Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Mayers of Muggleswick

by Mary

In my early teens the grammar school I attended arranged for groups of girls chaperoned by a teacher to spend a weekend at its camp, housed in the former school building in Muggleswick, a hamlet in County Durham.

Having travelled by coach from Newcastle we were set down amid bleak, wind-swept moorland, dominated by knee-high ferns but with few trees. Continuing the journey on foot we marched through what was an alien landscape for us city girls. I have since learned that in 1890 Muggleswick consisted of three farms and a few cottages. In our time it was not much bigger.

Our first night of camping indoors began with our teacher combining every tin of soup we'd brought into a dish I can only describe as having an unusual appearance and memorable flavour, each of us having brought a supply of tinned food and necessaries in haversacks lent by the school. A particularly vivid memory of that weekend is that it was the first time I'd seen farm animals on the hoof.

During our visit we wandered about the moor but always stayed within sight of our base. In retrospect it was a pity because had I ventured further afield I would have visited the settlement's Church of All Saints.

I have found there's always something interesting to be seen in even the smallest church but in this case it was outside the building. When recently describing this trip to Eric I googled Muggleswick for photos to show him. To my amazement there is a Mayer family grave in the churchyard. Of course, at the time I had no idea how significant the name would become for me in later years. It's true Eric's ancestral tree is rooted in Germany, but it's not too wild to speculate this family residing a small semi-isolated settlement could well be connected to his branch even if at some distance. So I put on my research hat and dived into the murky depths of Google.

Now a Grade II monument included in the National Heritage's register, the only decoration on the Mayer headstone is a swag-framed cherub head with wings. It is an early work by John Graham Lough who was also responsible for the George Stephenson memorial near the Central Railway Station in Newcastle -- yes, in case you're wondering, it is the very memorial mentioned in Ruined Stones.

The headstone tells a sad story in commemorating several children born to John and Ann Mayer, who died in 1852 and 1860 respectively. Most of their children died young, at ages ranging from Matthew at seven weeks to William at 26 years old. None of his siblings reached their teens although Thomas would have been 13 had he lived to see his next birthday.

By enlarging this image of their somewhat weathered headstone it's possible to glean the names of these children and their ages when they died: Jane (2), John (9 months), a second John (7), and Matthew, noted above. Their father John's death at 47 is given, followed by another Jane (11). The monumental mason ran out of room when chiselling her age so it is squeezed in above her line, appearing on the far right of the headstone. I don't think the family would have been too pleased about that. The final line commemorates William, mentioned earlier.

Subscribers will doubtless have noticed the surname of the parents of these children is given as the variant spelling of Mayor. Later it changed. The evidence: Ann died at 84. A self-described "affectionate tribute" to her dated 1889 appears on the back of the headstone courtesy of her ironfounder grandson, another William Mayer, who refers to his grandmother as Ann Mayer. William was also responsible for the bronze railing around the family grave. Constructed of interlinked hollow squares, it's weathered to an attractive greenish colour. I especially liked the hourglass mounted on the railing along the foot of the plot.

It appears grandson William died at 74. He is buried next to his relatives under his own tombstone, featuring some decorative elements but mostly plain. The foot of the stone informs visitors it was erected by his children Thomas, William, John, Elizabeth, and Ann. That sums up all I know about the Mayers of Muggleswick at this point but when there's more time I intend to look further into the matter.

Eschew the U

by Eric

Astute readers of this newsletter -- and what mystery reader is not astute? -- will deduce from subtle clues herein that whereas I am American, Mary is British. The clues I am speaking of are spelling conventions such as the telltale 'u' those of the British persuasion insert into certain words. As an American I eschew the 'u'.

Take for example the following quote from one of Mary's essays: "Our window looked out over the grimy industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where grass and open spaces were uncommon. Uncommon, that is, unless you counted weedy World War II bomb sites coloured seasonally by the ruby of rosebay willow herb and dusty yellow coltsfoot..."

Did you spot the clue? The spelling of 'coloured'? A sure sign that Mary is from England, for those sharp enough to notice such clues thanks to years of perusing whodunits.

Of course, Mary would have doubled the 'n' in the previous sentence and written "whodunnits" just as she would have rendered 'traveling' as 'travelling'. I'm not sure how the British came to use all those surplus letters. I suppose when your empire spans most the world what's an extra 'u' or 'l'? I wonder how much more all those doubled letters and the occasional 'u' would have earned a British pulp writer at three cents a word? Or would that be 'pence'?

