Sunday, February 21, 2021

That Time We Constructed A Whale

by Mary

We are not two to boast, but a few years ago we outdid Herman Melville in that Three For A Letter features not one but two whales, both of which play major roles in the narrative.

The real whale was mentioned by Procopius in passing in his History of the Wars, wherein is recorded it was a terror to shipping for years, whereas our great grey whale was based upon information gathered from that most engaging work, Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics.

In the opening chapter of Three For A Letter, a banquet held in honour of Empress Theodora features a presentation of the story of Jonah. To the wonderment of all, our mechanical sea beast appears from behind a curtain painted with a seascape, rolls forward without any visible method of propulsion, halts at the edge of the stage, spouts, and then rolls backwards to disappear behind the curtain.

That sounds somewhat unlikely, someone in the back row has doubtless remarked. But while we have not actually built a working model, our fictional whale's remarkable performance was based upon, and extrapolated from, the aforementioned Pneumatics. Details of its construction we borrowed from Hero includes a method of moving a cart back and forth without being pushed (accomplished by ropes around axles hidden under the whale and two bags of sand) and how to produce a jet of water by the use of mechanically compressed air. We also equipped our whale with a skin of painted canvas stretched over wooden ribbing, glass eyes, and, when the leviathan opens its mighty jaws, the action reveals a stuffed red linen tongue and huge metal teeth illuminated by lamps.

We also featured further artifacts whose inner operations are described in Hero's work, including an automatically opening villa door that terrified John's servant Peter (the original instructions applied to a temple door), a mechanical satyr dispensing an unending stream of wine, and an automaton archer who shoots his arrow at a dragon.

While doubts have been expressed concerning whether any such wonders would actually work, either way Hero's instructions are good enough for us. Dammit, Jim, we are authors, not engineers.

In all fairness, we should mention now and then startling events in our fiction are actually based on real life incidents. How else could John have flown in Four For A Boy? Admittedly his flight lasted only a few seconds and ended with a crash landing but it was based on an account of a failed Victorian era suicide. Fortunately John survived -- and a good job he did too, since otherwise the series would also have come to an abrupt end.

Travels on the Roads of Life

by Eric

The pandemic has forced kids all over the country to learn from home, something technologically impossible when I went to school. The closest we came to distance learning was the occasional episode of Mr Wizard, barely visible on a tiny black and white TV set at the far-off front of the classroom. These days I'm okay with spending hours staring at a computer screen but I don't think I would have enjoyed it growing up. What I would have been happy to escape was the commute to school.

Admittedly, my walk to grade school wasn't bad. All of six tenths of a mile, according to Google Maps. (I'd have guessed it was a lot further.) Down the street past the telephone company where my grandfather worked as a custodian, the dairy, the post office, and the movie theater which charged fourteen cents admission. From there across the highway, past the pharmacy, barbershop, and police station. Yes, it does sound like some sort of small town play set, doesn't it?

The big brick box elementary school sat at the top of a steep hill that could be difficult in the winter when coated with snow and ice. Given that the school year was a mandated 180 days, even accounting for days missed due to chicken pox, measles, flu, colds, and miscellaneous vague discomforts I suffered from time to time when I got fed up with the educational system, I must have been up and down that hill 2,000 times. (I admit my calculations might be off since one of my common ailments was long-division-itis) I can still recall the sidewalks in intimate detail - the bumpy stretch of macadam, the place where a root had buckled and broken a concrete slab. Not long ago I walked up that hill for the first time in ages and those details remained. The sidewalks hadn't been touched in fifty years. The hill seemed steeper though. I wouldn't try running up it these days.

Although the actual journey wasn't onerous I could only run so fast carting my bulging book bag (no backpacks yet) which meant I had to choke down my Cheerios at high speed to arrive before the bell. And naturally the familiar walk soon became boring. I muttered made-up stories to myself to relieve the tedium.

After grade school my commutes got tougher. Sartre had it wrong. Hell isn't other people, hell is a school bus stuffed with adolescents. I can't bring myself to say more.

Driving the roughly twenty miles from home to college was a bit less horrific. Except in winter. The Plymouth wasn't exactly a chariot of the gods to begin with -- the body was mostly patches of unpainted unsanded fiberglass and it left a billowing black trail of smoke in its wake. I had to stop for oil fill-ups more frequently than gasoline. Add to that, during the months of icy weather, the heater didn't work and the tires were bald. One particular intersection required me to start pumping the brakes (such as they were) a half mile in advance when there was snow on the road. Then there was the hill with the sharp curve by the power plant where I twice executed a 180 degree pirouette, luckily not when one of the enormous gravel-laden trucks that frequented the road was coming.

