Letter to a Friend Whose Father had Died

March 20th, 2017

I wrote this letter many years ago to a friend whose father had died. I think it has something to say, so I reproduce it here.

My dear friend,

It has been two months since your father died. Now is the time when friends become unsure whether to speak or remain silent. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about the dead, let them sleep their sleep, and allow the waves of time to slowly smooth away the marks of memory and loss. For now, inevitably, the overwhelming physicality of new grief will have died away to some extent. Now there may be minutes, hours even, when you forget that your father has died and then the memory returns and perhaps you think that if even you, his son, cannot keep his memory alive, then what will happen ten years from now. I suppose this is one of the most difficult things about the dead; one knows that they will never again come and remind us of themselves, of their overwhelming suchness, of the fact that each and every one of those who have died was once alone and unique, and there will never again be their like in this world.

I remember when my Auntie Dottie died. She was the last of my father’s sisters, the slightly eccentric old spinster who had never married. Well, in her later years Auntie Dottie defied all the expectations one might have of an ageing spinster by moving to Italy to work as the housekeeper for an old Italian. Expectations were even further astounded when she went and married him. ‘There’s juice in the old girl, yet,’ one might have said.

But I do not want to be sentimental about her. Auntie Dottie was a lovely person, kind and gentle and slightly vague. Yet one could also say that she was ineffectual, that the world marked her passing even less than it had marked her presence. Like so many many others she will be forgotten when those who had known her are themselves dead. It will be as if she never existed. There are no children, no traces of her presence in the continuing blood of others. So what does her life mean? It means, if meaning is to be found in terms of worldly effect, virtually nothing. She, like so many others, was one of the extras in the movie of history, one of the people who appears briefly on the screen and then disappears, and is not even mentioned in the credits at the end of the film.

But this is not true. For if it were then we too would be fools and idiots playing in a shadow show for the drooling amusement of idiot gods. But an idiot god could not have made Auntie Dottie, nor the blind and stupid forces of chance and necessity. No, she was held in being as gently as a child holds a puppy when it is first given to him and knows that this squirming licking ball of life is his to look after.

Is this not the reason for the extraordinary uniqueness of each and every created thing? That when first they are held, cupped in being, there is again the sense that that which was not, now is. It is alive, it exists and it is itself and no other.

Then this also must be true. It cannot be that all the things that have their existence have been brought into being for any reason other than a love that passes all our understanding and yet we know well. For think now of how it was when your daughter was born. And then imagine how it will be in the years to come. There will be times, no doubt, when she will irritate and anger you, yet in memory those will fade away quickly yet that which is in her and in you, causing the love between father and daughter to grow, that will be remembered.

And this I think is the essence of it. Here I believe the action of our memory mirrors the structure of reality in its deepest nature. That which is beautiful does not fade away. It remains in our memory as a trace of what caused it.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. Because they are the only things that are real in the first place. Ugliness and evil, these are illusions and like all illusions they must disappear when the conditions from which one views them disappears. And this illusion is life, when viewed as restricted to our passage from the womb to the grave. We no more come into existence at birth than we leave it at death for I do not hold my existence in my hands. No, I am held in the arms of another.

Think of this letter. The thoughts take form in the words I write. But once it is finished the letter will be taken to the post office and pass through the hands of many others, over land and sea and time, until finally you will sit and read it on a night and in a place far removed. Yet in the reading I will be with you again.

So it is with all of us. As you hold your daughter in your arms, and you were once held by your parents, and they by their parents, and so on through all the generations of mankind back to the first parents of our kind, so we can trace our writing back to the mind of God.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. The flower blossoming for a day on the slopes of an unknown mountain is seen, the song of a bird on a lonely island is heard, the myriad lives that have passed unremarked by that whore we call history are known. There are no extras. Each spear carrier is a hero and everyone is a star.

With all my best wishes,



The Last Solderslinger

March 17th, 2017

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.

An Avometer.

Adventures in Bookland: Honour Guard by Dan Abnett

February 22nd, 2017


It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when laid up with illness, nothing cheers the soul more than reading about men with big blasters shooting evil enemies into a bloody pulp. So, there I was, so ill with flu that for three days I couldn’t even read, but lay curled up in a ball that alternately sweated and shivered. When I eventually recovered enough to reach for a book I had no doubt what I wanted: Abnett!

It’s one of life’s great discoveries that a writer for hire – as Abnett is, plying his trade within the invented universes of Warhammer 40k, Tomb Raider, Dr Who and whichever other franchise willing to pay him – can still be a supreme craftsman and, frankly, a far better writer than the vast majority of authors writing the stuff of their dreams. (In fact, on the couple of occasions I’ve read Abnett’s original works, I’ve not found them as good as his work in pre-existing universes.) Honour Guard is no exception and, as I slowly recuperated, I settled once again into the dystopia of the 41st millennium – and thoroughly enjoyed myself. As I mentioned at the start of this review, there really is nothing more cheering than reading about blokes with bolters blasting the forces of vile Chaos into steaming piles of flesh and bone.


