Friday, 30 December 2016

Two contrasting poems to round off the year. The first is based on a Christmas party many years ago, or at least my memory of it. The second will set a few linguistic puzzles for non-Scots speakers. Pageview stats tell me I've got lot of readers, or at least viewers, in the US. Best of luck, guys!

Christmas Party Afterglow

The beach at Aberdeen begins to wake
as morning-after leaves the night-before.
We race the sea through moon-edged shadows, jump
the ripples in sea-wee’d shoes and wonder why
our drunken laughter slips on wetted sand
and why the world looks better upside-down.

We left the party draped about the room,
all snoring in a non-existent chord.
But Robbie and I still buzzed with energy.
We could not let this party drift and sink.
And so we sang a farewell to the night,
then raced the waking day along the beach.

Hogmanay Blues
First-fittin’ aul’ freen’s at the turn o’ the year
Brings mony a lach an aft a wee tear.
A’ nicht we stagger fae stairheid tae hoose,
Swappin’ banter wi’ strangers an’ quines on the loose.

Ower tae Torry tae see Auntie Nell.
Then, quick, on the bus! Get awa’ fae the smell.
Up tae the West End far Jeremy bides;
He wis Jezza in Northfield, oor Meggie confides.

Noo wir bottles o’ fusky are teem’t oot, ma son
An’ we rummle wir pooches fer crumbs o’ black bun,
We’re totally founert an’ ma stummick’s gey queer,
Bit we’ll dae it a’ ower again the next year.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Growing the Page

Something (or rather, a lot of someones) is lifting this blog into a range of viewing figures I have not seen before. I can't pretend it's breaking any records in the blogging world, having read about some blogs with pageview figures in the millions range, but it is on the up. It may not yet be in the fast lane, but it's edging nearer the slip road onto the motorway.

     Whoever you are, thank you for reading, or at least glancing at, what I have to offer. If you'd like to offer a comment as well, complimentary or carping, dogmatic or derisory, I'd be delighted. 

     I was going to wait till New Year before posting anew, but received wisdom says one needs to post regularly, at least once a week, to keep and grow readership.

     So here's a little piece of whimsy to launch this blog into 2017.

McGill's Last Laugh

'Leave it, Vince! You ain't gunna look at every bloody postcard, are yer?' 
     'Nah, just these. I'll meet you at the chip shop. Nothin's startin' before two o'clock. I'll be there on the beach, to give the Mods a good kicking.' 
     Just the usual seaside postcards - fat old ladies, skinny blokes and cheeky kids – except one was different. There was this bloke done up like a pirate and a snooty old woman looking shocked. I forget the joke; what made me look again was that the pirate was advertising “Treasure Trips Round the Bay”. 
     Every other card in the rack card said clearly “Pleasure Trips”; I checked 'em. Only one said “Treasure”. Under that were two squiggly lines like tiny writing. I bought that card and a magnifying glass.  
     I sat on the bench outside and peered at the lines. They said: “I n the bay that's owned by no living man, on an island that rowers will understand.” On the back of the card was printed “Blackstone 14YN22NE.X,” like a catalogue number or something. No other card had that.
     What was all that about? I remembered reading Treasure Island when I was a kid. I tried to tell myself to be sensible. Nobody finds treasure maps, these days. Or do they?  
     I forgot all about meeting up with the gang, forgot about the Mods and their dopey anoraks and their putt-putt lawnmower Lambrettas. I kicked the Matchless into a roar and headed back to the Smoke, breaking the speed limit most of the way. 
     I hardly slept that night. In the library Monday morning, I chased up the librarian for atlases and lists of places – gazetteers, she called them. Didn't stop for a coffee, had nothing to eat. It was well after three before I got lucky. 
     I'd been looking for the name of an island that might have something to do with rowing - Oar Island, Crew, Stroke, Bow, even Oxford or Cambridge Island. That librarian was giving me the old "You again?" treatment when I kept asking for more maps. Then one name jumped out of the page: Skull Island, same sound as scull in rowing. It was in the Caribbean, a little dot south of Puerto Rico, so small there were no maps of it.  
I had to sell the bike to pay for the trip. A one way ticket. I finally got to a place from where I could see this Skull island. The locals told me nobody lived on it but there was a place called Dead Man's Bay.  
     I'd found it! My treasure.  
     Old Diego took me across in his little boat. I left him on the beach gutting a fish he'd caught. I headed inland and started to search. I'd worked out the code long ago. It didn't take long to find a black rock in a clearing. From there I paced out 14 yards north and 22 northeast and started to dig. I heard Diego shouting, 'Da fish, she cooked, man!' just as my spade struck something hard. I cleared the earth away and dragged out a wooden box. The hinges were almost rusted away and I broke them easily. 
     There was no treasure.  
     There was only a giant postcard, sealed in wax paper, showing that same leering pirate and the snooty woman, and he's saying, 'Oi never said “treasure”, lady. Oi said Oi'm after me pleasure!' 
     I never did go home. 'Course I was disappointed at first, but, you know what, these people took me in as if I was one of their own.  
     I can sit on the beach now with my Josefina. I love to smell the perfume in her hair while she tells me how it'll be when we get married. I helped to build the church, you know. We're going to live in the house that the villagers are getting ready for us. 
     You know what I'm doing to earn some dosh? Don't laugh. I'm teaching English. Me, from South London! The kids'll all grow up speaking like Bob Hoskins. 'Oskins, more like. 
     The Mods can rule over all the beaches in England if they want, and you know what, I don't give a hairy parka. 
     I've found the only treasure I need. 

