When last we left the bum hole of Bowland, also known as Worton, Dan and Doug had gone off to write a ‘historically accurate nativity’ and Will warned Eliza that it was a really, really bad idea… Honestly, he has no idea. If you missed the first part you can track back here, and I’ll also re-mount my warning that there’s a lot of blasphemy/potential to offend in here so be careful, please. Anyhow, let us now return to that bum hole of Bowland and carry on with…
AWAY WITH THE MANGER
A Tale of Worton in Four Parts
PART II: Friends, Romans, Julie Andrews…
Dan, Doug and I, joined by Amanda, spent most of Saturday morning in the library doing research. By lunchtime Dan and Doug reckoned they had enough to write a script. I said I’d come and collect whatever they had first thing Monday morning.
They went back to Dan’s, hooked themselves up on cans of some cheap energy drink, and got to work. By Monday morning they’d done their first draft… All one hundred and thirty six pages of it.
I turned up at Dan’s care home as early as I dared, wrapped up as warm as I could get. Despite the twenty seven layers and a scarf covering half my face, Mrs Clipper (the lady running the place) still recognised me.
‘Oh… It’s you is it? Come to break his heart again?’
‘Erm… No. I’m here about a Christmas play he’s helping with.’ Mrs Clipper turned her nose up at me.
‘I see… Well he’s with friends right now so I suppose you can go up. You know the way?’ I nodded and tried to smile. Mrs Clipper did not smile back. When I was taking my shoes off in the hallway she said to me ‘I stayed up with him all night after what you did… He wouldn’t stop crying.’ She turned away, leaving me feeling really uncomfortable and guilty.
I trapsed up the stairs to Dan’s room, on the third floor, and on the way spied that there was a new resident. His door was open, and I caught a glimpse of a boy in a silk dressing gown, combing his quite obviously dyed blonde hair. I vaguely recalled seeing him around Beiderbecke but I didn’t know who he was. When he saw me passing he got up to follow with a nosy interest. I did my best to ignore him, even when he hung around behind a corner of the landing as I knocked on Dan’s door.
Dan answered, bloodshot eyes, not smiling. He nonchalantly waved a stapled mass of paper at me and forced it into my hands. I only had to look at the title to start inwardly sobbing- NATIVITAS- A HISTORICALLY ACCURATE PORTRAYAL OF THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, FEATURING JULIE ANDREWS.
‘Why on earth does it feature Julie Andrews?’ I snapped.
‘I told him…’ Doug was lying on the bed, smoking a cigarette. Amanda was on the window seat. The window was open. She grimaced at me as I came in… Cow. ‘I told him you wouldn’t go for it.’
‘First, tell my why she’s in this play!’
‘Because she’s mentioned in Silent Night,’ Dan argued.
‘No she isn’t.’
‘I told him that as well,’ Doug yawned.
‘She is… Silent Night… Holy Night… Blah Blah Blah… Blah Blah Blah…Round yon virgin, Julie Andrews.’
‘I think it’s round yon virgin, mother and child.’ Dan shook his head, not believing me.
‘There are heavenly peas in there as well… Page seventy nine,’ Amanda snorted. I flipped through to seventy nine and sure enough there were the three wise men extolling the virtues of heavenly peas, suggesting to Mary and Joseph that they were the best way to calm a restless infant. Joseph’s response was to ask where they got heavenly peas from.
‘This was supposed to be a historically accurate nativity,’ I chastised. ‘Heavenly peas and Julie Andrews are not historically accurate.’
‘It was going to be totally accurate… But besides the fight scenes it was a bit dull.’
‘It’s the nativity. It isn’t supposed to be Die Hard!’
‘Page forty two,’ Amanda shot. I looked… Page forty two featured Rodriguez, soldier in the Palestinian resistance, charging at Herod and shouting ‘Yippi Kay Aye Muthafucka!’ It continued with a sword fight between Herod and Rodriguez, Rodriguez getting captured and Herod finishing the scene by whispering ‘now I have a Palestinian rebel,’ in his ear. Amanda decided to explain to me what becomes of Rodriguez the Palestinian Rebel, and as a result most of the basic plot.
‘Herod tortures him and finds out that the messiah will be born in his kingdom… Which sets him off against the babies. He then gets rescued by a crack team, led by Julie Andrews, whilst Herod is off on his murder spree. Once they find out that Herod isn’t just murdering babies for the fun of it, that he’s actually looking for Jesus, they race off to Bethlehem and get there in time to join Joseph, the three wise men and the shepherds in battle against Herod’s forces…’
‘And let me guess… Julie Andrews helps spirit Mary and Jesus away, foiling Herod’s plans?’
‘Yes… Then Herod vows revenge.’
‘I don’t like that ending… It feels anti-climactic,’ Dan expressed.
‘I don’t like any of it,’ I snapped.
‘It’s still better than those other scripts,’ Doug announced.
‘None of the others had Julie Andrews or Rodriguez the Palestinian Rebel or actual Roman soldiers…’
‘Or Joseph worrying about catching bramble vag from the donkey,’ Amanda griped. I got the impression from the hopeless tone in her voice that she hated the thing as much as I did. I imagined that she had spent half the night failing to convince Dan and Doug not to include all the bullshit.
