‘Clearout’ Origins and Variants

Clearout, initially called ‘Visions’, just started out of thin air, almost as a quick exercise to get my brain into writing mode. It then went quite a long way, grew legs and I liked the idea.

But it didn’t start out in the form it is in now. Or rather it started much as it does now, but it transitioned in style half way through from indirect narrative to direct speech and back and forth between. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it felt stylistically choppy and as if there should have been some plot point for the difference between the times I was using direct and indirect speech and there wasn’t really. It was simply a change of style, probably because I got up for a cup of coffee or to answer the door to the postman.

As well as my concern (easily remedied) about the direct/indirect style problems, I have my doubts about the ending, it feels a bit twee and cosy. I think there are good reasons for that but they don’t necessarily make a good story. Or perhaps the ending is okay but there is a lack of real jeopardy in the storyline.

I suspect that is because the basic idea, the odd visual effect is a real thing I have been experiencing and this story started not as an intended complete narrative but as an exercise that grew.

The sense of unease and vague unfinished business is of course made up and something I wanted to push it a little or there wouldn’t be a story at all. If I were doing it as a longer piece then the apparition or vision would be more worrying  and feel more threatening over a greater time.

Alex appears as something of a deus ex machina in solving the identity of the problem in one go and Irvine reacts after a bit of shock with admirable perspicacity and immediate action to solve the issue (we think). I would probably work on this much more over time to string out the jeopardy and the solution.

As it was I felt I would run with what I had.

I changed to all indirect speech and a slightly detached viewpoint and played around with bits of the middle which I didn’t save.

I will post the original changing style version later and then perhaps another version I did with all direct speech and some description.

I hope an exercise like this might be interesting in showing there are many ways of skinning a moggy and I may work this up into something more unnerving with a more tense denouement.

Maybe!

Thoughts on Perchance to Dream

I hope no-one thought the last post; ‘Perchance to Dream’ suggested any portents of doom chez Farrish. It didn’t (no more than usual anyway!). It came from an idea that popped into my head years ago when I had walked my son to school and was returning home to start work. He’s sixteen now so that must be at least five or six years ago. [I just checked the properties of the original file that contains the notes I made when I got home – I was a bit out in my guess – it was June 2013!] Here are the first lines of the note I made as sipped my cup of tea in front of the computer as I started my day’s work:

narrative of a life (short, but engaging) coming to a crisis – medical? Possible heart attack? Arrhythmia? Brief overview of how he got there – past work and personal relationships, marriage divorce, successes triumphs, failures. Building seemingly inexorably to this moment when life may be ending

Narrator wakes in hospital.

After that the notes develop into more complex versions of the narrative, none of which precisely mirror what came out in this short version. Initially as you can see it didn’t start with an awakening. There was a longer story of a life which suddenly experiences a traumatic event and unconsciousness from which the protagonist awakes and resets. It was a simple idea, and hardly original. It’s almost a Bobby Ewing moment (one of the stars of the eighties TV series Dallas left and his character killed off in an episode which drove the story arc for 31 episodes. And then the actor returned and the preceding 31 episodes were written off as a dream!].

One of the development ideas in my notes was that the protagonist realises he is younger than the previous narrative leading up to the emergency suggested he was. Is this a dream, a portent of what might happen if he doesn’t take another path? Does he have the choice still to make? What if he does something different? Can he remember the choice he made that led to the situation he was in when he became unconscious? Was it so bad and the alternatives so clearly better that he wants to change anyway? A sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ moment with an active choice.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. It may have been from the first time I suffered a bout of Atrial Fibrillation (AF), I see that AF, or more precisely arrhythmia, is mentioned as a possible trigger. Not that I lost consciousness or anything but it’s creative fiction right, not journalism. I didn’t realise my first AF had happened so long ago – but there it is, time stamped and unaltered.

I wonder if life looked a little bleak at that moment and I was thinking what might have happened had I made other choices. I don’t remember wanting to change anything much, and I’ve always found it a pointless exercise in reality. You can’t go back and change anything. You might not like where you are but you start where you are each day. The only changes you can effect start here and now. But as an intellectual exercise I have looked back. I would need to be a very unreflective person not to. My life has hardly been a straight line in career or personal development terms. One divorce, three or four careers, depending how you cut them up, lots of small jobs in between, remarried, three kids (one deceased) Moved house seventeen (?) times – lived where I am now for fifteen years, longest I’ve ever been in one place. Hard not to think what if I’d made different snap decisions over the years to the changes I’ve made at different times. So maybe that was the only origin of it: idle curiosity. Wondering what it would be like if what I was doing right then, walking home from that junior school, looking forward to a cup of tea and writing, turned out to be a moveable feast? If I woke up thirty years prior to that day and made a different choice? And how do you know it would turn out differently, or better?

