Green Park

Here is a young man sketching the skeletal outlines of winter trees, using a blue pencil. Here is an older man, quietly reading a book. Here is an arrogant ass, sprawled on a park bench, with an expression like a King, as if he somehow owned the whole park. Groups of ladies run up and down. A helicopter buzzes somewhere up above – this is SW1.

A little yellow-breasted bird swoops down and lands two feet away from a Smartie, abandoned on the path. It hops smartly forward, picks it up in its beak, and flies off with it. A lucky find! Two men go past, of Mediterranean or possibly near Eastern origin, sharing the same bicycle.

A blonde lady of unknowable age, but svelte and curved in Lycra, is performing somewhat distracting (to me, anyway) stretching exercises on a nearby fallen tree, pressed in to service as a park bench.

Passing the Grand Sheraton on Picadilly, I spy a single open window amongst dozens, set against the sunlit white Portland Stone.

The Glenavon Hotel, Tomintoul

My third burger in a row is long gone.  This one was average, though the chips were splendid.  I’m halfway down a bottle of “Trade Winds”, that fine ale from Cairngorm Brewery which has brought me such pleasure the last two nights.  I didn’t know they had it – I had a false start of a pint of some form of horse-piss from Tennants, thinking it was all they had.

It is Halloween Rock Night. Eighties rock music at about 7 or 8 out of 10 on the volume scale – Guns n Roses, later Whitesnake, that kind of thing.  Even a little Bon Jovi.  The locals are in Halloween costume.  The bar is brown; all pine woodwork the colour of a sauna.  It may have been cleaned since smoking indoors was banned, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here is a corner, like someone’s living room, with a flat-screen TV, a fireplace with a lit and nicely crackling fire, and the skull of a deer on the wall. Sofas are drawn up around the fire.  The rest of the bar is a tad linoleum rough – my kind of place – and the music only adds to the atmosphere.

Some ladies dressed as nuns have just walked in.  The eighties MTV rock has been replaced by Queen’s “Fat bottomed girls” at high volume as a band starts to set up.  As Paul Hogan said in the Fosters’ advert, “looks like it’s going to be a good night”.

Later, out into the night air to once again appreciate the holy silence. Nearly full moon and it is very cold tonight at this highest village in Scotland.  Me and Tomintoul go back a long way.  I first came here in 1996, stopping for tea after crossing Lecht for the first time, on the way to visit my sister on the West coast.  Now, as then, I was in Aberdeen at my employer’s expense and took time off for a short break.

I am drawn to Tomintoul, though as a work colleague from Aberdeen notes, somewhat unkindly, “there’s nothing there”.  It does not matter.  This place is woven into the fabric of times of leisure in my life this last twenty years, that have meant much to me.


The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.

“The ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing”

I have encountered a rather strange thing in some work I am reviewing. It is deeply displeasing and demotivating to me to see it. But more of that particular strange thing in a moment.

If one is involved in a car crash, then one’s car will be damaged. It will be taken to the garage, and they will effect repairs. They will send the bill either to you or possibly to the insurance company. But if the car is very badly damaged, then the garage or the insurance company may deem that the cost of repairs actually exceeds the value of the car itself. In such cases it is common to say that the car has been “written off”. We use the term “written off”, therefore, to describe something that is damaged beyond economic repair.

An important part of my job is reviewing and revising the writing of others.  In this task, I may encounter sentences that are damaged, or more likely, badly constructed from the start. I may come across concepts that are difficult to understand, and I sometimes read phrases that are simply incomprehensible. Just as garage mechanics repair cars, I repair sentences. But just occasionally, I come across sentences that are so convoluted, so twisted and arcane, that repair is just not possible. We might fairly say of such sentences that like badly damaged cars, they are “written off”; they are beyond economic repair.

The problem is that in revising such sentences you have to understand completely the mind of the author; you need a thorough comprehension of what he or she was trying to say – so that you can then construct an easy-to-understand and comprehensible sentence for the reader.

That is the heart and soul of my job. It is not easy and it is fair to say that it has brought me to my knees, at least metaphorically, on a number of occasions.

The strange thing that I encountered? It is a number of sentences of Pauline intensity and length. (The Apostle Paul is known amongst students of the Bible for having using long and complicated sentences; it is something the student of St Paul’s letters must ever be on the lookout for.)

As writers, what is the longest sentence that we might deliver? I have looked through this short piece and shortened a number of sentences to less than 30 words. I am not wanting to see sentences of 71 words. I am most dismayed at having to read a sentence of 87 words. That saps my strength – for I believe strongly that it is the writer, and not the reader, who should be doing the hard work.

Mad Billy Brown

Coming out of the shop into the white afternoon light, I saw a slight, rather stooped figure gazing through the windows at the musical instruments on display. He was carrying a cheap cardboard suitcase and looked like someone who was really not at all comfortable in his skin. He seemed ill at ease. He noticed me as I went out onto the pavement, and asked me if I knew the way to the railway station. Well, I did, I thought. And if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here. For no particular reason I could think of, at that moment and in that place, it seemed an odd question to ask. He must have been lost, or not from round here; he was far out of his way. No-one going on foot to the railway station would pass through here unless they were completely unfamiliar with the nuances of the town.

