Thoughts on the enduring power of Sherlock.

Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. According to the Wikipedia page, neither the public nor publishers were bowled over by it.

For writers with aspirations, such snippets are reassuring. Publication success can take time, and certainly needs patience. For readers, it demonstrates something of the drive behind the pages we readers consume. I don’t need to point out that Conan Doyle didn’t abandon his characters.

Ward, Lock & Co published that first story as a hardback book in July 1888. It sold well enough to deserve a second edition the following year. This did not mean that the ‘cult’ of Sherlock and Watson had properly begun at that point.

It wasn’t until 1891 that the duo began to build a following. That was after they began to appear as a Strand Magazine series.

In Britain, Strand Magazine was one of THE places to be published. The Wikipedia entry for the magazine says that that first issue, of January 1891, sold nearly 300,000 copies.

There’s an interesting fact filled essay about the magazine on The Strand Magazine website. In, The Story of The Strand, Chris Willis explains that:

…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page — a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling” was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period.

Did you note that fragment of a sentence I started the Willis quote with? ‘…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership.

In this period, books often came into households as communal items. We should count those 300,000 copies as being read by at least two, rather than one reader, even if we’re just looking at married couples. However, if we assume children, and perhaps a servant or two, the readership for the magazine rises significantly, and we’ve only considered the first few issues.

So popular was this magazine that circulation soon rose to almost 500,000 copies a month, and continued at that rate until well into the 1930s. That’s a lot of audience for stories. I wonder if there’s an equivalent opportunity for new writing today?

Conan Doyle was not the first, and is far from the last, writer to have demonstrated that persistence needs to be a feature of the fiction author’s character. Beyond the necessary dedication to putting time into practicing your craft, is the effort needed to find a way to access an audience.

Marketing may change, but the principles remain the same. It can be useful to think about how much of the fiction that we now see as part of our literary heritage went unrecognised, in the first steps towards publication.

Take heart, writers. Keep crafting: keep grafting.

Incidentally, should you happen to have a copy of that 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual on your shelves, you might like to dust it off and treat it with especial care. There are only eleven known copies, up to now.

Fear of The Maddening Crowds: a classic, re-imagined for our situation.

A continuation of my glimpse into modern-day Wessex.

Chapter 2 Where is that Maddening Crowd? by Thomas Hiding

It was Frannie, who had been barmaid at The Malthouse through the reign of three previous landlords, who figured out the practicalities of re-opening as a take-away. William stood back and watched her carry a table into the doorway, set out the blackboard on the deserted pavement and write in huge letters, Beer, bring your own container.

‘If it doesn’t work, you needn’t pay me,’ she’d said, as if she’d no idea that William had already decided that she wouldn’t fit with his plans for the refurbishment. She’d seen what his Sheffield pub was like when she Googled him, and had gone out to shop for a plain white shirt in the New Year sales. That was three weeks before he arrived for the takeover.

She’d tried it out in the privacy of her bedroom, in the flat above the saloon bar, with the grumble of tv news reports seeping up through the floor boards.

‘Hey, I can rock this,’ she’d thought, as she zipped up the black skirt from the back of the wardrobe. It had to be four or five years since she’d bought it, and she’d worn it only once, for a Halloween fancy dress night. But it was okay, it still fitted.

It was okay, wasn’t it? She’d turned, and turned, before her mirror, knowing that this was a low wattage-bulb illusion. She opened the door to let the light in from the hall, then fetched a lamp, plugged it in by the mirror and took the shade off it.

The stranger in the mirror remained even when she hunted through her makeup box for colours she’d never worn, stuff that should have been thrown away years before. She’d worry about consequences tomorrow. Who knew if it was even true, about the bacteria and infections? She patted and shaded, blended and outlined, then rubbed it off and started again, and again.

Who was she kidding?

The shirt was stained. She’d washed it before taking it, and the skirt, to the charity shop, but there were still smudges of foundation on the collar. Frannie had felt like a reverse shop-lifter as she handed the bagged clothes over.

