It’s strange how sometimes we (that is to say, I – but I doubt that you’re any different) only want to read something new and contemporary while at other times we go back to what I suppose is the mental comfort food of books we have loved in the past. That’s certainly the mood I was in when I picked up Rudyard Kipling’s Collected Poems. I stuck to the early stuff, before he became the laureate of Empire, not because I don’t like his later work but because that was the mood I happened to be in. And I came across The Story of Uriah.
I’ve loved this poem since I was seventeen and in the first year of the Sixth Form and it was painstakingly explained to the English A-level class. If you know the background, pass on to the end where you will find the poem; if not, this might touch you as it did me all those years ago.
The title comes from the Book of Samuel which tells how David wanted Bathsheba so much and so illicitly that he sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to die in battle. Kipling leaves us in no doubt that that is the background to his tale because, as well as calling the poem The Story of Uriah, he quotes the words, “Now there were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor” and the Bible tells us that the prophet Nathan used these words to begin a parable with which he rebuked David for arranging Uriah’s death. In that parable, the rich man has an abundance of domestic livestock while the poor man has only a single lamb, yet when a visitor needs to be entertained it is the poor man’s lamb that the rich man feeds him on. When David expressed disgust at the rich man’s actions, Nathan said, ‘You are that man.’ We are not, then, in any doubt about the poem’s subject.
And nor were Kipling’s fellow-expatriates when he published The Story of Uriah in The Civil and Military Gazette on March 3rd, 1886 because a quote from the time says, ‘Those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force.’
So that’s why I like it. And here it is:
Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew.
Jack Barrett went to Quetta.
He didn’t understand
The reason of his transfer
From the pleasant mountain-land.
The season was September,
And it killed him out of hand.
Jack Barrett went to Quetta
And there gave up the ghost,
Attempting two men’s duty
In that very healthy post;
And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him
Five lively months at most.
Jack Barrett’s bones at Quetta
Enjoy profound repose;
But I shouldn’t be astonished
If now his spirit knows
The reason of his transfer
From the Himalayan snows.
And, when the Last Great Bugle Call
Adown the Hurnai throbs,
And the last grim joke is entered
In the big black Book of Jobs.
And Quetta graveyards give again
Their victims to the air,
I shouldn’t like to be the man
Who sent Jack Barrett there.
I’d really like to know how Jack Barrett’s wife and her powerful lover felt at seeing their infamy displayed for all to see, but if anyone recorded that story I have yet to find it.
I’m asked where the character of Sharon Wright came from in a way that no one ever asks about Billy, the central character in Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I don’t find that puzzling; it reflects the unwillingness of people to accept the pursuit of self-interest in a female character when it would not trouble them in a male. It’s clear that some people find Sharon disturbing. Personally, I love the woman 🙂
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth and making sure she kept it. I had better make it clear right now that I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses – my problem was with people who accepted that there must be limits on a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I actually wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Sharon Wright was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Zappa’s Mam is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of consuming him for lunch when he has served his purpose. She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says,
‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says,
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?
At the Chorleywood Indie Fair on 16th November a lady asked me to tell her about my books. I did that and when I reached A Just and Upright Man I said, ‘This is an historical romance and crime book. It’s set in the north-east in the 1760s. So, you see, men can write romance.’ I meant that as a little joke and she didn’t seem to have a problem with it but one of my fellow ALLi author members who was listening to the conversation spat out a derogatory remark about the very idea of romance and male authors. A review in Romance Reviews Magazine, quoted on the front cover, said, “A very enjoyable and worthwhile read” and the Historical Novel Society (also quoted) said, “A truly superb novel and indie publishing at its very best” but clearly this lady was not impressed. Men can’t write romance and that’s that.
I covered up my irritation (at least I hope I did) and it was only later that I looked dispassionately at the question. That’s when I realised that twenty years ago – perhaps even ten years ago – I couldn’t have written A Just and Upright Man. Romance to me then was not what it would be now. I don’t have to search very far for the reason. In my early sixties I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t serious enough to see a doctor but I did mention it when I was at the surgery for a cholesterol check. ‘Oh, I can fix that,’ said the doc. ‘Testosterone Replacement Therapy – that’s the answer.’
