Tales from the Frontier – No. 4

Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life. – Lord Byron

If reports are to be believed, Mexican towns on the US border are packed with drug sellers, buyers, pushers and runners. As far as I know we have only one well-known pusher on our border. Let’s call him Wilhelm. We’ll call him that since it’s his real name. Why the heck should we protect the identity of a criminal?

I haven’t known many criminals in my life, or if I’ve met them I wasn’t aware of their occupation. The one I did know masqueraded as a builder. Let’s call him Bill. That isn’t his real name. I’m not mad. He’s a builder! Got muscles to match and fists the size of a Christmas turkey.

He and Wilhelm have a lot in common, they both like the trappings of a swell life. House, car, exotic holidays, tailored clothes, fine dining, pricey entertainment, the whole nine yards, or 8.23 metres as we say here in Euroland. And both love to flaunt it.

Wilhelm has a huge villa that overlooks the Rhine. It’s got its own dock and boathouse. In his powerboat he can be in France in two minutes and in Switzerland in four. I’m guessing that with some of his powdered products you can be in la-la-land in five minutes. Travel is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, if you lived in such a gorgeous house why would you want to take trips away? I inhabit an apartment the size of the toilet on an Airbus A300 and the airplane’s seats are more comfortable than mine.

Wilhelm owns several cars. He’s very patriotic. He has a classic Mercedes, a BMW Series 7, and a sporty Audi Quattro. I’m more socially responsible with regard to pollution so I use the tram. He’s also got a VW Golf cabriolet for sunny days. Most days for Wilhelm must be sunny because he’s got a permanent tan. I’m a little bit pale. My wife made me buy coloured bed sheets because with white ones she said she was never sure whether I’d come to bed yet. We generally have to take our own sheets when we go on holiday to our extra-economy no-star hotel.

Wilhelm holidays in hotels with more stars than the Milky Way. Black silk sheets to order are probably his choice. He picked up his wife on holiday. She was Miss Thailand or Miss India or maybe Miss Universe – he can afford to go anywhere. She’s certainly the most gorgeous looking lady on this planet. Not that my lady isn’t a looker. She came third in a contest at Butlins. Okay, it was a knobbly knees contest but they’re a smart pair of patellas. Although you don’t get to view them often because she wears a polyester leisure suit most of the time.

Wilhelm wears suits made for him in Rome by Caraceni. He gets them there because that’s where Humphrey Bogart sometimes got his. Wilhelm probably saw Casablanca once too often and models himself on Rick. I had a suit once. Okay, the trousers didn’t match the jacket and it was really two halves of two suits but it was pretty sharp if you ignored one or two ketchup stains down the front.

That’s one thing Wilhelm’s suits never had. He probably hasn’t been in the same room as a bottle of ketchup for years. He only eats things with French names that look like abstract paintings on a plate. Like most drug dealers he started life grabbing a burger on a windy corner while palming off the odd Eight Ball; it didn’t take him long to realise that Swiss users had more money than those in Berlin and Brandenburg. He came to the border and widened his horizons and expanded his product range. He made money faster than the Royal Mint and the quality of his victuals rose accordingly. Rumour has it he has his own herd of Charolais in Burgundy and a château and vineyard to go with it. I was twenty before I realised meat came in an unminced form and wine didn’t necessarily have to taste like brass polish or come in boxes.

People complain that drug pushers like Wilhelm spread misery, which may be true, but I don’t buy his wares and have quite enough misery of my own. It’s getting harder and harder to watch Wilhelm flash by in his open-top dream car, with his unmatchable wife both looking like models of perfection on their way to fly off in their Lear jet to Mustique while I finger the coin in my pocket hoping it’s a euro and not just fifty cents. Virtue is its own reward so I guess I’m pretty rich but I bet Wilhelm looks at me and firmly believes that Lord Byron got it right.

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Tales from the Frontier – No. 3

This is the age of oddities let loose. – Lord Byron

It seems that weird, eccentric, unwashed itinerants are particularly drawn to the border areas.

In old movies you sometimes see an Apache medicine man dancing around the corpses of a tribe massacred by the Seventh Cavalry. This bouncing traditional one-step is often accompanied by a rhythmic wailing. I’ve never been to the American plains but I’ve seen an identical performance here in front of the shopping centre. The dancer was no Indian brave in tasselled buckskin although his grubby jacket was leather as were his trousers and greasy shapeless cap. It must have been a regular performance; the Rottweiler lying beside the blanket and the bulging backpack barely flicked an eye in his master’s direction. The lean and hungry dog concentrated his wistful glances at passing toddlers which was disconcerting since he licked his chops at the same time and showed rows of glistening fangs.