One thing about books…

A couple of weeks ago Deborah raised a question that I’ve been asking in various ways, most of my life, “how and why do we outgrow books?” More specifically for me, how do I decide when a book has been outgrown?

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In theory, the answer’s easy. Once I learned to read, surely there was no reason for keeping those early readers, the Jane and John stories, or my beginner Ladybird books. Certainly the ones with only a single word on the page were handed on, if they survived.

Books, for me, have always been valuable but portable entertainment. They’ve shared my adventures, and often returned home looking as untidy as I did.

It’s not that I’m generally a hard reader. I try not to break the spines, I’ve never folded corners and always use bookmarks. But still, it’s usually easy to see they’ve been in my possession.

From the beginning, this created a problem. Tattered volumes are not really suitable for offering to another reader, and I knew instinctively that destroying books was wrong. So, the titles I’ve kept finding space for have often been sorry specimens.

Perhaps I could do that still fashionable thing, and blame my parents. If only they’d been stricter, insisting on my discarding things, rather than allowing me to develop what may be (at base) a sentimental attachment to specific objects. It’s lovely being able to hand over responsibility in that way.

Except, there’s a little voice squeaking away with a bothersome question: ‘So, at what age did you become a grown-up, and take responsibility for your own actions?’

Ssh, you contrary other-self. Don’t open that can of worms, it’s far too complicated for a few hundred words on a weekly post.

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Instead, I’ll look for another beginning. Perhaps I’ve been driven by my desire to own a library. I think that came in early. Maybe I was born with it. I’m certain I never experienced a private library in the family, or amongst our friends, so where did that idea come from?

Later I read of them in historical novels, but my ambition had been fixed long before that. Was it those old films, repeated on Saturday afternoon tv throughout my childhood years, that seeded an image in my head? I frittered away many of my school age Saturdays watching the kind of period dramas that featured aristocrats and eccentrics drifting in and out of beautiful private libraries. I think Rex Harrison had one, in Dr Dolittle, and again in My Fair Lady.

Aspiration is a wonderful thing, and for a while I did base my collection around a matching set of religious books I’d been given by my grandfather. They looked so charming, and neat, with their black spines and gold lettering. Perhaps it was because they looked so perfect I didn’t open them.

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I owned them for years. Then, one day I had to move house and realised that they no longer belonged. I passed them on.

I’d outgrown an idea of symmetry. I no longer wanted to inhabit the kind of library seen in stately homes. I wanted my shelves to be eclectic, fluid spaces, where ideas could lie in ambush. Many of them would be old, perhaps dated, waiting for a moment when I might want to turn to them again.

Some I’d read once, and be sure I’d never want to do that again. But I’ve stopped being certain that I’ve outgrown anything. Life this year has demonstrated, for me, the error of that. In recent months I’ve returned, for comfort, to some of the light thrillers I thought I’d left behind.

I was lucky, having recently had a box full of them passed on to me by a friend. My own copies had been discarded. So, now I’ve developed a ‘holding’ space, a shelf where I stack books that might deserve a second chance.

I’m sorry, Deborah, it seems I’m unable to answer your question. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown any of my books. Even those matching religious volumes were never really given up, as I’ve got at least three bibles which contain the same stories in a much more economical form.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind, one of these days. But for now, I pass that question along: ‘How and why do we outgrow books?’

If you discover the answer, I hope you’ll share it with me.

#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

Reading for a good cause.

If there’s one thing I suspect that all bookworms have experienced, it’s the shocked expressions of the uninitiated when they see our bookshelves. Then the question, ‘Why?’ is asked, in one form or another.

It was many years before I understood that most of the people who asked were not going to be convinced by any answer I could give. Sometimes, when I knew someone well, I’d turn the question round, and say, ‘Why don’t you?’ Just to share that sense of defeat.

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The word hoarding has drifted back into focus in the UK this week. I’ve never thought of myself in that way, but I was brought up in a household where the well stocked pantries and larders of my parents and grandparents were considered, stores.

