Role Call

by Michael Bloor

(first published in the Potato Soup Journal, 15/5/22)

Working at Larchwood House suited Ben very well. Ben had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But four years after graduating from RADA, the only acting job he’d been offered was in a Christmas panto at the Wirksworth Empire: he played an Indian Chief who would appear at various junctures in the play, raise his right arm and say ‘How.’ A markedly wooden performance was required and duly delivered. 

Larchwood House is a residential care home run by a charity along the lines that residents with different disabilities can assist in each other’s care, on the mutual aid principle. As a member of staff, Ben now found himself performing multiple roles in every single shift: to Joy (disturbed adolescent) he was The Favourite Uncle; to Tony (learning disabled music-lover) he was The D-J; to Arthur (Down’s Syndrome) he was The Father Figure; etc., etc. Though his audiences were small, their reactions gave him a good deal of job satisfaction. However, he gave his very greatest performance, improvised and unscripted, on the night shift the Thursday before Christmas.

The staff member on the night shift was not required to remain wakeful: Larchwood House was supposed to function as closely as possible to the routine of a normal home. After doing a round of the house about ten o’clock, Ben would lock-up, retire to the tiny staff flat and take a book to bed with him. That evening, he found Arthur, as usual, in Annie’s room. Annie, a very elderly, aristocratic Irish lady with wandered wits but a kindly disposition, was already in bed, with Arthur (small enough to be mistaken for a child) squatting on the carpet beside her. He told Arthur it was time for him to get ready for bed, and not to forget to brush his teeth. And then he lingered for a minute or two chatting to Old Annie (The Interested Grandson Role). The House Warden had recently mentioned that, as a young woman, Annie had know W.B. Yeats. But that night she was too sleepy to tell Ben much about the poet: only that he was ‘a very silly man.’ 

The rest of the residents were still downstairs in the TV room. Ben stuck his head round the door, shouted ‘Bedtime,’ ignored the chorus of dissent, and crossed the hall to the front door. He opened it and stood outside for a moment or two, star-gazing. Like everyone else he knew, he could only recognise Orion, and regretted it. He backed into the hall, locked the front door, crossed over to the kitchen, noted what a good job Joy and Derek (epileptic with OCD) had made of cleaning up after cooking the evening meal, and checked that the back door was still locked. He then crossed back to the TV room and turned the TV off (more dissent). He told Joy to put out her cigarette (smoking was allowed downstairs, on the principle that overt smoking was less of a fire risk than covert smoking), and held the door open while everyone filed out. Last out was Tony who wanted to tell Ben all about the latest developments on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.’ This took a while and was the probable reason why Ben forgot to turn off the Christmas Tree Fairy Lights, over by the window.

Twenty minutes later, Ben settled into bed with Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night.’ Then the fire alarm went off. Ben jumped out of bed, pulled on his jeans, congratulated himself on remembering to grab the house keys, and shot out the staff flat and downstairs into the hall, which was already quite smoky. He unlocked the front door and he and the residents tumbled out onto the front lawn. It was only then that he noticed that he wasn’t wearing shoes. He started to take a roll call and noticed that Old Annie was missing. He rushed back into the house and found Annie wandering in her nightie at the top of the stairs. He guided her, both coughing, down the stairs and out the door. 

As they exited the house, the lights failed. Ben could see the flames licking the window of the TV room: ‘Shit – the Fairy Lights.’ At that moment, Joy threw her arms round him sobbing that it was all her fault (she thought that the cause was her inadequately extinguished cigarette). ‘No, it’s not your fault, Joy: it’s the Christmas Tree lights. Have you got your phone? Good, call the Fire Service. Where’s Arthur? WHERE’S ARTHUR?’

Ben headed back to the house, turned round, ran across the lawn to the tool shed, grabbed a torch, and ran back to the house again. The hall was now full of thick smoke, he groped his way upstairs, and checked Arthur’s bedroom. Empty. 

He stood there in the smoke for a couple of seconds, resolute but utterly non-plussed. 

Then, a sudden inspiration struck him, he groped his way along the landing to the upstairs toilet, opened the door and shone the torch inside. Arthur was sitting on the toilet seat, legs in the air, toothbrush in his mouth. It was time for Ben’s final role of the evening: he performed The Fireman’s Lift.

Last Journey

(first published in The Drabble, 24th April, 2022) 

By Michael Bloor

The stream gushed out of a tumble of rocks on the mountain-side, half-hidden by bracken and gorse. Down from the source, the stream threaded a shallow valley among the hills, swirling around alder roots. Lesser tributaries joined and mingled. Trout hid in holes in the banks.

A dam lies at the valley mouth. As the waters tumbled onto the plain, they crashed and churned to power the village and the surrounding farms.

Then the slow meander through fields of green and gold. Willow leaves danced and kingfishers flashed overhead.

Finally, the salt taste, as the ashes joined the moon-driven ocean.

The Otherworld Hiding Place

by Michael Bloor

First published in Literally Stories, March 30th 2022

Schiehallion, aka The Faery Hill of the Caledonians, is a magnificent, isolated, rugged, limestone ridge in Highland Perthshire, in the plumb-centre of Scotland. I’ve climbed it many times in the past, but now my arthritic knees deny me that pleasure: the jarring of the knees taken all the enjoyment out of hill-walking. So what the hell am I doing now, struggling along Glen Mór, on the south side of Schiehallion, in the November sleet, with a giant ship-in-a-bottle in my rucksack?

I’m here because of that ship’s bottle. I bought it at an auction, after I’d retired from the sea. We’d moved to a smaller house and decided, regretfully, to sell a couple of larger pieces of furniture. Included in the auction was my great-grandfather’s chest of drawers that had stood in my bedroom as a child. It had a secret drawer that used to fascinate me back then and I pestered my mother til she showed me how to open it. On impulse, I ‘d decided to attend the auction and maybe demonstrate the drawer mechanism to the new owners.

That didn’t work out: the new owner was an internet bidder. But I came home with a previously unintended purchase, the ship-in-a-bottle. It was, and is, a giant bottle – a jeroboam, containing a model of an early iron steamship. It had a screw-propeller and there was no Plimsoll Line marked on the hull. So I guessed it dated from the 1850s or 1860s. Its provenance was that it had previously been stored in the offices of one of the last UK-owned shipping companies, which had gone bust in the 1980s. There was no record of the name of the vessel. Strangely, there was just one tiny figure on the deck, with raised arms, dressed in a black frock-coat and a top hat; I guessed the figure represented the original owner of the vessel.

I was pleased with my purchase, but Dorothy wasn’t. She peered at it for a minute or two, shook her head, reckoned there was something creepy about it, and banished it to the spare bedroom.

A few weeks later, our niece, Ellie, came for a short stay. She’s the mate on a chemical tanker operating out of Grangemouth, and so she was naturally interested in the ship-in-a-bottle on her bedroom window ledge. She mentioned casually that the vessel was fully loaded, lying low in the water. She was dead right, of course: as a ship’s mate, the safe loading and stowing of cargo is her responsibility. But I was quite surprised: I hadn’t previously noticed that the blue-painted clay that represented the bottled sea was so high up the ship’s hull.

