Monthly Archives: October 2015

Through a glass, grimly

A story for Halloween from Tallis Steelyard

Tallis Steelyard

It’s funny to look back on the heady days of your youth and the various pranks that one got up to back then. We were reminiscing over a glass of wine, as you do, when Julatine Sypent mentioned the incident of the tower of the three maidens.


You can see from the picture that the tower has three statuettes set high up in the wall. Why they were called the three maidens rather than the three matrons or the three hags is beyond me as when I peered at through a glass you’d still struggle to tell whether they were even supposed to be human. A blacksmith, hammering the nails in a jail door nearby suggested that they were maidens because they had their legs firmly together.

But still the tower exists; it lies on the edge of the Sump in Port Naain, so is accessible without taking your life…

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A Furness Ghost Story

Monk at West Gate Final

It’s all the fault of Sagger, but then this is Sagger’s story. I may have embroidered it slightly, but only in so far as I’ve taken the embroidery that was already worked into the story, and tried to put it into its proper context.

Sagger was and hopefully still is, just Sagger. Nice guy, lively mind. The last time I met him was outside the library when he asked me if I could recommend any books on the Spanish Anarchists.

But this story is earlier. It is probably set after the incident of the ‘Big Cat on Walney’ but perhaps before the time they ‘Summoned Asda.’

But still, I want you to picture the scene. There is Sagger and a few friends slouching about at the home of one of them. They’re at that age where it’s entirely possible one of a group will have access to a car, but most rely on push bikes to get about.

So a not particularly noteworthy group of young men, decent enough lads, just chatting and passing the time of day. They’re probably middle aged, married and respectable by now.

And as evening draws on they start telling ghost stories. Nothing unusual about that, but then they realise that one lad has to cycle home past Furness Abbey. Old, ruined and reputedly haunted. So of course they tease him about his trip home and suggest that he go the long way round so he doesn’t get scared.

And he tells them to go take a running jump at themselves (or some other such vernacular expression) and soon after that, because it’s late, leaves in the darkness for home on his bicycle.

Almost immediately the others grab what sheets they can, leap into a car, determined to get to the Abbey before him. Then covered with sheets they haunt the Abbey, lurking and loitering and allowing themselves to be glimpsed at various openings.

But frankly haunting a northern Abbey on a chill, dark, autumn evening soon begins to pall, so they stuff the sheets back into bags and walk back to where they parked the car.

Now, parked next to their car there is a police car; two policemen are looking at their car and are taking details. So the lads walk up to the police and say (and here I approximate,) ‘Good evening officers, and can we help you.’

To cut a long conversation (in a broad Northern dialect you’d probably not understand) short, it appears there had been a series of burglaries in the area. So what had the lads been doing?

Sagger, being Sagger, told them the truth; producing sheets from the bags as evidence.

So the police took their names and addresses, with the comment that, “If there have been any break-ins tonight, we’ll give you lads a call.”

So with several subdued, “Yes sirs,” and “Good night Sirs,” the lads climb into the car. Except for Sagger who stops and says,

“So you’ll check those names and everything on the computer then?”

“We will lad.”

“Wouldn’t it be really weird if you checked them and discovered we’d all been killed in a ghastly car accident here twenty years ago?”

The policeman just looked at him and said, “Sod off home.”



If you’re after gods and demons and whathaveyou

As a reviewer commented “This is Jim Webster’s third book and though it doesn’t carry on from the previous two it is set in the same fantasy world. We follow a young man named Freelor as he takes on a job to cover a winter time when he’s unable to get home, where he is due to marry. There are other sub-plots in this story and if you have read his earlier books, you will recognise the name of the city which falls and is destroyed by fire. One of the subplots concerns a shaman’s amulet worn by Freelor, which grows hot in the presence of the evil god Hkada whose followers are able to summon him. There are exciting battles and some serious temple raiding resulting in a possession by the god Hkada.