Often these were constructed seasonally. It began with things gathered from the garden and the hedgerows, and was supplemented with bought tinned and dried goods. Such activities were traditions, based on anecdotes, or experiences of: rationing, heavy weather, economic uncertainties… times when shopping would not be an option.

I’m reminded of that this week, as friends who are venturing into supermarkets report that shelves are once more being cleared of some stock. Need I mention toilet rolls?

I’m curious about the quantity of goods that count as a hoard. Perhaps there’s a specific number of tins or bottles beyond which we should not go. I can see how the extremes fit this, those pictures of bunkers with industrial shelving, for instance. But for the rest of us, how do we know whether our shelves are sensibly, rather than excessively stocked?

When it comes to books, I can hold my hand up and say I’m a story-hoarder, banking up food-for-the-mind for the future. There’s only one room in this house without bookshelves.

And then there’s my shed. I mean office, of course, and whoever heard of having an office that wasn’t designed around the tools for one’s trade?

Maybe, when we are again able to invite people in, and someone’s eyes widen as they look at my walls of books, they’ll understand them in the light of these times.

Meanwhile, my blogging friend Ann Burnett has drawn my attention to an interesting new way to buy books and donate money to a good cause, an on-line ‘auction of signed books and items donated by celebrated Authors and Illustrators from around the world‘ called ‘Children in Read. Proceeds go to the BBC charity, Children in Need. There are, as of Sunday morning 573 interesting lots to chose from, divided into 25 categories.

My book buying, over the last six months, has been based on tracking down specific titles, and my random reading from my TBRs has made a little space. So, it was good to browse a virtual bookshelf, and put on a bid or two. I got that lovely feeling that comes from mitigating having indulged myself by supporting a charity.

Am I a hoarder?’

Let me quote Miss Piggy, ‘Who, moi?’

On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.

Re-booting my creativity #writingworkshop, #Dahliabooks, #Homeby10.

The temperature here dropped a few degrees in the last week of August, a reminder (or warning) that autumn is just around the corner. This time of year Ray, Rusty and I would normally be taking a week away somewhere. Since that’s out of the question, my thoughts have turned to classes (not my own, those plans are already shaping up nicely). I’ve been looking at what else is available.

Most years I spend a lot of time browsing lit-fest brochures, highlighting things that I know I won’t get to. Travel, time and accommodation always defeat me equally.

Not any more. The upside of the continuing restrictions on public meetings is that many events have moved on-line. It has finally dawned on me that I can go anywhere in this virtual country.

Saturday morning I found Short Story September organised by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books, in Leicester. I’d missed the first session, but there was a masterclass on Imagery and Structure in Short Fiction with Farhana Khalique & Anita Goveas that afternoon. A few clicks later and I was booked on it.

From ten-to-three we began to gather in our virtual classroom. Introductions were made, a few ground-rules laid, and then we were off, reading samples of stories, thinking about them, and trying out ideas of our own. Ink flowed. We broke away into small groups and compared notes, then got back together and wrote more.

Both tutors bubbled with infectious enthusiasm. That’s energizing. They delivered an hour-long session each, which provided contrasting and complementary approaches to the subject.

At the finish, I had rough drafts for several stories. This is the physical evidence of a good writing session.

As after any well-designed workout, I realised I was tired, but not drained. I’d been encouraged to stretch, but not strain, my creativity.

Later, having drawn breath and reflected, I felt freshened. I love seeing the literary world through the prism of another writer’s viewpoint. In addition to that, I’d been introduced to some stories I might not have discovered on my own, and I had five pages of new story ideas. That’s what I call a useful session.

Why Robertson Davies?

This week I thought I’d join in the Robertson Davies reading Weekend organised by Lory, over at The Emerald City. I’d planned to think about some of his essays, as I recently bought the collection, The Merry Heart. The first one is actually a lecture, from 1980, called A Rake at Reading. It begins: “ ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ Did I say that? No, Logan Pearsall Smith said it, but I have thought it so many times that sometimes I mistake it for my own.

…and that was all I needed to remind me that Robertson Davies wrote just for me.