That led to a lunchtime discussion of the load lines marked on the hull of every contemporary ship, showing the safe level of loading of the vessel. I mentioned that one of the factors that had led me to date the model as pre-1870, was that it didn’t have a ‘Plimsoll Line,’ named after Samuel Plimsoll M.P. who had campaigned for a law to introduce safe loading lines, back in 1875. Dorothy listened, horrified, as Ellie and I discussed the elderly ‘coffin ships’ that unscrupulous owners had previously carelessly overloaded, knowing that if the vessels foundered and the crew perished, the insurers would still reimburse the owners.

That’ll be why I hate the damn thing,’ said Dorothy, ‘it’s a coffin ship.’

Ellie smiled. ‘Maybe that’s why the wee man in the top hat is waving? The owner knows he’s about to drown.’

I snorted my disbelief.

But, secretly, I kept a close eye on the model after that. And by the autumn, I knew that something inexplicable was happening to that ship: week by week, I could tell that the hard clay sea was very slowly creeping higher and higher up the ship’s hull. I could hardly credit it, but there could be no doubt: in a few weeks at most, the clay sea would be over the gunwale and the ship would founder.

And then what would happen? I made enquiries about the circumstances in which the shipping company that had owned the model had gone bust. The information I received was disconcerting.

Dorothy knew something was bothering me: one night, we lay in bed talking it over. We got up at one point and went to the spare bedroom to stare at the damn thing. It was more than creepy. We stared at the clay sea splayed against the hull and we stared at the top-hatted figure waving his despairing arms. Dorothy grabbed me. ‘That wee man, I’m sure he’s changed position!’

She was right: the top-hatted owner had shifted two or three centimetres closer to the bows. I had a sudden feeling of sick revulsion. Turning away, I muttered that I’d put it back in the auction.

Dorothy vetoed that: ‘No way, Alan. It could be bringing disaster on whoever buys it.’

‘OK. I’ll destroy it.’

‘No, no, no. That could bring disaster on us.’ She had a point. We threw an old duvet cover over it and went back to bed.

Eventually, we settled on a plan to get it right out of the house and into it a safe place where it couldn’t harm anybody. At the head of Glen Mór, south-west of Schiehallion, there’s a large cave, ‘Tom a Mhoir-fhir,’ the cave of the giant. I ventured into it several times as a young man. Some say it stretches a great distance underground, right under Schiehallion. It was said to be a faery dwelling place. And it was said that three Knights Templar once took refuge there from persecution. And it was also said that it’s the entrance to the Otherworld. The cave is marked on the Ordinance Survey map, but fools and the foolhardy can search the cave all day and all night, and search in vain – there’s a secret place I know in that cave where it’ll stay hidden til Hell freezes.

Tanker Talk

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Platform for Prose, March 2022)

Five days out from Kharg Island oil terminal, the Pride of the Solent held a steady South-East course through an Indian Ocean prostrate under the night sky. In the captain’s cabin, a grizzled old man pushed himself away from a desk crowded with papers and oddments of computer equipment. He stretched his aching back, grunted, and glanced at his watch: one more thing to do before he could turn in.

There were still unanswered emails from Head Office, instructions to prepare for the ship’s agent in Singapore. But this was not an administrative matter, rather it was a small duty to be discharged to solidarity. The old man was smiling as he shuffled up the stairs to the bridge: he was reminiscing. Aside from soldiers in trenches, there are none in the wide world who owe more to solidarity than seafarers. The old man was thinking about uproarious good times ashore in Rio de Janeiro, the awe of a typhoon in the South China Sea, the collective, shared, under-stated understanding of the pains of separation, the daft practical jokes in the mess, the superhuman efforts to repair a near-catastrophic engine breakdown in the Sulu Straits. No-one grasps our dependence on each other better than those who put to sea.

The old man entered the bridge, smiled and nodded at his second officer making chart corrections, and then walked outside – onto the starboard bridge wing. The warm, slightly moist, night air was like a caress. The moon had not yet risen, but the light shining out through the bridge windows was sufficient for him to make out the figure of the look-out, correctly positioned at the far end of the bridge wing – able to see the stern, as well as the bows, of the tanker. The old man waved a hand and came to stand beside the look-out. He kept his back to the bridge windows, so that his eyes became accustomed to the gentle dark.

He looked upward to the stars. So many stars, beyond all computation and imagining. Directly above them, the great arch of the Milky Way. He began to pick out the familiar constellations. Back when the old man was a cadet, use of a sextant was still part of the training and the stars then were the mariner’s guide and friend. He smiled and nodded to his old celestial friends, an habitual gesture.

For a long minute, he was silent. When he did speak, it was almost a whisper: ‘In my time, I have seen many sights – the Northern Lights behind the Lofoten Islands, glaciers calving their icebergs on the Greenland shore, my daughter taking her first steps – but there are few sights on the planet to compare with a starry night on the Indian Ocean. We are blessed to be standing here.’

The look-out cast his eyes upward. But he was born and raised in the haze of metropolitan Manila: the stars were no part of his upbringing. ‘Truly, captain, are we are blessed, do you think?’

The old man turned to look at the rating: ‘We’re blessed and we’re cursed. There’s no greater terror you’ll ever experience than a fire at sea, believe me, I’ve lived through it. There’s no greater strain than being the look-out on a vessel nosing its way up a foggy, busy, river estuary on an ebb tide – you’ve lived through it. The long hours, the break-downs, the foul weather… Remember them all, Danilo, my friend. But set against them, not just the food we put in the mouths of our families, but also the peace of nights like this, out on the ocean.’

The look-out still gazed upwards. The old man took a last, long look at the Choir of Heaven and squeezed the young man’s shoulder. ‘Me too, Danilo. I too was away at sea when my father died.’ He nodded and smiled, re-entered the bridge, and headed back to his cabin.

The Ominous Sweetie Jar

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, February 6th, 2022)

Ever since he was 17, Angus had been saving the tiny hairs shaved from his chin by a succession of electric razors. Now, aged 67, he had one of those old-fashioned, large, glass, sweetie-jars almost full of his own tiny hair-shavings – brown at the bottom, with a head of grey at the top, like a two-litre jar of beer.

He had no idea, now, why he had ever started collecting the shavings from the little receptacle beneath the shaver blades. But as he saw his collection creeping up towards the very top of the jar, he had a disturbing intuition that it would be bad luck to stop collecting, and also bad luck to reach the top of the jar.

He told himself it was a minor compulsion, no doubt age-related, and he could easily switch to collecting nail clippings if he ever found the shavings jar too discombobulating. Somewhat reassured, he flushed the toilet, washed his hands, wiped them on his jeans and wandered back to his laptop.

His incomplete essay was on The Writing Game, or ‘craft’ as he liked to think of it. He had centred it on Steven Price’s aphorism that writing should be a way to know, rather than a way to being known. But now that he thought about it, wouldn’t it be nice if writing could be a way to both?

Nice, but a tad greedy perhaps? At least, if this was to be for public consumption (i.e. his lady friend and his Auntie Jeanette), then he should maybe stick to the higher purpose. In his hesitancy, he began to wonder how, anyway, people in general (and Steven Price in particular) know that what they know is The Real McCoy? Who authenticates authenticity? And was that a good title for another essay?

Well, apples kept on falling, both long before, and long after, Newton’s discovery of gravity. There is, after all, a definite weight to reality, whatever we choose to think about it. Angus considered that thought and, in celebration of it, he firmly compressed the carpet with each foot in turn.

Then came the epiphany. He clicked ‘save’ on the laptop and walked back to the bathroom, collecting a large wooden spoon from the kitchen en route. Angus unscrewed the sweetie-jar and, carefully but forcefully, he compressed the hair shavings with the spoon.

