The House of Sir William

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.)


Lawrence, Italy and a Changing World

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.

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Building Worton | Easter Eggs and References

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.

Michael Caine in A Bridge Too Far (picture courtesy of Artists)

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.


A History of My Lifetime | 1993: Violence and Consequence

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.

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A Word About Fireworks

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.