During my last year in law school I worked at a county law library during the day and took night classes in lower Manhattan. This involved bussing from Weehawken NJ (yes, there's really a town with that name) to Jersey City in the morning and taking the subway to Manhattan in the afternoon, then taking another subway at ten PM uptown to the Port Authority in order to catch a bus back to Weehawken. The dark deserted streets I hiked to reach the Canal Street station after classes were exactly as you've seen on film with steaming manholes and the occasional taxi. Since the area was mostly warehouses it wasn't as dangerous as it looked. I felt more uneasy making my way through the maze of corridors, escalators and stairways in the Port Authority.

Luckily I've worked from home for the past twenty-five years and haven't had to commute, so that's that. I'll shut up before I start sounding like one of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen outdoing each other about the hardships of their childhoods, living in shoe boxes or paper bags or an 'ole in the ground.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Soot and Cinders

by Mary

I must be one of only a handful of mystery writers who've been aboard a steam train held up by a gang of desperadoes on horseback. I must confess however it was a put-up job during a special Age of Steam excursion. The bad guys strutted the length of the train after swinging aboard, glaring at all and sundry over red kerchiefs hiding their lower faces, much to our delight, only to be arrested by a brave sheriff and locked in the caboose for the return journey to the home station. There the entire gang were incarcerated in a small cell where small fry jeered at them while adults congratulated the law man on his sterling work keeping the railway safe from marauders. As that nice Mr Google informed me, the very day I began this essay was Paddington Bear's 50th birthday, reminding me a while long ago I stumbled over a reproduction of William Powell Frith's The Railway Station (1862), depicting a train getting ready to leave Paddington Station. See above.

There's a mystery connection. In the far right of the painting wo well-known Scotland Yard detectives, who have been identified as Detective-Sergeants Michael Haydon (with the handcuffs) and James Brett (who's just laid his hand on a man's shoulder) are arresting a wanted fugitive, close enough to escaping the long arm of the law to have his foot on the step up into the carriage.

The trips I took on the steam trains in my youth were much more orderly -- well, apart from a drunken Irishman who insisted on entering a ladies only compartment at the start of one journey and a couple of men fighting at Newcastle's Central Station at the end of another.

The engine is hardly visible in Frith's painting, but it brought to mind when the train to Newcastle passed through Darlington's Bank Top Station, up to the mid l970s passengers could see a very similar engine, sitting on one of the platforms

Photo by Chris55 CC BY-SA 3.0

Locomotion Number 1 is now displayed in the city's Head of Steam Museum in honour of its having pulled the first steam passenger train on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the autumn of 1825. Apparently many who had turned out to see this amazing event confidently expected the strange and frightening new machine to explode, steam engines being basically boilers on wheels. It could not have been too comfortable a trip since the majority of the passengers travelled in open wagons formerly used for hauling coal, although dignitaries as usual got a better deal and were trundled along in a shed-like structure.

Those who remember travelling by steam usually wax nostalgic at the jerky drop of an up signal, recalling stray wisps of steam curling out from under enormous driving wheels while the great iron beast, resplendent in gleaming paint and well polished brass, sits poised to go after the fellow with the long-spouted oil can and peaked visor cap set at a rakish angle has swung down from the driver's cab and carried out his mysterious business. The smells of steam travel, coal smoke, steam, and hot oil, permeate memories of journeys begun after the heavy slamming of thick wooden doors by a waistcoated guard walking the platform along the length of the train, followed by shrill blasts on his whistle to announce an imminent departure and the distinctive chuffing as the train drew away. What a struggle it was to manage the wide leather strap lowering and raising door windows, the better to get cinders and soot on your person and allow steam and smoke to billow into the carriage when passing through tunnels! Carriage seating was upholstered in stiff, dusty moquette reminiscent of nothing so much as inexpensive carpeting, the walls above the seats adorned with advertising prints featuring maps and beautifully painted views of locations throughout the country encouraging travel and thus, in a promotional masterstroke, more business for British Rail. And can anyone who saw them forget those stern printed notices above the alarm chains in each carriage warning the penalty for misuse was five pounds?