Donald McGill was a cartoonist whose saucy seaside postcards have become collectable.
The Mods (Moderns) wore anoraks (or parkas) and rode mopeds or scooters; the Rockers were black-leather bikers who despised the Mods. In English seaside resorts during the summer of 1964 there were pitched battles between the gangs.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Last offering of the year. See you, whoever you may be, in 2017.

First Christmas

I didn’t expect this. I don’t suppose anyone does. But there’s a difference with me: Somehow I know what's happening. Others in this situation aren’t even  aware of it, except in the most basic way.
     Well, I can’t do anything about it now – just got to accept it. I’ll play along just now, pretend I’m like all the others doing the same thing tonight. You’d think Dad would have warned me, given me some hint what was in store.
     The smell, for instance. I’m not sure I can stop myself throwing up. What kind of place is this? It stinks. To be honest – and forgive me if I’m causing offence – but it smells of shit. It’s not people-shit, I know that much.
     And the noise! Whatever these creatures are, they are not being quiet about it. There’s a great hairy thing with a huge head making such a racket right beside my ear. Braying. Yes, that’s the only word for it. And an even bigger, stupid-looking thing with horns, breathing all over me and trying to lick me with a huge floppy tongue.
     Who are all these people coming in now, gawping at me? They smell too, probably been out in the fields all night. Did they run all the way here just to see me? Am I worth all this fuss? 
     I certainly don't need all this gold and incense that the latest visitors have brought.
     I mean, there I was, warm and snug as you like, floating around,not even needing to breathe, a soft rhythmic beat to soothe me, all the nourishment I needed, not a care in the world.  Then without warning, I found myself pushed out into a world of noise and stench and pain.
     I felt some pain, yes, but nothing like hers. Poor girl, she was howling with it, right up till the moment I popped out and took over. Well, she’s only young. Perhaps she’s never felt pain like that before. I don’t know her yet but I know she belongs to me and I belong to her.
     I haven’t opened my eyes properly but I know she’s looking down at me. She’s so tired. Her hair is plastered to her brow, soaked in sweat. Then she reaches out her arms, takes me and holds me close. I can feel the warmth and the softness. I turn my face towards her softness and smell the warm milk that will nourish me and bring me closer to her.
     There is a love in her face that I never knew existed.  All the people of the world must have known a love like this. If that is so, why am I needed here?

Saturday, 10 December 2016

To all those overwhelmed by the glut of goodwill and the cascade of Christmas cards, not to mention the frantic aura of festivity, I offer this possibility of a calm and stress-free Yuletide:

Whereas the holder of this Certificate

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

has demonstrated over many years her/his disillusionment with the end of year activity known as “Merry Christmas”, he/she is granted this
Certificate of Exemption

from all pseudo-festivity, induced jollity and contrived bonhomie,
also from all card sending and receiving,
gift giving, gift guilt and gift recycling
and from any pretence at religious or spiritual affiliation

provided that
she/he shall maintain a cheerful disposition, a tolerant attitude and
a generous nature throughout the year

occasional bouts of gloom, girning or grumpiness
not amounting to more than 7.2 hours (1%) in any calendar month
(in December this dispensation may be doubled).

none of the above exemptions shall apply when
in the company of or within the hearing of any child  
who is still at the “wonderment” stage of life.

