Eating Elephants

Photo of two of the children posing by a gnarled tree with newly planted patch of trees in the background.

We’re in the car, coming back from an afternoon in the forest. All three grand-kids and the dog have managed to stay with us. We gave them breadcrumbs, honest, but they ate them before we reached the spot where we’d planned to suggest they make their own way home.

‘I guess we’ll just have to feed them at tea-time, too, then,’ Ray says.

I’m not sure what with. At home the cupboard and freezer are bare of the stuff that they think delicious, or even edible. Apparently we eat ‘weird’ food.

Photo of the three children hiding in a large hollow tree, while Rusty waits for them to come out and play.

It’s Easter Sunday. All the places we pass where we could stop and buy something are already packed. There’s not an empty table to be had.

Well, it is, officially, the hottest Easter on record, here in the UK. Seems like the whole population may have opted to eat out.

But heck, the whole point of hoping to lose the kids in the forest was to avoid having to cook for them. If we had to take them home again, then we needed to agree on buying a meal. You think that’s easy?

Set aside the closed shops, for a moment, and think about three individuals of varying ages from pre-, to mid- teenage. They’ve been over two hours suspended in phone-free enjoyment of sunshine, trees, dog and pond, then we return to the car. It’s hard to imagine how even short journeys were achieved before there were portable screens and headphones.

Our questions about what might be suitable have to be negotiated between songs, text messages and important updates. Parents, perhaps, go into this situation with several advantages. Authority, by my estimation, is not the most important, they know the full range of what is acceptable.

As temporary weekend surrogates, maintaining our status as ‘fun’ limits us. The voting system is tortuous, and in the end we abandon democracy in favour of pleasing all. I plan a route that takes in four types of take-away, and we head for town.

It takes ten minutes to discover they’re all closed. My heart sinks.

Ray names a pizza place sure to be open. ‘We’re all okay with that,’ says Sammy, without looking up from her phone. The others agree.

Well, I think, that was easy after all. By now they’re so hungry that there’s no real discussion over the toppings, either.

‘I’ll stay at the car, with granddad and Rusty,’ Sammy says. Brandon, Breanna and I go to sort out our order.

Here’s the deal. It costs less for our two pizza’s if we also buy two side-dishes, than if we just buy what we went in for.

When we get back to the car Sammy is giving Rusty some valuable re-training on walking to heal, so he’s happy, too.

I tell Ray, ‘We’re going to save a quarter of the price and take home an extra quarter of a portion.’ I show him a handful of change.

Fifteen minutes later, Brandon is struggling to manoeuvre his long legs into the car while carrying the heap of hot boxes.

Back at home the boxes fill our modest table. ‘How do we even eat all that?’ Breanna wonders.

‘One bite at a time, I guess,’ says Brandon, reaching for a slice of pepperoni.

Photo of a mother elephant and her baby.
Photo by Ruth Boardman

‘Same way you would an elephant,’ I say, reminded of a quote I’d read just that morning, as I fitted in a little class preparation.

‘Eew,’ says Breanna. ‘Eat an elephant?’ .

I nod. ‘That’s what an American general, called Creighton Abrams, once advised.’

‘But who would eat an elephant?’

Brandon takes another slice of pizza. ‘She doesn’t mean you really do it,’ he says. ‘It’s a metaphor.’ He nods at me. ‘That’s cool.’

Serendipity, I think, isn’t it wonderful?


Good language…

I swear, not often, but with feeling, when the occasion arises. The language I use is not especially shocking or wide-ranging. I favour a couple of words that used to be referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I think of them as earthy, and aim to keep them for private moments of stress, rather than upset anyone.

My words can be heard, on occasion, on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) – in the past, some people claimed that the presenters were the standard for how the British nation should sound. I will say that four-letter words, as they used to be known, are rarely heard before the nine o’clock watershed on BBC radio.

My mother will tell you that I wasn’t brought up to curse. She believes that there is ‘no need for it’. Swearing, she says, is the sign of a limited vocabulary.

If I want to be mischievous, I can point to scientific tests that have proved fluent swearers tend to have good vocabularies. ‘Swearing,’ I say to mum, ‘has its place in life and in fiction.’

