Sandy the Scrapper attends a Seance

monro_01 (1)

‘Story Of My Life: The Trials and Triumphs of Sandy the Scrapper’ was a tale penned for children by Edith Monro Armstrong in 1914, and revised again for publication in 1949. It gives a dog’s eye view of Edwardian Canada. Bill Atkinson, who is working on a new edition of the book, provides this supernatural episode (and commentary)…

One day our neighbor, Mrs. Baxter, telephoned Mistress to say she wanted to bring Mrs. Worthy over if she were going to be home. It seems Mrs. Worthy was anxious to give her a demonstration as to what mental vibrations meant to the human body. They arrived a few minutes later. Mrs. Worthy immediately stretched herself full length on the library floor. She weighed about two hundred and thirty pounds and was about five feet eight in height. Imagine the spectacle she made! Her much too prominent stomach and excessive avoirdupois stretched full length upon her back covered a large portion of the rug. The soles of her number nine shoes faced Mrs. Baxter and Mistress seated on the chesterfield. Mrs. Worthy remarked, “You may use any poem you wish but for an example I prefer the Lord’s Prayer. Ladies, I don’t consider this sacrilegious.”

According to William Atkinson (no relation) writing in 1906, “ …the universe can be affected and changed just by your attention, the vibration of the thoughts that you are thinking may affect the very substance of the universe.” Googling ‘Mental vibrations’ will bring up 4,800,00 results as relevant now as they were in Sandy’s short vivid life.

I lay quietly in front of the fireplace. My head was cocked sideways. I was enjoying the “Periodical Scenery” in life -size technicolor. To me it was bewitching. Then Mrs. Worthy began her prayer while her stomach undulated with each vibrant thought, verbally expressed. This was too much for me and before I knew it she had me hypnotized. I promptly lay down at a right angle to her. Then I rested my two front paws on her slowly heaving stomach and reverently bowed my head. Closing my eyes, I sighed deeply and audibly, then remained absolutely silent. This was too much for Mistress’ sense of humour. She burst forth into peals of laughter in which Mrs. Baxter heartily joined. Then Mrs. Worthy, looking hurt and disgusted, arose and said, “Ladies, it is no use: that dog would kill any vibrations.” Amid their smothered laughter she bid them a haughty adieu. When she was out of hearing, Mistress, still laughing, stooped and patted me. She said, “Good old Sandy”, instead of the scolding I expected for breaking up their morning seance

Technicolor was invented in 1916 and not in use until the Twenties. No version of this episode appears in the 1914 edition of ‘Sandy the Scrapper’, presumably because Mrs. Worthy did not join the Choir Celestial until much later.

Mrs. Baxter came in one morning to see Mistress. I was apparently asleep in front of the fireplace. In the course of conversation Mistress happened to say that I knew everything she said. Mrs. Baxter laughed in a derisive sort of way. Mistress said, “I’ll prove it to you. He has not been up on my l-a-p since he was three months old. He is now nearly three years old and is such a large and powerful animal.” Then carrying on in the same conversational tone she said, “Is there a dog in this house would like to sit on my lap?” I called her bluff immediately. She was quite startled with the alacrity with which I bounded up in her lap. Mrs. Baxter could only remark, “Well, I Never!”

Our neighbors’ Bull Terrier, Sophie, will climb onto my wife’s lap at any opportunity. I once saw her launch herself like a tan torpedo, rip away the overall sleeve and puncture the arm of our Smart Hydro Meter installer and send it off with a fit of the collywobbles. In Sandy’s day laudanum (which makes an appearance earlier in the story) would have been prescribed. (Laudanum is hard to find in the age of Big Pharma but a friend who has a poppy field and a distilling apparatus makes his own, which he says soothes the troubled mind.)

Edith Armstrong was the second wife of Bill Atkinson’s grandfather. Bill is currently working on a new edition of the original Sandy the Scrapper.

Sandy the Scrapper – a sweet tale for Edwardian children

monro_01 (1)

Guest contributor Bill Atkinson shares a tale penned by an Edwardian lady about a little dog. It suggests that 100 years ago they had rather different ideas about what was deemed suitable for children’s entertainment…

Sandy was the favorite pet of Edith Monro Armstrong (b.
1874, d 1960), an Edwardian lady, Doctor’s wife, chatelaine, accomplished harpist, capable carriage driver and world traveller. Sandy was the first American Staffordshire Terrier brought into Canada.

Sandy’s sad story, told from his canine point of view, was published as a children’s book in 1914 and as a serial in the Boy’s Journal, a penny-dreadful re-named The Dreadnought with the onset of bellicosities later that year. It featured Hentyesque yarns of forthright public school lads defeating moustachioed Huns, swarthy Iberians and bull-necked Slavs.