It's a fair bet some of the most vivid steam age memories centre around the powerfully beautiful engines, the drivers' cabs displaying a multitude of tubing, gauges, levers, and stopcocks. Dame Rumour had it bacon and eggs were cooked on stokers' cleaned-off shovels, introduced into the firebox near the end of overnight runs. Lest passengers grew faint from hunger buffet cars provided more varied sustenance. Similar to that offered in railway refreshment rooms, it was solid, if often derided, fare featuring such staples as ham sandwiches with an occasional suspicion of a curl to their bread, stick to the ribs jam roly poly, pork pies, Scotch eggs, and slices of darkly mysterious Dundee cake, washed down with strong tea in thick-lipped cups. There were also fancier restaurant cars featuring the elegance of linen tablecloths and menus but alas for the profit columns in British Rail's ledgers, I rarely patronised either carriage for the trusty Reed thermos flask, a bag of crisps, and a couple of rolls of Rowntrees fruit gums saw me through the longest journey.

Fruit Gums vs. Wrapping Paper

by Mary

There were no Christmas railways for us, I fear, although we sometimes saw engines chugging along the lining running behind the Vickers-Armstrong works across the Scotswood Road during the holidays, just as they did year round. But as with most families, our Christmas Day had its own order, a traditional progression of events unwinding from our first forays into lumpy Christmas stockings at the foot of our bunk bed in the grey light before dawn to getting up to the steamy, fruity smell of the Christmas pudding boiling merrily in the kitchen to the last goodnight before the light was put out and Boxing Day crept towards us on the twirling sails of the windmill clock hanging on our attic bedroom wall.

As a child, early Christmas evening was my favourite time of the day. By then we had presented our gifts -- usually home-made calendars liberally sprinkled with glitter after secret assembly up in the attic or perhaps boxes of matching handkerchiefs, or a diary, or a huge bottle of lavender perfume from the local Woolworths, things small in themselves but for which we had saved our pocket money for some time, sacrificing even that extra tube of fruit gums in order to get a few pennies more towards the cost of the fancier wrapping paper. And of course we had ourselves long since unwrapped our own new treasures -- always a book, usually a selection box containing six or eight different sorts of chocolate bars, and two or three other small parcels that had been stuffed into our Christmas stockings (being a pair of my father's much darned wool socks) along with the customary silver foil wrapped tangerine plus a handful of walnuts in the shell and a few toffees tucked into their toes.

After the Queen's speech broadcast at 3 pm and having toasted her health with a glass of sherry or a cup of tea as appropriate to age, about an hour later it was time to sit down for our tea. We kids would gleefully pull red and green Christmas crackers, reading their mottoes and silly jokes aloud for everyone's delight. We'd put on the silly hats and divvy up the geegaw trinkets from the crackers and then pass around slices of the rich, solid dark cake my mother had made weeks before. The British Christmas cake is basically all sorts of dried fruit held together with spices, eggs, flour, butter and a dash of something that in our day might have been rum though we never dared ask, the whole being covered in marzipan and tooth-cracking Royal icing on which, at our house at least, was displayed a small, much battered miniature sled that so far as we could tell was made of painted chalk.

There would be hot mince pies (muffin sized in England) and perhaps a sandwich, all downed with big china cups of strong, black, heavily sugared tea. Afterwards we'd linger at the kitchen table to demolish some of the aforementioned nuts and citrus fruit as well as passing around a once a year purchase -- a frilly-edged box of sticky, dark dates that came with a little plastic fork for fishing out its contents and brought forth stern maternal warnings to mind out for the stones or we would break our teeth. The 1944 film This Happy Breed, which tells the story of a set of working class neighbours over a span of twenty years, has an essentially similar scene (much to my delight the first time I saw it) although under blackout wartime conditions and presumably without dates or tangerines, which would have cost a fortune even if any could have been found on sale.

But when the washing-up was done, the tea towel hung up to dry in the scullery and a fresh scuttle of coal brought up from the back yard, then came the best part of all. As darkness pressed against steamed-up windows behind cosily drawn curtains and adults listened to the radio while consuming yet more cups of tea, we kids lay on the hearth rug in front of the popping, glowing fire, eating chocolate and reading our new books. Could childhood memories be any better?

It all sounds very simple and ordinary and somewhat quaint, I suppose, but it was our Christmas and so remains close to our hearts -- and especially now that we are all scattered to the winds. So wherever you are and however you celebrate the many festivals falling at this time, may they give you an equal stock of happy memories -- and may the new year bring you all you wish yourselves.

And a Penguin in a Fir Tree

by Mary

This is the time of year when those who celebrate Christmas will be setting up and decorating their festive tree. Many of our ornaments are, well, not your usual manufactured baubles, although we do have some plain glass globes now elderly enough to be losing their colour. But as in many families there are particular favourites and these are a few of mine.

