Symbolic Forest

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A writing dilemma

Or, where to go from here

Happy Boxing Day and all that!

Regular readers will have noticed I’ve been writing a modern day retelling of The Box Of Delights over the past few weeks. If you’ve noticed that, you’ll also have noticed I haven’t got anywhere near the end of what is supposed to be a seasonal story—I mean, we haven’t even come across the titular box yet.

Bearing that in mind, and bearing in mind my probable low speed of writing, the question is: what do I do now?

  • Keep writing and publishing it here as I write, even if that means the Christmas conclusion is published in August.
  • Keep writing and drafting and publish it here next December.
  • Stop writing it, it’s not very good anyway.

Answers on a postcard to the usual address, etc. And, indeed, feel free to send in any other questions.

Right, now I shall go back to building one of the things I received to play with—feel free to guess what it might be! Merry Christmas!

Christmas present

Not The Box Of Delights (part two)

The story continues

Part One of this story is here.

Kay was not one for staying in bed all morning. Even though it was the first day of the Christmas holidays, they were up and about nice and early, before their dad had started work. Kay sat at the small kitchen table, slowly munching on a milky bowl of cereal whilst their dad leaned back, eyes closed, behind a large mug of tea, and their mus bustled, filing dried laundry among various baskets.

“I’m glad you’re up already,” said their mum, “you can do me a favour and go and get some quick bits of shopping for me. Just a few bits and pieces I forgot at the weekend.”

“I might have had plans,” frowned Kay.

“Well I can tell you don’t have plans,” said Mum, “otherwise you wouldn’t have said you might have. It’s only a few things, I’ll give you my card to pay for it all, and you’ll get some fresh air and still be home for lunch.”

“I suppose so,” said Kay, holding their spoon up in the air thoughtfully. “If it means I get to choose what flavours of crisps we have.”

“I don’t care,” said their dad, “as long as you don’t eat them all before the rest of us have a chance.” He took a long, slow slurp on his mug of tea, and closed his eyes again.

“There we are then,” said Mum. “And you can daydream all you like while you’re there.” Kay stared out of the window, up at the sky, before looking down at the ordinariness of the kitchen around them, the cooker, the fridge, the piles of laundry. Everything felt strangely disconnected, as if a part of the world was missing but with no sign what shape that part should be.

It was a fresh, frosty morning, the ground sparkling, the roofs of some of the houses still white. Kay walked along briskly down the terraced streets, hands in their pockets against the cold, head down. The list of “only a few things” was considerably longer than those words suggested, and Kay wanted to get to the shop and home again as quickly as they could. They hadn’t seen the Jones family properly for a couple of years, and it was several Christmases ago that they had last come to stay. Last year, Kay had gone to the effort of making a line of Jones family dolls by decorating old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, and set them up on the mantelpiece, to make up for them not being there in person. Distant as they were—not even first cousins—they were the only relatives of any sort that Kay had ever really felt close to; and video calls just weren’t the same as seeing them in person. Kay took their phone out of their pocket whilst walking along and quickly sent a message to Peter Jones, the oldest: “You didn’t say you were coming! Wanted to surprise me?”

Kay spotted Peter had read the message right away and had started typing back, which is why they were not looking out when they walked around the corner of the street and bumped straight into the middle of a man dressed in several layers of thick tweed. “Why, hello there!” he said.

Kay looked up, into the intense, sparkling eyes of Redwald Johnson. They noticed for the first time just how bright and sparkling his eyes were, as if he had captured a part of the night sky they had both looked up and stared at, and kept it to look out from forever. For a moment Kay let themselves suddenly realise just how strange the whole experience had been, but quickly pushed the thought down to the back of their mind. “Oh! Sorry!” they said, and froze, unsure how Redwald would respond.

“Sorry to interrupt your conversations!” said Redwald, his face breaking into a broad smile. “You must have a lot of holiday treats and capers to plan. Meeting long-lost friends is joy indeed.”

“I suppose it is,” said Kay, still somewhat flustered and confused.

“Oh, most certainly,” the man replied, “and it hurts greatly that there are so many long-lost friends in my life who I will never see again, not to mention the ones I might but can not. In fact—” and here he raised a finger like an actor trying to point to a hypothetical cartoon lightbulb above his head—”you could just be the person I need, to help me send a message to one of them.”