He surveyed the sweetie-jar, now only half-full, and felt a great deal better.

Chess Nuts

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Potato Soup Journal, February 8th, 2022)

In the town chess club, the final of the annual Earl’s Cup competition was about to start, the finalists being Willie Anderson, the holder, and a new member, Archie Drummond. The club was a friendly, welcoming place, but there was a surprising coolness between Willie and the new member. Although Archie Drummond was indeed a new club member, he wasn’t new to the town, having been born and raised here before going away to spend his working life (profitably) in Hong Kong. Apparently, as young men, Willie and Archie had fallen out over a girl: there had been a memorable stramash in the Gents toilet at the old Mecca Ballroom. Forty-odd years on, one gathered that the ballroom bout was regarded by both parties as inconclusive.

Willie was setting the electric clock, with each player to make thirty moves in an hour, plus twenty minutes each to finish. Archie was studying the inscription on the solid silver cup, the oldest chess trophy in Scotland, presented to the club in memory of the Earl’s eldest son, Captain Albert Abercrombie-Smith, club champion 1876 & 1877, slain by Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana, 1878. Silently, Willie showed the set clock to Archie for his inspection and was rewarded with a grunt of agreement. The traditional hand-shake at the beginning of the game was perfunctory in the extreme. 

Other games were being played in the clubroom that night. But, as they ended one-by-one, the players clustered around the black-and-white battlefield where Willie and Archie were joined in silent struggle. The pawns clashed and fell, the knights leapt forward and fell back, the bishops obliquely threatened, the castles took up their defensive positions, and the overbearing queens stalked the board. The clock ran on, the moves became more urgent and the competition entered the endgame: the kings emerged from behind their defensive ramparts and began a dancing duel. A couple of stray pieces fell here and there, but to no clear advantage. With less than a minute left on his clock, Archie managed to force his last remaining pawn to the back rank, converting it to a queen. Unsportingly, Willie played on, hoping to avoid mate long enough for Archie to lose on time. Archie mated him with just three seconds left on his clock. The audience, hushed until that point, now erupted with exclamations, congratulations and rival theories of how alternative endings could have been contrived. In the hubbub, the customary concluding handshake was somehow omitted.

After a short delay, the club president presented Archie with the cup and a photo was taken for the website. Willie had left the room, but his prostate often required sudden temporary absences. The night was concluded and we all streamed out of the club. Archie Drummond bore off his cup in his BMW, like a Russian Prince in a horse-drawn midnight sleigh. Willie Anderson watched the tail-lights dwindle down the Kirkgate: ‘Weel, weel, he’s carried awa’ the cup, but I carried awa’ Dorothy, bless her.’

Michael Bloor lives in Dunblane, Scotland, where he has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with more than fifty pieces published in Potato Soup Journal, Everyday Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Litro Online, Firewords, The Drabble, The Cabinet of Heed, Moonpark Review and elsewhere (see https://michaelbloor.com).

The Foot of Bennachie

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, February 8th, 2012)

As Alex was walking through the university gates to the departmental staff meeting, he was thinking about Black Holes, the first photograph of which had been displayed as a news item on his ipad that morning. One of the strange-but-true properties of Black Holes was that they slowed the progress of time. There was an unlikely parallel with departmental staff meetings, with their endless discussions of staff car parking provision. Looking on the bright side, it was the last staff meeting of the Easter Term, and at the end of the term he was retiring.

During the previous Christmas break, he’d been doing some hard thinking. As usual, he’d flown out to the holiday apartment he owned in Tenerife, but the apartment had too many associations with Angela for him to feel at peace there. So he’d taken to walking in Tenerife’s desert landscape. In the past, the islanders had grubbed a living from tiny irrigated fields, laboriously cleared of huge numbers of volcanic rocks. Now, the islanders all had jobs in the resorts on the coast: the irrigation channels were ruinous and the desert had returned. Andy could walk all day with only the scores of tiny lizards for company, before they darted away from his feet into the safety of the tumbling drystone walls and the cacti scrub. The abandoned fields and the thick drystone walls reminded him of his native Aberdeenshire, where fields had been cleared by his toiling ancestors of their glacial spoil – rounded rocks and boulders – to be piled up in massive boundary walls. Still with enough teeth in his head to whistle, he found himself whistling, the old tune, ‘O, gin I were where Gaudie rins.’ A plan had begun to emerge: he’d sell the Tenerife apartment and buy himself a holiday cottage back among his ‘ain folk,’ somewhere near the Gaudie burn at the foot of Aberdeenshire’s lovely, solitary mountain – Bennachie.

#

Alex had been born and raised just a couple of miles away from his newly-purchased Woodside Croft. He rested his arms on the lip of the old well that stood in the front garden, the well which had so fascinated him as a small child and was now his. He watched the well-spring at the well-base, as it swelled upward and outward, sending concentric ripples towards the old, dark stonework. And he felt again the hypnotic effect that the mysterious, rhythmic, geometric, rippling water had on him as a child. He was waiting for the arrival of his cousin Willie, whom he had finally persuaded to quit his farm for the afternoon, so they could take a walk together up Bennachie, the mountain that they had so often roamed as children.

Willie arrived half an hour late, uneasy at leaving a heifer whom he thought was not long off her first calving. As they walked, Alex tried to distract him with tales of modern scholarship about the history of the mountain and its people. ‘Did ye know, Willie, that the first Scotsman whose name is known to history fought a battle against the Romans on this very mountain?’

‘Eh? Romans?’ Willie was strong as a bull calf, but fifty years of transportation by tractor had spoilt him for hill-walking. He was already regretting letting himself be persuaded by his wife, Annie, into humouring Alex by agreeing to this expedition.

‘Indeed, aye, the Roman general, Agricola, invaded Scotland (well, Pictland, to be historically accurate) almost two thousand years ago. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, Tacitus the historian. It’s through Tacitus that we know the name of the Pictish war-leader, a man called Calgacus. Tacitus wrote that Calgacus made a fine speech to his men on the eve of battle, including the stirring phrase, ‘The Romans make a desert and call it peace.’

If Willie had found a sufficiency of oxygen in his lungs, he would have compared the Romans to the private forestry company who were planting the ground above his farm and creating extra run-off that was turning one of his best fields into a swamp. But he contented himself with, ‘And did he beat ‘em, yon Calgacus?’

‘Afraid not. They were brave but they were routed.’

‘Hmff. Jist like the fitba.’

At length, they emerged out of the wood, onto the high moor. Ahead of them, the summit with the remains of Calgacus’ Iron-Age fort. Behind them, the enfolding farmlands of the Buchan plain, with Willie’s farm plainly visible. High above them, a skylark was singing its soaring song. Alex was remembering a line about ‘the choir of Heaven and the furniture of the Earth.’ But he remained silent, sensing that Willie would not be responsive. Willie was staring at the moor: ‘Ye ken, Bennachie wiz a free commonty – fowk could graze their beasts here withoot a care for lairds or trespass laws. Pasture needs to be grazed, else it gangs awa’ tae heather and rashes.’ Alex nodded, but forbore comment: the story was well-known locally: in the middle of the nineteenth century, eight adjoining landlords had put a private bill through Parliament, apportioning ownership of the previously free common between them – ‘The Theft of Bennachie.’