He must have been joking; in fact, I told him so. Almost all the trouble in my life has come from an excess of testosterone. I don’t think that’s unusual; it’s what people mean when they say that having testicles is like being chained to the village idiot. Be that as it may, now that that tedious hormone was depleted I had no intention of building it up again. And that turned out to be the right decision because the sleeping problem went away. It’s now, in this post-lunatic stage of my life, that I find romance easy to write.
I wrote this post in my head this morning during a six mile walk along the country lanes close to my house that I took because it’s such an unexpectedly beautiful day (especially as tomorrow is the first day of winter). While I was composing it I remembered that I had actually used that testosterone replacement suggestion in a short story. I hope you will enjoy that story – it’s free and available for download here.
Mandrill Press announces the publication of:
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.
All Sharon wants is a better life—a husband who takes care of her, the kind of food they have in magazines and civilized conversation. Is it her fault that she is in the middle of a plot involving two hitmen? Well, yes, actually. It is. In Sharon’s deprived childhood, Buggy was Top Cat—the one everyone went in fear of. Buggy ruled the roost and Buggy’s girlfriend could be the Number One female. So she married him. Of all the mistakes she could have made, that was the biggest.
John Lynch is an international salesman. He has lived and done business on every continent except Antarctica and knows Lagos, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi as well as the Shropshire countryside where he now lives. As R J Lynch he also writes the James Blakiston Series of historical crime/romance novels set in the 1760s.
Sharon Wright: Butterfly was published in October 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-910194-10-2 (Paperback) and 978-1-910194-08-9 (eBook)
John Lynch was born in 1943 and brought up in Newcastle upon Tyne where he attended Heaton Grammar School from 1954 till 1961. He now lives in Park Hall near Oswestry in Shropshire. Between those two British homes his career in international sales has taken him to every continent except Antarctica. Until a year ago he was employed full time by the American company Ennis-Flint as Sales Director for Africa and the Middle East; when he reached the age of 70 he decided to take a step back and he now works 26 weeks a year covering the Middle East. He has been a writer for many years—in 1953 at the age of ten he stood on the stage in the assembly hall at Benton Park Primary School and read to the assembled pupils and their parents a story he had written. It still gives him pleasure to know that sixty years later one of his classmates still remembers being nagged all the way home by his mother demanding, ‘Why can’t you write like John Lynch?’ You can listen to a 1983 recording of his short story, Bird, read on the BBC’s Morning Story by Heather Bell, here. He says of Bird, ‘my mother was impressed that her son’s story was on the radio, but not as impressed as she was by the fact that it was being read by Clarrie Grundy from The Archers.’ There have also been a number of published books, stories and articles; he says the one he enjoyed most was Managing the High Tech Salesforce. ‘People kept saying, “You write just like you talk” as though I had somehow cheated—they had no idea how hard it was to develop a style that gave that (completely false) impression.’
John has published under other names in the past to keep separate his working and private lives, but now writes as R J Lynch and John Lynch. ‘The books I write as John Lynch are set in the present and meant to say something about Britain in the 21st century. As R J Lynch, I’m writing romance and detective stories and indulging my passion for history.’
Question: You gave us an interview for Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and we don’t need to repeat all that here. Tell us about Sharon Wright: Butterfly. How did you come to write it?
JL: I’ve always regarded women as stronger than men. Not physically stronger – not usually – but mentally and spiritually stronger. I don’t know whether that’s because I grew up in the north-east as the son of several generations of coalminers but it’s how I see things. I’d written Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper as the story of a young man who overcomes the drawbacks of an appalling upbringing and I wanted to do the same thing for a young woman. Sharon Wright is that woman.
Q: Is she based on a real person?
JL: Answering questions like that can land you in court being sued for libel.
