Writing Greenwood Tree – and more

Posts tagged “mystery novel

Of Buns and Balancing Acts

‘Trunk – check.

Knees – check.

Now …. Up-si-daisy…creak, groan, not getting any younger, y’know. And we’re up! Loiter forward slowly – don’t let them think you can run or there’ll be no end to their demands …

Step one: collar the one in the top hat – he knows where the food is.

Step two : Walk, don’t run (see above).

Step three: allow them one encore then back out quick in pursuit of top hat (see step one)

Oh yes. The ball thing. Roll it about, kick it, balance it – keeps the punters happy.

And the old trick with the plate thingy.

Not sure I see the point to it, to be honest; perhaps it’s some form of exercise in Gestalt philosophy. More of a Copernican myself – when I’m not feeling Darwinian. But they’re a light-hearted lot here…

Right, done that, pick him up and carry out to rapturous applause. Where’s the grub?’

 

Well, I would quite like to think of Jumbo and his counterparts engaged in such ruminations while balancing balls and tossing plates (or was it vice-versa?) before being led off for a well-deserved pile of buns.

Elephants joined the circus relatively early in its evolution; the cavalcade of horses under the aegis of Mr (Sergeant-Major)Astley evolved in the late 18th century, and was quickly embellished with exoticism: as early as 1812 the first trained elephant performed at Cirque Olympique in Paris. This in turn set off the winning combination of circus and wild animals, most notably developed in Germany by the Hagenbecks, the world’s foremost importers and dealers of exotic animals.

The sheer logistics of transport quickly take on mind-boggling proportions in the 19th century, when the travelling circus became big business. Whole trainloads of performers both human and not travelled the length and breadth of Europe, some of them jumping aboard a passing steamship to America along the way – when Barnum’s came to London’s Olympia in 1889 their entourage comprised 450 performers, 300 horses and 21 elephants. The amount of hay alone required must have been astronomical.

 

 

1891

 

A field. An ordinary, uncultivated field. Nothing untoward about it. A path running diagonally across, and a ditch running alongside. A handy pool in the middle distance, a tree or two, some wild flowers. And an elephant.

The elephant was not alone. She had wandered across to inspect the taller of the two trees tentatively with her trunk. A man with a canvas bag slung across one shoulder sauntered up beside her. ‘Come along now, old girl, you don’t want those, do you—look what I have here…’ And so saying he delved into the canvas bag and drew out some bread. This was quickly disposed of by the wandering proboscis.

A muted trundling in the distance grew gradually as a series of brightly coloured caravans grumbled across the ground; there was the occasional bark from the three dogs gambolling about, the chatter and clanking of pots and pans, swinging from their hooks in constant confabulation, a murmur of voices both within and without as the troupe dispersed, picking out their spots with the practised eye of a proprietor lately established in his new home. Each had its own identity: the fortune teller’s caravan had a huge white circle painted on the side, on blue sky with stars across which was emblazoned ‘L’Oeil Voyant’. Another, decorated with a mage in star-bespeckled robe spreading out his arms against a panoply of curtains, playing cards and tripods, heralded the coming of the Great Doctor Miraculous. A third, modest in comparison, yet of content explosive enough to outdo them all, featured a small man sailing across a night-sky, with below him the mouth of a magnificent cannon pointing diagonally up. And if the viewer were still in any doubt as to its significance, the whole was topped off by large, clear lettering that declared the occupant to be the one and only Human Cannonball: Blazer, A Marvel of the Modern World.

And so on: the clowns sported balls and hoops, the balancing act plates and cups teetering on poles and trays, and most imposing of all, the ringmaster’s own domicile, with both sides adorned with top hats, plumed horses in mid-leap and a whole collection of colourful performers, with the magnificent emblem ‘Roly Tadger’s Remarkable Circus of Oddities’ running in cheerful colours across. A modest king this, who, rather than take centre stage, chose to set his abode in the wings so to speak (in the shade of the trees), at a slight distance from the rest. A tall man in a chimney pipe hat stepped out and wandered amongst his citizens, checking on this, minding that.

Water was fetched from the pool, a clearing made for a fire, and food prepared. The elephant keeper wandered off, munching on an apple, sizing up the surrounding area. He ambled about, stretching occasionally, squinting up at a wintry sun, meandering along until he ended up near the ditch. The elephant, her curiosity regarding the trees now sated, drifted in his direction. Absently, her keeper fished another bread roll from his bag and handed it to her over his shoulder. His gaze focussed on a clump of grass overhanging the ditch.

‘Did you hear something, Milly?’ he enquired. Milly responded with a furtive rummage in his bag.