I’d gone to the shop to buy a new E-string for my guitar. I’d bought the guitar in that very shop, a year or so back. It was a bottom of the range Fender acoustic, and it cost me £115 new. And I had snapped an E-string. As you do, from time to time, when tuning up. I always worried that when the top E-string snapped, it would take my fingers off, but of course that was a quite irrational fear. In the shop, there was your actual Guiseppe, an engaging and entrepreneurial fellow whose blood I could never quite place. His name was Italian, and he was clearly of Latin blood, but I was not entirely sure that he was Italian at all. I’d known him and his brother years back when I was a boy. Guiseppe had been at my school, though he left the year I arrived. His younger brother was at a different school – Willowfield. One day he’d come to a bonfire at the Scout hut, and I became aware that a number of my fellow Scouts were moving in a certain way. I realised after a while that they were keeping the blazing light of the bonfire between them and this younger brother – Federico was his name.

“What’s goin’ on ‘ere?” I asked.

“It’s ‘im over there” said my friend darkly, indicating with his head across the fire to the other side, where Federico stood. “’ardest in Willowfield.”

Federico was something of a tearaway. Always in trouble with the law; arrogant, untouchable, hard, brittle. He got broken in the end, poor fellow. Eventually the poor chap committed one too many assaults or robberies, and he got sent away to a proper prison. This would have been when he was 18 or 19 or so. I remember seeing him not long after he came out, and in his early twenties he was a limping, broken man. He was like a man used up, slung aside, disposed of. It’s quite put me off going to prison.

But his older brother Guiseppe was a man of an altogether different stamp. Almost you might question if they had different fathers. But that would be idle and inappropriate speculation. Guiseppe was urbane, civilised, and liberal. He was knowledgeable about all manner of things, and was quite capable of running a music shop. He wasn’t the owner of course, just a hired hand, but he had a future; he was going places.

It was one of those Spring days when the sky seems bright, yet the sun does not break through. “Overcast” would not do; it was not a gloomy day, more a day of thick white light, where the sun could not quite break through a thick layer of lingering ground mist. I went in the shop and I bought my E-string, and me and Guiseppe stopped to talk and pass the time of day. What’s that line from “Baker Street”?

“He asks you where you’ve been, you tell him who you’ve seen, and you talk about anything”

Soon though I thought I had better get on. And I turned to leave the shop, a little oasis of civilisation, almost. And it was as I left the shop that I saw this fellow, with his cheap suitcase and odd question, and even as I looked at him, I knew him.

He looked at me, and I looked at him, and in that instant, he knew me too. It was Mad Billy Brown.

“It’s Billy Brown.”

“Hi Billy. How’s it been?”

“I came back here today for a funeral. Been burying my uncle.”

“I’m sorry”, I murmured automatically. “Where do you live these days?”

“I work at an oil refinery, down in Essex” he replied. “I just came up for the day for the funeral. Not been here for years. It’s changed a lot.”

Has it? I thought. Still a dreary provincial town. But I never said that out loud.

Billy Brown’s story was tragic, as tragic as any you might hear. We’d been friends as boys at when I was little. I recall one sunny afternoon playing with him on some recreation ground; my father had been an amateur referee and had been refereeing a friendly football match. Interesting what one remembers. I remember my parents discussing what he should wear as a ref – for my father had no referee’s kit to mark him out as different. In the end he’d worn an old jacket. I remember him tearing round the pitch in it. But me and Billy and his brother had played the afternoon through, on a grassy and tree-lined bank above the pitch.

Billy Brown: the man before me seemed uncomfortable, in ill-fitting clothes, as it were. The boy I remembered had stark, staring eyes. And well he might. For Billy had seen things. He’d seen things that no-one should see, and that before he was ten years of age. From time to time one meets people so tremendously damaged by their early experiences that there seems no hope of healing until they get to heaven, when all tears will be wiped away, and all scars will be healed. Sometimes such people soldier through life with a spiritual limp, all twisted up inside. Sometimes they are literally bitter and twisted; other times, just seemingly a little inadequate or ill-suited to their lot in life. Some people are so damaged by their early experiences that they never make it on their own at all, and remain all their lives dependent on the grace of others to survive.

Billy Brown was one of those who was able to limp through life bearing the scars dealt to him by what he had seen. His name had become a by-word for strangeness amongst local kids. Parents whispered, “you don’t want to become like Billy Brown”. What had happened had become a channel marker, a point of guidance, a cairn or pillar by which to navigate our young lives.

For Billy had been involved in a terrible road accident. Parents wanted us to cross the road safely, so they reminded us of what had happened to Billy Brown. For Billy was an identical twin. He and his twin brother had been walking to school together, along a quiet street. They crossed the street. And a driver had come along, out of nowhere, and all of a sudden Billy never had no twin brother no more. Billy saw it all, poor fellow. He saw his brother as he was taken from him. One second crossing the road with his brother, the next, crossing the Styx on his own. He was never the same after that. Billy Brown’s twin brother was taken, and a part of Billy went with him. But Billy will see his brother again, for sure, in the hereafter, and the scars he walks with will be healed by the great God above. But meantime, he soldiers on alone under the sky. I told him how to get to the railway station; we said our goodbyes, and he set off, all alone.