Exploring the real world… a Christmas Carol

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

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.

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Exploring the real world… the canal

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

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.

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Stuck for ideas?

Brighten up a book lover’s stocking this Christmas… Available here.

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 12.00.40

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It was a dark and stormy night…

As the old joke goes: ‘There are three rules to writing novels. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.’ I like that. Recently, I was a guest speaker at a writers’ workshop and I was asked what rules I follow. I paraphrased Elmore Leonard and said never start with the weather. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer.

The same questioner then asked me if I could recommend a good book that taught fiction writing. I quoted the old saw: ‘You can’t teach someone to be a good writer but they can learn.’ Again I sensed my reply had gone down badly. Specifics were needed. Well then, my questioner demanded, what have you learned?

I looked around. What had I learned? “Don’t force it,” I said.

“Beg pardon?”


“Don’t force it – if it’s not working, move on. And be thoughtful. Write thoughtfully. And don’t butt in when your characters are talking. Keep out of it and let them get on with it. And trust your readers. They’ll get it, they really will. Read it out loud all the time and when you’ve written it, whatever it is, put it away and let it brew. And most importantly, be you. Don’t be any other writer. Write like you write.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Any other questions?” I said. Fortunately, there weren’t.


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Remember Remember…

With Bonfire Night just around the corner – well, in a few days, I don’t think time goes round corners does it, or does it? Tricky thing time. I remember when I was young the summers seemed – anyway, yes, as I was saying, with Bonfire Night just around the corner and An Other’s Look at 85% and just needing an extra pledge or two, I thought I’d put out this seasonal video.  Hope you like it.

Remember Remember Video.

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Exploring the real world… the ark

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

October, 2018

I’ve had a cold recently and I haven’t been exploring the real world as much as usual. Just hanging around the house drinking lemon and honey and cough medicine. Colds are boring and doing nothing started me thinking about hobbies.

My parents didn’t have any hobbies. They went to work, came home and watched TV. Dad whistled but I don’t think that counts even though it took up a lot of his spare time. Warble, trill, shrill, vibrato, he liked to do it all, all the time, often at the same time. It was like living with R2-D2. My friends’ parents were the same (not the whistling but the no-hobby thing). I didn’t know anybody who had a hobby. And I was the same and so were all my friends. We went to school, came home and watched TV. The whole town was a slumber zone of non-activity. And that got me thinking even more. The whole town was the same.

Hold that thought.

Have you ever noticed how few chain stores there are in Bradford on Avon? There are some but not many. Most of the shops are independent concerns: cakes, vegetables, cheese, coffee, books, dogs, art, gifts, clothes. And there are loads more. That’s a lot of entrepreneurial juice for one small town, don’t you think? And what about all the special interest clubs? If I wanted to take up knitting with fluff, I bet I’d find a local group that’s already doing it. And then there are all the alternative life-style people wearing homemade shoes and dressed in hummus, and the packs of artists and sculptors and writers who haunt the cafés drinking decaf soy lattes with a caramel drizzle. This is a very creative town.

The whole town is the same.

Where I grew up nothing happened outside of work except a localised pocket of whistling. In Bradford on Avon there is a bubbling cauldron of go-getting vim. And consider this: before I came here I sat around and ate biscuits and stared at the wall, now I’m growing vegetables – not on me, I mean in the garden. Admittedly there’s only one cucumber covered in spots and a miniscule butternut squash, but even so. And I’ve also taken up the ukulele. No-one in the history of my family all the way back to Australopithecus Lucy has ever played a musical instrument (no, whistling doesn’t count).

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve come to a shocking conclusion. It’s the government. They’re putting something in the water. I know, it’s unbelievable. But this is what I think happened: at some point in the past, perhaps during the Thatcher years, it looked like we would have to evacuate the planet. I’m hazy on the details but that’s the shape of it. And what they did was create a series of arks, communities with certain specialities, so that when the time came to get going everybody would be organised in the right compartments.

Bradford on Avon is an entrepreneurial and creative ark. The town I grew up in was a TV watching ark. I’m not clear how that would help in colonising a new planet but you have to trust the authorities because they know best. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. I told Sally and she said I need more fresh air and to stop drinking all the cough medicine. But I’m thinking of setting up a knitting-with-fluff club. I don’t want to but I can’t help myself. Anyone interested?

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Exploring the real world… and preserving it

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

September, 2018

An English teacher once handed back an essay I’d written by scrunching it into a ball and throwing it at my head. When I unscrunched it (the essay not my head) every page was criss-crossed with creases.

I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, although I didn’t keep the essay (it was rubbish) it still has a role in my life. We’re connected. From that ball of paper came better writing, better stories and who knows, perhaps better Gudgeon articles. Secondly, I’ve noticed my face is starting to look like that essay. Time is marking me in the same eloquent but unsubtle way – with creases.

It was with this cheerful thought that Sally and I went for our daily walk. “What I need,” I said as we approached Barton Grange Farm, “is a James Ellis Preservation Trust. A group of volunteers who are willing to give up their time, restore me and keep me looking great.”

“Or to stuff you,” Sally said. “And put you in a jar.”

“But I’m still alive,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t want to be a museum piece. I’m not talking about conservation. I’m talking about active preservation, of retaining a function, of having an ongoing value and being relevant to the future.”

We looked at the West Barn. Hard to imagine that the grass on which we stood had once been a muddy, puddle-covered car park. Harder still to imagine that this building, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1982, pre-dates the Tithe Barn which itself is about 700 years old. Thank goodness the West Barn was restored and re-opened. It now hosts meetings and private functions and has public open days every week.

“This is what I mean,” I said. “Benefitting from the past by contributing to the collective good.” That’s how I talk sometimes, like a socialist pamphlet. “The key to the future is to keep the past and the present connected,” I droned on. “Did I ever tell you about my scrunched up essay?” But I could see that Sally was still thinking about me being in a glass jar.

Unlike me, Bradford on Avon does have a preservation trust and one of the reasons this town looks so remarkable is because of that trust’s good work. Priory Barn and Priory Barn Cottage, the Pippet Buildings on Market Street, Newtown Sprout, Barton farmyard itself, country park plantings – all these were rescued or created (and in some cases are still run) by the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust and its volunteers.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community. They can’t be praised enough. They pick up litter and look after swans’ eggs and manage historic barns and run fund-raising events and write in The Gudgeon about the climate and sustainability. They get things done and they care. We need that in this world and we also need a regular churn of volunteers to keep that vital link to the future. Their voices with new ideas and different perspectives can answer the existential question that plagues all successful charities: what should we do next?

We walked to the river and watched the water drift by. I said, “You know, it’s not about preserving the past at all, is it? It’s about preserving the future.” But Sally just gazed at me with a faraway look and said, “I might go on a taxidermy course.”

You can read more about the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust at www.bradfordheritage.co.uk. And if you’re interested in setting up an organisation devoted to my restoration that doesn’t involve glass jars, do let me know.

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