Monday, 30 June 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 49, JULY 2014

 The Return of Ned

Dear Readers
I’m probably as confused as you might be to discover I’ve been appointed by the editorial team Visiting Editor for this edition. This comes at a time when, fresh from my three weeks Union-assisted sojourn in Fuengirola (too many Russians for my liking), I discover a note on the living room mantelpiece informing me that the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven International Festival of the Arts has been postponed till December on account of Councillor Gilbert Stokoe falling off his son Octavian’s horse and damaging his elbow and breaking a number of ribs. So much for outdoor performances of The Spectacles of Don Quixote, the centrepiece of the Festival.
     So the honour of being appointed editor is somewhat dimmed in the light of the mountain of correspondence that awaits me. Whether the Greeks (Odysseus, Menelaus, Homer et al) will want to take part in the Great Battle of the Titans, or Helen of Troy lead the dance chorus in the Tableau of Womanly Beauty down the ages, bearing in mind last year’s endless rain, is beyond my guessing.
     The Editorial Board, by the way, have lumbered me with this task because they in turn have been lumbered with preparing new editions of a couple of books they thought were at the end of their trail, but aren’t. So there’s not a sausage in the In-Tray and only a half-eaten banana in the Out-Tray.

Confidence misplaced
I thought, well, it’s an opportunity to spread information about the Festival to the thousands of readers of A Writer’s Notebook, particularly as many of our artistes are avid readers of the blog – Wolfy Mozart, Billy Blake, Florrie Nightingale, Calamity Brown, Endeavour Morse and Maid Marian to name but a few.

     How to fill its pages? Well, could blogging be another country for ordinary folk? Not a jot of doubt was in my head that family, friends and neighbours would rally round and contribute a piece, long or short, about the Pleasures, Challenges, Ups and Downs of Life in Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven. Not a jot or a tittle!

     My wife Betty, in the middle of her Open University studies, is too busy on an essay for her tutor Dr. Arbuthnot (expert on The Black Rat and the Brown Rat in the Year of the Plague). That’s just what we need, I said to her: What foreigners think of the English, edited down with pictures of England’s anti-heroes such as Judge Jefferys or Jimmy Savile. Of course I got an earful for belittling the study of history; even got a straight No on the theme of Academic Life and the Struggling Housewife and ever-forebearing hubbies.

    Betty’s sister Brenda’s Spanish husband was next on my list: a piece on what the Common Market has done for Spain, Roderigo. He said he’d prefer to do something on bull fighting, at which Betty shut him up by saying readers would be much more interested in the way Picasso rendering the sport. ‘Picasso betrayed his country,’ shot back Rod. The look in his eye (I call it the ‘Franco gaze’) dissuaded me from asking why.

    Demetrius, owner of the local chippie, replied to my request for A Greek’s View of Homer that he was too busy trying to reduce the price of cod to even think about cartoon characters. My best bet for a contribution has been Joe Wilson, Captain of the Cromwell Arms Quiz Team. His general knowledge is phenomenal, yet he has had even less formal education than I have. I offered him 25 different topics, including the Flora and Fauna of Lathkill Dale, Monsal Dale and Dovedale.

    Readers of this blog, I told him, would not only be fascinated by an illustrated article on his specialty they would make the dales their next port-of-call. It was the wrong proposal: ‘If I thought I was to blame,’ he said, ‘for one more body trampling over my precious flora, I’d top myself’.

     I ended up with an offer from my 13 year old Benjie to pen a story about his guinea pig, Useless Eustace, that died in mysterious circumstances. I said I thought the RSPCA might object to the grizzly bits, but he refused to alter a word, saying they'd have to cudgel him with the Royal Charter to make him. Betty then subjected him to a 20 minute lecture on Magna Carta. 'Same thing,' responded Benjie. 'A lot of hot air!'

To the rescue
I have had no alternative but to delve into the missives of my contributors down the weeks. There’s been much to choose from, some of it sad, like King Harold’s reply to my invitation to take part in the Battle of the Titans.

Dear Ned (was the last letter I received from him)
Your letter warning me about rushing in to battle without a Plan B has been duly noted. But after Stamford Bridge I feel we have the wind on our sails. This Norman intruder on sacred English soil will get his come-uppance, never fear. He is a canny fixer but my Housecarls know how to deal with such people. If he tries that trick of pretending to retreat, we  know how to react (though I can’t quite recollect whether I’ve told the lads in so many words).

   At the moment we are easing our feet and consuming a flagon or two of Saxon ale at a village inn on the road to Burwash. I’d be very happy to give a talk on the tactics of war to your Women’s Institute, though as you advise I’ll go easy on the bloodshed.
Yours etc.

