Y is for Yucca

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Inspired by the Yucca, or Adam’s Needle

Adam’s Needle 

You could guarantee the door handle was laden with a full cargo of germs, thought Mr Adam, gloomily. The door knocker, too. Well, everything was covered in germs, wasn’t it? He was so concerned, indeed, that he had taken to visiting the doctor at the slightest indication of ill health.

In this instance it was a splinter embedded in his right thumb that had convinced him his days were numbered. The doctor would attempt to tell him otherwise, of course – but then, he always did. What did doctors know, really? In the meantime, the puzzle of how to get into the doctor’s house without actually touching the indescribably grubby door furniture, and thus acquiring a further burden of germs had flummoxed him. Mr Adam waited patiently on the door step until another visitor arrived and kindly knocked on his behalf.

“It will surely set up a fatal infection, doctor,” he said, five minutes later. He waved the thumb, containing the minute splinter, under the doctor’s nose and had to prevent himself giving a wail of anguish.

“Nonsense. It is nothing,” snapped the doctor, whose usually breezy bedside manner had been worn down by Mr Adam’s frequent visits. “Go home. Take the splinter out with a needle if you must, or leave it to come out on its own.  And stop troubling me with these trivialities. That will be five guineas.”

Mr Adam huffed at this unsatisfactory response, but he paid up and returned home as instructed.

He was found on his drawing room carpet the following week, as dead as dead could be, felled by a massive infection, as the coroner said, stemming from the splinter in his thumb.

By his side there was a note, scrawled with his left hand. It read, “I told you so…”

 

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For plant and garden fans I’ve started a new blog, The Garden Visitor. Pop in and join me as I visit some gorgeous gardens. https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com

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W is for Water-lily

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Inspired by Nymphaea ‘Barbara Dobbins’

Into the Lake

“That girl will come out covered in leeches,” said the Reverend, shaking his head.

But even such an unpleasant prospect could not deter Miss Dobbins from venturing into the lake. She had tried in vain to borrow a little boat, but none could be found.

“If I have no boat,” she said, quite determined, “then I shall swim.” You see, Miss Dobbins was engaged to marry a seagoing man.

I feel close to him, she thought, in the water. Swimming gently among the lily-pads with her chin on the surface, she felt at ease, knowing he was on the water, too. Even if he was far away on a great sea, the floating feeling was something in common, something she could share with him. She relished it, and she ignored the vicar’s disapproving remarks.

By the end of the summer she felt she knew the whole topography of the lake in an intimate way: the shallows, the little flower-trimmed headlands, every water-lily bud, every reed-mace. She felt part of it, emotionally engaged with the expanse of still water. The lake stood proxy for her absent love.

On the day the terrible news came, that his ship was lost without hope of survivors, she went into the lake as usual, with every sign of complete serenity.

But Miss Dobbins never came out again.

 

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For plant and garden fans I’ve started a new blog, The Garden Visitor. Pop in and join me as I visit some gorgeous gardens. https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com

V is for Violet

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Inspired by Viola sororia ‘Freckles’

Pig News

“The freckled pig has escaped again, Miss!” shouted Irish Molly.

Miss Catforth tutted, and continued planting her violets. “Well go and catch her,” she called back.

But she knew the request was in vain. The girl was a powerful force in the kitchen, no denying it – an excellent cook – but she had no way with animals at all, unless they were about to be put on a plate. She was afraid of the pig, and it would get up to no good, left alone.

“Oh, Miss! The piglets are all out, now, too!”

Motherhood had rendered the pig wilful, and it had learned to lift the latch on its pen. No number of ingenious fastenings could keep the creature inside these days. And now she had taught the piglets to do it, too.

“Miss, Miss! They are all in the turnip store now.”

This was too much. Miss Catforth set down her trowel, stood up, and called, “Molly, go and fetch Rodney to help. Go now!”

It was very inconvenient, what with Lord Plunket due to visit that afternoon. Bad enough, she thought, that she had to plant her own violets, without having to chase pigs, too. So unladylike! What would his lordship think if he heard of it? It would seem she was in charge of a most incompetent and chaotic household. But times were hard for Miss Catforth. She needed and desired Lord Plunket’s patronage and support, or the whole farm would go to rack and ruin. She had nothing much left but the land and her good name.

In the meantime, she must get those pigs out of the turnips. In the distance she could hear Irish Molly bawling for Rodney to come out of the fields and catch the pigs, if he pleased. Useless girl.

The freckled pig, its mouth full of turnip, looked up at her with a defiant and beady eye. Miss Catforth clapped her hands and shooed. The pig continued eating, the half-grown piglets scurrying round about and squealing.

