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Let’s hear it for the Paddies

My relationship with Ireland is not one of undiluted love. When I visited Macroom, the Cork town from which my ancestors left for England in the 1860s, my reaction was, ”Yes. Well. I understand why they left and I’m glad they did.” At one time in my sales career, I was responsible for a distributor in Ireland and I learned then some lessons about commercial integrity that stood me in good stead later in countries like Nigeria. I once got through the gates at Lansdowne Road only with the help of some Welsh boys who kept me upright after rather too much Guinness and I spent a happy time sliding up and down wooden benches polished by countless backsides like mine; I cannot forgive the authorities who replaced that wonderful ground with the Aviva Stadium which is simply one more international arena that could be anywhere in the world. Aherne’s in Youghal is one of the two or three finest seafood restaurants I have ever been in but when they placed me face-to-face with a huge poster of Brian O’Driscoll touching down one-handed (I’m not sure where his other hand was; stuck up his bum, probably) I’m quite sure it was intentional. My describing him as “the ageing princess of Irish rugby” caused a chill in Anglo-Irish relations that may not have thawed yet.
But all is forgiven. The Irish have voted to permit same-sex marriage. I had no stake in this game; in all my six decades I don’t believe I ever looked at another man with carnal or amatory interest. As for the politicking, my own politics – to the extent that I have them at all – are based on agreement with PJ O’Rourke (a fine Irish name if ever there was one): “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”
What Ireland has done is to say to the world, “the way other people choose to live their lives is none of your damn business. Now bugger off.”
God bless them.

 

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Two hours on the train to Birmingham to see the Saturday matinee performance of Arcadia. Two hours back, with a last ditch struggle to board a crowded train. It was a wet and windy day when other pursuits offered: staying indoors with the latest Charles Cumming and a pot of tippy Assam would probably have been favourite. So; was Arcadia worth the effort?

I’ve never really been a Stoppard fan — he’s a bit Rab Butler, a little “too clever by half”. And this is England, where “clever” is not always a compliment. The performances were mixed — some good, some a little newbie. It isn’t everyone who can make a play about entropy and hold people’s attention (yes, I know there was a lot more, but that’s what I’m left with this morning).

I suppose it was worth the trouble. But only just.

Dinner Party Guests

English Historical Fiction Authors is a closed Facebook group for – well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Although the members don’t have to be English, and I’d guess that more than half of them aren’t; the group is for people who are interested in historical fiction with an English setting. A question that came up today was that old favourite: you have the chance to throw a dinner party where you may invite three monarchs/rulers/leaders from any period of history, whether they’re Hatshepsut or King George III. Who do you invite and why?

This was my reply:

First, Barabbas, because he wasn’t simply a bandit; he was Bar Abbas, the Son of God, and people in the early years of the church would have understood what he represented: that the Jewish people were offered a choice between two sons of God, one of whom taught freedom through peace while the other said you had to take it by violence and they made the wrong choice. I’d like to know how he feels about things two thousand years on.
Second, the Empress Makeda, who – well: “King Solomon violated the Empress Makeda, whom the ignorant call the Queen of Sheba. She was searching for his wisdom, but he was what he was and he jumped her. His own people were so disgusted by the way he treated her, the way he broke faith and his promise that they escorted her back to Abyssinia and they took the Ark of the Covenant with them. It sits where they left it, on the beach in the Ethiopian province of Eritrea.” It’s a good story, but I’d like to know how true it is, and who better than her to tell me?
And, finally, Thomas More. There are two completely opposing ideas of who and what he was and I’d like to look him in the eye while I heard his side of the argument.

It occurred to me afterwards that I’d better make sure I had plenty of booze available. No English wine, though – the dinner is meant to be enjoyable.

That bit about Solomon and the Empress Makeda, btw, is from my wip, When the Darkness Comes, which probably won’t be finished this year and couldn’t feature in English Historical Fiction Authors anyway because it’s set in the 21st century. Barabbas is there, too; he punches poor John Betjeman and knocks his teeth out. Not a nice man.

What is Heaven like?