“You mean, run an errand?” said Kay. “This isn’t…anything dodgy, is it?”

Redwald frowned a little. “It’s a message, my dear Kay,” he said, “a few words, nothing more. Nothing that might see you arraigned or indicted or convicted, at least not by the forces of the law. I would never promise you sa—”

“And, you can’t message them?” interrupted Kay.

The man sighed. “I dare not use a phone for this,” he said. “You might think me paranoid, I can see why you might, but if you are unlucky you will discover why I am. Indeed, on that particular subject, i would be very grateful if you would be careful not to mention this to your friend Peter via your device. Tell him to his face, by all means, when you see him this afternoon, but do not let him know about it beforehand and do not talk about it online in any way. You should easily have time before the train arrives, to do this for me.”

“I don’t even know what time they do arrive,” said Kay.

“Ah, no matter. She will be there—my friend, I mean. Go to the Plough and Blackbird on Bly Street, on your way to the station. Inside the public bar, look for an old woman with bright, sparkling eyes. Tell her that if she sees someone, tell them that the circle will break. Have you got that?”

“If she sees someone, tell them the circle will break,” Kay repeated.

“Exactly that”, said Redwald. “Now, mind how you go. And remember, only tell people about this when you are outside together with them, face to face, without any blackguards and card-sharpers listening in. I will hopefully see you again later—I still must introduce myself to your parents at some point.”

“See you later, I guess,” said Kay. “Tell them that the circle will break.”

At least when Kay did reach the shop, the shopping didn’t take too long to do, despite the length of the shopping list. “When are you lot getting here?” Kay asked Peter whilst wandering around the supermarket.

“About four,” he replied. “If the weather’s good can we get your telescope out?”

“Sure,” answered Kay. “Ok, I’ll see if Mum will let me meet you at the station.” They started to type “Got to” but remembered Redwald Johnson’s strange warning, and deleted the last couple of words without saying more.

The house was warm and inviting when Kay came home with the shopping. Kay’s dad was upstairs in his study, typing away and tapping his feet as he listened to music; their mum was in the kitchen, preparing some vegetables for later. “Mum,” said Kay, “can I go and meet the Joneses at the station? You and Dad’ll be able to stay here and get everything else sorted out before they get here. Peter says their train comes in about three.”

“I suppose so,” said Mum. “Be careful though. I suppose you’ll be OK with all of you, but make sure you come straight back.”

“Mum, don’t worry so much,” Kay said. “It’s not like it’s far.” Kay looked out of the kitchen window, down at the garden falling away from the house and over the fence at Redwald Johnson’s overgrown, bramble-choked plot of land, but nobody was there aside from one of the neighbourhood cats silently prowling.

“Dress up warm,” said Kay’s mum. “The weather says it might snow later.”

Kay looked up at a pale grey sky: it did indeed have the look of snow that wanted to fall.

By mid-afternoon, though, the city streets were still cold but dry. Kay humoured their mother by adding an extra scarf, and set off. The light was pale, as if the sun was tired and only part trying, but most houses had twinkling, flashing fairy lights in their windows, either pale cream or multicoloured, brightening up the quiet streets. Some had large Christmas trees in their front bay window; Kay liked to judge the style of each tree. A few were tastefully restrained with every lamp and ornament in the same matching shade of magnolia, but most were a more varied mixture of colours and styles. A few were riotous over-the-top combinations of every colour and type of ornament imaginable, the tree laden and wrapped in lights and tinsel until hardly any branches or needles could be seen at all, and these were almost always Kay’s favourites.

The Plough & Blackbird was only a short detour off the most direct route between Kay’s home and the station. On a street corner, it looked much like a larger, more solid version of the standard brick-built terraces filling this part of the city, with red brick walls and windows and doors picked out in pale cream stone. In the gloomy afternoon, the yellow light in its misted-up windows seemed homely and welcoming, a place of safety and warmth. It was the sort of pub that served hearty meals and tried to appeal to all types of families, so even at this time of day it was not hard for Kay, if they walked boldly, to nip through the front door and roam around the various alcoves that made up the interior of the building. A handful of old men were sitting on stools by the bar; most of the other clientele seemed to be tired-looking young parents trying to persuade small childen to finish up their puddings and return toys to the pub toy box.

