Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: April 2012

Marlowe’s ‘Faustus’

I’m putting on a new production* of “Doctor Faustus” with some bravely experimental casting.

  • Faustus – Ade Edmondson
  • Wagner – Paul Merton
  • Chorus – Lenny Henry
  • Mephistopheles – David Mitchell
  • Lucifer – Gary Oldman
  • Good Angel – Susan Calman
  • Bad Angel – Sue Perkins
  • Pope – Steve Coogan
  • Pride – Boris Johnson (after some intense acting lessons, given his performance on “Eastenders”)
  • Wrath – Richard Wilson (aka Victor Meldrew)
  • Envy – Will Self
  • Gluttony – Caitlin Moran
  • Sloth – Phil Tufnell
  • Covetousness – Henning Vehn
  • Lechery – Dawn French

Other parts by members of the cast.


* This isn’t true.

The news from France is very bad

That was Winston Churchill, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, telling it like it was.  Note that he did not say, “Operations in the Dunkirk area seem likely to fall short of stakeholder expectations, and so we are downsizing that aspect of our business.”   You may amuse yourself by translating Winston Churchill speeches into management-speak, or your own office emails into Winston Churchill language.  All his major works are available as audio books, read by the excellent Christian Rodska. 

And this is me saying: The news from France is very bad. 

6.5 million French voters cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen’s FN in the first round of presidential voting. 

Every one of them should have the word “VICHY” tattoo’d on his or her forehead. 

Either French culture and language is going to survive, or it is not. 

If it is not, then let us have done with it.  I believe that it can and will and must survive. 

If it is to survive, it must walk on its own two feet, and it must rid itself of all manifestations of inferiority. 

The enemy of French culture is not North African in origin.  I have been to Tunisia on holiday with the Jays.  The most French I have ever spoken in my life was the day we went on the camel ride in Tunisia. 

The enemy of French culture is still the United States. 

I want to see contemporary French films on British television, both on BBC and Film 4.  There are certain corners of cinema that only the French are qualified to explore. 

An insular, ethnically-cleansed, re-Nazified France is too horrible to contemplate.  I want France to get through the current situation.  The 1905 law of secularism was a great thing that we in the UK have yet to learn from. 

Where is “Le Grandeur”?  Where is the confidence?  Where is the flair?  

Ou est La vraie France?

Freedom of movement

This is a poem that came to me when I was reflecting on ‘Upstairs’. I am indebted to my fellow writer, Alison McCormack, for having provided the prompt, “I’ve got Tolstoy in a toboggan”.

Freedom of movement

I’ve got Hardy in a handcart
I’ve got Bennett in a bin-bag
I’ve got Trollope in a trolley
I’ve got Kipling in a kit-bag
I’ve got Pushkin on a push-cycle
I’ve got Forster in a 4×4
I’ve got Solzhenitsyn in a solar-powered experimental vehicle
I’ve got Zola in a Zephyr
I’ve got Empson in an E-type
I’ve got Waugh in a wire basket
I’ve got Amis in an Amish horse-drawn buggy
I’ve got Yeats in a yacht
J’ai Voltaire dans une voiture d’occasion
I’ve got Dostoyevsky in a dune buggy
I’ve got Rabelais in a Reliant Robin
I’ve got Orwell in an Oldsmobile
I’ve got Chandler in a Chrysler
I’ve got Milton on a milk-float
I’ve got Levi in a limousine
I’ve got Updike in a U-boat
I’ve got Joyce in a jalopy
I’ve got Ginsberg in a General Purpose Vehicle
I’ve got Nesbo in a Nissan
I’ve got Ishiguro in an Isuzu

An adopted surrealist poem: ‘Upstairs’

After the ‘Grist’ reading in Otley on 3 April, there was the usual “read-round”, which had a contribution from just about every person present (about 15 or so).

One was from a grizzled-looking man in his 50s, dressed somewhat in the style of a biker, with a grey moustache.  He read the following verse, after which I shook him by the hand.  His fingers felt like iron rods. 

I asked him for a copy of the poem, which he had in front of him in a narrow-ruled A4 looseleaf pad.  I was trying to give him my email address, when he unceremoniously tore the two sheets of the poem off the pad and handed them to me. 

