Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Sandman - "This Further Strand"

A Sandman sketch I got from the amazing Bryan Talbot
at a comic convention in the 90s.
It's not directly connected to this story, I just think its cool.
The fog had come down sudden. In a moment, the shore and the candles in the windows were lost, and only the dead dark silence of the river at night remained. The Fisherman felt sure he’d drifted for hours now, the fog still hadn’t lifted and the day had yet to break. He had gradually come to realise there would only be one way back; he’d heard the stories from the other fishermen,

You smell The River Witch’s barge long before you see it, a rotten hulk of fishbones, seaweed and shipwreck timber hauled endlessly between the two shores. And if you’ve cause to run in to the River Witch, it’s a safe bet your day is not going well and is unlikely to get better. For although she can help you back home, there’s a price to be paid.

The Fisherman did not have long to wait. The stinking broken bones of the barge tore through the fog, and there she was, squatting, smiling and waiting.
“I need to get back to the shore.” said the Fisherman.
“Oh aye. Ah daresay. But yer way aff. Waaaay aff.”
“You know the way back to shore?”
“Aye. Don’t care fur it. Mingin. People pee indoors.”
“Can you help me get there?”
“Aye nae problem. Course ah can.”
There was an awkward pause, the River Witch scratched herself.
“So...will you help me?”
“Much? Whit’s it worth to ye?”
“I’ve nothing but my nets and fish.”
“Eh. Ahm awright for nets and fish pal. How aboot anythin else ah find oan ye ah keep?”
The Fisherman held his breath as the River Witch hopped aboard and searched greedily about his boat and his person.
“Ah hah! Jist the thing,” she said, having found the purse he used for hooks and bait.
“It’s empty,” said the Fisherman, because he was an honest sort.
“Ah know it’s empty. Ahm gonnae put things in it.” said the River Witch. “Oh ho! Whits this though?”
The witch held out a small knife, with a carved oak handle. The Fisherman snatched it back. “You can’t have them both,” he said, “You told me you wanted the purse.”
“Fair dos. Fair dos.” said the River Witch, pushing some worms into the purse. “Purse it is. Fair payment. Right. Here’s whit ye dae. Fog like this...means her ladyship’s in a right mood. But! The Lady Clutha will probably let ye pass back to shore if ye bring her three things - a secret, a song and a full moon. And seeins as I like yer wee face, I’ll gie ye the full moon for practically nothing.”
“Practically nothing?”
“Aye. Ah dae need tae eat ye know. Cannae jist keep huvin fish every night. There’s guy’s over by who’ll gie me a decent meal for a guid trade.”
“What do you want for it?”
“Well ah quite liked the look o that wee knife.”
“My father gave me that knife.”
“And ah’ve got mah maws eye’s but I’d still pop wan o them oot if ah wis trading fur mah life.”
Reluctantly, the Fisherman handed her the knife.
“Ach ye’ll get another wee knife. Cheer up. Here’s some advice fur free. Roon here, the seamonster knows aw the secrets, and there’s a mermaid might sing ye a song. And just keep drifting, ye’ll find them aw in the fog. If they don’t find ye furst.”

The barge creaked back off into the fog, and the Fisherman drifted on.

It was not long before his fishing boat was shaken by something beneath the water. With more of a gentle splash than a terrifying tidal wave, a young sea serpent rose up out of the river.
“You’re...not a very big sea serpent.” said the Fisherman.
“I’m still quite new. But I could still smash your boat with my tail.”
Here, the young sea serpent swished her tail in a slightly menacing fashion.
“So you could. I need your help. Could you tell me a secret?”
“Any particular secret? Why the wind stopped whistling? Who knows best? Where is the edge of the world?”
“I don’t think it matters. You choose.”
“And what will you give me?”
“I don’t have much to give I’m afraid. Ask me anything.”
“I want you to throw your nets away,” said the sea serpent. “The river can only give so much.”
“I can’t throw my nets away, they’re my livelihood.”
The sea serpent smiled sadly.
“I see that. And I see you’re lost. Here is a secret anyway. Though it’s not one of my best.”
The sea serpent told him a secret, and the Fisherman thanked her kindly..
“If you’d thrown your nets away, I could have told you why we’re here.” she said, then she dived back into the depths.