The original, Story Of My Life: The Trials and Triumphs of Sandy the Scrapper was revised thirty-five years later in 1949 and circulated in manuscript form to friends and relatives. This excerpt from the original gives us some of the flavour of a hundred years past.

Just a few days after my accident I was running along on three legs, accompanying my mistress down the street when I noticed a slight disturbance of the ivy growing on the wall of a neighbors house. I spied what seemed to be a large rat right behind the ivy. As the gate was open I proceeded to investigate.

Just then my mistress called me and I intended to obey, but on closer scrutiny I discovered it was a kitten. I have come to the conclusion that for generations my ancestors must have been professional cat-slayers, because the very sight of one stirs up such emotions in me that kill it I must. This murderous instinct becomes uppermost in my mind. A devil seems to possess me, and for the time being I am a raving maniac, possessed by a demon that seems part and parcel of some old infuriated ancestor. It does seem strange that I should become so friendly with all my neighbors dogs and so antagonistic to all their cats.

A few slight, quick manoeuvres on my part secured my favorite hold, and I had my two eye-teeth embedded deep in the pit of its little stomach, and the kitten was no more. I admit it sounds like Jack the Ripper, that awful Whitechapel murderer, but it only goes to show what heredity will do- “ ‘ Tis true ’tis pity and ’tis pity ’tis true.” But I had cause that fight to rue. A series of reminders from the toe of my mistress’ heavy walking boots followed in quick succession. Then crossing my two front paws and gripping them tightly, she literally dragged me home, compelling me to walk nearly a block on my two hind legs. As soon as she reached our own gate she stooped and picked up a broken lath and gave me a whipping such as I’ll never forget to my dying day. Each time she brought the lath down in the very same spot until she had me dancing jigs, polkas, two-steps, tangos, turkey-trots, and all the fancy side-steps in the catalogue.

“The quality of mercy” was strained and despite my entreaties, down came that old lath over and over again, never by any chance varying its course, but always in the same place to a fraction of an inch. As all things some time come to an end, so did the whipping. Not until she became weary in well-doing did she “cease her unhallowed tumult.” Then I was muzzled and she absolutely refused to allow me to accompany her to town.

Edith Armstrong was the second wife of Bill Atkinson’s grandfather. Bill is currently working on a new edition of the original Sandy the Scrapper. The selection above was omitted from the revised 1949 edition of the work, but will appear in the index of the new release.

J. L. Carr – Extra-ordinary Cricketers & Handfast Spouses

j l carr

In this exclusive extract from Slightly Foxed’s quarterly magazine, Andrew Hall examines the unusual literary career of J.L. Carr, a ‘back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels’…

In July 1967 the schoolmaster and part-time novelist J. L. Carr took two years’ leave of absence to see if he could make a living as a pub­lisher of illustrated maps and booklets of poetry. Both were unusual: the maps featured small, annotated drawings of people, buildings, flowers, animals and recipes associated with places in the old English counties and were meant for framing and to stimulate discussion, while the works of British poets were presented in 16-page booklets, as Carr believed that people could only absorb a few poems at a time.

Carr designed the maps himself and wrote on his first map of Northamptonshire (1965): ‘Travellers are warned that the use of this map for navigation will be disastrous.’ The maps sold initially for £1 each and the booklets for 6d to adults or 4d to children, until he received orders from children with suspiciously mature handwriting. By the end of 1968 his savings had dwindled to £400, but with six months left of his official leave he turned the corner into profitabil­ity. The Quince Tree Press, so called because there was a quince tree in his front garden, operated from old shoe boxes (into which his lit­tle books fitted neatly) stored on shelves in a bedroom of his modest house in suburban Kettering.

The income from his maps and books of poetry allowed Carr the freedom to give up teaching for good and also to write the novels for which he is most highly regarded: A Month in the Country (see SF No. 8) won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as was his next novel, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (1985). This was a remarkable achievement for a former schoolteacher who didn’t publish his first novel until he was 52. But then, he was a remarkable man. He wrote 8 novels, all in different styles; designed nearly 100 maps; compiled 6 small dictionaries; published about 50 small books of other people’s poetry and 19 booklets of artists’ wood­cuts; wrote a social history of the early settlers of South Dakota and 8 children’s English-language books; sculpted stone gargoyles for his local church; and created a huge record in watercolours of the inter­iors and exteriors of buildings in Northamptonshire, his adopted county. His extraordinary life is described in an excellent biography, The Last Englishman, by Byron Rogers.

In 1977 Carr published the first of his pocket dictionaries, the Dictionary of Extra-ordinary English Cricketers. It was an almost instant success and led to several other biographical dictionaries with quirky and often improbable entries. But what gave him the idea?