We have to cope with plenty of differences between American English and English English. I'm used to checking the 'mail' while Mary looks at her 'post' except when she says, "What's in the mail? Oops did I say 'mail'? Wash my mouth out!" Then again, for some strange reason, Americans get their mail at post offices' rather than 'mail offices' and the British refer to 'email' and not 'epost'. I'm sure there's a reason but I flunked linguistics in college.

Mary also insists cars have 'bonnets' rather than 'hoods'. Clearly she doesn't know this country very well. The hulking great manly SUVs Americans drive would not be caught dead with bonnets. I believe SUVs with bonnets are actually illegal in Tennessee.

Over the years I have picked up some British words, which can lead to confusion. At the grocery checkout not long ago I asked the clerk if she would double bag my tins. (Bags keep getting thinner. Eventually stores will just make do with the idea of a bag rather than a bag itself). At the mention of tins the clerk abruptly stopped scanning and stared at me with a puzzled look. "Double bag the tins, please," I repeated. The look went from puzzlement to utter incomprehension.

Then it hit me, like a sudden bong from Big Ben.

"Umm...cans. Would you double bag my cans? My wife's from England. They call cans 'tins' over there."

I remembered not to ask her to put the loo rolls in a bag.

Well, Mary and I have been married for thirty-one years so I was bound to add a few Briticisms to my vocabulary. It's been worth it. Even if she does talk funny once in awhile she's still a canny lass.

'Canny' by the way means nice or good. Mary's a Geordie from Newcastle, known as the Toon, where ears are lugs, mud is clarts, clamming means you're hungry, and people say they're gannen (going) eeyem (home).

And this isn't even mentioning the weird way Geordies pronounce their vowels or their glo'al stops. Mary recalls that her budgie would pronounce the only word he learned to speak (his name) as Pe-er.

But I don't want to get into that. It's another dialect altogether.Just thinking about it is bringing tears to my eyes. I better end this before I start bubbling.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Tuppence for My Thoughts

by Eric

I just finished reading The Secret Adversary and The Mysterious Mr Quin so I figured I might write something about their author, Agatha Christie. Unfortunately, whereas Mary has read pretty much all of Christie's works, I've read only a fair number. Then too, it's difficult to write about mysteries intelligently without giving too much away. Don't you hate it when the blurb on the back cover of a book recounts half the plot?

Nevertheless, I'm going to make a few random observations, the first of which is that I have never read a Christie I didn't like. For example, I've seen some bad reviews of The Third Girl but I found Poirot's excursion into the sixties counterculture rather entertaining. Some people seemed unhappy that Christie had abandoned the country estates and quaint English villages where she "belonged" but I've always been more attracted to her exquisite mystery puzzles and the interplay of her characters than her settings.

So not surprisingly I also enjoyed Death Comes as the End, the mystery set in decidedly not English ancient Egypt. No picturesque gardens, only sand. No stately mansions. Pyramids aren't really stately, are they?

This book highlights another characteristic of my Christie experience. Never once have I guessed the killer. You'd think I'd have done so simply by chance but Christie inevitably manages to point me towards the wrong suspect. I don't suppose I'm giving much away if I reveal that in Death Comes as the End the suspects are knocked off, one by one until the suspect list has dwindled to two. And even then I got it wrong!

You might gather from the above that I am not averse to less typical Christie mysteries. It's true. I even prefer the books that do not feature Miss Marple or Poirot. Indeed, reading about Hercule can be quite laborious.

It always annoys me when Christie's books are described as cozies. Her settings may not be gritty and she doesn't go in for graphic descriptions of violence but the motives and actions of her characters can be very black. I simply do not see much similarity between what she wrote and the sort of books marketed as cozies today. There was often a hard edge to Christie. A Crooked House, for instance, strikes me as downright noir. Christie listed it as one of her personal favorites.

In keeping with my taste for the atypical Christie I finally got around to reading The Secret Adversary. Childhood friends Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley go into business as The Young Adventurers and are hired to find a British agent who vanished while trying to deliver a secret treaty. A secretive criminal mastermind, bent on fomenting labor unrest in the interest of Bolshevism, is also after the agent and the treaty. Tommy and Tuppence end up chasing and being chased all over England. There's plenty of humor and snappy dialogue. And though it's more a spy/thriller than a mystery Christie keeps the identity of the arch-criminal well concealed until the surprising (to me at least) conclusion.

