Goodbye then, 2016 …

Well, what a year it’s been!  America elected Darth Trump for President; the unholy trinity of Farage, Johnson and Gove managed to con the great British public into casting itself adrift from the European Union into uncharted and dangerous waters; an awful lot of people died violently in Syria, and quite a few in Brussels, Berlin and lots of other places; several rock stars and other famous people also died; the world got a bit warmer, again.

As for me, ups and downs, really: my mum had a fall and was in hospital for a while;  I had a couple of nice holidays and saw my daughter perform at the Edinburgh fringe; got rather more teaching work from Leeds Uni than I bargained for, meaning I did less writing than I wanted to, but did nevertheless make some progress on my new novel (and I won a poetry competition – that was probably the best bit). Nothing earth shattering, really, but because of what happened in Britain and the wider world, I still count this the most depressing year since 2007 (and believe me, that was really bad, for reasons I don’t want to go into).  I’d rather like to consign it to history and forget about it. Except I won’t be able to, because Teresa May will trigger Article 50 and Trump will take up the presidency and start throwing his weight around.

It’s customary to end a gloomy retrospective with a message of hope, and I’m going to honour that tradition (well, sort of). Not because I am actually seeing light at the end of the tunnel just yet – I fear it may be quite a long tunnel – but because it’s essential to hold on to hope, and not to allow the reactionary, xenophobic forces that currently seem to be in the ascendancy to win in the longer term.

So I wish all my friends a brave and strong 2017.  May it at least be a better year than this one.

 

A Bit of Festive Fun

Everybody likes games and puzzles at Christmas time, right? So I thought I’d set a little challenge for readers of this blog. Below is a little story I wrote at Holmfirth Writers the other day (not a festive one, I’m afraid). It was written in response to eight words chosen at random from a book taken off a library shelf – they all appear in the story.  Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to guess what the eight words were and tell me your guesses either here or on Facebook. It’s just a bit of fun. People who were at the HWG meeting on 19 December are ineligible, for obvious reasons!

 

“You may leave us now, Feldwebel,” said Doctor Schuster. “The prisoner’s hands and feet are secured, are they not? I need to examine him and ask some questions. In my experience, it is easier to obtain the information I need when the … patient … is as relaxed as possible.” How were you supposed to obtain a normal pulse when the subject was expecting a beating at any moment?

The soldier looked uneasy, but a firm stare from the doctor induced him to click his heels and leave the room. The prisoner’s expression was a mixture of relief – his face bore the marks of Feldwebel Vogel’s recent attentions – and fear.

“Good.” The doctor gave his customary reassuring smile, as if he was addressing one of his wealthy patients rather than an inmate from a concentration camp – the same smile he would wear tomorrow when examining Frau Ziegler’s varicose veins. His exciting new work for the Party demanded a great deal of his time now, but he remained faithful to his long-standing clients.

“Please show me your hands.”

The prisoner shuffled around, allowing Schuster to verify that his hands were indeed handcuffed behind his back, then turned to face him again.

“Now.  Some questions.” The doctor retrieved a sheet of paper from his desk and placed it on the desk in front of him. ” What is your name?”

“Trollmann, Peter, sir.” Schumacher picked up his gold fountain pen and wrote down the name.

“Your racial origin.”

“Roma, sir.”

The doctor nodded. It was good to have some gypsy subjects in the experiments, to help correct for any genetic effects.

“Your occupation prior to detention.”

“Entertainer, sir.”

The doctor snorted. Playing a penny whistle on street corners to coax coins from passers-by, no doubt. In between picking their pockets.  He paused for a moment and wrote “unemployed” on the form.

“Your age?”

“Twenty-seven , sir.”

“Good, good.” Likely to be more healthy than average, then. The man looked in reasonable physical shape. But that needed to be verified.

“I will need to examine you.” The doctor briskly unbuttoned Trollmann’s clothes, allowing them to fall over his handcuffed wrists and ankles.

“Sit down. Please breath smoothly in and out.” The patient complied, shuddering momentarily as he felt the cold metal of the stethoscope on the skin of his back.

As the examination proceeded, Trollmann looked around the large consulting room. To his left, positioned between the Swastika flag and a picture of one of Hitler’s political rallies, was an ordinary coat stand, bearing the doctor’s elegant coat and hat. Behind the elaborate wooden desk and was a door to another room, and against the wall to the right, oddly incongruous in the office of a Nazi official, was a large aquarium – no doubt intended to help calm the nerves of the doctor’s paying patients. A convoy of small fish was swimming from one end of the tank to the other. Trollmann would have rather liked to eat them.

