I’m not a fan of ‘dark’ tales, of Gothic literature (not even Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley) though I did have a teenage period when I was crazy about Dennis Wheatley‘s occult novels (anyone remember The Devil Rides Out, his first, and the first I read?) – not quite the same thing but certainly scary. (The film ‘The Exorcist‘ cured me of that, sometime in the ’70s I think, and I’ve never watched or read the like since). However, as the meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, was a few days before 31 October we were set to write a ‘Halloween story’. I dislike what ‘Halloween’ has become too so I said I’d prefer to write around a real English tradition, a November 5th story.

Last year I did attempt a ‘dark’ story so I asked one of our newer members (Jo Campbell) to read it and give an opinion as she’s a fan of Gothic literature and writes ghoulish tales. As she is a relative newcomer to blogging I was delighted that about a week ago she extended her sparse blog to include things like her story (not ‘dark’ at all) for our ‘performance’ at the Ilkley Literature Festival, which has to be my favourite from the night. Her blog is here.

As she liked my tale from last year (suggesting one amendment, which I’ve made) I decided to try another. This is below. Last year’s, Hallow’morrow, is under the ‘Short stories’ menu.


Guy was puzzled. Forks in the road, with signposts clearly indicating the way to his destination, never seemed to get him there. In fact, it was just one fork and the third time he’d arrived at it. He was feeling ever more cold though wearing warm cycling gear and it was not yet winter, being only the beginning of November, the 5th of November to be precise.

He’d set off from his flat in Gillygate in York, close to where St. Peter’s School had been when attended by the best remembered gunpowder plot conspirator, with the idea of visiting the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy; there was a ruined church, parts of which were medieval, and really old gravestones, which were particularly interesting to him.

He didn’t take his road bike as he’d decided to take a cross-country route from the still populated village of Wharram le Street rather than the usual advertised walk from the English Heritage car park. However, the gear change on his off-road bike had been playing up recently so he decided not to go directly via Malton but to make a detour to Easingwold and call in on bikeWright to see if they could fix the gear problem. 

The Easingwold shop had repaired the gear change but it took far longer than he’d planned. By the time he arrived in Malton the light was already fading and a typical November mist was thickening. He debated with himself whether it might be better to go directly home from Malton but he had excellent lights on the bike, chosen for riding off road in the dark, and a powerful flashlight in his backpack so, thinking a tour of the ruined church with no-one else around might be fun, he continued. He set off down the B1248 and was soon in Wharram le Street. Having taken Station Road as he remembered from the map, it was not long before he’d reached the fork with a signpost to Wharram Percy, though he almost missed it in the deepening gloom.

When he first set off down the narrow lane signposted to Wharram Percy there was still a little light so he was surprised when he seemed to arrive back at the fork. He had not seen any turning, signposted or not, since leaving the spot. “I must have missed it in the gloom,” he muttered and set off again.

On the second visit to the fork he recalled catching a glimpse of a billboard announcing that Catesby Estates had acquired a field near the fork for a new estate. “Many people would be scared to go out at night in such an isolated place,” he thought, “Strange how the notice has disappeared – maybe it was further back than I remember, maybe it’s just the mist is a lot thicker now.”

He began down the lane for a second time, cycling very slowly, looking carefully to left and right. Finally he come to a fork with a sign post to Wharram Percy.

But it was the same fork. Of that he was sure.

Was someone or something trying to tell him he shouldn’t go there? Should he give up and carry straight on, to Stamford Bridge then home to York?

“Damned if I will,” he said aloud. “”I’ll give it one more go!”

He set off again. There was little light now but enough, he thought, to make finding the church worthwhile. The lane soon became something he did not recognise, trees on either side making it ever darker but the broad beam of his headlight picked out ruts and large stones to be avoided. “This isn’t bad,” he thought, “if only it were not getting so damned cold.” He shivered, despite the effort required on the rough track.

A large dark mass emerged out of the gloom without warning; it took him a moment to realise he was only a few yards from the church, the broken tower reaching out to a moon filtered by mist, a few dark clouds recalling scenes from a Hammer horror film. Spooky.

Then he saw them, a small group of figures, men.

“Damn!” he exclaimed softly. He had hoped to be alone.

“Must be some kind of event, or rehearsal for one,” he thought, noticing now that the figures were in cloaks, pointed hats and carrying flaming rush torches, not flashlights.