Well there you go: a potentially star entertainer facing an epic battle yet still with time to consider his humble subjects.  Harold’s footnote almost brought me to tears: ‘All the best for Derby County in the new season!’

I fear we are going to have a few squabbles among the musicians; and Wolfie’s likely to be at the heart of them (though his acceptance of a 25 Euro fee for 30 minutes incidental music, with a night’s conducting thrown was snapped up without a demurring voice from the Committee).

Dear Mr. Baslow
I hear on the grapevine that Master Beethoven has promised you his 10th symphony on condition it is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and free tickets will be made available to him for the Tableau of Womanly Beauty. Considering his present state of health, it is a preposterous offer and is certainly making me think again about being the Master of Musique of your Festival.
   If the Emperor himself has the affrontery to suggest of my latest opera that there are ‘too many notes’ the idea of yet another contribution from Luders the Lugubrious will be more than my ears can take.
   Please write to Master B declining his offer and my own very best wishes for his health; but avoid any mention of your proposal for  us to play together ‘Four Hands Make Light Work’. These days my old friend hits the keyboard with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Yours as always
W.A. Mozart.

Among the heaps of post after my Fuengirola holiday was a rather bristling note from the squire-class gardener who has agreed to re-jig two of Councillor Stokoe’s back meadows formerly serving as an open-plan piggery, more recently ‘discoloured’ as my Betty put it, by rape seed. The folks of Wickerstaff were all for it; and the folks of Fernhaven against it. On the grounds that in Fernhaven at least two of Councillor Stokoe’s election posters were defaced, he used his casting vote to invite the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown (not Calamity Brown as I inadvertently called him) to render the rape and make Stokoe Manor the mirror image of Chatsworth, but without the lake, the waterfall, and that ugly horse that greets visitors in the courtyard. I have written to Mr. Brown to apologise and suggested that if he can spare the time could he plan a water feature for our back garden, as a surprise for Betty’s birthday (preferably with literary connotations).

     Talking of posters, I’ve had to shield the committee from the ire of Billy Blake who jumped the gun and produced a poster announcing the wrong dates. As I pointed out to him on the phone, best leave a space for dates and times until the local council gives its assent, we receive confirmation of a royal visit from Prince Charles and advertising space has been booked in Derbyshire Life, The Lady, Hello (they’re desperate for pictures of Helen of Troy) and Camping Today.

    Billy’s illustration also did not meet with the universal approval of the Committee. One member called it ‘weird’ and almost came to blows with Betty who yelled ‘Masterpiece!’ over and over again: ‘anyone but an idiot could see that’. At which Betty in turn was accused of being an idiot. I stepped in to the quarrel with the comment, Billy comes cheap: we can make a bomb out of the sale of his etchings. At which William Blake’s ‘masterpiece’ was given approval on a vote of 5 to 4.

The complainant has resigned from the Committee and posted some bitter comments on Facebook about ‘folks who try to improve themselves and end up nothing but snobs’, referring to our Betty who delivered some equally bitter twitters on people happy with their own ignorance and content to spread it like manure.

Signing off
Readers, the travails listed above reminded me of the Prime Minister’s idea of a Big Society. He should come and try it. There’s always somebody out there ready to blame hardworking volunteers: will they take over? Like hell they will. Leave it to Ned is all I hear, in my company or out of it: Good Old Ned. That’s what the editorial team of A Writer’s Notebook must have said as they sloped off to the beach at Broadstairs (or is it Skegness?) with laptops and mountains of notes: Good Old Ned will cope. To be honest, it’s been a pleasure despite my failure to get friends and acquaintances to pen a paragraph or two.

That, in my opinion, is the trouble. 140 characters seems to be more than enough for most people; as for letters who needs them, who writes them anymore? Well I do and I get some unexpected and extraordinary responses. After all, how many committee secretaries can claim to have acceptances from Nebu-chad-nezar, Odysseus’ Misses, Penelope, John Milton, Miguel Cervantes, Albert Einstein, Nurse Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Chief of MI5 and Elvis Presley for one event, not to mention the rest?

Well, folks, there are letters to write. The team promises to be back for Blog Number 50. I brought six bottles of Spanish red from Fuengirola. Droppers-in at Yer tis, just down the road from the Cromwell Arms, will be welcome, but if there’s a message on the front door, SILENCE COMMANDED, it means that our Betty is at work on her latest Open University essay or she’s busy on the Internet exchanging messages about Fate and Destiny with Uncle Bill as Benjie calls him.

Thanks for your attention,