‘You know I have to give this to Harper this morning,’ I railed. ‘I can’t give her this load of crap. What is she going to say about…’ I turned to the third page… ‘Joseph being the father of Jesus? Hang on… What?’
‘Historically accurate!’ Dan wafted.
‘Jesus was the son of God… Not Joseph.’
‘We looked at it realistically,’ Doug explained. Oh hell… He was going to try and sound intelligent! ‘We thought… What’s more likely? That Jesus is the actual son of God or that he’s the son of Joseph and that Mary lied to cover up the fact that they’d been doing the dirty in the wood shop?’
‘This is blasphemy!’ I cried out. ‘In fact this is worse than blasphemy… This is just… This is plain offensive! Forget Harper torturing us all for the next eighteen months, she won’t get a chance because we’re all going to be lynched… In fact, when they’re putting the rope around my neck I’ll tell them it was all your doing…’
I was interrupted in my ranting by a cough from that weird blonde guy who had followed me up the stairs. He was leaning against the door frame.
‘What do you want arsewipe?’ Dan growled.
‘You know you aren’t supposed to smoke in here?’ Doug didn’t care.
‘And? Dan said I could… It’s his room.’
‘Yeah. It’s my room… So go jack yourself off somewhere else.’
‘I’m going to tell Mrs Clipper that you’re smoking in here…’ He left and we all waited in silence until we heard his footsteps disappearing down the stairs.
Then Dan and Doug sprang to their feet and started hastily covering up the signs of Doug’s awful habit. Dan pulled two full ashtrays out from the back of his desk and Doug pulled two cans of air freshner from a cupboard. I found one of the ashtrays flung into my hand and Dan urging me to follow him. I chased after him, back down the stairs to that weird guy’s room where we put both of the ashtrays under his bed.
‘This should serve that twat right,’ Dan grinned.
‘Who is he anyway?’
‘His name is Huff… Gerald Huff… He got thrown out of his last care home for anti-semitism.’
‘You’re joking?’ Dan shook his head, went to a drawer and pulled it open. Inside was an old Mauser pistol. Neither of us dared to touch it.
‘He was bragging the other day about how he was going to shoot dead all the ‘inferior specimens’ in this town. Somebody else caught him watching a Neo-Nazi speech on the internet… One of Ronald Dump’s I think they said it was.’
‘Ronald Dump? As in, the worst white supremacist in America Ronald Dump?’ I’d heard of him… He was, to put it mildly, somebody who ought to be locked in a prison for all eternity.
‘Yup… And there’s worse… Look at this…’ Dan opened the wardrobe and the first thing I saw was a black sleeve with a swastika armband. I was more than a little bit disturbed.
The sound of footsteps caused Dan to drag me into the hall and into an empty bedroom next door. When the footsteps had gone we resumed talking.
‘How is he allowed to get away with that shit?’ I asked. Dan shrugged.
‘I’m not sure… Clipper’s trying to get rid of him but in the mean time she doesn’t want to stir the pot and rile him up.’ All of a sudden I worried for Dan’s safety, especially with this Huff guy around. Dan was exactly the sort of person he might take his anger out on. I suspected, from what I had just seen, that he was already testing the waters.
‘Be careful around him Dan…’ Dan snorted at me.
‘I don’t need you to tell me to be careful!’
We were brought back into the hall by the sound of hurried footsteps. It was Doug and Amanda.
‘Quick… Run… Clipper’s about to check Huff’s room and there’s going to be a shit storm…’ We all legged it.
Before facing Harper I caught Will in the canteen, I had to lure him away from canoodling with some floozy, and I showed him the script. He skimmed over every page in silence, eyes narrowing at the parts he didn’t like and showing a visible interest at the parts he did. Once or twice I saw a smile creep across his face.
‘I like it,’ he said at the end.
‘Really?’ I was flabbergasted.
‘Overall, yeah. It needs a lot of work and we could do with changing the ending but it’s alright. It needs to focus more on Mary and Joseph. As for the historically accurate bit… We can toss that out. Nobody is going to believe this is accurate for a second.’
‘You don’t find any of it offensive? Or blasphemous?’
‘It’s not blasphemous to me… I don’t believe in any of this stuff anyway.’
‘Were you ever in a nativity?’ I asked him out of curiosity. He nodded.
‘Aye… I was the manger one year.’
‘Surely you mean the manager?’
‘No… I mean the actual manger… As in the thing they put the Baby Jesus in… Where is the manger in this anyway? Is there one?’
‘I’ve not seen any reference…’
‘I’ll text Dan,’ he sighed.
On the way to Harper’s office he received a reply.
‘NO MANGER… THOUGHT IT WOULD BE MORE NATURAL FOR MARY TO CRADLE HIM IN HER ARMS.’
‘He’s done away with the manger?’ I gasped. ‘How can he do away with the manager?’
‘I dunno…’ Will didn’t seem to care. ‘How can he have included Julie Andrews?’ Harper was coming from the other direction and overheard.
‘Please tell me I heard wrong and you didn’t just say that Julie Andrews is in this play?’