When they gained the summit, ‘the Mither Tap,’ Willie pulled out the beef and chutney sandwiches that Annie had made for them and Alex produced a couple of cans of beer. Willie studied the unfamiliar label. ‘Weel, weel. Ye’ve settled in noo. Wit’s yer plan fur the steading?’ There had previously been ten acres of land with Woodside Croft, but the land had been sold off separately. Alex had bought the croft-house and, with it, the now-redundant steading.

‘I’ve been thinking about that. The roof’s in a bad way: it was slated with iron nails and now they’re rusted through…’

Willie nodded, ‘Aye, aye, “nail-sick” it’s ca’ed.’

‘…So I thought I’d put a clear plastic roof on it and mebbe growth fruit and veg in there in pots, like in a green house.’

‘Wit?’

‘Ye know, tomatoes, squashes, peppers, aubergines.’

‘Aubergines?? Hmff.’

They sat for some time in silence. Alex noticed Willie glancing at his watch, so he finished his beer and suggested heading back. They were due later at Wester Woodside, Willie’s place, where Annie would be preparing a high tea with buttered scones and blackcurrant jelly. Alex suggested they return via ‘The Colony,’ the ruined crofts that landless families had established on the mountain, prior to its seizure by the surrounding estates. Willie pointed out the fine stonework on Masson’s roofless croft: ‘He wiz a mason to trade, I heard that he worked on several ferms roond aboot. Likely, he built yer crofthoos an’ the steading.’

‘Quite possibly, Willie. The walls have the look of being built by a skilled man… And they have proper foundations…’

Willie nodded, but said nothing more. When they eventually came to Wester Woodside, he bade Alex go in and talk to Annie: he had to check on the heifer.

#

‘Weel weel, Alex, ye had a fine day fur yer walk. Hoo did Willie get on?’

Long since, Alex and Annie had been sweethearts. But they parted when Alex went away to college, and it had seemed natural that Annie, a farmer’s daughter, should marry Willie, a farmer’s son. Sometimes, old sweethearts can be awkward company, but Alex and Annie still shared a warm regard. So Alex felt he could speak freely: ‘Well, he was maybe frettin’ a bit about the heifer, I don’t know. And he was runnin’ out o’ puff…’

‘Ha. Nae Surprise there. We’re too busy on the ferm to gang aboot hills. Still, it wid do him good to walk a few hills: ye’ve seen the corporation on him.’

‘Haha. There was two corporations on display on Bennachie today… Strange thing though, Annie, the only thing that seemed to capture his interest all day was my steading… Annie??’

Annie was bent double, staring sightlessly towards her scones in the oven. She sighed and rose slowly. ‘It’s best ye hear it frae us, Alex. Someone else is bound to tell ye, sooner or later. Willie and I wiz keen to buy Woodside Croft, for young Alan: the lad’s been keen to set up a contractin’ business. If we’d been the successful bidder, instead of ye, Alan could’ve stored his gear in the steading and still been close enough to help Willie oot on the ferm. Mebbe wan dee, Alan might’ve got marrit and even startit a family there. So now Alan’s rentin’ that place o’er by Macduff: he couldnae afford anythin’ round here. Willie wiz sair disappointit when we didnae get the place. An’ then, when we heard it was you that bought it…’ She stopped: Willie was standing silently in the doorway.

Willie walked over to the sink and started to wash his hands. ‘That damn heifer’s still nae calvin’ – might have to ca’ the vet. Hell.’

‘Willie, I didn’t know about Alan. I’m so sorry. But we can sort it out: I could rent the steadings to Alan – just a peppercorn rent…’

‘Bugger that! We’re nae charity cases. And ye’re nae oor fuckin’ landlord. Why the fuckin’ hell did ye haff tae come back here, onyway?? To yer ain fowk, wiz it?? We’re nae yer ain fowk, yer great gowk! Ye went awa’ forty years sine. An’ ye’ve come back a different mannie altogether. Wi’ yer fuckin Calgacus. Ye’ve nae even the same name: ye went awa’ a Sandy, an’ ye’ve come back a fuckin’ Alex!

James Leatham’s eyewitness account of William Morris’s 1888 visit to Aberdeen

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Journal of William Morris Studies, Vol. 18, No.1, Winter 2008. My thanks to Alex Faulkner for succeeding in copying my pdf file into Word)

James Leatham (1865-1945) was a pioneer socialist, who towards the end of his life printed, published, edited and largely wrote a monthly magazine, TheGateway,from the little Aberdeenshire town of Turriff where he was the Provost (leader of the local council). In 1940 (issue no. 323), Leatham began to serialise his memoirs. Around eight to ten pages of each subsequent issue would then be devoted to the memoirs, but they remained incomplete when Leatham died aged 79 in 1945. The very last issue (no. 361), dated ‘January-August1945’ is prefaced as follows:

After months spent in a hospital bed, latterly under protest, I am glad to issue a number of the Gateway once more. I am anxious, for one thing, to finish my memoirs, now nearing the last long stage. The book is already partly sold in advance. I thank those who have written at this time, as well as those who, in cases seeing the newspaper notices as to my disablement, refrained from writing. It has become a distasteful effort to write, and I set type direct, as others typewrite (1).

Leatham was a lifelong devotee of Morris and his writings. His eldest daughter was called May Morris Leatham. He wrote, printed and published one of the very earliest studies of Morris (William Morris: Master of Many Crafts, 1908) (2),and The Gateway is scattered with references to Morris, including quotations from a seemingly lost correspondence. Some of Leatham’s papers were donated by another daughter (Mabel M. Leatham Aiken of Charleswood, Winnipeg) to the University of Aberdeen; they contain several letters from May Morris to Leatham, but none from Morris himself.

The memoirs are Leatham’s political testament as well as his autobiography, and readers are offered, in passing, Leatham’s views on the 1939-45 war and the German nation (‘slaves to authority’), on the virtues of municipal enterprise and public housing (with Turriff as an exemplar), on the commercial press (from a man who had edited Scotland’s first socialist newspaper), on Burns (from a man who had published a wide range of literary studies, including seventeen on Shakespeare’s plays), and on public fashion (a beard is ‘nature’s adornment’ – Leatham sported a full beard). One whole section of the memoirs (in issue no. 333) is devoted to Morris. Some of Leatham’s material is culled from other Morris studies and some is reproduced from his own book on Morris. And some of the asides, such as the need to bury telephone lines and the virtues of hydro-electricity, have the air of an old man’s hobby horses.

However, there is much that is original in the memoir to interest Morris scholars. In particular, there is an account of Morris’s only visit to Aberdeen, his luke-warm audience, and the friendly conversation amongst socialist comrades which followed the political meeting- in particular, Morris’s clear-sighted response to Leatham, who had fallen victim to the Victorian fad (alaSpencer) for equating social and evolutionary change. Since circulation of The Gateway was small, and copies are difficult to come by (with only Aberdeen University and the British Library holding a complete run), the relevant section of Leatham’s memoirs, with annotations, is reproduced below.

James Leatham was born in 1865, the youngest of five children of a Yorkshire soldier who died of cholera in India. His mother, a handloom weaver, took the children to live with her father, also a handloom weaver and an old Chartist, in Aberdeen. Leatham was apprenticed to a local printer, but had shown an interest in political questions from an early age: he remembered hearing his grandfather and fellow weavers discussing the Paris Commune when he was only five. In 1887, he helped J.L. Mahon set up a branch of the Scottish Land and Labour League (affiliated to the Social Democratic Federation) in Aberdeen.