The story is a quest tale with Freelor leaving his usual haunts to undertake a journey to a temple where his friend, the academic Tolshin, hopes to find information about Hkada. It’s a fantasy classic and I particularly like some of Jim Webster’s phrases, for example, the merchant’s expression, “I keep my grandmother freshly washed and presentable, against the possibility of impulse buyers.” And the exchange between the soldier and his superior, “Just got my boots off for the first time for three days.” “Exotic pleasures of the flesh are reserved for officers. Get your boots fastened and get over here!”

A really good read!”

Setting out your stall

Some people think it takes a special sort of person to make a success of buying or selling. It is true, some people have the knack. It’s like the lad who came round, he was selling plots in the local cemetery. So we got rid of him by telling him that we’d already got one. He just smiled politely and said, “Well I hope you’ll be very happy there.”
But the main thing that marks out somebody who is going to get the sales is their attitude.
To quote an exchange from a truly fine work of literature;

Horfin laughed. “Take no notice of Chi Tah. He will buy or sell anything.”
Chi Tah bowed. “Indeed I keep my grandmother freshly washed and presentable against the possibility of impulse buyers.”

But on a serious note, any author can sell their books to people at a show if they stick to various guidelines.
The first one is to have something to sell. E-books are fine. One of their advantages is that you can fit thousands on your e-reader. Unfortunately this very advantage means they lack presence when you’re trying to put together a display on a stall.
I’ve seen people sell e-books at a show. They carry them on a phone or laptop. Somebody hands them the cash and they just email the e-book to the client. Cut out Amazon and other middlemen. But frankly you still want real books to draw people.

The second thing to remember is about space and presence. Let us assume you have a table. The age of miracles is with us and the organisers have even provided you with a chair! You sit on the chair behind the table. You spread your books out on the table in a pleasing manner. You’re ready to sell.
But the table is also a barrier. Somehow you have to project yourself across that barrier and reach out to the aisle or space in front where the people are.
Otherwise the customers are going to have to reach across the barrier to make contact with you. If you’re sitting on your own, huddled round a book or typing busily on a laptop, and generally not making eye contact, you’ve made it hard work for them and they’ll just move on.

So, some guidelines.
Firstly, it’s easier if you’re with somebody else. Share your table with another author. If you cannot find another author, take a friend or share with someone who has craftwork to sell. You’ll find the time doesn’t drag. You’ll have somebody to chat to and someone to watch the stock and keep selling when you nip to the loo.
Secondly, make eye contact with the people who go past. Nod pleasantly to them, say hello. It’s good to get into conversation, complement their dog, their cosplay costume. Draw others into that conversation. You’ve subtly slowed the traffic in the aisle, people are eddying about and some of them might well look at your books.
One technique that is very good is to have a bowl of sweets. Something like mint imperials (although I know one stall that was launching a SF story, and they had ‘Flying Saucers’ which were fun, appropriate, and cheap. )

Sherbet flying saucers sweets

Sherbet flying saucers sweets

The sweets give you a reason to reach out into the aisle and command the ground on the other side of your table. It gives you a whole range of opening gambits.
“You’re looking footsore, fancy a sweet?”
“Free sweets, the only downside is that some clown will try to sell you a book while you eat it.”
“Excuse me madam, is it alright if your child has one of these?”

What you’re doing is overcoming the obstacle to selling that is your table. You’re reaching past it and refusing to be trapped by it. Don’t be trapped by the chair either. At a busy show I found that I spent hours at a time on my feet. Standing up brings you nearer to the table and projects your presence across it.
It’s an interesting but contrary example. When I was selling at Costa, we actually spent the entire time sitting down. It was an instinctive thing, perhaps because it was a coffee shop, and I felt that somehow I could reach out to people better by looking chilled, relaxed and seated.

Selling in costa
Thirdly, be realistic. How many of these books do you expect to sell? Here I’m assuming that like me, you’re an ‘unknown.’ You might be the next J.K.Rowling, but you’ve not yet been discovered. To put a few very average numbers on it, my experience is that even at a convention where there’s a crowd of people there to buy appropriate stuff; you’re going to do well if you sell two books an hour. Three books an hour is amazing. At an event like a more general show, or Costa or similar; where people didn’t really come looking for books, then if you sell one book an hour you’ve done alright. At the very least, this gives you a budget to work on.
It also gives another advantage to working with two or three other people. Yes you sell a book an hour, but so do they. It creates a positive and up-beat mood because there are people in front of the table and they’re buying and that can breed success. Also, more prosaically, it’s more people to share the costs with.

