Self-Seeding Family Stories

We all have stories handed down to us from our parents and grandparents. I was lucky enough to meet my great grandfather. He was an amateur magician and his tricks impressed me in my early days. I can still see him sitting in his leather armchair, hiding a coin in a handkerchief and marvelling as he made it disappear right before my eyes.

One fable was, he snuck out of France with his wife after the Great War to escape angry relatives who disapproved of the union. Whatever the circumstance the romance of the story lived on in my imagination and sent me on a journey to redraw my heritage.

Stories seed themselves and grow in a remote corner of the mind and are sometimes visited when we dream. My current writing began to emerge a few years ago as an attempt to grab hold of this mysterious family story and take ownership. History, as they say, is written by the victors, and so I was determined to win this part of my family narrative.

None of the adventures in my black notebooks are a true interpretation of past events and they have sprung entirely from my imagination, the stories emerging almost fully formed from where the seeds had fallen.

A son of a successful stage magician, Stefan Basse was born on the road and raised among the wagons of a travelling show between Moscow to Paris. His parents had finally settled in Bayeux, Normandy, to retire and to finish Stefan’s education.

Defying his father’s ambition for a ‘gentlemanly’ career Stefan joins the Gendarmerie and leaves town to work in the capital city Paris, and then abroad in Guyana. He also leaves behind his true love and a tight circle of loyal friends.

After a decade away he returns to Bayeux to take the reins of the city’s Station House but discovers that his mother has died and not only are his father and step-mother missing, but his oldest friend is dead too, most likely murdered.

There is a winter wolf on the loose in the city…

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Just Writing…My Process…

What am I up to these days?

I am lucky as I can work out there in the world while everything changes around us and a new, strange uncertainty fills the air. I wear a mask in public, and wash my hands carefully, and trying not to touch my face. I am tired today and want to rub my eyes, but it’s better not to.

After work, I write. I write and I write and I write, to escape to another place and time, when everything was the old normal. Remember then?

I go further back, to the Nineteenth Century, where I attempt to reanimate places and people who are beyond memory. Here I am the author of all that is seen and felt, although sometimes I feel I am simply a channel for the stories that spill onto the page.

I am old school, favouring a pen and a bound notebook that slips easily inside my workbag. I can sit on a train and scrawl, not worrying about glare, battery life or my laptop being too big for a lap in the real world. It means too that mistakes or diversions must simply be written past, knowing that their resolution will lie in the second draft.

One thing I have learned is that the story will not write itself if I am not there to hold the pen, and it will never get to the finish line if I keep returning to previous chapters to redo thoughts, words or deeds. I don’t care if what I write has much merit beyond entertainment. It entertains me, and is more fun than watching the multitude of ‘doing up the house’ repeats on UK television.

I have four and a bit first drafts of this detective series wrapped in notebooks. One has made it to beta-reader stage, another is currently going through its second draft and the fourth is simply awaiting the pen. There is my ‘writer’s process’ in a nutshell.

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The Ape Inside

As a species we humans flatter ourselves daily in our washing rituals, our fancy clothes and clever modes of transportation. Look how far we have come, we say to ourselves, no longer chasing down mega-fauna with sticks tipped with stone blades.

But with all these trappings of civilisation we men are still men and would likely be happy to spend time chasing aurochs with our home made spears, a band of rowdy blokes, ululating and screaming at our quarry like the wild apes our ancestors were.

My day job is in construction management, where I get to observe tribal behaviour on a daily basis. The steelworkers will sit in their own hierarchical circle, the oldest male, grumpy and pale will sit with his back to the group, chewing and spitting, ignoring the banter on account of his failing hearing.

The electricians retire to their vans, separately, scrolling on their phones, sometimes laughing out loud, startling passers by. The groundworkers, marked with soil and dusted with concrete eschew the comforts of the canteen and find any space they can where they can eye their trenches and big machines.

Most days pass without incident amongst the hubbub and roar of earthmoving engines, the whine of power-tools and the bellowing of tradesmen calling for this bucket or that truck. Sometimes, however, this pot, this brew of sweat, muscle, deadline and difficulty boils over and I have to step in and turn down the heat.

Years ago I might have fought fire with fire, but over time this has changed. As I have aged I have developed a sense of solidity, of implacability, to put a wall between warring factions and take the heat out of a situation. Men are emotional, violent beings, they shout, they beat their chests, they tremble and rail against each other.

‘No one talks to me like that!’

‘You come here, think you can do what you like!’

‘Who do you think you are?’

‘You wanna go mate? Do ya?’