When you get to my age it’s inevitable that you sometimes wonder: If I get there, what will Heaven be like? Well, now I know. Heaven will be like Sunday lunch at Punchinello’s at The Southern Sun Montecasino in Johannesburg.

And, if it isn’t, I think I don’t want to go there.

Between Women

I was in that place I knew so well that I’d always thought of as Between Women. And then I realised that I wasn’t.

I’d been between women several times in the past, and always with a combination of sadness and hope. Sadness that a love affair was over, because I was completely invested in a relationship while it lasted. Or I thought I was; the woman often disagreed, which was sometimes the reason it was coming to an end. And hope at the idea of being able to put myself out there once more in the hunt for someone new. Someone somehow indefinably better. Someone with whom, this time, the train of love would not slam into the buffers.

That was the nature of the experience of being between women.

And, this time, it didn’t apply.

About six years earlier I’d talked to the doctor about sleep difficulties I was having. I don’t mean going to sleep, I could still do that, but staying that way instead of waking at two in the morning. The doc suggested testosterone therapy and I said, ‘You have to be joking. Almost all the trouble I’ve had in my life, all the stupid things I’ve done, were caused by too much testosterone. And now, when it’s finally receding, you want to top it up. No thank you.’

And it was the right decision because, after a while, I started sleeping through the night again.

I’d been glad that the hormonal flood was reducing, the tide of aggressive maleness ebbing, the risk of behaving like a damn fool diminishing. What I didn’t do was to think through the likely consequences. I didn’t need to at the time, because I wasn’t going to see them for another six years, but now here they were.

I’m not talking about impotence; I could still do the lady justice if I wanted to, no Viagra needed, thanks very much. I just didn’t want to.

I didn’t suddenly wake up and find I’d gone off the whole idea. What happened was that I met a new woman, a very agreeable woman, just turned fifty, a nice age difference, and I took her to dinner. It was a good dinner. Nice restaurant, attentive service, food better than normal. The conversation was good, too. Easy. Agreeable. Unstressed. You don’t always get that on a first date. We had a lot in common. Including, as we found out towards the end, a mutual love of cheese. Cheese is usually more a man’s thing than a woman’s. A lot of women see it as fat they don’t need to ingest. But the restaurant had an excellent British cheese board, and she got into them as much as I did and we found we were talking about cheese: Cheddar; Perl Wen; Sage Derby; Shropshire Blue, and then I said, ‘What a friend we have in cheeses,’ and she laughed.

It was a lovely laugh, whole-hearted and not tinkly or forced, and I think she knew it wasn’t originally my gag, that it had been around a while, and maybe she was just encouraging my willingness to make an evening of it, showing hers too for that matter, and maybe she was someone who laughs easily. I like people like that, men or women, especially when I’ve just met them because then you get a chance to rework all your old material. Good salespeople have their material, you know, just as professional comics do.

So I ran off a couple of the classics. Like the one about being expelled from school because of that unfortunate incident in drama club when I misinterpreted the stage direction, Enter Ophelia From Behind.

Her laughter was completely in the moment. Unforced. And all the time I was thinking, ‘Oh, God, I hope she doesn’t want to go to bed.’

I don’t think I’d ever thought that before. Not since I was eighteen and I’d gone for a curry with my first girlfriend, can’t even remember her name now, curries being the new thing for most English people when I was eighteen, and not with all the girls and then women since; not once have I ever hoped the one I was with wouldn’t want to go to bed with me. Mostly they didn’t, of course, especially in the early days because girls played by different rules in the Sixties, whatever you may read. And that first one certainly hadn’t. But that was not what I wanted.

And now it was.

Don’t ask me to explain it. I’ve never been good at the great existential questions. I’m a salesman, a good one, and when I’m working and I meet someone for the first time I think, ‘Is there a sale here?’ and if the answer’s ‘No,’ I’m out of there as soon as politeness allows but if it’s ‘Yes,’ or even ‘Quite possibly’ I know I’m not leaving till I’ve got it. But to explain other things, like why I’d suddenly stopped wanting something I’d always wanted in the past, well, I can’t do that.

