Saturday, 31 October 2009

Historical Fiction: The Old Man's Dilemma

The Old Man's Dilemma

Paul sat upright in his chair, as rigid and motionless as a statue, but inside his head thoughts spiralled endlessly around without reaching any conclusion. In the past he had always had confidence in his judgements; it had been one of his strengths; but not now. Was he doing the right thing? Was it too late to change? How was he to know? He had always done his duty, and had never doubted that his function was to command, but he had never pretended to great intelligence. Throughout his long career others had always done the detailed and difficult work for him: his function had been to provide stability and dignity and to calm down those brainy chaps when they got over-excited, as they often did. And he had been respected, and generally successful. But now here he was: alone. The brainy chaps had gone. He should have gone too; he realised that. More than once he had retired and then allowed himself to be called back. He should have resisted that last call; in his heart he had known it all along. It had been the only time in his life that he had ever acted weakly. Surely at the age of over eighty he should have been allowed to live in peace! It had brought him nothing but uncertainty, with every course of action seeming distasteful.
Now there was this man he had to meet: a man young enough to be his grandson. Not that he would have wished any grandson of his to turn out like that! He had already met him more than once, and had disliked him intensely. The fellow as common beyond belief, obviously risen from the gutter, ill-mannered, disrespectful, dishonest and consumed with violent ambition. Paul's oldest friends had warned him against having anything to do with this person. Where were the friends now that he needed them? Gone, all gone. For the first time in his life, Paul felt helpless; a mere cork drifting on the tide of events.
The door opened to admit the unwelcome visitor. Paul rose ponderously to his feet, and maintaining dignity to the last stood as ramrod-straight as if still on the parade ground. The other man was plainly ill-at-ease. He had taken the trouble to dress formally for the occasion, which only served to make him look more ridiculous than ever. The two exchanged a few stilted and unmeaning compliments, scarcely bothering to disguise the contempt they felt for each other. But the formalities had to be gone through; so the older man and the younger shook hands, and Field-Marshal-President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

(This seems from the sources to be a likely description of Hindenburg's feelings on that momentous day in January 1933)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Historical Fiction: "After Dinner in New York"

After Dinner in New York: April 15th 1931

The two men remain at their table in the restaurant long after the other diners have left. Umberto the proprietor would also doubtless like to shut up shop and go home, but you don't argue with customers like these, and in any case he expects to be well paid for the inconvenience. The food is good: Joe attacks it with his usual greed and uncouthness; Charlie is more abstemious. After the meal is over. Joe reminiscences volubly about old times, and when they are alone in the room, the two talk business. Eventually Charlie excuses himself to go to the lavatory.
As he rises his hands and sliks back his hair, he contemplates his reflection in the mirror above the washbasin. He is only in his early thirties, but his face looks much older: a result of the pressures of his work. The livid scar down his cheek, which gives his right eyelid a permanent and sinister droop, aches with the tension, but he forces himself to ignore it. he bears the nickname "Lucky", which he dislikes: his success has been due to careful planning and determined application, not to luck. he glances at his watch: it's three o'clock.
There is a sharp retort of gunfire. Charlie retreats into one of the cubicles, wher ehe pulls the chain and then waits awhile. Only when he is sure the coast is clear does he venture back into the restaurant. There he finds his careful planning has once again paid off: Joe is dead.

(This is a description of the assassination of Joe Masseria ("Joe the Boss"), New York Mafia chief, at the instigation of Lucky Luciano)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Story: "Over the Hill, Under the Hill"