Laying his bike down he approached them but before he could say a word one of the group said loudly “Thither he is. Alloweth not him receiveth hence.”

The group surged forward, one grabbing his arms, another swiftly tying his wrists behind his back.

“Hey, I don’t know who the hell you think I am but I’m not part of your play or whatever it is. I just came to see the church.”

“Thou art Guy aren’t thee?” The question came from the man who seemed to be leader of the group.

“Yes but –“. His answer was cut off with a glare and a slap in the face, a hard slap. “Bid us, bid us, who is’t they wast.” He didn’t understand and the accent was one he didn’t recognise.

He must have been slapped very hard as the faces in front of him kept fading in and out, even disappearing for a few seconds. “He’ll not bid, Sir William;” said one. “Rack him!” shouted another.

He felt himself being bundled forwards, then up stone steps in the tower, his increasingly desperate protests: “This is crazy! I’m not who you think, I’m just a visitor, and it’s bloody dangerous to climb up here,” were ignored.

The group ceased pushing him upwards. There was now only a glimmer of light. He strained to refocus on what was directly in front. Some rope, a loop of rope. A hangman’s noose. Instinctively he took a step to the side to avoid putting his head in it.

A dog walker (Wharram Percy is a favourite place for dog walkers early morning) found him at the base of the church tower. He clearly had a broken neck. “The idiot must have tried to climb the tower in the dark,” the dog walker said to himself as he pulled out his mobile phone.


Wharram Percy is probably the best known deserted medieval village in Europe as a result of all the excavation and research which has been done there. It’s now an English Heritage site.

Did you pick up the clues ‘hidden’ in the story? Not difficult. A bit of self-indulgent fun on my part. Guy Fawkes avoided the hangman’s noose for his part in the 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords, with the king, either by jumping or falling from the scaffold (it is not known which) and breaking his neck.

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It’s difficult to believe that the leading UK cancer charities can be so thoughtless. Their advertising, bombarding sufferers frequently with reminders on both radio and television just is not helpful or supportive at all.

Start of Macmillan tv advertisement showing a dad reading a bedtime story to his small daughter

Lovely scene from the opening of a Macmillan advertisement

Of course it is probably more about money than anything. My reaction to charities spending vast amounts of money on advertising is just not to give them any. Similar considerations apply to those spending vast amounts of money on ‘rebranding’ or extraordinarily high executive salaries.

Leading cancer ‘support’ charities

Leading cancer charities? Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie. I’m sure they each do a good job, in fact I have reason to know this is the case with Marie Curie who supported my mother at the end of her life. But to bombard cancer sufferers daily with frequent reminders of their condition is anything but helpful.

Still from the advertisement above showing the dad being sick

Do cancer sufferers really need reminding how unpleasant chemotherapy can be

The worst I’ve seen is an advertisement with the tag line ‘A dad with cancer is still a dad‘. It is an ad by Macmillan. The clip begins with a dad telling his daughter a bedtime story; in my opinion that was all that was necessary. But then with a few flashes it shows him suffering as a result of chemotherapy, including a nurse telling him “it’s hard” and him vomiting in a wash basin.

What effect does the advertising team who came up with this, or the charity executives who approved it, think this has on someone facing chemotherapy?

I guess they don’t think as long as the money keeps rolling in.

As I wrote in a recent post, I have begun to learn a little Japanese using Duolingo. What attracted me in the first place was the promised ‘Learn Japanese in 5 minutes a day’. I cannot usually read the blogs I follow, let alone comment on them as I like to do, over my morning tea (Yorkshire tea of course!); the same often applies to messages received on Messenger. But something ‘useful’ I could do in those few minutes appealed to me so I installed the duolingo app on my iPad.

Ten lessons completed I can say that ‘learning Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ is not quite true; ‘Learn a little Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ would be more true.

Mistakes?

In the first two or three lessons I was repeatedly clicking the ‘report’ button when what I was hearing (the ‘characters’ are vocalised, which is great) did not seem to match up with the ‘spelling’, in English characters, of the sound. There did not seem to be anywhere any explanations of this, or of many other things encountered in the lessons, which further confused me.

Hiragana, hirakana – let’s call the whole thing off!