In one corner of the building, wood was burning in an open fire. A hunched figure was sat close to it, covered in layers of muted woollen shawls, turned towards the hearth and soaking up all the warmth of the flames. As Kay approached, the figure turned, and they saw an old, deeply-lined face, with two diamond-bright eyes almost glittering in the dim light.

“I have a message!” said Kay in an urgent stage-whisper. “Someone said to tell you. If you see someone, tell them. Tell them the that the circle will break.”

The old woman’s face moved almost imperceptibly, taking on an expression of the deepest sadness. “Thank you,” she said, with a quiet, serious voice. “Tell your neighbour to stay safe from the darkness.”

“I will do!” said Kay.

“And be careful,” the old woman continued. “They are always watching, now.” She turned away, her eyes back to the bright, warming flames. Kay hesitated, unsure if the conversation was over, before turning and swiftly heading back outside.

To be continued…

Not The Box Of Delights (part one)

In which we rewrite a Yuletide classic

I was inspired by a random comment I read on Twitter to attempt a modern-day update of the classic inter-war Christmas fable The Box Of Delights. This is the result, or at least as much as I have written so far. Great apologies are due to the ghost of John Masefield, I suspect.

It was a dreary, grey afternoon, the winter solstice approaching, and the last day of the school term. Kay Herald sloped home, uniform tie already off, with a spring in their step and half a smile on their face. In one sense, the Christmas holiday meant a fortnight of boredom with little to do and nothing happening. Kay was too old now for all of the magic to be real, and felt almost ashamed they once had genuinely believed in it. Nevertheless, in their heart they still knew it was a magical time, their family following the same rituals every year, putting up the same tree as always and hanging the same trimmings upon it, the same tinsel on the mantelpiece, just as when Kay had been a baby. It was still the time to light a log in the grate, turn down the lights, and hang stockings on the ends of their beds knowing they would be full of presents in the morning, and Kay still looked forward to that however much they grew cynical about adults, about school, about every aspect of growing up, getting older, and losing all the excitement and freshness of childhood.

Kay wondered, as they wandered, what it had been like back in the days of boarding schools, when you didn’t see your parents every day, when seeing them for Christmas must have been fresh and new and exciting. Spending your days in a strange, cloistered world full of its own curious traditions, jargon and slang; your own little barracks civilisation almost entirely unlike real life. And then, to be wrenched from it and put on a train with a steamer-trunk, on your own, sent back and expected to make your own way, changing at remote railway junctions and not getting fleeced by the other travellers. Back home to some strange adults you hardly knew and who didn’t really want you around the place. Or maybe, Back In Those Days, your parents would have been away in The Colonies and you’d be sent to live with a crumbling great-grandmother in a haunted manor house. Christmas with some friendly 17th-century ghosts sounds far more exciting than just being at home and not having to go to school. And the whole idea of finding your way across half the country on the train on your own, when Kay was barely allowed to walk by themselves any further from home than school.

They walked down a narrow, steep path between a railway embankment on one side and allotments on the other, a shortcut between two parts of the city which would have been a long way apart via wider roads. At the bottom, where the path met a road in a triangle, stood two people. One tall, thin and leaning on a lamppost; the other shorter, fatter, looking at their phone. Kay gave them a wide berth, as you do with strangers on the street, but nevertheless the thin one looked up as they passed. “Why hello there,” he said, in a soft, neutral, generic-American accent.”

“Yeah, hi,” said Kay, warily, looking at them but still gently moving.

“We don’t want to alarm you,” said the thin man. He was thin in many ways, with thin lips and thinning ginger hair. His ears twitched, and almost seemed pointed. “We’re not from around here; you might tell! We’ve gotten ourselves a little muddled here.”

“Hey,” said the other one: a woman with long curly dark hair and a chubby, dimpled face. “We didn’t want to startle you. We’re just like strangers here.”

“We thought you looked like a guy who, well, knows the neighborhood,” said the thin man. “We’re just a bit lost here. Annie here can’t get a signal.”

“Yeah,” said Kay, “the phone signals round here are pretty poor, and the maps get confused too.” They looked at the two Americans: they looked almost like some sort of cultists or missionaries, but they weren’t wearing the sharp suits of the Mormons who stood trying to hand out their own Bibles by the park. Instead they were in some sort of strange black robes which changed as they turned, looking loose at one moment and tight-fitting the next. When the man stood straight it looked like a shiny trenchcoat; when he lounged, like a matt black surplice. Each also wore some sort of white dogcollar around their bare necks, which did nothing for the overall strangeness of their outfits.

