We've all heard the concept 'six degrees of separation' (ie that we are all only six steps away from a physical connection to one another). Some say the odds have reduced substantially due to the advent of the internet. The idea has no great significance or bearing on the humorous little tale I'm about to narrate. However, the story's background certainly makes me think we live in a very small world indeed. Philip Yorke and Trixie
Over thirty years ago, aged twenty, I went to a party in South Kensington and met the
girl who I would later marry. It took just a few chats to ascertain that Judith's sister, also at the party that evening, had until recently lived in the Denbighshire village of Chirk. I immediately pointed out that my uncle Jack Dennis (married to my Aunty Dorothy - my mother's first cousin - so not really an aunty but enough to earn the title if you're Welsh) was the local vicar there. There were other connections too that my new girlfriend had with the area around Chirk. Her father, the late actor James Hayter, had once played in a repertory theatre company back in the early 1930s with a chap called Philip Yorke. Philip Yorke would later become the Squire of Erddig, a great house near the town of Wrexham in North Wales - a fairly short distance from Chirk. Philip Yorke had inherited the house and title of Sherrif from his late brother. As
children, my wife and her siblings had sometimes stayed at Erddig Hall and all had been deeply touched by the gentle kindness of PhilipYorke. After the death of his brother, the death duties were so punitive, that the lion's share of anything that was sold went off to enrich the taxman. Philip Yorke was a man of humble needs and lived on a meagre income in the vast crumbling pile that he dearly loved.
Some time later (approx 1978), when I was working at the theatre in Mold in North Wales, Judith came up for a brief visit and I took her to meet my Uncle Jack and Aunty Dorothy in Chirk. When Judith explained her connection with Erddig Hall and Philip Yorke, my Aunt told us this story - worthy of P G Wodehouse in its eccentricity and dottiness I think!
One afternoon, shortly after my Uncle Jack had been appointed vicar of Chirk, he decided to call at Erddig Hall and introduce himself to Squire Yorke. Aunty Dorothy, who had accompanied him that afternoon, decided to stay in the car which was parked at the front of the house while her husband went off to see if he could rouse someone and make himself known. He had been gone some time, about ten minutes, when the main door to the great house opened and an elderly gentleman popped out. He sauntered down the steps and greeted Aunt Dorothy warmly. He introduced himself as Philip Yorke, and asked if she would care to Aunty Dorothy
join them for tea. From Mr Yorke's friendly manner she assumed that he was already acquainted with her husband. Confident that she would soon be reunited with her partner she happily went along with the nice gentleman.
Yet, when she was shown into the parlour, there was no sign whatever of Jack, and the tea tray was only arranged for two. However, at this point she didn't doubt for a moment that her husband would be appearing very soon. Aunty Dorothy and Philip Yorke chatted, shared a pot of tea and ate some sandwiches together. But as time went on she couldn't help wondering where her Jack had got to. Mr Yorke was a charming host, but after another fifteen minutes or so, and with still with no sign of or mention of her husband, she was starting to feel more than a little bit uncomfortable.
Finally, after making much polite conversation, Philip Yorke graciously enquired of his guest, “And so my dear, why have you come here to see me today?”
Aunty Dorothy said it suddenly struck her that the man she'd had tea with didn’t have the foggiest clue who on earth she was. She also immediately pictured all kinds
of terrible accidents that may have befallen her Jack. However, fortunately, at that very moment the door opened and in entered her husband along with Bertram
Heyhoe. Bertram was an old friend of Philip Yorke's, also from his earliest days in repertory theatre, who had lived at the house with him for a number of years. It turned out that Jack, when he’d left Dorothy in the car, had ventured round the back of the house where he’d bumped into Bertram who'd proceeded to give him a brief tour of the house and its gardens.
