipped through his fingers. *** Not so far away, a man arrives home with a bag of books. His wife pops the kettle on for him as he takes off his coat and gives her a kiss. Their young son comes into the kitchen. The man ruffles the boy’s hair and gives him the books. “There you go, son,” he says. The little boy’s face beams with delight. He thanks his dad and takes the books to his room. Later, he opens up the Rupert Bear annual. The book is old and smells a bit funny, he thinks. But he likes the pictures, especially the cover with Rupert sitting in a tree. And in the front of the book there’s this little space where you can write your name: This book belongs to… He picks up a blue pen from his desk, and as neatly as he can, he writes: Ben.
Toy Story by p. a .
there was a cowboy in the sand pit giving me the gunslinger’s eye don’t bother me none i’ve caps in me gun and this dude’s just playing tough but he’s only a kid he don’t know what he’s doing i’ve got the sun behind me and there’s no way he can draw quick enough with that ice cream in his hand no the cowboy’s not the problem but crouched behind the steps of the slide out of range for my cap pistol there’s his older brother with a runny nose and a ray gun if i get too close i’ll end up with his germs stay where i am and i’m gonna get vaporised luckily i’ve a fisher-price grenade
(tagging in red splatters he reloads a loner with a semi-automatic a slight dislike of Mondays/Tuesdays any days and any lecturer with a moustache)
(in the hot grains of a foreign soil a nine year old with a Kalashnikov hides behind the twisted remains of a laundry chute in the ruins of a bombed-out hospital)
Andrew Tell Me, What Did You See? by c o n a n
m c m u rt r i e
e is a tall young man, short black hair, modestly dressed. There is nothing unusual about him. You might think his name was David, or John or Andrew. His name is Andrew. Now someone else, an elegant young woman. Her dark hair curls across her white ears and neck, in balance with her clear face. The woman’s name is Sarah. They lie together, keeping each other warm while watching television, the living room a cavern of fire and wood. Photographs, souvenirs, drapes, rugs, frames and shelved books. Somewhere, in a basket full of umbrellas and scarves, a picture of a young girl loses its colour. The girl is missing her front teeth. Not much reason to speak. The woman sniffed. ‘You know, I think I’m getting a cold again…’ ‘Oh? It’ll be the one I had. Too bad, sweets. There’s cough medicine through there. Keep warm, sweets…’ A moment later he spoke again. ‘Want a drink? I’ll make you one. Hot chocolate? Chamomile? Hmm?’ ‘Maybe. Yes, I’d love one.’ She turned around and smiled, water in her eyes. He smiled too. ‘And what would she like?’ ‘I guess, chamomile? Yep, chamomile.’ She grinned, sniffing again. ‘I’ll keep the couch warm.’ Later they both paced around a bedroom with their night-time rituals. It is smaller than the living room, all pastels and shadows, and a few metres away, just outside, rain flees down the window from the darkness in the sky. He climbed into bed while she finished in the bathroom, and with his eyes closed he listened to her brush her teeth a few feet away. The light switch snapped, eyelids changing from maroon to black, dancing shapes, indefinite comfort. He felt her arm around him and they sank into the warmth, vaguely aware of the rain tapping at the window.
A stream of vision and sound. The singing voice of a woman at the forefront of everything. A kaleidoscopic storm, warping, twisting, incredible incoherence. Clouds. Droning voices in the wet air. At a bus stop two young boys stare at each other. One turns and says, grinning, ‘Hello ice-cream man. I want chocolate.’ The boys walk away around a street corner. A dark figure emerges, a haze which becomes a panther. It gives a lazy yawn then disappears. Now a room full of peasants, shouting and laughing, dirty and worn. A black car races past. Rain simmers on the surface of a poisonous river… The images fade. For a while nothing is possible. Shopping bazaars in a medieval coastal land. A glowing quality to the bustle and a pleasant sun. Markets full of strange creatures, tiny dogs with wild ears, angry and vicious guinea pigs. People laugh at them cautiously. Bright colours, like a baby might see. He is a young boy playing in the sprinklers of a weaving garden. Ahead is a lonely white mansion. Strange objects scattered at his feet, oversized toys and gigantic metal tools. The lawn ripples in orange and blue. A lady calls him over. ‘Have you read your book yet?’ She asks him several times. ‘Well, Andrew? Have you read your book?’ The woman is his Aunt Claudia, but her appearance has warped. Her white hair rises and springs back from her face, her eyes are jewels. He feels guilty. He should have read his book. ‘No, not yet. I don’t know where it is.’ A bad excuse but it is true. He does not know where his book is.