Q: Would you call Sharon a nice person?
JL: I wasn’t thinking in terms of niceness when I wrote the book. When we watch her wooing Jackie Gough you could say she woos the way a praying mantis might. When her mate has served his purpose he ends up being eaten and poor Jackie doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into. But I’d excuse her by asking, “What choice does she have? What options has Life given her? It’s her or the other guy and why should she accept that it has to be her?” And let me say also that if the central character of the book had been male instead of female I don’t believe you would have asked that question. If a man had done the things Sharon does the reaction would simply be that he was giving expression to his masculinity. Why should we expect a young woman to behave differently?
Q: There’s a lot of humour in the book. Do you find it easier to write with comic intent?
JL: I suppose I do. My next book is called When the Darkness Comes. It opens with a man realising that he is on the point of death and it contains this passage: He’s laughing, up here in the corner. And it’s a relief. Because, if being dead doesn’t really mean being dead, he’s not going to like it if he can’t laugh. He’s always been able to laugh. That – that business of always having been able to laugh – is probably about me. The book is not about me – I’m not the character who is dying – but that one character trait is definitely something he gets from me.
Q: Thank you for talking to us.
JL: My pleasure.
This evening on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, when Tim Brooke-Taylor had to sing I’m a teenage dirtbag to the tune of Danny Boy, I found my mind drifting to my own use of Danny Boy which ended on the writer’s version of the cutting room floor. This was originally part of Chapter 1 of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper:
The Howards told me there’d been a street party when Prince Charles married Diana, though they also said they’d had it at the local primary school which sounds to me like a school party, not a street party. Mister Howard said half the Catholics didn’t come because they said they were Irish and they weren’t going to celebrate any damned English royal family foolishness, which brings me back to why do they stay here if they hate it so much? And the rest came but they negotiated their share of the festivities, which included having some young boy sing Danny Boy. I suppose we should be pleased they didn’t insist on Kevin Barry.
(Danny Boy. In Young Offenders, as I said, we’d go to churchy things just for a break. There was an RC chaplain there who talked about Catholic Guilt. I suppose he thought guilt was something we should focus on, us being what and where we were. To hear him talk, you’d think the whole world was founded on Catholic Guilt. And you know what? There’s no such thing. When did you ever hear a Spaniard or an Italian go on about Catholic Guilt? What there is is Irish Guilt. Listen to Danny Boy and you’ll see. It’s supposed to be a mother or a father singing to their son who is off to some place with more opportunity, America probably, and this mother or father says,
“And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.”
The paddies get all weepy about that. But it’s that bit about “as dead I well may be” that gives it away. What this mother or father is really saying is, “You go off and do whatever you want to do. You just look after yourself and never give me, the poor ould ‘un that gave you your miserable life, a single thought. I’ll probably be dead when you get back, if you ever do get back which you probably won’t because you’ll be having far too good a time to bother coming back to see me, but don’t you worry your pretty head about that. You just go off and enjoy yourself like the selfish little shit you are and don’t give me any consideration at all. Just like you never do.” That’s Danny Boy. And that’s Irish Guilt. The mother or father is laying a nice big slice on the departing child. Enough to last a lifetime. And that is why they keep going on about what a grand place ould Ireland is while taking damn good care never to set foot there again).
If you’re Irish and I’ve just offended you, I apologise. <Snigger>
I had to cut that passage from Zappa’s Mam and I’m used to that—to get to the 92,000 words the book has in its finished form I probably wrote a total of more than 150,000. Barbers sell the hair that ends up on the floor of their shop but writers mostly don’t get the chance to reuse their offcuts. Writing this blog post has given me a frisson of guilty pleasure.
This is my third post introducing Sharon, the eponymous hero of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. We’ve already seen the background Sharon comes from and what sort of person she is and I’ve hinted that her wooing of the graduate but naïf Jackie Gough has something of the praying mantis about it. Now we’ll take one more look at Sharon as she starts to put her plan into action and then we’ll leave it. That’s a promise. At least for the time being.