He stepped forward, and peered over to look at the ditch more carefully. He had not been mistaken. Another groan, as if in confirmation, came up from the sorry individual lying there.

‘Dear, dear. Footpads, no doubt. No good travelling alone in these parts: you wait there,’ murmured the keeper, as if the unfortunate man in the ditch were chafing to be off; the keeper turned and cupping his hands to his mouth let out a hearty ‘hallooo’ to his companions.

Instantly doors opened, feet clattered down caravan steps and an assortment of oddities both human and otherwise spilled across the field. One of them, in elegant coat and moleskin hat, with the air of a medical man, knelt in the ditch and checked the insensible body for breaks.

A decision was reached, a stretcher made up from coat and boom handles, and the unconscious man was lifted and carried back to one of the caravans. By general consensus, they put him in the caravan belonging to the Human Cannonball, he having the least cluttered of all.

Day passed into evening, evening into dawn, and come the morning the caravanserai set off again. From time to time they paused along the way: the tall man in a chimney-pipe of a hat would leap up and down steps, knocking on the door of the Human Cannonball to see how the patient was doing.

‘No memory yet? Well, well, but from the look of him, one of our kind. And we could do with an extra set of hands…’ ”

(From ‘Of Soul Sincere’, Part Three)

circus filled

 

By the time Roly Tadger’s troupe is travelling the counties in the 1880s, the wildlife element of his ‘circus’ is reduced to a few horses, Milly the elephant and some performing dogs. By the late Victorian period, the trapeze artist and acrobat had come into their own, fuelling a re-discovered interest in athletics which led to the Olympics of 1896. Roly Tadger is relying more and more on human  performers (and probably his drinking has made it inadvisable to keep big cats on the programme anyway).

 

9781909374867 RGB

 

It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 

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Lot 34 (Unexpected Auctions)

‘Lot 34, what am I bid, gentlemen, what am I bid? Very nice piece of classicism here, highly sought after, a sound investment – wide-sweeping vistas, possibly crumbling a little at the edges, but plenty of wear left in it yet,  never mind the quality shall we say, feel the breadth, ha,ha, – what am I bid? Thank you sir, you won’t regret it – any more? Come, gentlemen, a wide range of assets here, own in-built infrastructure, huge returns, no effort required; well, very little, anyway, minimal maintenance necessary as free service is included – won’t let you down, – unless you turn a little tyrannical, eh? Ha,ha, sorry – what am I bid? My, but we are all eager, aren’t we  – hardly surprising: the elegance, opulence, the sheer size and scale are unequalled. A growing concern, constantly expanding, new annexes all the time… Admittedly not the original Greek version, but as is often pointed out, a fair copy nonetheless, I think we are all agreed – thank you, sir – any more? And going, going, – GONE! Sold to the gentleman in the toga at the back there: one Roman Empire to …Senator Didius – Julianus, wasn’t it?’

No, it probably wasn’t quite like that, but tempting to imagine even so. Old Marcus Aurelius got into the habit of auctioning goods to get out of debt, and with a rather generous commodity in slaves and unwed females, auctions were the norm. Still, to end up auctioning a whole Empire. That takes some seriously bad housekeeping. But then, by 193 A.D., things were perhaps getting a little crumbly around the edges: conspiracies, messy murders and war have a way of leaving moth holes in the furniture, so to speak.  The result was the Praetorian Guard who, having relieved Emperor Pertinax of his position (and life), offered the Empire up for auction – and Julianus rose to the bait.

Auctions can be such emotive things. Drama, comedy, tragedy – it is an extension of theatre, filled with emotion and excitement, tension and hypocrisy, plots and paranoia, acts of pernicity coupled with acts of generosity. Witness the dramatic candle auction in Moonfleet, or the pathos of Dobbin secretly buying Amelia’s harpsichord in Vanity Fair. In the case of the Empire, it did at least kick some of the provincial commanders into action, and Severus marched on Rome to pull it back into shape. The Praetorians were sent into the corner for being such naughty schoolboys, and poor old Julianus was executed. Let that be a warning to greedy bidders: you never know what you might be buying into. Which leads me neatly (or probably not) onto the opening scene of the second Julia Warren Mystery (Of Soul Sincere) where a house with a past is auctioned off to the highest bidder: in this case, another politician. He too, didn’t know what he was buying into …

 

1791

 A catalogue of household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors.

Bower House, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors. …

‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM—money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot, with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.

The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proffered with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers. The Member of Parliament is escorted to the next room and the business is concluded.

Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air moments before hovers yet around them.

‘But is it true then? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so?’

‘I would not live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it—why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver.’