Irvine Welsh embraces expletives. Many of his characters use profanities as adjectives so prolifically that the words are de-valued. They are mostly not conveying a specific shock or emotion, they are about attitude and portraying a particular society.

Between Welsh and the writers who avoid any profanities, are those who use them sparingly. They understand that generally, less is more.

There is, I think, an art to using ‘offensive language’.

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the period drama The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne’s friendships with Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. I’d seen a few trailers, and knew it would be what mum calls, ‘close to the knuckle’.

I loved it. Whatever the reservations might be about historical accuracy, it was entertaining. What made it comic, in part, were the moments when the characters dropped their guards, and used what I can only describe – in this context – as, ‘dirty’ language.

Did I believe the film? Entirely. I entered a fictional world, and lost my sense of self. I don’t know whether Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham would have actually used such language. What I saw was a faction. The film was reflecting history in a manner that an audience of our period would understand and engage with easily. I’m okay with that.

My gran kept a postcard of a rhyming motto on her mantelpiece. I often think of it when considering how our everyday use of language shifts over time. Gran thought of herself as deliciously naughty for promoting a word that had been prohibited when she was growing up.

Never say 'die', say 'damn'. 
It isn't classic, it may be profane;
But we mortals have use of it time and again;
And you'll find you'll recover
From fate's hardest slam
If you never say 'die':
Say 'DAMN!'

Thoughts on breaking a digital barrier

If, a couple of years ago, anyone had suggested that I’d willingly remove the sticker from the lens of my web-cam and watch myself chatting on-line, I’d have said they were crackers. Ask any of my family and they’ll confirm that I loath having my photo taken. I am the phantom of our family album.

Image taken by Juhanson , published on Wikipedia.

I’ve been told it’s vanity. Even that blow at my pride doesn’t work.

I’ve an antennae for cameras aiming in my direction that has me ducking or turning away as the shutter is operating. So me, flattened onto a screen, for minutes at a time? That was a, NO, even before I realised that taking part in an on-line activity meant having to see your own face in a little box on the corner of the screen too. Watch myself talking? NO THANKS!

It’s one thing to stand in front of my students and deliver a class. I see their faces, not mine. I know I’ve brushed my hair and straightened my outfit before I start. Once the class is running I’m concentrating on the plan I’ve worked out, not what I look like.

My first on-line meeting was some teaching-training I’d volunteered for, without properly reading the details. ‘Where is it?’ I texted my line manager, the day before the session. ‘I need to book a train ticket.’ It was lucky I hadn’t phoned, my response to her answer might have shocked her.

I wanted to get the knowledge on offer, but was I ready to pay the price? I wasn’t sure. Right up to five minutes before the start-time I didn’t think I could do it. I brushed my hair and tidied the kitchen, but that was just-in-case.

When I took a deep breath and logged in I felt like a teenager in a new school. I was on screen. There was a moment of heightened self-consciousness as I stared into my own eyes, then the class began. We were introducing ourselves, and I was looking at the tutor, taking in information, making notes and concentrating.

Two hours later, when the class closed, I realised I’d forgotten about being on-screen, except occasionally. And that’s how it happens, I’ve discovered, as the on-line meeting format has replaced geographical ones over the last year. After the first few seconds, when I’m horribly self-conscious, interest takes over.

This has been a rewarding learning curve for me. Last week I delivered my first on-line creative writing session, Writing Haiku’.

Was it scary? You bet. I spent even longer preparing the session than usual. Was I self-conscious? Only at first. Once the session started I was too busy making sure my students were comfortable, adapting my plan and listening to their responses. I didn’t think about watching myself talking.

In search of entertainment.

I ended last week feeling like that Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh. I’d been Thinking of Things so much lately to do with books, and then finished not only a couple of classes, but the final paperwork too, that on Wednesday evening I felt I was owed a celebration.

As I considered the state of my shelves, looking for a Thing that would be bookish, but not workish, I hummed a little tuneless something.

There are books, 
     (Dum, dum, dum)
Too full of hooks,
     (ta la da da).
What I need,
     (Da do do do).
Oh yes indeed,
     Da dum dum dum)
Is something not too long...

Luckily for my sanity, at that point I reached a selection of Daphne du Maurier novels I’ve been collecting. None are very long, but for decades she was a top writer of quality-romances. They seemed like a safe bet.