I’ll allow that some of you may feel something similar, but I can assure you, that I was, and am, his ideal reader.

My first Robertson Davies novel was borrowed from the local library, a couple of decades ago. I hadn’t heard of him then, but there was a book with a jester on the cover, and I’m drawn to the motley. Amorality in life is to be avoided, but in fiction? It’s exciting.

My choice wasn’t only based on that cover. The book was a doorstep, and in those days, that mattered.

I weighed my reading from the library. The building wasn’t on any of my usual routes, so borrowing books meant a special journey and that effort needed to result in two bags at bursting point.

I hadn’t checked the blurb of What’s Bred in the Bone. I did my usual test, and read a couple of random paragraphs. I’d no idea I was taking the middle volume of a trilogy.

In the course of my life there have been several significant novels I’ve looked forward to discovering for myself: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Orlando. These and others I heard about long before I was old enough to get hold of copies. Many have proved to be trusted friends.

What those novels gave me was the theory of fate. In fiction, it’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively. But, I can give you chapter and verse on how it’s shaped my life, and particularly my reading.

I knew, within a few lines of What’s Bred in The Bone, that it was a novel I was meant to discover. I read it at every daylight moment when I wasn’t working, at breakfast, lunch and tea, and until past midnight.

The world of Robertson Davies was wicked: not just in the modern slang sense, but in a deliciously dangerous way. There were twists and turns that kept me guessing, and laughing. Reading it was an audacious adventure, something that was different to anything I’d read before, and yet I knew that it was what I’d been working my way towards all of my literate life.

His characters entranced me even when I was appalled by them. His Canada was visceral. It smelled of wet tweeds, freshly baked bread and cool, deep water.

I’ve no idea whether any of those things featured in that Davies story. What I retain is a memory, because rereading this novel is a treat that’s always before me. I’m looking back at impressions, in the same way that I recall details of a wedding attended around the same time. That also is, I know, true to me only.

Reading this novel left me with a landscape that was endless, spacious and welcoming. I was never going to visit any of it in real life, because that would be asking for disappointment all I wanted was to move on to another of those worlds. Reading it, was to recognise that although I hadn’t realised it until that moment, his was a world I’d always hoped existed.

ROBERTSON DAVIES, UNDATED. © WALTER CURTIN/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

This week, in his essay, A Rake at Reading, there was so many things about which I could say, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s it exactly,’ and sometimes I said it with envy, other times with a smile, because really, when you look at the argument from that angle, it actually is rather funny.

…”A Rake at Reading.” The phrase comes from a letter written to a friend by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “I have been a rake at reading,” she says. The word rake, in the middle of the eighteenth century when Lady Mary make her confession to the Countess of Bute, still meant to roam or stray, but I think she also meant to have a hint of what was dissolute and irresponsible. So – I confess I have been a rake at reading. I have read those things which I ought not to have read, and I have not read those things which I ought to have read… I can only protest, like all rakes in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time.

Something for the four children who made stories, just for us.

It’s been five and a half months since we’ve seen some of the family. For various reasons, Ray and I are still shielding, and they’re a hundred miles away. So last week we had a Zoom slot with some of the grandchildren.

It was lovely to see them all together, rather than taking it in turns on the phone. Charlie, Alfie, Sasha and Kelsey told us about the arts and crafts projects they’d done through the summer, and Charlie said that he was writing a book.

‘Wow,’ we said. ‘What a great idea. Who else likes making stories?’

They all did, excitedly taking it in turn to give us summaries of things they had written, and ideas of what they would write next. The inspirations, all different, were influenced by books and films. ‘That’s exactly what writers do,’ we told them.

‘I’ve just had an idea,’ Ray said. ‘You can write stories to read to us on Zoom.’

There was a chorus of enthusiastic yeses.

‘And,’ said Ray, ‘we’ll send each of you a special notebook and lots of pens.’

So, yesterday, we were treated to an exclusive private reading by four authors. It was brilliant.

What would they write next, we wondered. Ray thought they might create a story together. I thought I might join in. Perhaps, I could start them off.