The Fisherman drifted for a little while longer and then saw a mermaid, sitting on a rock, slicing at her silver hair with a cuttlefish bone. He rowed over to see if she would sing him a song.
“Hello. I wonder if you could help me.”
Now that he was closer, he could see the lines and wrinkles on her face.
“Oh. You don’t see too many...ehm...older mermaids.”
“No. You don’t,” said the Mermaid, “Merfolk are vain and shallow, while the Mer-King and his mer-men coutiers and ministers grow only wiser and more handsome with the passing years, mermaids are banished the day the first silver streaks our hair. Some drown broken hearted, some are killed by the sharks and some are wise enough to leave before they are told to. We swim to the secret court of the Sea Queen where even now, we prepare for war.”
“War? Really? When will that be?”
The Mermaid turned to look at the Fisherman properly.
“What do you want?”
“I’m lost, and I’m looking for gifts for the Lady Clutha so she’ll let me pass.”
“And you need a Mermaid’s song?”
“Well...yes. Would you do that for me?”
The Mermaid looked at the Fisherman’s boat.
“Throw your nets away. Too often my sisters and our daughters are tangled in the knots of the fishing boats.”
The Fisherman had thought that’s what she might say.
“I can’t throw my nets away. I need them to feed my family.”
The Mermaid nodded sadly.
“Well in that case, I’ll sing you an old song I no longer need.”
The Mermaid sang the song and caught it in a shell for the Fisherman, and he thanked her kindly.
She began to sharpen her sword with the cuttlefish, and the Fisherman sailed on.

“Now what?” he said. “Hello! Lady Clutha?”
There was only silence and fog.
Presently, another boat drifted out from the shadows, and a pale man stood aboard.
“Hello there.” said the Fisherman “Do you know where I might find the Lady Clutha?”
The pale man stared at the Fisherman for a moment before speaking.
“What business do you have with the lady of the river?”
“I’ve brought a secret, a song and a full moon. If I give them to Lady Clutha, she will let me pass through the fog back to my family.”
“I see. And who told you this...The River Witch I suppose?”
“My tolerance for her games is waning,” said the pale man, “The Lady Clutha cannot help you. She is not here.”
“Where has she gone?”
“She is dreaming. And you are part of her dream.”
“I’ a dream?”
“Yes. The lady of this river often dreams of those poor souls she drowned. Some wreckage sometimes remains, flotsam and jetsam in the fog.”
“But I’ve brought a secret, a song and a full moon...”
“I’m sorry Fisherman. It would take much more than that for you to buy passage back to shore.”
The fog bell of the River Witch’s barge chimed through the white.
“What should I do then?”
“You have your nets. Keep fishing. Soon she will wake.”
“But...what will happen to me then?”
“A different journey.”
The boat carrying the pale man drifted on into the mists.

The Fisherman held his nets and thought of his family as the fog bell chimed again.

I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, and the work of Bryan Talbot (whose Alice In Sunderland inspired our own school project graphic novel). The story title is taken from John Davidson's Ballad in Blank Verse. But just in case you thinking I'm making it up about our river having monsters in it, check out this episode of Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Festival Number Six : 6 x 6 @ 6

I spent this weekend with my family at Festival Number 6 in Portmeirion, Wales - music, poetry, scenery, storytelling...all the good stuff. It was far and away the most middle class thing I have ever done...but it actually really worked. Even the security team were happy.

In celebration of sixes, some six word short stories, as originated by Ernest Hemingway with his classic "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."

He stopped carving. The stone smiled.
"Open mic cancelled." Words failed him.
Beneath the beehives, her hidden bones.
I should have told her. Everything.
That door would never open again.
Ruined candle. Burned at both ends.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Roald Dahl Day - My Best Zombie

My gran bought me a book when I was 9, it was a book about Roald Dahl, about how and why he wrote books. I still have it. It totally made my mind up about what I wanted to do, but then I accidently became a community project manager instead. (Actually there was also a period in 1985 where I also wanted to program ZX Spectrum games...another dream shattered)

In celebration of Roald Dahl Day, a couple of poems written for my kids, totally inspired by his anarchic nonsense...