I’d read three of her most famous titles as a school-girl, so opted for one I’d missed, a historical adventure, Frenchman’s Creek. It was just what I needed. Not great enough to keep me reading into the small hours, but I picked it up at breakfast and lunch-time, and finished it as I ate tea.

Then I dropped it in my discards bag and looked for something of a matching size and age on the next shelf. Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion has been there for so long I’ve forgotten where it came from, though I do have a hazy recollection that someone recommended it.

If only I had done more than notice that the cover illustration suggested it was set in a similar period to Frenchman’s Creek,I might have realised it is a biography, not a novel before I opened it. It’s also set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, not Charles II.

After a momentary hesitation, I read on. Perhaps because the first section, The Scholar, begins by describing Elizabeth’s last days.

She had round her neck a piece of gold the size of an angel, engraved with characters; it had been left to her lately by a wise woman who had died in Wales at the age of a hundred and twenty. Sir John Stanhope had assured her that as long as she wore this talisman she could not die.

I probably should have stopped on page five, when I found this paragraph:

In these circumstances the Tudor dynasty came to an end, which in three generations had changed the aspect and temper of England. They left a new aristocracy, a new religion, a new system of government; the generation was already in its childhood that was to send King Charles to the scaffold; the new, rich families who were to introduce the House of Hanover were already in the second stage of their metamorphosis from the freebooters of Edward VI;s reign to the conspirators of 1688 and the sceptical, cultured oligarchs of the eighteenth century. The vast exuberance of the Renaissance had been canalized. England was secure, independent, insular; the course of her history lay plain ahead; competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and coal mines and counting houses, the joint-stock companies and the cantonments; the power and the weakness of great possessions.

Aaaagh. With a few adjustments it could have been written in the 1560s.

I hadn’t even met Edmund Campion yet. It seems I’d fallen through a wormhole to that time before I gave up on my vow to never let a novel defeat me. Like Pooh, I’d found that a Book I’d anticipated being very Bookish was quite different once opened. Meanwhile, I was caught up with turning pages. The sentences got longer, the paragraphs continued to bounce backwards, forwards then back through time again. Still I continued to read.

Campion makes his first appearance on page seventeen. Even allowing for a largish font, that’s a long wait for a heroic entrance. Then, immediately after mentioning him, Waugh side-tracks to tell us about ‘another young Oxford man’, and doesn’t return to Campion until page twenty-two.

I read on. I’m still reading, though I’m not sure why.

There’s more to be irritated by than the examples I’ve already provided. The narrator demonstrates just the kind of bias I enjoy in fiction. Here it keeps drawing me away from engaging with Campion, though I want to know more of him.

Though perhaps after all I do know what holds me. This is a story about discord and martyrdom, and I’d like to understand.

As Pooh says, “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19 – Part 2

You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?

No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.

The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.

Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.

Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.

Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?

At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.

Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.

Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:

‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’

Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.

The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…

We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.

I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.

‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’

‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’

Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.

‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.

Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.

We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.

Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.

…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.

Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.

He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.

It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.

I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.

This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.

The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.

To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.

Have you tried reading pre-historical-fiction yet?

This is a genre that fascinates me. How did our very early ancestors live? What kind of value system did they use, and how did they communicate it? Author and blogger, Jacqui Murray explores these questions, and more, in the first book of her new Crossroads trilogy, Survival of The Fittest.

At the centre of the story is Xhosa, a young tribes-woman. ‘”Females weren’t warriors”, but Xhosa has hidden skills and a driving ambition, and in a world where only those who are strong survive, that’s just as well…

Five tribes. One leader. A treacherous journey across three continents in search of a new home.

Chased by a ruthless and powerful enemy, Xhosa flees with her People, leaving behind a certain life in her African homeland to search for an unknown future. She leads her People on a grueling journey through unknown and dangerous lands but an escape path laid out years before by her father as a final desperate means to survival. She is joined by other homeless tribes–from Indonesia, China, South Africa, East Africa, and the Levant—all similarly forced by timeless events to find new lives. As they struggle to overcome treachery, lies, danger, tragedy, hidden secrets, and Nature herself, Xhosa must face the reality that this enemy doesn’t want her People’s land. He wants to destroy her.

Question about the book for Jacqui: How did Xhosa count?

