The Dog Made of Stars

Once upon a long time ago there was a dog that was made of stars. It ran across the night sky, chasing the moon from when the sun went down. As the sun rose in the morning the dog was exhausted from running all night long, never catching up with the moon. The sky is so big. The dog put out its tongue that was also made of stars, and small lights, the tiniest stars of all, fell down from the sky. As the dog made of stars panted from all the running so more and more tiny stars fell from its tongue until the fields of earth sparkled like the heavens under the sun. It made the sun happy, but the sun knew the stars belonged in the sky. So the sun gathered the tiny stars and hid them behind the moon. Then when the dog made of stars fell to sleep the moon gathered it up and waited patiently for the chase to begin again at sunset.

Folktale by Simon Kellow Bingham, prompted by #folktaleweek

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The NaNoWriMo Post

Inspector Maigret

Georges Simenon wrote seventy-five Inspector Maigret stories in his career as a writer. He would allow himself eleven working days from initial idea to finished work. Admittedly these are not long stories, most are novellas at best, and I don’t suppose he started the series this way. It’s likely that he developed this compressed writing timescale as Maigret gained in popularity and demand for new adventures rose.

Inspector Montalbano

Andrea Camilleri found himself in a similar position when his character Inspector Montalbano became a runaway success. One year he wrote eight novels to meet the demands of the production company turning the books into a television series. And this following his retirement! Eventually Camilleri had to dictate his novels as his sight deteriorated, but it had little impact on his productivity, or writing style.

Inspector Bassé

In 2019 I had my own inspiration for a series of novels centred on a detective. I planned five books and decided I would channel the energies of both Simenon and Camilleri; if I didn’t have the talent at least I could emulate the discipline.

I started with book three. It was a psychological trick I played on myself. I thought I might make all the mistakes in the middle book. This way I could resolve any issues that arose and do effective foreshadowing when I wrote book one.

I bought five hardback A5 notebooks and wrote chapter headings every ten pages up to chapter twenty-one. On the last page I wrote a chapter list. Each book would have the exact same structure, a flashback chapter, a multiple POV comic relief chapter, a multiple POV ‘conspiracy’ chapter and a final chapter rounding off events. Everything else would be first person.

At the back of each book is where I wrote up a cast list in order of appearance, so I could keep track of who was who. Eventually I got an A4 hardback notebook so I could cross reference everyone.

The Inspector as a young constable in Paris!

28 Days later

I wrote the first draft of book three in a month around my full-time job. The rush of satisfaction was like nothing else on earth. Buoyed by this achievement books one and two followed rapidly. Book four got left behind on a cross-channel ferry so it took a little longer as I had to retrieve it from the nice people at the lost property office in Dieppe, France.

Transcribing the notebooks into word documents began when I was one chapter into book five. The next stage was printing the second draft and adding to it with hand-written inserts before typing again.

It’s 2022. What to do?

So where is the project sitting today? Well, book one is almost ready for querying, having been beta read and reworked. Book two is on revision three, pre-beta readers. Book three is being typed up (draft two) and book four remains on the shelf, waiting.

And what of book five? It remains stalled at the beginning of chapter five! The Inspector has embarked on a half-dozen short stories, two of them are even in anthologies. Meanwhile, the fifth notebook sits dustily on the shelf.

In my defence I have had to spend time on a book deal for a different project while coping with chemotherapy and major surgery. The good news is that my fantasy folktale ‘The Legend of Zonza’ will be released soon, and my recovery is continuing at pace.

So, what’s next? November is known in some writing circles as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It’s an online event where you can pal up with other writers to encourage each other to complete writing goals. All I need to do is fill five pages of Inspector Bassé and the Long Shadows every day and by the end of the month the draft will be done, and another satisfying milestone will be achieved.

Come and join me on the NaNoWriMo website, and let’s get this job done!

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Family Trees

I was ten years old when I made it to the topmost branches of the horse chestnut in our family’s acre. The tree had been planted by great uncle Jack, just after World War Two and before he left England for Australia. He was the youngest of five. Grandma was number four and Jack was her favourite sibling.

‘One day,’ Jack had said, as he firmed the earth around the sapling with his boot, ‘you’ll be able to sit under this tree. When you do, you can think of me.’

Grandma built a small flower garden close by, with honesty and pinks, spring bulbs and roses. The tree grew to be the tallest in the garden, swaying above the oaks and the ashes. It was irresistable to her ten-year-old grandson, who felt an affinity with adventurous great uncle Jack.