I have been caught in these situations from time to time, more often now during the pandemic crisis. Men who have been stoic and showing up at the gates of the construction site day after day, despite the rising and falling of the death rate, snap now and then. Something breaks inside, the ape comes out and wants to batter, to beat out the frustration and fear.

The hotel I have been living in since the start of my current project is popular with builders and tradesmen. In the main we are courteous and polite, respecting the shared burden of being apart from family as we work to provide, keeping our distance all the while and smiling behind our face masks.

Yesterday evening after work, a tradesman I had never met before, snapped when I asked him if he wouldn’t mind not sharing a lift with me, in line with Covid-19 rules displayed in the lift lobby. There was another lift, just arrived, next to the one I was in, so, no hardship.

I had no idea that this man was at the end of his tether. I was polite but for him, my request was simply his last straw. He aimed a kick at my knees. Then lunged at my head with his Makita drill box. I did not react. He turned away. Took the other lift. He had let out his rage.

Construction has never been a genteel industry and attracts some rough and ready characters, people who need to be outdoors with the weather rain or shine, who revel in the scent of tar or paint, who want to be able to shout and weigh their strength against a tonne of steel or concrete.

Builders have to be robust, resilient, creative people with the stamina to keep going when things get tough. Their mental health has to be as protected as much as their physical health too, especially all the while Covid-19 stalks the land.

Because sometimes the ape inside will break out.

When it does, we have to be ready.

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Fifteen Magpies in a Fiery Dawn

One for sorrow, two for joy, they have always been around me, those wonderful black and white birds. It’s not so unusual to meet one, two, three or four on my way into work in the morning. I watch them fly from treetop to rooftop to pavement and back again.

I wonder whether the tall fir tree is where they have made their nest, out of the wind and affording some shelter when it pours with rain. It pours here when it rains. The roads fill up with water and betray the local council department of works. The drains are full of leaves and debris and the rainwater glistens with effluent.

These bright, cold and frozen mornings that are just beginning to get lighter as the season opens up, promise warmer weather to come. For now, the roads are treacherous with ice and I watch my step. Up ahead a couple of magpies hop and peck and croak their throaty song. They flap and float up into a roadside tree.

As I draw level with the sleeping spray of twigs that will become a ball of green leaves in the next few weeks, I notice that my totemic birds have alighted on its frosted branches. The light is still poor, the sun scorching the underside of whispering clouds a violent red.

In the tree I see not just one for sorrow and two for joy, but many times that. I run out of the rhyme at seven and start again only to hear the poem peter out again. There are fifteen magpies decorating the black and white branches with their black and white plumage. That was something to see this morning.

That and the roaring red sky.

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Night Creatures

Who walks abroad while we are tucked up in our beds, oblivious to the business, the coming and going of the night creatures? Disturbed from slumber by noises unheard by our conscious ears we peer out through the blinds, past the glimmer of our reflection in the window glass.

But we do not have eyes to see. The scientists tell us the wavelengths are all wrong, our mothers voices remind us to eat our carrots. The darkness swims out there before us, giving nothing away.

Then we must use science to save us from an overdose of carrots. A small box of electronic cleverness that we can strap to a tree or a fencepost that can act as a silent observer, snitching on the activities of the creatures who own the night.

While we sleep on, the box keeps its vigil and keeps its secrets until the following day when one of us retrieves it from its wild place. The report is in. We know now who it is that roams field and forest when they think no one can see them.

The badger busies about the wooded glades lit only by stars. The frosted leaves crackle as he forages for food.

The gentle timid deer, always alert to danger, might have heard the tiny sounds emitted by the hidden box of tricks.

And the rabbit, caught mid-leap as it hurries off to a place of safety. What are the creatures of the night that spook the rabbit and the deer? They are yet to show themselves. Still we keep watch for the moment when they too are caught by the clever little electronic box full of science…

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New Year’s Greetings

If you are reading this it means you have made it through a rather extraordinary year that we will probably not see the like of again.

We are a resilient species, having survived multiple scourges including fire breathing dragons, insatiable trolls, petty and or indifferent ancient gods, vindictive ghosts and mendacious aristocrats. Not to mention wicked sorcerers, mustachio’d bandits, bearded pirates and shiny suited politicians.

So we can give ourselves a pat on the back and wave to our neighbours with a smile that says, ‘we’re okay.’

Tous vas bien xxx
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Burlesque, or what happens in my shop at night: part one

This will take you nicely out of your hurly-burly wednesday workaday…

The Book Keeper Book Shop

I always liked the word burlesque. I thought it meant a horse when I was little because it sounded smooth and flanky, with nostrils somewhere and legs on hinges. Like this book shop. All angles and legs and flared outraged noses. I first read of a “burlesque” when I was fourteen. It’s a type of show, one that is provocative, comedic, and distorted. In the book I read, somebody danced one in protest against a ruling establishment. Something about it made sense. They danced it as if they were a horse. And it trampled the thinking of the day.