Under the Hill - Over the Hill

Look,you might think me very old-fashioned, but I always understood there were certain formalities to be gone through on these occasions. You should tell me your name and then boldly challenge me to come forth and defend my hoard; not try to sneak in like you've just done. So what is your name? Tristan? Oh, SIR Tristan! I do apologise: no offence intended. And my name? Well, my real name of course couldn't possibly be pronounced in your language, but I seem to recall that at one time, very long time ago, it would be, men called me Chrysophylax. Chrysophylax the Golden, whose wings beshadowed the sun. Rather poetic, don't you think? though perhaps a trifle overblown. And while we're on the subject, Sir Tristan: that sword you're swinging about: does it have a name too? No? Not even something crude and vulgar, like "Skullsplitter"? Sad. In my younger days, the warriors who came to challenge me all had swords with names, and some were supposed to be of ancient lineage; made by the dwarves or whatever; or even to be magical. Absolute tosh, of course; but still quite romantic. Ah well; times change.
Now if we want to do this properly, you shaould challenge me to fight. Denounce me as a thief and murderer, and vow to kill me and take away my ill-gotten gains. But I must point out that, although the accusation is by and large true in substance, I haven't actually done any plundering and slaughtering for a great many years. It was all a very long time ago; and in any event I don't see why it should give you any right to take my treasure for yourself. Or you could be more up-to-date and talk about the serious deflationary effect of keeping all this gold locked away out of circulation, and how international liquidity would be improved by releasing it onto world markets ...... What? You've never even heard of economics and monetary theory? No: clearly not. Forget it: it's my fault. I just presumed things out there must be more advanced than they actually are. Heigh-ho.
Moving on: may I ask, Sir Tristan, why you decided to come here? Because dragon-slaying used to be a game for young warriors. Teenage heroes: many of whom, frankly, were just kids with more guts than sense. Don't say they're letting the oldies in on it nowadays: that would not be a great idea! I admit I'm no expert on humans: but it's obvious to me that you're not exactly in the first flush of youth, are you? Take the way you swung that sword at me when you came in: quite an effort, wasn't it? I can tell you're not as fast as you once were. Shoulders getting stiff? Bit of the old back trouble? Knees start to hurt if you stay in the en garde position too long? And maybe the old mailcoat feels a bit tight round the waist? So why did you come here and try to get your hands on my treasure? Do you need the money? Or are you trying to recapture the glories of your youth: prove to yourself you can still do it? Or maybe a bit of both?
Now don't get offended. I quite understand, because I'm getting old too. I'm not quite sure how old, but it must be hundreds of your years, if not thousands. The idea that dragons are immortal is a myth: we age just like everyone else, though it takes much longer. Look at me: I haven't been outside this cave for I don't know how long. I'm amazed anyone even remembered I was here. And these wings, that once beshadowed the sun: I don't know whether they'd fly at all now. Not so much golden as rusty these days! Huh!
So there you have it: we're both of us well past our best, aren't we? All washed up. Headed for the scrap heap. Here we are together, in my lair under the hill; but at the same time we're both of us over the hill! That's a nice little ironical paradox, isn't it?
I'm not going to fight you, Sir Tristan. Maybe I'd beat you, or maybe you'd beat me; but either way it'd be an embarrassment. Two old cronks bashing away at each other till they both run out of breath or one of them drops dead from a heart attack! Not good! So I've got a better suggestion for you.
This treasure now. It took a lot of burning, looting and general mayhem to accumulate it all, and I won't pretend I didn't enjoy doing it: in fact it was tremendously enjoyable. But as I said, that was all a long time ago, and nowadays I don't seem to do anything except lie here and count it. And I can tell you; hunting down and collecting something is much more fun than spending years just owning it. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to keep it; and do you know, I really can't think of an answer? When you look back on life, you realise you set yourself various goals, and some of them you achieved, only perhaps they didn't prove as exciting as you hoped, and the rest you have to accept you'll never achieve now. So what I'm proposing to you is this: instead of fighting for my gold, why don't you just take as much as you can carry and go home? You can tell everyone you've killed me, for all I care. They'll probably believe you, and I doubt very much whether anyone will bother to come up here to check. And who knows, when you're really old, you might come to believe yourself that you'd really killed a dragon. And if everyone including you believes it happened, then it's just as good as if it really did happen, isn't it?


Some time later the dragon woke from a doze and thought to himself: Really that all got pretty tedious, didn't it? I sometimes wonder what the world's coming to, when you have to explain the most obvious things; practically spell them out word for word; not just to children but even to adults! I think that as I get older I don't get more patient and tolerant, but less!
But then he thought: No, it's not fair to blame poor old Tristan; it's not really his fault he was so ignorant; it's just that no-one ever bothered to teach him these things.
In any case, he may have been over the hill, but he still tasted quite nice!