“We’re trying to get over to Downley,” said the woman, Annie. “Is it up the path, or down this road?”

“And is that there path safe for strangers like us?” added the ginger-haired man. “You know, not knowing the lay of the land like you do.”

“Yeah,” said Kay, shrugging. They had never had any problems on that path, but they had never tried to go down it, unlit, too late on a dark afternoon.

“Well that sure is good to know,” said the man, with Annie nodding along. “We’re neighborly folks ourselves, we don’t want to cause any trouble now.”

“We sure don’t, that’s right!” the woman said. “Do you look out for your neighbor?”

“I guess,” said Kay. They lived in an end-terrace, and the house next door had been empty for a while. Like many houses in the neighbourhood, it had had a “For Sale” sign up for all of a couple of days before it turned into a “Sold” sign, but then the sale itself had presumably been tied up in months of negotiations on the exact price and state of the crumbling Victorian place, the “Sold” sign had stayed in place and no new neighbours had arrived.

“Well you certainly should do,” said the thin man. “Keep an eye on him, and let us know how he is. Good to meet you, Kay.”

“Whatever,” said Kay, and turned to walk away. After a few steps they looked back over their shoulder, just to make sure. Indeed, the two Americans had disappeared into the darkening afternoon. Kay heard a rustle as some animal ran through the bushes alongside the railway line, and suddenly thought: how did they know my name? They shivered slightly, and started walking slightly faster home.

As it turned out, Kay was going to have a new neighbour sooner than they had realised. A removal van with a London address on the side was blocking the street outside their home, its hazard lights flashing like an invulnerability spell and burly men lifting furniture out of it. The front door of the empty house next to Kay’s was open, and in the front garden a man was rocking and tugging on the Sold sign as if it were a loose tooth. Kay made the mistake of pausing to look at the operation as they hunted for their house-key, for of course the man stood up and raised a hand in greeting. “Good evening, my neighbourhood friend,” he said, in a deep, warm and curious voice.

“Hey,” said Kay, wondering if this conversation would be as strange and threatening as the last. “Moving in?”

“How very observant, young fellow,” said the man, in a friendly voice which diluted some of the pomposity of his words. “Moving on and moving in, indeed. Doctor Redwald Johnson, pleased to meet you and so on and so forth. And may I ask, so as not to offend, but are you a he-creature or a she-creature or a they-creature?”

“A they-creature,” they said. “Kay. Thanks for asking though.”

“Lovely to meet you, Kay,” said the man. His olive-complexioned face was bearded, and it hid his age with great success. His head seemed shaved bald, but was largely covered by an oversized and worn flat cap. His clothes seemed well-worn but carefully-chosen, an eclectic mixture of fabrics and stuffs, with waistcoat, cravat not matching shirt, moleskin trousers tucked into worn-out riding boots. With pierced ears, the overall air was of some sort of aging hipster trying not to age. If you had to guess his profession, you might think off-duty chef, or artisan baker, or development brewer at a tiny and exclusive microbrewery. In short, exactly the sort of man you would expect to move into Kay Herald’s slowly-gentrifying inner city neighbourhood.

“And you, Doctor Redwood,” said Kay.

“Redwald,” said the man. “Redwald Johnson, for all my sins. I hope this is a good town to be.”

“It’s always been fine for me,” said Kay. “Mostly anyway,” they added, remembering the slightly strange American cultists. “I’ll see you around.”

“I’m sure you will,” said Redwald Johnson. “And we should better be going. My house needs to be rearranged, and I am sure you have a great deal of holiday things to be doing. Katsu curry waits for nobody.”

“The sign’s got a number on it,” said Kay, “to come and collect it after you move in. On the back. Anyway, see you.” They opened the door, and walked into their house.

“What’s for dinner?” shouted Kay, as they shuffled up the stairs to their bedroom. There was a sound of bustling and clattering from the kitchen, but no answer. Kay kicked their schoolbag under their bed, quickly changed into clothes without any school crests or logos on, and went back down again.

“You know I don’t shout halfway across the house,” said Kay’s mum. “I’m not shouting when you can come in here and ask.”

