Monday, 16 September 2013



 A Writer’s Notebook

No. 42, September 2013

 .James Watson
Friends and contributors

Notes in passing
Laura Solomon, extract from                                       ‘Imitation of Life’
Poems of place (19)
Quote of the Month
The Ned Baslow Letters
Kindle editions 1



It’s been a summer break worth taking. Out came the electric fan, dusted down after years of inactivity in the loft; and there was scarcely a day when the temperature dropped below 70 degrees. In this Kentish neck of the woods a few prayers went up for rain, in part for the gardens, but also for a few minutes respite from the noise of kids on holiday: can’t help mentioning it!

In this issue the team is delighted to print the first of extracts from Laura Solomon’s 2009 novel, published by Solidus, An Imitation of Life, with a very singular theme. Many thanks, Laura.

These blogs have welcomed contributions from other writers – novel extracts, short stories, poems and reviews; plus correspondence. We look forward to more, including those pieces tucked away in a drawer in face of the usual publishers’ mantra, ‘We don’t think there’s a market for this kind of work’.

E-books have opened up ‘this kind of work’ and the internet has facilitated as never before individual author enterprise in terms of that ‘market’.

The rest of Blog 42 speaks for itself.


Notes in passing
No Pasarán, No Surrender, No what?

What do these expressions refer to and do their meanings change according to who is using them? It’s confusing and sometimes disturbing to see how such exclamations are appropriated. So, No Pasarán – good, inviting us to unite with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and to remember La Pasionara, Dolores Ibárruri, to such inspiring effect.

 In a spirit of approval, I entitled a novel set in the Angolan civil war No Surrender, little realising at the time that such a call to arms, or more literally defence against a usually mightier force, was a watchword familiar in the history of Northern Ireland.


But which party in the sectarian divide does the expression belong to, the Catholics or the Protestants, or has it been used in turn according to changing circumstances? The phrase might well have originated in Derry (the Catholic name for it) or Londonderry (the Protestant tag). The apprentice boys of Londonderry shut the city gates in face of the Catholic troops of King James 11, this prior to a long and devastating siege (April-July 1689): No Surrender.

Circumstances change. William of Orange brought victory to the Protestant cause and the dominance of Protestantism led to exploitation and inequality. The Catholics of Derry launched fight-back: No Surrender! They had already been winning the demographic stakes. All at once some Protestants felt surrounded: No Surrender; while in the Bogside the Catholics erected a wall declaring YOU ARE ENTERING FREE DERRY. No Surrender?

In the recent riots over marches, re-directed marches or banned marches in Belfast, the summons to unity appeared on the placards of Protestant protesters.

Is it about freedom, territory or creed? The worry is that one of these days I’ll be holding a banner or a placard declaring No Surrender and find myself in a protest I have no wish to subscribe to. The danger for the open-minded concerning the realms of liberty is to end up backing the wrong side, often without realising it.


Taking the rubber to history

For the moment No Surrender belongs to the protestors in Egypt in face of military action; but the same placard might appropriately serve those defending a secular democracy against an Islamic takeover.

Of course there’s appropriation and erasure. An example of erasure (or attempted erasure) from Nottingham catches the eye. When the Conservatives won the county elections in 2009, an information board commemorating the local volunteers who fought and died in Spain with the International Brigade was removed. In a sense, the Right were reasserting their version of ‘the right’ reading of history while marginalising alternative interpretations.

In Madrid, meanwhile, erasure is threatened. The Complutense University has been instructed by the Madrid high court to remove a memorial to the International Brigade on the ground that it was erected without planning permission. The university authorities claim they twice applied for permission but the council, dominated by the Right wing Popular Party, never replied: old story, old tactics.

What is being erased, of course, is not so much the memorial as the memory: history never stops being re-written. At the time of writing, petitions and protests were under way to preserve the memorial where it belongs.

The better news is that the Tories’ attempt to displace the memory of the sacrifices of the Nottingham brigaders was reversed when Labour regained control of the council in May 2013: No Pasarán!