By the time of Morris’s visit to Aberdeen in 1888, which he helped organise, Leatham was already contributing articles to the London magazine, Progress.He had a great love and knowledge of literature and was an acute judge (witness his choice of the adjective ‘chiming’ to describe Morris’s Defenceof Gueneverein the extract below). When Mahon left the SDF with Morris to form the Socialist League, Leatham remained in the SDF, serving in due course on its national executive council. Aside from Morris, he met all the great figures and speakers of the labour movement, such as Henry George and George Bernard Shaw, and he was a close friend of that other Morris-worshipper, John Bruce Glasier.

In 1891, Leatham took over a small Aberdeen printing business of his own, and was still only thirty when he brought out the first issue of The Workers’ Herald,Scotland’s first – albeit short-lived – socialist newspaper. He later worked on Robert Blatchford’s Clarion in Manchester, where he was a co-founder of the SDF branch. He moved to work for a commercial printer in Manchester but was blacklisted for his union activity, and in 1897 returned to north east Scotland as a compositor, writer, manager, and later briefly owner of the weekly Peterhead Sentinel,where William Morris,Masterof ManyCraftsfirst appeared in serial form. In 1905 Leatham became a freelance jobbing printer and journalist, and publisher, establishing the Clerkhill Press. He remained active in socialist policies, speaking at meetings, helping co-found a Peterhead branch of the ILP and playing a part in a bitter trawlermen’s strike. In 1908, he was appointed editor-manager of a group of weekly ILP newspapers in Yorkshire, including The Worker (in Huddersfield). Resigning on a point of principle, he set up as a printer at Cottingham near Hull, and it was from there that the first issue of The Gateway emerged in 1912. In 1916, he moved for the last time, to the small Aberdeenshire town of Turriff, where he set up the Deveron Press. In 1918 he joined the Labour Party and became founder-president of the Turriff branch in 1922, only to resign from the party in disgust in 1924, over the performance of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Govern- ment. Thenceforth, he devoted himself to local government: he was first elected to the Turriff town council in 1923, and was Provost from 1933 until his death in 1945. He was also chair of the local Public Assistance Board and, when war broke out, was chair of the billeting committee, housing four hundred evacuees. He was particularly and justifiably proud of his council’s record in building council houses, and was awarded an MBE for his services to local government in 1942. Many more details can be found in the only biography of Leatham, Bob Duncan’s JamesLeatham,I865-I945.Portraitof aSocialistPioneer (3).

The remainder of this article consists of annotated extracts from ‘Sixty Years of World-Mending. Recollections and the more or less pertinent reflections. XL – William Morris’ published in The Gateway (4).I am grateful to the Special Libraries and Archives staff of the University of Aberdeen for their assistance and permission to reproduce this extract. I also wish to thank Tom Deveson for his scholarly copy-editing, and the Editor, and an anonymous referee, for their speedy and helpful response to the original submission.

LEATHAM’s INTRODUCTION

Provincial cities seemed to have more visits from notables in the old days than now. Lectures and speeches now given on the radio were then delivered on local platforms to a local audience, supplemented by such additional publicity as the press cared to give. Among distinguished speakers in Aberdeen in my time I recall Gladstone, Huxley, Kropokine [sic], ‘Labby’ and Sir George Trevelyan (who came together), Henry Ward Beecher, Churchill, Lloyd George, Professor Patrick Geddes, and Sir Charles and Lady Dilke (separately). But the biggest of them all, for the number and quality of the things he knew and could do, and a certain aura of mental and moral integrity and power which he carried so lightly and offhandedly, was William Morris, who came to Aberdeen in the month of March,1888 (5).

Morris found Scotland ‘raw-boned’, and among his many friends there were no Scotsmen whom he took to his generous heart as he did with Englishmen. His voluminous and always racy printed correspondence has no Scots names in it, as if we took no active interest in the arts, crafts, and literature in which was absorbed. He knew our literature and proverbial philosophy better than most Scotsmen do; but I recall how chagrined I was when he said he regarded ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ as Burns’s best poem. He liked Scott and admired SartorResartus, but nevertheless condemned the ‘gloom’ of Carlyle as if that were his chief characteristic. He admitted to a possible ‘pock-pudding prejudice’, but he had as a rule only too good a reason for the specific flicks of disparagement in which he occasionally indulged at the expense of Scotland and individual Scots. He preferred Iceland – though he loathed its geysers – because the people were not commercialised, loved literature, were kind and hospitable, and country and people were unspoiled. It may be some solatium to Scots that he wished to see London thinned out to extinction, and referred to its businessmen as ‘smoke-dried swindlers’.

MORRIS’S ONLY VISIT TO ABERDEEN

Morris’s reception in Aberdeen would not have impressed him in our favour. He lectured to not more than a couple of hundred people (6)in the lesser St. Katherine’s Hall. The Rev. Alexander Webster (7), who was his host, presided, and, apologising for the absence of the intelligentsia, suggested that the Principal of the University (8) ought to have been introducing our illustrious visitor. The Principal had not been asked but he might well have been there. A great and prolific original poet, handling classic themes with unrivalled mastery, ease, and sweetness, the translator of Homer, Virgil, and of sagas from the Norse and Icelandic, the man who refused the Laureateship on the death of Tennyson, such a man might well have attracted an impressive academic audience, even if he had not been the world’s most noted reformer of the arts and crafts as well. But I know of only two university men who were in the audience that night (9). The one was William Semple, M.A., B.D., B.Sc, an Ayrshire man, a teacher at Gordon’s College (10)and as handsome and good-natured as he was learned. The other was William Charles Spence, M.A., English Master at the Girls’ High School. Semple had been with us heartily from the outset. He was one of the many converts of Patrick Geddes (11) who had turned him away from dead theology and made his B.D. useless. Semple was a splendid teacher and sports leader, but his open association with the new politics and his ‘way of teaching history’, with, as credibly alleged, a hostile rector (12)eavesdropping outside the classroom door, led to his leaving Aberdeen. When the centenary of Morris was celebrated in 1934, Mr Stanley Baldwin, then Prime Minister, referred to Morris as ‘a glorious human being.’ Their famlies had been acquainted. Ruskin in his day had said, ‘Morris is beaten gold.’ And yet another description of him was, ‘Six giants rolled into one.’ I have written a book about some of his achievements in literature and the arts and crafts in general (13). Here I deal with the man as he appeared in actual social contact.

A CANARD

As already indicated, the band did not turn out for him in Aberdeen. Indeed the frigidity of his reception seems to have been found so impressive in some quarters that a story was started of his having been found in the Shiprow (14) looking for the hall close on the hour when the meeting was due to begin. The truth is that I met him at the station when his train came in in the middle of the day, and took him in the tramcar to Leslie Terrace, where Webster then lived. I had my work to attend to – being then only a foreman, and not the boss, who could be spared for days on end – but I left him in the hands of the hospitable Websters. In the evening I called again in good time for him and Webster and took them by tramcar most of the way to the meeting-place. If the motive of the canard was to suggest that the meeting was imperfectly advertised, it was not entirely unworthy. Some excuse seemed called for.