Two of these ornaments travelled with me to America. Made of plastic resin of some sort, they arrived in the family well before I did. One's a flat silhouette of a blue antlered deer and the other a three-dimensional decoration created by slotting two red star-shaped pieces at right angles to each other. It always reminds me of the star on the iconic label of Newcastle's famous brown ale. There's another and much larger star -- or more precisely an attempt at one which came out more resembling an amoeba -- crayoned on a piece of paper by a young relative thirty years or so ago.

Then there's a small v-shaped basket made from two pieces of paper. Decorated with depictions of sprigs of berried holly, this basket was made by folding the pieces, cutting parallel lines into them, and interweaving the results. This somewhat arcane skill was one I learned as a youngster, along with making little handbags or tanks from dad's empty cigarette packets. Happy days!

I must not overlook a couple of shells picked up from the Florida beach opposite the building where I lived my first year in this country. They hang up on thread passed through holes made by the sea, but the hook for a penguin ornament is a bent paper clip. Creating it was one of my more ambitious craft projects. Imagine a red and white striped ball with lengths of silver cord attached to it supporting a small gondola represented by a basket originally holding dishwasher detergent. The 'guin in the gondola is about an inch high and stands daringly loose in his aerial transport, so he has been known to occasionally fall out.

Then there's a couple of green felt ornaments stuffed with cotton wool and decorated with sequins. They date from the same period as the ballooning penguin, as do several painted balsa wood ornaments. Yes, I was a fiend with a glue gun in those days! Notable examples of the wooden ornaments include flat children riding three dimensional sleds and a Santa whose hands emerge at right angles from his sleeves as if in surprise or horror at realising he was about to be run over by the aforementioned sleigh. After all, when we get down to it do we really know what happens on Christmas trees when everyone is abed and darkness shrouds the house? Our cats always got the blame if ornaments tumbled off the tree overnight but what if they were not the culprits?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once talked about night hovering all day in fir tree boughs, and this was certainly the case in the Reed household. We did not have tree lights as long as we lived at home. Instead when the big marmalade tin holding decorations came out of the sideboard small candle holders were clipped onto the tree's branches. Made of tin, they had scalloped edges and they held tiny twisted candles little bigger than the sort decorating birthday cakes, but much to our childish disappointment were never lit for safety reasons.

There's also a small fairy doll who may not have been among Shakespeare's moonshine revellers but is certainly one of his orphan heirs of fixed destiny, given she's topped Reed trees in one house or another for decades. Despite losing one tiny red shoe at some point over the years and being forced to wear a greying tattered net skirt decorated with gold paint being as it's glued to her, as is her small wand topped with a battered gold star losing its glitter, a few glorious days are still hers each year.

Fruit of the Yule

by Mary

Fruitcake is much mocked. Not by me, however, for whenever I see one it reminds me of my first Christmas in this country. At the time I was living in Florida. The state's beaches may be golden, but there wasn't much silver in the bank when the festive season rolled around. Of course it was hot, making tinsel and carols and Get Your Photo Taken With Santa seem out of place in malls largely patronised by shoppers wearing shorts and sandals and no doubt as likely to be looking for more sunscreen or postcards of orange groves to send north than sweaters embroidered with monograms or boxed selections of cheese and sausage.

As mentioned, the piggy bank was somewhat lean, so when it came time to deck the hall improvisation was the mother of invention. By snipping cardboard (having first coloured it with green marker) into two zigzag-edged tree shapes and then contriving a slot running from the apex to the halfway point on one cut-out and a matching slit running up from the base to the midway mark on the other, inserting Part A into Part B, the result was a jolly 3D faux Christmas tree. Even if it was somewhat unsteady and had a tendency to fall over every time someone walked past it or the door was opened.

The little tree was festively dressed in what interior designers describe as minimalist fashion, which is to say hung with thin strips of aluminum foil and paper stars cut from seasonally printed napkins, plus several shells picked up from the beach across the road and strung on embroidery thread.

This handiwork was interrupted by a knock on the door. The unexpected visitor turned out to be the son of a friend, and he arrived bearing gifts -- several branches cut from their over-tall Christmas tree (it was apparently a case of pruning it or removing the ceiling) and a large, homemade fruitcake! Which was put into the fridge after the cardboard tree was picked up and re-erected.

Tying the fragrant branches into a bundle and settling it into an old tin filled with pebbles, the new greenery was adorned in similar fashion to its smaller companion, and the flat filled with the fresh scent of pine, so closely linked with Yuletide celebrations.