The stories in The Mysterious Mr Quin are odder still. In each tale Harley Quin (not the comic book character) appears as if by magic and through conversation acts as a kind of catalyst, allowing the narrator, the mild mannered socialite Mr Satterthwaite, to solve a mystery. The Mr Quin character is based on Harlequin, as the stories make clear through clever descriptions. For example: "Mr Quin smiled, and a stained glass panel behind him invested him for just a moment in a motley garment of coloured light..." There's a definite aura of the supernatural. There are no physical clues in many of the stories. Rather, as Mr Satterthwaite gradually discovers the histories and relationships of the characters the solution becomes apparent. These reminded me a bit of Georges Simenon's books where Maigret figures out whodunnit by uncovering the secrets of the people involved.

So much for my reading of uncharacteristic Christie. I'm not familiar with the mainstream novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott. Maybe one of those should be next.

An Inspector Calls -- Finally

by Mary

Why yes, since you ask, I am indeed a fan of Alistair Sim and the film in which he plays Inspector Poole is a particular favourite. But what has my header to do with happenings at Maywrite Towers you may well ask.

Well, early one morning in late October, hearing a racket we got up, looked out our back window, and discovered an industrial-sized excavator was parked close to the wall just a few yards from our buggy, a scene presenting the appearance of, to lift a phrase from Dickens' American Notes, a light-house walking among lamp-posts.

The excavator was scooping up huge buckets of soil, swinging back and forth with a rumbling roar. Thus we began our journey to the world of modern plumbing some weeks after a grinder pump had been installed in a pit near the window. It was finally our turn to be hooked into an up-to-date sewer system.

An electrician was at work by 8 am, an early riser indeed given he mentioned ours was his second job of the day. A jolly fellow constantly cracking jokes, he wired in the grinder's dedicated line even as his cell phone constantly jingled with warnings about bomb threats phoned in to local schools.

Despite its size, the movements of the massive excavator's toothed bucket, guided by delicate manipulation of control sticks reminiscent of those used in video games, were precise enough to avoid damaging the grinder pit almost touching the septic tank next to it as the latter was exposed along with the house drain, daintily setting aside basketball sized and even bigger rocks.

With the septic tank disconnected and the house drain connected to the grinder, the next job would be pumping out the tank and filling it with gravel. However, the contractor was late and arrived after everyone else had left, leaving the excavator guarding the back lawn for the weekend. Once the tank was emptied the job would be inspected, after which the tank and the two large holes in the lawn would be filled in. As it turned out the inspector was working elsewhere in the state and his colleague would not return from holiday until the following Monday. However, he'd be here on Tuesday.

On Saturday a recorded message from the electricity company announced an 8 am to 3 pm power outage needed to carry out scheduled maintenance -- on the same Tuesday. Oh dear, thought I, talk about playing the cat and banjo with the contractor's plans. Then I remembered the remaining work would be done outside so it, at least, could proceed as planned.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and bitterly cold and over several hours the house temperature fell ten degrees while outside the well-muffled crew worked on cheerfully enough. As Julius Caesar almost said, the inspector came, saw, and considered. Not much later, the first load of gravel for the septic tank arrived. On its second run the lorry got stuck in boggy ground caused by torrential rain the previous week. The excavator had no trouble as it trundled about on tracks and so was able to help push the lorry back to the road. (A few days later the propane tanker became immobilised in the same way. It took an hour and a half to get it back to the road, even with the assistance of a tow truck.) While the excavator leveled the ground the lorry returned to deliver a large load of top soil, followed by layers of grass seed and fertiliser, the whole topped off with straw.

So now we not only have updated drainage but also a large area of back lawn starting to grow on the best soil in the place. Can't beat that with a big stick!

Monday, October 16, 2023

The Pickle Jar Hearse

by Mary

The first thing the horrified technician said was "You were lucky not to have had an explosion."

Since last we darkened subscribers' in-boxes, some days at Maywrite Towers have been less dances of delight than Fortuna deciding to play the cat and banjo with our plans.*

A couple of examples. The ongoing Rebellion of Household Machinery struck last month when an out of season cold night triggered the heating. The boiler leapt into life, hummed through its cycle, and shut down.

Unfortunately there was no heat.

Soon afterwards, the water heater attempted to balance out our lack of warmth by producing hot water that was far too hot, diagnosed as caused by our water's high mineral content reaching the point when it blocked the relief valve, leading to the technician's remark mentioned above. All this, mark you, despite annual inspections of both appliances. And what, you ask, about the problem with the boiler? Well, it turned out its thermocouple had conked out only a couple of years after its last replacement.

We are of course grateful the boiler didn't wait to work its ticket in the frigid months soon to advance down the pike, as it did one memorable night a few years back when the thermostat failed during the dark hours and we woke up to a house temperature in the forties.

Speaking of cold weather reminds me country folk say when mice migrate into a house during autumn it's a certain sign of a harsh winter ahead.