THE OUTWARD MAN

I do not know if Morris was afraid of being mistaken for a bagman, but any how he carried his considerable dunnage in a couple of capacious brown canvas satchels slung over his broad shoulders. He wore a grey checked Inverness cape at this time. When next I met him this had been discarded for a substantial blue overcoat. He himself mentions in one of the letters in the McKail [sic]biography, that, with reference to the grey cape, a London youngster had shouted ‘Yah, Shakespeare!’ A black soft hat surmounted his abundant grey hair, and his white beard spread down over his turn-down collar, with no tie. Though the weather was typical March, he carried no umbrella, but a stout stick. When I held my umbrella over him for a moment he said, ‘You look after Number One; never mind Number 11!’ (Two i’s of course). His jacker suit was of blue serge. Of middling height, he was broad and powerful.

His get-up was in keeping with his strong, decided, yet essentially benevolent

character. He was interesting to note because he had a theory or reason for everything he ate, wore, used, and did or refused to do. He piled jam on his bread when in his own house, said ‘I like pig’ when other people would have used the less pagan words bacon or ham, and at the table he drank tea from an enormous cup which suggested a different use. Among other unrecorded tastes of his was a preference for Latakia tobacco, and for blankets rather than sheets in bed.

There have been attempts co classify his appearance – such as that of farmer or owner-shipmaster; but they are all wide of the mark. He was not to be classified. Visiting a famous old church in the south of Scotland along with Scots acquaintances, his comments on the building so impressed the old beadle (15), accustomed though he was to distinguished visitors, that at a suitable opportunity he asked a straggler from the company ‘Whae’s that?’his startled tone reflecting his excitement.

A REALLY PIOUS WISH

Morris’s one Aberdeen lecture was delivered from manuscript. He sometimes did that, although he was ready and hearty in extempore speech coo. His concluding sentence declared that he spoke for a movement which sought to make ‘the earth one garden and all men our friends’. That was fifty-three years ago, and of both aims it may be said, more than ever at the moment, that their realisation, like the Kingdom of Heaven, ‘cometh not with observation.’ In one of those enjoyable symposia which followed such meetings, with supper and the putting up of burnt offerings – though Webster himself did not smoke – Morris that night was very ‘matey,’ especially when one considers the circumstances. It was the first time he had met us,we were Scotsmen, not supposed to be interested in arts and crafts, but very likely, as he would suppose, devoted to the adoration of the Machine God which since then has more and more mastered us, sothat two men in an aeroplane can send a whole cityful scampering like terrified rats to their holes down below. Not every man will lend his pipe to another; but I had unaccountably come out that night without mine, and Morris must needs go off and return with three or four to choose from. Fortunately- seeing the place was Aberdeen – I had my tobacco-pouch!

A CATHEDRAL AND A COLLEGE, BOTH RIGHT

I did not see as much of him then as I wished. Next day he went with Webster and ‘old William Lindsay, the publisher,’ to see King’s College and Oldmachar Cathedral (16)the latter one of the great churches of the middle ages, and still a grand old pile with its twin spires, clerestory, stained windows, and ancient sculpture, despite all the vandalism of those who mistook destruction for religion. The chapel at King’s would have delighted him with its hand-carved seats, the work of long-dead craftsmen who would have had what he placed above everything else, pleasure and pride in work which was in itself worth doing.

On mediaeval craftsmanship he could be intensely interesting, and he had special knowledge of the monastic life and churches of the middle ages. He had been ‘intended’ for the Church, and while at Oxford he and Burne Jones had together visited old churches and taken rubbings of mural tablets and carvings. As the eldest son of a well-to-do man he had at college an allowance of £900 a-year, from which he was able to finance the Oxford and Cambridge UniversityMagazine, as later in life he subsidised The Commonweal, the Society for the Preservation of Historical Buildings [sic], and other enterprises which appealed to him.

There is, of course, any amount of work in which it is impossible to take a craftsman’s pleasure. Dennis the hangman might enjoy ‘turning them off,’ but only sadist could have pleasure in the taking of life, human, animal, or fish, yet the litter of civilisation is borne on the shoulders of men who slay in shambles, grub in cesspools, labour in the darkness and danger in the mine, and shiver aloft on telephone and telegraph poles,without much element of craftsmanship about the work. The wires should be put underground, we might all become vegetarians, and electricity generated from falling water might provide power, light, and heat, supplemented by peat and wood, so that the last miner might come up from the last shift for the last time. That would not end the drudgery which machinery relieves or abolishes, as in road-making, where the machine breaks the stone, mixes it with tar, and spreads the mixture from tipping wagons in a flowing tide. If the old, deep, hand-made Roman road lasts longer, the answer is that it was made by serfs who did not have the craftsman’s pleasure in the work or much pleasure of any kind. The mediaeval stonecutter put ‘the mason’s mark’ on the stones he dressed, and if the stone carried a decorative design he might well have an artist’s pride and pleasure in it. But most of the stones in a building were plain and many were beyond close inspection. Workmen have pride and satisfaction in any big piece of good work as a whole in which they have had a part. ‘Ours’ may be a better word than ‘mine,’ as Morris himself expressly recognised. And yet artistry is an individual thing. No committee could have written the play of ‘Hamlet.’

OVER-ENGINED

Life is, or should be, more than even great creative labour. There are over-engined people who must always be using their hands. Thus on a slow, long voyage up the Thames on a boat called The Ark, Morris must needs do the cooking, though there were a number of women on board. He fancied himself a cook, and once said no woman ever invented a new dish or failed to spoil an old one. Ir’s a mercy we’re all spared. A man of intense energy, he wore himself out at sixty-two. With Shakespeare, Burns, and Dickens it was the same. To look a gifted horse in the mouth is not to reject it.

The value attached by Morris to ‘useful work versususeless roil’ is inherent in any planned community, which would take bagmen off the road, close unnecessary shops, abolish competitive advertising and overlapping services. It would cut out war by ending the craze for foreign markers and so-called lebensraum. le would make ‘the earth our garden’ in a sense and on a scale not dreamt of in commercial economics, with only one-fifth of the earth under any kind of cultivation and the tillers of it everywhere the worst-treated class of the community.

ENJOYMENT IN SERVICE

A favoured child of fortune, Morris at Oxford had played cricket and rowed for his college (Merton) (17). On taking his M.A. he entered the architect’s office of G.E. Street for a time; but he did not need to draw plans for a living, and at twenty-four he had published for him the lovely, chiming ‘Defence of Guenevere’ and other poems which already had all the characteristics of his later work – as in ‘Jason,’ ‘Sigurd,’ and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ an output in verse alone far exceeding that of any contemporary poet. The prose tales, some of which have been translated into several European languages, were, in the author’s allowance, trifles thrown off day by day as a change from the work of Morris & Co. at the Merton Abbey home of the crafts.

There his people carried on the weaving of carpets and tapestry, the designing and making of stained glass windows, the making of house furniture in native oak and walnut, as against mahogany or veneer with tortured ogee mouldings; wallpapers in natural patterns and colours, such as the much-copied acanthus leaf, the manufacture of fabrics which were what they pretended to be. His dyes were extracted from natural substances such as twigs and leaves, producing colours that were pleasing even as they slowly faded, unlike the ghastly hues of dry saltery in decay. He had looms to weave a carpet 25 feet wide and weighing over a ton. The Kelmscott Press was housed in a roomy cottage near Morris’s home in Hammersmith. In our homes he aimed to make the wall beautiful, the floor beautiful,the house beautiful, and, last of all, the book beautiful. The changes he initiated have not only been largely followed, but in some directions overdone. It is easier to catch the manner than the spirit; to copy genius and simplicity, but to achieve simplicity only, as in modem so-called ‘functional’ building, all glass, iron, and straight lines.