Is this story inside or outside of my head. Is it distorted? I wouldn’t like to say for sure because I work in this bookshop by myself.

There’s an alcove directly outside the door, a dip in the shopfronts where people stop to search bags, answer the phone, eat food…

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Christmas E-Book Give-Away Sunday 6th December

Christmas is coming and for all of you cooped up with Covid what else is there to do but escape with a story or two? Mandorlinfiore gives you three tales based upon traditional European folk tales, with dragons and bandits, knight adventurers, and fishermen and women all with their own stories to tell.

Free is good, but the paperback edition is also keenly priced and easy to order, so you can enjoy the book in the traditional way, by candlelight too, if you prefer.

The free offer is here:

Happy reading!

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Friday 24th July, Good Day For A Give-Away…A Free Book For All

This is my book, which you can download for free all day this Friday July 24th! There are three stories between the covers, each of them set on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. A mysterious place, closer to Italy than to its Government in France and with a fiercely proud identity of its own…and, of course, dragons…

Mandorlinfiore is a story of destiny, dragons, a huge pile of gold and a stack of pancakes. A story of romance and adventure, of ghosts and ancient gods. It is a story for all ages, steeped as it is in European folk tale traditions.

What pleases an author more than anything else? Knowing there is a multitude of story-hungry readers out there in the big wide world. Readers with many different tastes when it comes to genre, but all of whom have a desire to discover.

To take a reader on a journey to explore new territories is one of the reasons why an author takes that first step alone. Knowing, hoping, that one day they will be joined by eager fellow travellers.

It took me ten years to complete this particular journey. When I started out I had little idea of where it would take me, but the view from here is pretty wonderful. I hope you think so too when you get to the last page! Enjoy, bold explorer!

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My Great Grandpa: Magician and Refugee?

Three years ago I had an idea for a detective novel set in the Normandy city of Bayeux in the 1880s, inspired partly by heavily embroidered and likely inaccurate family stories. Whoever was discussing Great Grandpa, the central myth was that he and Great Grandma had escaped persecution in France by stowing away aboard a sea-going barge.

Part of the famous tapestry on display in Bayeux

I was lucky enough to meet my Great Grandpa. He entertained me with magic tricks, palming coins and once, making an egg appear from behind my ear, which made the four-year-old me scream. I had no idea eggs could fall out of my ears! How terrifying!

He lived with his younger wife, who I was to call Great Aunt, in a tiny cottage that smelled of wool and tobacco and rain. The walls were lined with brown and cream striped wallpaper. My memory shows me no pictures on the walls and only a pair of high backed chairs and a small table on which a green vase sat. Once there were bluebells in the vase, another time those tall ‘dog’ daisies often seen crowding English roadsides.

If he had been a refugee from France there was no way I could tell, and certainly not now, from this distance. He was simply a kindly but incredibly old gentleman who I felt would not be with us for long. He would have one eye on me and another focussed beyond the curtain of this world.

Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Man on Balcony’ 1880

It is true to say that my memories of Great Grandpa contributed the spark but I also had a desire to explore other aspects of my family history. There are rumours of links that go back further to the 17th century Huguenot exodus from France.

So what did I discover and what am I writing now? Well, as there is no hard evidence I can point to I thought I would make some up and properly romanticise the family mythology in a work of pure fiction set in the late 19th century.

At the end of August 2019 I began to fill a note book with one case for a young chief of police recently returned from the colonies to take control of the gendarmerie in his home town. On his first day in the job he discovers that an old schoolfriend is dead, drowned in the river Aure, and that his father, the retired magician, is missing. I spilled the words onto paper, a lined hardback notebook, and didn’t stop, or look back until it was full.

Almost a year later and I am penning the fifth book in what has become a series while writing up book one on my computer. The Magician of Bayeux: The Wolf and the Boar, is the story of Inspector Bassé and his first confrontation with the arch criminal Le Loup.

I have no idea when this project will be finished. Perhaps I am just getting started? At times the books seem to write themselves, the characters talking directly to me. It’s like standing in a river of words and I am simply the channel taking the current to the page.

I can write anywhere, anytime. I just need enough light and enough ink in my pen.

Inspector Bassé’s father is still missing and Le Loup is still at large. There are rumours that the elderly magician has been seen in London and a trail of letters has been discovered filled with hints and clues to the old man’s fate.

What Great Grandpa’s real story is I might never find out. Perhaps one day I will have the time to research through parish papers and registry files. Until then I am happy to enjoy the mythmaking of his sons and daughters while inventing my own.

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