Adventures in Bookland: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

February 22nd, 2017


As previously mentioned, when reviewing The Passage, should you by any chance find yourself on a military appropriations committee faced with a proposal to create indestructible supersoldiers and, oh, by the way, we’re going to test this by splicing the genes of a strain of vampire bat to a bunch of death-row murderers, just say no. No ifs, no buts, no. Really, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that something is going to go terribly wrong and it does – but not for Justin Cronin. For the author, it’s all gone terribly right, earning him bestseller status and a very healthy bank balance.

Who’d have thought it? But then, who would have thought a self-published novel about sadomasochistic sex would turn into the publishing phenomenon of the last decade? At least Cronin can write much better than EL James – in fact, he generally manages to hide from the reader the basic ridiculousness of the premise, so that you buy into his post-vampire apocalypse world – I should know, I ploughed through the 800 plus pages of The Passage (with quite a lot of skipping but a genuine desire to find out what happened) and now I’ve gone on to read the sequel.

I’m pleased to say that the twelve of the title – the death-row killers turned vampire super monsters – are dealt with by the end. Whether I’ll go on to read the third and final (I think) volume in the series I’m not sure at the moment. But I probably will. It might be nonsense, but Cronin makes me want to know what happens next – and that is the defininition of story telling.

Adventures in Bookland: Mort by Terry Pratchett

February 22nd, 2017


Strange and sad to think that Terry Pratchett has met HE WHO SPEAKS IN CAPS LOCK. I first read the Discworld novels just after they started coming out – I think I read The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic (in the wrong order, naturally) before Equal Rites had been published – and while I enjoyed the first two books enough to read on, it was with the third and, particularly, the fourth book, Mort, that Discworld really came alive (sorry!). In part, that was because I found Rincewind, the hero of books 1 and 2, rather annoying (although the Luggage remains one of my favourite Discworld characters), so his disappearance in book 3 was something of a relief. But, really, I think it’s because in writing Death, Discworld did come fully alive in the imagination of Terry Pratchett. The world opened up and opened out; rereading Mort after so many years, you can almost feel the authorial excitement as he begins to see the connections between what he writes and what he wants to say. In Mort, you can see magic happening before your eyes.


Adventures in Bookland: The Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

February 20th, 2017


Have you ever actually read the Bible? I mean, sat down and read it, as a book, from start to finish. It’s strange – deeply, unsettlingly weird. And it’s at its strangest at the start and at the end: in the books of the Torah, and in particular the book of Genesis, and in the Apocalypse of the world’s ending amid a welter of lambs and dragons and incomprehensible imagery. (Actually, there’s one other area where it is particularly weird, but repetition has dulled its strangeness, and that is in Jesus’ teaching. Hearing the Sermon on the Mount again on Sunday, I was struck again at how, by any human standards, what Jesus preaches is completely mad. I mean, if someone hits you, offer him your other cheek to strike again! It is the madness of a view to the uttermost depths of humanity.)

Anyway, the temptation with the story of these patriarchs is to see them as all too modern. But they weren’t. The world of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was almost incomprehensibly different from our own. From the brilliance of the stars in a sky of crushing darkness, through to the caprice of kings unbound by any sorts of laws and the walking of a world thick with gods and demons, it was a time utterly unlike our own, rule bound, desacralised era. The physical and the spiritual were bound so tightly together that an oath before God might be made by cupping one’s testicles, the seed of the future – or having someone else hold them as pledge and troth! It was a world so strange as to be all but incomprehensible.

But people are people, whatever the gulfs of culture. What Buechner does here is hold in creative tension the chasm and the closeness, making these strange people, the fathers and mothers of nations, understandable without ever minimising the huge gulf in understanding that separates them from us.

The Son of Laughter of the title is Jacob, son of Isaac, for Isaac means Laughter. Jacob means Heels but he is renamed, in the course of the book and the Bible, Israel, which means he who wrestles with God. No more apt description of the Jewish people has ever been written: for they are the people who wrestle with God. The struggle continues.

Most Biblically-inspired literature is full of pious platitudes. Son of Laughter is full of the fierce strangeness of the book that inspired and informs it. So, if you can’t bring yourself to sit down and read the Bible, read Son of Laughter for an insight into the fractured, fracturing meeting point of the human and the divine.

In the book, Jacob’s name for God is the Fear. That is the beginning of wisdom.