So I wish you the best of luck, the sort you make yourself.



Beware, low flying owls

Barn owl in flight. Titchwell, Norfolk.-XL

This morning I was out looking sheep. The morning was very still, overcast, not particularly cold, not particularly warm. There was a hint of rag about the dew on the grass and Sal, who was running about exploring everything in her efficient Border Collie way was having a good morning.

I saw the barn owl a fair way off, with that lazy flight they have, and it was quietly working the hedgerow and the rushes.

Once it dropped out of sight but rose up and it didn’t appear to have caught anything because it kept working. It then started drifting along behind Sal. It was so quiet she was oblivious to it, as it flew six feet above her and slightly behind. Whether it was trying to work out whether it could cope with fifteen kilos of dog, or merely using her as a beater so see if she flushed anything out, I don’t know. Eventually it drifted off and sat on a fence post, ostentatiously not looking at us.

And it struck me that a lot of people would be envious of this way to start a day. Indeed I’ve had people tell me they’d swap. Strangely I never hear these offers made on the mornings when the rain sweeps across horizontally and even the dog looks askance at you as you step outside.

Because we don’t really understand where other people come from, and we don’t really understand how other people live. And to put it brutally we don’t really want to understand the consequences of our own actions.

I was party to a discussion about the incident where the Air France Directors were attacked and had their shirts torn off them.

Air France has been losing money for a number of years. The directors are taking steps to stop this. They’re reducing costs so that the airline can compete.

But who is really at fault? Is it the directors, or is it all those people who fly easyjet or ryanair because they’re so much cheaper?

And as another person said, Air France is a rubbish airline to fly with anyway. So whose fault is that? Yes the management can be bad and your co-workers can be bad, but while you’re there, as you desperately seek a job with a decent employer, how do you act?

But this runs all the way through. We’re now supposed to be competitive with the Chinese workers. A lot of their factories have anti-suicide netting! I suppose you could say that this is a step up; previously they didn’t bother fitting the netting. But people are perfectly happy to buy electronic goods, or clothing or shoes, as cheap as can be, made by workers whose conditions are so appalling that they tend to throw themselves out of the windows. But they appear to be shocked at the conditions that exist to allow the goods to be made at a price they want to pay.

Someone used the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ as this point in the discussion. I think that is right.

We have a society where for many people, it’s not what you do or how you live that’s important. It’s the gesture you make.

A petty example for you. If our churchyard, grass control is handled by some sheep, and there are two buckets with water in for them on one of the graves. It’s under a tree (because it’s shady) and leaves will fall in the buckets. Somebody had obviously decided it was disgusting that sheep should have to drink water with leaves and bits of stick in it, because they had emptied the buckets onto the grave and set the buckets back up again, but empty. (So it wasn’t just the sheep had knocked them over.)

But by the grave there’s a plastic drum with water in it. The church also has a tap outside so people can put water on their flowers. Whoever emptied the buckets didn’t then fill the buckets up so that the sheep could drink. They’d made their gesture; they’d got their warm glow of smug self-satisfaction. They didn’t apparently care about the consequences of their action.

This ability to score a cheap hit of smugness isn’t just a result of commercialism, or consumerism or even Frisbeetarianism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote; “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” It seems to be part of the human condition, a setting we default to.

But then as another chap once said, a fair while ago now; “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”


Or you could talk to a real expert!

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

Walking the walk

You know when you suddenly discover you’d promised to do something and life intervened and nothing’s happened.

Well some time ago they were looking for somebody to produce a map of a walk around the boundary of Aldingham, the next parish to us and because I know pretty well all the paths and suchlike, I said I’d do it.

And then somebody emailed me the minutes of a meeting and glancing through them I saw that I was doing this ‘asap’.


Oh well.