‘Julie Andrews is in this play… She’s the leader of the Palestinian resistance.’ Harper was momentarily stunned. When she recovered she yanked the script from Will and started reading it as she entered her office. Will and I followed.
‘Friends, Romans countrymen,’ she began reading aloud as she sat down. ‘Hold up a mo for I, Julius Caesar, emperor of the known world and purveyor of salad to all that lies beyond, do issue a proclamation. Many of you already dutifully pay taxes and for this we are grateful. You shall be rewarded. On the twenty fifth of December a lavish feast shall be bestowed upon you all. However… There are some who do not pay their tax… The likes of Starbucks and Google… And two entire provinces… Those of Palestine and Judea! Thus, there shall be a census. The people of Palestine, Judea, Starbucks and Google shall be counted and assessed… Don’t worry, you don’t have to go back to where you were born because that’s a daft idea and doesn’t make sense in any kind of economic context… Besides which, most people probably already are where they were born or pretty close to it so it would be a mostly pointless addition…’ She stopped reading aloud and flipped a few pages ahead.
‘Why is Julie Andrews smoking a cigar and dressed like an American general?’ she asked. Will and I both shrugged at the same time. Harper sighed and slammed the script down on the desk.
‘Why the fuck did you let Leatherborne and Jenkins write the script? What on earth were they even on when they wrote it?’
‘To be fair it is better than all the other scripts combined,’ Will pointed out.
‘Better than all the other scripts? The cast list includes Julie Andrews and Rodriguez the Palestinian Rebel… It claims to be historically accurate but the first person on stage is Julius bloody Caesar who had been dead for the majority of fifty years by the time of the nativity.’
‘That’s not too much of a problem… We can just change it to the right person,’ I reckoned honestly.
‘And the mentions of Starbucks and Google?’
‘Romans had Starbucks,’ Will tried to claim.
‘No they didn’t!’ Harper snapped back at him. ‘And I haven’t even got to the song list yet.’ I hadn’t even looked at that. I didn’t want to. I knew it would be bad. It was.
‘Herod singing Hit Me Baby One More Time… Julie Andrews doing a medley from Mary Poppins… Mary, Joseph and the Bethlehem ensemble singing Praise You… What the hell is The Julie Andrews Song? I see you’ve added one as well,’ she eyed Will suspiciously and then showed him the script. That was definitely his handwriting at the bottom: Against All Odds (in Welsh)- Sung by Roman Soldiers as they’re murdering the babies. He must have written it in the canteen whilst I wasn’t looking.
‘I just think that will be really effective… Especially if we get hold of a smoke machine!’
‘A smoke machine is not a problem. What worries me more is how on earth you intend to get the lyrics to Against All Odds in Welsh!’
‘Edrych arnaf nawr, dim ond lle gwag. Does dim byd chwith yma, i mi atgoffa ond llun eich wyneb,’ Will said slowly and clearly and fluently. Harper blinked several times.
‘You can speak Welsh?’ she stumbled, clearly put out that Will could do this.
‘Ydw… Rwyt ti’n yr wrach satanig… It was on my application form.’ Harper squinted at him, wondering what that bit of Welsh meant. It was obviously something bad.
‘I don’t even want to know what else is in this script but I suppose whatever there is will have to make do for the moment. I’ve already sent a message out to all college email addresses saying the auditions are tomorrow lunchtime in the auditorium. Please be on time… I’ll be coming along to approve all casting decisions because I don’t trust either of you not to mess this up, especially after this script.’
‘Hold on…’ Will interrupted. ‘College email addresses? Since when did we have college email addresses?’
‘Since day one… But I’m not surprised you don’t know. If I hadn’t had both of you in here for fighting that morning then you might not have missed your induction sessions.’
‘Hold on… The fighting was him and it was all his fault…’
‘As I recall,’ Will folded his arms. ‘You assaulted me because I was taking Barnes down for being a sex pest…’
‘You accused me of wanting to get into your pants,’ I flung back at him.
‘I was right though… You did… What was it you said about me the other day?’
‘She said that you may be an absolute bellend but you’re also incredibly hot.’ Coming from Harper in that cold, clinical way it sounded horribly wrong.
We all sat in a row in front of the auditorium stage- Harper, the executive producer, myself, the director, Will, the in-name only director, and Dan, one of the scriptwriters. Where the other scriptwriter was I hadn’t a clue. The auditioners were waiting backstage. Harper had a video camera set up in front of her so that she could go back through the auditions if necessary.
‘I think we’ll have the Marys first,’ Harper said as she looked over the cast list. She looked to the backstage door… ‘Can we have all the girls who want to play Mary come out on stage please?’ Sixteen people all trooped out. Fourteen of them were glamour model, cheerleader types; big breasted and doe eyed. They weren’t average at all, which is what Dan reckoned he wanted in a Mary. He’d photocopied some notes he had made on the cast and I had them in front of me. MARY, it said- ORDINARY LOOKING, MUST BE PLAUSIBLE AS A YOUNG PALESTINIAN WOMAN. The fifteenth person was a boy, one of the year tens, and the sixteenth was Amanda. The boy was called up first. I was to discover that this boy, despite having a cock and balls, identified as a she. More immediately, I couldn’t help but notice that her fingernails were painted glittery silver.