“To the devil with you!” she shouted in frustration and turned to find herself nose to nose with Lord Plunket himself.

“Oh, sir!” she said, regarding his smart visiting clothes, and her own grubby gardening smock. “I had thought you were arriving later.”

“Evidently,” said his lordship, kindly. “Now, may I be of assistance? I have some experience of pigs. Tricky blighters…”

And together they rounded up the freckled pig and all the piglets, and retreated indoors muddied, but arm in arm for tea. Perhaps, thought Miss Catforth, an escapologist pig is not such a bad thing for a single woman to possess!

The pig herself, mindful of her next exit, already had her nose under the latch.

 

For plant and garden fans I’ve started a new blog, The Garden Visitor. Pop in and join me as I visit some gorgeous gardens. https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com

Write Learn Enjoy!

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“So,” people say, “you’re self-publishing now, are you? Isn’t that difficult?”

Yes, I reply. And no. Yes, self-publishing carries the same difficulties as any other kind of publishing in terms of making your book visible among so many others. And no, it isn’t difficult to publish an e-book.

“So why are you doing it?”

The answer to that is more complex. Every writer wants their work to be ‘out there’, available to readers, and, we hope, enjoyed. For some it’s about making money from their writing skills. For others it’s about sharing their thoughts with a (possibly) wide audience. For me, it’s about absolute freedom to write what I want, without the restriction of considering the saleability of my work. Life is simply too short for that.

The sheer liberation of this left me somewhat at a loss for a while – but now the out-of-the-ordinary writing ideas that I had tried to suppress –  because they were hard to sell – are starting to re-awaken. I can write anything I like; I can forget genre (my writing never fitted into it very well anyway); I can write books of unconventional length and odd formats, to suit my writing style; I can throw the rule book out of the window; I can let my imagination off the leash; I can be as outré, as unconventional, as I like. I can be truly creative. And I can still put the resulting work out for the public to see, and buy if they so wish, without costly investment. Marvellous. I feel like my old self again.

My current work-in-progress, The Herbarium, breaks all the rules; it’s eccentric but creative –  and I’m going to learn so much about writing, and the reasons for writing, as it falls into place. I don’t anticipate it being much more than twenty thousand words long, but there’s no rush, and I’ll take my time over it. It’s a piece that would be all the better illustrated, though that creates difficulties with e-books. Never mind – I’ll illustrate it with words. I did say it was eccentric. It trawls the ancient depths of my imagination, and you’d be surprised at what I’ve found in there. I’ll enjoy every minute of writing it.

Write – learn – enjoy. I’ll keep this guideline on a sticker on my computer screen, and scrawled on the cover of my notebooks. It’s the happy way forward. I’ll keep you informed of my progress.

Dumbed-down Writing?

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I was thinking the other day, as you do, of the plight of the Victorian composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. He considered himself at heart a serious composer, and though he made his living largely from light music and popular songs, he wrote serious music too. It is, of course, for the jolly, melodic, hummable music he wrote for the popular comic operettas he produced with lyricist W S Gilbert, including The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, that people remember him. The operettas are still widely performed and recorded, still hugely popular today. In his youth, Sullivan was hailed as a great musical talent of the future, but there is little doubt that the enjoyable popular music he wrote did his reputation no good, and probably impeded his wish to be taken seriously.

These days we might say that he had ‘sold out’, dumbed down his music, catered to the tastes of ordinary people (this ordinary person, by the way, is off to Cornwall later this year to see The Pirates of Penzance). We might equally say, though, that the quality of Sullivan’s compositional skills shines through, regardless of what kind of music he was writing.

All this is very pertinent to the struggling writer. Do those of us who want to produce good quality writing stick to our guns, even if nobody reads our work, or do we ‘sell out’? Do we give people what they seem to want – gruesome murders, explicit sex, mysteries, romance? These ingredients don’t necessarily make for bad writing, of course, but they are certainly limiting. Do we edit out ‘difficult’ words and concepts along with anything that might make the reader pause and think? Do we forget any pretensions to ‘good’ writing and simply churn out undemanding stuff that can be gobbled up at a sitting? If we do, will our writing skills shine through, even though we feel we’ve dumbed down? All good questions – but for a writer hoping to make any sort of a living from their books, they need to be answered. Is it more important to write something true to your principles than it is to sell a lot of books?

I’d dearly love to ask Sir Arthur Sullivan his opinion on this. His popular music made him a good living in a precarious profession, and much of it is still played and loved. His serious music is still played, too, sometimes – but it isn’t what he is best remembered for. I wonder if that would be enough for him? Perhaps, if he could, he might sigh and say that, with hindsight, anything that gets people listening to music is good.