“Sorry mum,” said Kay. “What’s for dinner?”

“Katsu curry,” she replied, “as you like it and as it’s your last day of term. I thought I’d better do something to make you sit and have dinner with the rest of us.”

“Ooh, thanks,” said Kay. “What do you think of that guy then?”

“What guy?”

“The new guy next door.”

“There’s a new guy next door? I thought I heard a lot of noise, but I just thought it was more builders.”

“I thought you must have talked to him,” said Kay. “He’s ok. A bit strange, but not as weird as the Americans who stopped me in the street earlier.”

“What did they want?” said Kay’s mum, breaking blocks of curry sauce into a pan.

“I dunno. Just directions? I think. It was all a bit weird. They knew my name too.”

“You probably just had your bag open,” said their mum, “and saw it on one of your books.”

“I guess,” said Kay, unconvinced.

Kay’s dad exploded into the room, a bundle of sudden energy. “Have you heard the news?!” he interrupted, his face in a beaming smile.

“We were having a conversation in here, you know,” said Kay’s mum, “before you burst in here. I’m sure it’s not important.”

“Andata are going to open a big new European office right in the city centre! Jim Bright himself is going to have an office there! Just over the road from where my office is.”

“Not that you ever go there any more,” said Kay’s mum. “Not important. How is that going to have any effect on us?”

Kay had heard of Jim Bright: one of a handful of men who lived on the west coast of America who could, if you believed the stories, pay to feed everyone in the world twice over and still have enough money to live on for any sort of forseeable lifetime. His first few million dollars had been generated from a piece of software that seemed deceptively simple but had taken geniuses to create: it tracked all the music you listened to, and then sold you the music you didn’t know you wanted to hear and the machines to listen to it on. At first Jim Bright’s recommendations took control of the music charts until they were effectively obsolete; after that, his company, or rather his subtle software engines, began to compose new, tailored music especially for each listener, targeted to satisfy, to heighten or dampen any of your own personal emotions. It was either insanely popular or entirely despised, depending on your point of view. His corporation, Andata, had branched out and now earned its billions from renting out its computer power to anybody who needed it.

“You never know!” said Dad, almost bouncing up and down with excitement. “What if I’m buying a coffee to take to the office, and Jim Bright is in there buying one too? We might even get to have a chat!”

“Jim Bright,” Kay’s mum replied sensibly, “has people to go out and get coffees for him. And besides, it’s not as if he’ll ever actually be there. It’ll just be full of sales people and accounts people and nothing you’d actually be interested in.”

“No, really,” said Dad, unwilling to give his hopes up, “he’s going to have an office here himself and everything! Look!” He thrust his phone screen in front of them, and pressed play on a news clip.

Even on the screen he looked like a tall man, bald, with a deeply-lined face and a wise smile. “…ommunity,” he was saying, “is really at the heart of everything we do here at Andata. We’re not faceless scientists. We’re not Silicon Valley wizards in our castles. We’re all about community. And this city … you love tech! You’ve got startups here, you’ve really gotten going in the last few years, you’re full of smart passionate people. And I just want to build on that.”

“But why does this project matter so much to you, Jim?” said a softball interviewer, off-camera.

“England … it’s always meant so much to me. I grew up here,” he said, and as he said it Kay realised his American accent was really just a few superficial vowels on top of a deeper more European stratum. “You guys all think of me of some Seattle guy, some West Coast technologist. And, sure, I’ve lived there a long time, in one sense I guess that does feel like home to me. But England … I grew up there, y’know? I grew up in Herefordshire, right in the depths of the countryside, in this little old boarding school run by monks, where our grounds were in England and Wales was just over the hedge. Now, I learned everything I know about math, and AI, and tech, at college in the US, but I learned everything I know about people, and history, and the land, from Reverend Doctor Boddledale’s strange little boarding school. And that’s made me who I am today. And that’s—” and at this point his voice grew deeper and all the American vowels and vocabulary suddenly faded away from it, “—why I’m back.”

“See!” said Dad, fizzing with excitement. “Jim Bright’s going to be right in the city centre! You never know, I could be working at Andata this time next year!”

This year, though,” said Kay’s mum firmly, “there’s something else I need to tell you both. Your Jones cousins are going to have to come and stay for Christmas. Auntie Susan is back in hospital again with her post-viral thing, so better they come here and can spend it with family. It’ll be better than last year if nothing else. At least they’ve all had the vaccine.”