‘And where was it they found him?’

‘Up the stairs, hanging, from the stairwell.’

‘Was it… was it murder then?’

‘No,’ and here the voices lower still more. ‘By his own hand, they say…’

A short pause. Then: ‘Shall we go and see?’

Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.

‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘he’ll not rest easy, that one.’

‘Well, I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honourable Member made a sharp bargain, and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.”

 (Opening from ‘Of Soul Sincere’)

It is odd. I wouldn’t have made the comparison, but for stumbling upon this historical footnote re Ancient Rome, yet in a way, the thread is similar. The House is bought, and becomes the nucleus for the same family all through the rest of the 18th century, the whole of the 19th century, to reach the year 1928 – when Julia arrives on its doorstep, to begin unravelling its secrets. In the same way that the Empire was sold, bought, and stayed with the same family, enduring the usual untidy asides of plots, murder and strife. Well, that’s families for you. Another coincidence: two of the female members of the Severus line were called Julia. Disconcertingly, both ruthless poisoners and political intriguers by all accounts.

I have a pet wish to set a whole series of stories in and around an auction house; most likely in the 18th century – they somehow belong there. It was when the big auction houses took off: Christies, followed by Sothebys, and perhaps some not so big, such as Cardew and Penn…

 

9781909374867 RGB

 

It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

 

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 


Return of the Green Man …

This stone carving of a Green Man from Dore Ab...

From Dore Abbey, Herefordshire, England(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Is there a cathedral where you live? If so, chances are it will be an old one … just how old, would you say? And when you crane your head up to look at the ceiling, its arches lost in shadows, what else do you see? You might need binoculars, though – but the older the cathedral, the more likely you are to find, nestling atop of corbels and capitals, a singular face with leaves and branches climbing out of its mouth; sometimes fierce, sometimes cheerful, mostly a trifle wild … this sculpted entity has been with us far longer than the cathedrals, and long before the Normans who built them, with a name that has only regained resonance in quite recent times: The Green Man.

Theories abound concerning his origins, both etymological and geographical; he turns up in a variety of guises, from Rome(Bacchus and Dionysius) to Mesopotamia and Egypt, (green-faced Osiris); he is Jack in the Green, Cernunnos, Pan, Silvanus, he can be found in Sumerian, Hindu, Aztec cultures – he exists  everywhere, a source of life and natural force . Occasionally neglected, his image however has survived in nooks and crannies, a constant reminder of man’s reliance on his natural environment and of man’s constant struggle with the elements. Another of his many names is Robin – but is he Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous imp – or Robin Hood, woodlander and defender of the poor? Apparently both and more: a guardian, a powerful god, an impish spirit, a playful invoker of spring and sprouting seedlings; at once venerated and feared:  for crops can fail too if you cause him displeasure … the corn dollies and harvest festivals are vestiges of something more than a ritual – they entreat the return of sun after winter, of growth after hibernation, they are offerings of supplication and penitence brought by children to their volatile father.

How has he fared with time, this father, this god of fertility and vitality? I mentioned he has gone through periods of comparative neglect, as when the Industrial Revolution stampeded across the countryside, bringing steam, iron roads and coal, blinding the people with its smoke, weakening his memory and perhaps also his strength and yet, something has struggled through, some collective memory perhaps, clinging onto the notion of one protective entity that will defend the very source of our food and means of survival. It is this protective aspect and this comparative neglect that I have focussed on in my mystery novel, Greenwood Tree. Here, the presence of the Green Man is hovering on the outer edges of dreams, occasionally manifesting himself (in more than one form) to warn and defend, his strength weakened by the frail memory of humanity. In addition he acts as the main linking figure in a multi-genre mystery, where detection meets mythology, in that foreign country called the past. In my mystery he has retreated, and his home is under threat, perhaps an indirect comment on his rather tenuous place in the cultural and social upheaval of the 1920s. I also tend to think of him as one of many Green Men, for to my mind there is something in the Ancient Greek idea that every tree contained its Dryad, every river and stream its Naiad : together unstoppable – but individually, vulnerable. In a similar way, the countryside from the time of the railway has been under constant, if gradual, threat, mirrored by England’s own very uncertain, susceptible condition in the aftermath of World War One. When Nature is attacked however, she has a way of fighting back, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The Green Man, in my treatment of him, thus becomes a metaphor for this vulnerable, while green and pleasant land. Disturb him at your peril.

Image

 

 

 (First posted as the Green Man Cometh on Dean’s Den)


Gin, Julia and Mary Pickford

The clock in the corridor outside chimed seven. Drinks. And then dinner.  Julia snatched a dress out of the wardrobe.