I didn’t do anything with the idea. Probably because, as I said, the whole thing seems a bit nugatory to me. It can’t happen and although in creative fiction anything can happen, I probably didn’t feel invested in it enough compared with what I was doing at the time.

So why come back to it? And why write such a small thing when obviously it had legs to be bigger? The simple answer is that I came across the note in a list of ‘ideas’ I sometimes keep (not very assiduously) and decided it sounded interesting enough to play around with. The deeper answer to why I was looking, and why I picked this idea over any other frankly escapes me. I was just trawling for ideas.

This short version has turned slightly circular, which I don’t think I had in the original notes. As well as the ‘portent’ moment idea outlined above I had a version which started with waking from a near death experience, or at least the protagonist believing he was waking from one, living quite a long life after that and then waking from that to return to the first dream not in a circular situation but in a point in a narrative where it was no longer clear what was a dream and what was reality. I think this may well have been tied into some reading I was doing about the possibility of a multiverse of infinite possible existences. I still found the idea ‘cute’ and wanted to write something based on it but a quick version appealed rather than a long crafted piece as I wanted the pat on the back feeling of completing something. I have lots of ideas and stories in process but I wanted to progress something to an ‘end’ state simply for the mental hit of ‘completion’.

Having done that and kicked the concept around a bit, I have more desire to work on a longer version of the warning from the future idea. I’m glad I wrote this version as it helped crystallise some storylines for me. It feels a little derivative as it is perhaps, but it jump started my desire to write something based on it, reminded me to look at my ‘ideas’ folder more (and add to it. Note to self!).

And on the plus side, you didn’t have to watch 31 episodes of prime time 1980s TV which turned out to be completely irrelevant!

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME HERE

Unless you write exclusively fantasy, SF or historical fiction you should be listening. Listening to speech patterns in the street, cafes, pubs, clubs if you can hear a word and can bear nineteen year olds staring at you wondering what kind of pervert you are (spoiler – I can’t. I never did like clubs, too noisy, not my music, too vapid, so I abandoned attendance long before attracting the attentions of bouncers and scorn of punters). Even if you are writing fantasy, SF or historical fiction you should want your dialogue to sound believable.

Standard English changes more slowly than demotic, colloquial speech which in turn is much slower to mutate than the street slang of what used to be called youth culture. Some words emerge, flare into worldwide acceptance and die within months, sometimes even weeks, especially now with social media.  Unless you have a desperate desire to place a set of actions within a very tight time frame, and make it feel really specific to a certain youth culture, it’s probably best to avoid using too much if any, except as pastiche. As I said here recently, it’s not going to be current street talk by the time anyone reads it and if it is still in circulation it will have left the street and been absorbed into standard demotic.

Rhythms, pace, syntax, mark age and time very profoundly. I live in the world and try to keep my ears open and of course my own lexicon changes as a result, my speech patterns are definitely different than when I was in my teens. Having said that many words remain the same and some words have been cool, old hat, cool, sad, cool, old and cool again in my lifetime. I don’t think ‘cool’ is currently cool, but it has been on and off several times which gives, if not the lie, maybe pause for thought about my certainty regarding slang disappearing from the face of the earth within minutes of being coined.

And of course there is a difference between keeping an ear to the ground and using changing language forms in normal speech. There is no way I am going to use current slang except as a joke with my son or my daughter and her friends, although at twenty three I have taken delight in pointing out she is past knowing how ‘young people’ speak.

All this idle waffle was provoked by the current trend, of some months standing, of interviewees, on BBC Radio 4 news and current affairs programmes wasting time when asked a question, of first thanking the presenter for having them on ‘the show’. Then the interviewer thanks them for coming on and we maybe eventually get to the answer to the original question. What is the point of this faux politeness? All this should be done behind the scenes when the person is booked to appear. Time is short enough to get a point across on programmes without wasting it in a weird dance of manners. If it were a hangover from the 1930s I might shrug in irritation but this never happened until this year. It sits right up there with the politicians’ ‘clearly’ of the 1990s and the management idiots’ ‘going forward’ of the 2000s in meaningless annoyance in public discourse. Kids at least have the excuse of not knowing better, experimenting to find their voice, and their neologisms have the virtue of being ephemeral. Those seeking to enlighten and inform should know better.