Joseph Lloyd Carr was born in May 1912 in a railway cottage at Thirsk Junction in Yorkshire where his father was night station­master. His given names caused him grief: he replaced the first with Jim or even James, so his family called him Lloyd, a name for which he was teased at school. In the note he sent with a copy of his map of Wales to the National Library in Cardiff he wrote: ‘Presented . . . by James Lloyd Carr, a Welsh patriot by proxy, who alone and with­out allies defended the land of his fathers (by baptism) on many a bloody-nosed Yorkshire playground while scarcely knowing that Wales existed.’

Carr knew academic failure twice. He failed his Eleven Plus but was sent as a paying pupil to Castleford Secondary School – some­thing his parents could ill-afford. Then he failed to get into teacher-training college because, allegedly, when asked why he wanted to be a teacher he replied, ‘It gives so much time for other pursuits’ – a glib remark that he regretted when he was forced to take a job as a lowly teaching assistant. The next year he gained admission to a teacher-training college in Dudley and became a supply teacher in Birmingham.

Five years later, in 1938, Carr applied for an exchange visit to teach in the USA and travelled by sea and train the 4,000 miles to Huron, a small town in South Dakota. In 1989 he wrote in a Penguin paper­back copy of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing: ‘In 1938/39 I taught a year in Dakota. This is the background. The message is that we should be as wary of the Americans as we are of the Russians.’

Arriving home just after war broke out, he joined the RAF and was sent to West Africa to work on aerial photographic reconnais­sance, then served as an Intelligence Officer. After the war he returned to teaching in the Midlands and settled back into English life, getting married and joining a cricket club. He had played foot­ball before the war for an extraordinarily successful village football team, but his main love was cricket and it is said that his batting was of minor county standard.

The origin of his first dictionary may be found almost thirty years before it was published, in the Year Books of the Midlands Club Cricket Conference for 1950 and 1951. For the 1950 Year Book Carr wrote a 6-page ‘Miniature Anthology for Damp Days’ containing 28 entries on notable people who played cricket. In the following year he acted as joint editor of the Year Book and contributed more biog­raphical details and small anecdotes, seemingly to fill blank spaces at the ends of pages. However the main feature was a full-page cartoon by Carr with illustrated biographical entries.

At the end of the 1951 cricket season Carr left Birmingham to become headmaster of a new primary school in Kettering, where he lived for the rest of his life. There he edited the Year Books of the Northamptonshire County Cricket League and became involved with the local branch of the National Union of Teachers, writing articles for their magazine, the Northants Campaigner.

Carr’s Dictionary of Extra-ordinary English Cricketers was an inspired idea. It contained 123 entries on cricketers or people who had commented on cricket, plus an entry on a horse that seemed to know when an innings was over and it was needed to pull the heavy roller across the wicket. A typical example was this: ‘Dr Heath DD, Headmaster of Eton, a perfectionist, who flogged the School XI, including (possibly unjustly) the scorer, when they returned from a defeat by Westminster School.’ The book was well reviewed and within a month had sold 10,000 copies.


I was introduced to the extraordinary Mr Carr by my father, who had been compelled by his love of cricket statistics to point out some small errors in the dictionary. The fact that Carr had bothered to reply with a handwritten note of thanks was Continue reading

My career as a five year-old author – Janet Aitchison on The Pirates’ Tale

the pirates tale

In October last year Frank Key posted about the wonderful Puffin book The Pirates’ Tale by Janet Aitchison, aged five and a half.
He said in the piece: Janet Aitchison will be middle-aged by now… We can only hope she gets in touch if she sees this. And lo! and behold, she did! Here’s her guest piece about the story, and the full text is reproduced below…

I was amazed and amused to see Frank Key’s piece about The Pirates’ Tale on The Dabbler – it went out of print nearly 30 years ago and I scarcely think about it these days. But the Editor asked me to contribute a post, so here’s the story behind the publication of The Pirates’ Tale.

As a five year old I had no ambitions to write a children’s book, indeed my five year old self could not conceive of such a thing. But I had recently learned to read and write, and one day embarked upon a rambling story written in erratic sloping lines on large sheets of scrap paper.

My parents tell me I woke them early in the morning asking how to spell words like ‘volcano’ and ‘mountain’ but, apart from this assistance, they had nothing to do with the writing until it was finished, at which point my mother decided to send it to the Puffin Club. Like Frank Key, we were members of this charming club and received the Puffin Post magazines every quarter. My mother thought my story might get printed in the magazine as they regularly published children’s poems, jokes and stories.

To my delight, the story appeared in the next edition… but little did I know that Jill McDonald, the staff illustrator at Puffin, had taken a shine to the story and suggested it be made into a Puffin book. A couple of years later, the book was published, complete with Jill’s wonderful illustrations.

It remained in print for about ten years and was translated into two or three other languages. Its publication propelled me into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s youngest published author and I received some attention from the news media when it was published being featured in a few newspapers and on the local BBC news program.