The dancing, if the stomping circulation could be called dancing, was not for public consumption. I had believed otherwise because there was a brown cardboard mug sitting on the pavement in front of the gyrating dog-owner and I thought it was meant for the offerings of sympathetic passers-by. This was clearly not the case as a do-gooder tossed a twenty cent coin into the mug as they swept by and a column of coffee splashed upwards. Both the dog and man looked at the resulting puddle and the man gave a belated, “Oi,” at the retreating defiler of his refreshment.

A wide assortment of beggars do hope for the odd tossed contribution into their bowls, mugs, hats or instrument cases. I lived in Berlin shortly after the wall came down and there were dozens of wonderful former Soviet musicians busking in the U-bahn. Here the level of musical aptitude is more ex-kindergarten than ex-philharmonic. Not that there are many buskers. Most of the indigents are women colourlessly bundled like extras in a Mexican cowboy movie or as peasants from a Spanish civil war epic – metres of shapeless cloth: scarves, shawls, headdresses or ankle-length black skirts. These poor damsels at least look as if they need money which is more than can be said for the men who slouch on a precinct corner with a can of lager, a cigarette, and the obligatory mongrel, and hope for contributions to their off-licence, filter tip, and tin of Pedigree Chum funds.

There seems to be far fewer young females than young men. Maybe the qualifying conditions for the fairer sex are difficult to fulfil. From observation it seems that certain traits are vital for successful indigence; feminine allure is not one of them. You have heard the expression, ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ concerning a rather wild hair arrangement but here this seems to be a literal description of the complete package. Add the facial ironware, piercings, colourful tattoos and Gothic application of eye made-up and you have a fair idea of the female denizens of our border street corners. I have seen primly-attired matrons cross over the road rather than pass within coin-tossing distance of these zombie film extras and their begging bowls.

Do not be fooled. In my limited experience these ‘ladies’ are by no means as ghastly as they look. I had a very pleasant conversation with one who sounded as if she had attended the Sorbonne or a Swiss finishing school by the scope of her knowledge and the cadences of her refined accent. She resembled the formerly mentioned Indian brave since she had a Mohican haircut but she was quite charming. I donated fifty cents towards her tonsorial and sartorial outgoings.

As with most western societies there is a lack of social funding here; more mentally-challenged folk are appearing on the streets. I have sat beside them on benches as they rip newspaper into squares before tucking them in a pocket and continuing with another sheet of Das Bild. (They might merely have read the paper – I’ve often felt the impulse). I’ve seen middle-aged men fill a carrier bag from a rubbish bin before hurrying on to the next one and emptying the bag again. I don’t know what to do to help them. I did try last week. I saw a long-haired girl in jeans and tee shirt. The jeans had rips, not only in the knees but in the thighs and rear. She was muttering to herself and walking round in tight circles occasionally waving her arms. I had to act when she headed towards the busy road still mumbling. I put out a saving arm. She pushed me away, flicked back her hair revealing her mobile phone earpiece, and jumped into her parked open-top Mercedes with the words, “Sorry, love, just been accosted by a tramp. This town is full of crazies.”

Tales from the Frontier – No. 2

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold. – Lord Byron

You know who’ll rule the world if a dystopian nightmare ever becomes reality? The Swiss.

The Swiss? What have they got to offer besides numbered bank accounts, insurance and Roger Federer?

A multi-functional Army knife, comically dressed Papal guards and holey cheese.

True, but quality tools, primary-coloured stripey uniforms, and smelly Emmental aren’t the things that will count in a devastated world.

Right! Prompt, efficient snaffling up of available resources will be the prime directive.

So what can bankers, insurance-sellers, chocolate munchers and cuckoo clock makers bring to the survival table?

I’ll tell you. The majority of the Swiss population have border-town shopping experience in Germany.

And nipping into Merkel-land to fill a Lidl carrier bag with bratwurst, Black Forest gateau, Bitburger lager and pumpernickel helps in what way?

You obviously haven’t been on the frontier front line. The hordes of Genghis Khan galloping over the Steppes on hairy ponies have nothing on our neighbours when it comes to marauding. The Swiss pour over the mountains in SUVs the size of two garden sheds. The roads across the border are as clogged as the Honiton by-pass during bank holidays in the 1960s.