‘Have you lost it?’ She grimaces. ‘Don’t say that! Well you’ll have to go find it.’ She stretches tall above him. ‘Enough playing! Find that book, it was expensive.’ He nods, a little frightened. Then he runs into the vast land of the garden. Before long he is in the outskirts of a bustling shanty town. The town is set upon a hill which rises up to the sky. From television, he thinks. A dark young girl tugs his sleeve. ‘Hello tall man. Can you buy me a sweet?’ Her smile shines, she seems happy to see him. ‘I don’t have any money. Sorry.’ He wishes he had, he enjoys her company. But now something nagging, something about a book. For a moment the girl looks disappointed, but appears to forget. She says, ‘Never mind tall man. I can show you my house. Do you want to see it?’ He nods. ‘Let’s see your house.’ They start up the hill together. Around them there is barter, whispering and happiness, and above, sailing bodies float in peace in the blue shimmering sky. They arrive at a shack. It seems out of place. Sliding paper doors, tin roof and walls. At the door they are greeted by a huge bear, dark eyes the size of grapefruits, a beige scarf over its head. Its mouth stretches into a huge smile. ‘This is my cousin,’ says the girl. ‘He’s helping us. My mommy is sick.’ She frowns at the floor. Her new mood alarms him. ‘Have you got any cough medicine?’ he says. ‘No. We can’t get that here. We only get rootwash. You know, root-wash? It only works sometimes.’ He moves inside with the girl and the bear. Things become damper, darker. The walls are granite, rough and dripping. A fat snake winds across the ground and the bear leaps towards it, grabs it with its teeth before crawling away on all fours. The girl is unmoved, doesn’t seem to notice. ‘Tall man, come and see my mommy. I want you to see her.’ She leads him into a huge space, a cross between a castle hall and a hospital ward. It appears abandoned. Chemical-lined shelves cover the walls. Rusted pipes jut from the floor, spitting fumes into the air. The girl turns, says, ‘This is the sick-room.’ They reach the centre where there is a bed made of stone. A woman lies there in a t-shirt, eyes closed. She is perspiring, thin, her skin a few shades darker than usual. She mutters in her sleep, face upwards, unprotected from that huge place. He kneels down next to her. ‘Sarah, it’s me.’ No reply. ‘Sarah, we’ll be going home soon. We’ve got cough medicine. Sarah?’ To the girl, who has shrunk: ‘What’s wrong with her?’ ‘She can’t hear you. We only have root-wash. What can we do? Mommy…’ The girl is tiny now. She hides her face in her hands, sobbing, and runs away. The last of her cries fade and Andrew is alone. He is frightened. The hall has become much smaller. He flinches when she opens her eyes. ‘Andrew.’ She says his name but she does not look at him. ‘We need to do something. Do you know what it is?’ She stares up to the ceiling, she seems blind. ‘What?’ Now he remembers. ‘No. That isn’t true.’ ‘It’s the only thing, Andrew. The only thing to do. Look at my stomach.’ She lifts her t-shirt and her abdomen is covered in wet, pulsing bruises. She moans in agony. He winces. ‘I can’t. No, I can’t.’ She glares at the ceiling, terrified by what she sees. ‘Please. It hurts. There’s only one thing to do.’ ‘I couldn’t do something like that.’ But he stands and paces to a desk where there are several dozen
dirty glass bottles. He picks one out, holds it up to his eye. The liquid is brown and clear. This is not me, he thinks, this is my black hole. Back again and her eyes are closed. ‘Here. Here.’ He puts the bottle to her lips and she drinks greedily. He nods his head, wondering, when she goes, what will she do? Then her eyes are open and they are full of hatred. They beam around wildly before she starts a terrible screaming. Her hair is alive, she swings and claws at him, teeth and gums bare as she retches and screeches. ‘Andrew!’ An animal’s scream. ‘What did you do? What did you do to me!’ The pillow, and panic in his chest. He sat up, looked around the room, at the grey clouds outside the window. He noticed the time, 6:43am, and the sound of the shower, Sarah humming behind the bathroom door. A short while later they sipped coffee and spent the morning quietly. His nightmare was alive, he thought about it to himself. The closest he came to telling her was when he muttered, ‘Sarah?’ But while she waited to listen, he said nothing. ‘What?’ ‘Nothing. Forgot what I was going to say.’ ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ ‘No. I forgot it now.’ She went to get the coffee pot from across the kitchen, and he stared at the table when she returned and passed him his mug. Neither of them said much in the next few minutes as they listened to the rain outside, to the language of nothing. A man and a woman brought together by circumstance to listen to the whispering rain.
