Exploring the real world… a Christmas Carol

December, 2018

Bah! That’s what I used to say to Christmas. Humbug! An annual mugging of my hard-earned moolah. Decorations? Boughs of holly? Spare me the jingly bells and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I was a writer, jaded by Amazon algorithms. What use was festive cheer to me? But then last Christmas, our first in Bradford on Avon, something… well, something rather odd happened.

It was a cold and frosty Christmas Eve and a chill wind was a-howling and… no, hang on, it was quite mild. Anyway, Sally was out with her friends singing carols and drinking shots, and I was huddled by a candle at the kitchen table going through the royalty payments for my novel, The Wrong Story. How could they be negative numbers?

Then, as the clock struck midnight, the candle went out. I was in utter darkness. I felt a draught on my neck as cold as ice, and an ancient smell of buried bones filled my nostrils. I shuddered with disgust. I’d left the fridge door open. I rose to close it and saw hovering behind me a ghostly face staring into mine. “Oh my God,” I said, backing away and raising my arms in the shape of a cross. “How much have you had to drink?” Sally was home.

There’s no negotiating with her when she’s in a merry mood, and for the next hour she sang karaoke to Christmas Hits Of The Seventies before falling into a deep and untroubled sleep on the sofa.

I wasn’t so lucky. I began to think about all the unwanted presents I’d passed on to other people. All the mince pies I’d taken for free at open evenings, the home-made mulled wine I’d poured into potted plants, the puppies I’d bought just for Christmas, the banning of Slade from the house. I felt a stirring in my hard writerly heart – was it indigestion or guilt? I lit another candle and brooded.

That’s when the odd thing happened. The flame above the candle seemed to reform into a golden fish. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, there it was, a gudgeon, it’s wide rubbery mouth turned downward, its lidless eyes regarding me with distinct disapproval. It floated away and I felt compelled to follow.

We stepped into a future Bradford on Avon. The year to come in which Sally and I would sing at folk nights in The Swan Hotel, bell ringers would invite me to their practice, Timbrell’s Yard would make a fuss of us, The Stumble Inn would welcome us. The Wrong Story would be on sale in Ex Libris and my new novel, An Other’s Look, would be crowdfunded by Unbound Books. We would walk beside canals and rivers and watch bands play in The Three Horseshoes. And I would write surreal articles like this for the Gudgeon.

I awoke to daylight and the sound of Christmas bells. My dream was fading but the sense of optimism remained. I went into the living room where Sally was still on the sofa. “Merry Christmas,” I shouted. She winced, gave me the thumbs up (at least, I think that’s what she did) and went back to sleep.

Author’s note: no puppies were harmed before or during the writing of this article. The Wrong Story is selling but please do buy one. An Other’s Look is still crowdfunding and you can pre-order a copy at https://unbound.com/books/an-others-look/. And to all the kind people who have made Sally and me so welcome, thank you. See you all next year.

Exploring the real world… the canal

November, 2018

In 1794 the first sod of the Kennet and Avon Canal was cut in Bradford on Avon. What interests me about that moment is the phrase, ‘first sod’. Every description of that inaugural digging uses those words. Not ‘first clod of earth’, not ‘first dollop of mud’, but always ‘first sod’. It’s not how I’d like to be remembered but then again I’m not a lump of turf. The thing is, whoever wrote it that way nailed the moment and now no other words will do. And that got me thinking about canal words and about the canal in general.

The original idea was to join two stretches of river and create a navigable waterway 87 miles long from Bristol to Reading. This proved to be a good idea until the Great Western Railway came along and spoiled everything with its so-called speedy transportation. This is something I cannot understand at all. In my experience, travelling from Bradford on Avon to Bristol at 4mph in a narrowboat is a lot faster than waiting for a GWR train to show up on time.

Anyway, the canal fell into decline for a hundred years until some lovely people, mostly volunteers, restored it. And here’s where I discovered another fabulous canal word: re-puddling. Isn’t that wonderful? Not just puddling, but re-puddling. The section at Limpley Stoke had dried out and as we all know, canals work best when they’re wet. So it was made watertight again by re-puddling it with puddling clay. I only wish I had more opportunities to use that word.

You might be thinking at this point what’s going on with this article? It’s full of facts. James doesn’t do facts. Well, the canal has become important to me and I thought some backstory might be useful. You see, every day Sally and I walk along the river, up to the swing bridge and back along the towpath. We’ve been doing this for over a year through snow, mud, dust, midges and bell-tinging cyclists. And my favourite part of our walk is always the canal. There is something very inclusive, very human about the canal.

Perhaps it’s because like people, its energy and pulse are constrained within artificial, societal boundaries. Or perhaps it’s because the canal is a symbol of connecting human endeavours. Or perhaps it is simply that like us all, it needs a helping hand every now and then. I often think the rhythm of the canal ripples into the wider town – not literally of course, or we’d be soaked – but in a mindful, thoughtful, 4mph kind of way.

Originally designed to sew together two stretches of river, I see the canal now as a common thread that is stitched into our community. It makes time for everyone, sharing itself amongst the walkers and cyclists who use its towpaths; the liveaboard boating community who make it their home; the bream, tench and gudgeon (yay) that swim in its waters; the heron and kingfishers that sit on its banks; and people like me who are happy to know that just because something has been puddled, it doesn’t mean it can’t be re-puddled.

On our walks I’ve noticed that ‘respect’, ‘politeness’ and ‘tolerance’ are also appropriate canal words – along with a generous dollop of the phrase ‘community spirit’. And talking of dollops, I wonder whatever happened to that first sod? Perhaps our excellent local museum has it in a jar somewhere. If so, I hope it’s been labelled correctly. No other words will do.