Self-Isolation Day 20

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Self-Isolation Day 20
Novels of Action

Yesterday I wrote that “Wolfgang Kayser suggested, a long time ago, that there were three types of novels: novels of action (the easiest to write, if you have that calling).” I hope nobody took the second half of that statement “the easiest to write” too seriously. No novel worth its salt is easy to write and not everybody can write the sort of adventure story, filled with action, that drags the reader on from page to page. Part of the difficult lies in tying the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next and this is most certainly not all that easy to do. In my own case, I tend to bring closure at the end of each chapter, and that really the worst thing I can do. Why continue reading if you already have closure?

Let us look at how a master thriller writer closes his chapters. Prologue: “I will return to my Athens as soon as this mess resolves itself.” What mess? Why Athens? Where is the character now? What is happening? Read on. Chapter One: “As a double precaution, the keyboard and the door know were wiped cleaner than Petrescu’s account” What on earth has happened now? Why wipe clean the keyboard and the door knob? Which account? Why? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Two: “Behind them, Edward Yorke’s lifeless eyes stared without comprehension at the foreman’s room and the splintered railing above him.” What has happened? Where is it all going to end? Read on. Chapter Three: “He had to move. So deciding, he opened the man’s wallet and found an address not far away?” An address? What address? Who lives there? Why is he going there? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Four: [Summary] A crack in the wall behind a refuse bin … time for a shower … throw the victim’s pants and shirt out of the window for some bum to find … Who? What? Where? When? Why? Read on. And now for the last words of Chapter Five, the chapter that explains everything. “That hook is baited.” And this is the key … each chapter ends with a neatly baited hook that leads the reader, willy-nilly, into the next chapter. You want to know what happens next, what is on the hook, what the hook is exactly, to do that, you will have to buy the book and read it for yourselves. Look up Chuck Bowie: Three Wrongs. Muse It Up Press.

Alas, I have not yet finished with Chuck. In June, 2017, he drove to St. Andrews to visit me one afternoon while I was at KIRA. We sat by the sea-shore there and chatted about his latest novel, Body on the Underwater Road. He was working out all the details and we struggled here, and wriggled there, as we computed the many possibilities. Such good fun. So, here I am, a poet telling a story about a master story-teller-seller. How silly I am. I’ll offer up a poem instead.

Underwater Road
Chuck Bowie

We met at St. Andrews, at low tide, on
the underwater road. In secret we
shared the closed, coded envelopes of thought,
running fresh ideas through open minds.

Our words, brief vapor trails, gathering for
a moment over Passamaquoddy,
then drifting silently away. Canvas
sails flapped white sea-gull wings across the bay.

All seven seas rose before our eyes, brought
in on a breeze’s wing. The flow of cold
waters over warm sand cocooned us in
a cloak-and-dagger mystery of mist.

We spun our spider-web dreams word by word,
decking them out with the silver dew drops
proximity brings. Characters’ voices,
unattached to real people, floated by.

Verbal ghosts, shape-shifting, emerging from
shadows, revealed new attitudes and twists,
spoke briefly, filled us with visions of book
lives, unforgettable, doomed, swift to fail.

Soft waves ascended rock, sand, mud, washed
away footprints, clues, all the sandcastle
dreams we had constructed that afternoon,
though a few still survive upon the page.

And that, as the lion said, is the end of the gnus.

Comment: Three Wrongs is part of the Donovan: Thief for Hire series. Adventure series follow similar patterns: the problem, the solver (shining hero), the complication (dark arts adversary), further complications, resolution: problem solved. The Arthurian Romances set the pattern for linked adventure series back in the 12th and 13th Centuries. They were followed by the literary knights of the novels of chivalry. Perhaps the most famous of these, Amadis de Gaula / Amadis of Gaul, was imitated and parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote. The numerous books of Amadis were followed by Son of Amadis, Nephew of Amadis, Cousin of Amadis. Perhaps nothing breeds success better than success. Think of the Sharpe series from the Peninsula War or the Hornblower books, or, more recently, Master and Captain and the recent Royal Navy series from similar times. Look out for Son of Donovan … a series coming to your bookstore soon.