‘Derry Minnow, yes?’
‘Yes Miss Harper,’ Derry responded. She fit the bill for Mary in all ways except one. She was not plausible as a young Palestinian woman.
‘It’s Mrs Harper,’ Harper growled at her. ‘And why do you want to play Mary?’
‘Because I believe that I can offer a truly ground-breaking and evocative transgender performance that will outshine all others.’
‘Your Mary would be… Transgender?’
‘Yes. I think it’s high time the transgender community of first century Judea were given the recognition they deserve.’
‘Whilst I admire the sentiment, Derry… How big do you think the transgender community of first century Judea was?’ Derry couldn’t answer that one. ‘Let me put it this way, if the transgender community of first century Judea was in any way prominent, how likely do you think it would be that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a part of that community? Isn’t it more likely that she was not transgender?’
‘Well yes… BUT… There is still a chance. It would make for an interesting play, I think.’
‘Trust me, the play is interesting enough without adding in a transgender Mary.’
‘Also, it’s Christmas… And cross-dressing is an ancient Christmas tradition…’
‘Only in pantomime, Derry… But I suppose you can have your shot. Before you begin… If you weren’t to get Mary, which other part would you like?’
‘Julie Andrews… If at all possible.’
‘Would she be transgender as well?’ Derry looked put out.
‘No… Well the performance would be but the character wouldn’t…’
‘Why not?’ Dan felt the need to ask.
‘Because Julie Andrews definitely isn’t transgender… Duh!’
‘Right… You may begin,’ Harper waved.
It was a competent audition. Derry performed a Shakespearian soliloquy and sang Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. She sang with a lot of emotion. On my cast list I marked her down as a possible. Not for Mary… For Julie Andrews. She didn’t match the description Dan had written but that would have suited nobody barring Julie Andrews so it didn’t matter.
The five potential Mary’s who followed were all awful. One sang like she’d never heard of music in her life. Another wanted to portray Mary as a hip-hop gangsta rap artist. There was no way she could have pulled it off. Will and Dan were on the floor in fits of laughter and Harper was looking as though someone had stolen her breakfast.
‘Yes… Thank you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. NEXT!’
The next three Mary’s were all practically the same. They all had the same make-up, sang the same song, did the same audition piece… I knew them as being particularly cliquey and they always went around in a trio. You never saw one of them on their own. I think they were expecting all three of them to get the part.
‘You know it’s God who’s supposed to be tripartite and not Mary, right?’ Will asked when the last one had finished auditioning. The girl looked confused.
‘What does tripartite mean?’ she gawped. Will pulled an emotionless expression.
‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you… Next!’
‘Excuse me… That’s my line,’ Harper sulked. Will wasn’t sorry.
The next Mary did a whole Marilyn Monroe routine, blowing a kiss to Will at the end. It was not what we were looking for.
‘I’m going to see if I can find Doug,’ Will whispered to Dan during the next audition, which was again terrible. Then it was Amanda’s turn.
‘And why do you want to play Mary, Amanda?’ Harper asked her.
‘Because I always wanted to play Mary… But I never did.’
‘Do you know why that was?’
‘Because my teachers didn’t think I looked right. ‘Oh no Amanda, you’re not pretty enough to play Mary, Amanda…. Why don’t you play Mrs. Herod instead Amanda? Or how about the caganer?”
‘The what?’ I intervened.
‘The caganer,’ Dan began to expound. ‘He’s a Catalonian tradition… A guy crapping in the corner of the stable.’ I didn’t dare look at the script. I knew he was in there without Amanda having to tell me he was on page one hundred and three.
‘I want to play Mary,’ she demanded. ‘I’m going to prove to the world that you don’t have to be some doe-eyed blonde bimbo who got the part just because Joseph fancied her…’ I suddenly got the feeling that the part description had been written specifically so that Amanda would get the role. She’d probably threatened Dan and Doug into it. Will wasn’t such a pushover but I suspected he’d have gone along with it regardless of any threat, especially if Dan and Doug were for it.
Her audition wasn’t awful. It wasn’t brilliant either. Derry had been better… I wanted to put Derry up ahead of her, just to spite Amanda, but I figured that would come back and haunt me. If it wasn’t for the sheer ineptitude of the other Marys Harper and I would have voted one of them in so you could say that Amanda got the part purely on luck.
Will still hadn’t come back from finding Doug when we moved onto the Herods. There were three of them. One was again one of the year tens, one of them I didn’t recognise and the last was Randy sodding Barnes. For some reason he was wearing a zipped up jacket and what looked to be no trousers. I immediately thought that the year ten had the right look. There was a kingly air about him.
Barnes was first to audition. I don’t know why he bothered. There was no chance that either myself, Dan or Will would consider him for any part. Harper might, but only as a favour to his aunt. If she did consider him, for whatever reason, she’d find herself outnumbered.
‘Why do you want to play Herod?’ Harper asked him.
‘Because he was a badass,’ Barnes responded. ‘He’s not a pansy like all the other male parts in the nativity.’