Author biographies John Björling – p.16
Peter Lingard – p.7
Derek Ivan Webster – p.10
John Björling is a game designer and writer from Sweden. With an appetite for both genre and literary fiction, even in combination, he tends to jump between time periods and universes from week to week. His previous work can be found in Roderick Popplestone’s Arbitrary Collection and The Lounge Companion by Lion Lounge Press, and he can be reached at johnbjorling.com
Peter Lingard, a Brit, sold ice-creams on railway stations, worked as a bank clerk, delivered milk, laboured in a large dairy, served in the Royal Marines and ‘bounced’ leery customers in a London clip-joint. He was an accountant, a barman and a farm worker. Peter lived in the us for a while, where he owned a freight forwarding business. He went to Australia because the sun frequently shines and the natives communicate in English. His stories and poems have appeared in 50+ magazines and ezines. His first novel seeks publication. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Raised in a tiny Alaskan fishing village, educated at Yale College, Derek Ivan Webster is a writer who appreciates a good contrast. The freelance lifestyle would have long ago driven him mad if not for the balm of his sage wife and their three precious/ precocious little conspirators. Read more at ivanhope.com/blog
Will Burns – p.4 Will Burns was born in London in 1980 and raised in Buckinghamshire. He formed the band Treecreeper with his brother in 2005 with whom he has released two studio albums. He is a regular contributor to the literary website Caught By The River and his work focuses on intimate portraits of the kind of semi-rural life he grew up with, imbuing the lost, lonely figures on the fringes of middle-England with dignity, hope and life. Read more at troubledstriker.blogspot.com
Jason Butler – p.5 Jason Butler is a professional artist based in Jersey, Channel Islands and has most recently had work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. “The drawings seen in ‘Sideshow’ form a part of a large body of work produced over several years. Featuring figures proudly displaying their idiosyncrasies - attention seekers, voyeurs, hobbyists, exhibitionists - the response of the viewer to these images is of major interest to me. I am fascinated at how the simple act of making marks on paper, using what is in most cases fairly benign imagery, can cause such diverse reactions.” See more at jasonbutler.info
Richard Evans – p.8 Richard Evans has had two poetry collections published, The Zoo Keeper (Egg Box, 2003) which was highly commended in the Forward Prize 2003, and more recently, Orbiting (Mothlight Press, 2009). He studied creative writing at uea and Goldsmiths. He is most interested in writing that draws on the uncanny, or the extraordinary within the ordinary, and so the poetry of John Berryman, Ted Hughes and Denise Riley are significant influences, as is the fiction of Iris Murdoch and Tove Jansson. You can find out more at richardevanspoetry.co.uk
Nora Kirienko – p.15 P.A. Levy – p.21 Born and bred (as they say) in the east end of London but now residing amongst the hedge mumblers of rural Suffolk, P.A. Levy has been published in many magazines, both on-line and in print, from A cappella Zoo to Zygote In My Coffee, and many places in-between. His many characters regularly gather together to form the Clueless Collective and can be found loitering on page corners, wearing hoodies, and writing asbo poetry at cluelesscollective.co.uk
Nicky Marsh – p.18 Nicky Marsh lives in north west London. Her work tends to be at least semi-autobiographical, and this piece is no exception. She hopes you won’t judge her, but she is the Squid Killer. Find further confessions of guilt at nickymarsh.blogspot.com
Conan McMurtrie – p.22
Alexander Zelenyj – p.6 Alexander Zelenyj is the author of the genre-bending collection of slipstream fiction, Experiments At 3 Billion A.M., published by Eibonvale Press, and the short novel, Black Sunshine, published by Fourth Horseman Press. His fiction has appeared in many publications, including Freefall, Underground Voices, Revelation, The Windsor Review, Inscape, Euphony, Sex And Murder, Pulp Empire, and the Medulla Review. His second collection of short fiction, Songs For The Lost, is forthcoming in 2011. Zelenyj lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and wears spiders like jewels on his person. Feel free to visit him on the web at alexanderzelenyj.com
Conan McMurtrie is an author and translator from Glasgow, Scotland. He grew up itinerantly in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and later studied physics and music at the University of Edinburgh. Last summer, his fiction was shortlisted for the Momaya Press Award, and more recently, he was a highly commended author in the Aesthetica Annual 2011. His writing has appeared in Caper Literary Journal, MouthLondon and The Skinny, among others. He currently lives in London.
Carolyn Oulton – p.11 Carolyn Oulton lives in Kent and is a Reader in Victorian Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her new poetry collection is forthcoming from Bewrite Books
A.H. Sargeant – p.19 An ancient hack – born in the first half of the last century – an advertising copywriter in an earlier life, whose work, unlike that of Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie, refused to jump off the page into mainstream literature. Now long retired and having lots of time (in the short term at least) devotes most of his leisure hours to his first love, writing short stories and verse. A silver-surfer himself, he is especially thrilled that the World Wide Web exposes his efforts to a world-wide audience
Ford P. Waight – p.20 Ford is a UK writer, artist and musician living in France. He has had a number of poems published and numerous art exhibitions in the UK. Musically he has been fortunate enough to work with artists such as The Hollies, Sweet, Editors, Maxïmo Park and DJ Shadow. He is currently writing short stories. You can read one of Ford’s blogs here: thevintagetoyadvertiser.wordpress.com
Online edition, September 2011 Limited-edition printed copies available from our website: www.structomagazine.co.uk
Published on Sep 5, 2011
Published on Sep 5, 2011
This issue features six short stories, 16 poems, a brand new column and a wide-ranging interview with Richard Adams (Watership Down, The Pla...