Xhosa and her People also had no need for counting. This is true even today with primitive people. Many count only to two (which is the method I’ve adopted for Xhosa). Beyond that, numbers may be described as handfuls or how much room they occupy in relation to something else. Counting people was unnecessary because all Xhosa had to do was sniff, find everyone’s scent, or notice whose she couldn’t find.

Book information:

Title: Survival of the Fittest

Series: Book 1 in the Crossroads series, part of the Man vs. Nature saga

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle USKindle UKKindle CAKindle AU

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Quest for Home, Summer 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

I’d like to recommend: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

Sadly, my title is not a new form of weather forecasting, it’s the title of a Julia Strachey novella, first published in 1932. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009, and I admit that it was for that reason I pounced on this one when I spotted it in the charity shop. In my experience, Persephone seek out interesting literature for their re-prints.

Otherwise, I might have hesitated about that title. One thing I’m not keen on is sentimentality, and in my experience that’s what wedding plots so often are. Still, it’s a short book, only a hundred and fifteen pages with wide margins, and since I’ve learned that I don’t have to finish every story I start I’m happier to take reading-risks, so I bought it.

Which brings me to the first lesson I’ve been reminded of since reading this. Never jump to conclusions about a title until you’ve had time to think about it from several angles.

It’s tough getting titles right. Good ones create a balance between suggesting what might be included, and never quite pinning down where the plot will take you. Strachey, it turns out, created a peach of peaches with this one. The more I think about it, the more shades of irony I perceive.

Take that adjective, cheerful. Isn’t it an unusual choice to go with weather? Particularly since the morning opens, we’re told on the first page, ‘grey and cold’. Oh yes, it does get sunny later, but the setting is early spring.

A kind of brassy yellow sunlight flooded all the garden. The arms of the bushes were swinging violently about in a really savage wind. the streaked ribbons from a bush of pampas-grass, immediately outside the door, streamed outwards in all directions. this bush remained squashed down as flat as a pancake to the level of the gravel terrace in a curious way, and it looked unnatural, as if a heavy, invisible person must be sitting down on top of it.

If there’s one thing I like in a story, it’s contradictions between what’s being said, and what’s shown. This is a story that is layered with misdirection. Oh, there is a wedding organised for that day. The opening paragraph gives us a little more information than a notice in the Times would have:

On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service.

On the surface, this is straightforward information. We are looking at the middle-classes.

Here though, is lesson number two: the wedding might be the main event, but the first character we meet is not the bride, it’s her mother. I knew, right then, that I was going to enjoy this narrator.

What this straightforward manner delivers is the between-the-lines bits that any socially aware reader of the paper would have known. Mrs Thatcham, I perceive, is a force. The Hon. Owen is a ‘catch’ and I’m immediately wondering why Dolly is marrying him.

The next paragraph reveals that ‘It had been a short engagement, as engagements are supposed to go – only a month’, and now I sense secrets. That these two do marry, I have no doubt, since the narrator is using the past tense. But something, I soon realise is to be learned between five minutes past nine, when the story starts, and ‘Dolly, on her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, ran into Millman, the middle-aged parlourmaid‘ and the actual ceremony.

What happens, and doesn’t happen, in the course of a few hours is beautifully described. Here is economical writing. It reminds me of a Katherine Mansfield story, The Garden Party. The detail is precise, and illuminating, the characterisation light, and yet devastating. This picture of middle-class respectability is not kind, though it is subtle.

In the preface, Frances Partridge says that Strachey admired Chekhov, James, Proust and Groucho Marx. Yes, I can see how that works.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19

The hash-tag-dewithon19 is a month long celebration of Welsh writing organised by Paula Bardell-Hedley on her Bookjotter blog. Being Welsh is not part of the criteria for joining in, which is just as well, because I have always lived on the English side of the border.

I’m a neighbour, the kind who gazes over the fence, or should I say, river, and admires the differences that a few miles makes to point-of-view. I’m a visitor, who drifts through towns, cities, villages, valleys and beaches wondering what it must be like to inhabit such communities full-time, and then finds some of the answers between the covers of The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories edited by Alun Richards.

These twenty-eight stories span the twentieth century, and a range of Welsh landscapes and experiences and story techniques. Together, they begin to provide answers to a question I often ask myself, what makes a nation?