‘You do know we’ve got a whole platoon of Palestinian rebels in this play don’t you?’
‘Herod is more badass… He kills babies. He’s not led by Julie pissing Andrews either.’ There was something wrong with him. He wasn’t usually this callous. He was normally much more of a stuttering idiot. I figured he might just be being bitter because he didn’t have any friends any more.
He started his audition and… We were all too shocked to laugh. It was terrible, as most of the auditions were, and it was horrific in a visual sense but it was also pants wettingly hilarious.
Barnes first dropped the jacket to reveal an ill-fitting anime schoolgirl outfit, his flabby stomach sticking out of the bottom, and then he started singing and dancing to Hit Me Baby One More Time. I glanced over at Dan and saw that he was mortified.
It was the longest three minutes of our life and when it was over Harper pursed her lips. She didn’t find any of it the slightest bit funny.
‘Randy… Haven’t you started working part time in the toy store?’
‘Yes,’ Randy snapped, as though he thought that didn’t matter.
‘How do you intend to balance your college work, this play, and working in the toy store?’ He had no answer to that. ‘You can’t can you? No… Well…’
‘If I get the part can I sleep with the director?’
‘You’ll have to ask Will about that one,’ I sniffed. I knew damn well he was referring to me but I wanted to metaphorically knee him in the balls. ‘If he wants to shag you then none of us are going to stop him.’
‘Don’t expect a call back Randy,’ Harper added at the end. Randy stormed off the stage, slamming the main auditorium door as he went.
‘How did Barnes get a job in the toy store?’ I asked aloud.
‘Do you remember that company at the careers fair? The one which he told he’d travelled into another dimension? For some reason they’ve decided to sponsor him and they’ve got him that job.’
‘Why on earth would they want to sponsor him?’
‘I never want to hear that song again,’ Dan interrupted. ‘Like… EVER! I’m removing it. Herod can sing something else.’
Will came back, not having found Doug.
‘I just saw Barnes flouncing down the corridor,’ he said casually. ‘He tried to kick me in the shin as I walked past… I tripped him up instead. What did I miss?’ Harper rolled her eyes and called for the next Herod.
The kingly looking year ten, who was called Dexter, got the part of Herod. Then we went through the innkeepers, the wise men, the Palestinian rebels, a whole assortment of randoms who didn’t know which part they wanted… Then, after what felt like days, the Josephs. There were only two of them, thank goodness, but I was tired and when they came onto the stage I despaired. One of them was Doug. The other was a certain Neo-Nazi tosser.
‘Alright… You first… Blondey…’
‘Gerald Huff, miss,’ he answered.
‘Yes… Right. Why do you want the part of Joseph?’
‘Because it’s been my dream to play Joseph ever since I was a little boy… Every year I thought, ‘this is my year, my turn…’ It was the only part I ever wanted but instead all I got were rubbish parts…’
‘Herod… The Archangel Gabriel… The innkeeper… One year I was even a fucking wise man.’
‘You call those rubbish parts? I’d have killed for parts like that,’ Will challenged him.
‘I had racist teachers mate,’ Dan added. ‘I was always the guy shitting in the corner!’
‘Yes but I never got the part I wanted,’ Huff snapped. ‘I always wanted to be Joseph but I never got it.’ I thought that there was no way he was getting it now. I definitely knew there was no way he was getting the part after he started singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me in a falsetto voice.
‘Sorry… You aren’t getting the part,’ Will told him. ‘We don’t need a falsetto Joseph.’
‘Yeah… And also because you’re a white supremacist dick bag,’ Dan threw in.
‘What?’ Huff was scandalised. He pointed at Doug. ‘What’s he offered you to give him the part? A wank and a blowjob?’
‘It’s more than you’re getting,’ Will snorted.
‘You’re just a bunch of fucking liberal cocksuckers,’ Huff tantrumed.
‘I’d rather suck cock than lick Ronald Dump’s arse,’ Dan told him. Huff got angry and screamed. He tried to march off the stage and throttle Dan but as soon as he got to the edge Doug gave him a nudge with his foot and he ended up falling flat on his face. He got up again, snarling and covered in blood.
‘You’ll all regret this… ZIEG HEIL! ZEIG HEIL!’ He threw his arm in the air, in a Nazi salute, then ran for the window and jumped straight through it before running away across the rugby pitch.
‘Why is this college so full of weirdos?’ Harper sighed, closing her eyes. I often wonder that myself.
Thanks to that little incident we were left with Doug as Joseph. As she walked out of the auditorium when he had finished auditioning Harper shouted back ‘Good luck… I’ll be seeing you all in January for your punishments!’