Living as we do on the very edge of woodland, occasional visits from wildlife are inevitable. As a result animals paying a call have included deer dining on our day lilies and a flock of wild turkeys tearing up our back lawn -- though to be fair they left the front one alone. Smaller fry of various descriptions have also occasionally found their way indoors. A while back a creature about as long as my thumb was caught stealing the cat's dry chow if you please. We had already deduced something was afoot because a small cache of said comestibles was found in one of Eric's sneakers. Given this particular visitor's fur was dark, it appeared to be eyeless, and moved so smoothly it might as well have been on roller skates, my guess would be it was a pygmy shrew but I can't be certain, because I observed it as it was moving fast away from me and in poor light to boot. Whatever it was, it was never seen again.

Then there was the unfortunate mouse with a broken leg, likely caused by our then resident feline Sabrina. However, there are doubts as to her guilt because when the mouse appeared he and she crouched a few feet apart, staring at each other. Sabrina took no interest whatsoever. If only we had a camera...that mouse was a fine example of what we might call a Disney mouse. Despite lack of white gloves, red shorts, or large yellow paw-wear, he was a neatly turned-out little fellow with grey fur and a white pinny undercarriage. But he also possessed exceedingly long teeth as sharp as needles, as we saw when he was escorted from the premises to be released into the woods out back.

Lugubrious British comedian Les Dawson once claimed he knew when his mother-in-law was coming to stay because their mice threw themselves on the traps. We have never seen one of the newfangled "rodent exterminators" (otherwise known as electric mousetraps) though we understand they do exist, nor are we keen on spring-loaded or sticky traps. Yet you cannot entertain mice in your living space -- think of them as house fleas. At least they were not as destructive as Beatrix Potter's Two Bad Mice. On the other hand, I'd say it's acceptable to give a pass to sugar mice, Cinderella's mice-horses, and the somnolent dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party, who were all better behaved.

What puzzles us is why they insist on intruding because we always make certain food is stored in covered containers or in the fridge overnight. Now Sabrina has crossed over the rainbow bridge there's not so much as a bowl of cat chow to raid.

Despite all precautions, however, last month we received several visits from field mice. It was as if a murine entrepreneur was running a charabanc to save them having to walk to our house. The Pied Piper of Hamlin being elsewhere engaged, we dealt with their invasion by reluctantly laying down poison and then transporting the departed into the woods for disposal, with a pickle jar retrieved from the bag of recyclables serving as their hearse.

Apparently it isn't just us: the technician who restored our heating boiler to working order mentioned his house was under siege as well.

* Tips of the hat to Phil Ochs and Rudyard Kipling respectively.

A Famous Burning Colander

by Eric

Here in the northeast leaves are starting to fall. I simply grind them into lawn fertilizer with the mower. But when I was growing up in the suburbs homeowners raked the leaves up, hauled them to the curb, and burned them. A wall of smoke and swirling sparks rose from bonfires lining the street. It was a spectacle second only to the colored Christmas lights strung between the utility poles after Thanksgiving. And second only because the fires didn't foretell the coming of a bearded man bearing gifts.

Children are elementals. They love to play with water and dirt and fire. A street in flames was irresistible.

One of my childhood friends used his father's Aqua Velva aftershave to make fire. He poured it into the palm of his hand and lit it to our great amusement. One can't help but think of sixties rock star Arthur Brown of "Fire" fame who used to wear a burning colander on his head during concerts. (The sixties really were a wonderful era.) Wikipedia informs me that when Arthur accidentally set his head on fire a fan saved him from serious injury by dousing the flames with beer. My friend somehow managed to never set his hand on fire. Just as well since we never had any beer handy.

The closest I came to handling fire was around the Fourth of July. It was great fun waving sparklers around and drawing patterns in the air. (I did collect fireflies in jars which is a kind of cold fire.)

My friend also made small conflagrations with shredded newspaper in the upstairs playroom at his house. Flames provided more entertainment than the building blocks, board games with missing pieces, and broken plastic trucks littered around the floor. Better yet, in the loft in the barn behind the house, someone had squirreled away and forgotten enough toilet tissue to last through several pandemics had there been any pandemics around at the time. Brittle and brown with age the paper was delightfully flammable. We'd cart rolls to the field behind the barn and create long winding trails leading to an enormous pile. We'd light the end of the trail and watch the flames race towards the explosion at the end, like the fuse on a cartoon bomb. It was better than fireworks.