No further works of fiction followed – I like to say I peaked at five and its been downhill ever since! However, the experience did have some effect on my career path – I entered the publishing world as an editor and am now a Publishing Director at Cambridge University Press in New York. I’m sure my early experience with the Pirates’ Tale helped propel me in this direction!


The Pirates’ Tale

By Janet Aitchison (age five and a half)

Once upon a time there were some bad pirates. They sailed to a mountain. They dug in the mountain and found gold and silver. The mountain was a volcano.

They saw a bit of volcano then they ran back to their ship and they sailed away to their mountain and hid the gold and silver in their cave and guarded the treasure. A dwarf stole the gold and silver. The pirates woke up and killed the dwarf. The pirates got the gold and silver and the dwarf’s gold and silver.

The king dwarf sent an army to fight the pirates and to hurt the pirates. Who knows which side won the battle? The pirates! The pirates caught the king dwarf and they killed him and they threw him into the sea. A whale threw him up again and the pirates threw him down again. A shark came along and ate him up. The pirates laughed to see the dwarf being eaten up by the shark.

One day the pirates found a crab. It pinched a pirate. The pirates screamed to see the crab. The pirates ran away to the ship and sailed to the mountain and got the guns and killed the crab and the pirates laughed.

One day the pirates found a rat and killed it. The pirates had a cat and the cat ate the rat and the cat died. The pirates looked sad. A pirate found a house and opened the door and went in. It was dusty. He tidied it and dusted it. The pirate found a mouse and gave the mouse a piece of cheese. The cheese was magic.

The pirate said “Oh dear. The cheese is magic. I shouldn’t have given the mouse the cheese.” The mouse died.

One day the pirates found a forest. The forest was bewitched. The pirates went in the forest. The pirates turned into frogs and leapt about all over the place and croaked, trying to talk.

One day the pirates found some children. The pirates kept the children for their wives to cook for them. The wives cook nice things for the pirates. The pirates liked the food and ate it all up. The pirates liked the fish best. They caught the fish themselves from the sea.

One day the pirates weren’t very well. The pirates had mumps. They were very ill. One day the pirates got better and sailed away to the mountain and saw a shark and killed it and the pirates’ new cat said, “meow meow”. The pirates said, “Be quiet, new cat.”

One day the pirates found a ship. The ship had some gold and silver. The pirates stole the gold and silver. The gold and silver is magic.

The pirates died. The cat died.

Ashes to Angle-Grinders

John Murray

Terry Stiastny, a new John Murray author, on a visit to her publisher’s historic home…

Daylight falls into a below-stairs office at 50 Albemarle Street from an elaborate glass rotunda above. The rotunda has a strange quality: if you stand beneath the highest point of the dome and speak, you hear your own voice echo in your head. It feels as though you’re listening to yourself through headphones.

It’s not the only strange aspect to this room, or by far the only story that the building holds. The house in Mayfair has been owned by the John Murray family for over two hundred years, and for most of that time it was the headquarters of their eponymous publishing firm. The offices have since moved elsewhere, but the publishers still hold a biennial party here for their authors.

The legend of the rotunda room is that it’s where Lady Caroline Lamb, a woman scorned after the end of their affair, used to lie in wait for Lord Byron. She tried to keep in contact with the poet through their publisher, the second John Murray. She wrote to Murray of Byron, ‘He can pierce the hearts that love him with a smile and he must not be surprised if some of those who are wounded but not killed rise up as bitter foes.’ It’s hard to tell at this distance whether she was what we’d now describe as a celebrity-obsessed stalker, or whether she’s a much misunderstood woman, who after all had a literary career of her own. Lady Caroline is even rumoured to haunt the building: two hundred years of posthumous persistence. I wondered what she said to herself beneath the rotunda, whether her voice resounding in her ears amplified the confusion she must have felt. Lady Caroline is even rumoured to haunt the building: two hundred years of posthumous persistence. So too does her ex: legend tells of the ghostly limp of a club foot being heard on the stairs at night.

Arriving at the party, I was greeted by the seventh John Murray. Portraits of him and his forbears line the stairs, as do paintings of their authors. There’s a young, studious Freya Stark; John Betjeman; Patrick Leigh Fermor. Enter the rooms upstairs and the company is even more awe-inspiring: Washington Irving and the explorers Livingston, Barrow and Franklin. And of course, the cad himself.

As Lady Caroline wrote, ‘When I enter a room I know where you are by a row of beaming eyes all turned askance after you.’ He’s still there, in two famous portraits. Byron wrote back to Lamb dismissively in words that could have come from the transcripts of many contemporary court cases: ‘you say you will “destroy me” — perhaps you will only save me the trouble.’