NEXT WEEK: Rehearsals, an absconding Baby Jesus and Dan’s worst idea yet as Away With The Manger continues in…
PART III: MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
Since I started this thing of mine a kind of tradition where I release a Christmassy story has developed. It started with what is now the ‘Scumbags’ section of Spawn and over the years I’ve given you all sorts of strange and wonderful tales ranging from a take on Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl to the actual nativity, as told from the perspective of the Inn Keeper’s wife. This year I wanted to try something different, something bigger. Just be warned that some people may find a few aspects of this story offensive. No deliberate offence is intended and I apologise to anybody who is. Anyway… Without much further ado, I hereby present the opening chapter of… Continue reading
I’ve been here before… A long time ago, yes, but I’ve been here before. I can’t say where it is, it’s too close to Hell to name, but I have been here before. An elderly relative used to live not far from this park and a chunk of my childhood is embedded here. It always seemed green, even in winter, not dead and cold like it does now. The canal which cuts through this place then seemed sedate and queenly. Now it’s clogged, diseased, and cuts a sorry figure as it limps on towards the river. The massive railway viaduct cutting through, still shunting trains up to Manchester, was bolder and cleaner. It was less covered by guano and graffiti. Maybe this is memory cheating me, but this place was much when I was younger.
The bit that always fascinated me about this place was the old house tucked away at one edge of the park. It was your average haunted mansion, the windows and doors boarded, tangled undergrowth snaking their way around the foundations, ragged trees covering any clear view of the house. It was dark, dingy, not quite a ruin but abandoned and neglected all the same. I always wanted to go inside and have a look but never did, for obvious reasons. Now I probably never will because it has been turned into fancy apartments.
The house as it stands is Jacobean, but was built much earlier- Around 1280. There’s not much trace of the medieval left at all but it was, believe it or not, was built on an earlier monastic grange site by one of my distant ancestors, one Sir William *—-*, who lived from 1226 to 1300. It remained in his family until the late fifteen hundreds (about one hundred years after my own line diverges) when it was sold to Robert Dudley (he who probably pushed his wife down the stairs because he was in love with the queen, Robert Dudley) to pay off debts. It was after that the building was remoulded into the shape it is today, with the last bit of proper medieval being knocked down in the late seventeen hundreds. There’s a rumour that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed here in 1745 but I doubt it is true. We’re well on the wrong side of Manchester for that.
I said that it once looked like a haunted mansion and supposedly it is haunted. I read somewhere that it is the most haunted house in the area. There’s a ghostly white rabbit which is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll- It’s meant to turn up at the same time every night but for some reason it’s always late. (That’s a terrible joke James… Hang your head in shame!)
The other ghost is ‘The White Lady,’ one of those innumerate spectres who are named after the colour of their dress. They’re always female as well. You never hear of ‘the violet man,’ or ‘the grey man.’ Male ghosts always have more interesting, more creative names. According to one version of the story, she’s an old lady who has often been seen by the old gates, or sometimes looking out of the windows of the hall, and she’s been identified as being ‘Isabel.’ If that is true it makes her my sixteen times great grandmother… But the story I read said that the reason she haunts the places is because she’s pining for her murdered husband. To me that doesn’t make much sense, for Isabel was not old when she died, only around thirty five, and I don’t have any evidence that her husband John was murdered, though he did die at only twenty eight. The only notable event of her life, that I can find, is that she was kidnapped and carried off to Birkenhead, where she was then ravished and her attacker fled into Wales. This incident is mentioned in several different texts as Isabel petitioned the king (Henry VI) for help and the perpetrator attained for treason. What happened afterwards I cannot find out.
Where this ghost story does make a bit more sense is with the next generation. This time there was a murder, of another John, and his wife Margaret lived for another twenty years after the murder. Even then, I wouldn’t have said she was particularly old, not by modern standards anyway. She was only forty five. Who the old ghost is, therefore, I couldn’t possibly say.
There is also supposed to be the ghost of a servant hanging about as well and it is known that the perpetrators of this crime (I’ll tell you, one of them was Lord Stanley!) hung the servant who’d let them into the house to commit their foul deed.
Beyond the house, somewhere along the way to the woods at the back, is a hedge maze… Or there used to be. The maze is still there but it’s locked up tight, the gates padlocked, and the hedges untamed. At the centre there used to be a statue of ‘Isabel’ but she’s gone now. Vandalised, removed, and stolen from wherever she ended up. Much like the rest of the park this has been abandoned, left to rot.
It’s a curious state of affairs… Once it was the hall that was abandoned, impenetrable. Now that’s all fancy and clean whilst the park surrounding it has fallen to rack and ruin. I don’t like that it has been turned into apartments either. There are precious few buildings of this age around here, precious few late Jacobean buildings of this style open to the public. There could have been a real opportunity to turn this in a really good, really unique heritage site. But no… This place doesn’t do heritage. Heritage here is left to rack and ruin. Heritage is disposed of, something to be sold off, something to be turned into apartments. It is not to be bothered with.
I had to dig deep to find out about Sir John and William and Isabel. Despite being minor nobility they left scant trace on the historical record. It was hard finding out about them and this place in which they lived. Maybe there is more information out there, but I doubt it is online.
I imagine this is what the ghost looks like… Image is actually of Miss Havisham and Pip, from Great Expectations (courtesy of Victorian Web.)
D.H Lawrence may be most famous as a novelist, in particular for the (at the time) controversial ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ but he was actually one of the most versatile writers of the early twentieth century, travel writing being one of the many forms (besides novels, poetry, essays and short stories) which he put his hand to. Twilight In Italy is the first collection of these (the others include Etruscan Places & Sea and Sardinia) and the majority of the book concerns the time he spent living with his mistress, Frieda, in Gargano, Lake Garda, in nineteen twelve and thirteen.