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Story: "A Letter"

A Letter

The envelope had fallen face downwards on the mat. Nigel ripped it open without bothering to turn it over. Inside was a single sheet of paper. There was no sender's address at the top, and the writing was in careful block capitals.
"Mister Williams", he read. But that wasn't him: Mr Williams had been the previous occupant of the house. Really, the man should have informed the Post Office he was moving, not to mention telling his correspondents!
"Mister Williams, you still haven't paid us the ten thousand. We will be sending someone round to collect it".
He read the message three times, after which he was shaking with fear. What had this man Williams been up to? He knew nothing about him at all; had never even met him. The property was vacant when he moved in; the letting agent had shown him round an empty house. Now Williams's misdeeds, whatever they might have been, were catching up with him. That must have been why he'd left without a forwarding address. And here HE, Nigel, was; trapped and helpless, having to answer for someone else's crimes! A chill crawled up his spine as he imagined what would happen: a couple of thugs would come to the door and he'd try to explain that he wasn't Williams but they wouldn't believe him and ......... No, he couldn't bear even to think about it! They were probably watching the house even now! He must escape! There wasn't a moment to lose!
Without even bothering to pick up his coat, he ran to the kitchen door and outside to the rear garden, with some thought of getting away through the back hedge. But he was too late! There was a man, dark under the shadow of the trees, coming round the corner of the house and advancing towards him! Nigel stood there, tembling and quite incapable of movement, as time froze, and then the figure spoke.
"Morning, Nigel! How are you?"
"Michael! Oh thank goodness! You can't imagine how relieved I am it's you! But it was a rotten trick to play with that letter. You know what my nerves are like!"
"What trick? What letter?"
The cold panicky feeling started again, but at least he wasn't isolated and on his own any more.
"I got a letter just now, threatening me. Or not me exactly, but ......... Wait; I'll get it and show you".
But the letter wasn't there. He scrabbled around ineffectually for a while, and finally said, lamely, "I don't seem to be able to find it. But it was here!"
"That's all right, Nigel", said Michael. "I am your doctor, and I quite understand". Yes indeed: it was becoming more complex and fascinating by the day, the case of Nigel Williams.


Monday, 19 October 2009

Story: "Gifts"

It was a bright day in October, with the autumn sun glinting off leaves left damp by recent rain, when Jennifer came to visit her aunt in her cottage on the Somerset coast. They had not met for some time. After tea, Jennifer was taken into a small sitting-room looking out onto the sea. The tide was coming in.
"Now", said her aunt, "I've asked you here for a purpose. You're not my nearest relative, of course, but I've followed your life with interest, and I think you're sensible and strong-minded enough for what I'll need you to do. You see, my dear, I'm going to die soon".
Jennifer, caught by surprise, could only utter some kind of gasp.
"Oh, it's all right", said her aunt,"you needn't feel sorry for me. I'm not in pain or anything. But I know these things, you see: I know I'm not going to last much longer. And it's very inconvenient, because I know all sorts of things are likely to happen very soon; probably very unpleasant things; and I won't be here to deal with them. That's where you come in. You'll have to take over from me when I'm gone. Now come over here".
She led a bemused and silent Jennifer to a glass-fronted display cabinet containing a random-looking collection of small objects: just the sort of collection a middle-class maiden lady might be expected to have accumulated during a long life.
"Now take a good look", she said, "You won't be getting anything from my will, but you can have some of these now. Which would you like?"
Jennifer felt an inexplicable sense of dread come over her; so much so that she was hardly conscious of making a rational decision; but finally she said, "The ring. I'd like the ring, please". Why she had chosen that, she wondered. It wasn't a special-looking ring at all. It had a blue stone, but it probably wasn't a genuine sapphire. Her aunt smiled.
That's good", she said, "You shall have the ring. Now for your second gift?"
"The litttle horse", said Jennifer. Again, she couldn't precisely say why she had made the choice. It was a small earthenware animal, Chinese in inspiration, though probably not in manufacture. Once again, her aunt looked pleased.
"Not much to look at, is he? But it's the right choice again. Now just one more to pick".
Jennifer knew what she would have to choose next, but by this time she was feeling positively frightened. She hesitated a long time before finally saying, in no more than a whisper,"The suffbox". Why did it alarm her so? There were peculiar decorations on the lid, and it probably wasn't even real silver.
Her aunt unlocked to cabinet and removed the three small objects. "Actually, it's not a snuffbox, but never mind. There! You've made the right choice three times running: it's a very good sign. I knew I was right to call you down here.
"You can wear the ring if you think you're strong-minded enough, which I think you are; but you must be prepared to see some very strange things if you do; often quite disturbing things". She walked across to the window, where twilight was already descending on Bridgewater Bay, and lights were twinkling away northwards on the Welsh shore. "I've seen a lot of very strange things out there. Some of them I was able to help deal with ....."
Her voice faded, then strengthened again. "The horse will help you. You'll find out how to summon him when you need to.
"As for the box, it must never be opened. I can't stress that too strongly. I'm not precisely sure what's in it, you understand, but I'm certain it's something very nasty indeed. You must think of yourself as the guardian of the box. I've guarded it for more than forty years, and now I'm passing it on to you.
"Now you really must go. I've booked you into a hotel in Taunton for the night, and it wouldn't be at all a good idea for you to be driving along little country roads in the dark with these things on board".
Jennifer was past asking for explanations, but she did say, "Hadn't we better wrap them up?"
Her aunt smiled. "Oh, you needn't worry about them bashing into each other and getting broken: they can look after themselves! But you're quite right: we should treat them with proper respect".
So they wrapped up the three gifts very carefully in tissue paper and put them in a shopping bag.
"Now you can kiss me goodbye", said her aunt, "You won't be seeing me again. It's up to you now".


Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Homage to Rupert Brooke
(To be sung to the tune of the Prelude to Act III of "Carmen", by Bizet)

The boy who sang by Granta's stream
of spires and fenland, games and laughter in the morn,
is taken by a wider dream;
out eastwards sees the golden sun of blazing dawn,
and hears a voice singing proudly now of songs of war and duty


youth and honour lie in Flanders field
and by the banks of Somme and Yser seek for fame;
a sword to draw, a lance to wield,
a shield to bear the man who dies to win a name;
and hear him sing, now may God be thanked who matched us with his hour


loud rejoicing as the boat sails away
to sun-baked islands, sead that once were dark as wine,
where heroes fought a burning day
and deeds as brightly as the Hellene sun will shine
and so he goes, seekin Ilium's walls and Hector's martial story

for the

boy who sang by grana's stream
in storm and glory
to the war
is gone.


The Days: a creation myth

The first day was golden with the radiance of pure light as the Sun rose. Creation began. But behind the radiance was the Anti-light, the false creation, which is the greatest sin.

The second day was glittering silver beneath the Moon; and it was a day of mysteries, of hidden things, and of the waters. And the sin of the second day was magic, and forbidden knowledge.

The third day was blood-red, and it was the day of Mars. A day of struggle and fight; a day of iron. The sin of the third day was violence, and blind rage.

The fourth day was black as the infinite void; but from the blackness rose swift Mercury, the Quicksilver, who made it a day of buying and selling, of coming and going, and of messages. The sin of the fourth day was greed.

On the fifth day the firmament was painted bright blue, and its lord was Jupiter. So great was he that some confused him with his Maker. And the sin of the fifth day was pride.

The sixth day was the shining green of verdigris. Here lay the naked form of Venus, who commanded it to be a day of lovemaking. And so the sin of the sixth day was lust.

The seventh day was rich imperial purple, robing ancient Saturn as he yawned on his leaden throne of unendurable weight. On this day all creatures rest from their labours. So the sin of the seventh day was idleness.

So the first week ends.


The mask of Agamemnon

Pale gold, thin as card, shaped to a face,
heavy-lidded eyes like cowries, and a smile.
Not the faint ironic smile of a skull,
but a grin of power, satiated,
having laid conscience to rest.
This face, not Helen's, launched the thousand ships,
murdered Iphigenia, burned Troy,
to avenge an insult to the family,
to not lose face.

Then, fixed in eternal gold,
sent into darkness, out of sight of man,
unrotted in the grave, for endless years,
only the gods could see. To them it showed its grin
and the message, "This face was not lost:
through heroic genocide and towns laid waste, this face was saved".

And now is saved indeed
since Schliemann dug it from the earth:
placed now behind bullet-proof glass
stronger than stone walls and Lion Gates,
under fluorescence far brighter
than any sun of Hellas:
Agamemnon: great king
of mighty Mycenae
once more in state:
trriumphant over death as over morality,
immortalised in story as in gold,
still grinning. We repeat: this face was saved
- though nothing else was. Troy was lost
and soon after, Mycenae also was lost; but this face was not lost.
What more could any king desire?