Given under our Hand,
Don Wells (aka B.A.Humbugg)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Hon Secretary

The Noel Abatement Society

The certificate has been found to be at its most effective when prominently displayed in your entrance hall, well above toddler height but in full view of early-doors
carol-singers, persistent good-cheer merchants and once-a-year drunks.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Nonsense Verse

In view of the weather - and the season - I've decided to go Lewis Carrolling.


'Tis brillig. Even turvid geese
Scrab and skibble on the ice.
All plegged in frost, the mangleferns
Now stand like branklets in a vice.

Beware the Blizzapest, my friend;
Never let it griff your prawl;
Flink before your crastanates
Become entrundled in its grawl.

But now, too late! The Blizzapest
Dispaculates the wintled ground,
Plittering the undergroan
And cratting rocks that dring besound.

Glinterblades skiddance on ice;
Grundling stones zoom round the shpeel.
While the brattering Blizzapest
Friddens all within its greel.

Enjoy your weather, wherever you are; and enjoy, as best you can,
the dreaded Frantic Season.

Monday, 21 November 2016


Since it's still November, you can have a last blast from my wartime past.

Most people in Britain now would recognise the aerial photograph I saw in a magazine. The outline of the Isle of Dogs and the meanders of Bow Creek have become an iconic television opening sequence. But this pilot’s eye view gave me a shudder that had nothing to do with the start of “Eastenders”.
     The photograph was dated 24.5.39; the notes beside it were in German; two target circles marked A and B were uncomfortably close to my grandparents’ house at 107 St Paul’s Road in Bow.
     On September 7th 1940, the house was full. It was a farewell party for my two uncles before they went back to active service with the RAF.
     Air raid sirens began to wail just after teatime. There were too many of us to go into the Anderson shelter dug into the back garden, shored up with timber and corrugated iron and covered with a thick layer of earth. We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the cellar. It would turn out to be a long night. As in many houses, it had been prepared for an emergency with beds and chairs.
     There had been light raids by the Luftwaffe in the preceding weeks but no one was prepared for this onslaught. By the end of the night, nearly a thousand bombers had attacked the central area of London and the East End. It went on for hours. We could hear the bombs falling and the explosions when they landed. I can’t remember being frightened; I’d heard bombs before. Some of the children managed to sleep. My brother Brian was under three; two of our cousins were even younger.
     At some time in the night, one particular sound grew louder, coming nearer . – the sound of a falling bomb. One of my uncles shouted, ‘This one’s close! Get down!’ Every adult grabbed the nearest child and held it. This is my clearest memory of that day, because nobody grabbed me.
     There was an ear-splitting crash, a concussion that shook the walls and the cellar filled with dust.
     The cellar walls were cracked but still standing. My uncles went to investigate. They climbed from the cellar up to my parents’ bedroom on the first floor, looked up and saw stars and searchlight beams, even the planes overhead. There was another huge hole in the bedroom wall. They climbed through and followed the diagonal trail of destruction down into next door’s cellar.
     During their service, they had seen many a bomb before but there in the concrete floor, in a crater of its own making, was one of the biggest. Mercifully, the neighbours were in their shelter in the back garden.
     ‘My God, Ernie, the bloody thing’s ticking!’
     They rushed back to us. ‘We’ve got to get out. There’s a bomb next door – delayed-action. Everyone, quick as you can! No, no time to stop for anything. Go as you are. The whole house could blow up any minute!’
     We crowded into a large public shelter in Robeson Street. Someone found the ARP wardens and they evacuated the area. At three o’clock in the morning we heard the massive detonation as “our” bomb exploded. It took half the terrace with it - six substantial Victorian houses.
     Only one thing worth salvaging was picked out of the rubble. My brother still has it: a heavy cut-glass vase about fourteen inches tall.  It was found on a sofa, covered by the cushions that had fallen on it. It is perfect, except for one little chip on the base.

Friday, 11 November 2016

My personal contribution to Remembrance Day:

Edward Wells (1897 -1917)
My uncle's first name has become my second.
It shares the fate of many middle names -
half a dozen boxes of identity,
never used except for routine forms.