‘You’re not really planning to visit those three lockups?’
‘That’s the plan, Sharon. Then I get Monty Green to buy what’s in them.’
Sharon shook her head. ‘Jackie. The police know about those lockups. You told them where they are. You even gave them the keys. What do you think’s going to happen when you show up there?’
‘It won’t be like that. I’m DI Prutton’s snout. She won’t let them pick me up.’
‘Put that in writing, has she?’
Gough looked uncertain. ‘Well, how are we supposed to get the money? You’re the one wants to go straight. You’re the one wants a B&B in Cornwall. You’re the one wants to change our name to Renton, disappear for ever. How are we supposed to do that if I don’t get the money?’
‘Jackie. How many lockups did you give the DI and Cameron? Three. How many lockups did I have keys for?’
‘Oh is right. Now I wonder which one of the four has about one and a half million quid’s worth of nicked drink and cigarettes in it that would be a piece of piss to get rid of in a day? And which three are full of knock-off videos and jewellery and crap like that?’
‘But we don’t know what’s in them.’ He watched her face carefully. ‘We do know what’s in them.’
‘So the thing to do…the thing to do is to get Monty Green to buy the fags and booze and get Muammar to put the money in an account.’
Sharon went on smiling.
Gough’s eyes lit up. ‘John Renton’s account, maybe?’
‘John and Sharon Renton’s would be better.’
‘Same thing, isn’t it?’
‘Not quite. Suppose we need the money in a hurry…’
‘…which we will…’
‘…and you can’t get away without making Cameron suspicious.’
‘John and Sharon Renton, then.’
‘Either to sign.’
‘Either to sign. Bloody hell, Sharon. That’s like two hundred and seventy and half of two hundred and seventy…that’s four hundred thousand quid.’
‘B&B in Cornwall. We’ll need all of that.’
‘I suppose. Sharon.’
‘Yes, my petal.’
‘How did you know that was the key to hold back?’ He stared at her. ‘I mean…how long have you…’
Sharon was still smiling.
‘Sharon. When I came looking for the keys? Were you waiting for me to ask? Have you planned this all along?’
She moved forward and smoothed the collar of his shirt. She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
Gough shook his head. ‘You’re not, are you?’
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. You know, like we played the game where you ripped my knickers off and did me? I needed to play that game. If a man needs me to play the game where I’m dumb, I’ll play that game for him.
‘But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
‘I hope you can, Jackie. ‘Cos we make a good team, you and me. There’s stuff you can do that I can’t do. Getting those passports, for example. And there’s stuff I can do that you can’t do.’ She smiled. ‘There’s one very special thing I’m doing that you can never do, Jackie. I’m having your little boy. He’s going to grow up to be just like his daddy. And he’ll go to university, just like his daddy, but he’ll be even smarter than his mummy and his daddy because he’ll have gone to a private school first. And if I have a little girl, we’ll do exactly the same thing. ‘Cos girls can be as smart as boys, any day. Even blonde girls. You with me on this, Jackie?’
Gough nodded again. ‘I am, Sharon. I really am.’
‘I’m glad.’ She took a key from her pocket and a sheet of paper from a drawer in the kitchen table. ‘So now you’re going to go see Monty Green and arrange to get rid of the booze and ciggies. You’ll need this list, because Monty’s going to want to know what’s in there, isn’t he? And I love you and I couldn’t bear to lose you now, so you won’t go anywhere near the other lockups. Will you?’
Gough shook his head. ‘I won’t.’
‘Good. Jackie? Your copy of that PACE tape? The one that says you grassed up Dan Ablett? Where is it?’
‘In my pocket.’
‘Do you think it’s a good idea to carry it around? Why don’t you leave it with me? I’ll find somewhere really safe for it.