Hengistbury Head



Hengistbury Head

safe haven for Hengist
beached his hoard
long ships drawn up
in inner waters
black now their beams
bright then with whale oil

shield wall turned earthen
ditch and rampart
sea-walled for safety
inside camp-fires
heart beat of  invaders
sword upon shield

riding and raiding
out into the country
rich gut of churches
abbeys and monasteries
golden the candles
fireworks the crosses

warning bells ringing
the pagan among them
Roma Dea fallen
Romulus and Remus
England now burning



Kingsbrae 19.1
19 June 2017


Full sail, the sailing ship, clawing
into the mist. For a moment, only
mast-head showing, then hazy at
last, vanishing, appearing again,
doubt in the beholder’s mind: is she
or isn’t she, real or apparition? So
easy to believe in ghosts and ghost
ships when mist deceives and eyes
grieve for the subtlety of a clear
day, not mist enveloping the bay,
holding the boat back with tenuous
tendrils, ghostly fingers, damp music
on sails and cordage, shallow the sea,
the channel through sand banks and
pebbles, half -seen, yet known about,
both sensed and scented, heard from
water –sound, wave-pitch changing
and lost again the schooner, grey ship,
grey camouflage blanket of clinging mist.

Fête / Fate


Fête / Fate

Clowns are clowning,
playing up to the crowds.
The stilt walker in his top hat
climbs up to the clouds.
The man on the unicycle
tips his hat, winks his eye
at all the little girls
as they pass him by,
one on a white horse,
one with a teddy bear,
and one who’s invisible
and is no longer there.

 The tight-tope walker
walks his plank
trying not to fall
on wondering,
upturned faces
and open eyes
that watch it all.

The seals do their sea-side thing,
balls balanced on their noses,
tossing beach balls upwards
to the little girl who poses,
then juggles them so cleverly
while the clowns start to sing.

The magician conjures rabbits
and covers them with flowers.
Everyone is happy, though they’ve
been sitting still for hours.

On the trapeze, a little slip:
the artiste falls through the air.
She doesn’t have a safety net.
The silent crowds just stare
at her body twitching there:
yellow sawdust, golden hair.

Comment: This poem was written in Kingsbrae, but I don’t think it will be part of the Kingsbrae Sequence. I wrote it this morning after reading in the online Guardian about the developments circling around Brexit in the wake of the recent UK election and Naomi Klein’s article, also in the Guardian, on The Shock Doctrine. Life is indeed like a circus, as the old song says, but we’re in grave danger of falling off the trapeze.

In Medias Res


In Medias Res
Wednesday Workshop
12 April 2017

In medias res is Latin for in the middle of things or in the middle of the story. It is a device from classical literature, going back to Homer, that allows the narrator to start the tale half way through, to return to the beginning to show what has happened leading up to the current situation, then to end the tale in suitable fashion with all the necessary details now in place.

In some ways it’s a bit like the arrival of a pizza from a new pizza home delivery service. You are hungry, you make the phone call, you order the pizza, and then you sit and you wait. The doorbell rings and the dog comes rushing out of nowhere and barks at the delivery man who stands there with his delivery bag in which the pizza nestles comforting and warm. You tell the dog to sit, you hand over the money, with a tip, of course, and the delivery man takes the pizza from the bag and pops it into your hands.

You close the door, walk back into the kitchen, and everyone is there, salivating waiting to see what you’ve bought. You know what kind of pizza it is, because you ordered it. But this is the secret of in medias res: the pizza is there but it’s still a mystery. You don’t really know what the pizza’s like. It may smell nice, it may look great when you open the box, but what’s in it, or rather on it; and how does it taste? These things are as yet unknowable. They are the mysteries that give in medias res its bite.

“Seek and you will find.” But what are you looking for?

You recognize the onions,; then there’s a meatball; ooh, look, some slices of salami and bacon; then there’s red peppers and green peppers; no anchovies (are you old enough to remember that song? RIP J Geils: I remember and still like your music); it’s a high rise pastry and there’s a cream cheese filling in the crust: delicious; oh yes, that subtle sweetness will come from the pieces of pineapple that decorate the pizza. Cheese: there’s plenty of that, three different types by the look of it and the tomato sauce is spicy and delicious.

When you take that first bite, the whole blend explodes in your mouth and the full delights of pizza burst upon you.

And that’s how I think of in medias res: no planning, washing and cutting the ingredients, no cooking, no placing in the oven, no wait as the house fills up with the smell of cooking pizza.

There’s just the pizza itself and the journey backwards to discover how it was made and what conjures up the magic of that first bite.