I think she did, actually. Want to go to bed, that is. Or I think she was willing to, at the very least. I say that because she didn’t look happy when I did my thing with the iPhone. I’d paid the bill, left a tip, walked her home and the look on her face said she was about to suggest coffee, which as we all know may be an offer of a cup of coffee and may mean something else entirely, and I took the iPhone out of my pocket. I said, ‘I hate it when these things vibrate like that. It’s why I never carry it in my shirt pocket. I’m afraid it’ll have my nipple off.’ She smiled, but I wondered if she realised that every word I’d just spoken was untrue and I’d said it to let her think my iPhone had vibrated, which it hadn’t, and that someone had contacted me, which was not so. Then I pretended to read a text message which didn’t actually exist, and then I said what a great evening I’d had and how I hoped we’d do it again but right now I had to run because someone needed my help. I couldn’t read her facial expression but she wasn’t happy. But she agreed we’d had a good time and I should call her and maybe we could do it again. Then she turned away, put her key in the lock and went inside without a backward glance.

* * *

Of course I wasn’t going to call her, whatever we may have said, and I suppose I thought I’d never see her again. But she rang me. She was throwing a party, just a little thing for old friends, nothing elaborate but it would be fun and she hoped I’d want to go.

You don’t have much time to think of a response to something like that; any hesitation sends its own message; we’d had a good evening and I’d enjoyed her company so I said yes, I’d like to go to her party. She gave me date and time, we exchanged pleasantries and hung up. It wasn’t all pleasantries because she said, ‘Leave your iPhone at home.’ So she had known I was lying, but she was prepared to give me a second chance.

* * *

One of the difficulties with parties is: flowers or wine? I decided to play safe and do both. I had the flowers delivered the morning of the party so she’d have a chance to put them in a vase and straighten them out, fluff them up or whatever it is that women do with flowers. I took the wine with me. My wine rack has the really good bottles on the lowest level and the stuff I’d give to people I didn’t really like on the top. It isn’t bad because what would be the point of buying bad wine? It just isn’t memorable. Or pricey. For the party, I took out a bottle from one of the middle shelves. Then I put it back and went lower down. All the way down. Don’t ask why because I don’t know.

When I put it in her hands she looked at the label and said, ‘I’m going to hide this. It’d be a shame to waste it on people who won’t know what they’re drinking.’ So she knew wine as well as cheese. My kind of woman. Would have been once, anyway.

It was a good party. If these were the kind of people she liked, I liked them, too. There was none of that competitiveness you often get at social gatherings—the “I’ve been to this place/read that book/met some power broker you haven’t” stuff that has so often made me leave a party early and I didn’t want to leave this one—I was having too good a time. In fact, I was still there at the end and when the last guests were preparing to leave I stood with them to thank Catherine—that was her name; Catherine—and go, too. As she was kissing the others goodbye she put a hand on my chest and said, ‘Stay a moment, will you? I have something you might be interested in.’ Then the door was closed and we were alone.

She turned to me. She was smiling and I thought there was an inquiry in her raised eyebrows but whatever the question was she didn’t ask it. Not right then, at any rate. She said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. I won’t be long.’

When she came back, she’d got rid of the party dress and wrapped herself in a towelling dressing gown. There was a pleasing smell of soap. She said, ‘I’ve just washed my bits. Bidets are wonderful, aren’t they?’ She put her hands on my chest and kissed me on the cheek. ‘If you’d rather go, you can. I won’t be cross. We’d probably better not see each other again, though.’

That doctor must have been crazy. I didn’t need testosterone replacement; I had the stuff in plenty. I said, ‘I’d like to stay.’

‘Right answer. Would you mind washing your bits too, then?’

* * *

While you’re doing what we did that night, you don’t think about why you’re doing it. That came later and I found it intriguing. The doctor had been right in a way; I did need something to boost my hormones. The something wasn’t chemical, though. What I’d lacked was desire, and I hadn’t had that because there had been no-one in my life I liked enough to want to take my clothes off. And now there was. When a young man says, ‘I love you,’ what he really means is, “I want to be inside you.” And he does. He wants to be inside her every day. He thinks that desire will be with him for ever, and when it dies—because it does die—he may make the best of what he has or he may look elsewhere in the hope of finding the same level of lust with someone else. But I’m an old man, or at least my father’s generation would have called me old, and what I need now is different. If I could talk to the young man I once was, when he looked at a new girl I’d say, “Hang on a minute. What are you going to talk about, when the sex is done?”