“It’s going to be a squash, isn’t it?” said Kay. There were four of the Joneses, quite a squeeze in a small terraced house.

“Two in the spare room and two in the front room,” said Kay’s mum. “Or one in your room maybe. I don’t know. I don’t really care. I just want to make sure they have a better Christmas this year.”

Later on in the evening, the dreary clouds cleared. The temperature dropped, the stars came out, and Kay went offline and down to the bottom of the garden. Being in a city the views were not great, rather orange-tinged from light pollution, and Kay’s garden was in something of a dip; but nevertheless Kay would set up their telescope and look up at the planets and stars. The garden was long, thing, and sloped steeply down away from the house into a little nameless valley. Once it had been the site of a paupers’ burial ground, and Kay was always slightly nervous about probing the ground at the bottom of the garden lest they uncover a skull or a long-bone. Down the bottom of the garden was quiet, though, aside from the occasional screech of a fox, and well away from the parents. Tonight Kay leaned back in their deckchair, the telescope set up on a picnic table alongside but not being used. The big December meteor shower had been just a week ago, and there were still maybe the odd one or two to be seen. Kay leaned back, looked up at the sky and as their pupils dilated more and more stars came into view. Aries to the south, Andromeda above it, Perseus and Orion following behind.

“Why hello, young Kay,” said a voice. Kay sat up, sharply. “I’m sorry there. I did not at all mean to startle you. It is I, Redwald Johnson, conjurer and technologist, on the other side of your garden fence.”

“Who isn’t a technologist these days,” said Kay. “Dad’s one. You’re one. Everyone is in technology now. I just wish I could go back and be a hedge-witch or something.”

“Ah, the very same thing though,” said Redwald Johnson. “The astronomers and the witches and the alchemists: technology, all of us. Every year in its own way, doing our little thing to spread magic and enjoyment into the world. I didn’t mean to alarm you. I enjoy the company of a fellow-traveller among the stars, in an observational manner of speaking, and I am also wary we may be able to help each other, when we both need it.”

Kay leaned their head back again, and looked up at the stars. Redwald Johnson’s voice from over the garden fence was rich and luxurious, like buttered crumpets with jam.

“I feel I must be on the same side,” the man continued, “of anyone who enjoys the shows the heavens can put on for us. You were expecting meteors, I take it?”

“There were a lot last week, at the peak,” said Kay, “and a good few since. Might still be some in the sky tonight, especially later.”

“I fancy,” he said, “we may well have a show. And look, one is early!” A lazy, fat line of light scored its way across the sky before fading away. “Slow things, these Geminids,” he continued. “Not flashing across the sky like arrows as the Perseids do.”

“The long ones are always earlier in the night,” said Kay. “They have shorter trails later as their origin gets higher in the sky.”

“Burning up and dying away as soon as they are noticed,” Redwald Johnson replied. “And they have only been in the sky for a few decades, these winter marvels. Newcomers. Your Babylonian sky-watcher would be baffled by them, or any other of us astronomers from Pagan days. Now the rest of the sky, all those distant lights, their lives are far longer than yours and even mine. They were here when I was young and might be here when we are gone. Which are you drawn to?”

“The Pleiades,” said Kay. The Pleiades had always been their first love in the sky.

“Ah, the seven sisters,” said Redwald Johnson. “Although I am sure that telescope of yours can pick out many many more. Such a tragic story, those women. Watch.” And Kay watched, and could see, not just six faint stars, but seven bright ones, and each of the seven stars was a woman, sitting in the sky, tears rolling down her face. “Mourning their father,” Redwald Johnson said, “and always running.” And behind them came a great hunter, his feet on the rooftops, his sword at his belt, an animal-skin draped over his shoulders.

“Orion!” whispered Kay.

“Orion himself,” said Redwald Johnson. “And he hunts, as he has always hunted. At least as far back as men can remember.” Orion slashed out with his sword, at all the creatures around him: a hare at his feet, a horse approaching, a great bull at his shoulder. The horse turned its head, and Kay saw a slender, spiralling horn glinting in the starlight.

“Unicorn!” said Kay. A dog below the hunter’s feet darted from between the unicorn’s hooves, and worried at the hare; its eyes were so gleaming bright, Kay knew it must be the Great Dog of the sky. “They’re going to fight. It’s going to turn into carnage.”