So I pulled at the two and a half inch map, went onto and put an Aldingham postcode into the ‘parish finder’. This produces a Google map with the parish boundary on it.

The first thing you notice with the parishes of Furness is that the coastal ones include quite a lot of sea. This isn’t a case of tugging the theological forelock in the direction of Galilean fishermen or walking on water. It’s more that when a body is washed ashore, it ensures that there’s a church whose duty is to bury them.

Bodies aren’t normally hurled up onto the beach; they tend to be gently deposited on sandbars by the falling tide. The father of my godmother was one of the chaps who knew the sea round this area. If the police told him where a body had gone into the water, he’d tell them when and where to find it. Whilst more difficult, if you find the body, you can make a stab at saying where it went in, unless it’s been in the water too long. It’s the sort of bizarre knowledge that a writer can use in a story. I used it in Flotsam or Jetsam, (As an aside I used a lot of local stuff in The Cartographer’s Apprentice, about mining iron ore.)  An American reviewer marked the book down because I’d got it ‘wrong’. But their knowledge was based on a different continent and I was just saying what my grandfather did.)

But back to the point, you can see why it’s vitally important to know which sandbanks belong to which parish, because that’s the church which is going to have to find room for the unnamed body. In our church, Rampside, there are several buried who were just found out on the sands. Whilst buried as unknowns, they all acquired names later as police investigations bore fruit or relatives came forward. There is even one chap buried there who died of plague in the quarantine station off shore. He was buried in his sea chest. His fellow sailors rowed him ashore and then carried him from the beach across the fields to the graveyard.

But anyway, walking on water isn’t one of my skills so I decided right from the start that the walk was along the beach, not out along the low water mark.

So I worked out my route, and then decided that as I would inevitably be working Saturday (because that’s the day that staff appears to deal with sheep) I was going to take Friday off. Our Indian summer was obviously drawing to a close and if it wasn’t Friday who knew when it would be.

So after checking sheep in the morning, I grabbed a coffee, made a few sandwiches, put my Wellingtons back on and at ten-o-clock in the morning, I set off. It’s less than half a mile from home to the parish boundary so that seemed the obvious place to start. It’s actually a footbridge where three parishes meet.

I thought I better stick in a few photos. Not having a camera these are just ones I’ve borrowed off the net.

From there my first stop was Gleaston. Normally it’s about an hour’s walk by the direct route, but this wasn’t direct. The boundary follows an old green lane, little used now which dumps you onto the road from Leece to the coast. Walking a short distance down there I took a footpath, once more heading north east, to Deep Meadows Beck and the sewage treatment plant. The weather was mild enough, you needed a jumper and it was one of those days where you expect the sun to break through the mist at any point.

At the beck you strike North West. It’s a big field and was ploughed by contractors a few years ago. The sewer from Leece runs under the field and there are regular access points. Some bright lad caught one of these with the plough and ripped the metal top of. This was about five years ago. Now you can stand and look down and see the sewer running far below. The vertical access shaft is made of concrete rings and each ring had two metal steps/hand grips cast into it when it was made. There are ten handgrips down to the sewer. I guess you could probably walk, crouched over, down there but I’m not going to recommend it. I’m not sure how breathable the air is going to be.

But I’ve got it pigeonholed in my mind and at some point I’ve got a thriller to write. The hero could need a hiding place, or the assassin somewhere to hide the tools of his trade. Either way, it’s there in the back of my mind, waiting.

From there you keep following the beck until finally you come to a bridge. Cross that and follow the path to Gleaston. This path is a beggar to find from the other end. It keeps crossing rickety bridges across narrow cuts lined by thick hedges and in one place the stile you have to cross looks like a fence. But from the south it’s easier to follow. Then skirting Gleaston it’s north up Mill Lane. This is where you have a problem with the boundary. It follows a stream which goes off to the left, so you have to abandon it and stick parallel. It does at least mean you pass Dusty Miller’s where they do a decent coffee and excellent cake. After a fifteen minute time-out it’s back on the road, and at this point, just south of Gleaston castle, I meet my first walker, a chap heading south. Then on, past the castle (so jerry-built it was falling down even before it was finished) and on to Scales.

gleaston castle

I left Mill Lane along a bridle path which drops you onto Long Lane just west of Scales. By now the parish boundary is playing silly beggars just west of you, following field boundaries and ensuring that a farm isn’t split between two parishes. (This was vitally important when the boundary was laid down because you had to know just who a farmer had to pay his tithe to. Remember farmers were forced to pay tithes and similar down to the 1930s and in some parts of the country you had an ‘alliance’ between the British Union of Fascists and non-conformists to break this.)