‘. . . so Dawton’s bought it up, lock stock and barrel . . .’

‘. . . make it a going concern. . . .’

‘. . . I thought it in particularly bad taste, and then she said . . .’

‘ . . . last of the Gorgons, that woman, don’t you think, Isobel ?’

‘. . . I have never actually had a conversation with

her myself. . .’

‘. . . pass the potatoes will you, old bean ?. . .’

‘ . . . more gravy, sir ? . . .’

‘Now then Julia, stop hiding behind your glass, old girl, and tell me about the plot. How many murders are in it this time?’ Cousin Richard was sitting next to her, so she could not very well evade his cheeriness with social deafness; not that she wasn’t fond of him, but any talk about a book of hers, especially one she had not yet written, was apt to be a little wearing. Perhaps other writers suffered the same. She had never asked. Talking to other writers was even more wearing than talking about one’s own unwritten novel.  ‘I don’t know yet.’ She turned impish. ‘Do you feel like being murdered ? I’m sure I could find a nice spot for you in there somewhere.’

‘Oh, why not. Who does me in, then – the butler ?’

‘Shuush, you’ll upset him. He’s trying to serve the duck.’

‘Nonsense, Haughton’s always ready to oblige, aren’t you Haughton ?’

‘Sir ?’

‘I mean, for the purposes of Miss Julia’s next best-selling novel -’

‘Don’t talk nonsense, Richard  . . .’

‘  . . . would you be prepared to do me in, and thus supply her with the plot ?’

‘As you wish, sir.’

‘There you are.’ Richard turned to Julia. ‘Now you can get started.’

‘I fear Miss Julia might find your suggestion less acceptable, however, sir.’

‘Yes, I certainly would.’

‘Oh ? How so ?’

‘Lack of motive, sir. Gravy, miss ?’

‘Hah! That’s you dealt with.’ Julia hit Richard with her napkin.

‘Ouch. I hope, little cousin, you will not come to regret this, in years to come, when people come up and say “Have you read ‘What the Butler Did’ by Richard Crewe? Stunning stuff, isn’t it ?” and you are obliged to reply “Yes. I wish I’d thought of it first. But you see, he offered me the plot, and I turned it down – silly, wa-” ’ He interrupted himself with a squeak as Julia gave him a hard pinch. ‘Now I really wish I was sitting next to Anne,’ she commented.

‘The writer’s secret. Always sit next to your fan to keep your spirits up.’

‘Swine.’

‘Well, at least I don’t deluge you with flattery and requests for autographs. You’d really detest that.’

‘That reminds me – somebody on the train -ۥ

‘Don’t tell me – he asked you for a signature, and was most put out when you turned out not to be Mary Pickford.’

From Greenwood Tree, chapter 10

Mary Pickford as photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston in 1920

After re-blogging the previous post from the Gin Club, it occurred to me that a post on cocktails and flappers might be apposite . . .

Nellie Melba and Pavlova  inspired desserts, Garibaldi a biscuit, Wellington a sturdy piece of beef in pastry and . . . Mary Pickford, – a cocktail : rum, pinapple juice, grenadine and maraschino liqueur. Which noxious combination may well have done the rounds in the London night clubs of the time, but I fear would have left Julia unmoved. Her tastes are I believe of a simpler nature, and where others might be rushing to the bar for novelty to refresh their jaded appetites, Julia is more likely to be seen sitting  behind a palm sipping occasionally at a plain, simple G&T. If she is feeling particularly adventurous, she might allow some Angostura Bitters to be added . . and I could add she might well be interested in perusing the Gin Club’s Newsletter now and then . . .

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire” by American artist Russell Patterson 1920s

And yes, she does have a dress or two in her wardrobe  like the one above – although she might wear a more toned-down version for a country house. But the one pictured above would do for cocktails and the odd formal dinner. The Flappers meanwhile appear soon after in GreenWood Tree. Loud, cheerful, rumbustious, probably rather noisome. Certainly Aunt Iz felt the strain after a little while and sent them off on long walks across the countryside . .  well, after watching the following, what would you do with them ?

A few links of possible interest to the curious :

http://thelondonginclub.wordpress.com

http://lupecboston.com/2009/04/08/birthday-shout-out-to-mary-pickford/

(includes several cocktail recipes associated with Miss Pickford . . .)

http://www.angostura.com/Brands/AngosturaBitters (the main page asks date of birth to establish that you are of drinking age – both impertinent and pointless; anybody could type in anything . . .;))

And this looks rather fun if you have a Singer machine to hand and are of a couturier-like turn : http://www.1920-30.com/publications/fashion/?hop=pagecat