He was my father's hero, elder brother,
leading, laughing, bold, a shooter's eye.
'Give Ted two stones, he'd knock a robin's egg
right off that five-bar gate across the road.'
He volunteered as sniper in the War,
Exposed and isolated, drawing fire,
Never laughing now but leading still,
And at the last – a German sniper's kill.

They buried him at Arras. Soldiers home
told young Johnny how his brother fell.
At fourteen years, he held his grief within,
until the telegram of death arrived.

I'm holding Edward's prayer-book, sprayed with blood.
Inside, his simple, pencil-written will,
neatly signed as “Private Edward Wells” -
my boxes of identity come home.        
Donald Edward Wells            

Thursday, 15 September 2016

If you are seeking stories of my late friend and former colleague Kyril Bonfiglioli, novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower, you need to look a lot further back. Only the first nine posts of this blog are concerned wholly or in part with his exploits (posts from 31st March to 23rd July 2013) plus a "Mentioned in Despatches" on 9th January 2014

If I have any followers, other than drop-in thrill-seekers whose random googling may have trawled up the word "concupiscence" from my May 3rd 2013 entry (don't rush to look it up; it's not that exciting), I apologise for the extended hibernation of this blog. From now on, I will get back to blogging once a week.

This is a special one. Well, it's special to me.

 I Was a Vestival Virgin

It was the best of times; it was my first time. It was the Festival of Writing at York, squeezed between an early September break in Dumfries and a late September holiday in Spain.
     The good people at Writers' Workshop had gathered some three hundred writers, give or take a pseudonym. Many were published, most were aspirant, all eager to mingle, laugh with and learn from other writers. There was also a healthy sprinkling of publishers, agents, editors, and “book doctors” as well as an indispensable army of willing helpers to guide and encourage us. The mix was heady. The chat was non-stop.
     We went from discussion to workshop, from pitching to self-pub (not a free bar, sorry). We took the hundred word challenge, plotted, re-wrote and climaxed, learned the secret of stealth sentences and stuck post-it notes all over the furniture.
     Then came the “one-to-one” sessions with book doctors, editors and agents, approached nervously by some, welcomed by others. Contrary to old writers' tales about editors, they do not all subscribe to the mantra of Sir Lancelot Spratt – 'Cut it out, man. Cut it out!'. They were willing to guide and encourage us, suggest new approaches and, yes, cut where necessary.
     At the workshops, though the presenters might be speaking to forty or fifty people, I found many direct connections to my own work-in-progress. 'Yes, I see now, that's what I was doing when I brought in the woman who distracted my hero from his quest.' and then, 'I'll have to change that bit – or possibly move it to later in the story'.  I was scribbling reminders to myself as fast as I could and trying to listen to the next piece of good advice.
     Now it's bragging time.
     At my one-to-one with an agent whom I shall not name, in case he later changes his mind, he had nice things to say about my novel, ' Minder meets Lovejoy '; 'I like Gregor – touch of the Flashman about him'; 'Dennis Price in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, acid turns of phrase, well-written, understated'; 'the wit is a bit out of time but refreshingly not modish'; and beside a short passage in the first chapter: 'Ha, ha! Brilliant!'
     He did sound a note of caution. 'It won't be easy to place.'
     This agent represents such literary lights as James Follett (not Ken) with 20 novels, translated into 11 languages and radio and TV plays including the cult series “Blake's 7”; RD Wingfield, author of the “Frost” novels and TV series; George Markstein, creator of “The Prisoner”; oh, and Aberdeen's own Stuart McBride.
     Before you tell me Markstein and Wingfield are dead, he was their agent while they lived and continues to represent their estate.
     I cannot say I have an agent but I can say I have an agent interested. He wants to see the manuscript as soon as it's finished.
     Now it's bum-on-chair and nose-to-keyboard time.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Usual warning to those seeking my memories of late friend and former colleague Kyril Bonfiglioli, novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower: only the first nine posts of this blog are concerned wholly or in part with his exploits (posts from 31st March to 23rd July 2013) plus a "Mentioned in Despatches" on 9th January 2014. 

You'll have to read the next six posts backwards!