One of the portraits hangs above the fireplace in which Byron’s memoirs were burnt, when news of his death reached London in May 1824. The arguments about whether it was right or wrong to burn the manuscript raged before and after the event, causing feuds and rival accounts of the decision. Murray argued it was done to protect Byron’s name from ‘everlasting injury’, because of the supposed scandals it contained. Someone who repeated the legend to me wondered, though, whether the memoirs were ever as scandalous as they were made out to be.

The legend persists because we’ll never know, though some authors, such as Tom Holland and Benjamin Markovits, have imagined what would happen if we did. In two hundred years’ time, will future authors be awestruck by the site of a desk cubicle? ‘Look,’ they’ll be told. ‘This is where the editor pressed the key that consigned that manuscript to the trash. And then it was permanently deleted.’

The modern world can still have its romance, its dramas and the stories that retell them — and as the Guardian’s experience with the Snowden files shows, deleting information is not that simple. As the editors took the angle-grinders to their hard-drives, they might have reflected that burning a manuscript would seem simpler by comparison.

Terry’s novel Acts of Omission is out in hardback on 17th July – you can pre-order it here.

Dylan Thomas: his part in my downfall


Brisbane-based journalist Ben Atherton reveals how Dylan Thomas led him astray…

Back in the good old days, when I was trying to get my first job on newspapers, a standard interview question was: “Why do you want to become a journalist?”.

The standard answer always began with platitudes about an “enjoyment” of writing and “reading newspapers”, before being airily expanded to take in some sort of notion of “service to the local community”.

But if I’d been honest I would have told them that I’d been reading too much Hunter S Thompson and wanted to be like the young reporter from the Dylan Thomas story Old Garbo. Embarrassing but true.

I can remember when I first encountered Dylan Thomas. It would have been about 1980, in the pages of Look and Learn, a magazine for swotty schoolkids to which I was almost religiously devoted.

I’m not sure why the editors of Look and Learn thought that a profile of one of English language literature’s biggest piss-heads would be suitable reading for their audience of impressionable young scholars, but there he was, complete with a full-page drawing depicting the poetical menace – looking like a wild-eyed schoolboy – scandalising a dinner party by pelting the guests with bread rolls.

From memory, the article glossed over the role the demon drink played in this outburst, leaving me rather puzzled about (a) what a dinner party actually was, and (b) why grown-ups would act this way.

I think I put it down to an excess of poetical temperament, an as-yet-undefined quantity which exerted a growing fascination on me from then on.

Now then, where was I?

Old Garbo, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, is a loosely autobiographical tale about a young reporter trying to get in with Mr Farr, the senior reporter on his Welsh paper, the Tawe News.

“He was the senior reporter, a great shorthand writer, a chain-smoker, a bitter drinker, very humorous, round-faced and round-bellied, with dart holes in his nose.”

Mr Farr covers “all the big stories, the occasional murder, such as when Thomas O’Connor used a bottle on his wife …. the strikes, the best fires.”

Young Thomas plays court to Mr Farr and is rewarded with an invitation to a Saturday night pub crawl down the docks, where, slightly mysteriously, “you can see the sailors knitting in the public bar.”

The best bit for me comes at the start of the night, in the back room of the Three Lamps.

“I leant against the bar, between an alderman and a solicitor, drinking bitter, wishing that my father could see me now and glad, at the same time, that he was visiting Uncle A. in Aberavon. He could not fail to see that I was a boy no longer, nor fail to be angry at the angle of my fag and my hat and the threat of the clutched tankard. I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.”

That “sudden world” glimpsed through the walls of the glass – it’s like a gospel of delight for drunkards.

Anyway, this was the world I thought I was entering as a journalist 60-odd years after the story was written.

A world of pub backrooms, death knocks, intrigue, parades of (in this case Welsh) grotesques, camaraderie, and easy-going drunkenness.

It was a dying world I thought I glimpsed in the early days, when one paper I tried to get a job on still had its printing press downstairs, filling the offices with the smell of ink and hot metal, and reporters repaired to the back rooms of poky little boozers at regular intervals.

But I soon found out that death knocks are no fun, houses that have been burnt out leave a stink in your clothes which lingers for days, and trying to make sense of an inquest while suffering with a screaming hangover is not to be recommended.

Looking back, even at this distance my capacity for magical thinking is wince-inducing.

The only two books I’ve ever stolen in my life were by, or about, Dylan Thomas. One of them has Old Garbo in it. No, I’m not proud of it.

What books or writers have led you astray – and did you enjoy it?

Chips with Everything: Stephen Potter and Upmanship

Dabblers will know that Noseybonk applied the principles of gamesmanship to the internet age in his Blogmanship book. From our friends at Slightly Foxed magazine, here’s author Andrew Martin on the original ‘Upmanship’ books of Stephen Potter

I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.