At its base there was a second horse chestnut, narrow, that flexed in the wind, but stayed firm as I set my shoulder to it. I chimneyed between the two trunks to the lower branches of the main tree, and then, with the fearlessness of youth, I went up and up. I gripped the dusty bark, greying my hands, and wedged my toes into the vee shapes where the branches left the trunk.

I didn’t look down. My gaze was fixed on the distant sky, and my quest to get as close as I could. Perhaps I could touch a cloud, or capture a bird, maybe surprise one in its nest?

As I ascended, the branches of the horse chestnut narrowed, the trunk, which at ground level I could not get my arms about, became no thicker than my thigh. It dwindled as I climbed, to the thinness of my ankle. The wind at this altitude, skipping across the tops of the local woodland, caught the crown of the horse chestnut and I swung back and forth, a mile above the world.

Down there, on the lawn was Turpin, our border collie. I whistled for him and he ran in circles, confused. The sound of a grinder rose from my father’s workshop, silencing the birds, and me. I stopped tormenting the dog and looked out at the horizon.

To the East I could see a plane heading in to land at Gatwick Airport. Our house was in the flightpath, and on busy days conversation in the garden would have to pause, punctuated by an enormous aircraft roaring overhead, drowning out whistles, grinders and birdsong. We would stop and look up at the leviathan’s steel underbelly as it passed.

Now I was sure I would be close enough to look the pilot in the eye as the plane came nearer. I could see its shadow on the canopy of the woodland that stretched out behind our house. The wheels were down, lights flashing. The wind caught the horse chestnut again, and I began to sway. It was like being in a crows nest on a pirate ship on a stormy day. I reached out. I was ready to touch the DC10.

The roar of its engines filled my ears. My right foot slipped and I slid a little way down the tree, skinning my palms. I held tight and watched the plane pass overhead. I was disappointed as it didn’t seem much closer than when I had been on the ground.

I saw my father leave his workshop and realised it must be lunchtime. I called out to him and waved. ‘Look at me! Look at me! I’m in the sky!’ He saw me and waved back with a grin. Then my mother spotted me. She let out a high pitched shriek and covered her mouth. When she tells any story of my life in begins and ends with how I narrowly avoided certain death.

But this is not her story, and anyway, it was time for lunch, so I climbed down and went in to wash my hands and eat. Mother had calmed down by the time I reached the ground, but my father kept chuckling, nearly choking on his sandwich while getting the laser eyes from mother.

Next to the horse chestnut was a fir tree. It had been the first Christmas tree my parents had on their first Christmas together as a married couple. They were living in a caravan in Grandma’s acre, under the horse chestnut and next to grandma’s flower garden. The tree was set on their kitchen table in a tiny pot.

The fir tree grew too, and after three decades it was tall enough at the end of one summer, at the end of the century, to be decorated with ribbons and flowers for our wedding. Grandma had passed on by then, as had Great Uncle Jack, but there we were, in the shade of the horse chestnut for the photographs.

Since then the acre has been divided up, developed, sold on and who knows what has become of the family trees? We have new trees now, a walnut from which ropes and swings sway in the breeze up from the cornfields that surround our family’s house.

We have planted new trees, cherries from seed and saplings donated by friends, hoping to grow a hedgerow of delights. We have planted apple trees and pear trees, a peach and a willow for withies. I shall plant a horse chestnut next, and I know where the Christmas tree will go in January. I have a spot already marked out.

And perhaps, one day in the future, a grandchild, one of ours, or a neighbours, will dare to reach the top most branches of the new horse chestnut, and ride the wind as I once did, gazing at a distant horizon?

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Back to work!

I was on a ferry last week, traveling from France to the UK, and it was packed. It took hours to load all the sunburned Brits heading home, the queue for the port stretched right through the town, past the fish market with its ferocious gulls, and my car ended up parked on the lower freight decks.

It wasn’t all bad. It meant I was let off the ship sooner when it reached Portsmouth, which was a help as due to the number of travellers and an ‘adverse tidal flow’, we ended up coming in an hour late.

At the beach on the Île de Ré on the West coast of France

This dash homeward, ahead of schools going back, and after the bank holiday, has become a traditional summer’s end migration. It was interrupted by Covid of course, and there was a sense of celebration in the air as the holiday high continued.