Yesterday in my Goodreads blog I posted a sort of introduction to Sharon Wright, heroine (if that’s the right word) of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I’d like to show one or two more aspects of Sharon to help people decide whether or not the book is for them. I’ll post the final example tomorrow, but here is the one I want to show today. Sharon, who was recently widowed when Buggy, her husband, got on the wrong side of two hitmen, is with her friend from school days, Jackie Gough. They have just fulfilled one of Sharon’s long-held fantasies. Jackie is falling for Sharon which – at least from his point of view – is unwise because Sharon’s advances are in fact the kind a praying mantis might make. Here’s the extract:
Jackie Gough lay on his back, staring at the ceiling and thinking that now he’d seen everything. Sharon nuzzled his side. The tattered remains of her torn knickers clung to one thigh. Neither of them had a stitch on otherwise. ‘That was lovely, Jackie.’
‘Yeah. Yeah it was.’
‘Did you really like it?’
‘The best, Sharon. The best I’ve ever had.’
‘You don’t think I’m funny?’
‘I know you’re funny, Sharon. That was still the best sex I’ve ever had.’
‘You know what I liked best?’
‘I daren’t ask.’
‘The way you’d gone to the bathroom and washed yourself. You know. Before you came in. Most men don’t think about how they taste in a girl’s mouth. You’ve gone red. Do I embarrass you?’
‘You’d embarrass the Pope, sometimes.’
‘You don’t belong round here, Jackie. You’re a gentleman.’ She kissed him. ‘Aren’t you glad I’m not a lady?’
‘You are a lady, Shazza. In your own way.’
‘Funny, isn’t it? How playing games makes it better.’
‘We could play one of your games next time.’
‘I don’t know if I’ve got any games, Sharon. Of my own, I mean.’
‘I’m sure you could think of one.’ She doodled one-finger patterns on his shoulder. ‘Jackie.’
‘You know I’m a widow now?’
‘Bloody hell. Yeah, I suppose you are. Bit of a merry widow, aren’t you?’
‘Jackie! I do care about Buggy being dead you know.’
‘I know you do, petal.’
That’s why I’ve been wearing black knickers since he died.’
‘He’d be deeply touched.’
‘I loved Buggy.’
‘Let’s be fair, Sharon. You love a lot of people. Often at the same time.’
‘Yes, well. That’s because I loved Buggy, but I didn’t respect him.’
‘Well, you couldn’t, really, could you?’
‘I respect you, Jackie.’
Gough raised himself on one elbow. ‘Where are you going with this, Sharon? Shazza? Are you…why are you crying?’
‘If I hadn’t…if me and Buggy hadn’t been…you know…do you think it might ever have been me and you instead?’
‘Bloody hell, Sharon.’
‘I always fancied you. But Buggy was Top Cat back then, wasn’t he? And then, when I realised, we were married and it was too late. That’s what happens. You realise something, and it’s too late.’
‘Life can only be understood backwards,’ said Gough. ‘But it has to be lived forwards.’
Sharon sat up, her eyes shining. ‘Oh, Jackie,’ she breathed. ‘That’s brilliant. Oh, I wish I’d gone to college, Jackie.’
‘Yeah. Well. It’ll be too late for me pretty soon. And then it won’t matter whether it might ever have been me and you. Because there won’t be any me to be part of it.’
‘Jackie. Whatever do you mean?’
‘I’m in the crap, Sharon. I’ve got the police on one side, Jim Cameron on another, and Mad Dan Ablett on the third.’
‘Like a triangle. Why’s Mad Dan cross with you?’
‘He doesn’t know he is, yet.’
She put her finger on his brow and ran it down his nose. ‘It was you grassed him up.’
‘Grass is a nasty word, Sharon. Don’t use it. Even in fun.’
‘Buggy said it was you.’
‘Bloody hell. Who else did he tell?’
‘No-one I shouldn’t think. Buggy wouldn’t shop a mate. Even one he thought was seeing to his wife.’
She sat cross-legged on the bed. ‘Why don’t you tell me the whole story? And don’t look at me down there. You’ll only get excited again.’