Will I be taking heed and using this in writing? Probably, but only when I want to make a communications organisation look even more annoying and irrelevant than they are already. If the medium truly is the message I suspect we may be intellectually bankrupt.

And thank you for reading.

Sad Strange News

Strange day yesterday. Walking into the village to pick up a prescription for my wife I bumped into the grandmother of a friend of my son. Nothing very unusual there except it has been recently.

Her grandson and my son went to the same school from four until twelve. They played together, went swimming together at least once a week, and were inseparable. Even when he moved several miles away he still came and stayed with his ‘nan’ at weekends and went swimming on Fridays with my son and played with him the rest of the weekend.

They started seeing less of each other about three or four years ago for a whole raft of reasons on each side which made it practically difficult to see each other as much. And then Covid came along and everyone was shut up and isolated it became more and more difficult to meet. As a result, although his grandparents only live a couple of hundred metres away I saw less and less of them. Most of the boys’ communication became through electronic means – mostly via games consols and some texting. No longer required for lifts or pick ups at night I stopped wandering down to his nan’s and chatting about life.

I’ve been chatting to the family; grandparents, auntie, father and mother since the boys went to  school and we’d pick the kids up and walk back through the park and watch them falling off slides, swinging into each other and running around like kids do. Being an older dad it was easy to talk to the grandparents because we were roughly the same age.

 So when I almost literally bumped into his nan and we were talking yesterday, it all felt perfectly normal, slotting back into a routine like a comfortable pair of slippers. Until I realised the absence of one person from her list of people she was catching me up on. Grandson, son, daughter, granddaughter, no husband. Then she mentioned that her daughter had  moved back in with her so she wouldn’t be alone. That left two choices and at that point you have to ask if you know someone don’t you? I stumbled through the ‘Oh is your husband…’ and they aren’t divorced, the poor man died last October. Which made me feel bad on so many levels. I hadn’t realised was the  biggest one obviously, through the whole, well nobody told me, how bad an acquaintance am I, why didn’t my son’s friend mention it etc etc.

We did the whole, how awful, I’m so sorry, which is no less true for being a little trite. I didn’t know him as well as her but I liked him. She told me how it happened, very sudden and unexpected in his sleep and she is puling through. I said if there was anything I could do even at this late stage etc, and meant it and still do.

But niggling away was something odd and a bit worrying.

I could have sworn that I spoke to him recently. Not in the last few days or anything mad like that, but the place and the ambience is so clear it makes it very odd timing. I know exactly where it was, he was stood outside the local pub by the chairs and tables set out for customers. As I walked past I said hello and stopped and exchanged a few words.  I’d like to say it was something profound but it was simply the usual how’s things, boys all right, this weather’s weird type of thing. Particularly the weather, because it was sunny and warm not that usual in Wales. Which I had filed neatly away with the early warm spell this spring. Except obviously it couldn’t have been. Could it?

It’s one of those tricks of memory born of how we store information and associate circumstances – outside pub, warm weather, recent hot summer – association made. There were obviously warm dry days last summer and I’ve just missed the intervening six months out in my memory store. But it really feels a lot more recent than that.

I know it’s just one of those blips, like how people miss a man dressed in a gorilla costume crossing behind a video scene (google it) but boy does it seem as if it was three months ago not a year.

My respects to him and his family and I hope his grandson and my son remember they are good friends soon.

But it still feels like I saw him three months ago.

ABANDONED ANGELS?

Remember clapping for those ‘angels’ in the NHS two years ago?

I wrote a poem about it at the time and some thoughts based on the practice and the poem https://gfarrish.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/clapping-in-the-dark/

https://gfarrish.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/interpreting/

I didn’t clap myself. Not because I didn’t, or don’t, support the workers in the Health Service, I do.  But they aren’t ‘Angels’, they are human beings who need to eat and be warm. I was suspicious at the time that Government encouragement of this practice was likely to be the full extent of their appreciation of the efforts of key workers to keep the country going.