Laura Solomon: An Imitation of Life (Solidus, 2009)

Extract 1 of her novel, published by kind permission of the author.

I was the black cloud that had entered their formerly sunny sky, the guest who casts a dark spell upon the wedding party, the evil fairy who arrives, uninvited, to the christening. I was the devil's walking parody on all two footed things.


I was born too soon. Mine was not an easy birth. Nature failed to take its course. From my mother's womb I was untimely ripped, torn out of the darkness and thrust into the light. I was six weeks premature but I had no need for an incubator. I was gigantic, clocking in at a heaving twenty-one pounds six ounces. I was triple the size of your average bubba, a great flubbering lump of an infant, who lay screeching upon her mother's stomach, fists slamming down into her flesh, tiny nails clawing across her skin.

  I was torn from the womb complete with fingernails, toenails, a healthy head of hair and a good set of gnashers. My canine teeth were abnormally large and hung down over my lower lip. My eyes were not blue like the eyes of other babies; the left one was pitch black, as if it had been sliced from night itself and the other was plain white, a burning sun. My hair was not red, nor black, nor brown, but devoid of colour, as if being born had given me such a fright that it had bleached each and every strand of pigment. I was the scariest baby this world had ever seen. My mother took one look at me and decided that this first hello would also be a last goodbye.

  I was the baby left abandoned in the basket. Unlike Moses, I had no river, nor were there bull-rushes for me to nestle amongst. My mother did not bother to remove me from my hospital blanket; she was too scared to unwrap me. She wanted me out of her sight. I say basket; it was a box. Brown cardboard it was, with Barbados Bananas printed on the side in yellow ink. Exotic. There was nothing else in there with me: no note, no rattle, no dummy for me to suck. I had been left to my fate; a fate which would prove to be both terrible and great. It was not my lot to be mediocre.

  This is the story of how I came to be, as it was told to me by Lettie, when she wanted to remind me that I did not belong to her, when she wanted to disown me. She would start with my humble beginnings and move on to the ruckus I had managed to create in her household.

  "Had I not had such a good heart," she would say, "you really would have been lost. Barry wanted nothing to do with you. If it hadn't been for me…"

  My arrival had turned Lettie's ordered life upside down. I had so terrified the family cat that it fled into the night the minute it laid eyes on me and was never seen again. The dog, Mutt, an enormous and savage Alsatian, made a run for the far corner of his kennel, where he sat whimpering for the next seven weeks, venturing out only twice a day for a brief scoff at the food bowl and a quick slurp of water before dashing for cover again.

  I was a difficult feeder. There was no question of the breast, and I was too bad for the bottle, chewing angrily through several rubber teats, and, in one instance, gnawing away on the bottle itself, milk spilling everywhere, plastic falling out of my mouth in gnarled fragments. Lettie soon resorted to a length of rubber hose, one end of which she would hold in my mouth, while she poured milk down the other. And I, I did not choke as a normal baby would, but took down as much as I could and saved up this sustenance for later, timely, regurgitation.

  I was not a sleeper. I howled all through the night – great, long, otherworldly screeches which ricocheted around the house ensuring that neither parent was granted a single wink of sleep. Everybody had always said that my adoptive mother was a woman who had a good head on her shoulders, but even she was driven out of her mind by this thing, this freak with a capital F. She had no idea what to do with me. She was unravelling, at a loose end. Barry didn't want to know. He was pretending that I was not there at all. I stretched the limit of Lettie's endurance far beyond breaking point. She took seven long weeks of me and then she shoved me away, out of sight from the world.

  The basement was her solution. To the old girl's credit, she did her best. It was not a case of merely shoving me down there amongst the bricks and the cockroaches; before she shut me away, she indulged in a wee spot of home decorating. She painted the walls in bright primary colours; great splashes of blue, yellow and red washing across the cellar in an attempt at cheeriness. She hung mobiles from the ceiling and placed soft toys and cushions upon the floor. There was a sheepskin rug and baby powder. There were two small windows and a dusty sort of light. Please, don't think my adoptive mama cruel. She was at the end of her tether, she felt that she had no alternative.