“I need to examine your legs now.” It was important for the experiment that the subjects should be adequately mobile. However many times he told Vogel not to damage them too much, you would always find the odd one with a broken ankle or something similar. “You must remain perfectly still, or else I shall ask for Hauptmann Vogel’s assistance. Is that understood?”

Trollmann nodded. The doctor bent down and began to examine the left knee. This was the moment. Behind his back, Trollmann slowly eased his hands free of his clothing. He had already removed the handcuffs. In a swift movement he grabbed the stethoscope and wrapped its tube tightly around Schuster’s neck.

“You should have believed me when I said I was an entertainer. I worked in music halls. As an escapologist.”

When the body was quite still he lowered it gently to the floor. He freed his feet and replaced his own clothing with some of Schuster’s, then he put on the coat and hat and walked past the desk into the room beyond. Good, there was a window.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past

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My publishers, Crooked Cat are running a series of daily posts with stories and other little treats in the run up to Christmas (https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats/)

For my contribution, I thought I’d offer a little story featuring some of the characters from the novel I’m currently writing. Narrator Claire is dreading the impact of Christmas on her recently bereaved father, who is also losing his memory …

 

It can be such a cruel time. There are more suicides at Christmas than any other part of the year. When people get together to engage in the more or less compulsory seasonal merriment, it only makes things worse when a person is feeling far from merry. Or, in this case, when one of those people is conspicuously no longer present.

I’d been dreading it, this second Christmas since Mum died. Not so much for my own sake – I mean, she leaves a big hole behind her, and this time of year inevitably brings back memories, but I’m a big girl. I can take it. No, it was Dad I was worried about.

For all that the two of them were always grumbling and cussing at each other, they had grown together like two plants so entangled you can never work out where one begins and the other ends. I had seen what happened to him when she was ripped away. Damage like that doesn’t heal – the best you can do is leave it alone and try to forget it. And forgetting was something Dad was getting very good at.

But Christmas had always been her time. She would orchestrate every last detail of it, from the glass baubles on the tree to the icing snowman on the cake. How could the memory of her not be forced back into Dad’s consciousness when Christmas was shoved in his face once again? This time last year you could see him shrinking into himself, ageing visibly day by day. You could feel her in the room with us, not as a presence but an absence, a person-shaped vacuum, sucking what was left of him into itself.

I’d thought seriously about trying to escape Christmas altogether – just taking him somewhere quiet and remote for a few days and let the whole circus just pass us by. His memory had got to the point now where he wouldn’t know it was Christmas if he wasn’t reminded of it. But then my sister Karen, who never comes up from London at those times when it would actually be helpful, decided that she and her entire family would descend on our house with a car full of presents, demanding seasonal food and entertainment. I think she had got it into her head that we wanted this, that she was doing us a favour.

And like a wimp, I capitulated. I put it off to the last possible minute, but as their car was already setting off up the M1, in my own resentful, half-hearted way I began to fill the house with the ritual trappings of the season, spread the table with its customary foods: cold meats, pies, pickles, cheeses and trifle. I did it more or less how Mum used to, but not half as well.

“There’s a Christmas tree in the corner,” he observed when he came back from the day centre. “Is it coming up to Christmas time, then?” Poor old bugger, he had no idea. He’d probably been eating mince pies all afternoon.

“Yes Dad, it’ll be Christmas quite soon.” Well, it was Christmas Eve. It wasn’t actually a lie. Perhaps if he thought it wasn’t quite Christmas yet, it wouldn’t affect him so badly. It seemed to be working. For the next couple of hours he seemed to maintain some kind of equilibrium – not exactly happy, not exactly sad.

Any illusions about what time of year it was were smashed by the arrival of Karen at half-past six. “Merry Christmas Dad, Merry Christmas Claire,” she cooed, enveloping us in over-enthusiastic hugs. Then she handed us each a big bag full of presents. He turned towards me with a confused look in his eyes. Was it starting?

“Grandad!” Seven year-old Jacob and six year-old Amelia rushed to wrap themselves around their grandfather, bringing a broad smile to his face. The kids – thank God for the kids! He loved them to bits. If anyone could keep his mind off Mum, they could. When they had all dumped their things in their rooms and come down for dinner, I suggested that Jacob and Amelia might like to sit next to Grandad and tell him everything they’d done since they last saw him. They were happy to, bless ‘em. That left me with Karen and Paul, and the duty of being the gracious hostess.

“So, Paul, how’s the world of accountancy these days?”

He thought for an inordinately long time before his weary response.

“Much as ever, you know. Too much work, too little time. You just get on with it. Pays the bills.”