“These stars are all fixed in the past,” said the man. “Tomorrow night, they will be back in their appointed place. That is their joy and their doom. They have eternal life, and the price of it is higher than you might think. But you are lucky, to see this show, for many look at the stars at night and are not granted this display.” The unicorn whinnied, so loud Kay thought it must wake the city and the dead. It shook its head at Orion the hunter, and Kay saw the desperation in its eyes. Orion drew his sword, and its ancient bronze blade was a sparkling host of new worlds continually forming. His figure blurred and faded, and Kay saw the millions and billions of years of stars and galaxies and nebulas, all in front of their eyes, stretching away beyond human sight into the shadowy world of the moment of the universe’s birth.

“Are they always there?” said Kay. “I mean … are the constellations real? Not just stars?”

“They are stars, and they are real, together,” came the reply. “And not all of them are the constellations you might expect. Greece and Babylon did not have a monopoly on wisdom. They fight out this play every night, for those who can see it, for not many can. But at the same time, they are stars, they are vast, and they are unimaginably remote and from times past. Just like myself, you could say.”

“I wish I could see them again,” said Kay. “I wish I could always see them.”

“It will happen again,” said Redwald Johnson, “whether you see them or not. They are eternal, unlike the meteors. And unlike me. Draw your sword at you and me, and neither of us will be here upon the next night. The days of setting heros among the stars have ended.”

“I’m not sure anyone here has a sword,” said Kay, thinking at the same time that some people in the city probably did.

“Ah, well,” said the old man. “The Wolves are Running. They’ve been Running before, as you may well know. They’ve run at me before, and sometimes they’ve run me very close. And now they’re Running again and they’re still after me.”

“We have foxes,” said Kay, “but we don’t have wolves.”

“These Wolves are not always in the shape of wolves. Sometimes, they are, and sometimes, they are not. They might be here already; I think they may be. We must be on our guard. Will you help me, when they come running for me?”

“I’ll do whatever I can,” said Kay, unsure if they really meant it.

“Why thank you,” said Redwald Johnson, “it may be a great help. I fear it is close to midnight, and that is often their hour, so I feel we should head into the safety of home. Goodnight, Kay Herald. And remember, the Wolves are Running.”

“Goodnight,” said Kay. Overhead a meteor flashed, and disappeared.

Part Two of this story is here.


In which we wonder what happened to the romance of IT

A quick news story from last week: A chap called Dr Brendan Kelly has analysed 20 random medical romance novels and spotted that they are all written to a very similar template. If you’re a romance novelist and want to bash out another, all you apparently have to do is change your characters’ names, and you’re set.

Dr Kelly noted that the heroes of these novels are generally handsome, arrogant surgeons with a traumatic past; you don’t tend to get handsome, arrogant psychiatrists popping up, for some reason. Never mind about psychiatrists, though. Where are the handsome, arrogant IT technicians? Never mind saving the lives of patients with mysterious illnesses just when you thought all was lost – where are the romance novels about data rescue and mysterious ARP caching? The world needs, clearly, an IT romance novel. I’ll let you know when I manage to get a couple of scenes down on paper.

Books I Haven’t Read (part seven)

In which we fail to read “Victorian Railway Days” by Francis Bennion

I haven’t read Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement. It is fetching a lot of publicity at the moment, because McEwan has been accused of copying phrases from the biography of wartime nurse and romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews. He, of course, says the claims are ridiculous, and that all he did was normal research. Other people have said the same thing, noting that he has acknowledged his large debt to Andrews.

I haven’t read Atonement; nor have I read No Time For Romance, the book he is accused of cribbing from. This post, though, is about neither of them. It’s about another book they reminded me of, a book that I read some time ago, but was unable to finish, because I felt the author had gone rather closer to his source material than he should have. It’s not a book you’re likely to have heard of, either. It’s by a top lawyer and Oxford don* called Francis Bennion, and it’s called Victorian Railway Days.

It’s an episodic novel about the social changes wrought by the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, owing quite a bit in its style to Charles Dickens’ Mugby Junction stories. I found it in my local public library when I was a teenager, and took it out. I didn’t get very far into it, though, before I found a passage that I recognised, about the importance of the railway station to rural village life. It’s quite long, and I’m not going to quote it. But I am going to quote something very very similar.