On taking the books out of York Library (you won’t find Potter in many public libraries today) I was struck by the combination of well-mannered elegance in the writing, and the brutality of the cod social advice given: the section in Lifemanship starkly headed ‘How to Make People Feel Awkward about Religion’ . . . or a passage in the same book about how to trip up a man who really knows what he’s talking about. The example is given of an ‘expert’ annoyingly holding the floor after a fortnight in Florence: ‘And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-Wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany’, to which Potter urges the Lifeman to counter, ‘Yes, but not in the South.’ This struck me as not only amusing but also practically useful – a remark that really would check the speaker, and at no cost to the Lifeman, it being completely unanswerable. When Potter added that ‘Yes, but not in the South’ would do for any argument about any place, I believed him, and I still do.

I have always felt a kinship with Potter. By the age of 12 I’d worked out that the sole point of social interaction was to make the other party feel slightly inferior, and he was the first person I encountered bold enough to say so. There was one mystery about him, however. Whereas my own northern, upper-working/lower-middle circumstances would seem to justify a degree of churlishness and chippiness, Potter’s did not appear to do so. I was vaguely aware that he was a shambling, endearing chain-smoker who’d lived the sort of well-padded life that writers used to have, progressing urbanely from public school to Oxford, to the BBC via a stint in academia. But when, in 1980, Alan Jenkins’s excellent biography of Potter appeared, I began to see why he would want to write a series of books setting out the absolute necessity of ‘breaking the flow’ of the man who was genuinely good at golf or billiards; or how to counter ‘the deadly one-upness of the man who, say, has really been to Russia, has genuinely taken a course in psychiatry, has actually read history at Oxford, or has written a book on something’.

Potter was educated at Westminster, but he grew up in Clapham, and his father was an accountant. He became an officer in the Coldstream Guards, but only just (Second Lieutenant), and he was too late to see action in the Great War. He went to Oxford, but he missed out on a First and the Blue that he might have expected in tennis or rowing.

He became a successful BBC radio producer with an iconoclastic style – his trademark was the cross-fading of gramophones – and this is not at all surprising, since his comic books demonstrate a wonderfully acute ear. But he always wanted to be a Great Writer, or at least a literary critic. His first book was a psychologically intense novel, unpromisingly entitled The Young Man. It was praised by Vita Sackville-West and L. P. Hartley, but Potter knew it hadn’t really worked. He then produced a rather po-faced, if competent, study of D. H. Lawrence, for which he would atone in Supermanship by inventing the character of ‘The Lawrence-man’, an arch, ginger-bearded figure whose ploy is deliberately to exasperate people by making wispy remarks such as ‘the cool prying of the North child can never find the secret of Poplihotl’. When invited to ‘make himself clear’, he responds infuriatingly, ‘Can anybody make themselves clear?’

Next came The Muse in Chains, a semi-satirical take on the industry of ‘lit. crit.’, and this laid the ground for the humour that would follow, which itself would be couched, like 1066 and All That, in a quasi-academic style, with footnotes and elaborate, courtly acknowledgement of sources, all meant to give the impression that seeking to be One-Up is a legitimate and widely practised discipline.

The first book, Gamesmanship, is devoted to ‘the art of winning games without actually cheating’ and begins with an account of ‘Joad’s Gambit’, which was essayed during a tennis match in London on 8 June 1931. Joad was Dr C. E. Joad, the pugnacious popular philosopher and Lifeman, who would go on to annoy thousands of listeners to the radio programme, The Brains Trust, every week by responding to audience questions with the supremely patronizing formula, ‘It depends what you mean by . . .’ Joad was a good friend of Potter’s, and they played tennis together, so the story of the gambit – which runs as follows – may actually be true.

In a game of doubles, Continue reading

Musings of a fiction writer

Top ad man and author Ben Kay graced these pages back in 2011 with a personal insight into the world of a blockbuster fiction writer. Via his brilliant ad-industry blog ‘If This is a Blog Then What’s Christmas?‘ he brings us up to date with the process of creating his follow up second book…

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a potential new agent (I’ve finished the sequel to my bestseller Instinct but my old agent wasn’t quite right for me. He got me a good deal with Penguin but he didn’t have enough experience in exploiting my further rights for movies, video games etc. Also, he wanted to concentrate more on non-fiction. We parted amicably).

The new guy is Darley Anderson, and he’s the agent of people like Lee Child and Martina Cole, so he knows a thing or two about selling books.

Our conversation was very interesting because it highlighted several issues about the literary world that hadn’t really occurred to me and probably don’t occur to the vast majority of people who read or write books.