In Good-For-Nothing, by Dic Tryfan, a story translated from the Welsh by Dafydd Rowlands, Harri Huw wakes up at five in the morning in the quarry.

…there was no one in the quarry except him. He shouldn’t have been there either, but when a man wakes from a drunken stupor at the roadside, before the world has roused itself, he naturally goes to the place he loves best. And Harri Huw’s idea of heaven was the level at the bottom of Coed Quarry.

Photo by Taff George, on Wikimedia

The story was first published in 1915, but I only found that out much later. The events, and the characters, are timeless. When his young workmate arrives, their exchange is economical and telling:

‘You’ve been at it again, haven’t you?’ said the lad reproachfully.

‘Yes, Dic bach,’ answered Harri, with a touch of remorse in his voice.

‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Yes, I am, boy.’

‘You’re worse than a pig.’

‘Yes I am, aren’t I?’

‘Yes, I’ll say you are. Go home and change your clothes. You’ve torn your jacket. Your mam will be angry.’

‘Yes, she will, won’t she?’

When I get stuck working out a story, I turn to stories like this and learn again how tightly woven a great short story is. No word is wasted, yet the humanity and tension contained in seven pages wrings my heart-strings.

Blodwen, on the other hand, by Rhys Davies warns us never to take anyone for granted. First published in 1955, it’s small-town setting examines the trappings of respectability. Blodwen, who is a ‘fine, handsome young woman of twenty-five, all her body handsome and well-jointed,’ is engaged to Oswald, the son of a local solicitor. ‘He came to her as though to a meal.

All is set up for a good marriage. Their parents approve, and no one seems to mind that Blodwen is generally bad-tempered, except Pugh Jibbons, the grocer who brings fresh fruit and veg to town on a cart pulled by a donkey .

He was a funny-looking fellow. A funny fellow. Perhaps there was a gypsy strain in him. He was of the Welsh who have not submitted to industrialism, Nonconformity or imitation of the English. He looked as though he had issued from a cave in the mountains.

It’s a story with a plot, but it’s predominantly an examination of character. That’s the lesson of all the stories in this collection. There are plots in abundance, dealing with a full gamut of emotions, from rebellion to love, from remorse to jealousy to isolation, but at the heart of each, are rounded, breathing, complicated characters.

Just in case we miss that point, there’s A Story, by Dylan Thomas, told with beautiful excess by a child narrator:

I was staying at the time with my uncle and his wife. Although she was my aunt, I never thought of her as anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to fill every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mousetraps that never caught her…But there he was, always, a streaming hulk of an uncle, his braces straining like hawsers, crammed behind the counter of the tiny shop at the front of the house, and breathing like a brass band…

It’s not, perhaps, a style to emulate without great care, and yet to read it, to give oneself up to the excesses, is like entering one of those warm, noisy Welsh pubs where all of life is lived at full speed and volume. Although it’s titled, A Story, the narrator begins with a disingenuous disclaimer: ‘If you can call it a story.‘ he says. ‘There’s no real beginning or end and there’s very little in the middle. It’s all about a day’s outing, by charabanc, to Porthcawl, which, of course, the charabanc never reached, and it happened when I was so high and much nicer.’

1927 charabanc

Do not be misled. Our wide-eyed narrator is playing us for fools. There’s smoke before his mirror. This sense filled picture of early twentieth century Welshness is a glimpse into another age and culture, by another age and culture. Which just goes to prove another valuable point, never underestimate the importance of a title.

There, you see? Each time I dip into this lovely selection I discover something valuable about writing short fiction. No wonder it holds it’s place in convenient reaching distance of my office chair, and I haven’t even mentioned my favourite story, yet.

And it wasn’t a dream, after all…

So I was lying around recuperating from a lurgy, this week – don’t ask, it was unpleasant for a while, that’s enough – and I came across this old writing game, called ‘N + 7’, that was created by Jean Lescure.  As I was feeling a lot less than energetic at the time, I decided it looked far too taxing, and moved on.

Saturday, though, I emerged from my cocoon of blankets and jumpers to bask in some un-seasonal February sunshine. If it hadn’t been for the snowdrops and crocuses I might have been as fooled as the courting birds and the bumbling bees, into assuming spring had sprung.