The Jones’s who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr Jones would not like the stationmaster to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice, so he sends the stationmaster a hare. The Rev Mr Silvertongue is always wanting to take a party somewhere at single fare for the double journey, or some other concession, so he honours the stationmaster by conversing with him, as an equivalent for concessions. The old lady with her dog would not, on any account, have the little dear put into that dreadful dungeon of a dog box when she travels, so she sends the stationmaster a basket of plums once in the year […] ‘My lord’ knows he has no right to bully at the railway station, so he brings a brace of pheasants, and thus adds Mr Station Master to the train of his servants.

That quote is from an obscure Victorian autobiography called Memoirs of a Station Master, by Ernest Simmons. Obscure, yes, but republished in the 1970s by Leicester University Press courtesy of the historian Jack Simmons.*** It’s the sort of thing that would be vital research material for anyone writing a book set at a Victorian railway station. Moreover, the same passage was also quoted in a well-known book about railway history, The Country Railway by David St John Thomas;**** and that book is definitely one I’d expect Bennion to have read when researching his own.

So, when I came across an extremely similar passage in his novel, I was rather disappointed in it. It was extremely similar indeed. I can’t remember, now, if it was indeed a word-for-word copy, but the basic structure was very clear, and it closed in a very similar way indeed. I wish I’d been able to find a copy of Victorian Railway Days to write this post, so I could put them side-by-side for a comparison.***** I was so disappointed to read something which seemed to my teenage eyes to be such a blatant lift, that I stopped reading immediately, and put the book aside. I’m not going to accuse Professor Bennion of the P-word. For all I know, his echoing of Simmons’ words may have been entirely unconscious. It was enough, though, to make me stop reading. Victorian Railway Days remains another book I haven’t read.

* with a long list of personal achievements – drafted the constitution of Pakistan, formerly ran the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, drafted the Sex Discrimination Act, managed to put Peter Hain on trial for his anti-apartheid protests, and get him convicted, and chaired Oxford United FC, among other things.

** because I don’t actually have a copy of it to hand

*** no relation, as far as I know.

**** originally published in 1976 by St John Thomas’s own publishing company, David & Charles, although the copy I have is a Penguin paperback edition from 1979.

***** I suppose I could always buy one from Bennion’s website and revisit this post another day.

Update, August 27th 2020: Francis Bennion died in January 2015. When I originally wrote this post, I was aware that Francis Bennion was still alive, and moreover was a significant Establishment figure with much greater resources and legal knowledge than I had. I was very careful, therefore, not to accuse him directly of cribbing, plagiarism, or anything along those lines, in case he found my post and dropped some sort of lawsuit upon me. And, indeed, he (or someone claiming to be him) did find this post. He left a comment on it:

If you had looked at the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS at the beginning of my book “Victorian Railway Days” you would have seen that I give “grateful thanks” to Ernest J. Simmons (among others) for “the sparking of ideas for this novel, or useful background material”.

Which is fair enough - except that as I said above, he had lifted an entire paragraph from Simmons, a very distinctive paragraph which has been quoted widely elsewhere. I replied it was unfortunate I didn’t have copies of both books to hand to see exactly how large the similarities were, and pointed out that as I’d already noted above, Ian McEwan had also acknowledged his sources of information. Not to be denied the last word, the grumpy old lawyer replied with a further answer:

Pathetic – not worth a further answer.

I was tempted to say “but you just did…”, but resisted it. If you are into Victorian history, and can find a copy, Memoirs of a Station Master is very much worth your time. Victorian Railway Days is very much not.

Books I *have* managed to read

In which I finish something for once

This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Read was going to be about a Neal Stephenson novel, The System Of The World. However, that’s been postponed, just because I wanted to brag about finishing another Book I Haven’t Managed To Read.

The book was one many, many people have read with no trouble at all. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. However, the first time I read it, in a hurry, I’d just tried to read two other Harry Potter books very quickly too. I got as far as Chapter Three of Goblet Of Fire, stopped, and didn’t pick any J K Rowling books up for a few years.

Anyway, last week, Colleague M said: “what? You’ve only read three Harry Potter books?” So, I picked up Goblet of Fire again, and read it. I didn’t get stuck. I didn’t forget where I was. I read it and I finished it. Hurrah!