At the most basic, each of the groups of ‘5 minute lessons’ is titled ‘Hiragana #’ but what on earth is Hiragana? It’s not the obvious ‘Lesson’ but a Japanese syllabary script, one component of the Japanese writing system. Note the “one component”!

However, there are only 48 Hiragana ‘characters’, so that doesn’t sound too bad. So, we are learning one Japanese syllabary script – Hiragana. Fine. Once you get the idea of using sounds rather than consonant plus vowel it’s not so bad, so vocalises as hi-ra-ka-na. I’m not going to get into the ‘ga’ being ‘ka’, there is no ‘ga’ as such, but you can understand why I was confused at the start.

Then, for some reason I cannot remember, I opened duolingo on my Macbook, not the ‘app’, and discovered another world. In particular I found there was a forum for each of the languages. So I posted a question on the Japanese forum, something like ‘Why are there so many mistakes in pronunciation?’. Almost immediately my question was answered (they were not ‘mistakes’) by other users. These answers made me trawl through many forum postings, by the end of which I knew much more about the Japanese language, and duolingo Japanese. That probably took me 12-24 5 minute lesson times.

Hang on! In the forum words like kana, kanji, katakana, are bandied about; what on earth are those? It turns out with research (thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia!) that kana are the syllabic Japanese scripts, including hiragana; katakana and kanji are others (note I didn’t say ‘the others’). I understand that to find your way about Japan, or to read a newspaper, you will have to learn about 2,000 Kanji ‘characters’, more complex like this 漢字 – that is ‘kanji’ written in kanji.

Put off?

I haven’t been but how much better it would have been if there was a short ‘introduction’ explaining these things, before you begin the lessons.

I don’t know whether some similar confusions exist for beginners with other languages; I could check with a language I know well – Romanian – or a few I know a little – French, Spanish, Italian – but to be honest I’d rather spend the time exploring other sources for the Japanese.

Not a classroom learner

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

I have never been good at learning languages in the classroom but picked up the essentials rapidly when living in, or visiting frequently, the respective country (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), but forgot them equally rapidly when that was no longer the case. So a little further down the road I’ll take the opportunity to speak with other learners or, if possible, Japanese natives.

When it comes to learning kanji, I’ll resort to what I did for my Romanian wife when she first came to the UK with no more than 8 words of English – cover the fridge in stickers, in her case common words, for me kanji ‘characters’. I already write the hiragana in a note book as I’m doing the lessons and I’ll begin to do that correctly following the guide I’ve found (see picture above).

It’s unlikely I’ll visit Japan again (I was there for about 2 weeks in the late ’60s). However, even now, ten lessons in, I see why I came to the conclusion instinctively, as I posted here, that ‘haiku’ written in English are not haiku at all. If my learning efforts allow me to write a haiku in Japanese with which I am satisfied it will all have been worthwhile.

Photo of the Rex Cabernet Sauvignon bottleI can hardly believe that it’s taken me until now to discover Slovenian wine. Several decades ago, when I was a bit ‘wealthier’ than now, I used to buy ‘Grand cru’ wines by the case at auction. Despite this level of interest in wine I’d never heard of Slovenian wine. Shame!

I’d probably have passed by this odd-shaped bottle (red wine) had it not been for following a Slovenian writer/blogger for the past couple of years. That being so, I bought a bottle for interest (Vinakoper Rex Cabernet Sauvignon), quite prepared to find that it was rubbish. What a revelation: intense red, for me (and Petronela and our Saturday evening supper guest) just the right level a tannin coming through all the fruit. Just wonderful. I’ve since researched Slovenian wine and found that this tiny country is among the world’s earliest wine producers (also home to the world’s oldest fruit bearing vine, 400+ years old) turning out top class wines , particularly white wines but not exclusively, obviously. My ignorance is not entirely my fault; evidently until recently little was exported – they drank it all themselves.

From what I’ve read, the vintage I bought (2013) is probably not the best; it seems that 2012 is better so that must be astounding. Sadly, returning to buy another couple of bottles it was no more.

Better than Mary Berry? Did I dare to say that?