It was faintly amusing to see that he was as unenthusiastic about coming as I was about his being here. But Karen was having none of it.

“He’s being far too modest, aren’t you, Paul? The reason he’s got so much work on is that he’s been promoted! He’s in charge of an audit team now, working for some big clients. I’ very proud of him. We might even be able to move to a bigger house, give the kids a bit more space. And how about you Claire? How’s school?”

I told them about the day to day hassles of being in charge of a primary school, with about as much enthusiasm as Paul had shown. From the other end of the table, meanwhile, came earnest voices and laughter as the children regaled Dad excitedly with all their news. We continued in this vein for quite a while, gradually shifting about half of the cold food from the table to our bellies as we talked. Then, since it was Christmas Eve, after all, I brought out some prosecco, and made milkshakes for the kids. It hadn’t gone too badly so far. But now came the moment I’d been dreading.

“Jacob, Amelia, it’s time for you to get ready for bed.” They reluctantly got up from the table and plodded towards the door. Karen turned to me. “I’d better go up for a while and get them settled down. Otherwise they’ll be too excited and they won’t sleep all night.”

That left me, Dad and the taciturn Paul. Leaving the stage free for the ghost of Mum finally to make her appearance. Dad was already looking round the room, inspecting the decorations and what was left of the dinner. But instead of the desolate, empty look he had worn last Christmas, there was a light in his eyes and a broad smile all over his face.

“By heck, that was a good spread, that was. Can’t beat a nice bit of trifle. She’s done a grand job, hasn’t she?”

“Who, Karen? Yes, they’re good kids, a credit to their parents. I’m happy they could spend time with you.”

“No, not Karen. Your mother. I don’t like to say too much to her face, or else she’ll think I’ve gone all soppy all of a sudden. But I don’t mind telling you when she’s out of the room. She always does a great job at Christmas and she’s done us proud again this year.”

A confused look came over Paul’s face.

“Herbert, I think you’re …”

I turned to him and put a finger silently over my lips. Let the old man enjoy this time. If we can talk to the kids about Santa Claus as if he’s real, surely there’s room in the house for one more imaginary figure. Why let the truth get in the way of a good Christmas?

 

 

 

Sunday Sojourn – Delphi

A post about Delphi, a place of immense beauty and deep historical and spiritual significance which plays a pivotal role in my novel Zeus of Ithome. Thanks to fellow Crooked Cat author Jennifer Wilson for hosting me.

Zeus of Ithome

Jennifer C. Wilson

Happy Sunday everyone! Today, it’s Tim (T.E.) Taylor’s turn to take you a-travelling, this time, to Delphi.

T E Taylor T E Taylor

Hi Jennifer, many thanks for inviting me onto your blog.

The place I’d like to talk about today is Delphi, in central Greece.  It is a unique place, with an astonishing combination of natural beauty, artistic splendour, deep mystical significance and layer upon layer of history.

As some readers will know, Delphi was the home of the most celebrated oracle of the ancient world. It was thought to be the centre, the ‘navel’ of the world, sacred to the god Apollo, who was believed to speak through his priestess, the Pythia, as she writhed in a trance induced by hallucinogenic fumes emanating from a crack in the earth beneath the temple. Her pronouncements were trusted not only by the Greeks but by people from other cultures who would…

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A poem

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One thing I never get tired of is seeing something I’ve written on the printed page. So I was very pleased last night to receive this copy of The Write Path 2016 (the National Association of Writers Groups competition anthology), with my poem The House Plant in it. So pleased, in fact that I thought I’d post it here too.  Hope you like it!

 

The House Plant

She keeps it in the living room

next to the fire, quite safe from rain

or raucous winds and screened by curtains

from the uninvited sun; alive

but not allowed to grow.

 

For Alice too,

there was to be no flowering.

The seed of her was sown in stormy times:

the sky was somewhere bombs might fall from;

hostile sea too perilous to cross.

 

The world was never, as for some of us,

an orchard bulging with ripe fruit.

Her life’s work was the carving out

from it of some small place of calm

for her and those she loved.

 

True to that goal she rejects

and fears the Outside still. She cowers

in her carapace of cardigans;

the stillness of this safe,

constricted space a kind of victory.

 

It did not ask to be protected.

In its sheltered spot, the leaves grow smaller,

folding in upon themselves.

‘Must be the draught,’ she said. I disagreed.

‘Let’s put it in the sun, before it dies.’