As I wrote at the time:

‘Clap by all means but remember that we need a health service that delivers care as needed regardless of ability to pay, by people we value: from Consultants via junior doctors, nursing staff through to ancillary staff. Remember it and be prepared to protect it now and in the future from those who want to turn it into a profit machine for their shareholders and CEOs. Clap for people, for human beings who rely on us as we rely on them. And make sure our respect remains part of normality when all this is over.’

I’m sure most people’s respect for those key workers remains as high as it was when they stood on their doorsteps. I’m not sure that includes the Government.

 Among many others who kept things running in those difficult times and are needed now, the RCN is due to ballot members for strike action in the autumn. That’s right, the Royal College of Nurses, the union in the nursing world which traditionally does not strike. Other unions in the health world have in the past taken a more confrontational approach to ensuring pay and conditions for their members. The RCN have generally been of the opinion that more can be achieved through quiet dialogue, understanding and negotiation behind the scenes. They finally seem to have run out of patience with being fobbed off with jam tomorrow for their vocation al dedication.

Shortfalls in nursing staff, extra hours demanded for the same eroded pay levels and terrible conditions have finally pushed them over the edge into unprecedented action. They haven’t of course decided to take industrial action, but the very idea that the RCN is balloting for it should give everyone, not least Government, pause for reflection.

I don’t like strikes, they show a failure to meet needs, by both workers and employers and that there is intransigence somewhere. Let’s hope the parties concerned in all industrial negotiations realise this and that we don’t need to see industrial action in particular in hospitals and surgeries. But we should remember that clapping fed no nurses, no children of nurses, nor kept them warm in winter. Clap if you must, but a practical show of appreciation; funding proper staffing levels, encouraging young people into training by bursaries, and paying them properly would go a long way to put some real muscle behind that applause, and would be at least as welcome.

No Bleeding Please, I’m not Hemingway.

I love quotations. Especially those pithy encapsulations of a point someone else wants to make. They know they need help and an argument from authority seems like a great idea to make you put aside those doubts you have that their thesis is essentially utter tosh. If Lincoln, Voltaire or Hemingway said it who am I to argue?

I was looking at online advice to help readers engage with blog writing. You know in the vague hope that I could discover an untrod path of the internet which held the Holy Grail of making people so enjoy your blog, no, my blog that they cannot resist coming back for more and telling all their friends, hell the world, to do the same. Unlikely I know, but wandering without algorithms telling you where to dig has a value all its own. The internet is too zoned and laned into keeping you in fixed areas now, and all because you once clicked on a couple of sites about piano tuning the ads, suggested sites and social media feeds all revolve around b****y pianos. A rant for another day perhaps. So I am pretty sure I didn’t find the answer to unlimited readers but I did come across a few helpful thoughts. Mostly however I found the combination of ads for courses that promise maximal seo (surely a bit dated?) and ‘how to write like …’ enter bestseller du jour, and the usual motivational rubbish presented in such a nauseating way that I want to rip my eyes out rather than follow the advice however good. So when I came across the advice to use motivational quotations, with examples, a smile lit up my face. I knew I could at least raise my spirits with checking a few of these.

The one I really liked and almost wish were true (spoiler alert I suppose I should have said there) was one attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

That sounds suitably Hemingway, macho in the face of adversity and a sly mocking tone. And yet it’s not is it?  This is a man who, say what you like about how his writing represents an outmoded model of maleness and what we expect a man to be, took part in war, was wounded, liked to shoot and hunt, was a keen fan of the bullfight and obsessed with the proximity of death and turned out a few good stories as well. So cool turn of phrase perhaps, but it does make him sound like a bit of a wuss.

I suppose you can interpret it in various ways which may reduce the negative effect. It’s obviously (?) not literal, if you bleed when you write I’d call a doctor. Metaphorically I suppose reliving the emotional hell of some experiences may make it feel like bleeding emotions out onto the page but…

It turns out my convoluted interpretations are unnecessary, I needn’t have worried. He didn’t say it. Or at least if he did he didn’t bother committing it to any page and neither did anyone else attribute it to him during his lifetime. Its origin probably predates Hemingway and several other writers have had this phrase or near relatives of it laid at their door for over a hundred years. More recent attributions include American sports journalist Red Smith and writer Paul Gallico. Hemingway knew Smith and admired his writing but there is no evidence of any cross pollination of this phrase from the one to the other.

For a much fuller pursuit of this ‘motivational’ quote see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/

 and https://www.hemingwaysociety.org/quotation-controversy-writing-and-bleeding

 I’ll have to think of some other way of getting views than sitting here bleeding, which frankly is a relief. Now where’s that matador cape?