Photo of Six of the dozen soft hamburger rolls I made

Six of the dozen soft hamburger rolls I made

Having begun a ‘foodie’ blog, which I haven’t done for some time, I’ll continue but no recipes (though links to a couple), just a run down of our Saturday supper. As the ‘foodies’ among you will know, I rarely follow recipes to the letter but this time I did: Stefane’s grandmother’s Vichyssoise, which cannot be bettered; soft hamburger rolls from Veena Azmanov (they tasted great, beautifully soft, though too soft and sticky a dough to form well – I think I’d add more flour next time). My hamburgers are always based on ‘Biftek haché à la Lyonnaise‘ from Julia Childs, but never quite the same.

Really wicked chocolate mousse

For dessert I started with Mary Berry‘s ‘Wicked chocolate mousse‘ but made it a little more ‘wicked’. For my taste, Petronela’s and our guest’s I think even better than the celebrity cook’s version, less sweet, more intense chocolate taste and with a kick. How? Substituting 85% cocoa chocolate for 40% of the ‘plain chocolate’ specified by MB and dosing it with a little chilli. I served it with fresh strawberries. I’d recommend it.

The Slovenian wine would go well with anything like a steak or game, or such an intense chocolate dish.

My love affair with the fountain pen has continued and having written my first poem with it I’ve now hand written my first story with it and, what is more, read from the exercise book draft at our writers’ club (Writing on the Wharfe) meeting earlier today. I’m not sure I’ve finished with the story yet but I’m putting it below.

The result of my first couple of Japanese lessons, written in the same exercise book as the story posted here

The result of my first couple of Japanese lessons, written in the same exercise book as the story posted here

As I’ve also just begun to attempt to learn Japanese, having used the pen has given me an urge to write the Japanese characters with a calligraphic brush. Maybe later.

My writers’ club colleagues asked me why I’d suddenly decided to try to learn Japanese. Two motivations: a bit of new brain exercise; as followers of this blog will know I sometimes try to write haiku but recently came to the conclusion, as I posted at the time,  that they could only be written in Japanese so I don’t think any of the large numbers in English on internet are haiku, including my own.

I digress. Here’s my story:


The warm feeling flooded into his throat. He was surprised when it spread to his groin. He tried to see if the rather lovely young radiologist was touching him but he could not; the giant doughnut machine was in the way, just his head out on the side he could see.

“Are you feeling the warm sensation?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s rather pleasant,” he answered.

“Good. I’ll be back in a minute. Any problem just say; I can hear you.”

He strained to look to his right and could just see the cannula taped on the inside of his elbow, his blood making a pretty pattern under the transparent tape holding it in place.

“It’s just a dye,” she had said.

“Just!” he said to himself with a smile; “I reckon they’ve mixed it with Viagra.”

“Breathe in and hold your breath.” A different voice, female, gentle but with some authority.

A short time passed. “Breathe normally,” said the voice.

He slowly let the breath go and sank into a sleepy torpor as first his chest then, one by one, other parts of his body relaxed.

He sensed the table on which he was lying moving back through the doughnut until the whole of his body was outside the machine.

He felt someone lifting the flimsy surgical gown and sliding down his boxer shorts, which he’d been told to keep on.

“What’s going on,” he asked as that warm feeling began to return, not in his throat but in that place lower down. His throat was becoming dry . He swallowed hard as he felt something soft and warm cover first one of his thighs, then the other. Skin on skin he thought.

That gentle voice again.

“Don’t you move,” she said.

“My God, it must have been Viagra,” he thought.

“Hey, wake up, you’re not supposed to go to sleep in there.”

That gentle voice again, a little more urgent, penetrated his dream, just as it was getting interesting.

—–

My draft of my entry for the Ilkley Literature Festival, handwritten with the ‘new’ blue and black fountain pen. It was only copytyped on the iPad when finished, a couple of hours before the ‘performance’. I’ll hopefully grt the two ‘attic gems’ working soon.

My draft of my entry for the Ilkley Literature Festival, handwritten with the ‘new’ blue and black fountain pen. It was only copytyped on the iPad when finished, a couple of hours before the ‘performance’.
I’ll hopefully get the two ‘attic gems’ working soon.

I just made a breakthrough in my writing. I picked up a fountain pen.

I had not handwritten anything other than short notes since writing to my mother when I was first in Romania in 1993 and had no access to a computer; even then it was with a ballpoint. I found it very difficult, having been used to a computer for the previous ten years, and a typewriter before that, since becoming a journalist in the early ‘60s.