poems 2

Sanctuary Wood, Ypres: School Visits

How can they understand a war poem? How can we?
wars were far away and long ago
and nothing seen on television ever really happened.
Now the woods are full of children
running through the muddy trenches
dodging round the water-filled craters gawping at, or completely failing to notice
the occasional unexploded shell
and squeaking when their nice new jeans
(fashionably ragged and torn at the knee)
are stained with filth in the communications tunnel.
Below the woods the fields are grey with mist
shrouding the view to the sinister places
the Menin Road, and up to Passchendaele,
behind us, Messines Ridge and Plugstreet. The children
have been told, but already they've forgotten
and soon they'll be off for hamburger and chips
(They're looking forward to their succulent Belgian chips),
leaving the trenches and the shattered stumps,
the rusty barbed wire and all the iron harvest of war,
and arching over all, the chestnut trees
- none more than seventy years old
but spouting strongly, because well fertilised
by someone who in happier circumstances
might have married my grandmother
or yours

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"
(An answer to the poem by Shelley: to be recited in a silly voice)

Last summer I saw Ozymandias
it was on the left bank of the Nile
across from Luxor. His visage
was even more shattered than when Shelley's friend saw it
but the archaeologists had stuck it back on
his patched-up shoulders.
I didn't see any inscription
but maybe it had been removed to
the Cairo museum.
The bit about there being nothing around but sand
is however completely wrong, since these days
the whole area is thick with hucksters selling
the most appalling junk to the parties of tourists
so when you think of it, the natives really should be grateful to Ozymandias
because if he hadn't taken the trouble to put up the statue
the region would be even poorer than it is
and it set me wondering how Adolf Hitler
might be perceived a few thousand years from now
and all the other tourists seemed to be having
equally solemn thought as they gazed on
what is styled the "colossal wreck"
and I even saw genuine despair in some faces
though maybe they were only wondering how long
they would have to last out
until they found the
next lavatory.


I would like to believe in unicorns
the swift form, silver as the moon,
shyly lurking in deep woodlands, seen by few

The horn like sparkling barley-sugar, the neat cloven hoof
and the dark unplumbable eye, speaking wisdom
from remotest ages.

Saying that romance and adventure live yet
and will return, in an enchanted world
undreamed of by science

Where visions can teach truth, and gods or demons
once more speak to men, and there is wild exaltation
or black terror

And reason will fall from its usurped throne
leaving faith and magic to point the way
incomprehensible and glorious.


Dog: or, Hegel was right, Bentham was wrong

He has nosed around
and now he proposes
to lie in the sun and do nothing
until dinner.

There is a lot to think about.

The puppies have been ignoring his advice.
His career as a watchdog is threatened by new technology, in the form of a birglar alarm.
The spaniel next door has a much better basket than him.
And should he show solidarity with persecuted pit-bull terriers,
threatened with racial discrimination?
Meanwhile in the Far East, it is said, dogs are still being killed and eaten:
surely some action must be taken?

But none ofthese things concern him at all
as he lies in the sun doing nothing
which is why, whereas we are human,
he is only a dog.


Romanticism fails again!

When I was a boy, I found a book in a cave
in complete darkness: by touch alone I found it,
sodden and cold. It dripped as I bore it to the light
- not without trepidation;
since had this been an H. P. Lovecraft story, I would have held
a tractatus of occult knowlege
ancient, arcane, and damned. But it proved to be an electricians' manual
scarcely occult even to the least technically-minded.
How it came to be in the cave, far from any power-scource,
might make a story in itself
if I could be bothered.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009


My Grandmother's Clock

It sits on my mantelpiece

my grandmother's clock

and I should very much like

to ask the clock to tell me

of everything it knows

of my grandmother and her time.

But we all know it is a mere

affectation of literature

to ask a clock what it knows

for the face of the clock is eyeless

the hands of the clock do not feel

it tells the hours unknowing

and it speaks, but says nothing but "tick",

and although it stopped when she died

(at a great age, in her own home)

this fact in itself was without

any metaphysical cause

(there was no-one to wind it up).

So it sits on my matelpiece

my grandmother's clock

and a hundred years from now

it will sit on someone else's

and its eyeless face will look on

a world I shall never see

and its unfeeling hands will tell

hours I shall never know

and still it says nothing but "tick".



My horoscope said

that events of this week

would improve my morals

so I'm waiting.

(I know this was a misprint for "morale"

but surely mistakes of this kind

must be supernaturally inspired?)



You haven't seen Philip for twenty years

and you think, "Well,

he may have a better job than me

but he looks a lot older than me!"

And Philip looks at you

and maybe he thinks the same.