Dictators in history: Fidel Castro

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Having learned of the death of Fidel Castro this morning, I thought it would be timely to revisit a post I did on him last year (originally a guest post on the blog of fellow Crooked Cat author Nancy Jardine), part of a series comparing Carlos, the fictional dictator of my novel Revolution Day, to various real-life dictators. Though Carlos was not based upon anyone in particular, there are some distinct echoes of Castro in his career (though also some notable differences). It will be interesting to see how history judges the man. I suspect there will always be some who regard him as a hero and others who regard him as a villain. Good or bad, he was certainly an iconic figure who will be remembered for a long time.  Anyway, here’s the post ….

Dictators in history: Fidel Castro

My novel Revolution Day follows a year in the life of Latin American dictator Carlos Almanzor. Carlos is a fictional figure and is not based upon any particular individual. Nevertheless, his life and career share many elements with those of real dictators and in some cases I consciously drew on historical events in writing the novel.  I thought it would be interesting to explore, in a series of blog posts, the lives of some real-life dictators, and to look for similarities and differences between their careers and characters and those of my own fictional dictator.  In the next of this series, I’m looking at one of the most colourful and well-known of all: Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in 1926 in Biran, Cuba. His father, Angel, had become a wealthy sugar cane farmer, so the young Fidel was well-educated at boarding schools including the Jesuit Colegio de Belen and subsequently he studied law at the University of Havana.  Here he had his first introduction to radical politics, becoming a passionate opponent of US intervention in the Carribean and the corruption of the then Cuban government under president Ramon Grau.  Not yet a communist, he joined the Partido Ortodoxo, which advocated good government and social justice, and became increasingly active in often violent protests both in Cuba and abroad.  In 1948 he married wealthy student Mirta Diaz Balart, who gave birth to a son in 1949, and in 1950 he became a Doctor of Law.

It was the seizure of power by Fulgencio Batista in 1952 that transformed Castro into a fully-fledged revolutionary after a short legal career. He formed a group called “The Movement” and orchestrated an attack on the Moncada barracks near Santiago on 26 July 1952. This failed, leading to the arrest of most of the revolutionaries, including Castro himself, who was sent to prison for 15 years. He was released in 1955 after an amnesty, but still closely watched. He left the country, seeking support first in Mexico, where he first met Bolivian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and then in the US. Now divorced, he had fathered two more children with different women (later there would be six more, and a second marriage).

Castro returned to Cuba in November 1956, with 81 revolutionaries in the 60 foot yacht Granma and established a base in the heavily forested Sierra Mestra. Here he built up his forces and began to wage a guerilla war against the Batista government.  As Batista’s position weakened, his own troops began to defect and a general sent to destroy the guerillas instead agreed an armistice with Castro. Batista fled the country on 31 December 1958. A moderate lawyer was appointed as provisional President, and on 16 February 1959 Castro became the Prime Minister of Cuba.

By now a committed Marxist, Castro did not admit this openly until 1961, in the hope of retaining the support of moderates. Nevertheless, he quickly implemented sweeping agrarian and social reforms. Much of the Cuban middle class fled the country and the economy rapidly deteriorated.  Anti-Castro groups also began guerilla attacks against his regime. In response, Castro dealt ruthlessly with counter-revolutionaries, executing many, and suppressed dissent.

Though Castro briefly courted the US after the revolution, even meeting (then vice-President) Nixon, the US-Cuban relationship quickly took on the character of enmity and mutual contempt that it retained for decades, and the regime thereafter depended heavily upon support from Soviet Russia.  Two crises soon ensued: the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, where US-backed Cuban exiles tried unsucessfully to invade Cuba, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a stand-off between the superpowers over Russian nuclear missiles based in Cuba – perhaps the incident which came closest to starting a nuclear war.

In subsequent decades Castro devoted much of his energy to supporting revolutionary movements elsewhere in Latin America and particularly in Africa; despite his close links to the Warsaw Pact he was very active in the Non-Aligned movement and later embraced environmentalism. While Castro thus played a high-profile role on the world stage, in Cuba itself, the combination of hard-line socialist policies (such as the closure of all privately-owned businesses in 1968) and the hostility of the US and other potential trade partners left the economy weak and dependent upon Soviet support. When that support was no longer on offer as the Soviet era came to an end, the Cuban economy shrank by 40% and Castro was forced to introduce some economic liberalisation and seek better relations with the west, whilst also forging relationships with emerging socialist governments in Latin America.

Ultimately, Castro was a great survivor, weathering many storms and reputedly more than 600 assassination attempts to retain power into his eighties, when he handed over the Presidency to his younger brother Raul in 2008.

Castro is a good illustration of the fact that the moral landscape in which dictators operate is often far from clear cut. Undoubtedly sincere in his political beliefs, he did many things to improve the lot of the poorer people of Cuba – for example, in raising literacy rates. Yet the rigidity of his ideology led to economic problems, and instilled in him a ruthless streak that paid little regard to democracy or human rights, leading many Cubans to flee their country.