It would be pointless, though. He wouldn’t have listened, the randy sod. What he needed was what that bottle of wine I’d taken Catherine had. Time in the bottle. Age. Maturity.

I’ve got those things now. Catherine and I are happy together. I’ve looked all my life for contentment. You have to wait for that. I wish I’d known earlier.

Author’s Note

I’ve put this here as an example of how I write. If you don’t like my writing, that’s okay, we won’t fight about it. If you do, and you’d like to know what else I write, you’ll find the information here.

Skinny Belly Dancers

Belly dancers in the Middle East were usually Egyptian or Lebanese and they were big. Not fat, necessarily–though some were–but there was plenty of them. For several years now, the ones you see in hotels and restaurants in the UAE have been from Brazil and they’re skinny. I’m sorry but I just don’t see the point of a belly dancer without a belly. When they get going you want to feel that if they let go just a little more, spin just a little faster, they’ll have a chandelier off the wall. Something has gone out of the world and I, for one, don’t like it.

Wolf Hall at the RSC

Wolf Hall

It’s out of this world. Sublime. Possibly the best thing I’ve seen at Stratford in nearly 50 years of going there. The Swan Theatre is smaller than the new RSC main theatre and more intimate; we had seats in the very front row at the corner of the apron stage and while I’m not sure I’d want to sit there every time it gave us an excellent feel for the production. Cromwell and Henry VIII are brilliantly played but there wasn’t a single dud performance and the adaptation is wonderful. Don’t know how it will play out on a cinema screen but it’s beautifully tailored for that theatre. Good meal in the RoofTop Restaurant before curtain up, too.

http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/wolf-hall/

I’m the new Thomas Hardy :-)

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch

Well, maybe that’s a bit OTT. But this is a very good review of A Just and Upright Man from Francine in Romance Reviews Magazine:

It’s the North of England (1763) and the Enclosures Act has yet to be passed by Parliament (1773). Even so, small plots and common land are enclosed without application to Parliament, which occurred right through from the time of Charles II’s restoration. And this is where the author’s hero, James Blakiston, rides forth and affords insight to his position as overseer (land agent/steward). He is the very man who mediates in disputes and or negotiates terms between a landowner and his tenant cottagers, smallholders and farmers. Subsequently, Blakiston comes to know of the shady secrets of all the parishioners, the rector, and his lusty bible spouting curate.
 As if Blakiston doesn’t have enough to contend with in his duties to his master, (his lordship), a rape and murder occurs in one of his lordship’s villages, which James must initially investigate as part of his working remit. But rumour abounds of hidden treasure spirited away, and what at first seems a simple case of murderous revenge, becomes a far more complicated puzzle to solve. Undaunted, Blakiston sets out to unravel the mystery of a man everyone despised: including the deceased’s own children. Such is no mean task for Blakiston hails from the lesser landed gentry, being that of a squire’s son. While subjected to sideways mistrusting glances from many, others benefit from his fair-minded policies. One young lady, below his rank, sees him for what he is, a lonely young man at heart. Little does Kate Greener know that Blakiston has a past he’s ashamed of, and although she stirs lust from within, he is what he has made of himself: A Just and Upright Man.
 Blakiston treats Kate with respect, and while beating his heart into retreat, she too knows her place in the overall scheme of what is socially acceptable. But can social divide keep them apart, or can love overcome all obstacles set by society? J. R. Lynch has brought to life the country folk from up north, and that of the era in which they exist. This novel is on a par with Thomas Hardy’s meaty offerings of country life and the hardships of the less well off: those beholding to the super-rich of their day. The men who could make or break a family with one word: eviction. Although there’s a large cast of characters, the author introduces each with clarity through the eyes of Blakiston. A Just And Upright Man is nothing short of a very enjoyable and worthwhile read. As this is Book 1 of a series, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to reading book 2.