Beneath the surface of many people’s writing, lie lots mysterious ingredients. Sometimes, you can draw a few of them out and examine them as they flourish in the daylight. Often, they remain as mysteries, unconscious moments that float like lilies upon the surface of the story.

As I write, the sun is shining and the storm that visited us last week has all cleared away. There are deer prints by the bird feeder where the deer came last night and nuzzled for bird food.

The red spark of a squirrel sits by the feeders and four mourning doves crowd together on the balcony. I do not know where they came from and, like the deer, I do not know where they are going, although the deer tracks point to a probable destination.

In medias res: we all live there; we understand it, even if we don’t call t by its classy Latin name; we are intrigued by it; and it often lies at the center of our fascinating world.

People of the Mist 13


8:30 AM

Tim felt the day’s heat starting to build as he walked to the newspaper kiosk. Cloud castles rose in the air and the sun’s kiln fired the clouds with warmth and color. On the sidewalk, the shadows grew stronger and a knife-edge, like a military crease, sliced a razor-sharp junction between light and dark, sun and shade. An occasional face smiled at Tim with its white streak of lightning flashing across the nut brown skin.

Musicians and jugglers lurched towards the central square to earn their daily bread and a circle of admirers surrounded a man who ate fire for breakfast, breathing it out in great gouts of flame. The music grew louder as Tim approached a musician who stood in the shade playing a danse macabre on sun-polished marimbas. Beside him, a heart of fire burned in an iron barrel and a young woman, her baby wrapped in a hand-woven rebozo slipped around one shoulder, prepared quesadillas and offered them for sale. The mother sniffed with suspicion when her baby wailed. She moved away from the fire, unwrapped the baby’s soiled nappy, wiped her child with a cloth, put on a new nappy, and threw the old one into a garbage can where the flies pounced upon it. Then, hands unwashed, she returned to her cooking.

An old half-ton, returning from the market to its home village, chugged by emitting a cloud of black smoke. People clung to the outside of this vehicle waving their hands and grinning at their friends. In the back of the battered pick-up chickens roosted on an old bed stead while a young man, astride a shining porcelain toiled bowl, strummed his guitar and sang to entertain the passengers. The intrepid travelers hung on for grim life as the truck rattled its way down the street. It almost ran Tim down as it clattered, half on, half off, the sidewalk, avoiding this and that, the donkey in the road, the old woman crossing, the policeman with his whistle who directed traffic. Tim jumped out of the way. El Brujo, with one arm around the old man he had rescued, sat in the front seat, next to the driver. The witch doctor punched the driver on the arm, ordered him to stop, put his head out of the truck window, and called to Tim.

“You have forgotten how to walk in the woods. You have forgotten how the dead leaf separates from the tree and tumbles earthward in its longing to be free.”

“I don’t understand you,” Tim said. “You speak in riddles.”

“Then here’s a riddle you must solve,” El Brujo scowled at Tim. “You must look for a young girl who will wrap your heart in laughter. She will feed you milk and honey. Your heart will grow roots and begin to flower. When the Bird of Paradise calls your name, your heart will grow wings and fly. A sunbeam on its plumage will fill you with glory. Your tears will disperse and turn into feathers; sun people will chase you through the clouds and crown your heart with a rainbow crown.”

Amid a cacophony of horns and hoots, bystanders bowed and raised their hats as they recognized El Brujo. The witch doctor included them all in a generous wave and a shouted ¡Adiós!, then punched the driver of the guajalotero in the arm. The engine revved and the old truck rumbled away, shooting a cloud of filthy black smoke out of its exhaust, and backfiring with a vicious last fart as it turned the corner and vanished out of sight.

Tim stood at the roadside for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and went to the newspaper stand where a young girl offered him a paper. He thanked her, counted out the change, and exchanged the handful of coins for the piece of newsprint. As Tim gave her the money, their fingers touched and sparks flew at the point where his skin met hers. She jumped back and Tim stared at her. He was sure he’d never seen her before.

“I’m so sorry,” Tim said. “That was quite a shock.”

The paper-seller had dark brown eyes, almost black, with the enormous depths so typical of the native born.

El Brujo spoke to you?”

“He’s mad, raving mad,” Tim told her.

“Don’t say that,” she said. “He’s a good man and a poet. They say he has visions and can predict the future as well as read the past.”

“You mean he’s a fortune-teller?”