I doubt this feeling is confined to those on board a ferry. Surely other travellers, either on the motorways back from the West Country, Wales etc, or flying into Luton, Gatwick or Manchester were experiencing the same thing.

And when, at last, we fall into our own, familiar bed, the only thing we dread is the return to normality, back to work. We awake from the dream of the vacation and hope to hang on to the vestiges of that feeling.

Holidays are brilliant for resetting, re-evaluating, remembering our purpose, and we can bring that all with us, into our workspace. The clear-eyed, clear-thinking that time away can gift you can help re-ignite and recharge ideas and keep you going until it’s time to start thinking about the next getaway!

But coming back to work can be unsettling. What if nothing got done while you were away? What if there were problems? What’s changed?

In my experience, some things will have made progress, while others will have withered on the vine, (like the tomatoes your neighbour forgot to water). There will be problems to solve, because that is what you do, but overall, it will all look good enough for a Monday morning.

A Quantity Surveyor once told me that it takes three emails to forget you ever went away on holiday, but that’s not true, is it? After work there will still be sand in the footwell of your car, and there’s that mosquito bite on your ankle, and the white shadow left behind by your sunglasses.

Enjoy being back at the helm!

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You Can’t Push The River

This is one of my favourite sayings. I have used it many times to counsel patience in others, but rarely have I used it to counsel patience in myself. The river goes at its own pace. My recovery from major surgery has been remarkable, but it has also moved on at its own pace. The scarring on my belly has faded from its once livid appearance, but I remain covered up on the beach as the scar on my ribcage looks like I’ve survived a shark attack. It will take more time to fade.

I have lost a lot of weight and have continued to grow lighter since I left the hospital five months ago. Cancer is not a recommended weight loss regime, and now, with a reduced stomach size, keeping the weight on is a struggle. There is a disconnect between mind and body as I also never have an appetite. I could go all day without eating a thing and not notice! I work to a timetable so this cannot happen.

And as the weight falls off the workings of my stomach seem to me to be revealed like a village lost to the reservoir dam, exposed during the drought. I can see a round ball on the left when I am full. The one message that gets through, because suddenly I can’t move as my system is working flat out on whatever I have been eating.

But today was a cool milestone day. Today I was brave enough to try nauli, the stomach exercise I had been taught thirty years ago when I began learning Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. I stood up with my legs shoulder width apart, slightly bent at the knee, and exhaled all the way out, then pulled up my stomach muscles high into my ribcage.

Nothing bad happened! So, then I went on to contract the stomach muscles in the centre, then right, then left, then again, a number of times. It felt good. It felt like I was, at last, beginning to reconnect with the vital functions of the body. I am determined to reinhabit this corporeal form.

I may not be able to push the river, but perhaps I can learn how to better ride the rapids and roll with the currents, and trust that one day I will be recovered, and, perhaps, improved, in a bid to honour the new lease on life that I have been granted.

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Sunny Sussex by the Sea!

Royal holiday home the Brighton Pavilion in the subshine

What an incredible weekend to arrive in this exotic gilded location, the grass was parched, and the air was dry, and the tourists were out in force. Under the trees a student was sitting cross-legged, carefully committing the Brighton Pavilion to paper with fine line pens. I was here in the city to help my daughter celebrate her graduation from Sussex University with a first-class degree in zoology.

What a gilded corner of Empire!

The ceremony had been cancelled last year due to Covid-19. We had just recovered from a bout ourselves just a week earlier, caught at a crowded Paris concert. At the graduation ceremony there were few of us wearing masks in the auditorium. The event was excellent, well organised, and went off like clockwork. I only hope the variants-of-interest were also not in attendance.

Back outside the venue, in the sunshine on the promenade, music floating up from a beach café, the struggles of the pandemic, and attending university during those times, seemed very far away in the collective euphoria, celebrating hard-won success. All the hope, and expectation in the air was quite inspiring, and wonderful to see, and be a small part of.

Great things, and better times, will come!

Honestly, this is on the island of Britain. No, really!!
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We All Want to Live in a Castle!

Or at least go to school in one! Don’t we? The castle at Sille-le-Guillaume, just a half-hour on the train from Le Mans in North West France, was used as the town’s school right up to 1971. A purpose built school was built across the road and the chateau opened to the public as a tourist attraction and exhibition space.

Today the chateau still retains much evidence of its former use as a school and continues to undergo renovation works. We peeped in through a window at an unaccessible area and there were noticeboards on walls and chairs stacked up on desks. It made me wonder whether it still hosted lessons?