It didn’t have a title, and so I have entitled it, “Upstairs”.  What follows is a literal transcription of how the author, whose name I still don’t know, wrote it.



When you’re out in the fog
and you meet some-one
it could be Werner Herzog,

it could be Werner Herzog
out in the fog
walking his dog.
Or Lord Lucan

Lord Lucan
out in the park
looking for fun
while it’s foggy
after dark.

If you’re out in the park
looking for fun
while it’s foggy
after dark
and you meet a man
with a funny shaped head
it’s probably not Lord Lucan.

It’s probably not Lord Lucan
if he says ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello
What’s going on?
Probably not Lord Lucan
if he comes at you
waving a truncheon –
his head a funny shape
because it has a helmet on,
it’s probably not Lord Lucan.

It’s probably not Lord Lucan…
…probably…It’s probably…
a policeman!  Better run.
Run run run run run

out the park
in the fog
after dark
past the man
with a dog
run run
run for home
Don’t tell Mum.

“Where’ve you been, son?”
– Nowhere!
“What’ve you been doing, son?”
– Nuthin!
Mum likes to chat.
– Don’t listen!

She says
“Well I’ve had a very interesting day.
You’ll never guess
who I met
on the bus –
front seat
Salvador Dali
and sitting in his lap
a haddock named Timothy.”

John Sergeant on Spike Milligan, ITV1

This evening I watched John Sergeant’s programme on Spike Milligan.  This was an emotional experience which included the collision between my own recollections of Spike’s work, and my own childhood; my rationalisation of his biography, mainly to do with World War Two, and other influences, including, for example, a series of tweets from David Quantick which were rather mean-spirited and all along the lines of “this would have been better if they had asked me to present it”.  There was also the consideration of Spike’s legacy to the children of today.

            There was something strangely reassuring about the programme.  John Sergeant spoke to Eddie Izzard and Michael Palin and came to the conclusion that Spike Milligan is the grandfather of contemporary British comedy.  For a man who changed everything in his field, it seemed strange to produce another documentary which was the equivalent of a security blanket. 

            I remember the moment I decided to burn a CD for Jared (then 8 years old, now 11) which included I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas, Ying Tong Song, and The Q5 Piano Tune.  It also included Right, Said Fred (that’s a track by Bernard Cribbins, not a band from the early 90s) and selected others.   It was because he had just been given an MP3 player and all he seemed to have on it was ‘Girls Aloud’.  I have nothing against ‘Girls Aloud’ except that it is as certain as anything can be that nobody will be listening to them in twenty years time.  I thought back to the time when I first heard Ying Tong Song on 7-inch vinyl.  My friend Lucien (three years my senior) and I used to listen to it.  We laughed so much that we hyperventilated and nearly made ourselves sick.  The part we fixated on the most was the whistle of the bomb descending, the detonation of which interrupted “Ying Tong -”.  What I learnt from that, at the age of 7, was that life is mostly marginal, provisional, and contingent on chance outcomes. 

            My father served in the RAF during World War Two and World War Two is the metaphor by which I live my life.  I have 1938 days (when opportunities to avert disaster are wantonly missed),  1939 days (when wearied resignation sets in), 1940 days (when one has to stand up, alone, against seemingly impossible odds), 1941 days (when the tide seems to turn but it does no immediate good – in fact it makes the current situation worse), 1942 days (when the fate of the whole world balances on the edge of a knife), 1943 days (when great issues are decided but the outcome is still uncertain), 1944 days (when the tide turns but at great human cost and victory still seems remote), and 1945 days (when the problem at hand is solved, only to be replaced by one which is in some ways worse and is certainly more complicated.)  

            My impression of Spike Milligan is that he was brought up by parents who were eccentric to the point of madness (weren’t we all?) and he could not cope with reality.  Onto a psyche which was bi-polar and depressive was dumped a chain of experiences which included the threat of death.  The introduction to one of the volumes of Spike’s war memoirs contains the words, “and they [meaning the dead] would have been the first to join in the laughter and that laughter was, I am sure, the key to victory.”  That was disingenuous.  It shows one of Spike’s great failings as a writer of things other than sketches, which is to get the show/tell balance completely wrong (i.e. too much in favour of telling). 