Adventures in Bookland: Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

February 20th, 2017


It’s not often given to a historian to write a history that features, as a major player, a relative, but that’s the responsibility presented to Simon Sebag Montefiore in this book – along with the task of telling the story of the most contested city in history. That he succeeds in bringing to vivid, but not airbrushed, life his great great uncle Moses Montefiore – one of the key figures in the Jewish reclamation of Jerusalem after centuries of exile – and in relating fairly the bloody tales of Jerusalem the Golden is testament to what a fine work of history this is. Jerusalem: The Biography is popular history – that is, history written for the people, not the specialist – at its best and I recommend it completely. Mind, it would take a writer of talent to render boring the story of Jerusalem, and the madmen, tyrants, saints and sinners that lived in, fought over and beseiged the city, and Montefiore’s talent does not lie in boring his readers. Quite the opposite: this is history as page turner, a thrill ride through the past.


Adventures in Bookland: The Tribute Bride by Theresa Tomlinson

February 20th, 2017


One of the unanticipated pleasures of finishing The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy is the freedom that has brought in its wake to read other books set in 7th-century Northumbria. While writing Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, I read one other novel set in that time and place, Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby, and while I enjoyed the story, reading ‘my’ characters filtered through another writer’s perception of them produced a strange disorientation: it was like looking at a scene where everything is doubled. What was worse, that disorientation carried over for a while to my own writing. So I had to resolve to leave aside reading any other books set in 7th-century Northumbria until I had finished writing my own.

Now they’re done, I’ve been released. I’ve read, with great enjoyment, two of Matthew Harffy’s Beobrand novels (and am looking forward to reading the third as soon as time allows), with his own takes on the characters of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, and now I’ve finished Theresa Tomlinson’s The Tribute Bride. The heroine of the book, Acha, figures large in Oswald and Oswiu, as mother to kings, but in The Tribute Bride we see her as a girl and young woman, entering into her fateful marriage with Aethelfrith. So the vast majority of the events of the book occur before the start of Edwin, and I thoroughly enjoyed Tomlinson’s ingenious solution to the historical question of how Acha came to marry Aethelfrith and why her husband killed her father and sent her brother into exile. Because of the paucity of our sources, we can never know for sure exactly what happened in this bloody family saga, Tomlinson’s version rings with the verity of dramatic truth – if it didn’t happen like this, it should have!

So, for an engaging and engrossing journey into the deep roots of the struggle for mastery in 7th-century Northumbria, I commend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.

Adventures in Bookland: First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

January 27th, 2017


This won’t be so much a review as an injunction: read this book. That’s right, stop reading this review right now and go and get hold of First Light however you can: buy it, borrow it, steal it if necessary (any writer in his deepest heart wants readers more than anything else, so if you can’t afford to buy his work, he’ll forgive someone who steals to read).

Right, got it? What, you mean you haven’t bought it yet? Well, let me tell you why you should. Firstly, this book has moved, in a single reading, into my top five favourite books of all time. The achievement is all the greater in that the other occupiers of that list were books I read when I was much younger, unmarked, and could receive deeper and more lasting impressions from the books I read. But First Light has broken through the dull accretions, and the dullening, of age. So, if you would be young again, read First Light.

How has it managed to do this? Because it combines two things in a quite extraordinary manner. Firstly, it is the memoir of a boy growing into manhood while flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. As such, it is thrilling, humbling and intense in a way that very little else could be. (As an aside, the great Australian cricketer, Keith Miller, also flew fighter planes during the Second World War. When interviewed many years later by Michael Parkinson, Parkinson asked him about how the pressure of playing top-level cricket, to which Miller gave the immortal, and precise, answer: ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’)

As a straight memoir, First Light would be a good book for the almost impressionist way it brings to life the stress and tension of being a front line fighter pilot during the Second World War. But there are many other memoirs of the air war. Where First Light becomes something quite exceptional is that, unlike most of the other memoirs, it was written many years after the events it describes, when Wellum, so young during the Battle of Britain that he was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by the other members of his squadron, had become an old man. What’s more, he was an old man whose marriage had broken down and who had withdrawn from his old life.

First Light is the record of an old man looking back on his life and asking the question of whether that life was worthwhile. It is the record of humanity staring into the great unknown that awaits and asking, ‘Did I live in vain?’ There is thus, behind the tale of the young man growing up, the almost unbearable poignancy of an old man assessing his years and weighing them in the scales. This is what makes First Light so exceptional: youth recalled in age, and the great question of whether, when Geoffrey Wellum meets his maker, he will have anything to place in the scales to weigh his life as having been well lived.

Although there is an aching sense that Wellum himself is unsure of the answer, to the reader there is no doubt: that we live to read what you have written is testament to your life and its worth.

Thank you, Mr Wellum, for your life and for your book.

My Year in Books

January 16th, 2017

A pretty poor effort for 2016. Only 43 books for the year. Must do better in 2017!


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