  I had no visitors to my basement home; the only soul I ever saw was Lettie, who felt it her duty to continue to pay her twice daily visits. The same routine every time; Lettie, appearing tentatively at the top of the stairs with a torch, peering down into the dusky gloom in an attempt to discern my mood before venturing into the cellar with her hose and her jar of warm milk. When she thought I was calm enough, and providing that she was feeling game, she would come down and feed me as quickly as possible before sprinting back up the stairs and into the safety of the house.

 She was especially terrified of my fangs, those gigantic canine teeth, which had grown at an alarming rate and hung down over the edge of my lower lip like the tusks of a walrus. She knew I could bite; she had seen what I had done to those baby bottles and she did not care to meet the same fate as that shredded plastic.

 She never came near; she stood at a distance and poked the feeding tube into my open gob and tipped sustenance into the other end of the pipe. And Barry's words would drift down from above. What the hell are we gonna do with her?

About the author
Laura published two novels in New Zealand in the mid-nineties.  Following this, she lived in London for ten years, supporting herself by working as a P.A. and an IT consultant.  During this time she completed a short story collection 'Alternative Medicine' and her novel An Imitation of Life.  She returned to New Zealand in 2007 and completed a novel for Young Adults - Instant Messages.  Her short story Sprout was short-listed for the Bridport prize in 2004 and another story The Most Ordinary Man in the World was short-listed for the same prize in 2005.  Her poem Apocryphal was runner-up in the 2009 Edwin Morgan competition. 

Poems of place (19)

Deep in the hunters’ wood

Dogs yelp with hunger or loneliness.

I scoop the pool with lordly net

Offering salvation to beetles, cicadas

And other lost souls who mistook

Their reflections for mates or enemies.


The motion of the net in water

Clearing a passage for my own encounter

With liquid sky, with Tuscan villa and hill,

With olive orchards and vine, becomes ritual.

There’s a raindrop of satisfaction beyond fun:

A modest task, yet a mighty purpose.


As for a buzzing prayer of thanks,

I’ll settle for a little less attention

From mosquitoes in the night. 


Quote of the Month

In this terrifyingly narcissistic vision of the world, Syria is not a war-torn nation, but simply a stage for Western moralistic preening, and its people are not human beings with political needs and desires, but merely props in a Western liberal pantomime pitting goodies against baddies. Brendan O’Neill, ‘Bombing Syria: war as therapy’, Spiked! 5 September 2013.

The Ned Baslow Letters (Cont.)

We are delighted to be able to continue publishing the letters of Ned Baslow as his campaign to put the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Arts Festival earmarked for the summer of 2014 on to the international cultural map. So far he has pencilled in contributions from William (‘Billy’ Blake), ‘Wolfy’ Amadeus Mozart and Mig Cervantes (original author of the Festival’s musical treat, The Spectacles of Don Quixote).

 Tickets have almost sold out for the animated tableau The Pantheon of the Great & the Beautiful with Helen of Troy in a starring role. Negotiations are now going on for another prodigious highlight, The Grand Combat of The Titans in which the Greeks (Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus) will match their prowess against our home-grown heroes Robin Hood and His Merry Men (including Will Scarlett who, legend has it, was born and bred in Wickerstaff).


Dear Vincent,

My wife Betty has informed me that you sign your paintings with your first name – Vincent – which I think is very friendly, so I am taking the opportunity to address you in the same manner. The reason for my writing to you is twofold, first to express my amazement at a fact which Ernie Shaw, vice-captain of our pub quiz team, insists is true – that in your entire career you only sold one painting even though your brother was a Paris art dealer. 

Ernie puts this down to the ignorance of the French nation. My Betty who is studying for an Open University degree says the neglect of your talents has been a disgrace, and considers it’s high time your career as an artist was given a boost. 