But anyway on Long Lane (the second of the two lanes of that name on the route) I headed back to Scales and let the parish boundary frolic free behind me. I took the bridle path that skirts Scales and heads for Birkrigg, the boundary condescended to join me at the edge of Birkrigg.

At last on Birkrigg common, the sun started to burn through the cloud, it was worth taking the jumper off, and there were people about. The boundary follows the edge of the in-bye, none of the common is in Aldingham but the view from up there can be very impressive. Except as you looked out east over Morecambe Bay somebody had stolen England and replaced it with mist. Still dropping down towards the sea you look out over Bardsea woods and the leaves were starting to turn. Today’s wind could have ripped a lot off, but last Friday most of the leaves were on and you were just starting to see the reds and gold. A beautiful sight and it probably won’t get much better this year. Apparently the woods were once owned by Lady Jane Grey, but I doubt she ever saw them.

view over the bay

Then it was just a case of walk down the road to the beach; again, very quiet, no cars and only a couple of dog walkers. Once on the beach it’s a case of heading south. Here there are a lot of rushes between beach and sea and you find yourself walking along the shingle with the rushes to your left and a low cliff to your right with the woodland at the top and cascading down the side. Finally I hit an area of flat rocks, the rushes had gone and I sat and ate my sandwiches looking out over the sea. By this time the tide was pretty much full in. Also by the time I got to the flat rocks (Limestone Pavement) there was nobody else about, it’s too far from road access for dog walkers. It was very pleasant just sitting there looking out over the sea and finishing of my copy of Bulldog Drummond.

As a child I can remember swimming here, but the spartina has taken over the sands and the flat rocks, with their beautifully carved inscriptions are now cut off from the sea.

From then on it’s just a slog along the shingle, exchanging greetings with monosyllabic fishermen who are taking advantage of the tide being in. Past Aldingham church itself, which must be one of the nicest settings for a church anywhere.

Aldingham church by Harvey Dogson

After Aldingham you come to Moat Farm where you can still see the old Motte from Michael De Fleming’s Motte and Bailey castle. (That’s the one they abandoned to move to Gleaston.) You’re very much on the frontier here. With a grandiloquent surname like De Fleming, it places our Michael as the expendable Flemish mercenary granted land on the unfashionable side of Morecambe Bay.

This is the bit where after the Norman Conquest the maps had ‘And here there be dragons.’ Even when they wrote the Doomsday book the compilers never actually visited the area but just asked people on the Eastern shore of Morecambe Bay what was happening in Furness. Old Michael was a trip-wire. The flames of his burning castle would be visible from the other side of the bay and they’d know that they had at least a day to get ready before whoever it was causing the trouble could get a favourable tide and cross the sands.

Later it made sense to move the frontier up to Carlisle. It pushes the barbarians back that bit further and increases the thickness of the ablative shield.

For me it was then onwards until I got to Newbiggin. Because the tide was full in and well up the sea wall it was a case of walking along the top of the wall.

I’ve always wondered at the mentality of those who say that seawalls aren’t worth having because you have to maintain them and they won’t work for ever. We’ve had them here since before the war, and yes, you have to maintain them. But if you don’t want the bother of maintenance, don’t live in a house whatever you do. And they don’t last for ever, nothing does. In the long term, we’re all dead but it doesn’t stop us trying.

And then it’s back inland to follow the Sarah Beck, until finally it comes to a footbridge where three parishes meet and I’ve done it. Five minutes to home and it’s half four in the afternoon, surely time for a coffee.


There again, walking in nice countryside might not necessarily be all it’s cracked up to be

As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”