The main difference between Darley and most of the other literary agents is his commitment to publishing as a business. Most of us consider books to be special things that see us through our first break-up, or a trying bout of glandular fever when no friends were allowed to visit for six months. Of course that’s true, but they are also ‘things’ that need to be ‘sold’ otherwise large corporations go ‘bust’, and if that happens no one gets to read about incidents of dogs in the nighttime or lives of Pi. Commercial fiction financially props up literary fiction. Without Martina Cole there is no Hillary Mantel, so we can either acknowledge and foster the writing of the books that sell millions of copies in airports or we can look down our noses at them for failing to be Thomas Hardy or Kazuo Ishiguro. (By the way, I am fully aware that ‘literary’ fiction can sell in great numbers, but it does so far less often than commercial fiction.)

So we discussed Lee Child a great deal and he told me that Lee has absolutely no interest in becoming a ‘brand’ himself. He is only interested in promoting the brand of Jack Reacher. This is based on the fact that Harry Potter, James Bond and every superhero ever invented are far more memorable and powerful than the people who created them. Lee and Darley fight tooth and nail to reduce Lee’s name on his covers and increase the point size of Jack.

Lee  seemed to have a very pragmatic vision for the massive success of his novels from the outset. He writes a book every year without fail (sometimes two), working from September to March. You can guarantee there will be a Jack Reacher novel out in hardback in September, to be followed by a paperback for the holiday market the following summer. That’s what the creation of a brand is: the consistent supply of what your consumers want, and that doesn’t necessarily mean following a kind of formula as Lee/Jack does; it can also mean literary eclecticism along the lines of Ian McEwan’s output. His fans expect a well-written novel, often with some shocking violence and dark humour, but the inconsistency of his output is his brand, so people expect the unexpected. Along the same lines, many actors and musicians have a brand (AKA something they are very good at). When Tom Cruise leaves the action hero brand people tend not to bother with his films, even though he’s a massive star. Equally, The Rolling Stones brand of edgy rock is incredibly strong, but if Mick Jagger tries to step outside it with some solo work, no one is interested. People love Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but Cadbury’s Smash failed because it went outside the brand.

So you have to choose your game. Do you try to create a deliberate degree of consistency that will have people returning for more of what they’ve already liked, or do you believe that literature is a pure art form that consists of whatever the muse drops into your lap, or whatever stories you need to tell? I believe there’s nothing wrong with either route, but both involve playing a different game to provide distinct benefits for the people that play them. If you want money or (in my case) to make a movie from your story then creating a commercial fiction brand will drastically increase the odds of both those things coming your way. However, if you want to feel you have artistic integrity, or indeed artistic quality (however subjective that notion) then you probably want to just write ‘books’ and not really mind that they don’t sell that many copies and need to be compatible with a day job so that you can pay the rent (of course, most books exist in the area in between the two).

This can then throw up the thorny issue of whether or not you aim for the absolute pinnacle of everything you try to do, and what that really means. We could all try to be Dickens, but even he was thought of as a commercial fiction writer who was disregarded until many years after his death. Is it wrong to aim for popularity and not spend years searching for every single one of the mots justes? Like I said, there is no wrong. You are allowed to try to do things that aren’t what other people consider to be the best use of your time. It’s probably best to just aim for something that makes you happy and fulfilled, then spend your life trying to achieve it. You might find that the journey leads you to a destination you weren’t expecting.






Alcohol and The Anglosphere

morse and lewis in pub

In a special guest post, Canadian commenter Peter muses on the English-speaking world’s various attitudes to booze…

The British and Americans have more in common than language to divide them.  The joys of intercontinental blogging and a long time bedtime addiction to police mysteries have led me to understand that a shared love of the grain and the grape masks quite different attitudes to the powers of drink and drinking habits.  Put simply, try as they might, Americans can never completely shake their Puritan “caught with fingers in the cookie jar” syndrome about a very popular and agreeable, but essentially useless at best and destructive at worst, indulgence.  By contrast, the English appear to be forever striving for a serene cerebral and aesthetic Arcadia represented by the ideal of Mediterranean drinking patterns, only to buy themselves mobs of drunken louts terrorizing town centres at 3:00am.

No North American can fail to notice that the English have an almost mystical belief in the restorative and brain-enhancing properties of booze.  When the DI in a British police mystery is stymied by evidentiary complexity and needs to flee the bureaucratic torpor of the station, he and his second repair to the local pub, where whole new ways of seeing the case appear magically with the second pint. By contrast, American detectives head to a popular local eatery, where fresh insights descend like a deus ex machina half way through a gargantuan high-caloric breakfast.  No American cop-hero would take so much as a light beer during working hours without risking his job and reputation.  He may treat himself to private solitary snorts at home at night, but this is almost always understood to be a worrisome dysfunction caused by a lack of the love of a good woman.  In Britain, the station teetotaller rarely fits in and often has character “issues” that leave  him thoroughly unpopular, if not an actual suspect.