How welcome a handwritten ‘letter’ was

What prompted me to move to handwritten was the reaction of my former student Paula, now a Romanian high school teacher of English, to a handwritten note included in a packet I sent to her (one of my ‘attic gems’ – a special English course I wrote when teaching in Romania). She said it was wonderful to receive a handwritten ‘letter’. I promised to ‘keep in touch’ with handwritten letters from time to time (among brief encounters on Messenger) and as two more of my ‘attic gems’ were fountain pens I decided to go the whole hog and go to fountain pen. The two old ones were not working (I intend to fix them) so I acquired a new one.

Transformation

Having begun the first letter to Paula during the time I had to write my contribution to our writers’ club ‘performance’ at the Ilkley Literature Festival, I began to scribble my ‘poem’ in a primary school exercise book with the fountain pen. What a transformation!

Ideas tumbling out of the fountain pen

Firstly, the ideas tumbled out like never before. Secondly, I began to do something I’ve said I almost never do – edit what I’ve written, neither during nor after writing (this comes from journalism where I almost always had no time to edit – often writing as many as 60 stories a week including one or more long features). With the fountain pen I found myself crossing out, writing alternative lines, jotting down ideas as they came, making lists of rhyming words as I was following Lewis Carroll’s ABAAB rhyming scheme. All very strange to me.

Even stronger urge to write

Now, the urge to write ‘creatively’ is far stronger with a fountain pen in my hand. I wonder if this will bring my ‘novella’ out of it’s long hibernation. Or even extend it to be a novel.

This writing by hand doesn’t extend to what you might call ‘non-creative’ writing, like writing blog posts. Those are still written on the the iPad (more rarely on the MacBook). So this post is written on the iPad, as will be most future posts, but if they include some ‘creative writing’ you can be pretty sure that will have been written first on paper, with a fountain pen. The only disadvantage of writing by hand is that to include hand written pieces  in something ‘digital’ they have to be typed up on a digital device.

PS. My first, 10 page, letter to Paula, composed over a couple of weeks, was posted on Saturday morning.

I’d  be really interested to hear from others whether the medium with which they write influences their writing, particularly use of a fountain pen (or not).

You can read my finished ‘poem’ on a previous post, or hear me read it on the post of 5 October.

The inevitable 'group photo' after the performance - l to r: Jo, Sam, me, Kayla, Ruxandra, James, David, Bob, Johm, Martin and Sussi

The inevitable ‘group photo’ after the performance – l to r: Jo, Sam, me, Kayla, Ruxandra, James, David, Bob, Johm, Martin and Sussi

Youtube videos – over the past few days I’ve gained a lot of admiration for those who seem to roll them out regularly. Earlier I’d done a little editing of photos from our ‘performance’ at the Ilkley Literature Festival for my previous blog post. A doddle! But editing video is something else, for me.

Wanting to put titles, end credits, etc on the just over an hour of our writers’ club ‘performance’ at the Festival, I discovered I’d forgotten much of how to use my graphics program and video editor (2 years or more since I used them). An added complication was that one contribution to our ‘show’ (the first in order of appearance) had been entered into a competition for which rules state no previous publication or broadcast, so I had to take that out before making it ‘public’. Another cut had to be made for another reason so I had to work out how to make this not too ugly.

Superb flamenco guitar

If you appreciate superb guitar playing (Samuel Moore) it’s worth watching the video (our complete ‘performance’, with writers, lasted just about an hour).

Some good short stories

If you’re a writer you may enjoy our club writers reading their own pieces. If you want to avoid me reading mine (published in my previous post) I’m now ‘first up’ in the video as the first on the night has been cut at the writer’s request.

Of course I use only free programs, open source or those offering free basics but the possibility to pay for advanced facilities, which I do not. When in paid employment I used Adobe programs like Indesign, Photoshop and occasionally Illustrator, but I never needed to edit videos.

Scribus and NCH VideoPad

The graphics/publishing program I use now, Scribus, is excellent but rather quirky and with a steep learning (relearning) curve. Much the same can be said of the the video editor, NCH VideoPad. What I didn’t expect was the 2 hours 20 minutes to convert the VideoPad file (for a video of just over one hour) to something suitable for uploading to Youtube (.mp4). Maybe that’s down to my ancient MacBook. Even less expected was the 4+ hours to upload to Youtube (finally I went to bed and left it to it so it could have been much longer).