RUSHDIE: EVEN LE CARRÉ NODS

I respect and admire John Le Carré as a writer of superlative fiction, not just an espionage genre writer but an incisive and revelatory examiner of our politics, international relationships and the human condition. I like most of what I have read of him as a man as well. There is one area however where I thought him naïve and his reaction so unlike him as to be unfathomable. As he is no longer around to explain, it may be unfair of me to expound on it. However I am so small a fry that even had he been with us, my views would not have crossed his radar let alone warranted a response, so I don’t feel it too unfair.

It’s about Salman Rushdie. Obviously not the unprovoked attack on him this weekend, as Le Carré was no longer with us to know about it. Rather it was his attitude to the reaction to the Fatwah issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie for his work ‘The Satanic Verses’. In 1989 Le Carré initially said he respected Rushdie’s stand and then said the longer he thought about it the less sympathy he had with Rushdie’s position. There was some suggestion at the time that this may have something to do with a review Rushdie wrote of Le Carré’s ‘Russia House’. In this Rushdie seemed to perpetuate the sneering that ‘literary’ authors have for ‘genre’ ones by saying, “Le Carré wants to be taken seriously … close – but this time anyway – no cigar.” As if the author of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” needed Rushdie’s imprimatur of seriousness.

Whatever the cause, the bad feeling continued in low key until in 1997 there was an exchange of letters, with interpolation from Christopher Hitchens, never one to pour oil on trouble waters, which fanned the flames. It degenerated a little into a tone not dissimilar to the exchanges on Newman and Baddiel’s ‘History Today’ television sketches.

The key phrase which I felt was oddly out of kilter with Le Carré’s general writing was this one:

“ My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

There surely is a law of modern post Enlightenment culture that ensures just that? Adherents of ‘the great religions’ (who decides which are great by the way? Is it a numbers game? Oldest first? Or what? Do ‘small’ religions have to put it up with being insulted?) are surely aware that their omnipotent god is big enough and omnipotent enough to sort things out without their earthly intervention? Apparently not. He also wrote that: “My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

Now Rushdie and Le Carré made up fifteen years or so later but Le Carré couldn’t just say sorry and move on. He added:” “I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand. Does that answer the larger debate which continues to this day?” And what was that larger debate in 2012?

“Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn’t answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can’t. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory.”

An easy trend? I wonder after Charlie Hebdo, the persecution of the teachers in Batley last year and not least what happened to Rushdie himself this weekend whether Le Carré would still write: “The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor – much as he would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.”

I think I’ll leave the last word to Salman Rushdie:

“John le Carre is right to say that free speech isn’t an absolute,” he added. “We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend. I’d always thought George Smiley (le Carre’s most famous character) knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.”

LOST CLICHÉS

I recently found this short silly piece I wrote in response to a workshop talk on ‘Clichés. It wasn’t intended to refute the idea that we should avoid cliché, rather it was a paean of praise to those phrases which roll so well off both tongue and pen that they rise to the hallowed heights of universal usage; i.e. cliché. I think this is mildly amusing as it is and it was only ever intended as a short piece to loosen the atmosphere at the next meeting. But as I read it, neatly filed in ‘exercises’ I was filled with an unsettling feeling that this wasn’t really it. The more I ignored it, the more bits of the rest came back to me. There was definitely more. Indeed I can remember bits of narrative; going upstairs, a fight, emerging from the house now surrounded by police. But can I find a longer version?

No.

I’ve given up searching. I’ve checked my file records for this blog, I’ve had a trawl through it online, I’ve searched key sections on Google, I’ve racked my brains for what I might have called a longer version and looked through my electronic files but I can’t find anything even close.

It’s not something I’m going to work on to make a story, the plotting was entirely subservient to the form but I’d quite like to find it if only to see what other clichés I managed to think of and squeeze in.

In the meantime:

In a nutshell, the unvarnished truth was, the place scared the wits out of me. But as my father always said, I’m as stubborn as a mule, so I held my head up high and put my best foot forward. It was my moment of truth and I had to make the best of a bad situation. Girding my loins despite my knees knocking like a pair of castanets I raised the knocker and let it fall with an ominous thud.

Answer came there none, but taking my life in my hands I pushed open the door. It gave an eldritch scream and the hairs on the back of my neck rose on end.