And perhaps that’s the way the writer should view popular books, too – anything that gets people reading is good. It’s a thought I intend to keep in mind. I shall certainly think of it when I’m part of the audience enjoying The Pirates of Penzance.

U is for Umbrella Plant

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Inspired by the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata)

Under Cover

It was very rude of that old woman to poke me in the back with her umbrella. Even ruder when she spoke. “You’re causing a blockage, young man. Out of the way!” she barked. I took an immediate dislike to her.

“Madam, if you please…”

“Don’t you ‘madam’ me, you scoundrel,” she said, threatening me with the umbrella again.

It is true that a group of us were clustered together and blocking the way a little, but there was an excellent reason for it.

“Let me pass,” she said. “Or I shall summon a constable.” The tip of the umbrella had a wicked glint to it as she brandished the thing very close to the tip of my nose.

I tried again. “But, my dear lady – you don’t understand…”

“I am not your dear lady. Let me pass!”

I had been about to tell her why we were grouped upon the pavement, but then she prodded me again with that umbrella, and I rather lost my head.

“Very well. Stand aside, gentlemen,” I said. “Let the lady pass.” Before she skewers me with that umbrella, I thought, but didn’t say.

She nodded curtly, sailed forward with her nose in the air – and stepped straight into the open manhole that had been left so dangerously unattended.

We began to toss coins to see whether we would fish her out, or find the manhole cover and replace it.

 

The Garden Visitor2

For plant and garden fans I’ve started a new blog, The Garden Visitor. Pop in and join me as I visit some gorgeous gardens. https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com

T is for Tulip

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TulipaRemsFavourite230417Man Overboard

Oh, rats! Life can be very unfair sometimes, thought Able Seaman Tulip, as he repainted the figurehead. It had begun by giving him a ridiculous name, and things had gone downhill in a steady way ever since.

The job of repainting the figurehead, incidentally, was the captain’s favourite form of punishment, particularly in roughish weather. It was a cruel punishment, too, in that the miscreant was frequently doused as the ship ploughed through waves, and it tended to last a long while since the paint refused to stay in place and the pot was frequently topped up with salt water.

Able Seaman Tulip stared gloomily into the baleful eye of the figurehead, a particularly po-faced representation of Britannia. She looked about as pleased to be stuck on the front of the ship as Able Seaman Tulip did.

One of the many unfairnesses life had bestowed upon Mr Tulip was a tendency to clumsiness, and this was why he found himself so often attempting to repaint Britannia’s heavy eyebrows. Accidentally dropping that dish of hot soup into the captain’s lap had been the latest in a collection of accidents.

“Oh, rats!” he had exclaimed, forgetting the captain’s presence. Not a strong expletive for a seagoing man, but it had annoyed the skipper even more than the hot soup had.

And so he had found himself once more in Britannia’s company. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, really, he thought, as another wave slopped over him. Could have been fifty lashes for injuring the captain’s person, even with soup. Could have been much worse.

But he was wrong. Life had one more unfairness to dish out. Britannia, in her irritation, was in the process of detaching herself from the ship, and at that moment she parted company with the vessel, taking Able Seaman Tulip with her. Shipmates peered over the side in surprise as he whizzed along the side of the ship and vanished into the great waves with a parting cry of “Oh, rats!”

 

This story was first published in my short fiction collection Mr Muggington’s Discovery and Other Stories. Paperback copies are available from Amazon at £4.95, but the e-book is free. If you’d like one, leave me a message on the Contact page of this site and I’ll email a copy to you.

Vanishing Book Reviews

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There has been a great deal of talk online lately about Amazon taking down book reviews. Both authors and reviewers are complaining about the removal of reviews – sometimes many of them for a single book – and that they are being banned from posting further reviews after ‘unusual review behaviour’ was detected.

It’s difficult to get to the bottom of what’s going on here, but I as I see it Amazon itself has much to answer for:

  • It has created an enormous market of books with no quality control at all. It’s hardly surprising if this level of competition leads people not into writing better books to compete, but resorting to dirty tricks to get their work visible.
  • It’s widely thought that getting 50 or 100 reviews will lead to increased exposure for a book on Amazon. Some say this is a myth – I don’t know what the truth is. Either way, some people will resort to paying for reviews or getting them any way they can to reach the magic number. The majority of authors and publishers are prepared to deal honestly (my opinion), but the whole system of online review is hopelessly flawed. Amazon’s presumably robot-driven attempt to deal with the problem is throwing out the good with the bad.
  • Any book can become a best-seller, if only briefly, by being available to download for nothing. A whole industry (no doubt very profitable) has grown up around this, promoting free books to readers. Sorry everyone, but I feel in my bones this is wrong. Amazon should count best-sellers by copies sold – not given away – to reflect the true state of the book market.