Picture the scene. From every canton come columns of mechanised soldier ants pillaging the frontier supermarkets. The Women’s Institute Special Shopping Forces could do no better job of clearing Marktkauf, Lidl and Aldi shelves. The tills hum to frantic beepings of barcode readers. High denomination sheaves of colourful Franken notes are thrust at sweating checkout personnel while till receipts the length of loo rolls are offered in return. Empty trolleys once filled beyond their acceptable weight limit, wheels akimbo, lie abandoned resembling a modern retreat from Moscow. Departing vehicles are packed like Japanese underground carriages at rush hour. Parking attendants shoulder doors closed compressing drivers and purchases into the bulging compartments. It’s not a pretty sight.

Not just the Swiss, surely? What about the French? They’re as close aren’t they?

True. A bridge not far enough. Two actually. A footbridge and road bridge across the Rhine. The French have more style but less money than the world’s bankers. Added to which an ageing 2CV or Peugot 306 can’t carry the provisions that a mobile Alpine chalet with a Zurich numberplate can. Anyway, the French think they have better wine, tastier cheese, and prefer vegetables that don’t look as if the trip from Spain was too much for them. The French come to fulfil their Manifest Destiny – to shrug, be a nuisance and get in the way. The really ancient ones’ memories are a bit dodgy so they aren’t sure whether Alsace is in Germany or France this year since they didn’t have to cross a border.

The Swiss do have border posts don’t they?

In name only. All the Customs boys do is stamp forms so that the neutrals can get the VAT back from their pillaging. Better than smuggling because it’s legal. The Swiss are only intent on ‘filling their boots’, or any other container for that matter. The Urban Dictionary defines the expression ‘fill your boots’ as: ‘an invitation to partake with gusto’ and you rarely see so much gusto in one place.

So if the North Koreans, Israelis, Iranians or Trump cause a holocaust, the Swiss will be okay?

Yup. they’ll have the experience to expertly hoover up all the remaining resources and head back to the mountains.

But only the ones who live on the frontier, surely?

Well, that’s the beauty of the country – nowhere is more than 45 miles from a frontier as the vulture flies, so all the Swiss should have some border shopping experience. On Doomsday they’ll be singing their national song stolen from the Bee Gees, ‘We win again’ as they unload their trucks.

Tales from the Frontier – No. 1

There was a sound of revelry by night. – Lord Byron

The advantage of living where three borders meet is the abundance of celebrations. To begin with there are three national days. Although to be honest the Germans don’t go overboard for their National Day.

Some countries celebrate with parades, fêtes, galas, concerts and fireworks, but since a couple of men in smart suits had merely signed a German reunification document, only muted jollifications were merited. A quarter of Germans take the chance of the public holiday to have a lie-in. The Germans are still a bit wary about holding national military parades.

On July 14 naturally the French want to let off fireworks, have a good old knees-up and run about and shout to mark the storming of an old prison (even if it was almost empty). French victories are few and far between so memories of successful belligerent acts are made much of.

The Swiss do have a different take on paperwork. They consider any signing, collecting, filing or movement of it to be sacred. Hardly surprising since it is the national occupation. Insurance, banking, and being neutral are hardly Action Man activities but do require a lot of bumf. Their national day honours the peaceful signing in 1291 of the Federal Charter beginning the Swiss confederation. Wikipedia suggests August 1 is celebrated with paper lantern parades, bonfires, hanging strings of Swiss flags, fireworks and competitive rifle shooting matches. Blanks are probably used for Health and Safety reasons.

The Swiss are fond of fireworks. Major displays burst over Basel both on National Day and on New Year’s Eve. I imagine there is much cowering under sofas in the houses lining the Rhine by domestic wildlife and the timorous while fireworks explode like the bombardment before a WW I assault. The Swiss have experienced very few ‘over-the-top’ flurries during the last few centuries so the booms and bangs are a bit of a novelty.

Shops usually shut on days of national festivities so being a short stroll from another country means you can still get your half-litre of milch/lait and baguette/brötchen most days of the year. You don’t even have to use Franken when you shop in Switzerland, they take anything that even vaguely resembles money, although their idea of exchange rate is on a par with the Great Train robbers – they end up with sacks of banknotes and you come away with a headache.