            What Spike went on to produce was not “laughter as the key to victory”.  That would have made him sound like a sub-department of the War Office.  What he went on to produce was a set of techniques for taking the piss out of absolutely everything.  He virtually dictated that everything would have the piss taken out of it, forever.  The institution on which he left the deepest mark is the BBC.  No other organisation on earth spends as much time and money on its own ridicule. 

            Spike is undoubtedly a genius.  He is, like so many other geniuses, noticeably overrated.  Rudyard Kipling was a poor novelist, but a great poet and short story writer.  Similarly, Spike is a brilliant sketch-writer and possibly the greatest musical comic the modern world has heard, but much of the rest of his output is poor. 

            I leave you with my favourite fragment from one of his sketches.

            A white Mercedes with tinted windows drives along a street in a London suburb.  It screeches to a halt.  Some men in Bedouin headdresses and dark glasses get out.  They open the boot, inside which is a dustbin.  The men look furtively around, pick up the dustbin, and unceremoniously dump the contents on the pavement.  They chuck the dustbin aside, close the boot, get back inside the car, and drive off with all speed. 

            Spike Milligan, dressed as a tramp, a person who obviously makes no contribution to the Exchequer, looks aghast out of the window of a derelict building. 

            “Don’t put your crap there!  That’s where we put OUR crap!”

            The BNP manifesto in 11 words.  Genius.

‘The Companion’: the next edit

I have sent ‘The Companion’ to four agents and they have all rejected it.  The version I have posted on this blog is the second version: in other words, the first complete re-write. 

I am going to re-write it again.  I have a good idea for the new first chapter.   I have the final assignment for my Open University course to complete in May.  I cannot say whether I will start the re-write before or after that.   I also need to start work on Volume 2, for which I have a number of ideas. 

I am going to get Violet into print if it is the last thing I ever do.

‘The Companion’: the final instalment: chapter 59

That’s all folks.

Anybody who wants the final chapter can email me directly at wjtg2@my.open.ac.uk

Just because you send me an email, it doesn’t mean that you will get it, but if you don’t, you won’t.

‘The Companion’: chapter 58 (content warning: last chapter to be posted here)

I have just sworn the oath, on the Bible.  I don’t consider myself to be religious, but I could not be bothered to enter into a discussion about it.  I want this to be over as quickly as possible.  Here comes the first question.  At least, I think it does.  I wish he would stop rambling and get to the point.  What has been the nature of my relationship with Kelvin?  I am talking now.  I am saying something.  I don’t really know what I am saying.  The nature of my relationship with him is that I agreed to join his mission to colonise a new planet.  Don’t ask me why I did that, because I did not previously know him, but I did agree to it.  We were then lovers, briefly, for a period of six weeks while we were in transit from Earth.  Our time together was physically passionate and I thought I was falling in love with him, but it was very difficult to know whether I did love him because he was so difficult to get to know.  Once I heard about his so-called “companion”, I experienced a feeling of repulsion and did not want to be with him anymore.    This seemed to wear off eventually, probably because I foolishly allowed myself to forget what a big part this “companion” had played in his life.  I simply assumed that he would want his partner in life to be a flesh-and-blood woman rather than a machine manufactured to look like a woman. 

Here comes another question.  I suppose I should be paying attention, instead of scanning the public gallery to see how many people I can recognise.  There is that awful Vallance woman.  She has been told off by the usher for taking notes.  Every time there is a recess, she goes outside and scribbles frantically.  I am looking for The Machine, to see if she will still glower at me, but she is not there for some reason.  Kelvin seems remarkably composed in the dock (is that what it is called?)   I wonder if they will actually put him in prison, if he is found guilty.   The next question is: do I think that Kelvin was glad when news of the invasion arrived, because he knew it would mean conflict?  Yes, I am convinced he was.  For a start, he was the only person who wasn’t surprised.  He reacted as if being invaded was an ordinary, everyday occurrence.  In other words, he didn’t react at all.  He just started talking about something called “Plan K-13”.  I asked him what “Plan K-13” was, and he said that it would be revealed on a need-to-know basis.  I asked him why it was called “K-13”, and he said it had to be called something.  I told him it sounded like something out of an unpublished novel by John Le Carré,  and he thanked me.  I didn’t tell him that the reason why the hypothetical novel would remain unpublished is because it was crap.  

