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Yet another crafting project (part three)

Or, cross-stitching progresses

The post-house-move unpacking has reached the point now that most of the day-to-day things are all unpacked and sorted out. That doesn’t include all of the various bits of hobby equipment, but it does include the cross-stitch project that I’ve posted about a couple of times previously. Indeed, this weekend I reached the point that all of the cross-stitching itself was done.

Cross-stitching done

Hopefully you can tell what is it now: a group of Norman soldiers in the style of the Bayeaux Tapestry. If the pattern still looks a bit sketchy and incomplete in parts, that’s because this kit also includes a rather large amount of backstitch, particularly backstitched chain mail. We could be here some time. Still, I’ve made a start at least.

Some backstitched detail

So far it looks a bit neater than I was worried it might.

The other posts in this series are part one, part two and part four.

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Yet another crafting project (part two)

Things slowly take shape

There are lots of ideas I’ve had for things to write on this blog, that are slowly building up, and that I haven’t written about—in fact, I’ve added two more whilst drafting this paragraph in my head. They all involve lots of effort, though, lots of planning and drafting and assembling ideas; and right now all my energy is being taken up by work and by various other things. So when I sit down in an evening, I don’t have enough process space left in my head to write anything in-depth on here. Instead, I’ve just been getting out the cross-stitch project I wrote about last week, because it’s nice and easy to get it out of its back and sit on the sofa methodically counting and sewing and counting and sewing.

Last time, I said I’d let you guess what it might be, when it was basically nothing more than a blue banana shape. Now, if you ask me, I think it’s much much more obvious.

Now that has to be a bit clearer than before

However, I’ve spent hours poring carefully over the pattern that came in the kit, planning which part to work on next and double-checking I’ve put all the stitches in the right place. To me, it’s inconceivable anyone wouldn’t be able to recognise what it is, but I’m rather biased.

The other posts in this series are part one, part three and part four.

Yet another crafting project (part one)

Some more cross-stitch

Attentive regular readers might remember that in the lead-up to Yuletide, our office held a Christmas Craftalong, in which everyone who was interested got together in a remote meeting and did the same small cross-stitch kit together. After I’d finished it, I said:

Will I go on to do more cross-stitch? Well, it was a fun way to spend a few evenings. Maybe if I can find some more kits that aren’t irredeemably twee, I might do.

It didn’t take me long, really, before I was on the internet searching for cross-stitch kits or just patterns that I’d be happy to put up on the wall when finished. However, a few weeks later, everything has arrived and I’ve been able to make a start.

The start of some more cross-stitch

I won’t say what it is for now, although you’re welcome to try and guess. The design, when it arrived, suddenly looked much bigger than it did on-screen, so this might take me a little bit longer to finish than the Christmas robin did.

The other posts in this series are part two, part three and part four.

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)

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…

Christmas craftalong (again)

In which the shocking news is that I have finished a craft project

The other day I mentioned a Christmas social event at the office: an organised crafting event for any colleagues who were interested to do a small cross-stitch kit together. Amazingly, in just over a week, I’ve managed to finish it. I would say that’s a personal record at finishing some sort of craft project for me, but it’s rare enough for me to complete one at all.

Christmas robin

Personally I think it’s a bit scrappy; I can see lots of uneven and slightly wonky stitching, whole patches where the threads are making strange knots insted of neat crosses.

Moreover, if you compare this to the previous “in progress” picture, you can see I did get annoyed enough to go back and redo an entire section. Misunderstanding the instructions and the nature of the thread, when I started I started off stitching the red breast with only a single thread, not doubling the thread up as I was supposed to—my excuse is that each of the “single threads” are actually spun from two threads twisted together. Unpicking all the red also involved accidentally unpicking some of the orange too, so if you know where to look you can see a few places where stuff has been redone a few times.

Will I go on to do more cross-stitch? Well, it was a fun way to spend a few evenings. Maybe if I can find some more kits that aren’t irredeemably twee, I might do.

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.