Carlos and Castro

Like Castro, Carlos was trained in law and was a campaigning lawyer in his early career. Politically he was originally on the left, a socialist but never, unlike Castro (and several of his own close associates) a Marxist. He has none of the ideological zeal that led Castro to promote revolution in other countries. Nevertheless, like Castro he would enjoy a close relationship with the Soviet Union after his rise to power – and like Cuba his country would suffer economic collapse as a result of the over-zealous imposition of socialist reforms. Unlike Castro, however, Carlos responds to this pragmatically, re-introducing capitalism and even seeking rapprochement with the US (albeit temporarily – they are later re-installed as the arch-enemy).

In personality, Carlos differs from Fidel in many ways: though sharing some of his abilities as an orator he is a less charismatic, more inward-looking man, lacking Castro’s penchants for sport and womanising.  The pair do share one important characteristic in common, though: an unshakeable belief that they alone understand the true way forward for their countries, and therefore must exercise total control over them. As a result, from idealistic beginnings, both men come to embrace autocracy and repression.  Both are thus morally ambiguous characters: neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Information about the book and excerpts can be found on the Revolution Day page on my website: http://www.tetaylor.co.uk/#!revday/cwpf.

Prisoner of Memory

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Those familiar with this blog will know that in the spring I started writing a novel about a woman’s relationship with her father as he loses his memory. I made good progress over the summer, but’s been a pretty difficult time keeping it up over the last few weeks, as the academic side of my life has been squeezing out the creative side. I’ve got a lot more teaching than I had last year, and there have also been a couple of deadlines for articles I’ve been writing.  Keeping the novel going has been a struggle. I had to drop my weekly target from 3000 words to 1000, and last week I didn’t even manage that. (And it’s not only novel-writing that has suffered. You may have noticed that blog posts have been a bit thin on the ground lately.)

However, this week has been a lot easier, and I’ve finally been able to get back to the novel in earnest. I’m now approaching both the 50,000 word mark and the end of the main story – though I’ve realised it needs a sub-plot and have come up with an idea for one (perhaps my enforced break from it helped me to look at it with a fresher eye?). So there’s a lot more writing and editing still to be done. Still, I’m feeling reassured, having got back into it, that it’s going in the right direction and that the end is, if not exactly in sight, then at least not too far beyond the horizon.

Anyway, I guess I should leave you with a little excerpt from the current draft. Herbert has recently moved into a nursing home. His dementia has robbed him of his more recent long-term memories and taken him back to the 1940’s, when he was a tail gunner in RAF bombers. In this passage he is struggling to make sense of his surroundings as he is visited by his daughter, whom he no longer recognises ….

 

This isn’t such a bad place to be a prisoner. The guards are polite, most of the time, and they speak excellent English. Quite a lot of them are women; I suppose the men have all been sent to the front. They feed us well enough, and there’s a certain amount of freedom to move around.

It’s comfortable here, I have to admit. Probably too comfortable. Most people just seem to lie down and accept it. They sit around in their chairs and give up, waiting for the end of the war. But not me. A prison is still a prison, however cozy it might seem. And it’s my duty to escape. It’s everyone’s duty; we didn’t join up to mooch around here all day. We should be finding our way back to Blighty so we can fight again. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I sometimes tell them.

I’m always on the lookout for opportunities, for weak points in the perimeter. But however soft the guards might seem, all friendly and nice as pie, they’re only lulling us into a false sense of security. If you get too near the door, you soon find a uniformed guard in front of you saying “You don’t want to go that way, Herbert”.

Oh yes I bloody do. And if I ever got half a chance, I’d be out of that door before you could say Jack Robinson. God knows what is out there once you get through: machine gun posts, guard dogs, all sorts of dangers, I shouldn’t wonder. But I don’t care. When the time comes, I’ll take my chances. If they shoot me, so be it. Better than a long, lingering death in here. And who knows how long this cushy prison regime is going to last? Once the Germans start running out of food, they’re not going to waste what they’ve got left on us, are they? I expect the SS will be coming in to finish us off, if we’re lucky. Or maybe they’ll just let us starve to death.

There’s a woman here asking me questions. Trouser suit, short blonde hair – Nordic, like ­– it’s a dead giveaway. I bet she’s a guard – though she doesn’t dress like the others – here to spy on us, find out what we’re up to. Or worse, she could be Gestapo. All the more reason not to give anything away. You’re not going to get any joy out of me, Helga. Go away and interrogate someone else.