My Best Zombie

I met a zombie boy one day.
At first I tried to run away,
I tripped and fell, he grabbed my boot
And started trying to chew my foot.
To try and stop him eating me,
I asked him to come round for tea.
He grinned and gave a friendly groan,
Put down his half chewed bit of bone,
Then limped behind me up the street.
He actually was rather sweet.
"Hey mum!" I said, "I've brought a guest."
Mum did not look at all impressed,
But always is a perfect host,
So said she'd do him beans on toast.
But while we stood and had a chat,
The zombie started on the cat,
Then ate my little sisters dolls
And chased the budgie up the walls,
He attacked my mum's home baking,
Ate the buns that she was making….
"Enough!" I shouted, "That's enough!
Please just stop munching all our stuff!
I asked you round my house for food,
But eating pets and toys is rude.
Go on, beat it! Clear off! Scram!
I'm cross with you, I really am."
He dropped the home made lemon flan,
And made a beeline for my gran.
I couldn't take it anymore,
I pushed the zombie out the door.
He shuffled off, he looked quite sad.
I had not meant to get so mad.
I followed him back up the road,
He reached the graveyard and he slowed,
Not wanting to go back inside,
He stood there for awhile and cried.
I didn't want him feeling glum,
My poor wee hungry zombie chum.
I went and gave him some advice.
"No biting is considered nice.
No eating people that's the rule.
(Except the bullies from my school)
And if gran or mum get out of line,
A nibble on their toes is fine."
So now he knows how to behave.
Good manners from beyond the grave.
My happy zombie new best friend.
Undead funtime never ends.

This one was written for Christmas last year...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Favourite Places

Greenock 1856 o/s (NLS)

Here's a slightly extended version of a piece I wrote for The Scottish Book Trust blog as part of their My Favourite Place programme. 

My favourite place seems a ridiculously obvious choice and if you know it well, perhaps also an unlikely one; Greenock in Inverclyde, the town where I live. It’s not always an easy town to live in, not always easy to love – but every good relationship requires a bit of work. Here, you sometimes really have to put the work in - especially in the rain.

On those transitory sunny days, the views across the Clyde are unparalleled, whether standing at the top of Lyle Hill, walking along the esplanade towards Gourock or exploring the moorland on the hills behind the town. Strangely, all these places and more will shortly become familiar to fans of BBC’s Waterloo Road, which has relocated to Greenock and been filming everywhere, making our scenery another star of the show.

However, some of my favourite places in Inverclyde aren’t even there any more; the Castle of Easter Greenock, Crow Mount, Cresswell, Lurg Moor Roman Fort - places that sound like they belong in fairytales, not the post-industrial town I grew up in. But I see them still, in old photos and etchings, or hear about them in the reminiscences, songs and stories that remain – the ghosts of places.

For me, it’s really the stories and personal histories that bring any place to life, and I enjoy those stories wherever I go. In my hometown though, those stories do something more, they connect me to people long gone, to demolished factories and castle rubble; they help me understand where I live today, to see an old town in new light

My favourite place in Greenock right now is The Dutch Gable House, one of the oldest buildings in the town, recently purchased by the community development trust that I work for. Tucked behind it, hidden away from the main street is a little cobbled courtyard, and the shell of the oldest house in the town. A tiny stretch of street practically unchanged since the 18th Century, locked in between the Municipal Building and the Planning Department. In it’s time it’s been a family home, a cooperage, and (if rumours are to be believed) a house of ill repute. Those are just the first stories though, we’ll find many more to bring it to life.

The Dutch Gable House stands on William Street, one of the first four streets in the town important enough to actually need a name. William Wordsworth passed through Greenock on a Highland Tour in 1833, and I imagine him, walking down this street, perhaps already composing the short poem he wrote about the town. On the corner, the house where James Watt, father of the industrial revolution was born. One street over, on a lane no longer there, the house where Burns Highland Mary breathed her last. Little reminders of past glories we would do well to celebrate more often.

Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a project which is doing just that. “Identity” is funded by Heritage Lottery to work with the local community to explore the history and traditions of the migrants who have passed through Inverclyde over the last two hundred years. We have produced a graphic novel retelling some of those stories and exploring the heritage of our area – created with the assistance of 13 local schools and employing 4 local young people for 6 months to research, illustrate and design it.

Each school had a few weeks to get their pages together, with our artists coming in to sketch ideas as the class explored their stories; some classes chose to focus on the area surrounding their school, others worked with family members, a few came with us to our local archive at the Watt Library to get some ideas. We all learned things we didn’t know before. We’re really proud of the results.

The graphic novel will be available at The Dutch Gable House in Greenock on Doors Open Day – Saturday 8th/ 9th September. We’ll be making it available online later in the year via graphicly.

The pages below celebrate just one of the many ways the river shaped our town and our people. Everyone likes a good Fish Story...