Christmas craftalong

Or, Yule enjoy some sewing

The other day I mentioned losing the Office Party and gaining various remote seasonal events instead. For example: someone thought it would be a nice idea to all have a seasonal crafting session together. Everyone who volunteered an interest was sent a small-but-festive cross-stitch kit, and then we spent a lunchtime getting together on a video call to sit and stitch for an hour, whilst the organiser explained how to get started and the rest of us found various ways to make mistakes.

Festive crafting

Full marks if you can spot everything I’ve got wrong so far. This represents quite a bit more than one hour’s work, because I’ve spent a while working on it since. You never know, I might even get it finished before Christmas.

Winter chills

Or, what makes a ghost story frightening

With winter starting to approach, it’s time to start thinking about traditional Yuletide activities. Putting up the tree, sticking tinsel around the mantlepiece, lighting the candles; and settling down in an armchair to read a scary story.

I’m not sure when “reading a ghost story” became one of the traditional Yuletide activities, but it can only have taken a few decades at most, from the invention of the literary ghost story, to them being specifically written to read to friends by the fireside at Christmas or Yule. As early as the 1840s A Christmas Carol tied Christmas and ghosts tightly together, at precisely the time that many of our Yuletide traditions were being newly-minted. Dickens’ other famous ghost story, “The Signal-Man”, isn’t a Christmas story per se but was written for the Christmas 1866 special edition of All The Year Round. Communal Christmas ghost-story-telling is the framing story in The Turn Of The Screw, written in the 1890s by Henry James; however, I suspect that this is just a device, and that The Turn Of The Screw is rather too long to actually read out in an evening.

One of the best known English ghost story writers, however, did write his stories specifically for performance. M R James was an academic who spent virtually his whole life at either Cambridge or Eton, living in the rooms provided by the colleges he served and led. Every year, more or less, so the story goes, he would write a ghost story and perform it to his inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances at Christmas; they were then published in magazines and every few years in collected editions. He must have started doing this in his mid-30s at the latest, as his first collection was published in 1904 when he was in his early 40s and he averaged just under one published story per year from then until his death. It isn’t an enormous output: most of his time was taken up with a very active academic career as a medievalist, curator and art historian, and he also found time to occasionally write guide books for the Great Western Railway too. However, nowadays, unless you’re a medieval manuscript specialist, if you’ve heard of M R James it’s because you’ve heard of his ghost stories: they are considered classics of the genre. Indeed, they’re an entire sub-genre in their own right. The typical Platonic James ghost story can be summed up as follows: a shy, nervous academic somewhat resembling M R James is either carrying out some sort of research, or is on holiday; wherever they are, they discover some sort of antiquarian artefact or, more often, fragment of manuscript. They are then haunted by firstly a sense of terror, and then by some sort of horrific spirit which slowly gains physical form, either a humanoid shape or quite often something vile and spidery. And then, the threat somehow … goes away.

That description makes his stories sound rather anticlimatic. But, that’s because the real reason I’m writing this essay is something I feel I have to whisper to you privately, as if it were a secret unsuitable to tell you out loud. Despite his reputation as a master of the English ghost story, I don’t think very much of the work of M R James.

This isn’t because I object to the narrowness of the world he portrays, the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian academia in which men spend all their time in libraries and cathedrals and women are hardly ever at all visible. That was James’s world; he strongly believed that ghost stories should be set in the normal world of the everyday, so he wrote about what he knew. There are two things, really, that have always stopped me from enjoying James. Firstly, to my modern ear his writing sounds very clunky and awkward, especially for something originally written to be read aloud. This is the opening of “The Tractate Middoth”, published 1911.

Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card—Mr John Eldred—and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer.

More importantly, though, I’ve never found there to be any true terror in James’s writing, however much horror there is. The stories are always resolved, but the resolution comes quickly and without any problems. If there is a villain then he will get his just desserts; often he will be attacked by some sort of supernatural entity, and the coroner will find his heart has inexplicably stopped. In many cases, though, the protagonist is rescued and the threat just goes away.

Regular readers might remember my post recently about Robert Graves, and in it, Graves’s (or rather A E Housman’s) test for a “true poem”: it makes your hair stand on end. That’s because, in Graves’s mind, a “true poem” must invoke terror, because it is about the White Goddess, who is a terrifying character. Regardless of what you think about Robert Graves and his intensely narrow-focused view as to what counts as genuine poetry, it’s fair to say that a ghost story should be able to invoke terror. I first read James’s stories in my teens, buying a cheap reprint,* and I remember being surprised that such famous ghost stories, despite many attempts to invoke horror, didn’t seem terrifying at all. My skin stayed entirely unprickled.