“No, not a fortune-teller, not in the sense I think you mean. He told me this morning you might be passing this way about now. I came to see if he was right,” she gave Tim the shyest of smiles and cast her eyes down.

“Nonsense,” Tim waved the paper and brushed away any trace of magic that might be lingering in the air. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”

“No,” she kept her eyes down. “He said you were an unbeliever and would need much convincing.”

“Well, thank you for the paper anyway. It was a pleasure talking to you.” Tim crossed the road and hurried away from the paper stand.

“Well?” said the girl’s uncle, emerging from the inside of the kiosk where he had been listening to the exchange. “Is he the one?”

“I don’t know,” the girl’s eyes clouded over. “He might be. I’m not sure. I didn’t sense anything special about him and I couldn’t sense any medallion. But we’ll soon find out,” she put her hand to her chest. Her eyes lost their focus as she gazed into a distance of time and space.

“Could you get close to him?” the man asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied. “He’s not meant for me.”

People of the Mist 10


7:45 AM

Bare knuckles rapped against the frame of the open door and Mario stood there, blocking out the sunlight.

“Come in, Mario,” Tim said, hiding the medallion under a serviette that lay on the table. For some reason, he didn’t want the handyman see the medallion; but it didn’t matter, for Mario shook his head.

“It’s a pig day,” he announced from the doorway.

“Why is it a big day, Mario?”

“Not a big day, a pig day, you know, the day when you collect all your left-over food and I take it home to feed my pig. Sure, you remember.”

“Ah yes,” Tim sighed. “A pig day it is. When are you leaving?”

“I leave in about an hour. I just want to give you time to gather all your scraps. Then I will put them together with all the other people’s scraps and I will offer them to my pig.”

“How is the pig?”

“She is well, very well, and getting very fat,” Mario choked back what might have been a sob. “Soon I’ll have to sell her. I can’t stay, I must go now.”

Mario ducked his head and huddled away to the next apartment where he knocked on the door and Tim heard echoes of an almost identical conversation.

The sánate bird again scraped his knife-blade along the grindstone outside the window as

Tim divided the kitchen waste into two different bags, labelled edible and non-edible. When the bags were packed, he took the edible waste down to the courtyard.

Henry, the American missionary who had arrived here several months ago, stood by the container that Mario had left out for the pig food. Back in the States, Henry had made a fortune from the evangelical trade. Thousands of ardent listeners sent him the money he needed to build special projects in the good name of the Lord. In the Lord’s Name and to do His Good Work and spread His Holy Word, Henry owned a TV station and a Radio Station. With money to spend and the good word to spread, he had already involved himself in several financial transactions here in Oaxaca. The local people asked many questions about him, more often than not behind his back.

His latest plan was to develop The First Temple of the Rising Prophet. Nobody knew what this sect did and to find out, one had to become initiated into it and swear the vows of obedience and secrecy. Henry was founder, chief preacher, and high priest of the First Temple and he every day he tried to persuade all the foreign tourists who owned American money to join his new church.

“Are you feeding Maritormes, too?” Henry raised his hat as he greeted Tim.

“Yes, Maritormes, that’s what Mario calls his porker. Do you think it’s named after his mother-in-law?” Henry’s accent made the name sound like Merry Torment. “It’s a funny name for a porker.”

“How is the pig?”

“Doing fine,” said Henry, “and almost ready to be slaughtered and sold. Sssh! Here comes Mario. He gets weepy about his porker, you know.”

Mario walked across the courtyard and took the bag full of edible garbage from Henry’s hand.

“You don’t have to sell the porker, Mario,” Henry had held this opinion since he first heard about Mario’s pig. “You could raffle it. Then you could slaughter it and you could sell tickets for that too. I’d help you to sell the tickets. After the slaughter, you could do a barbecue, real American style, and my fellow First Templars could come round and eat. At ten bucks, US dollars, for each Templar, plus the lucky people we’re in the process of converting and persuading, we’d make a load more money barbecuing than selling, you know.”

“In my village we raise our pigs by hand and we don’t barbecue them,” said Mario with a great sadness in his voice. “That would be like sacrificing a friend.”

“There’s a first time for everything, you know,” Henry rubbed his thumb across his index finger and held the imaginary money up for inspection.

“I don’t think you’d all turn up. Once you saw the pig being slaughtered, you wouldn’t want to eat it. It isn’t everyone who can witness the slaughter of a pig.”