They all had a jolly good laugh about the confusion and some more tea and sandwiches
(I think this tale dates from the early 1970s. We recently drove up to North Wales to attend my Aunty Dorothy's funeral. She was eighty-eight years of age, had experienced some poor health recently but died peacefully in the company of her daughter, Penny. Aunty Dorothy had a dry sense of humour; she was warm and kind but could appear to be a little vague and absent-minded. I am assured by her son, Michael, that the above story is not alone in the many misunderstandings that often took place around her. She and my own mother had played together as girls. When they met in later years it was always a pleasure to watch them
interact and see how swiftly their old cameraderie was resumed. Aunty Dorothy was a rich character and my family and I will most certainly miss her).
I thought as I'd written a book entitled Roadrage - which certainly 'appears' to contain a road rage incident - that I ought to take a look at road rage as the fairly common experience it is on Britain's roads. According to recent statistics Britain holds the title as world road rage capital. Nothing to be proud of about that you might think? Apparently not so; according to one motoring magazine three out of five of those admitting they had themselves been guilty of committing road rage, declared they felt okay about it and that the other person deserved it. According to a recent Gallup poll, over 80% of British drivers have at some time fallen victim to it with an astounding nine out of ten UK drivers being on the receiving end of it at least once.
In the process of researching this blog piece, I came across some pretty horrendous stuff, like the thirty year old male who physically assaulted an eighty-one year old woman and left her with facial injuries and feeling extremely scared and vulnerable. The reason the man gave for the attack was that the woman was driving too slowly. Speaking in his own defence and trying to justify his vicious assault on her, he claimed the woman had attacked him first. Apparently this was after he'd called her, "A f****ing bitch," and a "Stupid old cow" and she had quietly gestured with a hand towards his mouth and asked him not to use such bad language. Or, how about the van driver who was so irritated by another road user's driving, and after they had each exchanged a few rude gesticulations, produced a gun and pointed it at them in a threatening manner. It turned out to be a toy gun! Funny huh? An incident between two female drivers reported in the Guardian recently, left one woman dead after the other one drove her car directly at her after an argument then sped away from the crime scene.
Yes, driving can be a stressful business but I can't believe anyone in their right mind would consider the three examples I give above as remotely justifiable. I suspect road rage incidents say far more about the society we live in, a society that we are all responsible for creating, than we might readily care to admit. My parents instilled into me a respect for others, especially for those who are elderly, less capable, or are vulnerable in some way. I just can't imagine being angry enough to strike an eighty-one year old woman or to verbally abuse her as described above, no matter how slow she's driving!
Three words spring unheeded to mind, they strike me as words far more commonly used in the past - but then perhaps I'm in danger here of looking back through rose tinted specs. I don't know, we were most definitely a less affluent, aspirational society when I was a youngster and three little words seem to have been far more prevalent then. The words I'm thinking of: respectfulness, politeness and courtesy. The only time I hear that word 'courtesy' these days is when our car breaks down and we get a replacement one for a day or two.
The full cover of print version - design Tom Johnson
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
... Gil had managed about thirty yards before he realised to his horror that the other car was tagging alongside ... the speedometer needle passed eighty, eighty-five, ninety. At each of these stages Gil looked over his shoulder to see if his pursuer had given up. There was no change. Ninety-five, a
hundred, a hundred and five; his persecutor was right beside him. Gil was beginning to feel a loss of control in the steering as the wheels found it increasingly difficult to gain purchase on the wet surface. At a hundred and ten Gil had nosed ahead by a few yards, a cold sweat breaking out on his upper lip, the car slithering like a toboggan on a slalom run ...
Gil Harper is travelling home in severe weather conditions when he encounters another car on a deserted motorway. The other driver provokes him into a dangerous race at high speed. Although deeply shaken by the experience, Gil eventually gets away and completes his journey safely.
A short time afterwards there begins a series of apparently unrelated events. What seems at first to be a vindictive game escalates into a terrifying ordeal with lethal consequences, not only for Gil, but for all those he loves and cares about.
Trouble isn't always personal
If together with the artwork this has managed to whet your appetite and you just can't bear the wait until 3 June when the book becomes available - you can read some more! As I did with Niedermayer & Hart, I'm posting an excerpt from the book's opening for your personal enjoyment. I hope you enjoy this and that in due course it will encourage you to purchase the whole book. If you do, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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I have been delighted by the response of readers to my first novel Niedermayer & Hart which has been clocking up praise on Amazon and Goodreads. As an independent author, it's extremely gratifying when people from as far afield as Australia's Gold Coast or Oklahoma, who have somehow discovered your book, choose to post a review. And fortunately, so far at least, I am delighted to say these have all been extremely positive.
Roadrage is a very different kind of book to Niedermayer & Hart. If I was asked to give a 'smart description', I'd say it's a psychological thriller that examines the corrosive effect of obsession and hate. However, what it definitely has in common with Niedermayer & Hart (at least is meant to have!) is that it's a page-turner - just without any supernatural shenanigans.
It is now possible to place a pre-order for Roadrage through Odd Dog Press or via the To Buy page on this site using PayPal.
*Also, but only available during the month of May, Odd Dog Press is offering an opportunity to get both printed versions of Niedermayer & Hart (£12.99) and Roadrage (£12.99) at a one-off promotional combined price of £18 (a saving of £7.98 - with p&p incl). Unfortunately, this offer is available to UK mainland purchasers only.
Roadrage by M J Johnson
Roadrage is a psychological thriller. The book is set largely in West Kent, on the fringe of the London commuter belt but concludes on the rugged coastline of West Wales. Its main protagonist, Gil Harper, is a successful book illustrator who has collaborated for nearly two decades with one of the world's leading children's authors. Despite enjoying an outwardly comfortable existence, Gil has become rather withdrawn since he lost his wife in an accident five years prior to the book's opening. His closest friends have long been concerned for his wellbeing, and are delighted when they learn he has recently met someone new.
At the start of Roadrage, Gil is driving home during a public holiday in atrocious rain. He and his dog, Spike, seem to have the road entirely to themselves. Then, in his rear-view mirror he spies the headlights of another car approaching fast ...
Roadrage is out 3 June, available in trade paperback and e-book versions.
Roadrage cover design by Tom Johnson
I never take it for granted how fortunate I am to have a son who's an accomplished artist, and who has so far willingly supported the writing I've produced with his excellent artwork (visit his site). I recently took a copy of the Roadrage cover in to show the manager of a nearby independent bookshop who has been helpful and supportive ever since I first thrust a copy of Niedermayer & Hart at him. When I showed him the cover for Roadrage, already aware the book was set locally, he smiled and exclaimed, "Ooh yes, I think you'll sell a lot of these!" "Hope so," I said. Once again the cover was planned, designed and executed by my son Tom. Unlike his original watercolour of Valle Crucis Abbey that graces the cover of N & H, he decided that Roadrage required something altogether different. He posted himself on the bridge that runs across our nearest dual-carriageway one night and started taking photographs. He experimented with slowing down the camera shutter speed until he achieved the desired effect - until the cars themselves had disappeared from the image and only their headlights remained visible. He then set to work with Photoshop applying different filters and cloning pieces of the image he wasn't happy with until he got it right. When this was complete he added the text and we had a test print done by a quality local printer. This highlighted a few infinitesimally small details that irritated Tom, and therefore needed adjusting. There were a few last minute (tiny) tweaks made to the text, and there you have it! An idea, collaboration wherever necessary, and about seventy or eighty hours of graft. Such an incredible amount of work and attention to detail goes into creating a book cover. From a personal perspective writing the 'blurb' is about the trickiest writing task imaginable. How do you give a potential reader enough information to whet their appetite without giving away anything fundamentally important to the plot? It's not something I particularly relish doing. However, having said that, getting to grips with a piece of text and reworking it until it expresses exactly what I want it to, is always rewarding. The two hundred and seventeen words on the back cover of Roadrage (that's including the one hundred and twenty word excerpt from the book itself and already written, see below) took fourteen drafts to get right. Our little team, yes, it's totally a team effort, keep working at it until we're all thoroughly satisfied. Then we find at least three friendly souls who are willing to proof-read it carefully. Experience has taught that familiarity with a piece of text can make even the most observant amongst us totally blind to tyspo (that one's deliberate!). ... Gil had managed about thirty yards before he realised to his horror that the other car was tagging alongside ... the speedometer needle passed eighty, eighty-five, ninety. At each of these stages Gil looked over his shoulder to see if his pursuer had given up. There was no change. Ninety-five, a hundred, a hundred and five; his persecutor was right beside him. Gil was beginning to feel a loss of control in the steering as the wheels found it increasingly difficult to gain purchase on the wet surface. At a hundred and ten Gil had nosed ahead by a few yards, a cold sweat breaking out on his upper lip, the car slithering like a toboggan on a slalom run ... Roadrage by M J Johnson ISBN: 978-0-9562873-4-2
Great Aunt (Bopa) Mary 1887-1972 (c.1964)
My Great Aunt Mary, who often bore a taciturn expression, even at those times when there was a twinkle in her eye, liked nothing better than a cup of tea. She was often heard to declare that the only thing that got her through the war years was a nice cup of tea! She meant WW2 and the rationing that was imposed on everyone - just 2 ozs of tea (about 50g) each week, used sparingly was possibly
just enough for three or four cups a day (about a third of my daily intake). I think Adolf Hitler made a bad misjudgement when he attacked the ships bringing
us our tea supplies - in fact, he couldn't have picked a better way of getting our British backs up and inducing the bitterest anger in our bulldog breed. Without any prejudice intended towards tea drinkers from other lands, I hold an
unshakeable belief that you have to be from these Isles to fully appreciate the significance of Great Aunt Mary's remark about 'a nice cup of tea'. I mean to
say, ever heard anyone describe a cup of coffee as nice? Come off it! I seriously don't think so. And don't get me wrong, I enjoy drinking this too. You often hear superlatives used to describe a particularly good cup of coffee, like 'best' 'excellent' 'wonderful' - it can even be described as 'mean' (suggesting it has really hit the required spot). However, the adjective 'nice', and I don't care how prejudicial this may sound, is only ever applicable to just one
beverage, and that's tea!
Perhaps the unpredictable British weather is to a large degree responsible for our devotion to the drink. On those dismal days when the sky is grey, and the damp seems to have crept into your bones and you feel like hurling yourself at the ground and sobbing, a cup of tea is sometimes the last defence, the only thing capable of reviving the spirits enough to carry on. I am certainly not alone in my appreciation of tea. The great writer George Orwell wrote an essay on the subject; strangely enough, his was entitled A Nice Cup of Tea too. He set down eleven points that in his opinion had to be strictly adhered to in order to produce the perfect cup. Some people might describe this attention to detail as fanatical, and I might well agree - but this happens to be tea we're talking about!
I am not alone either:
"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea."
- Sydney Smith, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith
"We had a kettle; we let it leak:
Our not repairing made it worse.
We haven't had any tea for a week ...
The bottom is out of the Universe."
- Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling
"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."
- C S Lewis
Tea hee hee!
Last weekend we watched a fantastic film about the Ice Age artwork discovered in the Chauvet Cave situated in the Ardèche region of Southern France. On December 18, 1994, three friends discovered a tiny opening, barely large enough to admit them. They soon realised that what they had come across was of very great significance. The entrance they found has now been widened and a steel door has been put in place to protect the site. The public are not allowed to visit the cave because of the age and fragility of the discoveries there. The French Government have since taken on responsibility for the conservation and protection of the cave, and here's a link to the official website: The Chauvet Cave
In 2010 German director Werner Herzog and a small crew were allowed to film inside the cave. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is most certainly eighty-seven minutes of worthwhile viewing. The wall paintings are extremely beautiful and demonstrate a flair and artistry that truly take the breath away. For reasons unknown to us now, the makers of the wall paintings of some 32,000 years ago, and at intervals since, deliberately came here and set about leaving their marks. They appear to have scraped back the walls to help enhance the effect of their work. The sheer skill and sophistication of the creators of the art is extraordinary and it's hardly surprising that at first questions were asked about their authenticity - no longer in any doubt. Literally hundreds of animal bones were discovered scattered throughout the caves, however there appears to be no evidence of human habitation. In one place, there is the footprint of a child, estimated to be about eight years of age imprinted in the clay along with the paw print of a wolf - possibly from the same era or possibly separated by millennia. The original entrance to the cave was lost after a rock fall some 27,000 years ago.
There are plans afoot to recreate the cave and the art they contain at a location a few miles away from their natural situation, which, although only a facsimile, would at least allow the public to visit and experience it for themselves.
I spent most of Easter weekend doing a final proof-reading of Roadrage. To avoid 'drifting away' because I know every phrase and textual quirk to the point of madness, I read the book out of sequence. I highly recommend this method if you're over-familiar with the text and you're not reading for sense alone but just looking for typos and things that go clunk. This was the fifth time the book has been proof-read, and the second time by me. I wish I could say I hadn't found anything to cause my eyebrows any agitation whatsoever - but hey, this is a hundred thousand word novel, not a flippin' haiku! I reckon novel writing could never be the preferred form for a total perfectionist because they'd never get to the point where they felt the work was ready for publication. However, to be fair to my dedicated team of generous helpers, the text of Roadrage (except for those little demons that managed to escape all of us - and there will be a few, I don't doubt!), it was pretty much a glitch-free-zone.
Easter Sunday was the highlight of the weekend. We rose fairly early and drove the thirty odd miles to Hastings. The main purpose was to visit Judy's eighty nine year old Mum who we like to see as regularly as possible and who we spent the early afternoon with. However first of all we attended Meeting for Worship at the Friends' Meeting House in Hastings. We aren't ourselves Quakers but we used to attend that meeting regularly when we lived in East Sussex. They are a friendly bunch of people and we have always felt at home with the Society's liberal views and greatly admire the high ethical values of its members. An hour spent mostly in silence is also very welcome. It's only when I consciously focus my thoughts on 'higher matters' that I realise how much extraneous 'babble' is generally going on inside my head.
After the meeting we parked the car on the West Hill and walked down to Hastings' Old Town and bought ourselves a bag of fish and chips at the Blue Dolphin Fish and Chip Shop. Lovely. We ate them huddled together in a shelter on the sea-front, out of the very worst of the fiercely cold wind along with some other plucky Britons, who, like our shivering selves, were determined not to be beaten by the weather. We couldn't help the odd reminiscence about Easter weekends past when the sun smiled down on us. At one point it was actually snowing!
The more out of touch I become with mainstream cinema and its movies that are extended trailers for forthcoming computer games, the more I thank my lucky stars for NT Live! Several times a year the wife and I skip along to the cinema (which I love) to see stage plays that are invariably worth watching. People, a new piece of work by Alan Bennett, was shown at our local Odeon Cinema last Thursday, and it was a delight from start to finish.
At seventy-eight, Bennett hasn't lost the wicked edge to his comedy writing. People as a play probably isn't up there with some of his finest work, but heck, if you're Alan Bennett that's quite a tall order! In my opinion if Bennett rewrote the marketing blurb on a box of cornflakes it would make it worth reading.
The wonderfully lugubrious Frances De La Tour plays Dorothy Stacpole, who has inherited a great crumbling pile from a rather dissolute brother who allowed the family estate in South Yorkshire to fall into serious disrepair. Dorothy was once a jet-setting fashion model, but we learn that she stepped out of the limelight at the height of her fame because of a great sadness in her life. She has become almost reclusive in the once great house which she now shares with Iris, a part hilariously performed by Linda Bassett. Iris has her own personal attachment to the house which we discover during the course of the play. Selina Cadell plays June Stacpole, Dorothy's archdeacon sister. The part itself is more earnest and less immediately likeable than the other two female characters, but Miss Cadell brings her to life with great aplomb. I am not going to mention any more names but the supporting cast are excellent.