Now he is asking me if I knew anything about Operation Meat-grinder.  No, I didn’t.  My duties had nothing to do with the fighting.  Oh, that’s the end.  That didn’t last as long as I feared.  I can’t go home, however.  I have to hang around in case I am wanted again. 


‘How should I address you?’

‘Most politely.’

‘I mean, by what form of address?  What title?’

‘How about “Mrs Stark”?’

‘Very well.  Mrs Stark, what was your…’

‘Before you proceed with your examination in chief, Mr Greenwood, I wish to raise a point of order.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I wish to question your right to examine me as a witness.’  The judges lean forward and listen more attentively.  Greenwood looks surprised and annoyed.  Those people in the public gallery who have been paying attention start muttering to each other.  Judge Lansakaranayake intervenes.

‘Mrs Stark, could you explain to the court what it is to wish to question?’

‘Your Honour, it occurs to me that, under the legal system in Mr Greenwood’s country, he could not ask me any questions, even if he wanted to.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I am an android.  I am not a natural person, in the eyes of the law of England and Wales.  According to Mr Greenwood’s legal system, I am merely a machine.  If he wants to know anything about me, if he wants disclosure of anything that my data acquisition systems may have recorded, he can serve a court order against my legal owner.  But he can’t question me.’  Greenwood’s face falls.  He knows I’m right.  Lansakaranayake looks puzzled.  Gonzales looks amused.  The two judges exchange a words which no-one else can hear. 

‘Will Mr Greenwood and Miss Johnson please join us in our chambers, please?  Mr and Mrs Stark are each dismissed until further notice.’


Violet’s point was upheld.  We are making the law governing this trial up as we go along, but the assumption is that, where no law has been codified by the colonists, we will fall back on English Law.  Greenwood had already committed himself to that principle and, in this regard, English law is very clear: androids are not legal entities, except inasmuch as they incur liability for their legal owners.  Greenwood tried to argue that Violet was capable of being treated as an independent person, but the judges said that he could only appeal to the written law of this colony if he wanted things done differently from the way they are in England.  No law on this subject has been passed in the colony.  In desperation, Greenwood asked if Kelvin could produce his certificate of ownership of Violet.  This was duly produced.  Greenwood then observed that Kelvin and Violet are married, and asked how he could marry something that wasn’t a person.  The judges asked what relevance the validity of Kelvin’s marriage had to the matter in hand.  Greenwood could not answer that question.  The judges conferred for about two minutes, and came back with a joint decision that Greenwood did not have a leg to stand on.  He could apply to the court (subject to various exemptions) for orders to obtain from Kelvin the disclosure of Violet’s data, but he could not put Violet back in the witness box.  I asked if Violet would be allowed back in the public gallery, and received permission for her to continue watching the trial. 

There is still some time left today, and so we are re-convening after lunch. 


Greenwood’s next witness is a prisoner called Darren Cartwright.  He looks well-nourished and healthy enough, apart from a rather appalling case of acne.  Greenwood starts questioning him about what he saw and heard of his fellow invaders being scalded in the concrete tank that Kelvin ordered to be built.  I interrupt, and read a pre-prepared statement which concedes all the factual  points that Greenwood has been trying to make and adds that they are not in dispute.  It includes everything about the poisoned food,  the drinks that had been adulterated with methanol, the booby-traps, and the cutting off of the water supply.   When I finish, Greenwood thanks me unconvincingly, and closes with a few questions to Cartwright about how he is being treated.  He says that the prison is boring but comfortable enough and the food is to his liking. 

We are getting close to the point I have been dreading.  I just hope we have done enough preparation.  I hope Kelvin remembers my instructions and does as he has been told. 


Kelvin gives his evidence from the dock.

Kelvin’s atheism re-opens the question of what he will swear on.  After dismissing all the religious books on the usher’s shelf, somebody suggests that he just affirm, without a book.  Kelvin asks if there are any secular titles.  The usher peers at each spine in turn.

‘There is just one,’ he reports, with resignation.

‘What is it?’ Kelvin asks.

‘It is a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack for the year 2125.’

‘That’ll do.’

‘What?’ Greenwood exclaims.  For once, I agree with him.