Shops usually close in all three countries for at least one day over Christmas but you do get the advantage of having a load of different Christmas markets to chose from. Not that that there is a great contrast in the separate markets. The quality of glühwein varies and local snacks differ somewhat although a bratwurst by any other name is still a fleshy vehicle for non-Coleman’s mustard. You can probably buy a Peruvian cap with ear-flaps knitted from llama’s wool in all three and a crib scene cut from plywood purporting to come from the Erzegebirge or one of the whittling Swiss cantons or French woodworking departements. One thing you should not expect when attending a Christmas market is late night revelry. Most close pretty promptly at ten o’clock or earlier which is just as well because glühwein seems to make most people sleepy rather than boisterous and eager for late-night action.

I always wonder what they do with the potting sheds they use as stalls for the other eleven months of the year. They do pop up occasionally when a town celebrates the day they received their charter or they hold a mediaeval style festival. Much the same fare is available although it has an event-fitting name. It is sold by someone wearing a tabard, tights and a cap with a feather in it or a shapeless floor-length skirt with an apron and bonnet. And as ever, everything stops when the sun goes down and the little huts go back to their long exile.

An added benefit of a border area is that you get more theatres, museums and art galleries, although of course presented in different languages. And language can be a bit of a problem. You thought you had a decent grasp of French or German until you hit a serious Schwartzwald or Vosges mountain dialect but even then you might muddle through. You can forget that when it comes to Schwyzer-Deutsch. Nine more words come along while you’re still struggling to decipher the first. Vowels are clipped variables and consonants are spat or hawked out and the whole lot is crammed into as short a sound-bite as possible. My theory is that it’s an attempt to save breath for clambering up alpine slopes. And that’s also a border plus – you get three different national sceneries, but that’s another story.

Fleeting Breath

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WARM CLAY

 And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. 

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Early Days

Often seen are comments, blogs and tweets regarding 1* reviews on Amazon. Some people think that if you haven’t got fluffy things to say, and at least 4 stars to give to a book, then you shouldn’t say anything. I disagree.

The author of ‘Playing Harry, ‘ Nick Wastnage, and I recently swapped emails.

Every other Indie writer’s first book is a ‘best-seller’ in their promos.
Several of my early novel typescripts are accumulating dust in cupboards and boxes. I had sold
many short stories but was still learning the writer’s trade (still trying) and although I loved the accomplishment, I knew the books weren’t any good. I wonder if the opportunities now available had been around then I would have self-published the dross. I have the feeling I might have and would now be blushing with shame.

First, second, and maybe more attempts at full-length fiction by tyro writers can be poor. Most will be like the curate’s egg. Early imperfections are part of the apprenticeship that a writer must serve in order to master, or at least make a decent fist of, the storyteller‘s art.

Reading and scribbling from a very early age in your mother tongue is necessary but not sufficient. Most of us walk and run as toddlers but that doesn’t guarantee an Olympic track medal.

Athletes endlessly pound the track and learn relevant techniques. When they run in the first competitive race they won’t be winning an Olympic final and wouldn’t expect to. Why do writers think their first try-outs should be best-sellers? The beginning writer, striving to say what they mean, has to do the equivalent of countless laps before even considering techniques of plotting, characterisation, atmosphere etc.

 

It is a fine accomplishment to complete your first 90,000 work typescript. It is possibly the best writing you have ever drafted and edited, but it is only a foundation stone for building on. It is the best you can do at the time but better is to come.

The first publishable works are still probably worthy of only a few stars, but any reviews, hinting at directions where errors might lie, are worth their weight in paper. Many early, and sometimes hurtful, reviews are vital for the learning process. Hug them to you and learn! Ignore the useless and spiteful.

Write reviews for other writers: honestly try to indicate where you found the story unsatisfactory, where characters didn’t convince, where dialogue sounded false or weak, point out reading stumbling blocks, typos and wrong word usage, everything that stopped the flow and spirit of the tale. You will learn things at the same time as providing your fellow scribe with invaluable hints. If you think two stars is more than fair then give them. Don’t feel mean. Your honest, directed opinion is worth a handful of five star puffs from friends and relatives.

A Writing Life

I’m not interested in selling my books!
Maybe I should clarify that.

I would love hordes of readers and millions of sales but I’m not a bookshop owner, marketing executive, sales person or car boot trader. I have no interest in the mechanics of selling. I’m a writer – I write.

I have an MBA so I understand the business of business, I merely want no active part in it.

Modern writers are continually being told that times have changed and they must take the forefront when it comes to putting their work out there. They should contact the Press and local radio stations, do readings, organize book signings, tweet like mad things, join Facebook, write a daily blog, have a website, make a video trailer, promote, promote, promote.