What I mean, of course, is that you'll need to read these next six posts in the correct order starting with Part 1. But of course, you knew that already, didn't you?

Parting the Veils – Part 6

     Once the little girl’s eyes had closed in sleep, Virren feel it was safe to move. They slipped cautiously between the veils once more. Aestrid was becoming used to the unusual sensation. Although she could feel her feet touching the ground, her body seemed to have no weight. Sometimes they moved so fast that the veils were a whirling mass of changing colour.
     Virren told her, ‘When we next come out from the veils, we shall be more than a day’s journey from Merdegar’s palace. Don’t ask me how it happens, No matter what men say, Virren Lightstepper does not know everything. There is one thing that is the same here as it is in our world: North is North and South is South. I can navigate here just as your father navigates the seas of our world.’
     In a deserted spot they emerged beside another well to drink and Aestrid was able to wash her face. It was almost recovered from its earlier puffiness. The memory of that and their flight from the palace brought back the thought of the brave boys who had died for her.
     Virren saw her grief. ‘Do not weep, child. You still think of them as your playmates but I tell you, when your father asked for help, they knocked full-grown men over in their eagerness to offer their swords.
     ‘Now, no more tears. The next journey between the veils will be our last. When we next step through into our own world, we will be close to your father’s hall. For the last time, Aestrid and Virren passed between the veils where time and space and distance worked in a different way.
     When they emerged, it was into a dark street in the port of Oran where her father’s ships still rode at anchor. Aestrid recognised the large building where her father’s crews lodged.
     ‘Is my father . . ?’ she began, but Virren paid no heed. He took her arm in a firm grip and led her towards the entrance. The doors opened immediately.
     The hall, smaller than the Great Hall at home, was bright with the light of a hundred torches. Somehow all of her father’s men had crowded inside. The massed ranks stood, in full armour, at each side, leaving only a narrow passage the length of the hall. At the far end sat the imposing figure of the Sea-Wolf, Leif Gustavsson.
     ‘Father!’ Aestrid cried and started to run towards him.
     ‘Stand still!’ bellowed her father in the voice that could be heard above a North Sea storm.
     Aestrid stopped, bewildered. ‘Father, please,’ she begged.
     In a second, Virren was beside her. ‘Listen,’ he said. As I have told you so many times – stop thinking only of yourself and listen!’
     Leif Gustavsson addressed the assembled warriors.
     ‘This girl, this girl who is not yet a woman, disobeyed me. This girl, who has been allowed to run wild since her mother died ten years ago, has kept us sweating in this stinking port of the desert people for days. She has caused the death of two of our finest young men. They became warriors for one day, then heroes in Valhalla the next. Remember forever the names of Ragnar and Ulf, sons of Svein Redbeard!’
     A great shout went up and the hall rang with the sound of swords on shields and stamping feet and over all, the names of Ragnar and Ulf Sveinsson.
     He turned his gaze on his daughter. ‘What do you say to this – you who bear my name?’
     Aestrid’s body shook and her tears flowed.
     ‘I cannot find words for my grief. Ragnar and Ulf were like my brothers. Now they have given their lives for me. I ask their forgivemess. I ask your forgiveness, Father. I cannot bear to lose your love.’ She sank to her knees.
     Leif Gustavsson could sit no longer. Hecame striding down the hall and took his daughter up into his massive arms.
     ‘Aestrid, my daughter, my lode-star of the heavens. You have come back. That is enough.’ Tears were running down his cheeks into his fierce red beard.
     Quickly he composed himself.
     ‘Virren Lightstepper, stand by me.
     ‘Hear me, my warriors, my Wolves of the Sea. This man has guided me, as he guided my father, for many years. Now he has rendered a service that I can never repay. He has brought my beloved daughter back across the empty miles of desert, back from the grip of an evil tyrant who would have despoiled her and kept her from me. All honour to Virren Lightstepper!’
     Again the hall erupted with the clash of weapons and voices roaring the name of Virren Lightstepper. Leif Gustavsson the Sea-Wolf raised his hand as the clamour died away.
     ‘Tonight we feast and drink and sing the praises of the heroes of old and the heroes of today. Tomorrow we ride the seas again!’

                                                        THE END

(835 words)                                                                 

(Total: 5,650 words – too long for a short story, too short for any other known format. I’ll have to call it a mini-saga.)