Admiration of the general effect was interrupted by another tap on the door. This time it was a neighbour with a tiny portable TV to loan for the holiday. Unasked, I may add. Having righted the cardboard tree yet again, I looked over the set. While it would have been difficult to watch a tennis match on it, for the screen was exceeding small, it provided excellent entertainment over the holiday, including not only multiple screenings of It's A Wonderful Life on every channel it pulled in but also the chance to see again Help, an unusual choice for Yuletide programming. Of course, its transmission did begin at two in the morning. Naturally I stayed up to see it, and just hearing those broad Scouse accents was a real tonic, for I had not heard a British voice in a long time.

However, as it turned out, this was to change. For on the afternoon of the 25th, sitting on the sofa eating a slice of fruitcake and staring at a sea twinkling like white fairy lights underneath long strings of pelicans flying past on invisible roller coasters, pennies were counted and there were enough after all to be able to make brief calls to family in the UK. Those who are or have been separated from theirs by long distances will know how much that meant.

The shell ornaments are still in my possession and, years later and far from that sunny state, they are a constant reminder that simple kindness is the best gift for any season or any reason.

As for the fruitcake, it was delicious.

Tintinnabulation Prognostication

by Mary

I laughed out loud when I recently read an exchange in Paul McGuire's Threepence To Marble Arch -- the title refers to bus fare -- concerning amateur theatricals. A chap claims he was always cast as the villain, to which a companion replies:

"By gum, Silva, I can just see you in a top hat, foreclosing on mortgages. On Christmas Eve with the snow coming down, and honest Jack's ship last heard of a thousand miles east and north of Hong Kong and never reported since."

Edward guffawed. "The producer knew what he was up to, Silva. I can just see you turning honest old folks out of doors. And where is Nellie ?"

"On these occasions the city has usually swallowed her up. Alone with her baby on the Embankment. Tobacco, Grey?"

My thoughts leapt back to the last time I trod the boards. My role was First Fool in Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor and the Nightingale, and from there in a natural progression, at least natural the way I think, to that peculiarly British Christmas institution, which is to say the--

Look behind you!

Swivel your head around when you read that, did you?

I didn't mean the frightful fiend that trod close behind Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but rather stage villains who, creeping up behind and about to pounce on their victims, have their evil designs betrayed by a crescendo of shrill screams from children begging the unwary to "Look behind you!"

Yes, December is pantomime time in the old country and once again familiar tales are gracing stages up and down the land.

My favourite panto presents the story of the poor orphan Dick Whittington, who, discouraged and about to leave the capital, hears Bow bells foretelling (I would say foretolling except I have the sense they would chime in merry fashion) he would be mayor of London three times. More precisely, the traditional account has their clamour declaring "Turn again, Whittington, thrice mayor of London". So Dick turns back, remains in London, and in due course his pet cat jumpstarts his owner's fortune with its rat-catching prowess, and Dick does indeed serve three terms as mayor, just as the tintinnabulating bells had prognosticated. Though I sometimes wonder why nobody else heard the same fortune told by their brazen tongues, persistence is certainly a virtue writers should cultivate -- after all, mayor is not that far from Mayer and cats have lived with us for most of our married life.

So somewhere or other in theatre land many old favorites will be presented this very night -- Puss In Boots, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, Snow White, Mother Goose, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk -- complete with celebrities playing major roles, lavish costumes, dancers, satirical topical songs, jokes (some over the heads of the younger fry or at last we hope so), slapstick, villains that put Sir Jasper to shame, special effects, and the all important audience participation. Not only screamed advice to the hero or heroine to look behind them but also argumentative parrying with one character or another, yelling Oh no it's not! or Oh yes it is! depending on their statements to the audience. This little bit of freedom to contradict adults must be loved by children, since where else can they indulge in it at such a volume and with social approval to boot?

Is there any other entertainment where the principal boy is always played by a comely young woman in tights and short jacket, much given to slapping her thigh to emphasize her dialogue, and the buffoonish principal dame by a man in billowing dresses made up in eye-aching clashing colours, amazing hats, enormous embonpoint, and wildly over-applied makeup?

Had the amateur productions in which Silva performed been pantomimes, by the time of the closing song, honest Jack would have reappeared possessed of a fortune earned in the Orient, saved the widow's house from foreclosure, dealt severely with the rotten old banker, shoveled a path through the snow, decorated the Christmas tree, located and married poor Nellie, adopted her baby, and run successfully for high office.

May all your endeavors in the new year end as happily!