The Armoury Tower

I’d like to believe that the Armoury Tower was where the headmaster had their office. If I ran a school in a building such as this, with a tower this cool, it would be irresistible. The door at the bottom leads to a circular room with an amazing corbelled ceiling; perfect for detention!

In the guard room there is grafitti said to date from the Hundred-Years-War, carved into the stone walls by bored guardsmen itching for something to do, some proper battling perhaps.

The image of a sword is quite clear, but as for the rest, its for the academics to decipher. Are they tallys of how many enemies they hit with an arrow, or are they a record of someone’s winnings at cards? I guess living in a castle back then had its own share of drudgery mixed in with occasional excitement.

These days I guess there would be arguments over whose turn it was to drag the hoover up and down the spiral stairs and had anybody remembered to top up the moat? But that would have to be balanced by the amazing views from the top of the tower and being able to dive into the moat from your drawbridge on hot summer days!

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First Family Cats

From the Cancer Memory Diary.

I called Uncle Alan and Auntie Eila Nunc-nunc and Nauntie, and the names stuck their entire lives long, signing their pet names in my birthday cards for decades. My parents and Grandma Bing were close with them too and we would often wander down the lane to their house for tea and a chuckle. The Goon Show was popular and I would be entertained by my Dad and my Uncle doing the silly voices.

When the talk turned serious I would climb down off my Mother’s lap and try and talk to my Aunty’s cats. They had strange names, Finnish names that my aunt pronounced as if she was singing to the cats. Grandma Bing had a black cat (she was a witch and this was proof) who had a perfectly ordinary English name.

Our current crop, Mr Cornflakes and Nutkin

Rodney the cat was so callled because, ‘that was his name before I turned him into a cat,’ said Grandma.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘The boy I caught stealing from the coal store,’ she said, ‘and that’s why he’s black all over too.’

Rodney didn’t seem to mind being a cat. I would lie next to him in the sunshine and listen to his purr.

Once, in the depths of Winter, the snow covered the three steps up to our front door and Grandma came in the house from her caravan and shared my bedroom. There was ice on the inside of the windows where condensation had frozen on the glass.

Wrapped up against the cold, I went to the front door with Grandma and Rodney. The black cat sprang out into the white snow and disappeared at once. He hopped and jumped and when he landed all we could see was his black tail, tall above the snow.

We laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

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The Cancer Memory Diary

Shortly after my diagnosis last summer I picked up a notebook I had been given for a birthday and began to fill it with memories. I felt I needed to download in case the worst happened, but instead of fear I found many happy places.

The Old Oak Tree…

I grew up on the same plot of land as my father had. My uncle and aunt had built a house a hundred yards further along the lane, and my grandmother lived in a mobile home at the side of our plot. I would visit grandma almost every day, playing hide-and-seek with the curtain hung over her door.

In front of her caravan was a horse chestnut tree planted by her younger brother, Jack, before he left for Australia. To one side was the christmas tree that had been on my parent’s kitchen table for their first christmas as a married couple. Today both trees tower over the old garden.

Grandma would laugh, and cough, then puff on her cigarette, and vanish inside as her kettle began to whistle. I was warned against bothering my grandma, but she never raised her voice or seemed to get annoyed.

She used to take me on walks along the lane to visit my aunt. When Grandma and Grandad bought the plot before the war the lane was just a cart track through the woods.

I remember the lane in summer. All the hedges are bursting with life and the light is so bright the gravelled lane shines like an unending ribbon of gold. It runs straight on to a vague horizon that was the extent of the known world at the time.

But the image, the memory, exists completely out of time. It is more than a moment, and if I gently focus my thoughts, I can re-inhabit that time and space and discover the overwhelming sense of wellbeing that comes with it.

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What is a Castle for?

There are many reasons why a castle gets built. Some are strong rooms to protect a town’s goodies. Others are built to garrison troops. Some are built just to show off!

The castle at Zonza was all about demonstrating the power of the King. It’s black granite towers rose up above the trees, and from the top the King could survey all the lands under his domain, all the way to the sea!

It was built with the help of an ancient sorcerer, a Corsican Mazerre, who tapped into dragon-magic to raise the sheer black walls of the castle high above the valley floor.

Of course, there is nothing much left to see these days of the Castle of Zonza, but beware, for the dragon magic persists, and remains very potent to this day…

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