Just to clarify, I have several books with Amazon myself and I know exactly how difficult it is to find reviews (and buyers!). So far I have not had any of my reviews taken down – but I think we all deserve a better marketplace than this for our work. What do you think?

S is for Sunflower

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HelianthusAnnus2.26912Into the Light

People called them the grim brothers, and with good reason. They never stepped outside into the daylight, these two. No, never. Well-meaning suggestions that the sun would do them a power of good were met with hands thrown up in horror, and they slunk, wide-eyed, back into the shadows.

It was just as well the pair had been left a smallish fortune by their late father. After all, if they refused to come outside, it would need to last a fair few years since both were only of middling age. Food was delivered, and paid for, strictly after dark.

Sometimes, just sometimes, on suitably gloomy days, they came to their cottage window together and peered out fearfully. Even in the early dark of January, it was a frightening process, but they felt they needed the occasional reminder of why they stayed indoors.

“See, brother, how bright and dangerous it is in the great outside! Come away. Come away from the window.” And they drew the faded curtain and retreated to the comforting dark of the north-facing kitchen.

The short nights of summertime were a trial to them, of course. All that dangerous, intruding sunlight, hour upon terrible hour. So as summer wore on and the nights drew in they would sigh with relief and welcome the encroaching darkness.

It came as a surprise, then, one August evening when they peered side to side out of the window as the sky darkened and perceived a shape upon the doorstep. Someone had left them a sunflower.

“We didn’t order that!” said the elder brother, puzzled. But he scuttled out and brought it indoors anyway.

They stared at the flower in the firelight, entranced. They stroked the velvet petals, marvelled at the elegant helix of the central disk, shaded their eyes at its golden glare.

“Nature is most engaging and beauteous, is it not, brother? Perhaps… perhaps we should go out and see more of it for ourselves. We are missing so much, mewed up in here. Think of the wonders we could see together out there in the great world. We should go out, shouldn’t we?”

The brothers considered this a moment.

And then, “Nah!” They tossed the sunflower into the fire, watched it flame brightly and then expire, and sighed with satisfaction when normal darkness was restored.

 

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For plant and garden fans I’ve started a new blog, The Garden Visitor. Pop in and join me as I visit some gorgeous gardens. https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com

Second-Class Author?

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PhotoFunia-1527861241A few years ago, after my third book was published, I decided it was time to take my writing career a little more seriously. It was time, I thought, to join a proper, professional authors’ association. So I set out to apply for membership of one. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I was not a proper, professional author after all! Full membership of the association required a publisher to have bankrolled a print run. But… but, I spluttered, here are my publishing contracts, here are my books in paper-and-ink form; I receive royalties. Isn’t that a proper author? The answer was no, it was not.

My error, apparently, had been in signing with a publisher that used print on demand to get paper copies rather than the traditional print run route. The best I could be offered was ‘associate’ membership, ie not enough of a real author to merit full membership. Unless or until I could find a publisher who would invest in a traditional print run, I would be parked on the sidelines with the wannabes and the vanity publishers. I was mortified. But… but (I was still spluttering) my publisher has invested in me – they provided an editor, paid for a cover design, covered the basic costs of publishing with no cash input from me. They believed in me enough to do these things at their own expense. Does that count for nothing? Apparently not. Your publisher uses POD. They do not invest in print runs. Take it or leave it. I felt insulted, on my own behalf and that of my publisher. I felt marginalised.

I accepted the (expensive) associate membership, but I’d already lost faith in the association. In my naivety, I hadn’t realised that signing up to a publisher that used print on demand would consign me to second class citizenship in the book world. Why, in theory, I could have a best seller but still wouldn’t be a proper published author in the eyes of the association.

Don’t misunderstand – I do now appreciate that the traditional way the book business is run is largely responsible for this situation. But I don’t have to like it.

I soon let the membership lapse. Surely, I thought, the print on demand model is the modern way, isn’t it? Far less wasteful than the traditional print run where many of the books will be returned and pulped? Maybe, but it still seems to carry a stigma in the book world, and it’s still seen as second class publishing.

But… but (the spluttering isn’t finished yet) don’t they say that independent publishers and self-published authors are where the innovation is? The originality? The future? I think so and I’m sure I’m not alone. These days I’m an amateur and proud of it, happy to do a bit of self-publishing when it suits me. I’ve removed myself from the tyranny of the print run and commercial success, and I don’t consider myself a second-class writer for doing that.

Who knows – I might even join an association for independents one day. If they’ll have me.

 

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My other blog, (definitely not second-class!) for garden lovers, is called The Garden Visitor, and can be found here https://gardenvisitor106455000.wordpress.com/