So, this is for our story-tellers, who might, perhaps, decide what happens next…

There were once four children who could sit quite still, if they had to. They were called, Charlie, Aflie, Sasha and Kelsie, or maybe, they were called Kelsie, Sasha, Alfie and Charlie. They may even have been called, Ashas, Lafie, Larchie and Selkie. It’s tricky to tell when your Zoom connection isn’t quite stable.

Stables are where horses live. Lots of children long to own a horse. Sometimes, if they’re very, very lucky, they might get to ride on one.

Most people would say that one of the things no one can do, is promise to post you a horse. Well, not a real, live, breathing horse. But that’s what Aunty Cath decided she would do, when she woke up one Monday morning.

It wouldn’t be easy. It would need some very special skills.

She’d got the idea while watching the children, who were a hundred miles away, on the other end of a Zoom call, eating some really delicious looking sandwiches. Those sandwiches looked so wonderful, perhaps the best she’d ever seen, that she could almost taste them.

She’d said, ‘I’d love one of those. I wish there was a way you could send one to me through the internet, right now. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could put one in a slot on your computer, press a button, and have it arrive at ours, right away? One of you ought to invent a way to do that.’

They had laughed, as if their silly aunt was making another joke. But when Aunty Cath woke up the next morning she knew exactly how to do it, and she wasn’t just going to send food, she would send something alive, something exciting, that could be an adventure.

She had had a dream, not just about how to send a sandwich. No, the thing to deliver, was a horse. A magic horse.

Aunty Cath could remember exactly how her dream horse had looked. All she had to do, was draw it.

That was the difficult part: the trickiest thing she would have to do. Aunty Cath was rubbish at drawing. She much preferred writing descriptions. But, would words come to life?

What a question! Of course they did, all the time. That was the magic of stories, after all.

On the page, to someone who couldn’t read, stories could look like a lot of squiggles. But if you understood them, if you read them, like the four children had yesterday, then whole other worlds could come to life.

Print by Alberto Manrique

It was just what happened when Charlie told Coco’s story. Aunty Cath had run with him, when he was chased by a bully, and followed him into the shopping Mall and the hotel, and it had been lovely. Then, just when she’d thought Coco’s story was finished, another special thing happened: he made friends with a peanut, and how that had made her, and everyone else, laugh.

Next Alfie introduced her to Artemis Fowl Junior, and Dr Doom, and she’d had a very exciting time, going into big battles and mixing with fairies.

After that Kelsey told her about Tom Gates. He’d had to find ways to keep calm when Covid meant he couldn’t play with his friends, and Aunty Cath had been really relieved when he found a way to have a lovely special birthday party.

Then Sasha had described Matilda The Second, who was four years old, and super clever, but had mean parents who didn’t want her to go to school. Aunty Cath had been really worried about that, wondering who could save the little girl. What a surprise when Matilda cleverly tricked her parents into understanding that really, school was a good place for little girls to spend time.

Yes, that was it, all she needed to do was write a true description of the magic horse. She would start with his name, which was Starlight, because he glowed so brightly white.

He was not too tall, but he was strong, with a long glossy tail, and a shiny mane that flicked up softly when he galloped. What he loved sometimes, was to run along a beach when the sea was stormy, stamping through the frothy waves flicking spray up around him.

Other times he liked to walk quietly through long grass, feeling the stems tickle against his long white legs. He was good at stretching his neck and reaching high in the branches of a fruit tree to find apples.

Starlight was a gentle horse. If you were brave, and held your hand out flat, with a piece of carrot on the centre, and shut your eyes, you wouldn’t know Starlight had taken the treat until you heard him munching.

When he was happy, Starlight whinnied, gently, as if chuckling. He loved to have the soft skin under his chin stroked, and the hard bump of his forehead scratched. That always made his ears twitch.

Well, there he was: Starlight was on the page. Was he clear enough? Would it work?

What would the children do if they each received a horse, by email? Would they take him into their yard at the back, and keep him cosy and happy? Would they climb up on his back and see where he would take them?

There really were such a lot of questions that could be answered.