Common sense prevailed. I settled myself by the biggest, sunniest window, and checked my browser history.  Had ‘N + 7’ been a feverish dream? Maybe it was one of those perfect stories I’ve lost in the moments when I wake?

What can you mean by, ‘was there a man from Porlock for you, too?’ – it’s the truth I tell you.  I am, by night, a prolific novelist and short story writer, and I never touch Laudanum.

‘N + 7’ it turns out was real, and unlike my stories, nowhere near as complicated as I’d first assumed. In fact, it looked fun.  There’s a handy web-site where I type in a piece of prose, press a button, and every noun is replaced by another noun – the one 7 words on in a dictionary.  So, these four paragraphs become:  

So I was lying around recuperating from a lurgy, this whale – don’t ask, it was unpleasant for a while, that’s enough – and I came across this old youth gas, called ‘N + 7’, that was created by Jean Lescure. As I was festival a lunch less than energetic at the toast, I decided it looked far too taxing, and moved on. 

Saturday, though, I emerged from my cocoon of boards and jumpers to bask in some un-seasonal February supplier. If it hadn’t been for the snowdrops and crocuses I might have been as fooled as the courting blades and the bumbling beliefs, into assuming staff had sprung. 

Common series prevailed. I settled myself by the biggest, sunniest wish and checked my browser home. Had ‘N + 7’ been a feverish driver? Maybe it was opinion of those perfect streets I’ve lost in the monkeys when I warehouse?

What can you mean by, ‘was there a manufacturer from Porlock for you, too?’ – it’s the twin I tell you. I am, by north-east, a prolific novelist and short street youngster and I never town Laudenum. 

‘N + 7’ it turns out was real, and unlike my streets, nowhere near as complicated as I’d first assumed. In fame, it looked fury. There’s a handy web-skull to unemployment in a pilot of prose. At the primary of a cake every noun is replaced by another noun 7 worlds on in the dimension.

I leave it to you to decide which version makes the most sense.

How have I missed knowing this, until now? I foresee hours of fun – or do I foresee hundreds of fury?

...a lunch less than energetic at the toast...

Anyhow, if you’d like to play, you’ll find it at

We waited for Godot.

He didn’t arrive, but you know what? That didn’t matter. Estragon and Vladimir kept us so enthralled that time was irrelevant. Words were exchanged, movements made; visitors arrived then departed. I was gripped, even though I couldn’t really tell you now what was said.

I’ve wanted to see this play for a long time, and yet at the same time, I’ve worried. It’s a difficult play, people say. Nothing happens. Two men stand by a tree and have conversations, mostly about waiting. Was I really going to pay money for that?

Of course, it is a classic. It’s revered by writers and playgoers. But what if I didn’t understand it? Would I come away feeling a fool?

It’s a favourite of Rays. He often regrets our failing to get tickets for the Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart version, back in 2013. So last December, when I saw that it was coming to The Everyman theatre, I knew that I’d not only solved my ‘what-Christmas-gift-do-I-give-to-the-man-who-has-everything?’ question, in the process, I’d found the prompt I needed to see the play for myself.

‘Tweedy’ as Estragon & Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir

This week, as the evening got closer, I was having doubts. The lead actors were a professional clown and a vaudevillian actor, this version could be terrible.

There’d been a serendipitously appropriate discussion about Becket on the radio a week or so ago, and the academic panel had explained how important clowns were to the playwright, so I got that clowning could fit. But, that didn’t mean a clown could act, did it?

Well, in this case, yes. From the moment the curtain was raised, as Estragon struggled to remove his boot, I forgot he’d ever had anything to do with face-paint, or colourful clothes. He was a man in search of boots that would fit, and I was hooked.

He was waiting for Godot. He had no more idea than I had, of why he was waiting for Godot. I knew that he wasn’t going to arrive. Maybe Estragon did, too. I waited with him.

Time passed. I laughed, I wondered, I smiled. I doubted the rightness of my responses. I forgot that I was watching men act, even though the stage was so obviously artificial, with its washed-out blue sky, bare rocks and man-made tree.

It was as if I was in a dream, the way I accepted everything. And yet, I never stopped thinking, and asking questions. Maybe I never will. I hope not.

Photo by Antony Thompson: Mark Ropper as Pozo, Tweedy as Estragon, Murray Andrews as Lucky, Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir.