Writing this list is beginning to feel like a Christmas tradition, alongside the good single malt and the seasonal ghost story. As ever, reading for pleasure has been mediated and muddled by research and editorial work, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve read in the last year.
I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.
here are few things finer in the creative arts than a project that is totally unexpected but in hindsight makes perfect sense, like the end of a really good novel. The album This Time It’s Personal (Sony 2016) is one of those projects, a musical collaboration between the godfather of performance poetry, Dr. John Cooper Clarke, and legendary guitarist, singer/songwriter and author, Hugh Cornwell, the original Guildford Strangler, a cultural event as modest as it is huge.
For Remembrance Day, this is my maternal grandfather, Alexander Kennel-Webb, who I think was in the 8th (Service) Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Service battalions were part of Kitchener’s ‘New Army,’ and were raised entirely from volunteers. (My father’s father, James, was a professional soldier; an RSM in The British Indian Army, he returned home during the war to train volunteers like Alexander - I don't have a picture of him in uniform.)
Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes – the man who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, assassinating James I so a popular revolt could install a Catholic monarch – has become synonymous with anti-establishment protest. This modern symbolism began in the British comic strip V for Vendetta, a dystopian revenge tragedy with an anarchist heart by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982 – 1988) produced during the darkest decade of Thatcherism.
I was having had a spot of bother with a rich man’s wife. She was older than me but I didn’t care. I just wanted her, like some strange and terrible drug. It was the usual story. She’d married young, enticed by the charm of a mature and successful man, and the stability that comes of secure investments. The age gap had not seemed so much when she was twenty and he was fit and fifty.
The current fashion for talking to the dead started about four years ago. While Europe was in revolt and the Chartists were falling apart, across the Atlantic the veil was lifting. It began in a desolate farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, struck up a dialogue with an entity that had been nightly tormenting the family by banging on walls, doors and windows. They asked the presence questions which it affirmed or denied by rapping, clearly indicating some sort of intelligence. The girls called it ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ They said it was the ghost of a murdered peddler.
There were at least five ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan couldn’t think of any of them. He adjusted to the sharp shock of the winter darkness instead, lit a fag, and smoked it savagely as if it had in some way done him greatly wrong. Behind himself, the lights of the pub shut off one by one. Loneliness bit down. Stan Metcalf stoically lit another off the butt of the first. It was late, he was in trouble. Ruby would be waiting.
CURSING and stumbling, Anne and Bannockburn fled blindly from Blackbeard’s fortress in stolen boots. Every step was a symphony of agony, but despite the ravages of their starved and tortured frames, they ran as if the Great Adversary himself was upon their heels, and, given the Stygian dungeon from which they had lately been liberated, who could say he was not? The local inhabitants of the island, they had learned, believed the dreadful pirate Edward Teach to be a demon, and there was no doubt in Bannockburn’s mind that something alien and terrible now possessed the spirit of the already brutal buccaneer. He gripped the hilt of the sword that he had taken from a poisoned guard, along with his boots, and ran on, following the boy who had aided their escape as he crashed through the leathery jungle foliage that concealed paths which, he claimed, were known only to his family.
I have been riding – and in some cases dropping – motorcycles for well over half my life. I got my first bike when I was fifteen in 1979 (a battered Honda CB 125), and I’ve owned at least two ever since, resolutely hanging on to a 650cc BSA I’ve had since I was eighteen. I presently own a Harley Sportster, an ex-cop BMW, and I still have the BSA. I’ve never bothered to learn to drive a car.