‘What did you say earlier, Professor Gonzales?’ Kelvin asks, addressing the bench.  ‘It has to be a book the contents of which you are broadly familiar with, in the truth of which you have a strong conviction, and whose principles you believe should be upheld.’

‘Yes, Dr Stark, I did say that.  Are you sure that Whitaker’s Almanack satisfies all those criteria in your case?’

‘I am certain of it.’

‘What principles does Whitaker’s Almanack set out?’

‘Democracy, for a start, and accountability.  It gives you the address of every member of parliament and holder of public office in the United Kingdom– in Mr Greenwood’s country.  I will swear on a book that attests to the accountability of Mr Greenwood’s employer.’  Gonzales and Lansakaranayake look doubtful, but they hold a brief conference which is inaudible to the rest of the court. 

‘Very well,’ indicates Gonzales to the usher, with deadly seriousness, ‘You may proceed with the taking of the oath.’

‘You are Kelvin Stark,” assertsGreenwood, after this (in his opinion) travesty has been played out. 

‘That is my name,’ confirms Kelvin, with a slight emphasis on the word name.  Oh, no.  The examination in chief is just starting, and he is already forgetting his lines.   Come on, Kelvin: pull yourself together. 

‘What office do you claim to occupy in the administration of this community?’  The question is obviously framed to be as offensive as possible without breaching the decorum of the courtroom.

‘The title of King was conferred upon me by the parliament which we refer to as the Assembly.  I attempted to abdicate from that position after the war was over.  This had been my stated intention when I accepted the title and the office of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.  That abdication was not accepted by the Assembly.  It therefore seems that I am still King.’  Kelvin speaks more quietly than he usually does.  He must remember some of what I told him.

‘You must have been very gratified to find that you were still regarded as King.’

‘No. In fact, it was a pain in the arse.’  A ripple of laughter moves round the courtroom.  Greenwoodis annoyed to see that even some of the jurors he selected himself are laughing.  He glances expectantly at the judges, hoping that they will reprimand the accused for having used the word arse in court, but they say nothing.  I am wondering whetherGreenwood knows that it was Judge Gonzales himself who suggested that Kelvin be King and not simply Commander-in-Chief.

‘I believe, Mr Stark, that…’

Doctor Stark.’  Greenwood pauses for a moment and looks at the ceiling, but he has not started gripping the table-top yet.  I suppose he is wondering how many of these blasted colonists have doctorates.

‘Dr Stark,’ he resumes, ‘I believe that, after this assembly, you affected the title of Field Marshal.’

‘If you really insist on putting it as offensively as that, then yes, I did.’

‘Did you have any previous military experience?’


‘Then how could you do it?’  With an air of wearied resignation, Kelvin picks up the copy of Whitaker’s Almanack that the usher has absent-mindedly left on the partition next to his chair, and turns to the page described in the index under Royal Family, Military Titles.

‘The King,’ he reads aloud, by which he means Henry IX.  ‘Lord High Admiral of theUnited Kingdom, Field Marshal, Marshal of the Royal Air Force. Admiral of the Fleet, Royal Australian Navy. Field Marshal, Australian Military Forces, Marshal of the Royal Australian Air Force.  Admiral of the Fleet, RoyalNew Zealand…’

‘Yes, yes, thank you, Dr Stark,’ Greenwood interrupts.  ‘What, precisely, is your point?’

‘Yes, I was wondering that,’ adds Gonzales, and so am I. 

‘It is the role of a leader to give his or her followers something to look up to and admire – something that inspires confidence.  If I was to give orders to soldiers, then clearly I had to outrank them, and the easiest way to ensure that was to take the rank of Field Marshal.’

‘But on what basis did you expect to give the orders?  I understand that some of the men you commanded had military experience, whereas you had none.’

‘Some of the women I commanded had military experience as well.  I accept that.  There were three reasons why I was in command and they were not.  Firstly, it was my idea for us to travel to this planet in the first place.  That, I felt, burdened me with a certain amount of responsibility.  Secondly, although I had no previous military experience, I did have considerable experience of fighting fascists and Nazis.  What we were up against was not just a military force: it was a political and psychological one, and in this I do claim to speak as an expert.  Lastly, I believed that the conflict  had the potential to last a long time and to involve the entire colony.  The economic and strategic implications of this are something else on which I claim to speak as an expert.  Adolf Hitler said precisely one thing with which I agree.’  Oh shit damn hell bugger.  This is not going well.  This is not what we rehearsed.