Really, are there any life stresses that don’t lead the English to reach for a bottle?  My current read is by the prolific and popular Elizabeth George and is set on an aristocratic estate in Cornwall.  Shortly after a fancy dinner party (which everyone finishes well-lubricated), one of the guests is found murdered in filthy weather on the nearby cliffs.  As the search party and police return grimly with the body…

Lynley nodded sharply in acquiescence and longed for liquor to sooth his nerves. As if in answer, the schoolroom doors opened and his mother entered, pushing a drinks trolley on which she’d assembled two urns, three full decanters of spirits and several plates of biscuits. Her blue jeans and shoes were stained with mud, her white shirt torn, her hair dishevelled. But as if her appearance were the least of her concerns, she took command of the situation.

“I don’t pretend to know your regulations, Inspector, but it does seem reasonable that you might be allowed something to take the edge off the chill. Coffee, tea, brandy, whisky. Whatever you’d like. Please help yourselves.”

Boscowan nodded his thanks and, having received this much permission, his officers occupied themselves at the trolley.

Ah well, any excuse for a party, I suppose.

I suspect that through English eyes this is all perfectly natural and only proves they have mothers to die for, but dear Dabblers, inquiring colonial minds want to know. How did you come to the conviction that drink takes “the edge” off of life’s bad parts but enhances your analytical skills and aesthetic acuity?  Is this an honestly-held belief or something you tell your womenfolk to escape nagging?  Of course we across the pond are secretly very envious, but are you likely to ever beat Germany with such delusions?

Note:  And what of the minor Anglospherics?  Canadians pretty much share American attitudes with a added dose of Nordic-like reserve that keeps us even more publically neurotic and tiresomely critical of our neighbours. Unfortunately, my Australian correspondent was too sloshed to offer any insights before this went to press .

The Witchfather

Gerald Gardner
Reggie is a London-based lawyer who blogs here, here, here and, actually, elsewhere. It’s quite difficult to introduce him as he has such a wide (and erudite) set of interests. Anyhow, we’re delighted to welcome today a meaty post on one of the oldest preoccupations of the learned, provoked by Philip Heselton’s Witchfather, published in paperback last year.


As Ronald Hutton has noted, the tradition of pagan witchcraft known as Wicca is the only religion that England has ever given to the world – and Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) was its prophet. Various aspects of Gardner’s life and work, and of the religion that he founded, have been hashed through by a succession of previous writers. Until now, however, only one dedicated biography of Gardner has existed, this being his authorised biography, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960). Philip Heselton’s new magnum opus, Witchfather (in two volumes), fills a gap in the market by providing a properly researched study of Gardner’s eventful life.

Gardner is not the easiest subject for a biographer, not least because his own attitude towards the truth seems to have been at times less than full and frank, but Heselton’s book is an interesting and welcome new contribution to the understanding of his subject’s life. Heselton is not a professional academic or writer, and he sometimes gives his imagination a rather free rein. However, he has completed a very impressive quantity of background research on Gardner’s life and career – more than any other previous researcher – and his book will be of great interest to both popular and scholarly audiences.

Gardner was born in 1884 into a well-to-do family of timber merchants in Blundellsands, near Liverpool. He suffered from asthma (the “occultists’ disease”), and as a result he was sent abroad to warmer climes at the age of 4. He was to spend most of his life in Ceylon and Malaya, working initially in private business and then in the British colonial service, until he retired in the mid-1930s. He had no formal education, but he developed interests in archaeology, anthropology and antiquarianism. Later in life, he succeeded in obtaining a PhD from an American degree mill.

Gardner was interested in religion and occultism for most of his life, ever since he read a book on spiritualism as a pre-teen. During his life in the East, he was exposed to Buddhism, Islam and traditional tribal beliefs. He didn’t follow any particular faith, though he spent two brief periods as a Freemason, professed the shahada at one point in his 20s, and consulted mediums while visiting England. He seems to have acquired beliefs in life after death and reincarnation, and the idea of reincarnation duly recurs both in his later fiction writing and in the doctrines of the witch religion that he purported to have discovered.


Gardner left Malaya in 1936, and then, as war approached, moved to Highcliffe near the New Forest in 1938. He later claimed that he was advised by a doctor to take up naturism to cope with the bracing English climate, though there is evidence that he had an interest in the lifestyle before that. Certainly, naturism was to become a major part of his life, and, like reincarnation, it subsequently recurred both in his novels and in his purportedly non-fictional writings on witchcraft.

After moving to the New Forest area, Gardner encountered an esoteric group called the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, which operated a theatre in Christchurch. He later claimed that he had come into contact with a coven of pagan witches through his friendship with individuals in the Fellowship, and that he was himself initiated as a witch shortly after the outbreak of the War. The canonised version of the story is set out in his authorised biography: Continue reading