That wasn't the end of our fiery creativity. Inspired by Ray Harryhausen classics like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, we made stop action movies with my Super Eight movie camera. Needless to say our directoral aesthetic demanded flames. However, this presented technical problems. We constructed a castle out of cardboard. Our Plasticine protagonists were supposed to flee down some stairs. After positioning the figures we set fire to the cardboard, shot a couple frames, and blew out the fire. Then we repositioned the figures and set the castle ablaze again in order to take a few more frames.

This animation procedure led to two problems. For one thing the castle started to deteriorate too quickly. Worse, the Plasticine figures started to melt. We did our best to restore their shapes between shots. The resulting film showed them weirdly transforming as they fled, their proportions changing as they devolved into nearly unrecognizable blobs. Fencing skeletons they were not.

I would like to say that I gave up playing with fire as an adult but that would not be strictly true. Greek Fire figured prominently in our second John the Lord Chamberlain novel. The composition of this ancient super weapon remains a mystery. Some historians have suggested it was based on naphtha and quicklime. The compound apparently ignited on contact with water. The Byzantines sprayed this flammable substance at enemy ships to devastating effect and in Two for Joy we arranged to set the waters of the Golden Horn ablaze which surely would have thrilled my younger self and my fire loving buddy.

The Puzzling Case of My Favorite Mysteries

by Eric

Who are your favorite mystery authors? What are your favorite genres? For me, the first answer is easy. There are authors whose work I've enjoyed for decades. The second question is much harder because my favorite authors' books are oddly divergent. For instance, both Agatha Christie and John D. MacDonald are among my favorites. But how can I like both the elderly spinster Miss Marple and rugged beach bum Travis McGee?

I've always been attracted to the intellectual nature of classic mysteries even though I rarely, if ever, solve the puzzles presented. In Death Comes as the End, Christie kills off her ancient Egyptian suspects one by one until there are only two left and even then I guessed wrong! I suppose I like being surprised and seeing how the author fit everything together and fooled me. Years ago Mary and I went to a fair where a strolling magician stood six inches from us and performed sleight of hand making coins appear and vanish. Even though I knew it had something to do with diverting our attention and sheer dexterity I couldn't spot the trick and Christie performs similar magic of a literary sort.

Then too as a kid I loved Golden Age science fiction from the thirties, forties, and early fifties where intellectual content (even if mostly pseudo science) far outweighed characterization, psychology, or any literary pretense. What would happen if you could travel back in time and meet yourself? What would life be like on a planet where gravity would crush humans? Later I discovered mystery novels where whodunnit was figured out logically in convoluted detail just as puzzles involving time and gravity were in science fiction.

Do I even have to say I love the locked room mysteries of John Dickson Carr and Ed Hoch? These are even more purely "scientific" than Agatha Christie.

However, I've also read all of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books more than once. The houseboat he lives on in Florida is wildly different from the English estates and manor houses which provide the settings for many Christie novels. And neither Miss Marple nor Poirot are likely to engage in fist fights with the bad guys. And talk about really "bad" bad guys. MacDonald depicted some of the most realistic nasty villains -- as opposed to cartoonish villains -- I've ever read about.

However, a Florida houseboat is to me as exotic a setting as an English estate. Christie's villains can be pretty diabolical in their own ways. And although Travis will use his fists when necessary the books mostly revolve around some elaborate con game he and his economist friend Meyer set up to retrieve whatever the villains have stolen from their victims. These schemes can be every bit as clever and surprising as the solution to a Christie murder mystery.

Certainly my liking for noir novels of the sort Gold Medal published in the fifties matches my liking for the Travis McGee stories, which can be quite black and bleak. But, when you think about it, Christie wrote some very noir stuff featuring greedy, evil sociopaths who kill innocents. Also, her mysteries can end as unhappily as any noir, I don't want to give anything away but if you are familiar with Christie you know what I mean. It irks me when I hear her work described as cozy because, settings aside, most of her books are not anything like those marketed as cozies today.

I haven't mentioned another of my all-time favorites, Georges Simenon's Maigret. The gloomy underbelly of Paris where Maigret usually operates is about as noir as it gets and though he may not be as physical as Travis he is not adverse to throwing his considerable weight around. But unlike the classic whodunnit with its elaborate maze of clues, Maigret focuses almost exclusively on the psychology of the murderers and victims. Or so we are told. To me, this isn't all that much different than a locked room mystery because what room is more tightly locked than the human mind? The tangle of intellect and emotion that might motivate a person to commit a crime is every bit as complicated and puzzling as a method for knifing someone in the back through a locked door. Once Maigret solves the characters he encounters he has solved the murder.

I'm sure I've left out some favorites and similarities between them all. But thinking about it, maybe different genres of mystery aren't as dissimilar as they might seem.