All women expect to change their men and all women fail

Working on the edit of When the Darkness Comes I came across this passage that I’d forgotten writing:

Alex had had a list of ways in which Ted irritated her. The way he could not get into a lift to go down without saying, “Dive dive dive.” How he pretended to believe the French for a sponge bag was “sac d’éponge”. The way he would suddenly say, “By Jove, Carruthers” about nothing at all, and how amusing he and his male friends seemed to find it when one of them would offer a hot drink to another with the words, “You for coffee?” It wasn’t a long list and they weren’t big things, but they were there. She had intended to change him when they were married. Her mother had died when Alex was eight; her father had not married again and kept any women he might have had away from his daughter; at ten she had been sent to school in Switzerland and came home only during the holidays; there had been no-one to tell her that all women expect to change their men after marriage and all women fail.

It’s one of the things that have long puzzled me about women. What is it that makes them believe we’ll change? Alex says, “It wasn’t a long list and they weren’t big things” but we’ve all known cases where they were big things—the man was a drunk; he hit women (the big, final, inexcusable act); he lied, spent money he didn’t have or two-timed her—and still she tells herself she’ll change him. Why?

I look at my daughter’s generation and think that today’s women aren’t so gullible and won’t stand for what their mothers tolerated. I hope I’m right.

Not many men get to my age without accumulating a history they’re ashamed of

Not many men get to my age without accumulating a history they’re ashamed of. Things they wish they hadn’t done. People they wish they hadn’t hurt.

What made me think of this was the final revision I’m doing on When the Darkness Comes, which I have been working on for seven years and still haven’t finished. I’ve published four books since I started on that one; when (whether) it will see the light of day I simply can’t say. It isn’t about me and people I’ve known because I don’t write about me and people I’ve known, but some things ring a bell. I’m not going to talk about all of them. There’s this passage, for example, when the protagonist, Ted Bailey, was fourteen years old:

Arthur must be six feet four inches tall and weigh twenty stone, every ounce of it muscle. Half his face is hidden by an untrimmed black beard but there’s no avoiding the eyes that stare at Ted, as crazed as the eyes of the dogs outside. He doesn’t introduce his friend, a skinny man who can’t stop smiling.

‘So this is Teddie,’ says Arthur. ‘He’s as pretty as you said he was.’

Twenty-five pages later, Arthur returns to the story:

The Lizard leans back against the wall, his face a picture of contentment. King Tut rustles his robes. What’s happening on the midway brings back the memory I believed I had buried so deep it could never return. I imagine that’s why I’m being shown it now. Arthur told me to take my clothes off, and I refused. “No” was not an answer acceptable to Arthur. Might was right, and the strong shall conquer the weak, because that is their due.

When my clothes were on the floor, his friend picked them up and took them away. Arthur handed me a pair of girl’s cotton knickers. I said I didn’t want to wear girl’s knickers and Arthur said that was all right, I wouldn’t have them on long enough to worry about.

I’m not going into where all that comes from; I’m only mentioning it here because after publication people are going to be asking me: Do you have a secret? If I do, a secret is how it’s going to stay.

There are other things, though, that have left traces in When the Darkness Comes and when I think about them I’m sad that I behaved that way. I’d like to seek out some of those women and say I’m sorry I treated them like that. Let me make it clear that we’re not talking about rape here—I have never made love with any woman against her will—what I’d make my apologies for is treating women unkindly. There aren’t any excuses. Here’s another extract from the book:

‘… you have a decision to make. About Arthur.’

‘Arthur?’

‘Are you going to use what he did to you as a defence for what you did to Carole and Ramina?’ She held up her hand. ‘Don’t answer yet. You need to think it through.’

‘No I don’t. Shit happens. To everyone. We’re all responsible for what we do. Arthur does not excuse me, because there are no excuses’

P J O’Rourke said that there is only one fundamental human right, which is the right to do as you damn well please. He also said there is only one fundamental human responsibility, which is the responsibility to damn well take the consequences. As I get older, I focus less on the one fundamental human right—and more on the consequences. As I said, not many men get to my age without accumulating a history they’re ashamed of.

I certainly haven’t.