Easter Eggs are a popular addition to video games, but it’s rarer to hear about them in literature. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I throw them into my own work. I also find it fun to slip tiny nuggets in there, to see if anybody notices. So far nobody has.
One of the major ways I incorporate Easter Eggs is through language, in particular if I have to use any language other than English. It is especially true of Welsh. Often these are extremely childish, smutty, and often in the form of names. The village Otto and Claire visit in The Rebels, for example, is called Hen Pidyn- Or Old Penis. Some characters mentioned in the Aunt Mable stories all have ridiculously childish names as well. I won’t say who they are, you’ll have to find them for yourself. Sometimes it isn’t smutty though, sometimes it’s just ordinary- There’s a moment in Swarm with a cleaning lady speaking Dutch and later on when Madonna tells her girls that Amsterdam is under attack. Both are ordinary conversation translated (badly) into Dutch. Then we get back to the Welsh and it isn’t so child friendly, although it does fit in with what’s going on in the story this time. My best advice for finding all these linguistic Easter Eggs would be to translate everything– Though if you want to translate the name of Dewi Croft’s company in D.S Proctor I’d advise you only do it after you’ve finished reading, otherwise it might be a bit spoilery.
Sometimes my Easter Eggs only take the forms of references to other works and popular culture, which is actually common across all mediums these days. These are occasionally really easy to spot, like in Spawn where Doug mentions that Lord of The Rings fans don’t go around spray painting graffiti. Unlike the first form of Easter Egg these don’t just apply to my fiction. They’re everywhere- There is one especially good one in an article entitled Why Wales Never Had a Walter Scott. They’re in some of the travel pieces as well. There are loads in there and most of them are obvious.
There are some other subtle references and homages across my cannon. Stop The Cavalry is packed with little references to the great war films- The in your face one is A Bridge Too Far but also look out for the Dambusters, Kelly’s Heroes, The Guns of Navarone, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge On The River Kwai, Where Eagles Dare, Apocalypse Now and others.
More subtle are the call backs to previous books, or in some cases call forwards. After reading Stop the Cavalry you might begin to notice that something sinister happens at a couple of points in the previous book, something that might suggest Will wasn’t hallucinating. Corwen’s hat in D.S Proctor is that same hat which Otto buys in The Rebels. Some of the stories in Inn of Last Orders even make sly references to each other. Because I rearranged them they are sometimes call forwards and sometimes call backs. There are even references to stories that I thought about writing but never got around to.
There are cameos by well-known faces, though they’re hardly ever stated outright. Phil Collins and Cliff Richard are the ones that are on the nose but there are other, more subtle ones. Sid Vicious appears three times in Rebels, once at the beginning, once at the false funeral and then at the end where he’s joined by Quentin Crisp and Nancy Spungen (it’s that night in the Chelsea, if you know what I’m talking about.) Maggie Thatcher was also in there at one point but I can’t remember if I cut her out or not. For the most part I like to keep these subtle, not draw attention to them as otherwise I find they stick out of the story a bit too much. I never, for instance, mention who the grey haired professor is in Swarm. Cliff Richard’s star turn in Spawn was pushing it but I got away with his inclusion because of the comedy aspect. I got away with Phil Collins because he isn’t supposed to be real. Or if you want to go with the other interpretation, it’s not actually Phil Collins. What you really don’t want to do is take people out of the story and a gratuitous celebrity cameo will usually do just that. Plus, the subtlety means that people can seek them out, go on a celebrity hunt sort of thing.
Just yesterday I wrote a segment involving David Lloyd George and H.G Wells. The first was subtle, only slight hints as to who he is. I only ever refer to him, in the story, as ‘Uncle David,’ a Welshman with a white moustache who enters the story after seeing something from the window of the Treasury. Wells I put in because the scene was set in one of his favourite restaurants. It seemed a nice fit that he might be there at the same time as my scene was happening and it adds a bit of colour to the story. Lloyd George has a meatier role (another reason why he needs to be subtle) and drops some exposition that forms an important plot development.
Easter Eggs in literature make great fodder for the reader. It gives them a reason to go back, a reason to re-read and go through and find the hidden messages and Easter Eggs. I haven’t mentioned all of mine here, there are so many now that I can’t. There are now eight books worth of the things, and all the as yet unpublished bits beside. One of them runs deep across several books and I’m waiting for someone to work it out. It’s kind of obvious once you know it’s there… And then you’ll also realise what a sneaky, dirty trickster one character in particular was. I’ve also been building something up for a long time (that isn’t specifically an Easter Egg, it’s more metaphorical) and that, now, thanks to Inn Of Last Orders, is detectable if you look hard enough. It ties into the other thing as well.
Sorry… I couldn’t resist.