As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve started to feel that the real key to the ghost story isn’t necessarily just terror: the best ghost stories are also filled with emotion and sadness, of a constant sense of loss and longing. To say the obvious, they are about death, which means inevitability, eternity and regret. Ghost stories can be the saddest stories possible, because they reflect on the impossibility of changing the past and of undoing mistakes. In a very real sense, they are about regretting the path not taken. There is nothing like this anywhere in James: his characters are virtually emotionless and seem entirely free of introspection. This, combined with the flat, matter-of-fact style of writing, produces a curiously unaffecting text. I can read it and see, on an intellectual level, what James is trying to do, how he is mechanically advancing the plot; but there is no tension, no emotion, no way to draw me into the story.

I can remember, the first time I read James, that only one story really stood out and stuck in my mind, and it did so for entirely mechanical reasons. It was “A View From A Hill”, in which an antiquarian discovers a pair of binoculars that can apparently see into the past. He then takes them into a church, and they stop working entirely: the view becomes completely black and opaque as if you had left the lens caps on. The story ends with him discovering how they were made. I was fascinated by this story purely because of the artefact, the rules by which it operated, how it was made. It’s simply not a ghost story, though, and has no suspense, drama or action of any kind. A man finds a thing, he breaks the thing, and he is still the same person he always was.

There are, to be fair, good spots and good moments in James’s stories. One of the best is a relatively early one, “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. The opening has a waspishly comic touch, with a line almost reused by Monty Python some seventy or so years later:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography

He does reuse the same joke again a few paragraphs down, but we can probably forgive him that. “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of James’s best stories, let down largely by an unnecessary final paragraph which he seems to have realised himself is superfluous, because it begins with the words “There is really nothing more to tell”. It has also benefited from an excellent and genuinely frightening TV adaptation made in the late 1960s by Jonathan Miller: he changes the character of the protagonist somewhat, but makes the ghost of the piece far more eerie and threatening than James’s writing itself conveys.

The success of Miller’s TV adaptation led to the BBC producing a regular series of Christmas ghost stories, the most famous of which is probably Dickens’s The Signalman with Denholm Elliott in the title role. More recently, in 2013, Mark Gatiss revived the idea by dramatising “The Tractate Middoth”. It needed quite a lot of alteration to turn it into a good enough storyline for modern TV, and to give the characters some sense of emotion and inner being. The female characters in the original story are barely anything more than ciphers, plot devices. As in “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You” the story ends with an extraneous additional paragraph, a single sentence, written almost apologetically to explain that James just doesn’t know how to write about male-female relationships; in the TV adaptation it turns into an entire subplot. Moreover, one of the big flaws of “The Tractate Middoth”, the story, is that in its first act the most significant events happen off the page. The main character, a library assistant, goes off-scene to fetch a book. The next we hear, he’s been taken ill. A scene or two later, we discover he was found unconscious among the stacks; and then he relates a description of the supernatural thing he saw that shocked him into a faint. The whole structure, I feel, doesn’t make sense. Rather, it feels as if James is slowly trying to introduce the sense that something wrong and frightening has happened, but the effect is to lessen, not increase, the fright. With TV, you can fix this: you can show the events as they happen, rather than describing them further down the line.

I realise, in writing this, that I’ve given lots of examples of what I don’t like in James’s writing, without really giving very concrete examples of how to write a good ghost story. That will, to be honest, have to wait for another day, because this essay is already as long as it needs to be. I’m also very aware that above I’ve criticised two of James’s stories for ending with a short additional paragraph that just doesn’t need to be there, so I’m doing my very best to avoid committing the same sin myself. Part of me thinks that, if I do know what makes the perfect ghost story, maybe I should try to write one myself at some point over the Christmas break. Watch this space, and we’ll see if I do.

* It was the Wordsworth Classics edition back when Wordsworth Classics were only £1 each.