‘Is there anybody there?’ I shouted into the echoing void. A deathly silence greeted my enquiry. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I thought, and taking the bull by the horns I crossed the point of no return. I let the door swing closed behind me and as I did so the guttering candle that lit my way sputtered into oblivion in the draught.

Icy fingers played along my spine, and an iron fist clenched around my heart, scaring me stiff. Not a second too soon I remembered it isn’t over ‘til the fat lady sings and in the nick of time I found my lighter. The candle once more cast an ethereal glow, chasing the shadows into far corners.

‘That was too close for comfort’ I said to myself and wished I had had the sense I was born with and hit the trail right there and then. It was no good. I was already in too deep and I had to push on. Staying still was going backwards and if I didn’t have the guts to find the cure, going forwards I’d find myself with full blown Acquired Politician Expression Syndrome all over me.

Ivan’s Lost Library Card

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I have been going through old files, both electronic and physical, recently. Mostly this has been to make sure the copies of works I am sending off are indeed the latest definitive, edited copies. Sometimes it is because I am looking for those copies that I know I have made but they don’t appear to be in the correct folder for some arcane reason. But occasionally it has just been because I found an old USB drive lurking with no indication of what is one it.

I’m always hopeful when I slot one of these drives into the computer and flick through the folders and files that I may have written a bestseller of some description and forgotten it. You know how you do; it’s late, you’ve been dotting the Is and crossing the Ts on the next Harry Potter, John  Le Carré, Lee Child or perhaps a literary masterpiece that is going to make War and Peace look like an Alistair MacLean knock off. You hit save and go to bed nursing your cocoa. The next morning it’s kids to school, maybe off to work or a school governors’ meeting, come home, cook, homework with the kids, watch a film with your spouse/partner/significant other, and then what was it you were going to do next? Put the cat out?  Bins? That reminds me, bin night tonight. And before you know where you are its five years later and you are about to experience the greatest discovery since the unwrapping of Tutankhamen. (not original – ‘since the unwrapping of Tutankhamen, only twice as ‘orrible’ I am sure was from a Tony Hancock sketch but as I can’t find it on the internet I may steal it (include it as an homage).

It hasn’t happened yet, but I live in hope. So when I opened a folder called rather too plainly for my liking ‘Story Ideas’ I had some hopes, but not overly so. When I saw a file labelled ‘Fire destroying’ I was however genuinely intrigued. It’s not often a file name leaves me totally blank. Normally there is a quick flash of recognition and perhaps excitement as the memory of the rudimentary outline of the idea flicker across the old synapses. But this was one such occasion. Fire destroying sounded ominous if a little lacking in syntactical coherence. Only one thing for it.

Fire destroying/destroyed (?) artefacts of great value/antiquity/personal history in warehouse fire/destruction/accident/natural catastrophe

My possessions stored and went up in flames, books, family possessions heirlooms. Sense of both loss and catharsis. Didn’t have to make difficult decisions about what to keep, what to get rid of, how to get rid of them. Avoided the guilt of destroying good things, selling things I knew had been precious to my father and mother and grandparents.

Is it possible to use this situation/personal ambivalence to what appears at first sight a horrible event in a bigger picture story or should the small scale personal loss be a mirror for things like the loss of the great library at Alexandria?

Someone with goods in store has dream about the fire at the library of Alexandria and wakes to receive a phone call about the loss of their goods in a warehouse fire?

More about Alexandria?

Ivan the Terrible’s library?

Not a fully formed movie script, Costa Prize winner or Richard and Judy after thought then. But intriguing nonetheless. Alexandria was nothing new, the story of the first (?) major library in the world, including of course all those masterpieces of the esoteric arts, destroyed and what if any saved dispersed throughout the ancient world has sparked my imagination and many other writers before me. Hunts for the original Clavicule of Solomon which spawned all the Renaissance copies/forgeries abound. Egyptian books of the dead and more, Sumerian codices etc. But let’s be honest, most aren’t literature in any shape or form and although I like a good hokey ancient mystery/horror it feels like overly tilled thin dusty soil.

But Ivan the Terrible’s Library? I didn’t remember writing this note. Nor did I remember as I read it what on earth it was. To Wikipedia! I do pay a few quid occasionally to keep it going. Yes I am that one person who falls for Jimmy Wales’ recurring pleas for a couple of quid (well a tenner these days). Having stumped up the cash recently I was less than enthused with the entry for Ivan’s book box.