To this end we agreed a proposal that an exhibition of your paintings and drawings be mounted in the ante-room, kitchen and upper stairs of the village hall during our Grand Festival of the Arts, slated for July 2014. 

The committee is prepared to contribute to the cost of carriage and insurance of your pictures (up to the amount of £25), in addition to supplying you and your brother Theo’s family with half-price tickets for The Spectacles of Don Quixote and His Faithful Servant, Sancho Panzer (played by myself, Panzer that is, not Quixote who will be rendered by Councillor Stokoe MBE – Lord Gilbert to his friends – who takes all the star parts in Wickerstaff productions). I’m afraid we can’t offer you any work on the scenery as we are expecting Willie (Bill to his friends) Blake, a London illustrator of note, to get back to us very shortly.  

Do please let us know, preferably by email, if you would be happy to consider our proposal. I have been asked to remind you, however, that no weapons – razors or pistols – will be permitted anywhere near the hall and adjoining fields, though you might be interested to learn that there is a stretch of ground running down to the river called Crows Meadow.  

The local landowner, Lord Gilbert as mentioned above, says that it would be acceptable for you to set up your easel at any spot, so long as you avoid painting the public stile which he is petitioning to have removed. He would be more than pleased if, nevertheless, you included in any landscape his new barn, shippen and other outbuildings which straddle what was once a right of way. 

Rest assured, Vincent, that you are far from forgotten. My boy Benjie was asked at school who was his favourite painter and he answered, without any hesitation – Vincent; at which his teaching assistant, fresh out of college and still wet behind the ears, replied, ‘Oh no, Benjie, there isn’t an artist called Vincent!’

 My Betty had a word with the head teacher the very next morning, though that was not the end of it as the question arose concerning pronunciation. She said it was Van Gogh as in cough, he said it was Van Gogh as in Go: we’d be grateful if you could confirm which is correct as Betty is a stickler for accuracy – it’s what the Open University does for people!

In conclusion, I must add that I thought Kirk Douglas was terrific as you in Lust for Life which I do recommend to you in case you haven’t seen it. As for Anthony Quinn, who I’ve always thought a bit of a ham, he was very suited to the part of Gauguin, though if either was to get an Oscar for their performance, or even an Emmy, it should have gone to Kirk.

 With kindest regards, and looking forward to a positive reply to our offer of help to give your career the boost it deserves.

Yours etc.

Ned Baslow.

The Editor comments: Ned received a swift reply to his letter addressed to the great Vincent, from a Dr. Gachet, saying that the artist was at present indisposed but was highly flattered by the offer of an exhibition in the Wickerstaff-cum-Fairhaven village hall, and would be in touch again when he had settled similar one-man shows in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Tate Modern, London, the National Gallery of Scotland, the Museum of Art, Dublin and the front windows of Mrs. Grant’s Millinery Shop in Folkestone, where Vincent spent many happy months.


Kindle editions (1) The Freedom Tree

The year is 1936. The rise of fascism has plunged Spain into a bloody civil war. Ever since his father died fighting for the republicans in Spain, Will has felt strongly drawn to their cause; but when he tries to join up as a volunteer in the International Brigade he is told he is too young.

So Will travels to London where he meets a group of young men fanatically committed to the Republican cause. Together they embark on a perilous journey through France in an armoured truck crammed full of smuggled guns and ammunition. They narrowly escape the clutches of the French authorities and finally reach the Spanish border.

Will is horrified by the conditions he finds. The Republicans are hopelessly ill-equipped and disorganised and most of them have never been trained to fight. He is equally struck by their idealism and determination. Thrown in at the deep end, Will soon finds his own courage and endurance are tested to the utmost.

To follow: Talking in Whispers, Ticket to Prague, Justice of the Dagger, Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa and Pigs Might Fly. In preparation: Media History From Gutenberg to the Digital Age and Besieged: The Coils of the Viper.