H.M. Hyndman tells how Morris and he, in Oxford one day, had occasion to visit the Bodleian Library. As they were leaving, the librarian, recognising Morris, said they had just received a consignment of mediaeval books; would he kindly give his expert advice about the placing of them? Morris at first demurred, but at last consenting, he wrote out slips to accompany the various books, with such details as: Written at the monastry (sic) of so-and-so in approximately year such-and-such. This done with only occasional hesitation. The particulars were at once accepted, and Hyndman believed they were as near accuracy as human knowledge at this time of day could attain.

Morris had, indeed,an extraordinary knowledge of old books and of all things mediaeval. He would pay£1000 for an ancient painted book, even, on one occasion, for a couple of leaves that were missing from a book he had in view. He made purchases on the Continent, sending an agent to Munich to buy a psalter (at £1200) when the owner refused send it on approval.

This was only one aspect of his multifarious lore. A friend who met him often says he could ‘go on for hours’ about birds, and it would be vivid talk without posing or self-consciousness. He never ‘performed’ in talk, but was a good listener if you had anything more or less worthwhile to say. I can speak of this from experience. I did not share his belief in the possibility of sudden social change, and told him that I thought harm was done by the raising of expectations of social revolution. Society allows the lawof growth as with other organisms much less complex and full of contradictions and centres of resistance to change than the modern State, by which I mean the whole people. At our first meeting, I had pointed out that the tadpole changed suddenly into a frog, the tail wriggling, perhaps in protest, but the head and body were the directive organs, and they had no objection to the process. Presently there was no tail left to wriggle: it was all absorbed into the frog, which had no tail. But that was one small individual creature, whereas society was a congeries of warring classes, some of whom objected strenuously to any metamorphosis, while the great mass of the body was not alert.

Morris answered that analogy was a dangerous thing, that we must not run animal biology too hard, that human beings were conscious agents, and that it was our mission to convert the head and body, which consisted of all the workers with hand and brain. Let the tail of useless people wriggle and resist. They will be absorbed right enough. It is our job to see to that, and it is necessary for us, in the first place, to believe that it can and should be done.

That, in effect, is what he said, and he said it breezily, with a sharpness of feeling which is perhaps not reflected in my summary; for he added disarmingly, ‘I say that, not because I’m an older man than you, but because I think its right.’ He must have thought he had sounded dogmatic. I passed the matter off by saying I did not make love to gradualness. The change could not be too quick for me.

But Morris seemed to have been dissatisfied with his visit. In an article in the party organ, TheCommonweal,he complained that he found his audience ‘heavy to lift,’ and suggested chat we were ‘held down by local Radicalism.’ He was, anyhow, to come round to our view of policy later in the day.

The last time I met Morris was in Manchester (18),which he visited repeatedly during my time there. He was by this time (1895) supposed to be in failing health, though he was but 61, and he died the following year; but he was speaking out of doors, by his own choice, though it was a cold March morning, and the pitch, by Trafford Bridge, crossing the Ship Canal, was then open and exposed. The meeting was under the auspices of the Social-Democratic Federation, from which he and many of his friends had seceded ten years before. The Branch had invited him to come and speak on my suggestion; but not satisfied with two free addresses -he spoke again in the Free Trade Hall in the afternoon -they pressed him to become the Socialist candidate for South Salford! At the Sunday-morning meeting he handsomely admitted chat Hyndman had been right in standing by a policy and program of specific political proposals, and ‘we are now hand-in-glove,’ he said.

We may meet him again in these pages (19). He is my greatest human topic.

NOTES

I. The Gateway, no. 361, January-August1945, p. 1.

2. James Leatham, William Morris: Master of Many Crafts. Peterhead: Clerkhill Press, Third Edn, 1908, 150 pp. Republished by Thoemmes Press, Bristol, 1994.

3. R. Duncan, ]ames Leatham, I865-I945, Portrait of a Socialist Pioneer. Aberdeen: Aberdeen People’s Press, 1978, 87 pp.

4. Published May 1941.

5. LeMire gives the date as 28 March 1888 and the subject as ‘Monopoly,’ Eugene Le Mire, The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, Detroit: WAyne State University Press, 1969, p.271. ‘Labby’ refers to Henry Labouchere, the radical Liberal politician and journalist.

6. Leatham may be making a comparison with the twelve hundred people he mentions were in the audience to hear the author George MacDonald; James Leatham, ‘Sixty Years of World-Mending V,’ The Gateway, no. 327, September 1940, pp. 100-19.

7. The Rev. Webster, a Unitarian minister, was another local pioneer socialist who, in the previous year, had taken part with Leatham in a successful local free speech campaign when J.L. Mahon (orgabiser of the Scottish Land and Labour League and a co-signatory of the manifesto of the Socialist League) was arrested for obstruction when he tried to hold an open-air meeting in Aberdeen on the Scottish Sabbath. James Leatham, ‘Sixty Years of World-Mending Vii & VIII’, The Gateway nos 329 & 330, November 1940 & January 1941, pp. 1020 & 10-!9. Webster also wrote his memoirs (Alexander Webster, Memories of Ministry, Aberdeen: A. Martin, 1913, 267pp.), but these are concerned with church events and Morris goes unmentioned.

8. The office of Principal in the Scottish Universities is equivalent to that of Vice-Chancellor in English institutions.

9. The university was not a Tory stronghold: many of the students were ‘lads o’pairts’ who had won their places at the competitive bursary examinations and many of the professoriate had similarly humble origins. Nevertheless, the university – like the city – tended at that time to a liberal rather than a socialist radicalism, although a William Ogilvie, Professor of Humanity, had published a book advocating land nationalisation back in 1782!

10. Robert Gordon’s College, an independent school in Aberdeen dating from 1750.

11, Professor of Botany at the Universiry of Dundee, follower of Huxley, and widely regarded as a founder of the disciplines of town planning, and ecology.

  1. Headteacher.
  2. See note 2.
  3. A city centre street.
  4. The church officer, subordinate to the minister. The church in question might be the Rosslyn Chapel, a Templar church, only a short journey from Edinburgh, a city which Morris visited repeatedly, both in order to speak, and to conduct the Firm’s business.
  5. Kings College (founded 1495) is one of two colleges (the other is Marischal College) merged in 1860 to form the University of Aberdeen; Kings Chapel is the only surviving part of the original fabric. St Machar’s Cathedral is located close by Kings. Leatham is allowing affection to colour his judgement: although the cathedral roof is impressive, St Machar’s is not ‘one of the great churches of the middle ages’. Leatham was to be buried in the cathedral churchyard. His tombstone reads: ‘James Leatham 1865-1945: Man of Letters; Pioneer of Social Reform’.
  6. Leatham was mistaken: Morris attended Exeter College.
  7. The same event is described at greater length in Leatham’s book on Morris (see note 2) in a passage which has been cited by other authors, well-capturing the deep affection which Morris inspired in Leatham and other contemporaries. ‘He was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal, his whole environment probably as distasteful to him as possible. It was a wild March morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he expressed a desire to do so; and so there he was, talking quietly but strenuously, drawing a laugh every now and then by some piece of waggish wisdom from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. he wore the well-known blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat, and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. as he stood there squarely upright, his sturdy figure clothed in blue, even to the shirt with the turn-down collar, and swaying slightly from side to side, as he hammered out his points, he looked a man and gentleman every inch of him’ (pp. 125-126).
  8. Aside from a broadside against the author of an American book on Morris, there is only one further substantive reference to Morris in Leatham’s (unfinished) serialised autobiography. In extract XVIII, from James Leatham, ‘Sixty Years of World-Mending, The Gateway, 330, July 1942, p.15, where Leatham recalls his time writing for Robert Blanchford’s Clarion in Manchester, he digresses about his concerns over the sectarian character of the socialist movement. He had written to Morris, apparently in lugubrious terms, expressing his concern that the Clarion and its followers might become another socialist sect, and he quotes Morris’ s reply: Dear Leatham, Thank you for your friendly and interesting letter. We hear in London much more rose-coloured views of Lancashire Socialism, which, however, I do not at all believe, especially after your account of things there…. I saw Blanchford last night, and rather liked the looks of him. You see, you must let a man work on the lines he likes. No man ever does good work except that he likes it: evasion is all you can get out of him by compulsion. However, since I am moralising, I had better leave off with best wishes to you. Yours very truly, WILLIAM MORRIS.