Basically, Dorothy is penniless, burdened with a crumbling house and needs to find a solution. To sell would incur vast sums of money in death duties and her sister June favours donating the property to the National Trust. There appear to be other options in the guise of a shady consortium who would like to dismantle the house brick by brick and relocate it to some warmer clime, like Dorset or Hampshire. Dorothy is tempted by the promise of a renovated lodge and an en-suite bathroom with hot water on tap. A third option appears in the guise of an ex-lover ( possibly a little contrived but still funny) who now directs porn movies and who might use the house regularly as a film location.
Bennett makes us laugh but he wants us to examine our values. How we now see everything as wearing a price tag. As a society over the past forty years we have allowed countless libraries to close and watched a decline in the general standard of education. He takes a swipe at the National Trust and parodies the way it packages 'England'; its intention here being to preserve the house and provide its visitors with an interactive, multi-media experience. Dorothy points out in one of her speeches that the house itself doesn't represent 'England' or 'Englishness' and never did; she basically just wants to live in a little comfort without hordes of people tramping through her home.
People is definitely worth watching. Check out the NT Live website and catch one of the many encore performances showing around the UK during April, and also see timings for performances broadcast at different times right around the world. Get to see a terrific new comedy, performed by a cast of highly accomplished actors under the able direction of Nicholas Hytner - for the price of a cinema ticket!
Anyone who regularly reads this blog may have noticed that wherever possible I generally avoid the subject of my daily experiences as a writer. I've done the odd piece on things like e-book formatting, hopefully to pass on to others any useful stuff I've discovered about the process. But to be fair, I can't really imagine that anyone would desperately want to know what's been sloshing around in my addled brain from day to day. Honestly, would anyone really be interested to learn that on Wednesday last I took the unusual step of adding a teaspoon of sugar to my morning coffee because I'd got to bed slightly later than usual the night before, was therefore feeling slightly tired and in desperate need of a carb boost? Or, is it at all feasible that anyone might be with child (as they may have put it in the late 18th century) to hear that I took a walk and returned my wife's library book last Thursday? If there is anyone out there who would like me to expand on either of the two preceding questions, then I suggest they immediately write themselves a prescription "I must take more fun daily!".
The truth is that I haven't done very much in the past week or so that I'd consider particularly thrilling to share. The snow and cold snap of a week ago seems to have left us now. I saw some newly-born lambs when I drove over to Penshurst with Jude, tails frenetically wagging as they fed. Is it possible to pass a field with new born lambs and not go 'Ahh!'? We invited Jude's brother Jonny and his wife Pam over for a lovely Sunday lunch. Now that's an important thing, to make sure you keep in touch with and see whenever possible the people you care about - especially crucial as time passes. Sorry, just realised we ate a leg of lamb! Mmmm! (I am wheat and lactose intolerant so it would be very hard to be vegetarian).
I've spent most of my weekdays going through the final proof copies I had back from my generous readers, and then went on to format the print version of Roadrage. Once again we plan to use Biddles who are based in Norfolk to do the printing - they did a tremendous job for us with N & H. Roadrage is a very different book, still a thriller and still hopefully 'thrilling' but without any supernatural shenanigans; it will also have a slightly less traditional look and feel about its pages. Again we've opted for trade paperback (Airport) size. This is because after doing the maths it's really the only viable option for us as independent publishers. It's really important to us that our books are pleasurable to hold and look at (and read too of course!). Let's face it, the ebook is four times cheaper to buy, it contains exactly the same words, but if you're like me, nothing compares with holding a nice, fat, lovely book in your hands!
I'm very fortunate that my son Tom is doing the cover for me again as he did for Niedermayer & Hart. I may be biased, but I think it's wonderful. He's gone for a photographic image this time in contrast to the original watercolour of Valle Crucis Abbey (his own) that graced the cover of N & H. I hope to give you a preview shortly. At the moment we're still making last minute adjustments and changing bits of the 'blurb'. Now that's a subject that can make me tear my remaining hair out - writing 'blurbs'! How can 150 words possibly demand quite so much attention and cause so much frowning and shaking of the head?
So, print version complete, I have finally emerged from formatting hell - I embark upon the e-version tomorrow!