Still from THE SEVENTH SEAL dir. Ingmar Bergamn + Album Art from Face Value by Phil Collins
On the first of January another wall came down. This was not, as had been the case with the Berlin wall a few years before, a physical barrier. Instead it was a metaphorical one. It was a trade barrier and its removal was the birth of the thing we call the European Single Market. There had been a customs union in place since sixty eight but in eighty six a deadline, ratified within the Single European Act, was delivered. At the end of ninety two that deadline passed and Europe went forward into ninety three a very different place. This was because the removal of the trade barrier and creation of the Single Market did not just allow the free movement of goods and physical products, but also allowed for free movement of currency, of capital, and more importantly the free movement of people and services. It brought, to a certain extent, the borders of Europe crashing down. Now a man could go anywhere within the soon to be European Union. He could work and live wherever he wanted, from Cape St Vincent to Cape Wrath. He could offer his services, be they medical or mechanical, anywhere.
At the end of the year NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, would be signed by President Clinton. The London Convention banned the dumping of Nuclear Waste at sea. The Oslo I accord saw the placement of a framework that could have lead to an end for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It even saw Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands when they met in Washington D.C. The world was suddenly a much freer, slightly brighter place. Or at least, that was the theory.
The dawning of a pan-European utopia and a better world looked to be in sight. However. Not all was well. Ninety three would turn out to be a year of violence and consequence.
We need to talk about fireworks, specifically Bonfire night fireworks. Now I am not against them. I like a good fireworks display as much as the next person. BUT… In Britain we have a problem concerning fireworks and Bonfire night. I am referring here to private displays, or rather, the conduct of the people mounting these displays and the type of fireworks being put to use.
Last night, which was the fourth and therefore not Bonfire night, I was subjected to a barrage of what I can only describe as noise. This wasn’t brief, or a few minutes, or even just a little bit at a time. It was continuous and lasted from around half past seven till just around eleven. It was like someone was dropping artillery on me for three and a half hours. The fireworks, which were mostly coming from somewhere behind, were all extremely loud, some of them so loud that they shook the entire house. A cursory glance out of the window revealed that many of these fireworks were all noise and no sparkle. They were little more than large rockets with a bit of glitter added. This, to me, is not the point of a firework. A firework should not be about the noise it makes but about the sparkle, about the fizz, about lighting up the sky in a brief moment of colourful spectacle.
What was going on was not appropriate behaviour from whoever was setting those fireworks off. For a start, on a personal level, I have something called noise sensitivity. This basically means loud noises affect me in ways they don’t for other people. Loud noises upset me more than they should and there are times when I have difficulty coping with them. Last night was borderline, but I was almost over the edge. I live, much to my chagrin, in an overcrowded suburb of Greater Manchester. There are a lot of houses all crammed into a tiny area and I can’t have been the only one who was annoyed or affected by them in some way. The elderly? Babies? There must be over a thousand people living within the noise range of those fireworks and I would say that a significant number were affected by this three and a half hour barrage.
Within a suburban area, such as this one, letting off explosives is a really bad idea. Most of the houses round here have small gardens and are really, really close together. This, I don’t need to tell you, increases the chance of an accident happening, increases the chance of someone getting hurt. This problem doesn’t occur if there is plenty of space, say if you have a big garden or a paddock in the countryside. In a crowded suburban area it is not advisable.
The behaviour exhibited by the people letting off those fireworks last night was completely out of order. It was demonstrative of something I am noticing more and more in British society and that is a lack of respect and consideration for other people. An enormously selfish attitude has begun to pervade and where it has come from I do not know. It isn’t just limited to people setting off fireworks, it’s in pretty much every aspect of life now, but at this time of year fireworks are the most prevalent example. This lack of respect is, in the case of a functional civilisation, fatally toxic and something that must be eradicated.
So what to do about these fireworks? As I say, I am not against them, but if you are going to set them off at least be considerate towards other people. Limit the amount of fireworks you set off. A quick, five or ten minute display should be more than enough. You don’t need to spend five hundred pounds to have a nice display, nor have it last for three and a half hours. Moderation is a boon. Do not buy fireworks that make a lot of noise either. Nobody is impressed by a loud bang so go for ones that are going to be more showy than explodey. They do exist. The same instruction should also be given to the manufacturers (for they are at fault for making the damn things) and by not buying the louder fireworks they will get eventually get the message. Be aware of your environment as well. Fireworks need a lot of space and if you live in a suburban estate with a lot of small gardened houses, packed tightly together, reconsider. If you can, find somewhere with a lot of room where you can set your fireworks off without them impacting other people. If this is not possible and you still want fireworks there are more than enough public displays about and by attending them you’re also showing your community spirit and not being a selfish prig. It will even, at the end of the day, cost you less than a private display.
Finally, keep it to the fifth. There is no excuse for letting off fireworks on other days. Bonfire night is the fifth and there is a reason for that. We all know why it is so let’s not pretend that I need to reiterate the reason here. It is a reason that people, alas, seem to be forgetting and they’re now just using the fifth as an excuse to let off a shit ton of fireworks. It is not about the fireworks. If fireworks did not exist this day still would. We need, as a society, to take Bonfire Night back to its roots.
By following the advice I give above, by being safe, by being respectful and considerate towards other people and remembering the real meaning of bonfire night, we can all, I am sure, be much happier and safer.