Some writers love this side of things and leap into the commercial pool and enjoy splashing about. They deserve as much fun as they can get; writing is a solitary business. Social media for them is a boon and a chance to advertise their product. They blog tour, have free days on KDP, chat on Goodreads, Like and reTweet fellow writers’ work and expect reciprocity. They have an abundance of energy and tens of thousands of ‘friends’.

I have tried to jump aboard and enjoy the merry-go-round but my heart is not in it. I have seen what expert promoters can achieve but my sales reflect my lack of application to marketing.

In the past it was true that a well-written book eventually got picked up by an agent and publisher and sold decently. This is no longer the case because there are just so many books out there. Most have to go the Indie route, but without a sales campaign of some variety there is little chance of catching the eye. Even second-rate books and films become massive best sellers when they have huge advertising budgets to give them visibility. If you are a celebrity or renowned in another field of endeavour you will be off to a flying start even if you need a ghost writer to assemble the words. I understand the requirement but I’m no Olympic gold medal winner or reality TV star, I’m a writer not a ‘personality’ or a sales rep.

I’m sorry not to be reaching a huge audience (or even a moderate one) but my working day, and my creative energy, are focused on writing. The remainder of the time, during which I might flog my work round the bazaars, I prefer to devote to golf. Sales and marketing matters I leave in the laps of the writing Gods.

I am a writer so I am happy to starve in a garret with no complaint.

The Writing Yips

YIPS – Definition: Trembling on the brink of an action causing failure of completion.

This sounds more like a problem for a sex therapist, but writers can suffer the dreaded Yips whilst writing their novel. I always do.

Yips is a term used in various sports to describe the inability to competently follow through with an action.

For example:

Hands and arms start shaking whilst trying for the dreaded ten foot putt on the golf green,
OR the fingers won’t let go of the ball when bowling at cricket.

 Very embarrassing for a professional

 For a writer it manifests itself by an attack on self belief and a lack of confidence in:

all the characters,
the plot,
pace,
conflict,
and flow of words.

FOLLOWED BY:

  1. An all-pervading intense feeling that this is not worth the effort to carry on
  2. It has to be the worst thing every written.

In my case the Yips occur about two-thirds the way through a book, round the sixty or seventy thousand word mark.

I’ve hit the problem in every book I’ve worked on and in fact Yips stopped me completing a couple earlier in my writing life.

There is only one solution to the writing Yips:

CONTINUE POUNDING THE KEYS IN YOUR DAILY ROUTINE UNTIL YOU TYPE THE LAST FULL STOP.

Of course it might turn out at edit time that this IS the worst thing you’ve ever written, but in my experience it generally isn’t.

I guess the Yips is a form of writers’ block except you can still write even though you’re convinced it would be better to stop. DON’T GIVE IN TO IT. After maybe another five thousand words or so self-belief returns and a finish can be made. Put the work aside for several months whilst editing a previous novel and when you come back to it, the writing will seem perfectly acceptable.

Third Class Convict

THIRD CLASS CONVICT is now available as paperback

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1848, the year of revolution.

Bookish Wyatt Faulkner happens upon a Chartists’ mass meeting on Kennington Common and inadvertently falls foul of Conrad Sperling, a police spy.

Wyatt’s childhood friend, Amy Saville, a Chartist, is to deliver a boat full of weapons across the Thames on the eve of the planned uprising. The Chartists, fearing discovery, postpone the action but Amy has already picked up her cargo. Wyatt, believing Amy will sail into a trap, intercepts her but is caught with the guns.

Left for dead, Wyatt is dumped in the Newgate mortuary. He survives but a fractured skull leaves him with no memory. Sperling, learning of his survival, arrests the docile Wyatt and sends him to the Old Bailey. Tried for treason as John Smith, Wyatt is sentenced to seven years in the Woolwich Hulks.

On Hulk HMS Warrior, Wyatt is befriended by Sammy Palmer who helps him negotiate his first difficult days as a convict. Sperling, having expected him to be hanged or transported, fears Wyatt may remember and betray his spying to the Chartists who have already tortured and crucified a traitor. Sperling sends Price, a killer trying to avoid a return to the deadly Bermuda Hulks, to silence Wyatt.

Wyatt unwittingly scuppers the Irish convicts bid to steal gunpowder for an escape. A beating from a murderous Irishman is interrupted but lands Wyatt on the hospital ship Unité.

Two killers await Wyatt’s return to HMS Warrior.

And then there is the cholera.