‘And what, may I ask, is that?’

People believe in that which is seen to be strongly believed by others.  For this reason, and because I believed in our eventual victory, I found it necessary and desirable to behave like a victor, even when we encountered set-backs.’

‘Set-backs?  Would you describe what happened to Major Downing and his men as a set-back?’

‘In military terms, yes.  In human terms, it was an appalling tragedy, and a waste of life.’

‘Would you have conducted this operation differently if you had had the chance?’

‘That is a hypothetical question and I do not propose to waste the court’s time by answering it.’ Greenwoodputs down the paper he is holding and looks angry. 

‘Dr Stark, I am trying to give you the opportunity to show the court that you are a human being after all, and not the unbalanced despot whose character one infers from the accounts we have heard of recent activities on this planet.  This chance is one that you seem determined to throw away.’

‘Well let me reciprocate, Mr Greenwood, by offering you the chance to spell out what it is that I am supposed to have done which is so heinous.  I landed on this planet with the knowledge and permission of a civil, constitutional, democratic government.  My peaceful existence here and that of my fellow colonists was rudely interrupted by invaders who were trying to rape, kill, maim and torture us.  Some of those invaders were shot.  Some of them were poisoned.  Some of them were bayonetted.  Some of them were burned alive.  Some of them were drowned.  Some of these actions, I deeply regret to say, incurred collateral damage.  In other words, in order to prevent the loss of innocent civilian lives, I had to kill some innocent civilians.  I have never made a secret of that.  It makes me desperately sad, but not criminally culpable.

‘I am the King.  This is the most unexpected thing that has ever happened to me in my life, and I must admit that I still find it impossible to comprehend sometimes.  However, when I attempted to stand down, the people would not let me.  It was my application to the Alpha Project that got us all here, and I suppose some of them see me as a symbol of their hope for peace and security in the future. In spite of unfavourable odds, every major undertaking that this colony has embarked on has succeeded, and that makes me very proud.

‘If I am a King (which I am) then I belong to the least violent royal dynasty in the history of the human race.  Monarchy on this planet was constitutional from the outset.  My position was conferred upon me by a popular assembly – a point which it took theUnited Kingdommany centuries to reach.

‘If the worst thing that you can accuse me of is that I shot a known and dedicated fascist when he did not have his machine-gun in his hands, or that I ordered the sinking of a ship that killed some of my own people, then I challenge you to go to the rulers of any state back on your planet and insist that they govern in the same just and pacific way you seem to be espousing here.

‘The people of this planet, though they sincerely wish to remain on good terms with your government, are not subordinate to that government.  Even considering recent advances in technology, you are too far away for your wishes to be taken into account here on a daily basis, and your troops were absent when we were in our hour of need.  Your presence here now is wearisome, obstructive and superfluous.  We will go our own way and, though I cannot promise that we won’t make mistakes, we will attempt to learn from yours, of which there have been a great many.  I daresay the agents of your government committed more errors in one day of the First Battle of theSommethan I have in my entire time as Commander.

‘Do you have any more questions for me?  If you do, I beseech you to be as brief as possible.’ Kelvin stops speaking, and the public gallery breaks into loud applause.  Some of them are on their feet.

The disturbance is only slightly shortened by the two Judges calling for order.  When order is finally restored, there is a pause in which nobody says anything, and then Judge Gonzales asks Greenwood if he has anything further.  I can see indecision in Greenwood’s face.  On one hand, he has succeeded sooner than he expected in getting Kelvin to stand on his dignity but, on the other, Kelvin seems to have endeared himself to most of those present.  Gonzales presses him and he reluctantly admits that he has finished.  The judges turn to me.

‘The defence rests, Your Honours.’ 

Now it is all up to the jury.


The jury has been deliberating for four days, and the foreman (one of the colonists) has asked for them to be released.  The jury is split, eight to four in favour of “not guilty”.   How the hell are we going to sort this out?  The only person who seems gratified by this situation is Greenwood.