It wasn’t his, it was about 800 books and it may never have existed. Not the most promising of starts! There was also the problem that it is the subject, not just in Wikipedia I may say, indeed probably least of all in that, to that alarm bell ringing phrase ‘It is said that…’ with a good helping of ‘It is believed to have been…’ and not a little ‘scholars have suggested…’, without any hint as to who any of these sayers, believers or suggesters actually are.

The good thing about this is that you can fairly comfortably make up anything you like about this as a result. There’s the ‘possibility’ that Ivan the Terrible added to the collection of his grandmother (assuming it existed in the first place including Chinese scripts. The problem of course is that people already have made a lot up – see Chinese scripts for a start and one wonders about coming up with a satisfying melange of scary possibilities and reality when the reality is so thin to start with.

I remain intrigued however. The trick with these things is not to fall down the rabbit hole of research and end up writing a history book cum esoteric primer. Given there is virtually no history of the ‘library’ I may find it easier to avoid that particular labyrinth than usual.

CHARLIE YATES: BELATED THANKS

Someone online recently asked me rather pointedly how much longer I thought I would be around. It wasn’t done in a solicitous manner.

Now I’m not bothered by his desire for me to shuffle off this mortal coil asap. It was said because I was annoying them, deliberately as it happens, over a stupid campaign of hate he is waging on someone else. I was quite please with the effects of my opposition to his bullying. It had obviously got under his skin.

So far so social media – although this is on rather an obscure platform and is not going to join any of the vaunted Twitter Wars, thank goodness – but it did make me consider time frames for mortality.

If this were as a new thing I’d probably score one for my ‘opponent’, but it is a thought that has crossed my mind for some years. You get to a certain age and you do don’t you? Don’t you?

Well I did, and do.

I suspect it first hit me that I wasn’t going to live forever was when the father of a friend of mine called at our house one early evening in July 1974. His son had just returned from a climbing expedition in the Dolomite mountains and he wanted to let me know that his climbing partner and my school friend Charlie Yates (Charles David Halton-Yates) had just been killed in a climbing accident on that expedition. Thankfully Tim was physically okay, but he had the trauma of seeing Charlie die. He still climbs I believe.

I was numb. We hadn’t been friends that long despite us being at the same school, but we had plans to meet up after his return from climbing and before we went off to university.

The ‘what might have been’ of that friendship has stuck with me ever since that day.

It also alerted me to the fact that despite that feeling of invincibility we both had at nineteen with the world at our feet, that we were in reality quite fragile beings in the greater scheme of things.

Since then of course I was lucky enough to go on and have many more opportunities to test how fragile, and fortunately so far survive relatively unscathed.

It would have been easy in many ways to overreact to that warning shot across the bows from fate and take as many precautions as possible. I certainly toned down my aspirations to climb and stuck with hill walking and scrambling as my adrenalin producers. It didn’t stop me doing other things though; playing rugby, lifting weights, running, hill running, long distance walking, and taking interesting jobs here and there that entailed a measure of risk. So a few broken bones – nose, thumb, cheek bone, collarbone, ribs – sprains, muscle tears, a couple of hundred stitches, knocked out teeth (only one missing in the end – I bit the others back into their sockets, which surprisingly- 40 odd years later still there – works better than you might think) and a couple of serious concussions and I’m good. And I enjoyed whatever games, exercise, work I was doing when I got them, which is more the point than a catalogue of injuries. I certainly wasn’t bored.

I don’t know how much I owe to Charlie, but I suspect a lot. The months before he died were great getting to know him and I remember a chat in the school Reference Library just before summer when we talked about plans for the next year. One of the feelings he imparted was that anything was possible and you should give life a good try before it was over. Tragically his ended all too soon, but while he was here he lived according to his beliefs and gave an example to us all not to waste our time on earth. That gave me a little courage to go and try and do the same. I wasn’t as adventurous as Charlie but I’ve had a far more interesting life for having known him, however briefly.

So the answer to my internet interlocutor is, dunno mate!

Probably not as long as I had hoped when I was running up hills or lifting weights, but longer than I feared at other times when I found myself in sticky situations.

But if it were tomorrow I’ve enjoyed it far more than I could have imagined, and in no small part that is thanks to the inspiration Charlie Yates gave me all those years ago.

Thanks Charlie, RIP.