“He’s right,” Tim said. “I’m still tormented by my first memories of a pig slaughter and I can’t forget the anguished human squeal it gave as the knife pierced its neck. Lots of tourists feel sick as soon as they see the first drop of pig’s blood dripping off the knife-blade.”

“Anyway: how could you eat my pig?” Mario’s voice held a rebellious note. “You’re not cannibals. And you all might as well be related to it because you’ve been eating the same food.”

Henry considered this remark in silence then the First Temple Preacher shrugged his shoulders and tried again.

“For you, Mario, we’d all buy tickets. Then you could roast the porker and we’d all come to the party. No mescal, mind. I don’t want any of my people tempted into the evils of alcohol, you know.”

“But you drink alcohol. I saw you with an open bottle of wine the other night.”

“Well, what do you know? You saw me drinking wine, did you?”

Mario nodded his assent.

“You know what, Mario, that must have been Saturday night,” he hummed and hawed for a second. “You know, that’s right; I remember now. I was testing the altar wine. The Prophet’s blood flows thicker than water, my friend, as you well know. And remember, the first miracle that The Prophet performed turned water into wine. But the members of my Temple don’t drink wine anymore, not outside church, not now that we know it’s the Good Prophet’s blood, you know.”

“You eat blood pudding. You eat pig’s blood,” Mario flexed the muscles on his forearm. “Anyway, I can slaughter my pig but I couldn’t eat her. I feed her every day. For me, she’s like one of my children,” Mario took a tissue from his pocket and dabbed at the corner of his eye

“Wait a second, Mario,” Tim forced himself to sound positive. “Cheer up, Mario. You’re selling the pig in a good cause.”

“I don’t know about that,” Henry resembled a dog with a bone and he wouldn’t let go. “After feeding it every day, he sells it to be slaughtered. Then it’s turned into bacon and sausages and blood pudding, to be consumed by strangers. I heard tell once of a man who was sold to strangers for 30 pieces of silver. When you get your 300 pieces of silver, Mario, or whatever you get, I hope you won’t hang yourself from a tree.”

Mario’s face turned very red. He wiped his eyes in his tissue, took Tim’s bag of edible garbage and shuffled away with the two bags in his hand.

“Henry,” Tim stretched his hands out, palms up, towards the American as he spoke. “That wasn’t a nice thing to say. I think you’ve upset him.”

“I wonder if he kisses the pig on the cheek before he turns it in?” Henry stood there scratching his head with one hand

“Isn’t there something about charity in your church along the lines of ‘faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity?’”

“You know, now I think about it, there is. And now I’m going to be very charitable to you. I know how much you’ve been suffering, don’t ask me how; and I know how lonely you are; again, don’t ask. Why don’t you become a Templar and join the Temple? You’ll be in on the bottom floor and there’s plenty of money to make. And this should get you interested: we’ve been signing up some great looking women. I know for a fact Marisa would like to see you there,” Henry gave Tim a wink and a nudge, but Tim didn’t wink back.

“She’s a fine woman, Henry, and one day she’ll make somebody very happy; but today’s not the day and I’m not sure that I’m the man she deserves.”

“Look: we can double everything up. Think about it: we buy Mario’s porker and then we barbecue it; and then we celebrate your joining the Temple with Marisa, all on the same day. All your friends, all Marisa’s friends, the people from the compound, Mario’s friends, the Templars: we’ll make a fortune. Tell you what: marry her and become Templars together and you can have half the profits from the barbecue as a wedding gift. What do you think of that?”

“And what, pray, does Marisa say about all this?”

“I haven’t asked her yet; but I reckon she’s up for it. She’s as ripe as a plum and boy, you do need a woman; believe me, I can tell.”

“Henry, if I need a woman, which I don’t, I am quite capable of finding one for myself, thank you. I don’t need a marriage broker.”

“That’s not what Mario thinks; and for once I agree with him.”

“Henry, please tell Mario to leave well alone. And as for you … and your charitable offer … well … I must admit … you have left me speechless with your, ahem, charity and, uh, generosity.”

“Don’t thank me now,” Henry rested his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “I’m just getting started, you know. You haven’t seen anything yet,” he winked at Tim again. “Trust me. But don’t trust them, any of them. Mark my words, they’ll betray you. And then you’ll be in trouble.”

He started to whistle and walked towards his apartment. Tim shuddered as he put words to the tune: “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.”