The Questing Knight by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories Stories, Sept 9th, 2021)

As a schoolboy, Sam Groat had played in the same boys teams as a previous captain of West Bromwich Albion; his teammates from back then had all agreed that Sam had been the better footballer. His mother was an anarchist refugee from the Spanish Civil War. His father was killed in his car by a drunken plastic surgeon attempting an emergency plane landing on the B5032 outside Kirk Ireton.

When he first started drinking in the King of Prussia, he always wore a fringed suede jacket, lacking only a coonskin cap for the full Davy Crockett Effect. One night, Anna Gilinsky laid him out stone cold with a blow to the back of the head with an empty Guinness bottle. She then pulled his trousers down and attempted to bite off his penis. No explanation was ever given, in court or afterwards, by either party. In my cups, I did once ask Sam about it. He just said, ‘Every chance encounter is an appointment, every humiliation is a penitence.’ But Sam never wore the fringed jacket again.

He took different jobs and would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time. In the spring and the autumn, he worked a lot for rich owners, crewing their luxury yachts and cabin cruisers in their passages between UK boatyards and the Mediterranean resorts where the owners would holiday. Sam sometimes talked fondly about a café on a small Greek island off Corfu with its own helicopter landing pad.

He was knowledgeable about some odd subjects. Geese, for instance, and their strange mating habits. He would recount his multiple failed attempts to adapt an automatic egg incubator to take goose eggs. Had he succeeded, he would’ve bought his own damn yacht.

Gerry, behind the bar, joked that he ought to pay Sam to come into the King of Prussia. Because, if Sam walked in, everyone would always stay on til closing time. He was never loud: he just radiated a kind of warmth that made you want to gather round him. Colin and Arthur, the two old guys at the corner table, with their halves of bitter and their packets of cheese-‘n-onion crisps, they liked him as much as anybody. Arthur said Sam had given him some really useful advice about his old dog’s flatulence; he reckoned Sam would always stop by their table to ask after Captain.

After the funeral, we all agreed that we hadn’t been too shocked to discover, during the service, that in all those years, Sam had been a loss adjuster for an international insurance company. It was just that we’d wanted to believe those stories about giant waves in the Bay of Biscay, and when Sam was a kid, his mother hatching plans in the kitchen to blow up General Franco in Spain. We’d wanted to believe them because we wanted to believe in Sam: we wanted to believe that, in the twenty-first century, someone could still travel through life as blameless as a holy fool, and as dauntless as a questing knight.

Nope, it wasn’t his fellow loss-adjusters that shocked us. It was his poor wife, so beaten-down and haggard: a damsel in distress shackled to a permanently questing knight.

SOUTH ATLANTIC CAREER CHANGE

BY MICHAEL BLOOR

(first published in Idle Ink, Sept 4th, 2021)

Really, I did feel bad about neglecting the alien, but I was terribly busy at work that week. I’m a delivery driver and Christmas is our busiest time of the year. And the company cancel your Christmas  bonus if you clock-in late more than once in a month.

So, I’d just stepped out the front door that morning and there s/he (gender indeterminate) was: standing beside the bird feeder – a six foot high Giant Crab, waving her/his front claws rhythmically like giant windscreen wipers.

I let out an involuntary yelp and s/he turned round to look at me. Immediately, s/he opened up her/his haversack and pulled out something like a toy xylophone. S/he tapped away on it with both claws, very fast. And, instead of a tune, it spoke in a deep, warm, throaty voice, reminiscent of Morgan Freeman: ‘Greetings Earthling. Fear not, I am a peaceful emissary from the Alpha Centauri System. Have you got anything to eat? Some dead fish would be nice.’

Well, obviously I was in shock, or I’m sure I would’ve acted completely differently. But I’m afraid I invited her/him in and opened a tin of tuna (with olive oil – no rubbish). There was also a tub of crab meat in the fridge – I hid that behind a pack of sausages.

And then I rushed off to work.

Helluva day at work, but I did try to call the UK Foreign Office three times. Each time, in order to speak to a human being, I had to wait in a queue. So I decided, finally, that I’d contact their website when I got home. To be honest, I was hoping (fervently) that the Giant Crab would be gone when I got back. But just in case, I stopped off at the Co-op and bought a nice piece of cod.

No luck. The Giant Crab was on the sofa watching that ‘You’ve Been Framed’ programme, where they show clips of strangers falling into water. As soon as s/he saw me come in, s/he started tapping away at the xylophone: ‘Welcome back, Earthling. At some point, you must tell me why falling into water is considered hilariously funny. But, first things first, that’s a nice looking piece of dead fish you have there… No, no, don’t trouble to cook it – you lose a lot of the flavour that way…’

I figured I’d let her/him have the whole of the cod and I’d mebbe have an omelette later. While s/he was tucking in, I explained about the Foreign Office website. I thought it might be useful for the Foreign Office guys to know how come an Alpha Centaurian Giant Crab arrived in York in the first place. York Minster and the medieval walls attract a lot of visitors, but I felt we could rule out tourism as the sole-purpose-of-visit.

It turned out that there had been a computer programming error: New York had been the intended objective, in order to address the UN General Assembly.

S/he suggested I ask the Foreign Office if they’d be kind enough to arrange transportation to New York and to contact the UN Secretary General on her/his behalf. As an after thought, s/he tapped that I could tell ’em that s/he was Rhor’thougrrrt, the Alpha Centaurian Deputy Foreign Minister. Conscious of the importance of avoiding any unfortunate diplomatic incidents, I read her/him the email back before sending it. As an aid to verisimilitude, I attached a selfie of my house guest and myself.

The next morning, I had an early start. I left the last tin of tuna, open, on the kitchen table for her/him before I set off. And that was that.

They told me at the de-briefing (at a large Victorian country house in Kent) that it was a pity about the selfie attachment: several more people at the Foreign Office than those with a need-to-know had seen the picture. They also said I wasn’t to worry: they had it on Unimpeachable Authority that Rho’thougrrrt’s party had been ‘superseded’ in government, her/his Earth mission had been cancelled, and s/he had been replaced as Deputy Foreign Minister.

Frankly though, I wasn’t entirely happy. But the job they offered me, Driver to the Governor on St Helena, suits me down to the ground – very light duties.